What are we to make of the stubborn association, even confusion, of Marxism and Jacobinism? From Jacob Talmon to François Furet, enemies of the two tendencies have long insisted on conflating them in order to condemn them together (Talmon 1952; Furet 1991). This equation of Jacobinism with Marxism – extended to their historical trajectories, so that Robespierre equals Lenin equals Stalin – has been wielded by critics to discredit not just Communism as a continuation of the Revolutionary Terror, but, beyond that, any project of radical social transformation (Losurdo 2015). Pointing to Marx’s many explicit criticisms of the Jacobins has never been enough to dispel this error. My proposal is that the misidentification persists because it contains deeper truths concerning Marx the author and Marxism as a historical-political project, which always remained, despite themselves, in a sense deeply Jacobin.

A basic difficulty in refuting the misidentification of Marxism with Jacobinism is that the latter existed sensu stricto only from 1789 to 1794, with the Society of the Friends of the Constitution and the Friends of Liberty and Equality. Ever since, Jacobinism has lived on as a ghostly inspiration, a recurrent desire to take up the spirit of the French Revolution that has assumed diverse and sometimes contradictory forms, from conspiratorial radicalism (Babeuf, Buonarroti, Blanqui) to the triumphant republicanism of the Third French Republic (Vovelle 1999). While the outlines of a Jacobin political philosophy can be assembled from the writings of Robespierre and Saint-Just, its canon consists of occasional writings composed on the fly, under the pressure of events. Reconstructions by its many critics and fewer supporters nonetheless converge on a number of core commitments.

As a doctrine, Jacobinism is rationalist, individualist, and humanist. It combines ethical idealism and a belief in the paramountcy of citizen virtue with republicanism and patriotism, a basis in natural law and natural rights (including the right to property) with legalism and constitutionalism, and strong universalism with an equally strong insistence on popular sovereignty. Jacobinism seeks the broadest possible freedom and equality now, with the state as the indispensable agent of the popular will. As a politics, it represents an attempt to conquer the state and use it to transform society on behalf of the people (Guilhaumou 2002). In its content as well as its tactics, Jacobinism is an expression of what Marx in On the Jewish Question called ‘political emancipation,’ carried to its most radical conclusions. Insofar as Marx’s work, beginning in 1843, develops out of a critique of the limits and contradictions of this political emancipation (along with natural rights, bourgeois citizenship, civic equality, etc.), Jacobinism represents the negative foundation on which ‘Marxism’ was built.

Yet it would hardly be Marxist to stop at criticizing this ideology and program in ideological or even programmatic terms. For Marx and Engels, Jacobinism, and indeed the French Revolution as a whole, were of interest as historical phenomena and incomplete anticipations of the communist revolution to come. They accordingly considered these phenomena diagnostically, finding in them lessons for future struggles. In the references to ‘Jacobinism’ scattered throughout their texts of the 1840s and after, the term functions as shorthand principally for two things: the ‘bourgeois revolution,’ undertaken to throw off the feudal estates and the absolutist state; and the attempt to force by political means a revolutionary change for which the social bases have not yet been laid – a usage often conjoined with, or replaced by, ‘Babouvism’ and, after 1848, ‘Blanquism’.

In both respects, Jacobinism amounts to what could be called politicism: the (false) belief that politics alone, in the form of state power wielded by a revolutionary elite, can impose freedom and equality on society from above. Jacobins (Babouvists, Blanquists, etc.) identify with the cause of ‘the people’ and aim to wield state power on their behalf, yet they cannot do so because they lack a proper understanding of, and practical relation to, the social forces on which, as Marx discovered, all politics is based. Thus, even when these revolutionaries in a sense speak for the popular classes and seek to advance their interests – in the Eighteenth Brumaire Marx calls the Blanquists the “only real leaders of the proletarian party” (Marx 1990, 15) – they will do so in vain, ending at best in the violent flailing against society that marked the original revolutionary Terror (Higonnet 2006).

This is why for Marx Jacobinism, however left, popular, radical, or democratic it becomes, remains ‘bourgeois’: it envisions a messianic redemption of the popular classes through the heroic intervention of a revolutionary elite, a wise and virtuous force outside and above the masses. As great as Marxism’s ideological and programmatic distance from Jacobinism is, the underlying divide between them concerns the relationship of politics to history. Contra Robespierre or Saint-Just, Babeuf, Buonarroti, or Blanqui, Marx understood the coming revolution as consisting not simply of seizing the helm of a bourgeois revolution and steering it further, as the Jacobins had tried and failed to do, but of making a revolution on new social bases. The crucial Marxist departure from the Jacobin tradition is the idea that revolution must somehow grow out of society itself. Politically, this means that the emancipation of the proletariat can only be the work of the proletariat.

