Marx’s “Dangerous Classes”

Most Marxists know that Marx infamously dismisses the lumpenproletariat — those band of “vagabonds, criminals, prostitutes,” “the demoralised, the ragged,” swindlers and tricksters, ragpickers and pickpockets, tinkers and beggars (all Marx’s words). These ruffians, he says, “dwelling in the sphere of pauperism,” are nothing but “the deadweight of the industrial reserve army,” trapped in the Lazarus layers of society and generally not, nor ever likely to be, a progressive political force.

In Capital, Marx’s bad faith in the lumpenproletariat only redoubles what he’d said some fifteen years earlier. In Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850, he’d written about the rise of Louis Bonaparte’s Second Empire, and how a lumpenproletariat had helped crush the June 1848 workers’ insurrection in Paris. Without this lumpenproletariat, Marx insists, there wouldn’t have been any coup d’état, nor any Louis Bonaparte. The latter’s banditry were recruited from the most desperate lumpen elements, bought off (for 1 franc 50 centimes a day) to do the bourgeoisie’s dirty work. Thus Louis Bonaparte shines as “the chief of this lumpenproletariat,” Marx jokes, as its reactionary embodiment assuming the mantle of power.

Louis Bonaparte deployed a time-served tactic that sought the only way out of the crisis: “to play one part of the proletariat against the other.” “For this purpose,” Marx says, “the Provisional Government formed 24 battalions of Mobile Guards, each a thousand strong, composed of young men, from 15 to 20 years. They belonged for the most part to the lumpenproletariat, which in all big towns forms a mass sharply differentiated from the industrial proletariat, a recruiting ground for thieves and criminals of all kinds, living on the crumbs of society, people without a definite trade, vagabonds, people without hearth or furniture, unapologetically with no fixed address.”

Doubtless few smart people these days would deny the dubious leanings of the lumpenproletariat, especially if we consider the rabble heartlands of Donald Trump, and the most gung-ho Brexiteers. But perhaps Marx never recognised the logic of his own analysis? Failing revolution, what’s to stop this relative surplus population from relentlessly expanding its ranks? What’s to prevent those Lazarus layers from becoming a global norm, outnumbering fully paid up members of a rank-and-file proletariat?

To diss all lumpenproletariat as backward is, then, to diss a large whack of the global working class. What’s more, if the lumpenproletariat could be once bought off to fight for the bourgeoisie, why can’t it be encouraged to shift its allegiances, and come over to fight for the other side? Why should the lumpenproletariat necessarily and always be a reactionary force? It’s evident that this mass of humanity, when given the right nudge, has periodically awoken from its slumbers.

Another significant aspect of the lumpenproletariat is that it has no aspirations of being bourgeois. It isn’t interested in bourgeois respectability, in its rewards and trappings, in becoming upwardly mobile, ascending into the upper classes. The lumpenproletariat is relatively immune from the bourgeois’s commercial grasp, its advertising, its gloss and market ideology, even its dominate ideology. So, although the lumpenproletariat has sometimes been bought off, it certainly hasn’t bought into the capitalist system. This, if nothing else, ensures that its potential radicality is always there, waiting in the wings.

The ballast of the deadweight has shifted. The lumpenproletariat has become a decommissioned reserve army of labour that nowadays maybe outweighs the active reserve army of labour. As such, it’s a mistake, and this is perhaps Marx’s mistake, to see the lumpenproletariat as a bastard ward of labour. Perhaps a rethink is in order. Maybe we need to reconsider the lumpenproletariat less scathingly, explore it more speculatively, project what it might be capable of—if ever it came together as a collectivity of desperate and deprived people, of poor working class people. The threat of its latent potentiality is enough to send a frisson through the progressive senses: a spectre haunting the reactionary landscape, the popular masses united, actively rejecting populism!

It’s curious how some translations of Capital Volume One don’t actually employ the term lumpenproletariat. Samuel Moore’s and Edward Aveling’s first English edition, for instance, achieved in 1887, opts instead for “dangerous classes.” Lumpenproletariat doesn’t appear anywhere in Moore’s and Aveling’s efforts, supervised by Engels. [1] I’ve always wondered why their translation, which International Publishers reissued in New York in 1967, at Volume One’s centenary, differed from Penguin’s 1976 edition (and Vintage’s 1977), translated by Ben Fowkes?

