It is no coincidence that the glorification of the lumpenproletariat among leftist groups has been accompanied by nationalism and all forms of class deviation.
The Black Panther Party in history
The “Black Panther” Party, seen by leftist groups as a shining example of antiracist and anticapitalist militancy, shows clearly how the exaltation of the lumpenproletariat is indelibly connected to the abandonment of the proletariat in general.
As is well known, the Black Panthers were born in a context where the civil rights movement in the United States had achieved the legal abolition of racial segregation, but had failed to put an end to state violence and insidious racial discrimination.
Some black workers moved to the Watts neighborhood in the 1920s, at a time when they were excluded from obtaining mortgages in majority white neighborhoods. Significantly, in 1945, 80% of the residents of Watts were black.1 During World War II many black workers had migrated to cities in the north and west of the United States to find work in the war industry. After the war, they lost their jobs. Their neighborhoods and cities, including Watts, suffered from impoverishment and lumpenization as a result.2
Repressive state forces such as the LAPD closely patrolled neighborhoods like Watts during the 1960s. Between 1962 and 1965, sixty-five people were murdered by police. Twenty-seven of the victims were shot in the back, twenty-five of them were unarmed, twenty-three were suspected of nonviolent crimes, and four were not suspected of any crime whatsoever.3 Watts residents were constantly being terrorized by the state. Finally riots broke out in 1965.
The immediate cause was an altercation between the police and the family of Marquette Frye, who had been arrested for drunk driving. The trigger of the riots was the spread of rumors that the police had beaten a pregnant woman. But the most profound cause of the mass riots in Watts was the persistent tension between the police and the residents.
Similarly, the cause of the recent riots in Ferguson was not an isolated incident. Michael Brown’s murder was the trigger for the riots, but they were ultimately provoked by the longtime and ongoing state violence against the residents of Ferguson.
Proletariat and lumpenproletariat
Both the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat were and continue to be victims of state repression.
Unlike the lumpenproletariat, however, the historical task of the proletariat is to seize political power, overthrow capital, and create a truly humane society. The proletariat is the only class in history that has that capacity and that mission. This means that the working class is the class that holds the future of the whole world and of humanity in its hands.
Capital is a parasite, a vampire, that lives and grows through the exploitation of its host, the proletariat. The proletariat, the class that has nothing to lose and nothing that would unite it with capital because it has been stripped of everything but its capacity to work, looks to the future. But the lumpenproletariat, like the bourgeoisie, lives a parasitic life nourished by the degeneration of society. Drug traffickers, pimps, thieves, and gangs, etc., are not looking to the future but to destruction. They do not share the same class interest as the proletariat and for that reason, cannot be its ally in its mission to bring down the capitalist world.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels defined the lumpenproletariat in the Communist Manifesto as
that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society, 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.
In his preface to the Peasant War in Germany, Engels said of the lumpen:
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! 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 utilizes these gutter-proletarians as guards or supports, proves himself by this action alone a traitor to the movement.
Although Marx, Engels, and even the Marxists who led the workers’ movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, have defined the lumpen in these terms, there are leftists who think lumpens and their activities deserve the support of communists and even defend the idea that they can play a revolutionary role.
It is no coincidence that the same leftists who have renounced internationalism idolize the lumpenproletariat, its way of being, and its activities. In the same sense that nationalism replaces the proletariat as the revolutionary subject and its interests for the nation, that false community that actually represents the interests of the national bourgeoisie, the exaltation of the lumpenproletariat also brings with it the abandonment of the class. Because, even though many workers have been turned into lumpenproletarians by “a capitalism that no longer even has the capacity to exploit us all”4 the lumpenproletarians do not have the capacity to acquire a class consciousness.
This is not to say that it is impossible for individual lumpenproletarians to join in the fight against capitalism. But it is only by abandoning the ranks of the lumpenproletariat, by abandoning the activities that disorient the working class and harm the prospects for proletarian organization, such as looting and gang violence, that they can effectively fight against capitalism, as the proletariat — the revolutionary class — and create a world of freedom and abundance.
