Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Some Painful Lumps


There's a piece of lefty jargon that had largely dropped out of usage outside of quotation, but its starting to creep back into general usage. Which is unfortunate since its only purpose seems to be point scoring arbitrary schemes and creating more confusion. The phrase is Lumpenproletariat the Lump comes from an old German word for rogue or rabble, that kind of dismissive pedigree shows its a pretty ugly term.

Marx and Engels coined the phrase to refer to cover a group of people that don't neatly fit into their class struggle model, much petits-bourgeois and the two terms do overlap at times. I recently read an article by a group called Workers Offensive on this subject called 
The article is about the relationship of the BPP and the concept of Lumpens, I'm not personally that interested in that relationship here more in the attempt to revive an old and in my view flawed concept. 
Who are the Lumpens? well lets start with how WO defines it. Their definition comes from two quotations

If we look at the Manifesto of the Communist League we get an early reference to the Lumpens.

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.
Engels in the preface to the Peasants war in Germany goes even further.

 The lumpenproletariat, this scum of the decaying elements of all classes, which establishes headquarters in all the big cities, is the worst of all possible allies. It is an absolutely venal, an absolutely brazen crew. If the French workers, in the course of the Revolution, inscribed on the houses: Mort aux voleurs! (Death to the thieves!) and even shot down many, they did it, not out of enthusiasm for property, but because they rightly considered it necessary to hold that band at arm's length. Every leader of the workers who utilises these gutter-proletarians as guards or supports, proves himself by this action alone a traitor to the movement.
 When the article refers to Lumpens it does so in exclusively criminal terminology, pimps, gangs, drug traffickers etc. But is this an accurate description of Lumpens going by Marx and Engels? Well not really, the one time I'm aware of where Marx bothers to describe who actually makes up the ranks of the Lumpens is in the 18th Brumaie of Bonaparte.

 On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpen proletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole. 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,1 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; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the Society of December 10.
There are criminals and ex-criminals in there but there are also plenty of others, how are discharged soldiers, beggars and porters equivalent to pimps and drug pushers? The only connection they seem to have is that they don't easily fit into the categories of bourgeois (capitalists) and the industrial proletariat.

So does WO and many other groups and personalities reduce Lumpens to the criminal element? If a porter and a literati (Intellectual or Academic) count as Lumpens in the same way a Mob boss and a back alley mugger, it doesn't seem like a particularly clear or useful category.

Anyway definitional fuzziness aside, why the constant negativity? Well again WO provides some pretty clear explanations, in addition to the two quotations from Marx and Engels, its that at certain revolutionary events Lumpens seem to be heavily recruited to reactionary forces. For example in 1848 with the Mobile Guard,

She therefore concludes the lumpenproletariat can play a pivotal role in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism. What Davis extrapolated from that quote on the lumpenproletariat, the political conclusions, however, was a projection of her own politics and not an accurate assessment of Max’s views. First of all, Davis claims he was discussing the Paris Commune when he was in fact talking about the 1848 Revolution. In this part of Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850, Marx was explaining how
The author is correct Angela Davis did mix up her quotation of Marx there, but this is not really an effective counter to her argument. Its pointing out she was sloppy and then accurately quoting Marx and citing a conflicting example, true. But the pressing question should be not what did X say, but is X correct? And while the case of the Mobile guards in 1848 is important its far from conclusive.

We know roughly how large the force was around 24,000 men. But we don't know how many Lumpens there were in Paris, nor do we know how many of the Mobile Guard actually were Lumpens. Marx believed the majority of them were but he wasn't present, so we don't really know if the Mobile Guard were representative of how Lumpens really react.

For example, while Angela Davis got a bit muddled the experience of the Paris Commune does raise some question, there weren't really anything comparable in the anti Communard forces. According to Marx in Civil War in France the armies under the control of Thiers were what was left of the field army, the police and returned prisoners of war from Prussia. The phrase Lumpenproletariat doesn't appear. But in Gluckstein's book on the Paris Commune he notes that most of what we might call Lumpens or close to them at least seem to have been in favour of the Commune. In one case he notes a group of sex workers who offered to form a fighting unit for the Commune.

And it begs the question, when the National Salvation government was planning its campaign against the people of Paris, why didn't they turn to such a natural source of counter revolution like they did in 1848? One of the Generals leading the march on Montmartre had took part in the massacres of 1848 so he must of been aware of their effectiveness. And yet the National Guard which must of included Lumpens given its size in comparison to working population of Paris remained loyal to Commune.

And sticking with France, during the very famous French revolution throws up some food for thought. The revolt was famous or if you like infamous for the power and activity of the Parisian mob most well known of which were the Sans-culottes. The Sans-culottes and the urban population were for the most part not what we would consider proletarian there was very little in the way of industry after all. Some historians call them all Petits bourgeois, but I'm not really convinced that holds true for the whole. Shopkeepers a pillar of the petit bourgeoise for example were terrorised by the mobs and militia's, the law of Maximum destroyed their profits and they were routinely hounded and attacked on suspicion of hoarding. Reading descriptions of how they survived on charity, limited work, soldiering and patronage makes them seem a lot closer to descriptions of Lumpens.

