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Lumpenproletariat is a term that was originally coined by Karl Marx to describe the layer of the working class that is unlikely ever to achieve class consciousness and is therefore lost to socially useful production, of no use to the revolutionary struggle, and perhaps even an impediment to the realization of a classless society. The word is derived from the German word Lumpenproletarier, a word literally meaning "miscreant" as well as "rag". The term proletarian was first defined by Marx and Friedrich Engels in The German Ideology (1845) and later elaborated on in other works by Marx. The Marxist Internet Archive writes that "this term identifies the class of outcast, degenerated and submerged elements that make up a section of the population of industrial centers" which include "beggars, prostitutes, gangsters, racketeers, swindlers, petty criminals, tramps, chronic unemployed or unemployables, persons who have been cast out by industry, and all sorts of declassed, degraded or degenerated elements."
In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), Marx gives this description of the lumpenproletariat:
- Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.
In the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx rhetorically describes the lumpenproletariat as a "class fraction" that constituted the political power base for Louis Bonaparte of France in 1848. In this sense, Marx argued that Bonaparte was able to place himself above the two main classes, the proletariat and bourgeoisie, by resorting to the "lumpenproletariat" as an apparently independent base of power, while in fact advancing the material interests of the "finance aristocracy".
For rhetorical purposes, Marx identifies Louis Napoleon himself as being like a member of the lumpenproletariat insofar as, being a member of the finance aristocracy, he has no direct interest in productive enterprises. This is a rhetorical flourish, however, which equates the lumpenproletariat, the rentier class, and the apex of class society as equivalent members of the class of those with no role in useful production.
Conceptions and reception
Anarchist and late 20th century perspectives
The influential 19th century anarchist activist and theorist Mikhail Bakunin had a view almost opposite of Marx's on the revolutionary potential of the lumpenproletariat vs. the proletariat. Bakunin, according to Nicholas Thoburn, "considers workers' integration in capital as destructive of more primary revolutionary forces. For Bakunin, the revolutionary archetype is found in a peasant milieu (which is presented as having longstanding insurrectionary traditions, as well as a communist archetype in its current social form – the peasant commune) and amongst educated unemployed youth, assorted marginals from all classes, brigands, robbers, the impoverished masses, and those on the margins of society who have escaped, been excluded from, or not yet subsumed in the discipline of emerging industrial work ... in short, all those whom Marx sought to include in the category of the lumpenproletariat".
However in some societies, individual members of this class of people without formal employment have, on occasion, taken the lead in issuing a progressive challenge to society. One example is Abahlali baseMjondolo in the KwaZulu region of contemporary South Africa.
In the late 1960s, Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party came to believe that the lumpenproletariat could have a progressive role. Newton argued that the economic and social system of his time was fundamentally different from that which Marx based his analysis on, saying, "As the ruling circle continue to build their technocracy, more and more of the proletariat will become unemployable, become lumpen, until they have become the popular class, the revolutionary class". This is the class the Black Panther Party sought to organize, he said. Some disregard Newton's interpretation, saying he applied the term to, and sought to organize, the temporarily unemployed, rather than the true lumpen. However, a careful reading of his writings reveals repeated references to the "unemployed" and "unemployable" as those with revolutionary potential.
Frantz Fanon also argued in The Wretched of the Earth (1961) that revolutionary movements in colonized countries could not exclude the lumpenproletariat, as it constitutes both a counterrevolutionary and a revolutionary potential. He described the lumpenproletariat as "one of the most spontaneous and the most radically revolutionary forces of a colonized people". However, it is an ignorant and desperate class, particularly susceptible to being co-opted by counterrevolutionary forces. Therefore, he claimed, education of the dispossessed masses should be central to revolutionary strategy.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) included the participation of Calcutta's criminal elements in the early 1970s. The Party saw this segment of Calcutta, largely consisting of people from marginalized upbringings, as capable of revolutionary violence. Members of this social stratum would then ideally reform themselves and become conventional revolutionaries, leaving behind anti-social activities.
Engels, Marx, Trotsky and others
Engels wrote about the Neapolitan lumpenproletariat during the repression of the 1848 Revolution in Naples: "This action of the Neapolitan lumpenproletariat decided the defeat of the revolution. Swiss guardsmen, Neapolitan soldiers and lazzaroni combined pounced upon the defenders of the barricades".
