This recent work by Sakai is packaged as a “double feature” - book one, referred to in the title here, deals with Sakai’s general analysis of the “lumpen/proletariat”, while book two, “Mao Z’s Revolutionary Laboratory and the Lumpen/Proletariat” focuses more specifically on the role of lumpen elements in the Chinese Revolution. At the end of the book, an old essay about the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago gang active in the 60s and 70s, and their use in urban counter-insurgency, is re-printed, as it adds a briefer but more close-to-home analysis of lumpen organization.
The book retains the informal style and anarchist-leaning feel of Sakai’s writing and perspective, which can be more entertaining than standard left-theory-speak but, at times, annoying and non-sensical (like his off-handed description of present day Russia as the “Great Russian stalinate”, a phrase you could just as easily come across in a Washington Post editorial). But Sakai’s characteristic bluntness helps get across some crucial points about how the lumpen are misconstrued in the standard Marxist view.
What is Sakai’s definition of the lumpen here? One the one hand, he repeatedly asserts that the lumpen is actually a “non-class”, or a bundle of disparate class fragments. But they are share the reality of being “unplugged from regular class society”. Beyond this, Sakai takes an expansive view of the category: at varying points, he discusses people from opera singers to sex workers to soldiers, to puppet-state kleptocrats (think the U.S.-installed Afghan government) who could all be seen as lumpen. At times this expansiveness in the category is confusing: he classifies soldiers and police officers as lumpen, but it is hard to see them as “unplugged” from class society. Part of his point here is to “de-stigmatize” the idea of a lumpen identity and not see it as a moralistic label. “Lumpen” is also not a stand-in for “criminal”, but Sakai does focus much of the book, particularly in discussing the Chinese Revolution, on criminal groups. Everywhere, he underscores the political indeterminacy of the lumpen - from Chinese secret societies (elaborate bandit gangs, essentially) fighting on both sides of the Chinese Civil War, to U.S. gangs becoming alternately radical street organizations (his example of “Young General” early in the book) or tools of counterinsurgency (the Blackstone Rangers essay).
One of his crucial points is that a baseline-negative view of the lumpen prevents revolutionaries from seeing the range of political possibilities present among lumpen class fractions. The probabilities for what side people end up on, of course, vary greatly across historical circumstances - as he points out, the way lumpen “broke” in Weimar Germany was much different to the way they broke in revolutionary China. Here, he cites “oppressor and oppressed nation theory” as useful for answering why that is, but you could probably safely replace that term with one referencing the Global North / Global South divide and see what he’s getting at.
More generally, the point he makes about Marxist orthodoxy often blinding revolutionaries to political possibilities is applicable not just to the lumpen, but to class analysis more generally. As he discusses, the Communist Party of China, in the early years, not only had a negative view of the lumpen, but also of the peasantry - in their view, no class except the industrial proletariat was good enough to build the party around. It was only bare necessity (the brutal Nationalist repression in the cities) and deep social investigation that allowed them to eventually re-orient around a rural strategy, one that first relied heavily on collaboration and recruitment among the lumpen for survival, and then grew strong with the involvement of masses of peasants. Moving beyond the superficial view of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as the only politically important classes was crucial to the Communists’ later success. Of course, this was combined with a simultaneous focus on overcoming the class limitations present in each particular new recruit - whether you were from a petty-bourgeois, lumpen, or peasant background when you joined the Party, the aim was to become “proletarianized”, at least in your political consciousness.
What are the practical lessons? Primarily, that we should proceed on the basis of real class analysis, instead of imagining an idealized class structure and projecting it onto our society. And we should avoid singling out the lumpen as uniquely deficient: as Sakai points out, “all classes and peoples growing up within capitalism have flaws and bring their characteristic problems in a revolutionary context. Yes, even intellectuals, workers and peasants.” No class breaks 100% for the revolution, and understanding this helps us see that capturing even small, breakaway parts of each class can be valuable.
But what determines the politics of specific lumpen fragments? Is it based on whoever “gets to them first”? Does it come down to individual psychology or are there deeper patterns? How can revolutionaries consciously influence this process of sides-taking? For example, how do we explain the contrasting examples of “Young General” with his radical street organization, and the Blackstone Ranger’s collaborationist and exploitative politics? Here, Sakai offers less. He is concerned mostly with opening up the field for questions, for further investigation on the basis of the overall indeterminacy of the lumpen. To determine further why particular lumpen people or groups evolve in radically different political directions, and how we can intervene politically in that process, is left to us. As Sakai puts it, “there’s a lot more physics involved”.
Prologue: “Science” and “theory”
Sakai opens with his conception of a new and better science and theory, along with what he sees as the dusty theory we often kick around. This is expanded upon in the next chapter. There are also some notes here on the limitations and problems of bourgeois science but they are not as relevant to the main focus of the book.
The crisis of revolutionary theory right now is that it's plain too old and obsolete. Meaning that in practice it's largely unusable. This is understood as a practical reality, and we usually leave revolutionary theory behind us in the attic when people go out to play. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the lumpen/proletariat, that most dramatic, most elusive of maybe-or-maybe-not “classes.” This matters because the revolutionary movement and the lumpen have a much longer and more involved relationship than we’ve fully owned up to. Whether revolutionaries think it’s good or not, the lumpen are going to play a big part in everyone’s future. No better place, then, to start remaking the tool of theory.
Chapter 1: Re-starting at the margins
“This is the book that i always looked for when i first came into the movement, but never found”, Sakai opens this chapter with. One of his main purposes in this work, expressed over and over, is the hammering on the complexity of class in the real world. The common reduction of class society to simply working class / not working class (or its inverse, the Occupy Wall Street frame of bourgeoisie / everyone else) is easier than conducting a real analysis of class. Seeing beyond this binary leads us to some strange observations, of course in the context of this book, the huge importance of lumpen in political developments around the world and throughout history:
Revolutionaries have always pointed to the industrial working class as our main instrument of change, but in this life time it has just as often been the lumpen/proletariat that has surprised us, has been the force of disruption. Even in the raising of unexpected new social orders. Whether that’s good or ill, whether anyone likes it or not. Whether it’s the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in the 1960s, explicitly proclaiming the lumpen/proletarian leadership over the entire Black community—or the many thousands of death commandos from all over the world, drawn to the lumpen warlord banner of the Islamic Caliphate’s shifting state of fugitives. If NATO, the White House, the Great Russian stalinate, and most of the Arab capitalist regimes of the Middle East, all have to declare war on you, you gotta be repping something XL.
Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t just about some latest big thing, and workers are definitely at the heart of the liberation we need ... It’s just that there are several ideas we were critically mistaught. One of which was to settle for the old, oversimplified, stick-figure picture of class structure that anti-capitalist pioneers such as Marx and Bakunin and Engels had hurriedly drawn in the sand, so that nobody would admit that in real life, “class” is much more complex and has a specific gravity to it.
As he will do repeatedly throughout this book, Sakai dispels some common stereotypes of this “partial class” - and defines the lumpen-proletariat for what it is not:
The lumpen/proletariat cannot be defined as simply the poorest of the poor, or the ever-unemployed. Nor can it be pictured simply as career criminals and beggars, as many believe. Although these categories often find themselves within the lumpen. It 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.
Here he introduces a story told in full at the end of the book, but also a recurring theme - lumpen playing on both sides of class war.
In the late 1960s, the u.s. government experimented with hiring the Blackstone Rangers and Disciples street organizations in Chicago as mercenaries. Paid with “poverty grants” to violently repress “riots” and all other Black community anti capitalist activity. They even put a stop— at gunpoint—to spontaneous looting and burning after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It worked very effectively for euro-capitalism, abruptly ending all protests in the designated test area. But also got in the way of the much greater machinery of straight-up police repression, and so had to be discontinued.
Taking what they had learned, the police and government made a more sophisticated and “deniable” counter insurgency program. Remaking massively unemployed street youth into loose mafias under tacit police supervision, to de-politicize oppressed communities and set things in motion for the even bigger wave of mass incarcerations. Capitalism 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. We could say that all sides are playing with rigged decks now.
“Why is an understanding of the lumpen so important now?” He answers with a reference to “mass parasitism”, a defining feature of imperialism today, and defining framework for understanding core class society:
The “right” or privilege of patriotic parasitism becomes a program for industrial workers and youth just as with capitalists, whether it’s the white settler nationalist Trump campaign or the nominally left Occupy Wall Street. As parasitism itself continuously increases within rotting capitalism. The defined parasitism of the armed robber seems confusing compared to the parasitism of the suburban white high school students. Who is the parasite—the unionized crane operator putting up the condo highrise downtown or the young sex worker a block away from where I’m writing this tonight? If we really have it, you know, our class analysis is a weapon.
From this passage it’s not actually clear what connection he makes between this category of “parasite” and that of “lumpen” - even if the crane operator is “parasitic” in the sense Sakai means, they are certainly not “unplugged” from regular class society.
Chapter 2: Lumpen - German: shred, damaged, miscreant, as in broken-proletariat or feral-proletariat
Re-introducing the definition of lumpen as a fragmented, non-unitary, bundle of broken off class-fragments:
This is not one “class" but a “partial class" in Engels’ words, or a “non-class” as some label them now. It’s important to keep in mind that parasitism alone can not define them, since capitalist society itself is by its nature supremely parasitic.
