lumpenproletariat

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lumpenproletariat

literally, the ‘proletariat of rags’, from the German Lumpen meaning ‘rag’. MARX and ENGELS were two of the first 19th-century writers to recognize the existence of a class drawn from all classes, living on the margins of society, not in regular employment and gaining their subsistence mainly from crime. According to Marx, the composition of the Parisian lumpenproletariat in the mid-19th century included vagabonds, discharged soldiers and jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, pimps, brothel-keepers, ragpickers and beggars. These groups were sharply differentiated from the industrial working class by both politics and by being outside the normal social relations of wage labour. Marx and Engels distrusted the lumpenproletariat because it did not make an obvious contribution in the struggle of the working class for socialism. They therefore considered the lumpenproletariat were ‘the dangerous class’, ‘the social scum’ whose parasitic ways of life prepared them for becoming bribed agents of reactionary elements in the ruling class. They threatened to lead workers into arbitrary violence and their highest forms of political activity were mob agitation and street fighting. These were primitive forms of political action, according to Marx and Engels, who maintained that where large scale capitalist production exists, modern revolution demands the mass seizure and control of the means of production by the working class.

Dissenting from the Marxist view, the African socialist, Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth (1967), stressed that the lumpenproletariat or ‘classless idlers’ living in the shanty towns of Third World societies could play an important role in revolutionary struggles.