Lumpen is an old Marxist term, that in many ways is somewhat antiquated, because Marx didn’t really understand what he was looking at when he spoke of the Lumpenproletariat. In social democracy, the word for Lumpen is Residuum. In capitalism, the word for Lumpen is the underworld. It comprises criminals, homeless, drug addicts, certain kinds of sex workers, people who have fallen on hard times in general.
Some have jobs, some live on benefits, other do begging and some commit crime. It is to be in a paradoxical state of capitalism, where you are both at the very bedrock of the class hierarchy, and yet completely outside of it.
And it’s because of this paradox, how Karl Marx could look at a homeless crack addict and somehow put him in the same category as Pablo Escobar living in his mansion, that the perspective is so flawed. Because Marx saw this as a singular and coherent faction, much like the proletariat.
His view of the Lumpen came from particularly the Pinkertons and the strikebreakers. How the poor and the unemployed were often pools of recruitment for goon squads and scabs. He only saw the Lumpen when they wandered into the sphere of ordinary labour politics. But he never saw what was going on outside of this sphere and who these people were. He only looked at the tip of the iceberg.
Truth is that writing intelligently about the poor is a deeply challenging task, because there is nothing intelligent about any of it. To throw people into a manmade wasteland, and watch them fight for scraps and always live in ways in which they are deprived of the necessary means to feel things like dignity or belonging is not something that has any coherence or analysis to it, in the same way as one may look upon a trauma wing at a hospital and try to find meaning in the injured and the suffering.
Pain, especially pain that is inflicted so gratuitously and meaninglessly upon what is often the boldest segments of humanity, is not a thing that may be looked upon intelligently. It is not something that has a narrative or an analysis or a pattern beyond the obvious and brutal truth of suffering in and of itself. The only thing which makes the Lumpen a consistent segment of society, wherein we see some kind of shared characteristic, is this suffering.
And what precisely do people do when they suffer? It’s very simple, they do anything. They do ANYTHING to get out of it. So what Marx had so cleverly deduced was how there was a part of society who were doing anything. It’s meaningless on the face of it. The only way you can define the lumpenproletariat as some kind of coherent faction is to selectively examine what parts of anything that suits your bias.
And this idea that the ordinary working classes, with their warm homes and their regular meals, are somehow victimised by the homeless people they step over each day on their way to work, is frankly a little bit callous. So what if the occasional thug will fight on the other side of the picket lines? Have some perspective. This idea that the working and the unemployed, or that workers and refugees or workers and immigrants or even workers and freedmen once upon a time, are supposedly enemies, is just nonsense.
And I think that is what is so humanising about Marx’s analysis of the Lumpen, because it is a humanising analysis. It shows that even Marx was human, that even he could be shortsighted. What Marx says about the things he understands, about capitalism, about the rich, about markets and employment and waged labour and surplus value and history and material dialectics is infinitely valuable to anyone who strives for popular democracy, but this time he didn’t make the same effort. He examined the Lumpen in a peripheral fashion, he didn’t give them the same attention.
Marx was a genius, and spoke with utmost poignancy, and his role in creating worker’s republics throughout the world is something to be greatly admired. From Vladimir Lenin to Xi Jingping, his legacy is probably the greatest intellectual legacy since the twelve disciples. I would not deny this, but even legends should not be above criticism.
Marx’s exploration of the laws of the market is as earth shattering and as controversial to power as Galileo’s exploration of the laws of the planets. And both of them suffered similar fates at the hands of the trained dogs of dogma and backwardness who slink their way into the world’s universities.
And it is precisely because of these dogs that I need to include a few paragraphs where I make my position on Marx perfectly clear, because they love to fish for quotes and twist the meaning of things. But not today.
The real character of the Lumpen is easier to find in the New Testament than it is to be found in Das Kapital. Because it was precisely the Lumpen who conquered Rome from within. Christianity was possibly the first philosophy in history which had ideological content that, in a very clear and precise way, outlined the politics of the poor. That understood how people who are suffering will do anything, so all you need to do is to use this momentum to create a powerful and radical thing within such a status quo.
The most radical thing you can do in a place of suffering is to be compassionate. The most radical thing you can do in a place of hunger is to feed the hungry. The most radical thing you can do among thieves and beggars is to give instead of take.
