‘The “Dangerous Class” and Revolutionary Theory: Thoughts on the Making of the Lumpen/Proletariat’ by J. Sakai reviewed by Joshua Moufawad-Paul

Reviewed by Joshua Moufawad-Paul

About the reviewer

Joshua Moufawad-Paul works as an adjunct professor at York University where he received his PhD…


Sakai has always been provocative. His work, when it is not relegated to obscurity, is treated as either sacrosanct or heretical, and so it is very difficult to review his most recent book without capitulating to this binary. Moreover, his work is a hybrid of the polemical and empirical; he shifts between the registers of movement radical and political theorist. His most infamous book, Settlers, is not only paradigmatic of this hybridity but will always serve as the backdrop for anything he produces. Which is unfortunate because The “Dangerous Class” and Revolutionary Theory, though still defined by this mixture of movement polemic and political analysis, deserves to be appreciated according to its own merits rather than fall under the shadow of his iconic political work.

This shadow, however, is also aesthetic. When Settlers appeared in the 1980s it was printed and bound as a movement mimeograph, with dimensions approximating a graphic novel, filled with pictures and creative text layout. Although the recent second edition of Settlers attempted to normalize the book within left discourse by producing it according to recognizable book standards, Sakai proved that he is still an aesthetic provocateur with his most recent book. The “Dangerous Class” and Revolutionary Theory shares itself with another book, Mao Z’s Revolutionary Laboratory & the Lumpen/Proletariat. It is on the whole an odd dimensioned volume that is reversible: turn the former upside down and flip it over and the latter begins.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss Sakai because of the Settlers controversy or the aesthetic presentation of his works, both of which were intentional provocations aimed at various first world left dogmas. For in this book one of the long-standing class category problems of Marxism is investigated: the problem of the lumpen-proletariat which has been under-theorized. Sakai gathers the most significant Marxist definitions of this class category into one place, combining them with his own experience of class composition in the imperialist metropoles. The result is a polyphonic rethinking of the category according to proletarianization, rendered as ‘lumpen/proletariat’: for Sakai the lumpen is connected to the proletariat, sometimes as its opposite and sometimes as an addition because of the ways in which exploitation forces the proletariat into criminal activities that, at the same time, can be mobilized against this proletariat. As Sakai argues, after providing empirical examples of the working class engaging in criminal economies to help ensure its survival: ‘The lowest takers of the working class, the proletariat proper, keep being forced over the line of criminality, and have been since the birth of the Western capitalist order,’ But at the same time he argues that ‘[c]apitalism once caught napping by anti-capitalist revolutionaries had now woken up to the future of recycling lumpen as instruments of mass social repression against their own, and even against their own selves’ (6). On the one hand the proletariat engages in criminality (looting and illegal micro-economies) to sustain its survival; on the other hand the bourgeoisie operationalizes criminality (street gangs, mercenaries, and other parasitical elements) to neutralize proletarian struggle. The lumpen-proletariat is always split and hence the “/”.

The split of the lumpen/proletariat is based on a definition derived from Marx and Engels’ investigation of the concept, the genealogy of which Sakai explores. The lumpen/proletariat,

is identified by its central characteristic: as a “partial class” or “non-class” of peoples who have voluntarily or involuntarily left the “regular” classes of economic production and distribution. Who are “unplugged” if you will from regular class society. Of those declassed fragments or strata fallen out of the class structure, who are then forced to find a living from parasitism or outlaw activities (4).

The essential split of this “partial class” is only accentuated under modern capitalism; it was always part of Marx and Engels’ initial assessment. The problem is that Marx and Engels generally emphasized the counter-revolutionary aspects of this partial class. In diagnosing this problem, Sakai investigates every direct and indirect discussion and reference to the lumpen-proletariat in the work of Marx and Engels, revealing not only the origins of the classical Marxist assessment of the lumpen (a counter-revolutionary grouping of declassed ‘scum’) but troubling the simplistic assumption that Marx and Engels were entirely consistent over time with this assessment. After a close reading of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Sakai concludes that while Marx’s analysis of the lumpen is still generally negative, a more interesting conception was emerging: far from being passive and underestimated in Marx’s earlier work, the lumpen’s role in social change is understood as ‘pivotal’. Marx now ‘saw the lumpen not so much as passive ragged outcasts on the margins of society, but as an infectious class vector capable of taking over the state itself and its mass instruments, such as the military’ (79). While in the case of the historical situation that Marx was investigating this pivotal role provided power to reactionary forces, a certain level of ambiguity regarding the lumpen (some of which had existed in previous writings) was becoming clear.

