A Word for the Lumpen

Black Like Mao
6 min readOct 22, 2017

Those who speak negatively about lumpen behaviour and lumpen organizations, then, do not realize that their anxiety about this supposed counter-revolutionary problem really only exists to mask the actual counter-revolutionary problem: that they themselves, in their pursuit of petty bourgeois respectability (a problem that so many of us, including myself, face), are the ones who are actually courting counter-revolution. Thus, the danger at the centres of capitalism is not the lumpenization of a movement, or lumpen communist organizations that do not (no matter what some groups might claim) exist, but the very real and existent fact of petty-bourgeois consciousness. — J. Moufawad Paul, “The Slippery Concept of ‘Lumpenproletariat’”

The Left loves a riot. Black and Brown youth running through the streets, smashing windows, expropriating stores. Following the riots the white left (RCP in particular) pours into our communities with their opportunism, handing out papers which usually end up chucked in the nearest garbage bin, hijacking movements and usually getting thrown the fuck out when it becomes obvious in a week that they’re not there in solidarity, but rather to stir shit and coopt it towards their own ends. The RCP in Ferguson quickly isolated themselves with their constant attempts to hijack demonstrations, ignoring the demands of black organizers and leadership, and promoting adventurist actions such as attempting to order black youth to storm the police station while they stood in the back. Everybody applauded when Micah X. Johnson stood up and took out the pigs in Dallas. Cool. So, why does the left consistently get the lumpen wrong and consistently show up bereft of a concrete analysis of this class (which is fluid, like all things) and subsequently end up tailing behind? Let’s do a brief sketch of the lumpen I know (that’s the social background of my family, lumpen/proletarian)

Many people fall short when it comes to lumpen because their own petit-bourgeois prejudices, outlook, stand and relationships lead them to fear and hate them and maintain a distance. The left will chase after reactionary white union workers, applaud riots on livestreams, and then turn right around the next day and denounce the “reactionary character” and “un-proletarianness” of the masses, subsequently refusing to establish mass links and mass ties with them. Furthermore, many refuse to read material written by Black Communist theorists such as Kevin Rashid Johnson, Fanon, and Newton and apply these analyses. If you are black in this country, you are subject to lumpenization, because we are, historically, at the very bottom of the totem pole, so to speak, and subsequently receive the worst educations, the worst pick of jobs, and the lowest pay, particularly women. It is easier for an immigrant to arrive here and ascend the class ladder than it is for us. In essence, we are the lowest and deepest, the wretched of the earth. We have no opportunities, and subsequently turn to the illegal economy, odd jobs, or temp work to sustain ourselves. Lumpen and proletarian are not mutually exclusive categories. Of course, consciousness is going to be predominantly one or the other, but generally the black youth that say “fuck the police” and are apt to participate in uprisings like those in Ferguson and Baltimore are those who have nothing to lose, and in America nobody has less to lose than a Black lumpenproletarian.

Union workers aren’t burning buildings, shooting at pigs and smashing windows. They’ve got work in the morning. This being said, most of these youth will probably have jobs at McDonalds, or have done temp work in factories, or be actively seeking low level service work. In meantime, they do odd jobs such as mow lawns, shovel snow in the wintertime, or other cash jobs, and oftentimes they supplement this with income obtained from the illegal economy. Selling marijuana, bootlegging music and movies, and shoplifting from stores for resale on the streets are common activities. So, one can be simultaneously lumpen and proletarian from an class standpoint, but class aspirations are usually proletarian or petit-bourgeois from my own experience. Most of these youth aspire to either get a good job, become a skilled tradesperson through attending technical school, or own a small business, such as a barber shop. Even after being arrested, completing a prison term, and being released, the aspiration to become “independent” through small business ownership still remains, and I personally know several individuals who have been successful in this aspiration. Even if they become petit bourgeois, the character of these individuals is still more often than not progressive, as they are still nationally oppressed and their businesses are subject to a myriad of petty rules and regulations that oftentimes drive them into bankruptcy and failure, thrusting them back into the lumpenproletariat. To be black in this country is to consistently live in a state of precariousness and flux. So, the point is that this is a fluid process, not something cut and dried like many dogmatists and others who have no actual real life experience among the people would posit.

Lumpen/proletarians have a dual character. They are more often than not the first to take the streets, because they do not have the ability to struggle at the workplace, temp workers can’t unionize, or appeal to the government who doesn’t listen and who oppresses them. Black lumpen/proletarians don’t vote or pay attention to the natterings of paid politicians. So, like Cleaver (who I despise, but we’re talking theory here) said in Ideology of the Black Panther Party, the lumpen make the revolution in the streets. The BPP called the “working class” the “right wing of the proletariat” and the lumpen the “left wing” because the “working class” of that time (and of this time), as we generally understand it, is generally the most likely among the proletariat to support legal leftism, trade union struggles (economism), and reactionary religious figures/”respectability”, and also the most likely to denounce the lumpen uprisings. This is not to attack the working class that maintains an entirely legal existence, but this shows that that class, as a class, is generally to the right of the lumpen in regards to struggle. A “working class” black person is generally older, unionized (SEIU is a big one here), churchgoing and conservative socially. Of course, we love them because they are our family, they are the masses, and they should be organized. The lumpen are their grandchildren and children, deprived from opportunities to even perform the types of jobs that they performed to enable them to have some semblance of stability. They may go to protests, but they will not engage in militant struggles against the police or smash windows, and will often try to stop people from doing these things and tell them to go home.

Lumpenproletarians are left, got it. But there are also problems. There is a marked failure to engage in good faith struggles and treat comrades like comrades. Failure to correctly differentiate between antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions is a major erroneous tendency, and subsequently leads to fights and intra-organizational violence. Misogyny, transphobia, and other things are prevalent as well. This is a manifestation of ultra-left tendencies in the movement, along with the aversion to discipline and organization (street gangs are more organized than the average left organization and are also more armed and thus are an exception to this). This can be averted, in my view, through political education, engagement, and criticism/self criticism (which many already use and accept, though not in the MLM sense). Essentially, politics and discipline must become key, and serving the people must become the watchword. The BPP did it back in the day, and with conditions even worse than what they faced, we sorely need to study and learn from them. Don’t spit on the lumpen.