The word lumpenproletariat means literally “ragged proletariat.” In the view of Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), the lumpenproletariat consists of people who subsist on the margins of society and scavenge a living from illegal or semi-legal activities, such as prostitution and petty thieving, and the underworld involved therein. The attitude of Marx and Engels to this group is extremely negative. In the locus classicus of the Communist Manifesto (1848), they are described as “the dangerous class, the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society” (McLellan 1977, p. 229). While such a group might be swept into joining the proletarian cause in a revolution, “its conditions of life,” continued Marx and Engels, “prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.” And this description found empirical confirmation in the role that Marx conceived the lumpenproletariat to have played in the 1851 coup d’état of Louis Bonaparte (1808–1873) in France.
The reason for this negative assessment of the lumpenproletariat by Marx and Engels can be found in their conception of the role of classes in historical development. A class was defined by its relationship to, and potential control of, the means of production. In ancient society, the ruling class owned the slaves; in feudal society, the king and the barons owned the land; in contemporary society, the capitalists owned the factories and the proletariat owned (and was compelled to sell) its labor. According to Marx and Engels, as history unfolded, each new class was swept to power by its ability to gain control over the ever-changing forces of production. In their own society, they foresaw the decline of the bourgeoisie due to inherent crises in capitalism and the coming to power of the increasingly class-conscious proletariat who, as the majority of society, would be able to organize the productive forces with which they worked for the benefit of all rather than the few.
In this optimistic scenario, the lumpenproletariat had no positive role to play. This was because they had only a negative role vis-à-vis the forces of production. Whereas the proletariat was intimately involved in the forces of production in that industrialization made them more numerous, more cohesive, and more antipathetic to their exploitation therein, the lumpenproletariat, being essentially rootless and venal, could have no clear historical destiny.
This view found some confirmation in the 1851 coup d’état of Louis Bonaparte. It is in his analysis of the class context of this coup, titled the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), that Marx most fully described his view of the lumpenproletariat. In a period of French history where neither the rising proletariat nor the declining bourgeoisie could attain political power, the lumpenproletariat could come to dominate by selling itself to Louis Bonaparte, who was “an adventurer blown in from abroad, raised on the shield by a drunken soldiery, which he has bought with liquor and sausages and which he must continually ply with sausage anew” (McLellan 1977, p. 317). Louis Bonaparte could achieve this by relying on the army, which was itself “the swamp-flower” of the peasant lumpenproletariat.
Thus Marx’s view of the “ragged” section of the proletariat is very different from The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914) of Robert Tressell’s (1870–1911) famous social realist novel. Being outside the process of production, the lumpenproletariat were not a class in the sense in which Marx and Engels usually used the term. Unlike the proletariat itself, the evolving industrial process subjected them to no revolutionary imperatives. They were either outside the process altogether or effectively counterrevolutionary in that they depended on the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie for their day-to-day existence.
The views of Marx and Engels are in sharp contrast with the anarchist tradition exemplified by, for example, their rival Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876). For him, destruction was a precondition for building a new society and it was only those outside normal society who could be expected to have the necessary destructive urge that could go as far as terrorism and assassination. A more modern version of the view that salvation can only be found in the excluded was explored in the work of Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), for whom the all-pervasive conformity of present society could only be disrupted by “the substratum of outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colours, the unemployed and the unemployable” (Marcuse 1968, p. 201). An advocacy of the revolutionary potential of the lumpenproletariat in the developing world can be found in Franz Fahon’s Wretched of the Earth. From a more negative point of view there are obviously echoes of the views of Marx and Engels in contemporary discussions of the emergence of an “underclass.”
SEE ALSO Anarchism; Class; Class Consciousness; Communism; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Napoléon Bonaparte; Poverty; Proletariat; Working Class
Draper, Hal. 1972. The Concept of the “Lumpenproletariat” in Marx and Engels. Economies et Sociétés 6 (12): 2285–2312.
Fanon, Frantz.  1965. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove.
Marcuse, Herbert. 1968. One Dimensional Man. London: Penguin.
). They were a ‘class fraction’ in that they constituted the political power-base for Louis Bonaparte in 1848. Here, the financial aristocracy of Louis-Philippe displayed an enormous appetite for wealth created through financial gambles, where both the manner of acquiring that wealth and the enjoying of it went against ‘bourgeois law’. In this sense, both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie were progressive, advancing the historical process by developing the labour-power of human species-being and their all round capacities, whereas the lumpenproletariat was marginal, unproductive, and also regressive.
Paradoxically, contemporary sociologists are as much concerned with many of the supposedly marginal social categories which Marx dismissed under this label (who are now seen as the victims of modern society), as they are with the major class protagonists which he situated at the heart of the historical process.