There was a group in the French revolution very similar to the Mobile Guards, the Muscadines. The Muscadines though weren't lumpens they were drawn exclusively from the ranks of the wealthy, the surviving nobility and the early bourgeois would become the first generation of French capitalists.  If we go beyond the one example Marx gives us and actually look at history overall the situation becomes far less clear.



And after all since the 20th century most standing militaries have infamously been filled with the working population. To quote the Australian IWW "A bayonet is a weapon with a worker at both ends". So if we accept the Mobile guard as solid evidence that the Lumpens are inherently reactionary, we would also have to conclude the same was true of the proletariat since it has also served very reactionary ends at times.

To be fair WO doesn't just rely on 1848 and call it a day, they have other examples

Therefore, in the context of the riots in the United States, although lumpenproletarians may rebel against the police during the riots, they are not interested in the proletariat assuming control of the neighborhoods. What really matters to lumpenproletarians is their ability to continue their illegal businesses. Gangs, a terrible threat to the daily life of the workers and their activity, may adopt slogans like “Black Lives Matter” and reach temporary truces with among themselves, but they will never support the working class in the seizure of political power. Gangs further played an important role in the Watts riots by operating together and coordinating their actions during the riots. It is not an accident that black nationalist groups like the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party looked to recruit gang members around that point in time.
But alas this raises further questions, workers tend to rebel against police during riots, and examples of riots are many but attempts to assume control of neighbourhoods are few. Is this not judgement working backwards? Could we not point to a riot that fizzled out or was eventually beaten and say with equal validity that this proves that the proletariat with or without the lump is not interested in assuming control?

Now we can look at some examples of workers trying to take control but can we say the same of the Lumpens? Well to be honest I don't think we can answer that with any certainty, because insurrections and revolts aren't exactly famous for accurate census data. But in addition we can't really be sure who is and is not a Lumpen, WO and some others seem to split the difference by reducing it purely to sinister criminals, and if they wish to redefine the term then fair enough, but that's not Marx use of the term.

For example take the Russian revolution of 1917, its start was bread riots by crowds mostly made up of women. Some of those women were employed in factories as part of the war economy but a lot of them weren't. So were they Lumpens? Some of them probably broke some laws but the majority I assume would be wives and mothers, so not exactly industrial proletarians. Which also raises another issue, what class do the dependents of a wage worker fall under? They don't sell their labour, what work they do isn't paid and they rely on the wages of someone else to survive. That's pretty close to a parasitic relationship which is what Lumpens are usually accused of.

And the revolt involved many peasants whom are usually lumped under the Petits Bourgeois label, and mutinying sailors and soldiers. Now Marx does declare discharged soldiers to be part of the Lumpens, so they would qualify, and after all the Councils did distinguish between soldiers and workers. And what about the Literati? Well I can't think of a revolt that didn't have intellectuals in its mix both opportunistically and earnestly.

Again WO has an answer of a sort

the lumpenproletarians do not have the capacity to acquire a class consciousness.

This is not to say that it is impossible for individual lumpenproletarians to join in the fight against capitalism. But it is only by abandoning the ranks of the lumpenproletariat, by abandoning the activities that disorient the working class and harm the prospects for proletarian organization, such as looting and gang violence, that they can effectively fight against capitalism, as the proletariat — the revolutionary class — and create a world of freedom and abundance.
This doesn't really provide an adequate answer. There are two questions here, first if some can why not many or all? Second how many does it take to develop a class consciousness? These are just claims with no substantiation, they can't be backed up. Its just a way of anticipating critics finding contrary examples.

There's also another question that WO's unique usage of the term generates. If you can join the fight against capitalism without class consciousness, then that would imply that class consciousness isn't a necessary component in the fight against capitalism. And what exactly is a proletarian if you can join it simply by not being a Lumpen? I thought that a Proletarian was someone with a specific relationship with the means of production which wouldn't really follow with just stop being a gang member.

This is why the term is functionally useless, its too cluttered to be defined, and so conclusions and predictions based on it all create more confusion. WO is critical of the Black Panther Party and other mostly Black leftists attitudes towards the Lumpenproletariat, cites Marx and Engels and then reduces the definition further. But by doing so it creates many problems for the authors further commentary, its also disingenuous, essentially most of the criticism is attacking a position that wasn't actually held since its clear that none of the groups being criticised used the term in the same way. Virtually every time WO refers to Lumpens its made clear that they're talking about gang members and looters and drug pushers, but the people being criticised are clearly talking about the Lumpenproletariat in a much broader sense. 

To take one explicit example the article quotes Huey P. Newton's speech on the Black Panther's movement into what they called Revolutionary Intercommunalism. 