In Political Prisoners, Prisons, and Black Liberation, Angela Davis argued that
With the declassed character of lumpenproletarians in mind, Marx had stated that they are as capable of “the most heroic deeds and the most exalted sacrifices, as of the basest banditry and the dirtiest corruption.” He emphasized the fact that the provisional government’s mobile guards under the 1871 Paris Commune — some 24,000 troops — were formed largely out of young lumpenproletarians from fifteen to twenty years of age. Too many Marxists have been inclined to overvalue the second part of Marx’s observation — i.e., that the lumpenproletariat is capable of the basest banditry and the dirtiest corruption — while minimizing or indeed totally disregarding his first remark, applauding the lumpenproletariat for its heroic deeds and exalted sacrifices.
She therefore concludes the lumpenproletariat can play a pivotal role in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism. What Davis extrapolated from that quote on the lumpenproletariat, the political conclusions, however, was a projection of her own politics and not an accurate assessment of Max’s views. First of all, Davis claims he was discussing the Paris Commune when he was in fact talking about the 1848 Revolution. In this part of Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850, Marx was explaining how
emancipation of the workers, even as a phrase, became an unbearable danger to the new republic, for it was a standing protest against the restoration of credit, which rests on undisturbed and untroubled recognition of the existing economic class relations. Therefore, it was necessary to have done with the workers.
He then explained how the bourgeoisie decided to recruit the lumpenproletariat in the Mobile Guards in order to break the power of the working class. In other words, the recruitment of lumpenproletarians as Mobile Guards was not at all, as Davis implied, a reflection of the revolutionary nature of the lumpenproletariat, but rather formed part of a bourgeois strategy to disorient and defeat the workers. The 24,000 troops recruited, he explained, mostly came from the ranks of lumpen, which was sharply distinct from the industrial proletariat,
at the youthful age at which the Provisional Government recruited them… thoroughly malleable, capable of the most heroic deeds and the most exalted sacrifices, as of the basest banditry and the dirtiest corruption. The Provisional Government paid them 1 franc 50 centimes a day. In other words, it bought them, giving them their own uniform, making them outwardly distinct from the blouse of the workers.
Putting what Marx said into context reveals that the comment “capable of the most heroic deeds and the most exalted sacrifices” was not referring to some supposed revolutionary nature the lumpenproletariat inherently possessed but rather pointed to their “thoroughly malleable” nature. As we previously mentioned, Marx explained that the lumpen may be “swept into the movement by proletarian revolution. Its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of the bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.” A thoroughly malleable group, just as prone to reactionary intrigue as to revolutionary actions, at most capable of being “swept” into the movement by the proletariat, and therefore cannot lead it, is a group the working class cannot use as “guards” or “supports.”
Therefore, in the context of the riots in the United States, although lumpenproletarians may rebel against the police during the riots, they are not interested in the proletariat assuming control of the neighborhoods. What really matters to lumpenproletarians is their ability to continue their illegal businesses. Gangs, a terrible threat to the daily life of the workers and their activity, may adopt slogans like “Black Lives Matter” and reach temporary truces with among themselves,5 but they will never support the working class in the seizure of political power. Gangs further played an important role in the Watts riots by operating together and coordinating their actions during the riots. It is not an accident that black nationalist groups like the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party looked to recruit gang members around that point in time.6
The seizure of political power is the first step and the only way to root out the state violence that threatens the daily lives of workers. It is the only way to end the violence of a decadent capitalism that continues to worsen living conditions and even threatens to wipe out the planet.
Nationalism and the “the black community”
The Black Panther Party was a party that began its history as a self-defense organization and, as we said, was created in a context of state violence and racial discrimination. In its short existence as an organization, it had evolved to adapt to the changes that came with it. It is true that their interpretations of nationalism, socialism, etc., had evolved over the years. At first it was a black nationalist party, then a “revolutionary nationalist” party, then a supposedly internationalist party, and finally an “intercommunalist” party. Inspired by Marcus Garvey and Franz Fanon, it began by defining itself as black nationalist. Later on, it was a supposedly socialist party opposed to “black capitalism.”
