The lumpenproletariat is one of the most infamous terms in Marxist thought. It stems from the German word “lump,” which denotes scab, rag, canker, sore, and scoundrel, and connotes a series of “undesirables” – the unemployed, the sex worker, the homeless, the addict, the petty criminal, the single mother or the cruiser. For Marx and Engels, the lumpen functions as an abject remainder of proletarian subjectivity, a disorderly rabble opposed to the politically-committed proletariat. This idea of a “social scum, passively rotting mass,” as Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, has troubled class analysis ever since its inception in the 1840s. How can one reconcile the power of Marxist analysis with this frankly disgusted gaze upon what Victorian commentators called the “undeserving poor”? Is this merely an aberrant moralism, or a more constitutive aspect of Marxist class theory? And how is this term racialized, gendered, and queered?
This course will examine the intellectual biography and cultural history of this vexed category, explored through a historical morphology of lumpen formations as they appear in a number of different scenes of reception, flashpoints of agency, and moments of radicalization. It will begin with Marx’s and Engels’s coinage and development of the concept in the 1840s-60s, before moving to French naturalism of the 1870s and British socialist-feminist politics of the 1880s. Next, we will move to Depression-era Weimar Berlin, probing how both Marxist and queer formations engaged with the lumpenproletariat. Crossing the Atlantic and moving into the 1950s and 60s, we will read James Baldwin and John Rechy alongside queer of color critique to reexamine the intersections of class, sexuality and race might be rethought through the category of the lumpenproletariat. Then we will turn to John Waters and the trash aesthetic of the 70s – queer lumpens teetering between hippies and punks. And finally, we will examine contemporary transatlantic crises of civil society and electoral democracy, characterized in both the US and the UK by populist, authoritarian nativisms opposed to yet complicit with a slick international technocracy. Who, in other words, could be the committed revolutionary subjects of the future while industrial action continues to be abrogated as “outdated,” and a supposedly uniformly racist, apparently entirely white, fetishized image of the proletariat is mobilized against a racialized immigrant “underclass”?