Chapter 3: Uncertain cast of characters
Who were the lumpen Marx decried in some of his early writings? Listing and discussing some of the class fractions who made up Bonapartist support.
Chapter 4: Theoretical split: who is on the edge of rebellion or betrayal?
Bakunin vs. Marx on the lumpen and their potential.
Chapter 5: Forensic analysis of suspect: k. marx
More on Marx, why he came to a certain view of lumpen, and how that view evolved:
But Marx and Engels didn’t see how we always need some outliers to creatively cross lines and go against laws and customs. To be rule-breakers. Finding new shortcuts and paths for the most oppressed and those without hope. That liberation needs Huey Newtons as well as Fannie Lou Hamers. Needed Malcolm X and Eazy-E as well as Jesse Jackson (oh, wait, nobody ever needed Jesse). That the surprise outlaw creativity of the lumpen might be a necessary ingredient, too, to make the mix.
Stepping aside here, just a moment, we gotta say something: For some reason, radicals are often encouraged to think that Marx and others of his times were writing ... just to you and me, and speaking about an eternal “now.” No, Marx absolutely wasn’t writing to you or me. He wasn’t writing to any people of color, or anyone who used the internet. Not to women, either, whom he scarcely mentions. And he sure wasn’t analyzing today’s mutant world which he didn’t come close to seeing. Not his fault, that. He was speaking to his own people, men who were politically active in the culture of the mid-1800s European civilization, and he was first crudely trying out various ideas to capture the essence of what was a new reality for him. But it shouldn’t be “new” or “unknown” to us.
Marx begins to realize the lumpen as active political participants, and some even as revolutionaries, but still with major political faults:
Speaking particularly about former workers or other insurrectionary veterans, who had enjoyed the exciting movement life so much that they had lost all interest in going back to working-class jobs or civilian life in general. Instead, they now spent their days hanging out in the cafes and bars, hustling the rent money, gossiping and talking up the latest conspiracies: "It is they who throw up and command the barricades, organize the resistance, plunder the arsenals, lead in the seizure of arms and munitions in homes, and in the midst of the insurrection carry out those daring coups which so often cause disarray in the government ranks. In a word, they are officers of the insurrection.”
Marx spoke quite frankly. He then went on to severely criticize that mixed scene of what had become professional conspirators, of lumpen militants and what he felt were dissolute workers, for their bad politics. Which, he pointed out, lead them to be so eager for action that they prematurely start fighting at the first hint of unrest, misjudge political situations, and overestimate the role of technical military factors as against the whole of the workers’ movement. At a guess, Marx could well have been right, since these are common errors in revolutionary struggle right now as well as then.
In a sidebar page, Sakai introduces a view that comes back around later, an expansive view of the lumpen. But is this in conflict with earlier definition of lumpen as those who have “fallen out” of class society? Here Sakai seems to be doing exactly what he criticizes elsewhere - using lumpen as a moral label instead of a positional, class label.
We mostly only see the clowns and losers, you know, when it comes to euro-settler lumpen. Most white lumpen are “invisible” because they aren’t in conspicuous revolt against bourgeois society, no matter how much they privately despise it. To see just one part of these strata: They can get lots of weapons and legal permission to invade and occupy and beat and kill colonized peoples, while wearing tough uniforms and getting a nice salary, too. Why look like a weirdo parading around in a Nazi costume, when you can be a police officer or a guard or a career military professional and do blood sport for real? And their class population spreads far wider than that in this parasitic oppressor society, too.
Sakai gives an example of what he sees as politically positive lumpen street organization, relating the story of a teenager he calls “Young General”, who worked to protect his neighborhood from KKK terror while burglarizing white-owned businesses with the rest of his gang:
He wasn’t giving speeches about it, that’s certain. However, when i looked at what he was doing, what the practice actually was, there was a pattern so sharply cut you could pick it up and put it in your jacket pocket: he was organizing his street organization brethren to go to the front lines, and do their soldiering defending their People, not throw down killing others just like themselves. And he recruited his nighttime crew on the same principle. Rather than sell poison to your own People, you can forcefully take your survival from the white oppressors themselves, ripping it right out of their wallets. Survival itself can chew so fine. You can see why i called him “Young General,” in serious respect.
He was living and working and developing his politics violating the law every step, doing crime and dangerous crime at that, just about as regularly as some of us would punch in at the factory. Wasn’t his a real working-class politics, though? It's telling that his crimes and his group’s use of violence were so very different in essence from the crime and group violence that so many lumpen street leaderships were ordering up in their auto-homicidal civil wars over territory and dope. In both cases, poor New Afrikan young males using guns and doing crimes—but in handling the texture of the class politics, your hand knew the real difference. One was pulling people up, the other was pushing them down.
Chapter 6: Evolution of left views on lumpen
Barely a chapter, but talks about introduction of sex workers into the category of lumpen.
Chapter 7: Women interpenetrate lumpen/proletariat
Largely focused on sex workers, their political indeterminacy, and the fact that (like other lumpen class fragments) they are less numerically “marginal” than you would assume. One data point he mentions there is a recent estimate (from the Illinois State Attorney-General, so maybe with a grain of salt) of 16,000 sex workers in Chicago alone, compared to less than 10,000 workers employed in Chicago-area automotive plants!
Chapter 8: Theory Mao tossed to us
Starting to introduce Mao’s views on lumpen, which is tackled in much more depth in the second book here.
At one point, a majority of soldiers were “lumpen”:
At the party’s 1929 Gutian conference, two years after the Red Army’s founding, Mao Z’s report on their political-military situation bluntly said that their military’s “roving banditism and other such political problems had their root in the reality that "the lumpen-proletariat constitute the majority in the Red Army" (while in those years of rebuilding right after the Autumn Harvest uprising, Mao also had reported that "the soldiers of peasant or working class origin in the Fourth Army in the Border Region constitute an extreme minority.”). Lumpen/proletarian soldiers were the definite majority of the many thousands of revolutionary fighters under his leadership. Although neither Mao Z nor the rest of the party leadership were eager to broadcast this heretical and scandalous situation.
Sakai returns to 1800s France, and a reactionary lumpen militia, the Garde Mobile:
Even still, the lower class origins of its new militia of desperation, teenagers often literally in rags, made the wealthier classes fearful that they were only arming unreliable street proletarians. When these Garde Mobile turned out to be the vanguard fighters in defense of the establishment—actually leading the more uncertain regular army troops and those fearful bourgeois National Guard volunteers—astonishment mixed with political relief in the better neighborhoods. The Garde teens’ enthusiastic savaging of workers with their sharp bayonets and rifle butts was applauded, as were the mass killings of surrendered workers.
The lumpen again not as marginal as assumed, and more intertwined with the “traditional” working class:
Recognizing the destitute, paupers, at the edges of society, Marx was including a category which comprised both the lumpen and lowest working class mixed together. Orphans and some other destitute children, disabled former workers, the surviving aged, and so on. might have been excluded from the ordinary employed capitalist workforce, but many were still very much part of the working class. Then as now.
But if only half of only that first total of 4 million lumpen plus others on the margins—which included all street criminals, professional gamblers, unemployed mercenaries, counterfeiters, beggars, sex workers and so on—were really lumpen/ proletarians, those outcast class strata would have been within the range of 6% or more of the whole French population then of 35 millions. So that is a fairly large number for people completely outside a society s economic production and distribution. But as we shall see, that was only a start to build on for Marx.
Despite the existence of reactionary lumpen militia, most still chose not to join:
This Garde Mobile militia, so brilliantly conceived of in desperation by capitalist authorities, was far from popular as a class choice even for unemployed and hungry young workers. Marx tells us that the new recruits received “1 franc 50 centimes a day”, but doesn’t explain further, as he assumes that his contemporary readers will know what that meant. The bribe was actually considerable. The Garde Mobiles young recruits in Paris received six times the pay of a regular infantryman in the French army! That amount was a normal working-class wage for that time. In addition, of course, the recruits got free housing in the barracks, free uniforms and boots, and in the early months free food at their own military mess halls. At a time, we must keep in mind, that the Chamber of Commerce estimated 54-4% unemployment and much homelessness in the Parisian working-class districts.
Yet even those inducements weren’t enough to convince most of the young and desperately poor to go to work as enforcers for the state. To be some kind of cops, in other words. Just as in our world the constant propaganda din of “Lethal Weapon” type tv cop dramas, added on top of Hollywood crime movies and politicians’ speeches and minority recruiting drives in the community—still cannot convince more than a handful of New Afrikan and Latino kids in New York City to apply for the police academy, i mean, class enemy is class enemy.
This is an interesting point, on the relation between youth and political indeterminacy (the same observation could be made about youth petty-bourgeois defections to the revolutionary side, something talked more about in left circles):
Stormy Karl M was so bent on labeling the repressive Garde Mobile as an amoral clan of declassed criminals having nothing to do with “his" decent working people— 'sharply differentiated from the industrial proletariat, " as he puts it— that he stumbles past the way in which those emerging class realities worked. Which was not like assembling the rigid wooden blocks that kindergartens use, but was all about the sensuous interplay of currents of young people along partly fluid class borders. Making life choices of who they were, some inconsistently or opportunistically trying different things, trying even to change back and forth. You know what i mean.
