Did the problems of the Black Panthers come from their base in people outside of the formal economy? Where are the borders of the working class? Can Marx’s concept of the “lumpenproletariat” help explain conditions in the modern-day ghetto? How can we respect the revolutionary possibilities of lumpen people, but still relate to working-class people that are often preyed upon?
Our comrade Deluche who writes at …or does it explode hit on some of the above questions, and there’s an ongoing conversation at Gathering Forces that we’ll put up here soon. Here’s Deluche:
* lumpen= people who aren’t working class or the bourgeoisie. The lower class ie prostitutes, pimps, dboys, etc. . .
I was recently in a discussion with some friends about the lumpen proletariat and their place in the over all revolution against Capitalism. One of my friends, an activist in the homeless rights struggle was at odds with another of my friends because he diss the lumpen, claiming that they have no place in the revolution. I said the following
It’s really interesting because I agree and disagree with Huey and the Panthers on this point. Organizing oppressed communities, in particular Black and Brown ones, means your going to be dealing with the Lumpen. And I agree with Huey that they need to be placed inside of the thought of bringing about revolution under capitalism. Marx analysis was based and limited to the time he lived in, he did not project into the future and so his analysis of the lumpen follows the same way. What constitutes the lumpen now is very different and Boone is right in his aggression towards certain parts of the Lumpen. Huey himself said that certain parts of the Lumpen couldn’t be organized such as pimps. It is very difficult growing up in a place where you are surrounded by pimps, prostitutes, DBoys etc. . . I know when I was growing up I developed a hostility towards them and still harbor ill feelings (it’s hard not to when people are selling poison to their own, you know and your immediate family are victims of that) However, I am trying to always remember that I hate this system, which has produced the lumpen, more. That people are shaped by their conditions. Another interesting point that I picked up speaking to an ex panther the other day was how detrimental the Panthers being the party devoted to organizing the lumpen was. The Ex Panther was saying, and I agree, that the working class is the only class that can bring about revolution under the Capitalist system because of their relations to the ruling class and the means of production. Thus, the working class is the revolutionary class. Marx was right on this, however I agree that it is essential that we start a new pedagogy that has a place for the lumpen, they are the most effected by this Capitalist system in many ways. And if we are talking about updating the Left and making it relevant well. . .
It’s funny cause this all started with me reciting a lyric from a Digable Planets song. “To the lumpen mass. . .”
young, black, female proletarians
The left itself is largely responsible for narrowly defining working class politics. Historically, some seriously problematic marxist forces have limited the definition of working class politics to issues concerning white, male, industrial workers.
On the contemporary left scene we find many forces (even, or especially, self-labeled marxists and communists) who seek to right the wrongs of previous generations. While these efforts may be honest and genuine, they often fall far short of actually re-aligning theoretical paradigms of “class” and “struggle” in a positive direction. Often times, race & gender become atomized and separated from class in efforts to develop an intersectional approach.
Selma James’ classic piece “Sex, Race and Class” represents a serious analysis of the organic intersections of the often-mentioned triad of oppression. One need only read the first paragraph to sense it contains important insights into the contemporary struggle to develop a mixed gender, multiracial working class revolutionary theory and struggle.
” . . . if sex and race are pulled away from class, virtually all that remains is the truncated, provincial, sectarian politics of the white male metropolitan Left.“
Capitalism and the Left have mystified the real relationships between these categories, and it’s an important task for revolutionaries, particularly in the US, to understand the poverty of our current theory in order to begin pulling ourselves out of the self-imposed silos our theories have us incarcerated in.
Sex, Race and Class
(Selma James – 1975)
There has been enough confusion generated when sex, race and class have confronted each other as separate and even conflicting entities. That they are separate entities is self-evident. That they have proven themselves to be not separate, inseparable, is harder to discern. Yet if sex and race are pulled away from class, virtually all that remains is the truncated, provincial, sectarian politics of the white male metropolitan Left. I hope to show in barest outline, first, that the working class movement is something other than that Left have ever envisioned it to be. Second, locked within the contradiction between the discrete entity of sex or race and the totality of class is the greatest deterrent to working class power and at the same time the creative energy to achieve that power.
Professor Adolph Reed Jr debates three other professors, Steven Gregory, Maurice Zeitlin and Ellen Meiksins Wood, about how race and class relate to each other. This debate represents a historical problem in the American Marxist movement. Many different progressive and revolutionary movements in American history were never able to overcome racial differences to create class unity in key historic class struggles. Arguably the two most important strike waves in working class American history, 1877 and 1919, ended in defeats. Intra-racial fighting was a central problem that helped lay the ground work for the defeats of the strike. Eugene Debs, one of American labors great socialist leaders once openly stated, “We see it as a class issue rather than a race issue.” Debs colorblind socialism differed with racial theorist WEB Dubois who remarked in that same time period; “That the white heel is still on the black neck is simply proof that the world is not yet civilized. The history of the Negro in the United States is a history of crime without a parallel.” With that said, read this outstanding debate that will challenge simplistic notions of both race and class.
A PDF of this debate How_does_Race_relate_to_Class includes the following contents:
1. UNRAVELING THE RELATION OF RACE AND CLASS IN AMERICAN POLITICS Adolph Reed, Jr.
2. CLASS, RACE, AND CAPITALISM Ellen Meiksins Wood
3. ON THE ‘CONFLUENCE OF RACE AND CLASS’ IN AMERICA Maurice Zeitlin
4. THE ‘PARADOXES’ OF MISPLACED CONCRETENESS: I THINKING THROUGH THE STATE Steven Gregory
5. REJOINDER Adolph Reed, Jr.