By Rainer Shea
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.
If this is how easy it is for gangs in the United States to snuff out revolutionary elements within their ranks, and for non-white gangs to ally with white supremacists, gangs here are not ripe for becoming part of the revolutionary vanguard. What else to expect when these gangs have long served as vessels for the CIA to distribute its drugs-a tactic which encompasses not just U.S. borders, but the entirety of the exploited countries throughout the Americas.
Given the global prevalence of the CIA’s weaponization of gangs, the equivalent is naturally true for the gangs within exploited countries like Haiti, where an armed gang alliance which claims to be revolutionary has been carving out influence. This alliance calls itself “revolutionary” for opportunistic purposes. Its leadership is made up of gang members who’ve fallen out of favor with the government and the bourgeoisie, and are seeking to create a breakaway structure. Not one based around proletariat dictatorship, but around the same kind of bourgeois model which characterizes the gangs in the imperial center.
It’s necessary to point out these facts because the bourgeoisie, particularly in the imperial center, are fostering a culture which can lead communists to ignore such realities. Which can cause those who’ve been brought to an anti-capitalist worldview, but lack sufficient political education, to idealize and romanticize gangs. And to then be led down the same path which caused Cadena and his alliance to be destroyed by capital’s mafioso footsoldiers.
Obstructing class consciousness via liberal moralism & the weaponization of drugs
How are the bourgeoisie doing this? By obfuscating the unique importance of the proletariat, and thereby distorting the goals of socialism. By propagating the misconception that Marxism doesn’t entail the transferring of political control from the bourgeoisie to the working class, but the general lifting up of the dispossessed. These two things sound the same, but the latter has a crucial difference from the former: it leaves room for the mafiosos to gain opportunistic leverage over social movements, simply because their ranks largely consist of dispossessed people.
Under a dictatorship of the proletariat, gangs will be enemies of the state-far more so than they are under the capitalist state, since capitalism covertly fosters gangsterism (as shown by the CIA’s drug funnelings, and by the weaponization of gangs against revolutionaries like Cadena). Last year, the Communist Party of China cracked down on the country’s gangs, sweeping away 3,000 organized crime entities. The fact that the world’s largest workers state eliminates gangs even more than it executes billionaires or nationalizes private companies (both of which China does quite frequently) shows just how antagonistic communism’s relationship with gangs is.
The equivalent will happen under the workers democracy that we’ll build on this continent, because beyond being opposed to the bourgeois nature of these gangs, communists are opposed to their systematic destruction of impoverished communities (who are disproportionately made up of colonized peoples) by flooding these communities with drugs. And targeting the bourgeois gang leaders who distribute these drugs is an infinitely better route towards reducing self-destructive drug use than criminalizing the users. Which is what the U.S. bourgeoisie do in their phony “war on drugs,” where the victims of the CIA’s substance proliferation are incarcerated to keep up profits for private prison companies. The same companies that are currently operating concentration camps for the migrants displaced by CIA-created gang violence in Latin America.
Under the distorted version of “socialism” that’s propagated in the imperial center, the low-level mafiosos who participate in this trade are judged to have as much revolutionary potential as the proletariat simply by virtue of being in an economically low position. But as Stalin assessed in Anarchism or Socialism, communists do not necessarily represent those in poverty:
It is true that the rural and urban petty bourgeoisie now constitute the majority and are really poor, but is that the point? The petty bourgeoisie has long constituted the majority, but up to now it has displayed no initiative in the struggle for “freedom” without the assistance of the proletariat. Why? Because the petty bourgeoisie as a class is not growing; on the contrary, it is disintegrating day by day and breaking up into bourgeois and proletarians. On the other hand, nor is poverty of decisive importance here, of course: “tramps” are poorer than the petty bourgeoisie, but nobody will say that they can undertake the task of “emancipating Russia.” As you see, the point is not which class today constitutes the majority, or which class is poorer, but which class is gaining strength and which is decaying.
This is what the moralistic arguments of the imperial center’s liberal concept of “socialism” leaves out: the practical reality of what it will take to emancipate the proletariat. Namely, an objective assessment of which class has the potential to carry out the economic aspect of a proletarian revolution, and a correct identification of the kinds of counterrevolutionary elements which Engels warned about. Scientific socialism is distinct from moralism. And when one applies a scientific analysis to today’s drug trade, its petty bourgeois nature becomes apparent.
The street-level hustlers don’t enter the trade out of need for sustenance, because this job garners them only several thousand dollars a year; as the webpage for the book Freakonomics observes:
Drug dealing isn’t a job that has a lot of monetary and personal benefits. University of Chicago student, Sudhir Venkatesh helped expose this reality by creating a survey he personally distributed to the poor communities surrounding Chicago. His interest was focused on what the people who lived in these neighborhoods thought of being “black and poor” (Sudhir). The Black Disciple gang leader, J.T. explained the dynamics of the gang, from the bottom-up. Petty drug runners, the runts of the hierarchy, are at the greatest risk, and yet they get paid the lowest wages. On average, street-corner drug salesman made $3.30 an hour while working in areas with high potential for violence, extortion, and police. (Levitt and Dubner). These runners only worked these almost impossible jobs in hope of one day moving up the gang hierarchy. The boss and few higher-ups of the gang were the ones that made the big cheddar. The possibility that a runner would become a higher-up was slim to none, yet for people from these poor neighborhoods, slim was better than nothing.
This real-life example demonstrates the economic principle that “conventional wisdom is often wrong” (Levitt and Dubner). Just because citizens are involved in high crime jobs like selling drugs does not mean they make much money. People think that with such a huge supply of drugs on the street, that the business must be incredibly profitable but in reality only a few make amounts worth bragging about, while the rest of the lower drug “foot soldiers” are still so poor they have to live with their mothers.
Given this data, these dealers would be able to make far better by working at even one of those millions of currently open minimum wage jobs. They’ve entered into this business of selling the CIA’s poison out of desire to become bourgeois, to rise in the ranks of the trade and become one of the rich mafiosos. It’s this fact about the trade which reveals the parallel between these “foot soldiers,” and the lower class elements which Stalin warned against idealizing; both are relatively poor, but poverty doesn’t in itself make for revolutionary potential.
Poverty can even be exploited by the bourgeoisie to create more recruits for counterrevolutionary activities, as shown by the pipeline that the infamous movement infiltrator William O’Neal (as depicted in Judas and the Black Messiah) went through: getting in trouble with the law, then agreeing to become a counterintelligence infiltrator who helped get Fred Hampton killed. Just because someone has a background in the underclass, doesn’t mean revolutionary parties should be the slightest bit more lenient on them in terms of vetting and security culture.
Give these facts, it’s no wonder why “lumpenproletarianization” is one of the biggest weapons of capitalism and white supremacy, especially in the imperial center. Around the globe, the bourgeoisie elevate the criminal elements so that they can be pitted against the proletariat, and against the broader types of lumpenproles who Mao was able to incorporate into the revolutionary struggle. Their strategy is quite simple: divide and conquer. Communists must unite with the types of lumpenproles who Mao proved to be compatible with revolution, while not being naive about the destructive potential of the mafiosos, or while uncritically equating poverty with revolutionary potential.