The deal is, those youth did really have minds of their own, in a hard and for some even a life-or-death situation. Some made the choice to work for the state, repressing and killing poor working people who were rebelling for just cause. That choice was the moment in which they coalesced in a tangible way, made solid, their partly ambiguous class identity, some becoming lumpen/proletarian. Most chose otherwise, even those committed to a lumpen life, from what we know (if estimates of roughly 100,000 declassed outcasts in Paris even much earlier were true, it’s obvious that most had little to do with helping that weak regime in 1848). So some youths may well have been lumpen street people before joining the Garde, but even those who were simply jobless would-be workers became lumpen in choosing the Garde and its class role. Lumpen were not simply gathered by the capitalist state, but more importantly also created.
Marx’s first-in theoretical scouting didn’t at that time answer a basic question: If poor youth were so “malleable,” such apparent clay at the hands of the capitalists, then why did so many of them resist the regime’s bribes and inducements in the first place? Why were many of them being so human and risking death and lifelong imprisonment in revolution? The reality is that those lower-class youth in Paris were making choices, not so much of “employment” but as to who they would be. That’s what youth is, we all know, that period in which you leave childhood by making life choices, experiencing being both the shaper and the shaped. Trying out choices in the only real way you can, on your own life and its risky future.
Sakai extends the lumpen concept to upper classes too (maybe a lumpen/bourgeoisie to go along with the lumpen/proletariat!). This is interesting, especially as he ties it to imperialist “puppet states” at the end of this paragraph, but not explored that much further:
As Marx said specifically of France at that time: “The finance aristocracy, in its mode of acquisition as well as in its pleasures, is nothing but the rebirth of the lumpenproletariat on the heights of bourgeois society." [his emphasis] Because that particular class, at that historical moment, was not centered in business loans or financing construction and other such usual activities, but only lightly veiled criminal activity. Thefts of public funds, using the state for robbery, graft, swindles, and big and small fraudulent ventures. Like in the pro-Western stage prop “government" in Afghanistan at this very moment. Where explicit criminal activity isn’t a byproduct of government, but criminal activity is the government.
Lumpen rule as capable of temporarily overriding old ruling block / capitalist class fractions while still protecting capitalism (similar to analysis of fascism as petty-bourgeois rule that goes against individual capitalist interests while preserving the system / strengthening it long-term?):
What solidified Louis Bonaparte’s regime, was that his rule was widely and correctly recognized as violently hostile to capitalist parties and politicians, but protective of the overall capitalist system and culture itself. Marx quotes London’s The Economist as praising Bonaparte’s leadership in 1851: “The President is the guardian of order, and is now recognized as such by every Stock Exchange of Europe."
Good point here on the frequent disconnect between all the varied political actors capable of taking state power and our conception of the “important” classes in capitalism (capitalists, workers, sometimes peasants):
Just because you are marginal to production and distribution, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are always marginal to state power. If you can be large enough and organizable enough to take over the 19th century French state, no less, and run it for its dysfunctional capitalist owners, then why not entire movements and nations and continental regions in other times and places? (Remember, that was a time when the industrial proletariat itself in European nations was small, like 5% of the population or similar, and yet was shaking the governments in their capitals).
Chapter 10: The class in hiding
Again, lumpen does not equate to criminal for Sakai, the category goes beyond that and is more flexible:
So we find the lumpen/proletariat as street hustlers and civil rights leaders, as imams and politicians, if not as often as being policemen and armed robbers. In nationalistic movements as well as being nation-erasing warlords and terrorists. Just as Louis Napoleon once threw on the jumbled costumes, first of modernizing social reformer, and then of the restorer of faux royal grandeur. Having no regular class ideology, in politics the lumpen find it convenient to use ideologies and causes even as temporary uniforms, sometimes changing them like clothing.
Chapter 11: The iron force-feeding funnel of the cash nexus
Lengthy discussion about early capitalism and its push to end payment-in-kind / workers taking home valuable scraps of production. This becomes criminalized in favor of the cash wage (but Sakai still gives examples of payment-in-kind in the current day), which can come to mark a more clearly defined boundary between workers and lumpen.
Chapter 12: Jane Austen goes to school with the lumpen/proletariat
Early capitalist England and the relationship between enclosure of the commons and the creation of a new criminal class, and the creation of early security systems, surveillance, extension of police into rural zones, execution and other harsh punishment etc. This is the real historical emergence of the lumpen as a normal part of capitalist society:
Fred Engels closes in on a significant understanding, though: that such law breaking and violence against English property and lawmen themselves was “the first stage of resistance to our social order, the direct rebellion of the individual by the perpetuation of crime.
This exact same observation in their own times and places was also scribed by Mao Z back in old China, as well as by the influential anti-colonial revolutionary Frantz Fanon in the 1950s, then by 1960s New Afrikan theorists here (often quoting Fanon) such as George Jackson and the Black Panther Party. And as Atiba Shana reminded us time and again about boys on the street: revolutionaries always have to search in the juvie, in prisons, and in the midst of the lawless for their own, because for colonially oppressed young men, “The first rebellion is always crime.”
Chapter 13: In mid-journey… some notes towards lessons
The first key for us to understand this—and the lumpen in general politically—is that they are not a class. Everyone, that Capital-writing fiend Karl included, kept forgetting this fact in practice. Lumpen aren’t like the working class or the assorted middle classes, they aren’t one class.
The lumpen are a social category of different class strata or fragments or splinters. They aren’t one thing, and certainly not politically. We’ve learned that the hard way, for sure. What distinguishes the Lumpen/proletariat is that they have been cast out of or have left the functioning classes of patriarchal capitalism. Though many of them are among the very poorest, the most desperate, the step that distinguishes them is that they have fallen out of class. They’re “unplugged” socially. That is, the lumpen/proletariat has no regular role as groupings in "legal production and distribution, and to survive must often devise immediate if short-lived ways to get their livelihood from others.
In 1848, Marx could discern that underneath the fancy uniforms—“green epaulets”!—of the Garde Mobile were lumpen street boys torn from their culture and context. But since the other lumpen weren’t wearing Mao caps or even faded old Bone Thugs-N-Harmony t-shirts, he couldn’t tell that probably many other lumpen poor men and women were active on the opposing side. At that same battle fighting on the other side of the barricades, with the workers’ revolution. And lots of Paris lumpen surely weren’t on either of the warring sides. (If there’s an alternative to good vs. evil, our lumpen will find it.) Karl was only really seeing a selected part of the city’s lumpen. This is a continual problem with outside observers missing lumpen strata who want to remain as anonymous as possible.
The system still throws out lumpen:
The oh-so sophisticated capitalism of today’s Globalization still has the same vicious family traits as the earliest, crudest industrial capitalism. We have many more people than places to put them in the straight capitalist system. That’s how the system structures itself to work on us. That’s coded in its genes. There’s always crowds of folk, in the suburb as well as the favela and inner city, who are forced for survival to make work for themselves out of bounds. If you take the “morality” out of it, it opens the discussion.
On improvisation and unpredictability:
Thing is, the lumpen have no such safe path or routine in life to follow. They have to constantly figure out ways to keep their ball up in the air. Improvise, do things “normal” people aren't willing to do, step off on real risks, even leap into sure failure because you know that you have to do something and maybe out of that crash you find the handhold that leads to something more workable. The one thing that you can't do is just stand around and do nothing, because every day you have to eat something and you have to have shelter of some minimal sort. And it all has to come from somewhere or something you found or did. There’s a certain fierce freedom in facing the world bare-handed, alone.
The notion of having a revolution or any kind of crisis at the grassroots of society without the lumpen—invited or no—is almost laughable. Try keeping moths away from lights, why don’t you, or curious kids away from forbidden music and sex. Any mass festival of discontent or violent political brawl brings some lumpen running. Because society’s big disorder is like their order. Containing new possibilities and opportunities. Someone’s revolution is someone else’s job fair.
That kind of restlessness and drive to wherever carries real risks. Why lumpen go down in flames a lot. But on the other hand, the creativity these brothers and sisters bring to the table can be a big contribution. We’ve seen this in the struggle, time and again. Think that both the lumpen and the working class can learn from each other, share things each needs to be better at politically.
Anyway, we've only just opened Pandoras box here. We outlined how these lumpen/proletarian strata were formed in the industrial capitalist epoch—made both in the politics of daily splinter-class life and understood in radical theory. We’ve not only shown how the lumpen are defined, but how their role in society has been far less marginal than people assumed. In capitalist crisis, in situations of extraordinary state formation, the lumpen/proletariat can even be at the center of political struggles. All this is a foundation, but the intense learning experiences of the 20th century revolutionary movements, of the turbulent 1960s for instance, still have to be uncovered. To say nothing of today’s unresolved global capitalist crisis which engulfs country after country, destroying entire societies. When we decided to cut short the writing and print the beginning as this volume, it also meant that a second companion volume had to be coming. We’ll be back.
