On the lumpenproletariat

An historical reconstruction
and a conceptual critique

The concept of the “lumpenproletariat” sits uneasily within Marxian class analysis. It is an unstable, even incoherent category, not only in terms of its theorization but at the level of social reality itself. Nowhere did Marx or Engels or their successors provide a rigorous or exhaustive account of lumpens as a group or lumpenization as a process. Rather, there are snippets of text which can be compiled regarding the lumpenproletariat’s role in modern life.

Politically, most Marxists would agree this role is negative — or rather has been at crucial junctures in the past. From the lazzaroni of Naples in 17991 through the garde mobile of Paris in 1848,2 up to the tsarist черносотенцы in Russia after 19053 and the fascist Sturmabteilung in Germany during the interwar period,4 members of the lumpenproletariat have often served counterrevolutionary ends. At best, they are considered unreliable; at worst, predisposed to corruption. Either way, lumpens are not to be counted on when push comes to shove.

Yet these are merely scattered instances, not an overarching framework of society. While perhaps of anecdotal significance, they cannot be used to predict how this segment of the populace would act in any given situation. Historic tendencies may of course be noted, but it is important not to make the present just an index of the moments that led up to it. Otherwise one risks lapsing into vulgar empiricism,5 always a temptation for historians.

Moreover, communists must be extra careful when the concept is deployed against a backdrop like the migrant crisis. Condemnations of lumpen criminality all too easily echo rightwing rhetoric about “law and order.” Such talking-points are already pervasive in the media, with horror stories reported nightly on the news. Xenophobic and racist attitudes are fueled by middle-class fears of gang violence, which is but the flipside of police violence. Ultimately, crime itself is determined by whatever the bourgeois state deems to be legal or illegal at the time.6

A pair of recent articles have been published advancing a left communist approach to this question. Nuevo Curso examines the brutal effects of lumpenization in Spain alongside heightened xenophobia,7 while Workers’ Offensive looks back on the glorification of the lumpenproletariat by the Black Panther Party in the US.8 Both articles raise a number of salient points, some of which bear repeating, but do so in a rather ham-fisted manner. Greater precision is required for their message to come across, if they want to avoid maudlin moralistic postures.

What the present essay aims to accomplish is thus an historical reconstruction of the category, as well as a critique of its contemporary uses. It will be divided into three primary sections, each subdivided into two subsections:

  • First, it will highlight some ambiguities in the Marxist definition of the lumpenproletariat to show how vague it is. These are not simply the result of confused thinking, either, but reflect the real messiness of life at the fringes of capitalism.
  • Having clarified the core concept and furnished a material basis, its ideological function can now be laid bare from left to right. On both poles of the political spectrum, the figure of the lumpenproletariat is by turns glorified and vilified.
  • Characteristically “lumpen” practices such as looting and rioting may then be interrogated to see whether they impede working-class militancy. Put otherwise, must revolution be on the table for counterrevolution to even be possible?

Just to be clear, the goal here is not to place lumpenproletarians at the forefront of proletarian struggle or make them into the vanguard of the class. Still less does this essay want to replace the proletariat as the identical subject/object of history, as workers remain uniquely positioned to overthrow the capitalist system. Least of all does it seek to rehabilitate the lumpenproletariat as a group or deny how awful the process of lumpenization can be. Continue reading “On the lumpenproletariat”

Advertisements

A talk on the Venezuelan crisis

1882 Woodbine St.
Queens, NY 11385

February 10, 2019
Sunday, 5-7 PM

Event description

Juan Guaidó’s recent speech declaring himself interim president of Venezuela has triggered a crisis of legitimacy in that country. This crisis is a long time in the making, however: dating not just to the failed policies of Nicolás Maduro (head of state since 2013), but those of his celebrated predecessor Hugo Chávez (who held that position from 1999 until his death). Falling oil prices and administrative incompetence have depleted the country’s wealth and gutted its social programs, once the showpiece of “socialism for the twenty-first century.” Now aisles in stores are left empty, as food and other vital goods are in short supply. Between three and four million Venezuelans have fled over the last few years alone.

