Correspondence: on the unemployed and the lumpenproletariat

Response to “Organising the unemployed and the role of the lumpen-proletariat”, by Sam Murray (Bulletin #4)

By Daniel Rashid

Sam Murray’s article in Bulletin #4 does a good job of presenting Jean-Cristophe Angaut’s case on the lumpenproletariat, and giving ideas on how it can relate to struggles within Australia. However, it does have some flaws I’d like to comment on, flaws that it largely shares with Angaut. In some sense I’m partially responsible since I (with the assistance of another comrade) made the translation that was used by the group and that Murray has relied on; I could have given some more framing information.

Firstly, Angaut too easily assimilates Bakunin’s view of the working-class “rascals” with that of Gustav Landauer and other anarchists, who argue that the working-class only becomes revolutionary to the extent that it abandons itself as the working-class. This is not particularly a viewpoint that Bakunin held. Whilst the abolition of class would naturally entail the abolition of the working-class as such, he did not argue that revolution means leaving class identities behind. On the contrary, Bakunin believed that the collective knowledge acquired by the proletariat over successive struggles, and through their role in the production process, was exactly what was required to build socialism. Revolutions had to destroy, but they also had to build: the point about the proletariat was that it could do both.

In addition, Bakunin also argued that even bourgeois people can become effective revolutionaries, provided that they annihilate themselves of the prejudices of their class and place themselves squarely at the service of the working-class movement. In other words – the proletariat was prioritised.

When Angaut observes that during revolutions, “one ceases, at least for a moment, to be a worker, a student, an unemployed person or a shoe-shine boy” and instead becomes “a revolutionary”, he is maybe getting a bit too excited. It’s true that revolutions generate totally new social identities, but it is also essential that people hold on to their understanding of their class position, since class still persists materially even if people believe they’ve overcome it ideologically.

Following on, Murray’s article overstates the effectiveness of “power in the streets”, to use his phrase. In the discussion of Black Lives Matter and street occupations, Murray does concede that this is a “strategic weakness” in a sense, but not a major one, since “there are other sources of power than the workplace, other strategies of resistance than the strike […] 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”.

True, the Tahrir Square occupation was a vital component of the revolution in Egypt that triggered the downfall of Mubarak; however, this downfall was only temporary. The elected leader Morsi was deposed fairly quickly, and whatever democratic reforms existed proved to be totally illusory as Sisi’s regime set in. All this could happen precisely because the protests left Egyptian capitalism relatively untouched; the Egyptian working-class was not able to amass power for itself and smash the existing state. The same goes for all the other mass protests that have sprung up in the past few decades, and most of them didn’t even get as far as the revolutionaries in Egypt.

Part of our position with regards to Black Lives Matter, the Lebanese protest movements, the Hong Kong protests, and other “mass” popular uprisings is that we want them to intensify, and for them to be the spark that sets off revolts in the workplaces, which did actually occur in a limited way last year with BLM. We can’t do this if we’re content with town square occupations. Neither can we decry the way these movements easily become neutered and placed under the control of liberals, nationalists, NGOs and so on, if we’re not bothered by the way they only touch the issue of class – of work – indirectly.

In my opinion, the radical left in Australia – anarchists included – is a bit stuck due to the fact that it is mostly composed of students and middle-class people, located in middle-class areas of cities. This is not a bad thing in of itself – and to be sure, we need “guilty middle-class people” about as much as we need “guilty whites” – but it tends to result in an imbalanced understanding of social struggles. The preponderance of people involved in the “knowledge economy” (students, teaching assistants, professors, university admin staff and so on) leads to misplaced priorities and an inability to effectively act. Off the top of my head, the only industrial disputes in which the standard radical left groups have seriously participated both from the inside (as rank and file) and outside (as organisations) have been on university campuses.

In the process of strategic reassessment that I think anarchists need to go through, we need to consider where exactly the collective power lies in capitalism and where we can most productively intervene. Doing that means abandoning the viewpoint that every position in capitalism – whether that of “he unemployed student, the tramp, the nurse and the factory worker” – is equally well-positioned to resist, and thus deserving of the same sort of attention.

