The lumpenproletariat (German Lumpenproletariat, "rabble-proletariat") is a term used by Marxists to describe the section of the proletariat that cannot find legal work on a regular basis. These may be prostitutes, beggars, or homeless people.

History of the term

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels jointly invented the term in 184546 as they wrote up their famous second joint work entitled The German Ideology.

There are presently two main views 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' 1845–46 usage, which reflects how Marx and Engels created the concept.

Reduced to its most basic components, the creators' 1845–46 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.

Background discussion of the term

As Marx and Engels would have it, the concept of 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 normal proletariat should interact? Or how do you account for those in the historical working class who do not interact as normal proletariat should interact, say, for example, how do you explain those in the working class who simply consume far too much alcohol or are just too ambitious to fit the role of normal proletariat?". Their joint theoretical and practical answer to these problems was quite simple: "A certain section of the historical working class are not historical proletariat but are, rather, historical lumpenproletariat."

According to Bernstein, the existence of the lumpenproletariat made the proletariat itself much less homogenized.

To Marx and Engels, the term proletariat is not equivalent 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. The lumpenproletariat is a historical concept, like the proletariat.

Marx and Engels argued that the proletariat had a good sense of class consciousness, while the lumpenproletariat did not. The lumpenproletariat were essentially obedient to the wishes of the historical bourgeoisie (ahistorical middle class) and the aristocracy.

According 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 may have in fact 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 them.

In their post-1845–46 economic writings, Marx and Engels began to think of the proletariat as being composed of those workers doing productive labour, while the lumpenproletariat was composed of workers doing unproductive 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 rely.)

The more colloquial modern use of the term "lumpenproletariat" to mean the chronically unemployed 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 historical materialism.

As a last point, modern users of the term "lumpenproletariat" tend to think that it has a German language origin. However, because Marx and Engels were both multilingual, this belief should be called into question. There are a number of Germanic languagesEnglish, Dutch, etc. – which use 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.

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