In The Peasant War in Germany, Friedrich Engels wrote:
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.
What are revolutionaries in the imperial center during the 21st century to make of this statement? Despite the wildly controversial nature that this quote took on when I recently shared it on social media, it needs to be examined. And it's important to answer the question I just articulated.
The class character of the lumpen
Firstly, we shouldn't interpret this quote as evidence that everyone who can be considered part of the "lumpenproletariat" as we now understand it is an enemy of the revolution. Such an idea is classist and reactionary, as those who negatively reacted to my posting of the quote pointed out. But they misunderstood what Engels was saying.
In the common modern definition, the lumpen include essentially everyone who's been pushed aside by capitalism to the extent that they're excluded from being proletarians. By this standard, the lumpen are encompassed by all of the millions of people who were proletarians just two years ago, but who've been forced into unemployment by the pandemic. They include all of the people who've decided not to fill the 11 million open job positions in the U.S. due to how exploitative modern minimum wage work is. (Though as I'll get to, some within this category do fit the definition of who Engels cautioned against working with.) They also include all of the unhoused and otherwise destitute people who've been part of this dispossessed population for all of their lives, by no choice of their own. To say the least, it would be undialectical to blanketly exclude them from the struggle. For the most part, it's not like these kinds of lumpenproles "establish headquarters" in anything; they're just trying to survive a humanitarian crisis that neoliberalism has engineered.
So why do I bring up this quote from Engels? Because foremost, it's extremely important for modern Marxists to recognize the distinction between the definition of the lumpenproletariat which Engels and Marx used, and the definition many use today. When they warned against working with the lumpen, they were talking about the types of lumpen who've been molded by capital to fill a role of counterrevolutionary intrigue. Who are these types? To find out, we need to investigate how the system brings them into this position.
The first clue is the economic nature of the lumpen as opposed to the regular proletarians. As the Communist Manifesto says: "Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product." The lumpenproletariat is not part of this class. By this, I mean not that no member of the "lumpen" as we define it today is capable of revolutionary consciousness, but that the lumpen lack the economic leverage to be able to affect change in the specific and instrumental way which the proletariat can. This isn't a denunciation of their character, only an economic fact, one which also applies to non-working students, people who live off of creating online content, or any other person who falls outside the proletarian category.
If the proletariat stopped working, there would be no economy. If the lumpen stopped working, there would still be an economy, if one that's deprived of the underground markets. Again, this does not mean everyone who falls under the modern umbrella of the "lumpen" is worthless to the proletarian revolution; under conditions like the ones Mao navigated, those among this broader category of lumpen are able to be incorporated into the communist movement on a massive scale.
But it does mean that communists should not pretend as if the regular proles and the lumpen can be treated interchangeably. Because whereas the proletariat is innately a revolutionary class, the differing economic position of the lumpen makes its members more easily able to be turned into weapons for capital. As Marx warned, the lumpen "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."
It appears Marx underestimated the extent to which the lumpen would end up being swayed in the revolutionary direction throughout the 20th century (see China's revolution). But he was right in that the lumpen's separation from the driving economic facets creates an opening for the lumpen to be turned towards the reaction.
The bourgeois weaponization of gangs
If this sounds abstract, take the example of gangs. Even in the core of imperialism, gangs are capable of positive things, like when Jewish mobsters have fought neo-Nazis. But they're the facet of the lumpen that's been most effectively manipulated by the U.S. ruling class, and that have a structure which makes them functionally incompatible with the kinds of organizations needed for facilitating proletarian revolution. Plus, those Jewish mobsters were an exception; gangs of other ethnic groups, even ones which are oppressed by white supremacy, have been willing to collaborate with Nazis.
This was shown by the story of Rodolfo "Cheyenne" Cadena, the Chicano mob boss who attempted to make California's gang structure into a revolutionary force. He formed an alliance with George Jackson and the Black Guerrilla Family, and became active in the Brown Berets-the anti-capitalist Chicano organization that resisted the Vietnam War, and that was part of the Third World Liberation Front. As part of his agenda to unite Africans and Chicanos into a decolonial communist movement via gangs, he sought to unify the Mexican Mafia with its rival, Nuestra Familia.
As a consequence, he was stabbed to death in prison by Nuestra Familia members, starting off a 31-year-long cycle of tit-for-tat killings. Now many of the non-white gangs Cadena hoped to unite are working with the Aryan Brotherhood, the country's most notorious neo-Nazi gang. Which shows how easily gangs, despite sometimes acting as counters to fascists, can be swayed towards collaborating with fascists; their interests lie not in political principles, but in economic interests.
The NF killed Cadena because as soon as he tried to make peace between the gangs, his peers within the Mexican Mafia decided to sabotage his reconciliation mission by murdering two NF members prior to his planned peace talk with the NF. They also sabotaged Cadena's personal influence within the Mafia, making him a sitting target for NF retribution. Just as Marx would have anticipated, reactionary intrigue came quite easily for the facets of the lumpen that Marx and Engels referred to; namely the mafiosos, who are part of an innately reactionary power structure.
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