It is absolutely childish on the face of it, but it is an extremely powerful thing. But this is not some hippie nonsense. This is not John Lennon in front of his little press lackeys. This is real life. And in real life, Christ got brutally killed for his radicalism. In real life, Oscar Romero was shot in his own parish for the same radicalism.
In real life, Dr. King was shot in broad daylight for the same radicalism. In real life, Malcolm X was brutally gunned down for the same radicalism. In real life, Fred Hampton faced a volley of over a hundred bullets before he could step out of bed for the same radicalism. In real life, Josef Stalin was slandered, maligned and ridiculed for the same radicalism.
Because since they could not kill his body, they tried to kill his spirit. And yet every 9th of May, millions of people march on the streets to show the failures of doing so. How his spirit lives on. How the truth is still out there. How, in spite of every effort of propaganda from the rich with their political nihilism, people still remember how good may conquer evil.
From Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the west, to Joseph Stalin in the east, there is a great spiritual awakening in all who are conscionable, from very different cultures, with very different understandings of life, who are still united by the call to take up the cause of the widow and the fatherless. To take up the cause of the poor.
To bring the law of the Jubilee, which states that every person has a right to a home, to food, to safety, to life and to freedom. Who deny the right for the cruel and the greedy to fatten themselves as landlords and usurers.
Liberal intellectuals say that the workers of the east and workers of the west should be enemies. That I, as a Eurasian, should hold some kind of contempt or distrust for men like Dr. King. That because he is different from me in some of his thoughts and customs, I should dislike him, that he is an enemy. And likewise they tell people in the west similar things. But this is the oldest of lies. A lie as old as the Roman empire.
The first land of the beast. The first land which fed upon others and spat out their bones with war and slavery. The first land to be condemned by the book of revelations. The first land to be compared to Babylon, that place of war and slavery which held the Jews in shackles.
The fall of the Romans, the fall of Babylon, the fall of Tsarist Russia and yes, the fall of the United States are all inevitable, because it takes 20 years to raise a soldier, and yet 20 seconds to kill one. No land which is built on war can ever sustain itself. They will all fall. Marx saw this in his analysis of history, likewise so did Christ. It is a thing which is evident to all scholars who are willing to see the truth even if it stings a little.
And in order to understand the true role of the Lumpen then we must understand this immutable law, this law of empires. This law of suffering. How it is the people who will do anything to ease their suffering that is often so compelled to do anything to ease the suffering of others. If you ever want to see real charity. Actual charity. The kind of giving that hurts. Then spend some time with your city’s homeless.
Look at the willingness, the devotion they have to decency, people who will give up their last penny to see someone else feel better. People who never forget the kindness done to them, and who are happy to pay it back tenfold. If you want to see real altruism, then forget about the egoistical charades of tax shelters and rich philanthropists, look at how the poor care for one another. They do things that seem profound to most people who are part of polite society, they give up everything for a stranger in need.
That is precisely why they are poor. Because they just can’t turn away. They just can’t hold on to what little surplus they have when they see others who are suffering, who have hunger gnawing at them. Who experience the same cold, the same hunger, the same brutality and who have done absolutely nothing wrong. Innocent people who feel these things.
And it makes them bleed. So they help out. I’ve seen it so many times I’ve forgotten how many. And the phrase that the rich have for this is “Weakness” and “Stupid generosity” and “financial irresponsibility.” If you’re homeless, and you see some 14 year old huffing glue to numb their hunger pains, and you give them whatever you got in their pockets to get some real food, and maybe quit damaging their brains just to avoid hurting so badly, then you’re financially irresponsible according to the punditry of the rich, people like the editors of The Economist and The Guardian.
Because that radical content, that thousands year old tradition which can be traced back as far as the tribes of Zion, that can be traced back as far as the Jewish underclass of Egypt, that radical tradition is a dangerous thing to the rich. That impulse to give until it hurts, to sacrifice everything for someone else because you just can’t stop feeling their pain as if it were you own, that to me would be the real and authentic characteristic that is truly profound and unique to the Lumpen.
And what they need is not someone who tells them what to do, or how to think, all they need is someone who can get them organised, who can give them resources, and who can point them in the right direction so that they can do what they’ve always done and bring an end to the empire. So that democracy, freedom and the Jubilee may thrive once more.