Guaidó is auditioning for the role of US puppet, to be sure, and enemies of the Bolivarian “Revolution” have been quick to recognize him as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Yet his naked opportunism should not blind us to the impoverished reality of Chavismo or prevent us from criticizing its palpable failures. While imperialist meddling must of course be opposed by revolutionaries, this need not entail support for a populist strongman managing a corrupt capitalist petrostate. Despite its leftwing rhetoric and lip-service to past revolutions, the Venezuelan government under Chávez and Maduro was never more than the rule of the Boliburguesía. Under no circumstance should we pick sides between rival bourgeois factions.

In order to counter misinformation spread by the pro-Maduro and pro-Guaidó camps, then, and offer an alternative to this crude either/or logic, we will talk to two longstanding critics of Bolivarianism who at the same time have no truck with Guaidó or his followers.

Panelists

Simón Rodríguez Porras is a composer and militant in International Workers’ Unity (part of the Fourth International). He recently coauthored Porque Fracaso el Chavismo [Why Chavismo Failed] available in English and Spanish in and translated to Portuguese as well. (We may have some Spanish copies available at the event)

Rodolfo Montes de Oca is a lawyer and writer, a found of the Anarchist Black Cross in Venezuela, with a coñazo of books and pamphlets. Most recently he coauthored Contracorriente: La historia del movimiento anarquista en Venezuela [Countercurrent: A History of the Anarchist Movement in Venezuela].

Moderator

Arianna Lucia is a communist originally hailing from Caracas. She moved to the United States in 2007, and now lives in NYC.

Suggested readings

  1. Nuevo Curso, “Venezuela: Neither Government Nor Opposition” (January 23, 2019)
  2. Michael Roberts, “The Tragedy of Venezuela” (August 3, 2017)
  3. Sergio López, “President Chávez is a Tool of God” (April 21, 2009)

Continue reading “A talk on the Venezuelan crisis”

Venezuela: Neither government nor opposition

Below you will find a translation of Nuevo Curso’s article “Venezuela: ni goberino ni oposición” originally published January 23, 2019, the day of the massive opposition march. Nuevo Curso is a Spanish left communist organization with a tremendous — indeed, almost daily — output of articles. Our comrades in Workers’ Offensive, a Miami-based left communist group, translated this one and posted it on their website. They did so in the belief that

the interests of the global working class (not just the one in Venezuela) lie not with any faction of capital, but on the contrary come into direct opposition with every capitalist faction… In order to fight for their own interests independently as a universal class, workers must break from the influence of capital lest it remain imprisoned by their chains. Neither the opposition nor the pseudo-socialism of Chavismo can liberate the working class in Venezuela from the crisis that they are suffering from: a crisis which has its basis in “the impossibility of an independent development of Venezuelan national capital in the conditions of today’s capitalism,” as Nuevo Curso says.

Another recent article worth checking out is the International Communist Tendency’s “Against All Capitalist Factions! For Proletarian Independence,” which makes similar points. Looking further back, Sergio López’s 2009 article for Kosmoprolet, “President Chávez is a Tool of God,” highlights continuities between the Maduro regime and that of his celebrated predecessor. Today it is easy to forget that Maduro was Chávez’s hand-picked successor, merely continuing the latter’s disastrous policies. Nevertheless, as internationalist communists we must fight any imperialist intervention undertaken by “our own” states meddling in the affairs of others.

Hopefully we will be setting up a discussion in NYC soon talking with Venezuelan communists and anarchists who oppose both the miserable Maduro government and the equally miserable Guaidó opposition.

 

Today the world is looking at a Venezuela that rises in the face of a call for an opposition march.1 The call for an opposition march is an open call for insurrection and a promise of amnesty to the soldiers that decide to abandon their loyalty to the government.2

This morning we saw some clashes in the streets.3 As a prelude yesterday, after the uprising of a group of soldiers of the Bolivarian National Guard was met at once with the approval of the international press,4 about thirty small protests broke out.5 Streets were blockaded, businesses were looted and garbage was burned in El Valle, Catia, and Petare.6 The places mentioned are known to be longstanding Chavista fiefdoms.