In this country the Black Panther Party, taking careful note of the dialectical method, taking careful note of the social trends and the ever‐changing nature of things, sees that while the lumpen proletarians are the minority and the proletarians are the majority, technology is developing at such a rapid rate that automation will progress to cybernation, and cybernation probably to technocracy. As I came into town I saw MIT over the way. If the ruling circle remains in power it seems to me that capitalists will continue to develop their technological machinery because they are not interested in the people. Therefore, I expect from them the logic that they have always followed: to make as much money as possible, and pay the people as little as possible ‐ until the people demand more, and finally demand their heads. If revolution does not occur almost immediately, and I say almost immediately because technology is making leaps (it made a leap all the way to the moon), and if the ruling circle remains in power the proletarian working class will definitely be on the decline because they will be unemployables and therefore swell the ranks of the lumpens, who are the present unemployables. Every worker is in jeopardy because of the ruling circle, which is why we say that the lumpen proletarians have the potential for revolution, will probably carry out the revolution, and in the near future will be the popular majority. Of course, I would not like to see more of my people unemployed or become unemployables, but being objective, because we’re dialectical materialists, we must acknowledge the facts.
Marx outlined a rough process of the development of society. He said that society goes from a slave class to a feudalistic class structure to a capitalistic class structure to a socialistic class structure and finally to communism. Or in other words, from capitalist state to socialist state to nonstate: communism. I think we can all agree that the slave class in the world has virtually been transformed into the wage slave. In other words, the slave class in the world no longer exists as a significant force, and if we agree to that we can agree that classes can be transformed literally out of existence. If this is so, if the slave class can disappear and become something else ‐ or not disappear but just be transformed ‐ and take on other characteristics, then it is also true that the proletarians or the industrial working class can possibly be transformed out of existence. Of course the people themselves would not disappear; they would only take on other attributes. The attribute that I am interested in is the fact that soon the ruling circle will not need the workers, and if the ruling circle is in control of the means of production the working class will become unemployables or lumpens. That is logical; that is dialectical. I think it would be wrong to say that only the slave class could disappear.

But in that speech and the part that's quoted its very clear that Newton is using the term Lumpenproletariat as a term mainly for the unemployed. So either WO thinks the unemployed are all dangerous crooks or they've missed the mark by being too reductive. This is a pretty typical feature of this Lumpen Yay or Nay argument, because its such a loosely coded term very few people mean the same thing in using it. 

A further example happens in the concluding paragraph


One of the major contentions between Marx and Bakunin dealt with the role of the lumpenproletariat. It is no wonder that Bakunin, who considered the lumpen to constitute “the flower of the proletariat” because of its supposedly more rebellious nature, also happened to advocate Slavic nationalism. The lumpenproletariat, like nationalism, is an enemy of the working class. The class could not mark out its independence as a class or seize political power if it depended so much on the support of the lumpenproletariat.
There's a lot going on here. Either the author hasn't read much Marx, Engels and Bakunin or they're deliberately distorting. First while its true that Bakunin did advocate Slavic nationalism, he moved away from that the more his ideas and beliefs developed in a socialist direction. Two while Bakunin did indeed hold a more positive view of the revolutionary potential of the Lumpenproletariat if you bother to lookup where he uses the term it quickly becomes clear that his concept of the lumpenproletariat also includes the proletariat. For example the passage were "the flower of the proletariat" comes from.

To me, however, the flower of the proletariat does not mean, as it does to the Marxians, the upper layer, the most civilized and comfortably off in the working world, that layer of semi-bourgeois workers, which is precisely the class the Marxians want to use to constitute their fourth governing class, and which is really capable of forming one if things are not set to rights in the interests of the great mass of the proletariat; for with its relative comfort and semi-bourgeois position, this upper layer of workers is unfortunately only too deeply penetrated with all the political and social prejudices and all the narrow aspirations and pretensions of the bourgeois. It can be truly said that this upper layer is the least socialist, the most individualist in all the proletariat.

Marxism, Freedom and the State 1872.

Also interesting to note is how closely that tallies with Marx and Engels later ideas about Labour Aristocracy and later Marxist and Anarchist criticism of Trade Unionism.

Furthermore by linking nationalism to support for a Lumpenproletariat the author makes a grave mistake by presenting their stance as in line with Marx and Engels. Both men were also quite open to nationalism, not only are their letters full of it, but the book Revolution and Counter Revolution in Germany written by Engels has several chapters dedicated to arguing for the necessity of a united and strong Germany whose borders must expand and "Germanise" its minorities.
 So it would appear that the stance on nationalism doesn't have any special relationship to ones views on Lumpens.

I could keep going with this but its already a confusing mess, which is of course is the point. At best the Lumpen category is just a catch all to tidy up other stances and lines, you can't clearly define it or the Lumpen/proletariat border. So I don't really see the point of continuing this bizarre discourse, it smacks of forced and ultimately false orthodoxy.

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