Organising the unemployed and the role of the lumpen-proletariat

Capital and Charity cartoon

By Sam Murray

There is nothing like a pandemic and an accompanying economic crisis to sharpen a question that has been perennial since the birth of capitalism: what is the role of the unemployed in resisting capitalism and building a libertarian socialist future? Left strategy has traditionally placed all focus on the working class, due to the power they hold as those who create the world around us and produce profit for their bosses. Those outside of the official wage-labour relationship, disparagingly called the ‘lumpenproletariat’ by marxists, include many different types of people: the long term unemployed, new ex-peasants living in slums on the fringes of global south megacities, those working in criminalised areas like drugs or sex work, and racialised underclasses in the global north. With more than a million officially out of work in Australia, and millions more permanently outside of the workforce, building power amongst those out of legal work is a pressing task for a revived workers’ movement.

The article “Bakounine: Lumpenproletariat, canaille et révolution” by Jean-Christophe Angaut addresses conversations between Marx and Bakunin on who, exactly, makes revolution and why. Marx thought that it was only the industrial proletariat, disciplined and forced to cooperate in large numbers by capitalism, that are the potential socialist revolutionary agent. Capitalism, for Marx, produces its own gravediggers, by creating the organised working class who have nothing to lose by rising up in revolution. The ‘lumpenproletariat’, on the other hand, were useless hindrances to socialism, who would waver or be bought off by the ruling class when the time came. 

For Bakunin, one of the originators of anarchism, the picture was more nuanced. Capitalism created a massive working class capable of confronting bosses, but it also domesticated that class, brutalised it into obedience. Bakunin saw much more of a role for ‘rascals’, traditions of opposition to capitalism that persist in spite of and outside of capitalism. While Bakunin saw the working class as a revolutionary force, he thought it would become a revolutionary force only as it destroys its own status as the working class. After all, a socialist society is not one where the working class is dominant; it is one where the working class ceases to be the working class, as all classes are dissolved. It is in revolutionary struggle that the unemployed student, the tramp, the nurse and the factory worker all stand united by common purpose, overcoming the class distinctions that defined them under capitalism. 

Fanon also had a more complex view of the relationship between the industrial working class and other social fractions than Marx. In what is perhaps the defining trait of leftist social analysis, Fanon focused on how different social groups act over time and the tendencies that emerge from the different, contradictory positions of those groups. He saw revolutionary potential in the peasantry and declassed masses of the Global South, and argued that the urban workers of colonial or recently de-colonised nations really did have something to lose as a relatively privileged strata within the colonial system. Fanon criticised what he saw as a lack of serious effort on the part of the urban nationalist leadership to engage with these elements. If the lumpenproletariat is unreliable and vacillating, it is so partly because it has not been organised and educated by more class-conscious leadership, which in turn left that leadership isolated at crucial moments. 

The ‘lumpenproletariat’ is not particularly useful on its own as a term, as it obscures a variety of important differences. Australia has some number of long-term unemployed who have been locked out of work, particularly among indigenous people and those too old to be hired in an ageist labour market. But it does not have a massive racialised, urban underclass who make up a good proportion of the country’s population quite like America or France [1]. This is partly a product of Australia’s relationship to its colonies: while America and France permanently import massive populations from the Global South to act as a cheap labour force, the cheap labour from the South Pacific that do seasonal agricultural work here are kept on strict visas that prevent them from moving here permanently. 

The fact that the Australian ruling class doesn’t wish to establish a permanent racialised underclass is more than just fidelity to white supremacy. It is also an acknowledgement that permanent underclasses threaten capitalist stability. The eruption of struggle seen in America last year after the murder of George Floyd originated in the racialised underclass of Black America, at a moment when many or most were unemployed due to a pandemic. This revolt was perhaps the largest the USA has ever seen, sending the president into a bunker and the country to the brink of martial law. This revolt was not workers revolting as workers: no one seized their factory or formed a soviet. Arguably, this represented a strategic weakness. Capitalism relies on the working class to function: ‘all they have to do is to put their hands in their pockets and they have got the capitalist class whipped’. This is the strategic power of the working class that socialists and anarchists have always been right to emphasise.