But nationalism is completely opposed to socialism. Nationalism obscures the relations between the antagonistic classes in capitalism by uniting them under the banner of the “nation.” According to Rosa Luxemburg in The National Question,
In class society, the nation as a homogenous sociopolitical entity does not exist. Rather, there exist in each nation classes with antagonistic interests and “rights.” There literally is not one social area, from the coarsest material relationships to the most subtle moral ones, in which the possessing class and the class-conscious proletariat hold the same attitude, and in which they appear as a consolidated “national” entity.
Moreover, the nation cannot exist in a society without classes, without the state, without the need to increase capital. The nation, the slaughterhouse which takes the working class as its victim, could not exist in socialism, in a truly human world where divide between humanity and nature has been abolished. It is not possible therefore to reconcile socialism, the world without oppression, with the nation. For “behind the national flag, only death and misery follow.”7
We quote the short version of the original text of the Panthers’ “10 Point Program.”
- We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black community.
- We want full employment for our people.
- We want an end to the robbery by the white man of our black community.
- We want decent housing fit for the shelter of human beings.
- We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society.
- We want all black men to be exempt From military service.
- We want an immediate End to police brutality and murder of black people.
- We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county, and city prisons and jails.
- We want all black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
- We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.
The first point, “We want the power to determine the fate of our black community” is based on the concept of the “right of nations to self-determination.” The idea behind the “black community” is that there is a community, based on race, that unites the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and shares the same interests. For the Black Panthers, there would be a “black community,” which would include the lumpenproletariat alongside the proletariat and would share the same political interests. In this version of their program, the third point said that “the white man” steals from the “black community.” The reality of capitalist exploitation had been buried by the Panthers under the rug of race. The working class, the workers of any color, have no real interest in a false community like the nation. According to Rosa Luxemburg,
Whenever we speak of the “right of nations to self-determination,” we are using the concept of the “nation” as a homogeneous social and political entity. But actually, such a concept of the “nation” is one of those categories of bourgeois ideology that Marxist theory submitted to a radical revision, showing how that misty veil, like the concepts of the “freedom of citizens,” “equality before the law,” etc., conceals in every case a definite historical content.
In the following version of the “Program Points,” the third point was changed to “We want an end to the robbery by the capitalist of our black community.” This change from the “white man” to the “capitalist” did not correct a fundamental error. The Black Panthers never recognized during their existence that there is no real “black community” that shares the same political interests above and beyond the social classes.
It is true that their nationalism came into conflict with the nationalism of other Black nationalist groups. It is true that at some point in its history, the “revolutionary nationalism” of the Black Panther Party was in conflict with the cultural nationalism of other groups, as Bobby Seale says in Seize the Time:
Cultural nationalists and Black Panthers are in conflict in many areas. Basically, cultural nationalism sees the white man as the oppressor and makes no distinction between racist whites and nonracist whites, as the Panthers do. The cultural nationalists say that a black man cannot be an enemy of the black people, while the Panthers believe that black capitalists are exploiters and oppressors. Although the Black Panther Party believes in black nationalism and black culture, it does not believe either will lead to black liberation or the overthrow of the capitalist system, and therefore ineffective.
And yet the Black Panthers believed there was a black “community” that included not only black workers, but also a lumpenproletariat that supposedly shared their interest in overthrowing the capitalist system.
Glorifying the lumpenproletariat
According to Eldridge Cleaver — himself a Black Panther who raped white women because he believed it to be “revolutionary” (he had already “practiced” by raping black women), only to later became a Mormon and joined the US Republican Party — lumpenproletarians
are those who have no secure relationship or vested interest in the means of production and the institutions of capitalist society. That part of the “industrial reserve army” held perpetually in reserve; who have never worked and never will; who cannot find a job; who are unskilled and unfit; who have been displaced by machines, automation and cybernation, were never “retained or invested with new skills”; those on welfare or receiving state aid. Also, the so-called “criminal element,” who live by their wits, existing off what they rip off, who stick guns in the faces of businessmen and say “stick ’em up,” or “give it up”! Those who don’t even want a job, who hate to work and can’t relate to punching some pig’s time clock, who would rather punch a pig in the mouth and rob him than punch the same pig’s time clock and work for him, those whom Huey P. Newton calls “illegitimate capitalists.” In short, those who’ve been locked out of the economy and robbed of their rightful social heritage.