That latter translation was carried out in conjunction with New Left Review, a major theoretical mouthpiece of international Marxism since 1960; its editorial committee is predominantly Trotskyist; and the most seasoned of Fourth International Trotskyists, Ernest Mandel, wrote a long introduction to the text. Whether Trotsky’s stamp, another intellectual who scoffed at the lumpenproletariat, had any subtle bearing on the translation; or, conversely, whether Moore’s and Aveling’s reveal their own secret yearning for a class becoming dangerous, is anybody’s guess.

In saying this, we should probably also give a nod to Bakunin, Marx’s great leftist rival. Bakunin sat on the other side of the fence in the First International, championing its anarchist wing. He waxed lyrical about “the flower of the proletariat,” which, he said, “doesn’t mean, as it does to the Marxians, the upper layer, the most civilised and comfortably off in the working world, that layer of semi-bourgeois workers… By the flower of the proletariat I mean, above all, those millions of non-civilised, disinherited, wretched and illiterates… that great rabble of the people ordinarily designated by Messrs. Marx and Engels by the phrase at once picturesque and contemptuous of ‘lumpenproletariat’.”

For Bakunin, “that rabble which, being very nearly unpolluted by all bourgeois civilisation, carries in its heart, in its aspirations, in all necessities and the miseries of its collective position, all the germs of the Socialism of the future.” Bakunin is as glowing of the lumpenproletariat as Marx is as damning. But I’m wondering whether their black or white positioning might be better tempered by a dialectical shade of grey, by some critical positioning within each man’s camp?

The first twentieth century scholar to raise the lumpenproletariat out the mire, and critically affirm it as a “dangerous class,” came from beyond the white European world: Frantz Fanon, a physician and psychiatrist from Martinique. His opus The Wretched of the Earth (1961) highlights the role of a black lumpenproletariat in the anti-colonial struggles sweeping across Africa during the 1950s. “It is within this mass of humanity,” writes Fanon, “this people of the shantytowns, at the core of the lumpenproletariat, that the rebellion will find its urban spearhead. For the lumpenproletariat, that horde of starving men, uprooted from their tribe and from their clan, constitutes one of the most spontaneous and the most radically revolutionary force of a colonised people.” “Like a pack of rats, you may kick them and throw stones at them, but despite your efforts they’ll go on gnawing at the roots of the tree.”

Fanon says revolutionary groups and progressive political parties need to find a space for the lumpenproletariat to manoeuvre. This is his crucial point. Any struggle for liberty and justice, he says, ought to give its fullest attention to this lumpenproletariat. Or else. Or else what? Or else oppressors and demagogues won’t lose the chance to pit the poor against the poor. It was Marx’s fear, too, as we’ve seen. Oppressors and demagogues are “extremely skilful,” Fanon says, “in using ignorance and incomprehension which are weaknesses of the lumpenproletariat.”

“If this available reserve of human effort isn’t immediately organised by the forces of rebellion,” he warns, “it will find itself fighting as hired soldiers side by side with the colonial troops.” Colonised peoples have to fight for their freedom, with force, if necessary, with violence, through open armed open struggle. Faced with an aggressor, the lumpenproletariat has to grasp its own spirit of spontaneous revolt. “The colonial man,” says Fanon, “finds his freedom in and through violence.” Yet this violence must be “proportionate to the violence exercised by the threatening colonial regimes.”

In the decades since Fanon’s death, the wretched on the earth are still amongst us. The dialectic of coloniser and colonised hasn’t gone away. Its spots have changed; its nature has changed. It is closer to the core now, within core nations, an internal neo-colony, on the urban periphery, out on the coloniser’s banlieue. Colonised peoples are still marginalised peoples. Their freedom of subjectivity continues to be denied. They still lack dignity, suffer daily humiliations, endure all the privations and exploitations that Fanon described. Indeed, one of the keywords in The Wretched of the Earth persists to this day: lack—“sans,” in Fanon’s French. Everywhere we find people lacking: without housing (sans domicile), without homeland (sans patrie), without territory (sans territoire), without work (sans travail), without official identity cards (sans papiers), and ultimately without rights (sans droits).