Addendum / correspondence: kicking it around
Sakai back and forth with the editor. The part on warlordism seems key here, but not extended any further:
Then again, you have to be mindful, since some progressives race over the cliff’s edge here, seeing the state only as some giant robot. It is not simply some behemoth running amok. In general the state isn’t separate from the class structure, but an expression of it. Unlike feudal or tribal societies, individual capitalists cannot rule over their society directly as themselves. The state derives its power precisely from its nature as the instrumentality by which the ruling classes operate society. In less common cases the state gets unmoored, floating temporarilv out of feuding hands of ruling elites, and very much into lumpen hands. This is warlordism, usually a passing makeshift phase, but as the capitalist system decays and breaks down now it comes quicker and quicker.
Mao Z’s Revolutionary Laboratory & the Lumpen/Proletariat
Background / crazy-quilt of Chinese politics
A quick once over of the Chinese political situation at the beginning of 20th century.
Even postmodern society is fought over continually by classes, no matter how disguised their identity and moves. In real life these classes are much more complex and diverse than they once appeared in the early days of Europe’s 19th century industrial capitalism. That’s why real-time theory about classes is such a practical need for us.
Our goal is direct, to improve our ability to identify the broken-up class terrain that we are moving across, so that our step is more sure. The lumpen are so critical as a subject to us today because they are at the violent edge of tumultuous change, in every society worldwide.
What’s so important for us about theory here, is that theories are generalizations that draw on more than one example or one practice, but are a systemic overview from many sources, explaining an entire area of reality.
One practical note to all theory, is that simply having it doesn’t guarantee you anything. Nada, zip, as they say. Like reading a moving book of poetry doesn’t make you yourself a poet or an insightful person. Just like having a med school education doesn’t guarantee the researcher that their newest trial drug will work. Most times, no, in fact. Theory is an important and irreplaceable aid, but actually carrying out revolutionary resistance against the grain of the harsh world is a higher level of understanding than that.
There are real consequences to being without functional theory. Without such a general theoretical framework, we don’t learn well from practice, for instance. We don’t do well at building organizations. Or in critiquing our own attempts at confronting capitalism. Nor do we teach well at all.
Chapter 1: Theory Mao tossed to us
Here introducing a key Mao quote that will come back around many times here:
Shortly thereafter that same year, in his better-known Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society, his key theoretical summary was cast in the final form that became so memorable later for many of us: “Brave fighters but apt to be destructive, they can become a revolutionary force if given proper guidance.”
Mao Z’s terse last line summing up the lumpen became well known among many 1960s-70s revs in the u.s. back then. Most notably by the Black Panthers, who quoted it frequently because they were led by lumpen and aimed at organizing lumpen. When white students tried following their breakthrough, the idea reverberated far beyond the much smaller ranks of those leftists who called themselves Maoists. It seemed so basic, it didn’t occur to would-be revolutionaries like myself that it wasn’t anywhere as simple as it seemed, and that in fact i didn’t fully understand it.
But what our guy Mao Z knew even then, subtly coloring those first words in 1926 when he called them a potential “revolutionary force,” was that the lumpen played a key role in the revolutionary process. They weren’t just bit players or minor actors on the large stage of overturning society. The lumpen in China were major wildcards in the mass revolutionary struggle that actually took place. Whether that fits anyone’s theory or not. Their lived politics were far more real than all that.
How did Mao’s “vagabond army” form? From a former warlords military leadership:
Starting the next Spring of 1928, other “red" forces began converging with Mao’s, as the new Red Army began to take shape. General Chu Teh (Zhu De in the new translation system) became the commander in-chief of the rapidly growing central Red Army, with Mao Z as the chief political officer. In a historic partnership that shifted the center of gravity of the entire revolutionary leadership to the distant solar system of mass guerrilla war in the countryside. Chu Teh was then the more famous, as a mercenary general, and the force was often called “the Chu-Mao army” in the Chinese newspapers and by the public. With many tens of thousands of soldiers.
A career military officer, Chu Teh had won battlefield promotion in difficult circumstances to general, and was a star in Chinese military circles. Eventually, after the 1911 overthrow of the Qing dynasty, holding powerful government offices that came with a high income from the customary bribes and graft, Chu Teh soon had a mansion, a harem with several wives as well as concubines, and a heavy opium habit. Before he conquered his long-time addictions to put everything else away and become a revolutionary. It’s no surprise that Chu Teh was also covertly a senior member of the Elder Brother secret society, a tie he freely admitted actively sustaining in his Communist guerrilla years.
In discussing other key military figures from secret societies (e.g. criminal or bandit gangs in the Chinese context), again restating the significance of lumpen involvement:
In those first years of the Red Army, when the whole democratic movement was reeling on the defensive, retreating under constant attack, forced under that great repressive pressure to transform into an illegal mass movement of under grounds and partisan organizers and rebel militias and soldiers by the many thousands—or perish—the lumpen/proletariat were the indispensible social base for the revolutionaries. Not simply some useful people, but temporarily the key strata, maybe not according to anyone’s political doctrine but in the actual real time situation.
At the party's 1929 Gutian conference, two years after the Red Army’s founding, Mao Z’s report on their political military situation bluntly said that their military’s “roving banditism” and other such political problems had their root in the reality that “the lumpen proletariat constitute the majority in the Red Army”
On lumpen as the explanation for widespread and violent peasant rebellions in this era (these rebellions were not organized by the CPC):
Instead of the Communist Party, Mao Z placed as the key instigators a new grouping of the most oppressed themselves—which he referred to as the “utterly destitute.”
This was difficult to pin down on the surface, because the party was reporting from the countryside through a filter. Bluntly, closeting the lumpen as much as possible. Because the major role of the lumpen in the revolution was so counter to established Marxist class views, both Mao Zedong and the party itself worked to lessen the flashy guest appearances of their lumpen/proletariat on late-night tv talk shows. Remember, this was a time when Mao Z himself was being heavily attacked personally within the party for even recognizing the radical potential of lumpen outlaws. Party leader Li Li-san specifically criticized him for the big-time error of “guerrillaism infected by the viewpoint of the lumpenproletariat.” (In hindsight, amusing words, don’t you think?)
On the break with orthodoxy Mao’s analysis represented:
Mao was in no sense an anarchist then, unlike earlier in his student days, when his roommates were anarchists and his first revolutionary study group was based on anarchist ideas. Still, it isn’t hard to notice that in Mao’s rural class analysis, the militant cutting edge of “utterly destitute” lumpen/proletarians and desperate wandering laborers is a lot closer to Mikhail Bakunin’s anarchist class vision of lumpen “destitute proletarians” than it was to Marx and Engels’ “scum of all classes.” Hiding under familiar Marxist forms of discourse, Mao’s political recognition about the lumpen in his time and place was actually a profound change.
Both working with the Communist Party and working without the party in many places, the lumpen/proletariat— using their underground outlaw organizations such as the Elder Brothers and the Red Spears—were helping start and lead this massive countryside rebellion. No wonder Mao was dancing around with his words pretty carefully, since this was like big time heresy, like something totally impossible or totally outrageous according to previous Marxist views.
Chapter 2: Imaginary “proletariats” and rural class differentiation
On the Party’s search for a non-existent rural proletariat after the severe repression of the urban movement, and Mao’s attempts to instead “face reality”. It is very useful in seeing how oftentimes, proceeding on the basis of Marxist slogans about class brings us further and further away from any real analysis of the current class situation.
Interesting side-note here on the NCM at the end of paragraph, and a warning on easy interpretations of class terrain:
One big reason harassed Mao Z was so determined to keep doing rural social investigations was to help establish what the class reality really was (and perhaps bring the party HQ back down to factual ground). Don’t misunderstand this: it’s easy to be amazed by these kind of gross misjudgements long after the fact, but always hard for any new generation of revolutionaries to work out what social forces to base root change of society on. Look at all the ex-college student radicals here in the u.s. empire, who in the turbulent 1960s went into the factories and blue collar communities to hopefully organize masses of revolutionary white workers for the base of a “New Left.” Until they actually lived that class terrain, they didn’t know how unrealistic that strategy was.
The immense poverty of the countryside actually prevented the hoped-for “agricultural proletariat” from developing:
Peasants in China then by definition had some owned or rented farmland to support themselves on even if only partially, and had some implements such as a plow or a draft animal to farm with even if rented or borrowed. In varying degrees that materially established their class segment differences from poor peasants to middle peasants to rich peasants. Both land and farm implements were precious and hard to come by in the Chinese countryside of the 1920s, where millions starving literally to death was an ordinary happening.
The rural proletariat, in contrast, were initially defined as bare agricultural laborers, without any cash or material property or means of support save their bodily strength. Wage work in that hungry peasant countryside was extremely scarce and very poorly paid, since few farmers could afford to hire outside labor.
While the rural proletariat was a class that the urban Communist intellectuals initially put great hopes on. this semi class was thinly scattered across the land and were only a very small and discontinuous part of the rural population, often economic refugees without stable residences. Largely unable to act cooperatively even with each other, they were greatly outnumbered in the revolutionary countryside by the lumpen/proletariat, in embarrassing contradiction to the party’s borrowed left preconceptions.
