The Idea of the Lumpenproletariat
Marx and Engels famously use the term lumpenproletariat to describe “that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society.” The concept suggests that the most marginal are not part of the revolutionary class but are in fact more likely to function as a “bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.” As Raphael Samuel noted, the word came to function as an “unproblematic term of abuse” in early twentieth-century Communist discourse, suggesting a relation between political unreliability and moral failings. The precarious were not merely represented as a threat to radical movements but as personally contemptible in ways that drew on conservative ideas of the undeserving poor. One result of this was to reinforce the focus of Marxist theory and practice on a relatively narrowly defined urban, educated, organized industrial working-class.
The argument that the industrial proletariat is the necessary agent of revolutionary change responds to a particular region and period, to the experience of the Global North in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. These models are less able to accommodate the experience of the Global South or to address what Komlosy calls the current “flexibilization and informalization” of employment. Contemporary theory and practice require concepts able to analyze a variety of histories and respond to new forms of precarity. The Idea of the Lumpenproletariat examines the ways in which literary and cultural analysis contribute to the understanding of the distinct populations produced by neoliberal global capitalism. It analyses the problems the concept of the lumpenproletariat addresses and the ways in which it might be adapted, extended, or replaced. This involves considering whether it provides theoretical insights not available from terms such as “underclass” or “precariat,” and the functions it might serve in both contemporary cultural analysis and political practice.
The Idea of the Lumpenproletariat will be divided into two sections, one focusing on theoretical questions and the other on specific literary and cultural readings. Possible topics including, but not limited to:
- the history, theory, and use of the concept of the lumpenproletariat
- Marxist theories and representations of the itinerant, precarious, and criminal
- theories and representations of economic change and social exclusion
- the lumpenproletariat and the Global South
- the lumpenproletariat and globalization
- the lumpenproletariat and ethnicity
- the lumpenproletariat and gender
- the lumpenproleratiat and sexuality
- the lumpenproletariat and disability
- literary representations of the lumpenproletariat
- the lumpenproletariat in popular culture
- the lumpenproletariat and contemporary political practice
Please submit a 500 word abstract to Ben Clarke at firstname.lastname@example.org by March 1, 2021. Completed chapters should be no more than 7500 words and will be due by September 30, 2021.