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The Slippery Concept of "Lumpenproletariat"

Marx and Engels' categorization of the lumpenproletariat as a counter-revolutionary class is well-known by those familiar with the term.  In The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx refers to the lumpenproletariat as "the refuse of all classes" and points out how they were connected to reactionary, counter-revolutionary forces in France.  And then there is the famous passage by Engels, in The German Revolutions, that is clear about the class consciousness of the lumpen:
The lumpenproletariat, this scum of the decaying elements of all classes, which establishes headquarters in all the big cities, is the worst of all popular allies.  It is an absolutely venal, an absolutely brazen crew.  If the French workers, in the course of the Revolution, inscribed on the houses: Mort aux voleurs! (Death to the thieves!) and even shot down many, they did it, not out of enthusiasm for property, but because they rightly considered it necessary to hold that band at arm's length.  Every leader of the workers who utilises these gutter-proletarians as guards or supports, proves himself by this action alone a traitor to the movement.
Aside from these historical assessments and the odd throwaway quote, Marx and Engels did not spend very much time trying to establish a scientific assessement of lumpenproletariat as a class category, as they do with proletariat and bourgeoisie for example, using the concept only in their analysis of historical moments, as a classification for an underclass that consisted of swindlers, gangsters, thieves, and criminal elements in general.  Their "gutter-proletariat" was not in itself a precise class positionality because, at the same time, it was also composed of "the refuse of all classes" or "the decaying elements of all classes."

If the class categories that Marx and Engels spent a lot of time trying to establish scientifically (proletariat and bourgeois) have led to innumerable confusions and debates, often being reified into essential identities, then the categories they did not spend very much time theorizing, such as lumpenproletariat, are even more historically slippery.  The term is often misapplied, or taken as a universal class category, just as often as it is clumsily reclaimed.

Reclaimed and celebrated with hats even!

I would imagine that Marx, when he was speaking of this disparate underclass, was thinking of the character "Thenardier" in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables: a gangster who controlled a band of impoverished thieves––a vicious counter-revolutionary.  Clearly, this type of criminal does exist as a counter-revolutionary force; we only need to think of drug traffickers who have infiltrated and ruined revolutionary movements, sexual predators who lurk around movement circles, thieves who only want to get rich at the expense of other poor victims of capitalism, pimps who profit from the oppression of women.

At the same time, however, we cannot claim that, if we were to define lumpenproletariat as "criminal underclass", it would be universally counter-revolutionary.  Take, for example, Frantz Fanon's discussion of this class in The Wretched of the Earth.  Although Fanon agrees that the criminal underclass composed by the colonized in a settler-colonial society can be counter-revolutionary (and we must remember that the FLN, the group Fanon supported, went to great lengths to stamp out criminal behaviour amongst the colonized), he also argued that they possessed great revolutionary potential.  If they are condemned to an underclass only because colonialism has excluded them from society, Fanon argued, then the colonized criminals possess some conscious understanding of their oppression, marginalization, exclusion––a consciousness that is possibly revolutionary.  Here, we only have to think of the "Ali La Pointe", the protagonist of Battle of Algiers, who began as a street hustler, was politicized in prison when he realized that the main reason for his imprisonment was his status as colonized, and who eventually became a disciplined cadre because, once given the opportunity, he abandoned his criminal behaviour.

Of course, Fanon never argued that engaging in the sort of "lumpen" activity critiqued by Marx and Engels was universally revolutionary.  While it might not be counter-revolutionary to rob and cheat the colonizer, it was not automatically revolutionary to do so… and it was clearly counter-revolutionary to turn this behaviour upon other colonized peoples.  Unfortunately, however, there have been various attempts to argue that this sort of criminal behaviour, since the very concept of "crime" in capitalism is based on bourgeois law and because cops are pigs, that such lumpen activity is essentially revolutionary.  Assuming that this sort of behaviour is revolutionary, when it is so often performed out of selfishness and at the expense of the proletarian in general, is extremely utopian: the Thenardier-style gang chooses the easiest targets, the already-existing victims of bourgeois society rather than bourgeois society itself, and thrives through its parasitism.  Gangsters, the mob, pimps, street hustlers: these illegal vocations, though themselves symptoms of bourgeois law, are not revolutionary.

What I find more troubling than these utopian attempts to reclaim lumpenproletariat are the hasty generalizations of this concept across entire sectors of the population that are used to dismiss those who might not easily fit into a neat definition of proletariat.  For there are those who, by defining the proletariat as only the "industrial working class", will imagine that this working class' underclass must be the lumpenproletariat despised by Marx and Engels.  According to this slipshod definition of lumpenproletariat, impoverished colonized people, migrant workers, contingent labour, sex workers, the entire jobless and desperate poor––basically any worker or out-of-work worker who is not a member of some Platonic industrial working class––is part of the lumpen.  Thus, anyone who seeks to organize this supposed "underclass" is a lumpen organization.