With the urban proletariat organization drowned in blood, and a rural proletariat nowhere in sight, a realignment needs to happen:
We can imagine Mao and Chu Teh and their comrades tearing their hair out reading fantasy off-target documents on strategy from far away party headquarters in Shanghai. Mao's reports back were like an antibiotic trying to combat a brain infection, a stream of key facts reassembling a stark picture of the real situation. Knowing this, we can see why Mao thought social investigation was such a constant practical need in revolutionary work. In his 1930 social investigation of Xingguo County’s Yongfeng district. Mao found that the rural proletariat barely existed in any numbers and played little if any political role. Out of the 8,800 people in the district, there were only the equivalent of fifteen full-time agricultural laborers hired each year.
Chapter 3: Add theory and bring to boil
A brief interlude to caution against over-generalization of what happened in China. Did other lumpen’s have the same political possibilities/probabilities? No:
Here it’s useful to apply oppressor & oppressed nation theory. This concept for understanding one aspect of capitalism, holds that the high imperialist period (end of 19th century to at least three-quarters through the 20th century) was characterized by the ownership of the entire world by the various imperialist powers through colonialism and neo-colonialism. No longer would there be independent countries or autonomous indigenous areas. World capitalism as a system was asymmetrical, though, fitted together by contrasting oppressor nations and oppressed nations, colonizer and colonized. Which had opposite economic roles, opposite class structures, and opposite mass cultures and politics. Stunning conceptual tool, this theory, to be sure.
So while many of the lumpen/proletariat in China were often “instinctively” against the wealthy and the oppressors, and for the leftist politics of fighting for the poor, the mass of lumpen in the German would-be empire were on the far right during the “temporary nation” of the 1918-1933 Weimar Republic. And beyond, as events proved. The Chinese revolution towards state socialism happened simultaneously as the far right German revolution towards the new radical fascist society. Saying this is only the roughest of guides politically. Used here just to show how we can’t automatically extrapolate the experience in one society to extend in a linear fashion into another. There’s a lot more physics involved.
Chapter 4: A mass laboratory of revolutionary crisis
The massacres of 1927 and then the growing civil war forces the party to adapt.
Chapter 5: Social investigation finds lumpen/proletariat
What is some of the early work that leads to successful adaptation? “Seeking truth from facts” a.k.a. social investigation.
Social investigation as minutely-detailed and scientific / statistical work, not generalized observations or “common-sense” analysis:
One of the advanced work traits that our young friend Mao Z kept in his toolbox were social investigations. These weren’t surprising exactly, being a part of revolutionary work ever since Karl Marx first tried it out in a modest way, in his “workers inquiry” questionnaires. But they are seldom used. Complete class analysis sometimes as detailed as person by person of the social and economic structure of a given area or workplace, these surveys could be smaller but still a scientific investigation. In other words, a heck of a lot of work (having done surveys and small-scale social investigation of one neighborhood street, can verify that it’s a lot of work). Mao Z thought that they were invaluable to revs, though, big-time useful, practically speaking.
One interesting side-note, again returning to this theme of decoupling the lumpen from a “respectability” based definition:
Although legal, Mao notes that prostitutes were among the “nine low classes" as set down long-ago for society by the Qing dynasty. They were specifically grouped at the bottom of any respectability with opera singers, barbers, back massagers, pedicurists, chimney sweeps, those who sang folk songs to accompany tealeaf picking, county government clerks, and most instrumental musicians. So to understand that women sex workers in that major society in world terms were trash just like opera singers and local government clerical workers, puts a somewhat different spin on things. The seemingly arbitrary nature of who is respectable and who is not in any class society is always interesting when viewed from the far outside, no?
Chapter 6: Mao’s Xunwu social investigation built on work with lumpen
Not especially relevant to his argument here, but does ground things a little as to what the party was up against:
It is seldom understood here that General Chiang Kai-sheks Western-backed repression in 1927 against China's revolutionary and democratic people of all kinds, was easily far more severe and bloody than what the Nazis did against leftists and progressives after they took power in Germany. Despite the u.s. left’s euro centric assumptions, the actual physical repression against socialists and anarchists by Hitler was less savage, less murderous, less broad, than what took place in China then. Easiest understood by what they did to women accused as “reds.”
Women were not a large part of the Communist Party and were kept out of the leadership, of course, but their early feminism had deeply upset rightists. So they were special targets not only for death squad executions, but sometimes for prolonged spectacles of torture precisely like the infamous lynchings of New Afrikans in the u.s. South. In most cities and villages every woman with short hair the rightist soldiers saw was to be killed, that being taken as a sure sign that they were involved in Peasant Associations or had democratic sympathies.
On the party starting to link up with secret societies as it fled the cities:
Gu Bo’s alliance with those lumpen was specifically military, and as the outcast society had secret followers and allies and contacts all over the county, they gave the radical fugitives a new toe hold in organizing underground revolutionary Peasant Associations and armed cells. Not a small kind of help to those on the run for their lives.
What Gu Bo did in Xunwu, was only the logic of the situation, and was happening all over the country. Because the lumpen/proletarians and their secret organizations had been there on the scene first, existing outside the law generations before any ideological leftists had even appeared. They were the underground network of the experienced survivors and outlaws of various kinds that the badly damaged and diminished revolutionaries needed to turn to. When you’re forced out to sea with your life at stake, you turn to sailors not real estate agents. And maybe turn to pirates best of all.
Chapter 7: What happened in Xingguo county
Parallel to the urban movement being crushed, peasant rebellions and organizing gain steam, and the party is amazingly slow to react and embrace this rural energy:
In the most politically advanced villages, the Peasant Associations had begun dividing up and equally redistributing the land. While in some, their “Peasant Self-Defense Army” used old rifles seized from the corrupt local government “Home Guard” militia to temporarily become the armed power. The Communist Party leaders back in the urban center were alarmed, and declared as political policy that the peasant movement had gone “too far.” Many association militants had been arrested even by local reformist authorities allied to the party, and even by “red” officials themselves. While at other places peasant “riots” had broken through the authoritarian order and violently attacked landlord compounds. So Mao sent to the party his famed March 1927 Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan, which was throwing down politics. His gun was loaded with the challenge to his big city party and its followers, to change or perish:
“All talk directed against the peasant movement must be speedily set right. All the wrong measures taken by the revolutionary authorities concerning the peasant movement must be speedily changed.”
That the party was then urban-centered and largely opposed to the peasant rebellion breaking out, explains why the revolutionaries had no infrastructure in the countryside when they needed to recenter themselves there as a matter of survival. Mao Z was still being criticized for the supposed error of grassroots peasant organizing! Which party leaders put down with the fancy, pseudo-Marxist name, “localism of peasant consciousness.”
Ideology about which classes had to be revolutionary and which could not be became a real, material limitation and obstacle to shifting strategy in the right direction:
Pragmatically, Mao had to be careful to sound at least basically orthodox in a Marxist sense about the lumpen/proletariat, or risk falling politically to accusations of being anti-working class or anti-Leninist or anti-something. For the same reasons, Mao’s deepening relationship with the militant lumpen/proletariat had to be covered for or defended as only practical expediency.
Chapter 8: Picking up the thread in Xingguo county
On the “gritty” reality of lumpen organizations playing on both sides:
One of the things we pick up right away there was the reverse side of the coin. Which was the also large numbers of lumpen/proletarians fighting on the other side. Like, fighting with the army divisions of the new Kuomintang imperialist- backed regime. For instance, if the Elder Brother Society was increasingly mobilized as part of the revolutionary forces in the large and critical Yangtze valley region, then the Green Gang in Shanghai on its own coastal territory was committed to working with Generalísimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist state in rooting out and killing Communists and anarchists and trade unionists and other democrats within its reach.
Even the very same people ended up playing both sides in quick succession:
One reason that the surviving Communist fugitives in Southern Jiangxi province’s Xingguo county managed to gain the hidden life raft of the criminal Three Dots Society, was that they had reached an alliance with the bandit leader Duang Qi-feng. A known martial arts master from a poor background, Duang Qi-feng with his nine brothers led an influential bandit gang in the area. What was problematic was that his Three Dots Society gang had apparently just been on the other side. Had been said to have just finished taking part in the “White” repression for pay, leading the assault on the CCP headquarters and executing of dissidents in the city of Ganzhou earlier in 1927. Not certain if they were sharing these little business details with their new Communist allies.
Nevertheless, this awkward combination of hardluck forces was immediately successful at turning the tables. Their small victories, such as overrunning a wealthy landlord’s compound and redistributing his grain and property for them selves and others, attracted other small bandit bands to join them. Success led to more success in a certain practical logic. Other surviving revolutionary cells in nearby areas similarly grew by absorbing lumpen bandits and military deserters in survival actions against the feudal- capitalist elite.