Fanon’s death was untimely. He passed away a month after Les damnés de la terre first appeared in Paris, dying of leukaemia in a clinic near Washington D.C., aged thirty six. He never saw his great book in print. But its message soon became the message, soul food for another sort of anti-colonial battle, one raging in the American inner city. By the mid-1960s, the Black Panthers had reincarnated Fanon as their patron saint, as their main man, in their fight against racist oppression and economic exploitation.

In Seize the Time, one of the Panther’s founders, Bobby Seale, recounts calling on another founder, Huey Newton, with a copy of Fanon’s book under his arm. “Hey, man, have you read this thing?” he asks Newton. “Huey was laying up in bed, thinking, plotting on the man.” No, he said, he hadn’t. Soon “the brother got into reading Fanon,” Seale said, “and, man, let me tell you, when Huey got hold of Fanon…[he’d] explain it in depth.” Newton understood what Fanon meant about organising the lumpenproletariat—“if the organisation didn’t give a base for organising the brother who’s pimping, the brother who’s hustling, the unemployed, the downtrodden, the brother who’s robbing banks, who’s not politically conscious, that if you didn’t relate to these cats, the power structure would organise these cats against you.”

Another Panther to get Fanon was Eldridge Cleaver. He was just out of prison, on parole, wore a leather jacket and a beret. On the inside, he’d read The Communist Manifesto and written letters about about his incarceration, about a life of petty crime and the reality of the colonised “black soul.” The free-wheeling counter-cultural magazine Ramparts published extracts of these letters. (They’d later become the basis for Cleaver’s memoir Soul on Ice.) In Cleaver, Seale saw another Malcolm X. The dude could write, could rap, and he came from the lumpen. Immediately, Cleaver became the Panther’s “Minister of Information.” The real work for the Party, he suggested, was “organising the brothers on the block.”

A vital organ was a newspaper. In 1967, The Black Panther was launched, beginning as a 4-page newsletter, run off in Oakland; but, by the late 1960s, at 25c per issue, The Black Panther became a fully-blown weekly newspaper, one of the nation’s highest circulating underground papers—selling 125,000 copies per week between 1968-1971. The Black Panther relayed information about the Party’s activities, about its ideology, about other national and international black struggles. The newspaper offered a “serve the people” programme, connecting local needs with larger radical issues, across the U.S. and the imperialist globe. Ex-cons, without jobs, who’d barely finished high school, who’d never written a line, were working at the newspaper, learning new skills while becoming politically organised and conscious.

In The Black Panther, Cleaver published his classic essay, “On the Ideology of the Black Panther Party.” There, he points the finger at the labour unions and the Democratic Party, and at the “Marxist-Leninists.” Cleaver reckons the working class is “the rightwing of the proletariat, and the lumpenproletariat is the leftwing.” “O.K. We’re the lumpen,” he says. “Right on. The lumpenproletariat are all those who have no secure relationship or vested interest in the means of production and the institutions of capitalist society… who have never worked and never will.” We’re the “criminal element,” too, he says, “those who live by their wits, those who don’t even want a job, who hate to work and can’t relate to punching some pig’s time clock, who would rather punch a pig in the mouth and rob him than work for him.” “But even though we are lumpen,” Cleaver says, “we are still members of the Proletariat, a category that theoretically cuts across national boundaries.”

So, “WHO SPEAKS FOR THE LUMPENPROLETARIAT?,” wonders Cleaver, in a question still requiring a hard answer. The lumpen finds itself in a peculiar predicament with respect to the working working class. It’s been locked out of the economy, sometimes locked itself out. It doesn’t engage in direct action against the system of oppression; doesn’t focus rebellion on the picket line; can’t call a strike against the factory bosses. The lumpen can’t manifest its complaints through any labour union. “It’s forced to create its own forms of rebellion,” Cleaver says, “which are consistent with its condition in life.” The lumpen is left with little choice “but to manifest its rebellion in the University of the Streets.”