Today, it doesn’t seem as though the protests will become massive.7 Nor does it look as though the rebellion of the military will move beyond occasional uprisings of non-commissioned officers and troops.8 This, however, does not mean that the situation will not lead to savage repression and/or international military intervention.9

At this time, the focus is on the US, which warned its citizens of civil confrontation and supported the call for insurrection by the National Assembly.10 US support for the opposition was demonstrated by Vice President Pence through a video, which allowed Maduro to present the mobilization as a “fascist coup d’état ordered by the US.”11

In reality, the architecture of the opposition was not mapped out in the North, but rather in Brazil. Itamaraty has become the real headquarters of the Venezuelan opposition12 and the Bolsonaro government has not hesitated to use every means at its disposal for its purposes, including pointing the figure at Venezuela for the ELN attack in Bogotá.13 In reality, the bid of Brazil and Chile suffices with the reorganization of the opposition under the new leadership of Juan Guaidó, its call for insurrection, and a climate of civil conflict.14 The effects of this leadership have already brought nothing but gains for Bolsonaro, Brazilian capital, and Itamaraty: Bolsonaro was able to stage his continental leadership as well as discipline Argentina.15 He was able to restore the regional institutional architecture16 and, in line with his strategic vision, reinterpret the new deal between Mercosur and the EU.17 This has allowed Maduro to feed among Europeans their reticence against the opposition and to win among them, for the moment, an anti-interventionist attitude.18

Brazil, Colombia and the US on the one hand, Russia and China on the other, the EU somewhere in the middle… The spoils of Venezuela are at stake in a battle of imperialist alliances, split between the government and the opposition.

If its seems as though Venezuela’s implosion has no end,19 if the dependence of each internal force on a different imperialism becomes evident,20 it is because the crisis departs from and always returns to the same cause: the impossibility of an independent development of Venezuelan national capital in the conditions of today’s capitalism.21 There is no country — national capital — that can escape from the conditions of imperialism. This is why there is no “national liberation” possible and why nationalism, whether chavista or oppositionist, is nothing but a prison.

There is no possible national solution in Venezuela that does not involve more violence and hunger. Nationalism, whether governmental or oppositionist, is a reactionary prison.

In Venezuela, as in everywhere else, the real alternative is the same that we face these days in Mexico: to serve as the cannon fodder of the battle between factions of national capital or to fight independently, as workers, for universal human needs leaving aside “national interests” once and for all.22 The national interest is nothing other than the interest of a national capital that goes nowhere and that in its flight forward, be it by one road or another, threatens to destroy us all.

In Venezuela, as in Mexico or anywhere else, the real alternative is either to serve as the cannon fodder of the battles of national capital and its allies or to fight independently, as workers, for universal human needs.

Notes

1 Anonymous. “Venezuela protests: ‘Four dead’ as thousands rally against Maduro.” BBC. (January 23, 2019).
2 Anonymous. “Crecen las presiones para ‘tumbar’ a Maduro, y un Guaidó paciente ofrece amnistía militar.” Urgente24. (January 20, 2019).
3 EFE. “Caracas amanece con protestas contra Nicolás Maduro.” La Tercera. (January 22, 2019).
4 Anonymous. “Un grupo de militares se alzó contra Maduro, que logró capturarlos.” La Política Online. (January 21, 2019).
5 Anonymous.“Se multiplican las protestas en Caracas a horas de una decisiva marcha opositora.” Clarín. (January 22, 2019).
6 Rosibel Cristina González. “En los sectores populares las protestas son políticas.” El Nacional. (January 23, 2019).
7 Alonso Moleiro. “Aumentan las protestas contra Maduro en la víspera de la marcha opositora.” El País. (January 23, 2019).
8 Anonymous.“Venezuela: una crisis que se intensifica y agudiza los enfrentamientos.” Clarín. (January 22, 2019).
9 Anonymous. “¿Hacia una invasión de Venezuela?” Nuevo Curso. (January 14, 2019).
10 Anonymous. “Updated Demonstration Alert.” US Embassy Caracas. (January 22, 2019).
11 Anonymous. “Venezuela: Maduro accuse Washington d’avoir ordonné ‘un coup d’État fasciste’.” En Direct. (January 23, 2019).
12 Catalina Göpel. “Brasil recibe a la oposición venezolana y articula ‘transición’.” La Tercera. (January 17, 2019).
13 EFE. “Bolsonaro pide al gobierno venezolano que no ‘dé guarida’ al ELN.” El Estímulo. (January 19, 2019).
14 Andrew Rosati y Fabiola Zerpa. “En municipios, oposición se reorganiza para enfrentar a Maduro.” Perfil. (January 17, 2019).
15 Mar Centenera y Heloísa Mendonça. “Mercosur y Venezuela, en la agenda del encuentro entre Macri y Bolsonaro.” El País. (January 16, 2019).
16 Natasha Niebieskikwiat. “El Gobierno analiza una propuesta de Chile para reconvertir la Unasur.” Clarín. (January 18, 2019).
17 Natasha Niebieskikwiat. “Acuerdo UE-Mercosur: Bolsonaro le dio luz verde a Macri para avanzar.” Clarín. (January 19, 2019).
18 Anonymous. “Nicolás Maduro se reunió con embajadores de la Unión Europea.” Clarín. (January 19, 2019).
19 Anonymous. “La implosión Venezolana.” Nuevo Curso. (January 7, 2018).
20 Anonymous. “Bombarderos Rusos en Venezuela.” Nuevo Curso. (December 12, 2018).
21 Anonymous. “¿Tiene Venezuela futuro?” Nuevo Curso. (January 1, 2018).
22 Anonymous. “Dos Méxicos, dos alternativas universales: Tlahuelilpan vs. Matamoros.” Nuevo Curso. (January 22, 2019).