The initial reliance on lumpen military support, conquering territory and then organizing peasants, gets results:
This was the overall picture as well. Staying alive by allying with and recruiting large numbers of “floating people,” including specific criminal secret societies, the young revolutionaries were able to build platforms reaching much larger numbers of peasants. Was this difficult, organizationally and politically? Probably both very difficult and very educational. In a countryside brought to awareness by the shock of actual person-by-person land redistribution, as well as a new kind of community life in villages and counties reorganized by the revolution, from 10,000 surviving and often scattered members in late 1927, the party had grown to 300,000 members by early 1934.
Driven largely out of the big cities, the party had in a move of logical but unprecedented boldness set up nine “Soviets"— using the Bolshevik term for workers’ councils that eventually came to be a tag for that Bolshevik-run society as a whole. The Chinese used it to designate Red areas they militarily held and were socially reorganizing or governing. By 1934 there were nine such separate Soviets, stretch ing over a number of provinces in South China, with a population of about nine millions. The “capital,” the Central Soviet Area at Ruijin, Jiangxi province, encompassed sixteen counties and had a population of three million.
The unspoken line of building on protracted peasant People’s War by relying heavily on the lumpen/proletariat to play a creative role in the mix, had proven itself in the specific situation of the Chinese revolutionary crisis. They were like much of the O.G. Recognizing the lumpen’s major role in revolutionary change was not tactical opportunism; deeper than that, it was an invaluable strategic understanding in that situation.
Chapter 9: Soldiers, hooray!
Hinting at how police / soldiers could be seen today:
Every society has a somewhat different class structure, we know, with its classes having their own particular characteristics or shape. Much Chinese lumpen activity such as sex work for women or soldiering for men wasn’t in itself illegal in the Old Society. Karl Marx initially felt that deserters or discharged soldiers in early 1800s Europe were driven by hopelessness to violent criminality in order to survive, thus becoming lumpen/proletarian. But from the Chinese society’s viewpoint, Karl only had a torn-off handful of incomplete analysis. To Chinese back then, all soldiers and professionally armed men were seen as marginalized people engaging in irregular, dangerous and socially undesirable activity. Even police and government soldiers. All were considered lumpen or floating people” in their terminology.
We are going into the question of the class identity of armed men making their livelihood from homicidal violence, often “eating” the societies they work in. In part because they were of special importance to this historical example of Mao Z and that revolutionary movement built on guerrilla fighters. But also because lumpen outlaws of many kinds are pushing the frontlines of change now in our own world of here and now. So the earlier examples throw light for our understanding.
The “men with guns” always float around and change sides:
In fact, the whole mix of marauding bandit gangs on the roads, the uniformed national army soldiers, anti-landlord armed rebels of various kinds, pickup rifle-bearers in a regional warlord army, village thug militia of the landlords that might have chased those bandits we started with, as well as the traditional secret lumpen quasi-criminal societies that all of the above might have belonged to, were seen as all being part of a single lumpen class splinter. As interchangeable hats in one lower déclassé violent social fragment of armed men. With the same persons changing from one to another to another of such roles, as survival circumstances dictated. Especially during the long period of warlordism which became ascendant in decaying China.
About “G.I. Joe” and “Army helicopter pilot Barbie”: The Western capitalist propaganda model of the idealized “citizen soldier,” who serves his or her nation for patriotic reasons for a few years in time of need—but then returns to their civilian community and their basic class life as a dairy farmer or college student or what ever—wasn’t even remotely real in early 20th century China. And is hardly real here today.
Here he finally brings it back home, and this also ties back to our misleading equation of lumpen as un-”respectable”. But how does identifying the “career mercenaries” (e.g. military) as lumpen help us exactly? In what way does the category of lumpen, now encompassing both petty criminal gangs domestically, and U.S. imperialist “home invaders” internationally, illuminate something new about either group?
Turning up the contrast, in our great Babylon a young euro-settler officer in the u.s. military who took part in or even commanded lethal hits on innocent villagers in any anonymous country “Whocaresistan” might be pictured in the capitalist media as a respectable or even heroic “middle-class” citizen. Like, one Wall Street hedge fund i heard about, loves to quietly recruit its rookie traders from the ranks of Israeli elite commando junior officers. One bloody hand washes the other. The bourgeoisie has always looked for useful lumpen elements to better add a super-aggressive edge to its dirty operations, even adopting some of them up into its own upper class ranks.
While a New Afrikan youth in a hoodie who jacks someone up outside our local subway station for their iPhone and wallet, is consigned down to the lower “criminal classes,” as a “gangster,” a lumpen. Soon to be in state prison. Thus, two professionally violent men of two different nations here are said to actually be in two widely separate classes; the first one wholesale killing for imperialism is “good,” while the other much less violent person only doing it retail is designated as a marginalized “criminal” outside regular society. Remember, imperialist propaganda is just what it is, but it sure isn't our class analysis.
It was more accurate when the Chinese Old Society took those two occupationally violent types of men—the government mercenary and the illegal bandit— as both belonging to one and the same lumpen/proletarian class strata. Maybe in a parallel understanding of today’s illegal “street” organizations in a Los Angeles or a Houston referring to their members as “soldiers.”
X-rayed up that way, we might see our imperialist military here as divided into two broad class segments: one being the mostly “economic draftees” who, whatever their young illusions, never do become career military, and who after a term or so return to their difficult civilian lives and communities. The other class segment being the highly stratified mass of career mercenary soldiers, airmen, and naval sailors, who find their adult lives as home invaders forcibly occupying and killing while patrolling populations of alien people in distant countries around the world. The “Global village” is really just our very violent home invasion.
That first class segment retain the identity of the classes which they came from and return to. The second class segment of career mercenaries are lumpen of different types, certainly so long as they stay within the professional military world, now outside “normal” class relations of production and distribution. Having a similar relationship to the world’s class economy as ethnic militias, the drug mafia commandos and assassins, or the "soldiers" of our urban street organizations.
Chapter 10: Naming the lumpen/proletariat
As the “Red base areas” grow, dealing with the lumpen within party held territory now starts to be a political problem, and the party takes a stab at, firstly, defining the lumpen:
As early as 1930, after considerable discussion, the party’s 4th Red Army and the Minxi Soviet base area government jointly the named some 30 occupations of lumpen/ proletarians, the top eight of which in terms of numbers in the Soviet area were: bandits, thieves, women sex workers, soldier “riff-raff,” actors, servants, gamblers, and beggars. Other expected occupations were also on the list, of course, such as local policemen, opium den bosses, runners (my first job at age ten, i nostalgically recall) and human traffickers. But there were groups on that list that might surprise us, such as freelance scholars (or literati), as well as Buddhist and Daoist monks.
The party retains this idea of reforming the lumpen, which we’ll see again shortly in post-revolutionary China:
By 1941, Peng Zhen, who was the party official most tasked to supervise the lumpen problem, had issued a new class list of who was officially to be identified as lumpen/proletarian. It was an effort to be more complete, and emphasized pointing out that many of those who worked for the capitalist state were themselves lumpen/proletarian parasites. Naming many more kinds of common capitalist state flunkies as well as the usual low-level hustlers: "... village policemen, town ship clerks, retired policemen, policemen, retired county government clerks (popularly called dog’s legs), jailers, jail guards, hoodlums, gamblers, thieves, prostitutes, promiscuous women, drug runners, beggars, deserters, traffickers in human beings, funeral musicians, charlatans, witches, fortune tellers, travelling monks, professional hit men, etc.”
Most significant, as part of the People, the “floating element” were still defined by Mao not as “Enemies of the People,” but still only as unfortunates forced for survival into "improper” livelihoods until the revolution could liberate them. This was one foundation of their mass work. This was reaffirming a distinctly warmer view of the lumpen/proletariat, of course, than what Marx once had called “that passively rotting mass.”
Chapter 11: Beggars/work the streets
Brief aside on beggars in Chinese society, the development of beggars guilds and professional beggars - once again showing the common-sense conceptions we have of lumpen elements are not transhistorical.
Chapter 12: Practice kicks theory forward / as theory guides practice
More about the internal view of lumpen in the CPC and how it was forced to “evolve” as the “facts on the ground” changed, and a good point at the end here, on political problems coming from every class:
They underlined characteristic “muddled class consciousness” about and by the lumpen fighters, such as “opposition to the masses,” “adventurism (wanton burning, killing and looting),” as well as “roving rebelism (no concept of political power).” Then, concluding with the final smackdown:
“The Red Army and Red Guards are the important tools of the revolutionary masses in seizing state power and protecting it. The components of these important tools must all be workers, peasants and revolutionaries; no vagabonds can be allowed to penetrate into these organizations”
Yeah, well, the resolution does go through some of the military-political errors that other Mao Z writings of that early startup period hammered down on. But the paranoid conclusion, ordering that “no vagabonds can be allowed” in the revolutionary army that was in practice then heavily composed of and dependent upon lumpen, bore no relationship to objective reality. Totally meaningless left blah blah blah word slinging (not that i haven’t done it myself—all too common when we don’t have real answers to give out). We can tell how much contempt about the “dirty” lumpen there still was in the 1930 Chinese party, and how much yearning there was for that old-style orthodox Communist or old-style Imperial Chinese culture stigmatizing them and excluding them.