“Streets belong to the lumpen,” Cleaver says, “and it is in the streets that the lumpen will make their rebellion.” This militant reasoning “is often greeted by hoots and howls from the spokesmen of the working class in chorus with the mouthpieces of the bourgeoisie. These talkers like to put down struggles of the lumpen as being ‘spontaneous’, ‘unorganised,’ and ‘chaotic and undirected’. But the lumpen moves anyway, refusing to be straightjacketed or controlled.”

Spontaneity always expresses itself in the street. The street is the last bastion of society that hasn’t been entirely dominated by bourgeois institutions. (It’s crucial it stays that way.) Institutions fear the street, try to cordon off streets, repress street spontaneity. They want to decant street people from the street, patrol and police the street, quell the apparent disorder of the street, reaffirm order in the name of the law. We know enough from past street revolts involving lumpenproletariat that streets fill the void left by institutions; they let the voice of the voiceless make itself heard.

That voice can’t make itself voluble anyplace else. Sometimes mass violence in the street is unavoidable, even justifiable: it reveals the glaring lag between “the people” and degenerate social institutions, including out-of-touch politicians. We might think of the black lumpen revolts of 1965, in Watts, and 1967, in Detroit; or indeed across the U.S. and the world throughout 1968; even in 1992, in Los Angeles, with the so-called “Rodney King” uprising; and then we’ve had assorted “riots” in Britain, in 1981, in Liverpool (Toxteth) and London (Brixton), as well as in 2011, when widespread looting and arson ignited many cities; meantime, in 2005, the Parisian banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois revolted. And the recent gilets jaunes violence attests to masses of peripheral people demanding their core rights on the streets.

There’s a deep history of ruling classes fearing the dangerous classes, fearing them in the street, fearing their neighbourhoods, stigmatising their neighbourhoods. The French historian Louis Chevalier long ago showed how dangerous class criminality was often simply a strategy to survive an urban environment where the odds were stacked against poor people. Chevalier’s laboratory was Paris; and in Labouring Classes and Dangerous Classes (1958), he concentrates on the first half of the nineteenth century, when the criminal activity of the Parisian dangerous classes set a capitalist precedent: it became the most normal aspect of urbanising everyday life.

Chevalier was a historian who’d weened himself off statistical facts gleaned from official archives. He favoured instead the rich descriptions of the great nineteenth century novelists, particularly Balzac, Chevalier’s hero, whose epic Comédie humaine (comprising some 91 novels) represented a vast document of social realism, a tremendous historical resource to be tapped. Balzac’s novels, Chevalier said, sharply define the link between the dangerous classes and the upper classes, with the “honest” labouring classes wedged somewhere in between. Balzac remained a long-life Royalist yet hated an ascendant bourgeoisie with such spleen that he frequently threw in his lot with the lower classes, whom he lived amongst and wrote about with considerable compassion and sympathy.

The backdrop of Balzac’s creative universe was the collapse of the Ancien Régime (which he lamented) and the massive demographic and economic changes the French capital was undergoing from the 1830s onwards. “This unbalanced development of resources and population,” Chevalier said, meant “crime was now an aspect of poverty.” Chevalier, like Balzac, deigns here to Thomas Malthus and the English parson’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), which Marx pilloried in Capital. (“The great sensation this pamphlet caused,” Marx had said, “was due solely to the fact that it corresponded to the interests of a particular party.”)

Malthusian ideas were much in vogue then; and the claim that lower class population growth was rapidly outrunning available resources was heartily cheered by a gallic gentry across the Channel. Balzac seems to have swallowed Malthusian thought wholesale, without really thinking about it, without really considering its reactionary implications. From the Malthusian standpoint, the rise of the dangerous classes was directly correlated to a depletion of economic resources; there are just too damn many of the buggers, breeding like rabbits, swelling their ranks through an “absolute” law of population the likes of which Marx decried in “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation”; there, he’d said, the creation of wealth progressively produces a relative surplus population. Nothing absolute about it.

