The proletariat is a social class containing blue-collar workers. In historic times, these were the wage slaves who just barely got by. The owners of the factories, mines, and so forth typically exploited them, endeavoring to pay them as little as possible. (As for today, well, not too much has changed.) One of the goals of Socialism is to elevate the proletariat’s status. The proposed means is via state-owned businesses; the historical track record isn’t too promising, but that’s another matter for now.
“Lumpenproletariat” is a derivative term, prefixed by the German word for “rags”. That represents a worse-off class, particularly the homeless, criminals, and others at the economic fringe. They have either very unsteady employment, or none. Since there are these types even in good times, the problem is one of motivation. This group generally encompasses drifters, slackers, ne’er-do-wells, etc. The phrase “no visible means of support” comes to mind. It’s a subject that appears occasionally in Communist writings.
Marxist approaches to the lumpenproletariat
Once again, going back to the point in the first paragraph, Socialists generally are interested in blue collar guys who punch a clock and perform manual labor every workday – “Workers of the world, unite!” and all that. Those are the folks who would be interested in trade unionism, which they hoped would be the gateway drug to worldwide proletarian revolution and all that. However, people who do no constructive labor – or as little as possible to survive – don’t really qualify; they’re not even workers. Still, there’s actually quite a bit of variation in the Party Line on this point.
One traditional take is that the lumpenproletariat isn’t worth considering, since they’re natural reactionaries. That one seems to be a bit of a stretch. Some of those folks might have strong political beliefs, but they’re generally not activists. Opinions are likely to be all over the place, but there’s no special reason to believe that many of them are fans of Friedrich Hayek, Corneliu Codreanu, Pat Buchanan, Julius Evola, Mencius Moldbug, or some other flavor of “reactionary”.
Another opinion is that lumpenproletariat members are natural anarchists. That one seems closer to the mark; those guys often do have a problem with authority. A related notion is that they’re just too unreliable to be useful for Communist activism. On the right, such types obviously would be an absolute liability. Being a leftist means never having to worry about optics (more on that subject in a later discussion). Even so, any cause will need more than just warm bodies; a bunch of screwballs who can’t get their act together will be nothing but trouble.
Finally, there are those who hope to radicalize the lumpenproletariat. The reasoning goes that since they’re the worst off in society, they’d be the most motivated. The problem is that being motivated really isn’t in the nature of bums and slackers to begin with.
Then Franz Fanon – best known for writing books lately used to instill White guilt in college students – had a curious redefinition. He described colonized peoples as the lumpenproletariat, who would go smash the bourgeoisie and all the rest of it. That’s a pretty screwy formulation. Someone in an actual colony (and there aren’t many real ones left) making fifty cents a day hacking down sugar cane certainly isn’t a bum. He’s a manual laborer who happens to have a remarkably shitty tightwad of a boss.
Karl Marx, the big banana himself
Interestingly, Marx was basically a card-carrying lumpenproletariat member, though he certainly didn’t boast of it. Friedrich Engels owned a factory (silly class enemy!) and repeatedly offered to give Marx a tour to see for himself how one operated. However, Chuck just wasn’t interested. Therefore, during all his life, he never stepped inside a factory (much unlike Yours Truly), despite writing about the subject at great length. Reading up on factories was everything that the champion of the proletariat needed to know, apparently. This is also much unlike Adam Smith, who wrote a classic case study about one.
Marx himself came from a fairly well-off family: yes, a bourgeois by birth. However, he frittered away his inheritance, and then had to survive off of handouts from his buddy Engels. Laziness and heavy drinking didn’t help, and because of that, his family lived in miserable poverty. He dabbled with journalism occasionally, but other than that, the champion of the proletariat never worked a day in his life, and certainly not any manual labor. Being educated, he could’ve gotten a decent job if he wanted. Even someone who wasn’t educated could’ve been a sailor, worked in a factory, or found some other gainful employment.
What’s the deal with that? When work in my own chosen profession dried up, I had to do day labor in construction for a little over two years. (So I took a job away from an illegal alien – now there’s a switch!) I got heat exhaustion frequently, but that’s what it took to pay the bills. Filing bankruptcy and then living off of The System was unacceptable to me. Actually, I still do construction as a side project occasionally. It’s called being practical. Karl Marx, however, was an intellectual; therefore, he was too good to work. He just wanted everything handed to him because he deserved it.
Actually, that explains a lot about his mindset, and that of some of his more naïve followers cranked out by today’s universities. They don’t understand that production doesn’t happen by magic, or that wealth must be maintained. Many of those behind decolonization liberation movements found out the hard way too. The mentality goes that someone else has a pile of treasure, you steal it, and now you’re set up for life. Zimbabwe is one example of many.
An economic planner from East Germany or Czechoslovakia would’ve known better, of course. They had to get things done as best they could, within the framework of the system handed to them. Outside the realm of pure theory, things work a little different when the rubber hits the road. Anyway, I’m going to start getting trolled by Communists again, this time for insulting the Prophet. Comrades, the truth hurts.
My Fascist solution
Yes, poverty is a drag, to put it mildly. This is especially so if it’s a chronic condition in someone’s life. Fortunately, there’s this thing called social mobility. A drifter doesn’t have to remain a drifter. Getting jobs back to this country will be a necessary first step. That means tuning out all those neocon whiz kids and other free trade worshipers (cough, Krugman, cough) who don’t realize that peasants can’t afford durable goods.
Other than that, society does have a problem with increasing extremes of wealth. However, Socialism doesn’t have a good track record of fixing things. If it did, I’d be down for that. Instead, the answer is Distributism.
What happens with able-bodied slackers who, after adequate opportunity is provided, still refuse to work? Western welfare states (“Socialism Lite”) have a lot of tolerance for that, engineered to create a dependent voter bloc. However, true Socialist societies did not. It’s more realistic that way, actually; society should have less indulgence for slackers. Handing out checks just perpetuates the problem. If they feel like being unproductive, ever after opportunities to better themselves are there, they can go nibble grass or something.