Such a definition of the concept, however, is little more than a mindless dogmatic adherence to one of Marx and Engels least theorized class categories––as the regular reader will be aware, I have little patience for this religious form of marxism.  It also ignores, especially when it categorizes contingent workers and homeless populations as lumpenproletariat, much of what Marx said about the proletariat in Capital that contradicts this spurious definition of "lumpen politics".  Take, for example, Marx's concept of the "reserve army of labour" that is a key component for the composition of the proletariat as an exploited class:
The labouring population therefore produces, along with the accumulation of capital produced by it, the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous, is turned into a relatively surplus-population; and it does this to an always increasing extent… But if a surplus labouring population is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis, this surplus-population becomes, conversely, the lever of capitalist accumulation, nay a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production. It forms a disposable industrial reserve army, that belongs to capital quite as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost.  Independently of the limits of the actual increase of population, it creates, for the changing needs of the self-expansion of capital, a mass of human material always ready for exploitation. (Marx, Capital vol. 1, chapter xxv, section 3, emphasis added)
And it is not difficult to recognize that a large portion of this reserve army will dabble in supposedly lumpen activities––petty theft to get more money and things, drug abuse because it's shitty to be jobless––just as exploited workers have engaged in similar activities due to their frustration and exploitation.  Indeed, it would make no sense to claim that this disparate population that often engages in criminality is Marx and Engels' lumpenproletariat considering the current trend of labour casualization at the centres of capitalism where there is an attempt to push every worker back into contingency (a reality for workers everywhere else in the world) and thus more like the working class that Marx had in mind when he was writing Capital and never thought of as the same as his concept of the lumpenproletariat.  That "mass of human material always ready for exploitation" is not at all the same as "gutter-proletarians"; the former is essential to Marx's concept of the proletarian, the latter is a vague definition belonging to various non-rigorous statements that seems more to be about a class consciousness than a concrete class position.

Moreover, we need to recognize that––along with, and not mutually exclusive to, the reserve army the reserve army of labour––there is a massive working "underclass" upon which the existence of the supposedly "proper" proletariat rests.  The now trade unionized working class, the predominantly white and first world working class, depends on the more exploited labour of this working underclass.  The latter outnumbers the former, both abroad and at home, just as the former's wages are dependent on the labour of the latter.  And if this is a fact, though it may also be a fact that contingency is becoming more widespread, then this supposed "underclass" has more of a legitimate claim to the title of proletariat than this traditional sector.

What really seems to be the problem with this spurious and rigid definition of lumpenproletariat is the fear, amongst some marxists, of being unrespectable.  That is, it is far better to associate with the respectable members of the "proper" working class (i.e. unionized workers) then this supposed "lumpen" who are sometimes desperate, criminal, and frightening.  These types of "communists" would run screaming from the working class of Marx's day, then, and probably define them as lumpen as well even though Marx and Engels did not.  Terrified by some supposed lumpen politics, these marxists embrace bourgeois respectability, hiding amongst a petty-bourgeoisified class that they imagine is the proletariat.

Clearly, a certain type of criminality is a problem for any revolutionary organization: stealing from other members of the proletariat, endangering the movement unnecessarily, putting comrades at risk through drug abuse––all these are issues of discipline that any properly revolutionary organization, from the days of Marx and Engels, has had to deal with.  At the same time, though, there is the type of criminality, wrongly called "lumpen" by those marxists who seek respectability, that is actually the proper and militant behaviour required of a communist.  The claim that criminal dissent is lumpen behaviour is becoming less and less tenable now that the sphere of criminality drawn around dissent is widening.

Those who speak negatively about lumpen behaviour and lumpen organizations, then, do not realize that their anxiety about this supposed counter-revolutionary problem really only exists to mask the actual counter-revolutionary problem: that they themselves, in their pursuit of petty bourgeois respectability (a problem that so many of us, including myself, face), are the ones who are actually courting counter-revolution.  Thus, the danger at the centres of capitalism is not the lumpenization of a movement, or lumpen communist organizations that do not (no matter what some groups might claim) exist, but the very real and existant fact of petty-bourgeois consciousness.


  1. i suggest you read hal draper's section in vol 2 of karl marx's theory of revolution. the lumpen is a definite social group, not consciousness, which is reactionary. you are right, however, in saying that many times the concept is used too loosely to describe itinerant or marginalised work.
    the lumpen are actually the 'refuse of all classes', those people who have dropped out or fallen out from the social structure and are not longer integral to it, serve no purpose within it except to be parasitic on it. it is not a moral category, and includes certain 'working' lumpens such as tinkers, organ grinders, prostitutes, day laborers (the kind of person who works an odd, random job for a meal but doesn't contribute to the labor process overall or generates value) as well as more parasitic and victimising elements such as tricksters, gamblers, racketeers. It also includes upper class elements (lumpen bourgeos or lumpen aristocracy), such as bohemians, gamblers, certain pimps etc
    Of course, it is not a matter of profession or criminality. a prostitute who works in a giant brothel with many others is functionally working class. a prostitute who roams the streets alone is lumpen. an actor as part of a touring crew or movie set is working class, a street performer working for spare change is lumpen. a drug plantation owner moving thousands of pounds of cocaine is bourgeois, the petty dealer selling out of their car is lumpen.
    the essence of it is they are not part of society functionally speaking. and this is what makes the lumpen counterrevolutionary, for they have no concept of the social, an individualistic life process, and are for that reason easily bought out by reactionary forces. marx provides a wealth of evidence to support this in his writings, suggesting he did think of them as a definite social category.

    1. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I do not find Draper's analysis convincing or even half-ways scientific––as with most of Draper's work, it is rather unremarkable and divorced from practice. My point is not that the lumpenproletariat should be defined as a "consciousness" only that it is not a scientific concept and those like Draper who would suggest otherwise is simply an attempt to take the claim "refuse of all classes" to mean something scientific, and load it up with empirical data, aren't doing a very good job. Take, for example, all of the analyses of the lumpenproletariat that were happening before, during, and after Draper in his social context that he is largely ignorant of. What of the importance placed on this concept, loaded up with much the same categories of people, by black nationalists and the new communist movement? There was something more substantial there even if it also failed to produce a fully scientific concept. What of Fanon's analysis of the lumpen in the context of colonialism of which Draper was largely ignorant? Or later Gunder Frank's conceptualization of lumpenbourgeoisie? Why you think I was claiming it was a moral category, though, is strange. An approach to this category, either rightly or wrongly (and always messily), may indeed communicate to an ethical practice, but how this makes it a "moral category" is implicature.


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