Yet critics like Talmon and Furet are not entirely wrong to associate Marxism and Jacobinism, even if they are, textually speaking, incorrect. This is not because of any doctrinal filiation between the two projects, whose understandings of rights, nature, individualism, and the state are irreconcilable. What they have in common is rather a problem, which Marxism inherits from Jacobinism and neither has been able to solve: the problem of conjugating politics and history, of making a revolution not simply within but ahead of history. For, despite all the efforts of Marx, Engels, and their later interpreters to turn Marx’s thought into a philosophy or a science, its revolutionary element always consisted in the imperative of accelerating history, of standing at the limit of present possibilities and giving history a push.

For this reason, the depiction of Lenin as the growth of a Marxian seedling that had been germinating since Robespierre – essentially the analysis that Furet inherits from a century of anti-Marxism – is not just the expression of an anti-revolutionary ideology, even if it is that as well. It points to the question of revolutionary politics, and specifically of using force and vanguardist agency to bring about social change. This is why it is ultimately insufficient to draw a line between a good (democratic) Marx and a bad (Jacobin) Lenin, even if this, too, is not exactly wrong. To be sure, Luxemburg and Trotsky denounced the Bolsheviks’ ‘Jacobinism,’ as did Gramsci in the early 1920s (even if he reversed his position under the sign of Machiavelli in the 1930s), while Lenin was happy to don the Jacobin mantle (Löwy 2005, chapter 4). But it is clear that Marx himself was quite open to overthrowing the old society by political means, with the quintessentially Jacobin instruments of a party (even if it was to have no interests other than those of the working class) and a state (even if it was to be swiftly converted into a dictatorship of the proletariat, and then to wither away once its work was done).

Marxists have never entirely disarmed the question of Jacobinism, then, because this question, precisely as that of the political form of a social revolution, has always been internal to Marxism as a revolutionary project. What makes Marxism in most of its varieties ‘Jacobin’ is its untimeliness, its commitment to a transformation for which society has never been ready. To the extent that ‘forcing’ such a transformation on society by means of a party and a state was for Marx the deeper content of Jacobinism, he never ceased being, despite himself, a kind of Jacobin. It is therefore hardly surprising that Marxist or Marxian thinkers today who seek to revive its revolutionary impetus (Žižek in Robespierre 2012; Dean 2015; Hallward 2009) have done so by taking up such Jacobin motifs as sovereignty, the party, virtue, and the will of the people.

This is the deeper truth behind the last major public battle waged over Marxism, Jacobinism, and the legacy of the French Revolution, which took place between Furet and Michel Vovelle, the distinguished Communist historian and Chair of the History of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne, on the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Since 1989, commentators have awarded a decisive victory to Furet, as seems to be confirmed by the global hegemony of (neo)liberalism over the subsequent decades (Kaplan 1995). Yet here the sort of historical reserve Zhou Enlai counselled concerning the French Revolution is advisable. For what was really at stake in this contest, as both Furet and Vovelle saw, was not simply Jacobinism but rather the question of revolution as a question. Furet sought to close the question, to put a definitive end to the Revolution; Vovelle sought to keep it open. The current state of the ideology and world order Furet hoped to enshrine as an unsurpassable horizon, liberal capitalism, may be enough to suggest that it is still too soon to say who will turn out to have been right.

Where the Jacobin and anti-Jacobin agree is that a sort of Jacobinism will persist in Marxian politics as long as there is a will not to submit to the logic of evolution and reform, but to use political action to escape the apparent fatalities of history. But any attempt to revive the link between Jacobinism and Marxism – in Vovelle’s sense, as a question that can and must remain open – must be subject to a distinctly Marxist kind of critical-historical labor. Latter-day Jacobin Marxists cannot simply reverse the signs and dig up the legacy of the French Revolution where the liberals would bury it. Instead, they should follow Marx and draw all the lessons from the Jacobin (Bolshevik, Maoist…) failures. For Marx the task was to explore how and why Jacobinism was unable meet the challenges of its day and ill-equipped to meet those of his. There are good practical-historical as well as theoretical reasons for not trusting the party or the state as the expression of a unified popular will, believing in natural rights that need only be given constitutional form, or imagining a neat reconciliation of national sovereignty and universal emancipation. If the question of revolution is one we inherit from Marx as he did from the Jacobins, it is one for which twenty-first century answers will have to be found.