It is very clear that Cleaver was glorifying the activity of the lumpenproletariat. Its selfish and individualistic activity signified to him a rebellion against the state. But in reality, it is quite the contrary.
The rebellion of the lumpenproletariat against state authority has its limits due to the nature of its position in capitalism. As the lumpen are unable to have a true class consciousness, and will be even less interested in the seizure of political power by the proletariat, their activity will always be restricted to looting and rioting.
After all, glorifying the lumpenproletariat and characterizing its nature as more “left-wing” and revolutionary than the rest of the proletariat, is unacceptable not merely because the lumpenproletariat is prone to being used as a tool of reaction by the bourgeoisie, but also because their activity comes into direct conflict with the exigencies of the workers’ movement. Looting is a not an example of proletarian organization but rather signals its opposite, the disorganization and overall weakness of the working class. It does not create solidarity between the workers because it is a disorganized activity based on individual appropriation, something that comes into direct conflict with requisitions by worker’s assemblies. The criticism of looting, from the communist perspective, is not rooted in a pacifist mentality, but is indelibly connected to the needs of working-class organization. Workers’ assemblies requisition goods according to the criterion of necessity, and thus cannot permit individual appropriation. The foundations for a future communist abundance are laid through collective appropriation and distribution, whereas looting, or individual appropriation, comes into direct conflict with it.
Gangs furthermore terrorize the working class, and cannot but be a hindrance to the formation of working-class solidarity and organization. It is not out of any desire to protect property that we point this out, but rather, its opposite, out of a need to draw a class line, to make it clear what the communist movement cannot under any circumstances permit.8
The Black Panthers, beyond just extolling the activity of the lumpenproletariat, also expanded its definition. In their use the category includes anyone who receives social or state aid. For Marxists, receiving such assistance does not qualify someone as lumpen.
Moreover, this concept of the “black community” always existed in the Black Panthers, even during their putative internationalist phase. Unsurprisingly, the party that believed that the lumpenproletariat was “the vanguard of the proletariat”9 and its leftmost wing was the same party that believed “internationalism” consisted in support for capitalist states claiming to be socialist, like Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, or Algeria. This “internationalism” was of course, in reality, a betrayal of actual working-class internationalism.
Opportunistic communitarian alliances
On the other hand, the Rainbow Coalition created by Fred Hampton is not an example of internationalism either. The Rainbow Coalition was an alliance of several leftist groups with roots in the lumpenproletariat. The Young Lords, whose members were mostly Puerto Rican, was one such group, and began as a street gang in West Lincoln Park and Humboldt Park in 1959. Likewise, the Young Patriots also started out as a gang, but unlike the Young Lords, most of their members were white people from Appalachia.10
Many leftists love to quote Fred Hampton and his comments on the coalition and its connection to proletarian revolution:
We don’t think you fight fire with fire; we think you fight fire with water. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight it with solidarity. We’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but with socialism. We’re not going to fight reactionary pigs and reactionary state attorneys like this like Hanrahan with any other reactions on our part. We’re going to fight their reactions by all of us people getting together and having an international proletarian revolution.
While all this sounds good, this coalition was not an example of anything truly internationalist. The Young Lords were openly nationalist. They believed in Puerto Rican nationalism, in other words, they wanted Puerto Rican independence from the United States. Appropriately, their symbol was the Puerto Rican flag. The Young Patriots adopted a certain kind of nationalism as well. Although they did not embrace white nationalism, they utilized their symbols, wearing Confederate flag patches and calling themselves “hillbilly nationalists.”