But there are other sources of power than the workplace, other strategies of resistance than the strike. As Black Lives Matter and all of the other massive revolts that have shaken the world since 2011 demonstrate, there is also power in the streets. By blocking roads, railways and city centres people can interrupt the circulation of commodities (rather than a strike, which interrupts their production). Holding space in the streets has brought down multiple regimes over the past decade, and mass protests and riots have won reforms and defeated ruling class offensives. 

The care work needed to maintain struggle, whether a strike or a revolution, can also be done by those outside of the traditional wage system, and it is worth mentioning that the lion’s share of those outside of the wage system are women. Sex work, reproductive labour (like caring for children and the elderly) and informal domestic labour are all highly feminised, but the emphasis on relationships and care needed for these jobs is indispensable for maintaining the social solidarity needed to win. Education and winning the battle of ideas is also something that can be done by those who are time rich but money poor, for instance precariously employed students and research staff. And in a revolutionary situation, it doesn’t much matter whether one used to collect pay cheques or dole cheques when you have a gun in your hand. 

None of this directly answers the question of how anarchists can organise amongst those outside of the wage system today, in Australia in 2021 (or the 16th month of 2020). But it is instructive to think of what the pressure points of capitalism are, and the roles different sections of the ‘lumpen’ might have in targeting these pressure points. 

Australia’s roughly one million officially unemployed people are subject to the bullying of ‘job service providers’ (‘JSPs’). These were created under the Howard government to force those on benefits to jump through humiliating hoops and supplicate themselves to prove they are worthy of the measly payments that grant them the privilege of not starving to death [2]. They have the power to force those assigned to them to do tasks like go to resume writing classes, on the threat of suspended payments – a threat that turned into reality for tens of thousands in 2019 [3].

But, each centre is relatively small, bullying perhaps a couple of hundred unemployed people each. It could be possible to organise at a particular job service provider, building a base amongst the unemployed there and extracting concessions from the JSP with threats of disruption or mass transfer to another JSP (job service providers are private companies paid by the government per unemployed person on their purvey). 

Another potential pressure point is public housing. 800,000 Australians still live in public or social housing, and that housing is under active assault by local and state governments looking to sell it off to build apartments for yuppies. Public housing communities are geographically concentrated and have a group of people united by the common interest of keeping their homes, so are a natural point of class organisation. Concerted community campaigns around housing have been successful in the past, with the legacy of eviction defense in the 1930s full of lessons for radicals today [4]. 

Anarchists have always understood struggle in broad terms, as being something waged by the entirety of the oppressed masses, not a narrowly defined class segment. The unemployed, the under and precariously employed and those on the fringes of the wage relationship make up a massive segment of humanity, and they have agency in fighting for their own liberation. Anarchists need to think strategically about the particular struggles where we can intervene to clarify and intensify that struggle. Australia has a massive and punitive welfare bureaucracy, a barely survivable unemployment benefit and a housing crisis, and we can see countless examples of resistance at these sites. There is work to be done.


1. Large indigenous populations in places like Redfern and Fitzroy resembled the outer boroughs of New York or the Banlieues of Paris, but that concentrated population has mostly been displaced by gentrification.

2. Though they’re not quite being starved to death, they’re still being starved: as reported by the Salvation Army’s Maj. Paul Hately, the reduction in COVID-19 social support is already resulting in people skipping meals and medication ( Australian Council of Social Services data showed that approximately three-quarters of welfare recipients reported skipping meals prior to the COVID-19 supplements (

3.  In 2019, nearly fifty thousand Jobseeker recipients had their payments mistakenly suspended for allegedly breaching the rules of their job search plans. These job search plans were given to them by their JSPs, but were acknowledged to be faulty upon review (