IV. The Lumpen Proletariat

There remains to be discussed one more stratum in capitalist society: the lumpen proletariat. The lumpen proletariat is that sector of the population that, having been denied a legitimate way to make a living, resorts to the illegitimate: i.e. thieves, fences, drug pushers, numbers men, gamblers, pimps, prostitutes, loan sharks, beggars, thugs, etc. The general crisis of capitalism swells the ranks of this stratum because it displaces more and more proletarians and small proprietors from the productive process and prevents large numbers of youth from entering it. Of course, by the lumpen proletariat we do not mean all of those who are unemployed, and not even all of those who, out of desperation, dip into illegitimate means of living while out of work. The lumpen proletariat is that stratum of people who have made those illegitimate means their regular livelihood, their “profession.” It is impossible to determine the exact size of this stratum, or even make a close estimate, but it surely numbers several million.

For several years the idea was current among certain sectors of the revolutionary movement that the lumpen proletariat had become the “new vanguard” of the revolution. According to the Black Panther Party, Franz Fanon and others, the lumpen proletariat, among whom they incorrectly included all of the unemployed, were the most impoverished and oppressed and were, therefore, the most revolutionary section of the population. This view is fundamentally anti-Marxist and served to spread confusion about the forces of revolution and counterrevolution.

Despite the fact that most lumpen proletarians are drawn from the ranks of the displaced proletariat, the way in which they make their living is completely different from that of the proletariat, and they therefore have a very different, and in many ways opposite, world view. The lumpen lives off the proletariat, which serves as the primary prey for its thievery and a market for its illicit trade. Thus, the lumpen proletariat shares with the bourgeoisie the common trait of being a parasitic class which lives off the labor of the others. Many lumpens dream of becoming rich and a small number of them actually do, becoming capitalist merchants in the criminal world. Most of the lumpen proletariat, of course, cannot realize any such dreams and are among the most destitute and victimized people in society (i.e., impoverished alcoholics, junkies, prostitutes). But the destitution of those people does not, in itself, make them revolutionary and in fact the lumpen proletariat, as a whole, plays a reactionary role. This stratum, wrote Marx and Engels, “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.”1 Members of this class have consistently been used as anti-union gun thugs, police informants, agent provocateurs, assassins, Klansmen, mercenaries, etc.

The revolutionary proletariat must exercise great caution toward those members of the lumpen proletariat who are able to join the revolutionary movement because they often tend to be unstable and advocate adventurism and anarchism, harming the disciplined character of the movement.

The reactionary role of the lumpen proletariat is institutionalized through organized crime. Organized crime dominates every aspect of the criminal world like the monopoly corporations dominate every aspect of the legal economy. The most wealthy and powerful of the criminal “bosses” are completely tied in with the capitalist class and the capitalist state; they. must be considered capitalists themselves. A whole sector of the bourgeoisie, the most seedy side of this class, is involved in organized criminal activities as well as “legitimate” businesses. It hardly needs to be said that these criminal capitalists are among the most reactionary, ruthless and fascist members of the bourgeoisie. Organized crime has acted as butchers for reaction, combating the revolutions in China, Algeria, Cuba and many other countries. In the U.S., organized crime has a close working relationship with the CIA, and has been among the most ruthless opponents of communism in the trade union movement, beating and assassinating communists and revolutionary trade unionists.

Leave a Comment