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.
ReferentiesBakunin, Mikhail. 1971. “On the International Workingmen’s Association and Karl Marx.” In Bakunin on Anarchy, edited by Sam Dolgoff.
Bussard, Robert. 1987. “The ‘Dangerous Class’ of Marx and Engels: The Rise of the Idea of the Lumpenproletariat.” History of European Ideas 8 (6): 675–92.
Draper, Hal. 1978. Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. 2: The Politics of Social Classes. New York & London: Monthly Review Press.
Fanon, Frantz. 1991. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove.
Löwy, Michael. 2005. The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx. Chicago: Haymarket.
Marx, Karl. 1990. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Translated by C.P. Dutt. New York: International.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1967. The Communist Manifesto. Translated by Moore and Engels. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Marx, Karl. 1978. “The Class Struggles in France.” In Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol 19. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Marx, Karl. 1976. Capital. Translated by Ben Fowkes. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Traverso, Enzo. 2016. Left-wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory. New York: Columbia University Press.
Noten1] If we follow a Bakuninite or Trotskyist interpretation of really existing socialism as never having transcended ‘state capitalism,’ this verdict can be extended to Communism.
James D. Ingram teaches political theory at McMaster University in Canada. He is the author of Radical Cosmopolitics: The Ethics and Politics of Democratic Universalism and co-editor of Political Uses of Utopia: New Marxist, Anarchist, and Radical Democratic Perspectives (both from Columbia University Press).