The Young Patriots adopted the Confederate flag out of a desire to appeal to poor white people. In other words, they were cynically using nationalist symbolism as a strategy by which to pull people into “class politics.” As Hy Thurman put it:
In the 1960s in Uptown and in the south the Confederate “Rebel” flag was found in bars, on bumper stickers, clothing, and other places. It was so present it was almost invisible. Many Southerners didn’t view it as a symbol of racism associated with slavery but a symbol against the “War of Northern Aggression.” Southerners then as well as now associates the flag with being a rebel. Rebel not in the sense of being a Confederate soldier but more of being a bad ass, to rebel against authority.
We wanted to talk to poor whites about living conditions in Uptown and try to get them involved in the Young Patriots to improve their living conditions. Many approaches were used to get a dialogue started about country music, police brutality, sex… But the universal symbols that everyone could relate to were the American flag and the Confederate flag. Knowing the American flag would not solicit much conversation, the idea turned to the Rebel flag. We knew there were only a few blacks living in Uptown and we would respect them by trying to cover the flag whenever we saw them. A few blacks who were active in Uptown believed if that was what it took to reach whites, and knowing that we were not using it as a racist symbol agreed that it was a good way to use it.”11
Considering the Black Panther Party did not see much conflict between nationalist politics and revolutionary communism, it is small wonder that they would permit the use of a racist pro-slavery symbol in order to appeal to a certain demographic of people. The Young Patriots were doing precisely the opposite of what communists should do in trying to give direction to the working class. Instead of trying to clear away the fog, they were reinforcing divisions that prevent working-class solidarity in the first place, by promoting a racist symbol and a “hillbilly” cultural identity.
The activity of the different organizations consisted of each defending their “own community” through the activism of their social services such as the free breakfast program, something they copied from the Black Panther Party. Each organization also had its own ten-point program. But slogans like “black power,” “brown power,” and even “white power” do not transcend the divisions of the working class but turn them into a fetish. Unsurprisingly, the very same logic that gave rise to black and Puerto Rican nationalism gave rise to white and “hillbilly” identitarianism. “We say: all power to the people — black power to black people, brown power to brown people, red power to red people, yellow power to yellow people, white power to white people.”12 Nor is it surprising that the “worker,” from this viewpoint, becomes one of the millions of identities. The “Rising Up Angry” organization, inspired by and modeled after the Black Panthers, is an example of this trend, where “proletarian culture” was celebrated and fetishized. The Rainbow Coalition functioned more as a coalition compatible with “intersectionality” than as an internationalist and proletarian organization.
Communalism and universal lumpenization
In the final phase of the Black Panthers, Huey P. Newton developed the theory of “intercommunalism,” which he presented at Boston College. In this confusing theory, Huey stated that the United States had become an empire and that the rest of the world was made up of “communities.” Newton thus concluded the “nation” category had become useless. The Black Panther Party converted from an internationalist party into an “intercommunalist” one. It is not hard to see that this theory worsened his already poor understanding of capitalism, converting states — each with its own bourgeoisie and proletariat, including supposedly socialist states like Cuba and North Korea — into homogeneous communities with shared material interests. Imperialism in this analysis becomes “reactionary intercommunalism,” while internationalism becomes “revolutionary intercommunalism.” Of course, this is ridiculous. But many leftists praise this theory, which could only impart confusion and opportunism to the working class.
According to this same theory, the proletariat, when the time came, would lumpenize:
In this country the Black Panther Party, taking careful note of the dialectical method, taking careful note of social trends and the ever‐changing nature of things, sees that while lumpenproletarians are the minority and proletarians the majority, technology is developing at such a rapid rate automation will progress to cybernation, and cybernation probably to technocracy. As I came into town I saw MIT over the way. If the ruling circle remains in power it seems to me capitalists will continue to develop their technological machinery, since they are not interested in people. If revolution does not take place soon, the workers will definitely be on the decline because they will be unemployables and therefore swell the ranks of the lumpens, who are the present unemployables. Lumpenproletarians have the potential to carry out revolution, and will probably do so since in the near future they will be the popular majority. Of course, I would not like to see more of my people unemployed or become unemployables, but being objective, because we’re dialectical materialists, we must acknowledge the facts.