In addition, we should not obscure the differences between, say, “the unemployed” and the working-class. To even speak of the unemployed as a separate category in of itself is a bit odd; some workers are unemployed, but not all unemployed are workers. The relationship between a JSP and a “job-seeker” is qualitatively different to that of capitalist to one of their workers; as awful as JSPs are, the job-seekers are not selling their labour-power to the JSP, and the JSP is not appropriating that surplus-value for profit. The same goes with the relationship between students and their universities, and tenants with their landlords.

When Bakunin scorned the “domestication” of the working-class, he was not simply attacking its upper layers for earning a nice wage. He was attacking the way certain categories of workers were integrated in the system and stripped of the combative tendencies that they once possessed. For instance, he saw how trade unions could shift from being fighting organisations to tepid, hierarchical reform clubs once they involved themselves in parliamentary elections. To combat this process we need to be involved in these working-class struggles, and we can only do so much from the outside-in.

All of this is not to say that the “lumpen” sectors of society deserve no attention, but that the nature of our work in those fields is partially to break them out of the “lumpen” category – we push for sex work decriminalisation and unionisation precisely because it entails sex workers becoming part of the working-class proper instead of a marginalised, hidden fraction; we agitate for changes in workplaces and in working processes so that greater numbers of disabled people can be employed; the involvement of unions in struggle for public housing so that it becomes less of an abstract call to help the needy and more of a slogan to advance the worse-off sectors of the class generally; and so on.

Thanks again to Murray for writing this article and stimulating the sort of discussion that needs to be had. If the result is to encourage people to resist regardless of their current social situation, that is hardly a bad thing; I just think we need to go a bit further. Perhaps Bakunin can give us something more to discuss?

Through birth and personal situation I am only a bourgeois, although my tendencies and sympathies are different. As such, I can only do theoretical and propaganda work for you. Well, I have this conviction – that the moment for great theoretical discussion, written or spoken, has passed […] now is no longer the time for ideas – but for facts and deeds. What matters above all today is the organisation of the forces of the proletariat. This organisation should be the work of the proletariat itself. If I was young I would go to some place of workers, and with my brothers I would do my bit in a life of labour. I would equally take part in the great work of this indispensable organisation. But neither my health, nor my age allow me to do so…

(Letter of Resignation from the Jura Federation, 1873)


By Sam Murray

It is worth clarifying that ‘Organising the unemployed and the role of the lumpen-proletariat’ was written to summarise discussion in a reading group explicitly on the role of those outside of the traditional wage relationship. As a result, it is naturally going to focus on the capacities of those social fractions. This is not to deny the centrality of the working class in struggle, only to point out that there are complementary actions that can be taken by others. While the factory workers go on strike, the lumpen can take to the streets. To point this out is not to make a claim about the relative strategic priority of either. As for whether the proletariat destroys itself or affirms its power in revolution – I do not think this question is answerable at this level of abstraction. Instead we need to look at the particular power of particular social groups. Those in the arms factories and logistics centres have enormous powers in their own workplaces, and much rhetoric of the power of the working class is made with these workers in mind. However, the telemarketer or barista are members of the working class too, and their workplaces afford them no great strategic power in a revolutionary situation. In such an event they are likely to take up similar roles to those previously outside of the wage relationship. In general, questions like these are best discussed with detail, not abstractions.

There is one claim in Rashid’s article that I want to push back on directly. He equates a focus on circulation struggles (those taking place in the streets and the squares, not the workplaces) with the left’s middle class social composition. Leaving aside the irritating tendency of leftists to accuse everyone they disagree with of being middle class, the circulation struggles of the last couple of decades have in fact been carried out largely by social layers more marginalised than the proletariat. This is not to say that we should have a politics where the most marginalised are the most important, as I think Rashid would agree our politics should be strategic not moral. It is instead to say that circulation struggles, rather than being a symptom of a ‘middle class’ movement, are a symptom of the defeat of organised labour, and the fact that proletarian and semi-proletarian elements don’t see other avenues of struggle. Circulation struggles have serious strategic weaknesses, that I mentioned in my article and that Rashid is right to reiterate. But rebuilding power at the site of workplaces requires serious engagement with the reasons that power has faded there and workers are instead turning to the streets.