The shift in this understanding of the lumpen is not only due to Marx’s recognition that the lumpen is significant but that, as a partial class composed of elements sloughed off of other economic positions, it is not simply derived from the residue of the proletariat. While the residue of this economic class is determinant in-itself, since all of the elements torn from the dominant class conflict will sink to the level of the proletariat, it is not determinant for-itself: class consciousness amongst the lumpen/proletariat remains liminal, even for those drawn from the ranks of the proletariat who are offered a better means of existence. Marx thus classified Louis Bonaparte himself and his government as lumpen even if they were drawn from class strata that were not initially proletarian.

Moreover, in Marx’s more mature work indirect references to the lumpen and its relationship to the proletariat would become commonplace. For example, Sakai notes that in Capital passages on the development and composition of the proletariat connect its emergence with criminality, citing passages where Marx ‘wrote of the whole historical sweep in Europe which led to the development of a mass of desperately impoverished urban workers, unmoored within a relentlessly violent social cataclysm’ (22). In these passages Marx describes the early identity of the proletariat as tied to vagabondage and criminality, characteristics that he had also attached to the essential identity of the lumpen-proletariat. Indeed, early bourgeois ideologues conceived of the entire proletariat as essentially criminal. Part of the classical Marxist definition of the proletariat, Sakai argues, is in detaching this criminality from the proletariat so as to construct ‘a modern [industrial] working class’ that is ‘responsible, honest, and forward looking.’ Such a construction is achieved by ‘consigning the violent outlaws, prostitutes, fences, transporters, con-men and other conspirators of the professional criminal trades, all into a different “partial class”’ (25). According to Sakai, however, the criminal aspect of the proletariat’s existence is never completely evacuated amongst the hardest elements of the working class. While it is the case that the more respectable elements of the working class––trade union officialdom for example––might transcend criminality, those with ‘nothing to lose but their chains’ will continue to engage in lumpen activities, even if these activities are tangential to their class identity, and he provides multiple empirical case studies to explain why; hence the split identity of ‘lumpen/proletariat’ because the latter part of this binary is always informed by the former. For Sakai the problem of ‘lumpen/proletariat’ is about what part of the binary is the focus: lumpen or proletariat, and if it is the former (i.e. if one’s existence is drawn primarily through criminal activities), it is probably counter-revolutionary.

Of course, being an author who does not write according to the rules of academic structure and authority, Sakai’s analysis is recursive and immediately complicated. The vectors of race, gender and colonialism are thrown into the mix even before he provides the genealogy of Marx and Engels’ understanding of this partial class. Consistent with the claim that the lumpen/proletariat can be either reactionary or progressive, he claims that this split is often quite clear in white supremacist social formations where the white lumpen often line up as defenders of capitalism and imperialism (fascist gangs, soldiers, imperialist mercenaries, etc.), whereas the racialized lumpen possess a progressive potential. Sakai is not alone in this assessment, and he bases it on the claims made by anti-colonial theorists such as Frantz Fanon and the experience of the Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army. Furthermore, Sakai spends a chapter discussing the significance of sex workers and the ways in which the traditional literature on the lumpen-proletariat, particularly the work of Marx and Engels, downplayed the proletarian aspect of sex workers, relegating them to the status of declassed lumpen (36-43).

Sakai’s chapter on the role of lumpen forces in the Chinese Revolution, expanded in the book’s reversible side, demonstrates the ways in which the concept has been developed by revolutionaries post-Marx. Although I do not have enough space to focus on that aspect of the book, and though this companion half deserves its own review, it is worth pointing out that the ‘lumpen in China were major wildcards in the mass revolutionary struggle’ (160). Not only were the lumpen/proletariat pivotal in this world historical revolution but, as more and more bandit groups joined the Red Army, their pivotal nature sided with the forces of progression rather than, as Marx supposed, the forces of reaction.

The fact that the lumpen’s liminal class position can be pivotal is essential to Sakai’s analysis. Rather than being extraneous or decisively reactionary, the lumpen/proletariat, in its indeterminate identity, will either support or oppose the forces of revolution in a decisive manner. In the situation of Louis Bonaparte, the lumpen’s intervention was decisive on the side of the forces of reaction, alongside a lumpen dictator. In the situation of the 1990 LA riots, the racialized lumpen sided with the forces of rebellion. ‘The notion of having a revolution or any kind of crisis at the grassroots of society without the lumpen … is almost laughable,’ Sakai writes, ‘[t]ry keeping moths away from lights’ (124).

These lights, however, aren’t yet telling us enough of the lumpen/proletariat in real life, other than what Sakai has mentioned through anecdotal references and daily practice. The book’s strength is in the genealogy and close reading of the concept of lumpen, a term that has been notoriously imprecise, which makes it an important contribution to Marxist theory. But Sakai himself admits that more work needs to be done in theorizing the subject in the contemporary conjuncture. He provides glimpses of this theorization, tantalizing possibilities of thought, but nothing more. Hopefully his contribution can be built upon by theorists and movements trying to make sense of the complexity of class and all Marxist theorists and philosophers should be looking out for these subterranean movement writings that often provide fresh and unencumbered perspectives.

18 June 2018

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