The Lumpenproletariat reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Apr-2004
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Lumpenproletariat

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The Lumpenproletariat (German, literally translated: rag-proletariat) is a term used by Marxists to describe the section of the proletariat that can't find legal work on a regular basis. These may be prostitutes, beggars, or homeless people.

Table of contents
1 History of the Term
2 Backgrounder Discussion of the Term
3 Related topics

History of the Term

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels jointly invented the term in 1845-1846 as they wrote up their famous second joint work entitled The German Ideology.

There are presently two main history based branches of how to define the concept of the lumpenproletariat:

  1. there is the modern day usage, one form of which is generally as given above, and
  2. there is the creators' 1845-1846 usage, which reflects how Marx and Engels created the concept.

Reduced to its most basic components, the creators' 1845-1846 usage was such that Marx and Engels defined the lumpenproletariat as being those people within the historical working class who were not proletariat. Thus the creators' term referred to a fairly large proportion of the historical working class and the entire population.

The more modern usage, as noted above, has evolved on a tangent from the creators' usage due largely to a lack of modern access to the complete works of Marx and Engels or, put a bit more crassly, simply because modern users of the term have not read and fully comprehended all 70 uses of the term lumpenproletariat as outlined by Marx and Engels in over 40 documents. Modern users of the term lumpenproletariat prefer instead to rely on only a select few uses of the term within a select few documents which are - often quite accidentally - the most extremely used in their context by the term's inventors. As a result, the modern usage of the term tends to refer to a fairly small proportion of the entire population.

Backgrounder Discussion of the Term

As Marx and Engels would have it, the concept lumpenproletariat was their creation in response to a theoretical and practical problem that they had in developing their own unique model of class analysis. Their joint problem could be summed up as having to correctly answer this simple theoretical and practical question: 'Why does a section of the historical working class not behave or interact as any good proletariat should interact? Or how do you account for those in the historical working class who do not interact as good proletariat should interact, say, for example, how do you explain those in the working class who simply consume far too much alcohol to be useful or are just too ambitious to be useful as good proletariat?'. Their joint theoretical and practical answer to these problems were quite simple: 'A certain section of the historical working class are just not historical proletariat but are, rather, historical lumpenproletariat'.

To Marx and Engels, the term proletariat is not equal in meaning to the term working class. To them, the term proletariat is a historical or diachronic concept while the term working class is an ahistorical or synchronic concept. Like the historical concept proletariat, the concept lumpenproletariat is also a historical concept.

Marx and Engels liked the proletariat because they had a good sense of class consciousness, while the lumpenproletariat lacked a sense of class consciousness and thus were not much liked by the duo. The lumpenproletariat were essentially obedient to the wishes of the historical bourgeoisie (ahistorical middle class) and the aristocracy.

Meanwhile, modern users of the term tended to see the lumpenproletariat as a constant threat to the safety of the middle-class individuals. To modern users, the lumpenproletariat existed outside the wage-labor system, and individuals of the lumpenproletariat often depended on the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy for their day-to-day existence. Hence, modern users contend, the lumpenproletariat had no real motive for participating in revolution, and an interest in preserving the current class structure. In that sense, Marx and Engels saw the lumpenproletariat as a counter-revolutionary force; on this last point, modern users are in agreement with Marx and Engels.

In their post-1845-1846 economic writings, Marx and Engels began to think of the proletariat as mostly originating from the doing of productive labour while the lumpenproletariat tended to mostly originate from the doing ofunproductive labour. (See Adam Smith's 1776 publication The Wealth of Nations for the major work on defining productive labour and unproductive labour on which Marx and Engels do indeed rely.)

For modernist users of the term lumpenproletariat, the more colloquial use of the term to mean the chronically unemployed "dangerous class" whose members refuse to participate in the economic system, go to the polls to vote for handouts, and generally will not help themselves through legitimate means even when offered assistance has some overlap with Marx's and Engels' usage, but lacks the specific meaning that Marx's usage had in the context of his theory of class-consciousness and materialist theory of history.

On a last point, modernist users of the term lumpenproletariat tend to think that the term has a modern German language origin. But because Marx and Engels were both multilingual, this belief should be called into question since there are a number of Germanic based languages - English, Dutch, etc - which embrace the prefix 'lumpen'. In addition, in the modern German language, there exist numerous alternate prefixes which mean essentially the same thing as does the prefix 'lumpen' and it must therefore be asked why Marx and Engels did not select one of these alternate prefixes.

Related topics