In other writings, Marx also saw little potential in these sections of society. About rebellious mercenaries, he wrote: "A motley crew of mutineering soldiers who have murdered their officers, torn asunder the ties of discipline, and not succeeded in discovering a man on whom to bestow supreme command are certainly the body least likely to organise a serious and protracted resistance".
Marx's description of mutineers as being unreliable could be questioned. Russian Army mutineers and their soldiers committees were critical to the overturning of the Tsarist regime during the Russian Revolution of 1917. Yet, there is a difference in that the Russian Revolution was a general uprising of most of Russia's popular classes, not just a military mutiny. Also, the Russian Imperial Army was a regular army of conscripts, not an army of mercenaries; as such, its social extraction was quite different, and much closer to the peasantry than to the lumpenproletariat.
According to Marx, the lumpenproletariat had no special motive for participating in revolution, and might in fact have an interest in preserving the current class structure, because the members of the lumpenproletariat usually depend on the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy for their day-to-day existence. In that sense, Marx saw the lumpenproletariat as a counter-revolutionary force.
Leon Trotsky elaborated this view, perceiving the lumpenproletariat as especially vulnerable to reactionary thought. In his collection of essays Fascism: What it is and how to fight it, he describes Benito Mussolini's capture of power: "Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat – all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy".
Marx's definition has influenced contemporary sociologists, who are concerned with many of the marginalized elements of society characterized by Marx under this label. Marxian and even some non-Marxist sociologists now use the term to refer to those they see as the "victims" of modern society, who exist outside the wage-labor system, such as beggars, or people who make their living through disreputable means: prostitutes and pimps, swindlers, carnies, drug dealers, bootleggers, and bookmakers, but depend on the formal economy for their day-to-day existence.
In modern social theory sometimes the word underclass is used as equivalent to Marx' lumpenproletariat. In a May 14, 2012 article on Truthdig titled 'Colonized by Corporations', Chris Hedges brought back this concept, writing that
- "The danger the corporate state faces does not come from the poor. The poor, those Karl Marx dismissed as the Lumpenproletariat, do not mount revolutions, although they join them and often become cannon fodder. The real danger to the elite comes from déclassé intellectuals, those educated middle-class men and women who are barred by a calcified system from advancement. Artists without studios or theaters, teachers without classrooms, lawyers without clients, doctors without patients and journalists without newspapers descend economically. They become, as they mingle with the underclass, a bridge between the worlds of the elite and the oppressed. And they are the dynamite that triggers revolt."
Used as a pejorative
In modern Bengali, Bulgarian, Estonian, Greek, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Turkish, lumpen, the shortened form of lumpenproletariat, is used to refer to lower classes of society.
- Black Market
- Informal sector
- Naples Lazzaroni
- Frantz Fanon
- "The Model Republic". Marx/Engels Archive.
- "Glossary of Terms: Lumpenproletariat". MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism.
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- Hayes, P. (1993) 'Marx's Analysis of the French Class Structure', Theory and Society, 22: 99–123.
- "Both agreed that the proletariat would play a key role, but for Marx the proletariat was the exclusive, leading revolutionary agent while Bakunin entertained the possibility that the peasants and even the lumpenproletariat (the unemployed, common criminals, etc.) could rise to the occasion."Marxism and Anarchism: The Philosophical Roots of the Marx-Bakunin Conflict – Part Two" by Ann Robertson.
- Nicholas Thoburn. "The lumpenproletariat and the proletarian unnameable" in Deleuze, Marx and Politics
- Garrett Epps, "Huey Newton Speaks at Boston College, Presents Theory of 'Intercommunalism,'" The Harvard Crimson,November 19, 1970.
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- Karl Marx; Friedrich Engels (1960). The first Indian war of Independence 1855–59. Moscow: Foreign Languages Pub. House. p. 42.
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The "dangerous class", [lumpenproletariat] the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.
- Leon Trotsky (1932). "How Mussolini triumphed". What Next? Vital Question for the German Proletariat. Marxists Internet Archive.
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- Chris Hedges (2012). "Colonized by Corporations". Truthdig.
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- Nicholas Thoburn (2002). Difference in Marx: The Lumpenproletariat and the Proletarian Unnamable. in Economy and Society Vol. 31, No. 3.