Marxism and nationalism

Fall 2018-Spring 2019

Group leaders: KM & DR

I will simply point out an error of principle that has led the French astray since the first moment of their revolution.

The constitution of 1795, like its predecessors, has been drawn up for “Man.” Now, there is no such thing in the world as Man. In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; I am even aware, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian. But as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.

— Joseph de Maistre, Considérations sur la France (1797)

CUNY Graduate Center
Room 5489, 6:30 PM

Wednesday (October 10, 2018)
  1. Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1990)
  2. Kontraklasa, “Left Nationalism: A History of the Disease” (2017)
Wednesday (October 24, 2018)
  1. Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (1995)
  2. Paul Mattick, “Nationalism and Socialism” (1959)
Friday (November 15, 2018)
  1. Rosa Luxemburg, The National Question (1907)
  2. Vladimir Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination (1914)
  3. Michael Löwy, “Marxists and the National Question” (1976)
Wednesday (December 5, 2018)
  1. Vladimir Lenin
    1. “Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions” (June 1920)
    2. “Report Of The Commission On The National and The Colonial Questions” (July 1920)
  2. Manabendra Nath Roy
    1. “Supplementary Theses On The National And Colonial Question” (July 25, 1920)
    2. “The Empire and the Revolution” (October 1922)
    3. “Speech in Discussion of the Eastern Question” (November 22, 1922)
    4. “On Patriotism” (June 12, 1923)
  3. José Carlos Mariátegui
    1. Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928)
    2. “Anti-Imperialist Viewpoint” (June 1929)
Tuesday (February 19, 2019)
  1. Pavlos Hatzapoulos, The Balkans Beyond Nationalism and Identity (2008)
  2. Fredy Perlman, “The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism” (1984)

The Greek crisis: A talk with Pavlos Roufos

Saturday, November 24, 2018
7 – 10 PM

The Base, 1302 Myrtle Avenue
Brooklyn, New York 11221

 

Facebook event page

Pavlos Roufos presents his new book A Happy Future is a Thing of the Past: The Greek Crisis and other Disasters, published in association with the Brooklyn Rail. Setting the 2010 Greek economic crisis in its historical context, Roufos explores the creation of the Eurozone, its “glorious” years, and today’s political threats to its existence. By interweaving stories of individual people’s lived experiences and describing in detail the politicians, policies, personalities, and events at the heart of the collapse, he situates its development both in terms of the particularities of the Greek economy and the overall architecture of Europe’s monetary union.

With both austerity and debt burdens still present, Pavlos answers the question: If the programs were doomed to fail from the start, as many claim, what were the real objectives of such devastating austerity? This broad examination also illuminates the social movements that emerged in Greece in response to the crisis, unpacking what both the crisis managers and many of their critics presented as a given: that a happy future is a thing of the past.

A careful and penetrating analysis of the cruel torment of Greece, and its background in the emerging global political economy, as the regimented capitalism of the early postwar period, with gains for much of the population, has been subjected to the assault of neoliberal globalization, with grim effects and threatening consequences.

— Noam Chomsky

This presentation is sponsored by Prometeo collective.