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.