Marx’s famous portrait of the lumpenproletariat is one of the most celebrated set-pieces in a work (The Eighteenth Brumaire) and an oeuvre that at times approaches contemporaries like Dickens, Balzac, or Hugo in its social-literary verve:

Alongside ruined roués with questionable means of support and of dubious origin, degenerate and adventurous scions of the bourgeoisie, there were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged convicts, runaway galley slaves, swindlers, charlatans, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, procurers, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, rag-pickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars; in short, the entirely undefined, disintegrating mass, thrown hither and yon, which the French call la bohème. (Marx 1990, 75)

But Marx’s evident glee in depicting the lumpenproletariat is untainted by sympathy. In the Manifesto he and Engels had already warned that this “passive decaying matter of the lowest layers of the old society,” even when it is “thrust into the movement by a proletarian revolution,” “is more likely to sell out to reactionary intrigues.” (Marx and Engels 1967, 92). So it was no surprise that in the chaos of 1848-49, the corrupt and thuggish Louis Bonaparte, “Chief of the Lumpenproletariat,” was able to organize this “scum, offal, and refuse of all classes” behind him (Marx 1990, 75).

Marx coined the word lumpenproletariat in response to Max Stirner’s characterization of the lower social orders as “Lumpe,” a term that was at once social (from “rags” or “ragged” – whence picturesque contemporaneous renderings of lumpenproletarian as “ragamuffin”) and moral (Lump meant “knave”) (Draper 1978, chapter 15). Stirner’s dismissive characterization of the masses stood in a long tradition, from the Roman proletarius to Burke’s “mob” and Hegel’s “rabble” (Pöbel). Marx of course sought to redeem the masses, but he did so by hiving off the potentially heroic proletariat from the dregs below. In so doing, he gave Lumpen a third meaning beyond Stirner’s descriptive and moral senses: it came to designate a remainder, the residuum of the lower classes once the cream of the proletariat had been skimmed off. Shorn of this political-historical core, the detritus emerges as even less redeemable and more dangerous than it had appeared in its original theorization. Thus, even if Marx introduced an important innovation by extending the lumpen to the highest reaches of society – in The Class Struggles in France he refers to the corrupt finance aristocracy as “the lumpenproletariat reborn at the very pinnacle of bourgeois society” (Marx 1978, 39) – it is hard not to agree with those who detect in his animus against the lumpenproletariat echoes of the fear and disdain the propertied had always directed toward their inferiors (Bussard 1987).

Marx’s division between an organized, redemptive proletariat and its disorganized, unreliable remainder lies at the heart of the war waged over the concept ever since. Its first and best-known battle was of course opened by Mikhail Bakunin – the “lumpen prince,” according to Engels – who sought to claim for his own cause “that great mass, those millions of the uncultivated, the disinherited, the miserable, the illiterates, whom Messrs. Engels and Marx would subject to their paternal rule”:

that eternal ‘meat’ (on which governments thrive), that great rabble of the people (underdogs, ‘dregs of society’) ordinarily designated by Marx and Engels in the picturesque and contemptuous phrase Lumpenproletariat. I have in mind the ‘riff-raff,’ that ‘rabble’ almost unpolluted by bourgeois civilization, which carries in its inner being and in its aspirations, in all the necessities and miseries of its collective life, all the seeds of the socialism of the future, and which alone is powerful enough today to inaugurate and bring to triumph the Social Revolution. (Bakunin 1971, 294)

Bakunin in effect accuses Marx and Engels of what we might today call ‘victim blaming’ and ‘respectability politics,’ and of abandoning what should be the left’s true constituency. He feasts on their leftovers, promoting these cast-offs to the role of popular-revolutionary subject, the people of the people. He thereby outflanks Marx on the left, presenting himself as more popular, democratic, and inclusive – a mantle taken up not just by anarchists but by all those who align themselves with the plebs and the subaltern.

In the long debate between Marxism and anarchism, the question of the lumpenproletariat has most often been understood as a choice of revolutionary subject: those constituted by the movement of capital or those cast off by it, the industrial working class or the wretched of the earth. This is how the question was usually taken up in the twentieth century, especially by revolutionaries who lacked recourse to a large, organized working class. Lenin and Mao viewed the lumpenproletariat strategically, stressing the importance of the floating class of paupers who had not been absorbed by capitalism, but also recognizing its need for revolutionary guidance (Löwy 2005, chapter 4). Frantz Fanon, whose Wretched of the Earth contains the most important twentieth-century discussion of the lumpenproletariat, accords it a special place in anti-colonial struggle. Given its numbers in the late (now post-)colonial world and its motility – the fact that it could furnish either shock-troops for the revolution or foot soldiers for its repression – the mass of deracinated peasants thrown into the cities would decide the fate of national liberation: “the pimps, the hooligans, the unemployed and the petty criminals, urged on from behind, throw themselves into the struggle for liberation like stout working men. These classless idlers will by militant and decisive action discover the path that leads to nationhood” (Fanon 1991, 130).

