I am having a lot of trouble visualizing Karl Marx's socio-economic class Lumpenproletariat.

Marx gives these examples:

Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.

So basically just everyone who is thought poorly of? But why would a brothel keeper not be Bourgeoisie or Petite bourgeoisie? It does not matter if they are extremely successful and control the means of production, as long as their role in society is considered slightly dirty?

Additionally, he states that in addition to being figuratively dirty they are the enemies of the communist revolution since they depend on the bourgeoisie on a day-to-day basis. But how important is this second point? If you generally do well in society, but are dependent on it, are you Lumpenproletariat? Is someone with 100K in student debt Lumpenproletariat, even if society really does not look down on them?

So who are the Lumpenproletariat in the modern world? Presumably the criminals and welfare recipients. But would we include other groups as well?


1 Answer 1


What is the lumpenproletariat?

First off, the lumpenproletariat are proletariat. They are part of the working class ("owning nothing but their labor"). In general Marx broke society into two high-level classes: bourgeoisie and proletariat. They are defined by their relationship to the means of production (bourgeoisie own the means of production, while the proletariat own only their own labor).

Eventually, he would clarify other marginal groups (such as the petty bourgeois you already mentioned). The lumpenproletariat are a subset of proletariat. They do not own the means of production. However, while the ordinary proletariat were constructed to be participants in the capitalist system (by selling their labor to the bourgeoisie), the lumpenproletariat do not participate. The lumpenproletariat do not consistently sell as other proletariat do.

This is not an entirely discrete category, but I'm not sure if that is because Marx never fully specifies it or because it is naturally fuzzy. Certainly some members of the lumpenproletariat do sell their labor (porters, organ grinders, prostitutes), but my reading is that they are distinguished from ordinary proletariat because of their intense marginalization. Other workers are somewhat marginalized, but only the lumpenproletariat are completely marginalized from society. That's what the "lumpen-" part means, they are "rags" - worthless parts.

Why are they important?

Because they have a different strategic role in the glorious workers' revolution.

Marx thought that the lumpenproletariat - unlike the general proletariat - would not be a valuable part of the revolution. On one hand, their life experience means they could be excellent revolutionaries. Unfortunately, they are easily swayed by money. Having nothing, their services can be easily bought by the anti-revolutionary factions.

This is described in the 18th Brumaire, including the section you quoted in the question. In that section, Marx describes how the lumpenproletariat had organized into secret societies (a good revolutionary tactic), but that Bonaparte had placed his people in charge of the secret sections (coopting revolutionary workers for his ostensibly bourgeois organization).

This role is also mentioned in the Communist Manifesto, where they have been called the "dangerous class". Here it is mentioned that they have a reactionary bent: since outcasts and criminals leech their support from the wealthy, they have a vested interest in keeping the wealthy in power.

Who are they today?

Fundamentally, the lumpenproletariat are unemployed members of the proletariat. Your question mentioned that criminals and welfare recipients are presumably members, but that isn't true. Many criminals have full-time jobs, some pay excellently (for example, white collar criminals). Many welfare recipients are also employed.

Both of those groups lack the second quality also - which is an intense marginalization.

Think more along the lines of the perennially homeless or vagrants, as well as the kinds of criminals who exist alongside harsh urban poverty.

This answer was greatly influenced by this page, written by NYU Professor of Politics Dr.Bertell Olmann.

  • 3
    Thanks for the answer. Were brothel owners just not as extremely rich and powerful in Marx's time and place as we might think of them historically? I am still confused as to why one of the richest and biggest purchasers of labor in a medium sized town gets lumped with people below the working class? Similarly, their are others in that list that seem monetarily better off (swindlers [is this not just a fraudster?], gamblers). These seem like well off people, they are just looked down upon because their trade is crime and vice.
    – Jonathon
    Apr 5, 2017 at 19:18
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    You are really focused on that one example :) I suspect you are empirically wrong - none of those 'professions' are typically wealthy or powerful. However, it should be clear they are all proletariat - none of them own the means of production, just their own labor. The extra "oomph" is their estrangement from the rest of society. There are plenty of factory workers who are poor, but they are legitimized by their employment. Lumpenproletariat are so marginalized they are denied that status. Apr 5, 2017 at 19:24
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    You are the one who said fraudsters are well paid... And I am really confused on how you keep missing that brothel owners do not work themselves, but employ the labor. They literally own the means of production as the own the factory (bordello) and profits off the labor. Maybe this is just a Western view, but we view madams and brothels historically as the economic center of the town.
    – Jonathon
    Apr 5, 2017 at 19:39
  • You might review what means of production are. The brothel owner has prostitutes - but they aren't means of production. Basically, labor is not a means of production. Not to be confused with the related economic term factors of production. Apr 5, 2017 at 19:42
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    That is what I said. A brothel owner owns the land, the building, the capital, and perhaps a legal or illegal monopoly on selling sex. Put into factors of production lingo, the brothel owner owns land, capital and has entrepreneurship. With these they make money off of the labor of sex workers.
    – Jonathon
    Apr 5, 2017 at 19:52

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