In the same years that Mao Z was pushing the recruitment of lumpen fighters into the revolution—and pointing out how they constituted a majority of the Red Army—the party was also warning against them as a special danger. Now, all classes and peoples growing up within capitalism have flaws and bring their characteristic problems in a revolutionary context. Yes, even intellectuals, workers and peasants. This is definitely true in the real world if not in the imaginary intellectual world. Everyone is part of the problem as well as part of the solution. Only the lumpen, however, are usually painted by leftists in such a darkly negative overcast.
On why the lumpen is unpredictable and can break many different ways:
What everyone is often too busy to hear, was that for the lumpen/proletariat it wasn’t the same time as on the clocks of the working class and peasantry and intellectuals. For those other more “regular classes, if conditions weren’t favorable or a good choice didn’t materialize, they could always just lay low and do daily life as normal. Patiently organizing or preparing for a better breakthrough. But so often the lumpen didn’t have that choice. Their alarm clock was always ringing. If a good choice didn’t open up, they often had only bad choices they had to jump into. If armed revolution looked too shaky a step, then working as a criminal or serving the regime were survival options. Lumpen had no farm or factory job or schoolroom to fall back on.
On lumpen role in defense against Japanese invasion, and as collaborators too:
That entire Chinese mercenary regiments and divisions of lumpen soldiers by the many tens of thousands were corruptly going over to serve the Japanese invasion, certainly didn’t lead Mao Z and the revolutionary movement to think any better of the lumpen/proletariat as drinking buddies. So the lumpen were well represented on all sides, good and evil, of every conflict in China at the same time. A gritty but morally easy going, non-denominational reality. As successful as the Red Army’s “flipping” of enemy lumpen soldiers into being its own recruits had been, now the Japanese imperialists were rivaling the Communists as recruiters. The very optimistic class analysis of the lumpen in 1926 probably wasn’t at the top of Mao Z’s theoretical mind at that moment.
But while Mao retains the tactical flexibility to incorporate lumpen elements into his army, he is also aiming for a qualitatively different army than a bandit gang / secret society / capitalist army. This factors in later as the lumpen are given a chance to “proletarianize” after the revolution:
Mao Z was saying that the lumpen/proletarian “non-class” category of “soldiers" (ping), was only correct for labeling the bad guys—“White” reactionary armies and militias and landlord thugs and cops. While, on the other hand, he insisted that his men and women, the revolutionary good guys, the People’s Liberation Army troops and Red Guards militia them selves, weren’t any lumpen “soldiers" at all. Rather, Mao argued, they were better identified as “fighters” (chan-shih) for the People. Who by their political choice for the Red Army were becoming proletarianized. In fact, men and women in the party and Army were actually forbidden by Mao Z to call the Red troops by the term “soldiers," and strictly ordered to always call themselves “fighters” instead.
The clever part here is simultaneously absorbing these disparate groups and transforming them into holders of a shared identity:
Separating their own fighters and cadre in class theory from the lumpen/ proletariat—and then co-opting theoretically into the “peasantry” those from the traditional men’s lumpen secret societies—was only a small start.
It signaled that under Mao Z’s political leadership, the party had in practice divided up and sifted through the separate lumpen/proletarian fragments. Those judged immediately necessary and useful, primarily fighting men from the ranks of bandits and rival armies, were absolved of the stigma of being “rootless” lumpen. While the not immediately either useful or hostile—most beggars and drug addicts and sex workers and others hustling on the street or surviving as petty servants of the wealthy—were categorized as still lumpen/proletarian, but as innocent victims of capitalism to be dealt with later.
Chapter 13: Lessons / drawing in pencil
Trying to extract some generalizable things here from the Chinese experience.
On illegality / criminality / non-respectability and its enduring connection with revolution (but this also makes sense when considering revolutions happen to societies in deep crisis, crisis which often brings with it a rapid increase in criminal / survival activity):
One surprise: that same Chinese early 20th century revolution validated Marx’s suspicions of the dangerous class” all right, but also validated Mikhail Bakunin’s anarchist vision of the important revolutionary outlaws of the “destitute proletariat”. The two clashing views of 19th century European revolutionary thinkers who were only starting to turn their perception on the lumpen, turned out to not be either/or contradictions, but in a deeper way two warring aspects of the same heterodox lumpen “partial class” reality. As many declassed social fragments, the lumpen in Old China were both good and evil as well as indifferent, simultaneously.
Also, that large-scale experience reminded us again of something basic that we surely know, but can forget: The lumpen as fallen out of class fragments are people of crisis. Dramatically changing in size and even political character in response to intensifying war and natural disasters, no less social upheavals and economic depressions of the system. The lumpen that Mao Z knew in his youth were not the same actors that he was seeing at the end of the long civil war.
One lesson we were reminded of again from that experience, is that revolutionary activity has a natural relationship to the terrain of mass illegality and underground life. This criminalized world is the ground that the lumpen/proletariat know as their own. No group of would-be revolutionaries can be sure that they will not have to navigate and survive on that fractured terrain. As the Chinese Communist Party discovered to their shock in 1927.
Revolution always needs to move around in the zone of illegal and outcast life anyway; to draw resources from it, to find needed people in, monitoring its near and far seismic activity for danger and opportunity, while in general respecting it and learning from it. To unthinkingly dismiss the lumpen and their shadow world matches the description of “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
Not a few groups of revolutionary intellectuals from privileged backgrounds in this country or that, have tried to make a point of what they considered their superior morality, particularly as opposed to criminals and street people. We can take this as the petty self-delusion it was.
Like the Bolshevik leaders before the Russian Revolution, whose central committee was once horrified to find out that their underground administration in the South was financing the whole party with Stalin's violent bank expropriations. The stuffed shirts never did find out that the smuggling of illegal revolutionary flyers and books across Scandinavia into Russia was paid for by also smuggling more profitably what was then illegal pornography (Le. condoms and explicit sex education pamphlets). For that matter, the Communist bomb factory that ran semi underground next to Russia in Finland, in a tacit handshake with the local Finnish police, would have sent many “respectable” intellectuals in that party into a concussion.
Interesting side note here:
By the way, i always notice when the UN or some childrens rights agency screams about the recruitment of "child soldiers” in some lumpen Afrikan civil war. Not that we’re the same as them, but the fact is that revolution is like pure mathematics—it’s best for the very young. Like in desperate poverty and oppression, is it really better for kids to just sit there and die passively? Grown-up societies aren’t going to save them, that’s for sure.
In 1936, the average age in the Red Army was only nineteen—and most Red fighters had joined at age 15 or 16. Some had been the 10 or 11 year old orphan boys and girls picked up to shelter and teach by Mao's wandering army, running errands and messages, and called “little red devils”. Others had joined the movement first at 13 or 14 in the revolutionary village teenager organizations, then graduated “naturally” and eagerly into the Red Army. Think that’s “too young" to come out of the Wilderness? Clarence 13X, Malcolms equally smart compatriot, started re-building his oppressed community in a more radical way specifically by recruiting bands of 10 year olds.
Since the lumpen is many disparate class fractions, it doesn’t break cleanly one way or another, and it doesn’t need to:
A real part of the lumpen were enough for the struggle to win, they didn’t have to get all or most of those outcast class fragments. That’s an important practical lesson just by itself.
When we say that the lumpen can’t be just labeled together as one class, there’s something specific we’ve got stuck in our throats and gotta cough up. There’s an off-target tendency to define lumpen/proletarian as deviant behavior, another way of saying someone is a psychopath or amoral or something. Because of the whole dissing and social bias against the lumpen. Like, believing the lumpen are really the down and out who’ve been driven out of their own humanity—who are nasty, amoral, treacherous, like a Brandon Darby or your enemy going off on you any moment. That’s true for some really messed up poor people i’ve run into, absolutely—but just as true for some middle-class types we’ve known (to say nothing of the capitalists, who always take the big prize for individualistic, amoral and vicious).
Lumpen/proletarian isn’t a behavior, it isn’t good or bad, its a certain kind of objective relationship to the regular structure of economic production and distribution. Being out of that whole “normal" class structure thing, that is, and having a different conscious ness because of it. Mao is always quoted talking about lumpen as “brave fighters," and the stereotype of them is macho, is of militants, gunmen, soldiers, and the like. But in protest politics here, for instance, it wasn’t unusual to find lumpen as organizers, fundraisers, public speakers, political leaders, or sympathizers quietly doing behind-the-scenes practical work, to say nothing of the con-artists and hustlers attracted to the action—the whole wide range of political activism good and bad. To be sure, most here in the u.s.a. weren’t admitting to being lumpen but held up cardboard class identities over their faces. That’s Western culture for you.
Mao Z was so good at working with them politically because he recognized their specific lived politics as real, whether right or wrong by leftist standards, rather than thinking of them in an abstract way as an unrespectable “class."
Postscript / coming home: reforming the lumpen/proletariat
How the party dealt with lumpen after the revolution.