But we should observe that Bakunin, Fanon, and others who sought to redeem the lumpenproletariat were not only exercising strategic flexibility or developing a new revolutionary politics. They were also seizing on a central ambiguity of Marx’s theorization of the proletariat. For the universal revolutionary significance of this class is at bottom a function of its special relationship with capitalism: the industrial proletariat is uniquely placed to overthrow the bourgeoisie because it is its determinate negation, positioned at once to overcome and to conserve the system it has built, which it alone can destroy while preserving its technical advances. This status as capitalism’s victim as well as its creation pushes the proletariat in contradictory directions, as is clear in the divergent senses in which the bourgeoisie is said to be producing its own grave-diggers in the Manifesto: on the one hand, the imperatives of profit and competition force the bourgeoisie to drive the proletariat into penury, to the point that it has nothing to lose but its chains; on the other, the imperatives of production force the bourgeoisie to organize the proletariat, preparing it to take over (Marx and Engels 1967).

The proletariat thus oscillates between two poles, neither of them propitious for its world-historical role: an absolutely immiserated working class would be too weak to make a revolution; a thoroughly organized one would be too integrated to want one. Both of these possibilities have been borne out historically. Again and again, capitalism, especially during periods of crisis and at its margins, has reduced those subject to it to poverty, emigration, and even starvation, rendering them indistinguishable from the lumpenproletariat. In Capital, Marx would depict the continuous production of an ‘industrial reserve army’ – a notion already developed by Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) – as intrinsic to capitalism (Marx 1976, chapter 25). Yet the development of the working class as an effective force depended on its discipline, organization, and integration into capitalist production. There can be no better illustration of the political implications of this than the history of the party that can claim direct descent from Marx, the German Social Democrats. From Bernstein’s revisionism to Bad Godesberg to its latest internal debates, the SPD has always had to balance the workers’ interest in overcoming capitalism with their more immediate interest in capitalism.1

This oscillation was meant to be resolved as the proletariat became aware of its position, interests, and opportunity. This typically takes the form of a conversion experience, as, for instance, in the self-creation of Malcolm X or Ali la Pointe. Without their rebirth and self-transformation, performing, as it were, on themselves the same hiving-off that Marx effected in theory, they would have remained Malcolm Little and Ali Ammar – directionless petty criminals rather than the revolutionary heroes and martyrs they became. Yet this suggests that the difference between the lumpenproletariat and the proletariat rests not just on circumstances, but on a choice. Would it be too much to extend a version of this analysis to Marx himself? As portrayed in Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx and reported by visitors to his London households, the shabby gentility that Marx and Jenny never managed to transcend was always essentially bohemian – the impoverished, provisional, dislocated condition that for him epitomized the lumpenproletariat, but that Enzo Traverso argues has characterized the lives of revolutionary artists and intellectuals from Courbet to Trotsky, Benjamin, and Marx himself, in their uncertain anticipation of a coming revolution (Traverso 2016, chapter 4).

The ‘lumpen’ can thus serve to designate not only, as in Marx’s original theorization, a remainder the proletariat and its agents will shed on their way to revolution, but also a double that will continue to haunt them so long as the revolution remains unachieved. This situation, where the boundary between the revolutionary classes and their unsettling shadow is at the margin undecidable, can be expected to persist as long as capitalism continues to give birth to new forms of wealth and squalor, organization and chaos. For the time being, then, there is no reason to imagine that the progressive classes will cease merging with, and emerging from, their miserable, dangerous, lumpen Other – or that revolutionaries and intellectuals will transcend their ‘bohemian’ existence on the fringes of the capitalist order, however comfortably ‘bourgeois’ it may at times be.

The recent ascendency of the ‘plebs’ and the ‘multitude’ over the ‘proletariat,’ and of ‘revolt’ and ‘insurrection’ over ‘revolution,’ suggests that we have crossed over from a Marxian period to, at best, a democratic or anarchist one. There is now a proliferation of lumpen status, as formerly secure employees are pushed into precarious careers as ‘self-entrepreneurs’ – a form of disorganized organization, and the First World equivalent of the ‘informal sector’ that has long held sway in the economies of the global South. Today it is surely easier to identify with Marx’s fears of the lumpen elements at all levels of society, along with the political swindlers that feed on them, than with his hopes for transcending the conditions that produce them. If there is anything encouraging to take from the concept’s history, it may be that this need not rule out a revolutionary change for the better, even if it assuredly cannot guarantee one.