To name a class “lumpenproletariat” is to reveal something that would otherwise prefer to stay hidden. The lumpenproletariat is not merely defined by its non-relation to production, which is the most common definition of the term in Marxist thought, nor is lumpenization reserved only to a process that occurs within the proletariat. Lumpenization is a process of active decomposition, a verb, not merely an analytic or descriptive category.
But before we describe this more active process, we must make account of the controversial status of the concept within Marxist thought, given it is most often construed as an exclusively reactionary formation. More precisely, the lumpenproletariat is typically invoked to describe a reactionary class formation that occurs at crisis points within the capitalist system. It is said to make its appearance on the political scene through a particular alliance between dispossessed former laboring classes and the petite-bourgeoisie in solidarity with a particularly parasitic wing of the finance aristocracy.
It is this alliance that led Marx to analyze the lumpenproletariat as a central actor in the rise of Louis Bonaparte III in his famous political tract, the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which describes the lumpenproletariat’s role in bringing Bonaparte to power amidst one of the most seismic worker uprisings of the time, in 1848. This ascription of reactionary politics to the lumpenproletariat and its particular class formation leads Clyde Barrow in his new book, The Dangerous Class: On the Concept of the Lumpenproletariat (University of Michigan Press, 2020), to link Trumpism to the lumpenproletariat just as Marx linked Bonaparte.
Yet the lumpenproletariat is not only a “bribed tool of reactionary intrigue” as Marx and Engels discuss them in the Communist Manifesto. To the contrary, the lumpenproletariat is invoked widely in Marx and Engels’s writings and has been a constant in subsequent Marxist theory from Lenin, Mao, and Fanon to the Black Panthers as a crucial vector of proletarian organization and strategy. The Black Panther militant Eldridge Cleaver predicted a coming “lumpenization of humanity” as he witnessed the rise of mid-1970s automation and financialization.
The Panthers, along with Cleaver, advanced a theory of revolution that placed lumpen demands at the very center of their theory of revolution, and the lumpenproletariat was centered in this fashion due to the influence of Frantz Fanon’s lumpen-centered theory of anti-colonial praxis. Cleaver even predicted the rise of Trumpism by arguing back in the late 1970s that it was only a matter of time until automation would lumpenize the white working class. Given the historical significance of the lumpen question, it should thus be a priority for Marxists to identify ways to engage the wider “lumpen question” today, specifically to discover ways to organize lumpen populations in concert with proletarian goals.
Barrow’s book offers a comprehensive analysis and genealogy of the lumpenproletariat from its very first introduction in the German Ideology (1846), to the central place the lumpenproletariat played in post-colonial Marxist struggles, up to the more recent “post-Marxist” analysis of the lumpenproletariat. Barrow suggests that the lumpenproletariat is an economic, cultural, and political category, proposing an expansive definition of the concept in Marxist thought. Economically, the lumpenproletariat designates the excess effects of accumulation cycles as well as a particular class formation that comes about amid capitalist crises.
Importantly, if the economic emergence of the lumpenproletariat is structural, as Marx argued, then this means we can reasonably rely on the emergence and reemergence of the lumpenproletariat in history. Barrow finds support for this claim in Capital, Volume I, Chapter 25, wherein Marx reveals the conditions—capital’s accumulation and valuation cycles—for the possible existence of the lumpenproletariat as a surplus population. In its economic definition, the lumpenproletariat is defined by its “non-relation to productive labor,” and this is what distinguishes the lumpen from the proletariat, who are generally defined by their dependence on wages, and therefore, productive labor.
While the lumpenproletariat is a vital political figure in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire; Engels also identifies the lumpenproletariat in pre-capitalist social formations stretching as far back as the Roman Empire. As a political class or, more precisely, as a “non-class” or “decomposed class,” the lumpenproletariat is curiously referred to by Marx and Engels as a moral category—lumpen have one foot in labor (or a certain proximity to productive labor), which involves less potential for parasitic alliances with the finance aristocracy and less of a tendency to develop into a fascistic bloc.
These “honest lumpens” or “working lumpenproletariat,” as Marx describes them, help us begin to think of a possible alliance between the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat. Marx invokes this moral distinction within the lumpenproletariat in “Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy,” where he observes, “from the harlot to the Pope there is a mass of such rabble. But the honest and ‘working’ lumpenproletariat, too, belongs to this category, e.g., the large mob of casual day-labourers, etc., in ports, etc.” The honest lumpens or “working lumpenproletariat” are casual day laborers with a marginal attachment to the labor market. As Barrow notes, Marx and Engels independently both single out London’s East End dockworkers as exemplars of this honest and working segment of the lumpenproletariat.