Marx outlined a rough sketch of the development of society. He said that society goes from slavery to feudalism, capitalism, socialism, finally to communism. In other words, from a capitalist to a socialist state to a nonstate: communism. We can all agree slaves have for the most part been transformed into wage slaves. If slaves can disappear and become something else, taking on other characteristics, then it follows that the proletarians or the industrial working class could possibly be transformed out of existence. Of course, people would not disappear; they would just take on other attributes. Soon the capitalists will not need the workers. And if the capitalists still control the means of production, the workers will become unemployables or lumpenproletarians. This is logical, or dialectical. It would be wrong to say that only the slave class could disappear.
This analysis misunderstands how capitalism works in reality. Neither the bourgeoisie nor capitalism could exist if the whole working class became lumpen. Why? Because capital is a parasite, a vampire, that lives and reproduces through the exploitation of its host: the proletariat. The lifeblood of capital is the living labor of the proletariat. Capital appropriates the surplus value extracted from the proletariat and uses this surplus value not only to enrich itself, but also to invest the capital back in the production process and to maintain the life cycle of capital. This functioning of capital is essential and it does not matter whether lumpenization exists or is increasing. Capital can never live without the working class, and that is precisely where the power of the working class lies.
Lumpenization is a social process inherent to capitalism. It does not come from the outside, in the form of an immigrant or a person of color. Rather, it is an ever-present threat to the working class, distinct from precarity. Leftists praise the lumpenproletariat because they themselves have undermined the capacity of the proletariat and denied its historical role. Exaltation of the lumpenproletariat, if it were to occur in the class party, would reveal a lack of connection between the party, composed of militants who are part of the class, and the rest of the working class. In the end, this glorification could only be the result of the abandonment and betrayal of the revolutionary class. It is not surprising therefore that the glorification of the lumpen is often accompanied by nationalism.
One of the major contentions between Marx and Bakunin dealt with the role of the lumpenproletariat. It is no wonder that Bakunin, who considered the lumpen to constitute “the flower of the proletariat” because of its supposedly more rebellious nature, also happened to advocate Slavic nationalism. The lumpenproletariat, like nationalism, is an enemy of the working class. The class could not mark out its independence as a class or seize political power if it depended so much on the support of the lumpenproletariat.
Workers’ Offensive, Miami
September 24, 2018 (revised
and updated, October 2018)
1 Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (University of California Press. Los Angeles, CA: 2013). Pgs. 55-58.
2 Ibid, pg. 56.
3 Ibid, pg. 59.
4 “Proletariado, Xenofobia, y Lumpenización.” Nuevo Curso (blog), 15 de agosto, 2018.
5 Brianna Provenzano, “Bloods and Crips Stand Together in Solidarity During Atlanta Black Lives Matter Protests.” Mic Network Inc, July 8, 2016.
6 Gerald Horne, Fire this Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s (University Press of Virginia. Charlottesville, WV: 1995). Pgs. 195-196.
7 “Crisis en Nicaragua.” Nuevo Curso (blog), 19 de julio, 2018.
8 “Saqueos y moral comunista.” Nuevo Curso (blog), 8 de septiembre, 2018.
9 Chris Booker, “Lumpenization: A Critical Error of the Black Panther Party.” The Black Panther Party Reconsidered. (Black Classic Press. Baltimore, MD: 1998). Pg. 345.
10 Gordon K. Mantler, Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice 1960-1974. (University of North Carolina Press. Durham, NC: 2013). Pg. 231.
11 Hy Thurman. “Interview on the Young Patriots Organization.”
12 Charles E. Jones and Judson L. Jeffries “Don’t Believe the Hype: Debunking the Panther Mythology.” The Black Panther Party Reconsidered. Pg. 39.