Heavy focus on “integration” of lumpen into “regular society”. As Sakai points out, obviously not the way we see social work done today:
Many different kinds of party programs were initiated to bring those marginalized back into full participation in economic production. From farming “labor exchange brigades" (i.e. labor co ops) where peasants formed labor teams of their choosing to work their separate plots in turn together-to propaganda campaigns tugging at opium addicts to join new “mutual aid groups" where they could talk about their problems and encourage each other to get clean. This wasn’t social work in the old way, but a main element of the party’s economic program in the newly liberated territory. Which was under economic blockade from the “White" regime and the Japanese invaders. Villages were organized to share the burden, giving returning lumpen shelter and food while the local “red" cadre found handicraft making equipment and materials or small pieces of farmland for them.
As the lumpen re-integrates into post-revolutionary society, it also starts to disappear:
In part, the revolutionaries felt they needed these public campaigns and displays, to help turn around existing mass prejudice against the dispossessed. Sympathetic real life “speaking bitterness” stories of selected lumpen/proletarians were spread nationally. In particular, first-hand stories by poor women beggars and sex workers. That was a major aim of the whole campaign, as well as to prove the superiority of the revolution by its ability to take on and eliminate the kind of mass suffering which even the most affluent Western cities did nothing about.
Blackstone rangers: u.s. experiment using “gangs” to repress black community rebellion
This essay, written in the 70s and available to read separately from this book, can be seen as a brief example of Sakai applying his analysis of the lumpen’s political “indeterminacy” to a relatively close-to-home example. Interesting in how different parts of the U.S. state had different reactions and different views on what to do with lumpen organizations.
How does this contrast with Sakais earlier analysis? Of course they weren’t revolutionary - as Sakai might say, so what? Note that anti-social activity was also present in the lumpen elements in the Chinese revolution e.g. the “secret societies” or bandit gangs - so clearly the mere fact of participating in “anti-social”, often violent activities, doesn’t always restrict the political possibilities:
Contrary to the myth so often projected, the Blackstone Rangers and the Disciples were never “revolutionary,” or even usually militant. The youth gang leadership openly and honestly looked to their own interest, bargaining and maneuvering with all sides to get the best “deal.” Andrew Barret, Youth Director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (and a former street worker with a "Stone" affiliate), summed it up very concisely:
"The Rangers are becoming highly politically oriented. They are interested in getting a piece of the action, not tearing down the system.”
As Greenlee himself points out:
“Most of street gang activity is antisocial. and it is and was a serious problem to the community. They weren’t robinhoods; they weren’t robbing from the rich to feed the poor. Their rip-offs weren’t taking place in Highland Park, they were taking place in Woodlawn and Lawndale. They were ripping off their friends, neighbors, mothers, fathers and daughters."
While the Black liberation organizations have always had to fight the repressive police structures, to publicize their racist crimes and organize against them, the “Stones" and “Ds" leadership had a policy of submission to the police. Time and again they hoped that cooperation with the police might earn them favors, particularly personal protection from arrests.
What was the exact nature of that cooperation with the Chicago Police Department? The gang leadership, particularly elements of the "Main 21" of Blackstone, served the police as informers and enforcers, suppressing sparks of Black unrest. 1966, 1967 and 1968 all saw massive Black "riots," rebellions in the Chicago Ghetto. All three years the "Stones" leadership worked with the police to keep the Woodlawn community "quiet." In a grant application to the O.E.O.. the Woodlawn Organization gave an example of this activity:
”... Ranger activity during the widely publicized westside riots in Chicago during the summer of 1966. At the time the riots were underway, the Rangers were under considerable pressure to join the rioters because of their alliances with Westside groups.
“The Ranger leadership met and decided not to participate in the riots but, more importantly, decided to make an organized effort to prevent similar violence in Woodlawn.”
Differentiates here the various negative reactions to rioting, and how reactions some were based on greater strategy concerns whereas others were simple counter-insurgency tactics:
Many Black organizations in various cities, fearing the destruction of these rebellions and viewing them as a futile direction, worked to “cool” their communities (the B.P.P. itself did so in Oakland, California, for example). But to these particular gang leaders this “riot prevention” took the form of close cooperation with the police, and was only the most visible tip of their submission to the state apparatus.
After the police killing of a Black man, the focus of the white community is finding accomplices in the Black community who can work to prevent White property damage:
Instead of organizing protests against the white merchants or taking action against racists themselves or even just standing aside and letting some rough justice be attempted, T.W.O. and the gangs had to act as police auxiliaries and protect white business property. In both Brazier’s letter to O.E.O. and Finney’s statements to the press the spotlight is on how the T.W.O.-gang combination prevented the liquor store from being destroyed; in both accounts one is struck by how unimportant the murder of a Black father seems. In the congratulatory newspaper editorials, statements by liberal politicians, memos to Washington, etc. the use of the threat of violence by a gang against community residents—clearly illegal by existing laws—is warmly applauded. This reveals the essence of capitalist “Law and order.”
Here, this is true, but then again, are these factors not present in other lumpen that broke different - also consider this whole essay in relation to Sakai’s anecdote (early in the book) about street organization with a “radical” orientation (the aside about “Young General”) - that targeted white businesses instead of protecting them. What led that organization to such radically different politics?
First, the gang leaders had a strong natural orientation towards protecting white business in Woodlawn. They viewed the community—people and commerce and real estate—as a resource to be mined for its profitability. Every white businessman who left the area simply meant a source of potential income lost. When the liquor store incident happened the Rangers and Disciples met and assessed the situation. According to Nick Lorenzo, “We agreed that this community is ours and we’re going to keep it.”
Again, what are the counter-vailing factors that would have allowed the gang to develop in a different way?
Secondly, the gang leadership shared with the government an opposition to grassroots Black organization. After all, a successful mass Black organization in Woodlawn would have crowded the “Stones,” even recruited people away from them. So that as their troubles increased, as police arrests and court cases piled up, as Fort and others were indicted on federal charges of embezzling O.E.O. funds, the gang leadership was paralyzed. By 1968, the police repression was so heavy against the “Stones” as to be crushing. Fort himself was arrested one hundred fifty times in six months—almost once a day!
On involvement of top “machine politicians” in using the gang for counter-insurgency:
It is widely assumed that Mayor Richard Daley viewed the O.E.O. grant and the gangs as a threat to his Machine and that he therefore used repression to crush them. On the contrary, Mayor Daley always appreciated how useful the gangs could be. In 1966 Jeff Fort was given a job at the City’s Woodlawn Urban Progress Center. At that time, Denton Brooks, head of the City’s “Anti-Poverty” program (Chicago Committee on Urban Opportunity) took Fort and other Main 21 to lunch and suggested that the “Stones" submit a proposal for an “anti-poverty" grant.' Black youth gangs had previously been used by the Chicago Police Dept, in order to harass and drive out Black community organizers. In 1965, Chicago SNCC’s attempt to do “grassroots” organizing came under heavy attack from local gangs, with vandalization of the SNCC office, intimidation of children at the SNCC “Freedom School” and beatings of SNCC workers contributing to the death of the project. It was alleged that this conflict was caused by the police, who gave the gangs a “license” to commit crimes in return for attacking SNCC.
On the split in state approach (more cutting-edge “COIN” techniques vs hardline repression). How does this play out today? Is directly involving gangs even necessary?
It is important to see that there was a sharp split in the white government over how to pacify the ghetto. The gang project, an advanced counterinsurgency program with certain real similarities to U.S. programs in Vietnam and the Philippines, brought this split out in the open. In Vietnam, we saw this split between the “civic action” programs of the U.S. Special Forces, which sought to use bribes/re- forms to recruit ethnic minority native forces to fight the communist insurgency, vs. the conventional warfare of annihilation using massive levels of U.S. regular troops and firepower so clumsily wielded by General Westmoreland and his clan. The analogy lends insight to Chicago. The liberals wanted to use reforms to recruit “native” forces to pacify the ghetto, while the conservatives wanted to turn the police loose to repress anything Black that lifted its head. Some wanted to do both, which is what happened both in Vietnam and Chicago.
Interesting connection with general rise of NGO-ized protest groups / astroturfed “movement” - the “aboveground” counter-insurgency work that works complementarily to the “underground” manipulation of lumpen organization:
T.W.O.—The Woodlawn Organization- featured prominently in our story as the main sponsoring community non-profit organization. It is closed down now. T.W.O. was first injected into a poor New Afrikan community as a highly-funded virus, designed by Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation (I.A.F.). It was to be a spotlighted demonstration that the I.A.F.s patented, pro-capitalist reform organizing could smother grassroots New Afrikan insurgencies. I.A.F. was, of course, where Barack Obama’s white handlers sent him to learn the tactics of top-down community organizing.” Long led by Rev. Leon Finney Jr. and his wife, Georgette Greenlee, T.W.O. before its recent demise was always highly successful—at least for the Black bourgeoisie. Rev. Finney Jr. and his wife, for instance, were paid $293,000 in 2010 by the organization. Plus an additional $190,000 paid to Finney-owned companies for providing rental space and food for T.W.O. The neighborhood is now steadily gentrifying while working class New Afrikans are being driven out, so T.W.O.’s historic pacification mission is now “mission accomplished.” Although the non-profit organization’s end was due to the State of Illinois’s findings that T.W.O. recently defrauded the state of $689,000 in various no-show grants, no criminal prosecution is yet in sight. Business as usual for neo-colonial “democracy.”