Marx’s “Dangerous Classes”

Andy Merrifield’s rich, meandering reflections on Marx’s ‘dangerous classes’ and ‘shadow citizens.’

andy merrifield

Most Marxists know that Marx infamously dismisses the lumpenproletariat — those band of “vagabonds, criminals, prostitutes,” “the demoralised, the ragged,” swindlers and tricksters, ragpickers and pickpockets, tinkers and beggars (all Marx’s words). These ruffians, he says, “dwelling in the sphere of pauperism,” are nothing but “the deadweight of the industrial reserve army,” trapped in the Lazarus layers of society and generally not, nor ever likely to be, a progressive political force.

In Capital, Marx’s bad faith in the lumpenproletariat only redoubles what he’d said some fifteen years earlier. In Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850, he’d written about the rise of Louis Bonaparte’s Second Empire, and how a lumpenproletariat had helped crush the June 1848 workers’ insurrection in Paris. Without this lumpenproletariat, Marx insists, there wouldn’t have been any coup d’état, nor any Louis Bonaparte. The latter’s banditry were recruited from the most desperate lumpen elements, bought off (for…

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