The Malthusians were dead against social welfare: it would mean the poor would only reproduce even more numerously. The fertility of dangerous classes had to be curbed; beggars should either be sent to the workhouse or kicked out of town. Malthus himself was merciless in denying relief to the poor, instrumental in helping pass the Amendment Act of 1834 Poor Law, revising existing legislation. He said it had been too easy for the poor to receive aid and they were abusing the old system. Kicking them off welfare was in their best interests; it’d force the lazy blighters to find honest graft, spend less time fucking about. It was a precursor of classic conservative pretzel logic that prevails to this day. [2]

In Balzac’s Paris, proletarians were dangerous because of their desperate situation on the margins of an urban life in transition. Bourgeois capitalism and its factory system was upsizing the city while downsizing the petty-bourgeois artisan, converting the latter into a mere deskilled wage-labourer. And technological change would soon see off the factory-hand, chase them onto the streets where the “hospital” (Marx’s label) of pauperism awaited them. Like everything else under capitalism, pauperism is actively “produced”: “its production,” says Marx, “is included in that of the relative surplus population, its necessity is implied by their necessity; along with the surplus population, pauperism forms a condition of capitalist production, and of the capitalist development of wealth.”

Marx was an admirer of Balzac; allusions to the Frenchmen’s writings are scattered throughout Marx’s works. He was even reputed to be planning a monograph devoted to creator of La Comédie humaine; alas, he never realised it. Engels was another fan, once remarking in a letter (to the radical journalist Margaret Harkness) that “one of the greatest features in old Balzac” is his “Social Realism.” “His satire is never keener,” Engels added, “his irony never bitterer, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathises most deeply—the nobles. And the only men of whom he always speaks with undisguised admiration are his bitterest political antagonists, the republican heroes of the Cloître Saint-Méry, the men, who at that time (1830-6) were indeed the representatives of the popular masses.”

It’s all the more surprising, then, why Marx and Engels should home in exclusively on Balzac’s top-down perspective, on his excoriations of “the nobles.” Why overlook that other aspect of his social realism: its bottom-up picaresque evocations of the dangerous classes? Marx and Engels make short shrift of Balzac’s explorations of their habits and hopes, of their shiftless cacophonous world, which he depicts with both charm and menace. They seem content to have Balzac take apart the elite guys, without seeing how some of his most fascinating and intriguing characters are poor guys, hailing from the lowest depths of the popular masses.

Take the criminal genius Jacques Collin (aka Vautrin, aka the Spanish priest Abbé Carlos Herrera). Collin was a master of disguise and dissimulation, Balzac says, a dab hand at ruse and seduction. In his assorted guises, he haunts the whole of Balzac’s oeuvre, quite literally haunts it, epitomising how the shadowy dangerous classes could unnerve the bourgeoisie. Bourgeois society had helped create this species; but its very being, its very underground existence, its dark satanic reputation, became a constant source of terror for ruling classes.

Balzac was quietly protective of Jacques Collin, could never quite bring himself round to kill off his criminal hero. At the end of Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (cf. “The Last Incarnation of Vautrin”), Balzac has Collin negotiate his own release from Paris’s Conciergerie prison, afterwards hanging up his swag bag and “retiring in 1845 or thereabouts.” Collin’s nickname was “Trompe-la-Mort”—“Dodgedeath”—because of his uncanny knack of escaping incarceration, his hair’s-breath avoidance of the gallows. Collin belonged to a highly organised secret criminal association that seemed to mesmerise Balzac: la haute-pègre—the high underworld (the swell mob in some English translations)—a diverse network of malefactors in which the lowest of the low seemed to attain the highest of the high; Jacques Collin reigned as its king and mastermind, as its ringleader and royalty.

The high underworld had its own argot and secret language, its own passwords and codes of behaviour, its own cells and organisations within organisations, operating in a subterranean hide-out of dives and inns, of curtained backrooms and seedy bordels. Members of the haute-pègre considered themselves above the law, taking a pride in flouting the law, living by their own laws. In Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, Balzac says “these dukes and peers of the underworld had founded, between 1815 and 1819, the famous society of the ‘Dix-Mille’, so-called from the agreement by virtue of which none of them undertook an operation in which the loot was less than ten thousand francs.” The haute-pègre existed as an underground republic, as a shadow democracy, which, Balzac claims, “presents in the social scene a reflection of those illustrious highwaymen whose courage, character, exploits and eminent qualities will always be admired.” [3]

Louis Chevalier produced two other works on the dangerous classes: Montmartre du plaisir et du crime (1980), on Paris’s famous northern bohemian quartier in the first half the twentieth century, with its artists, low-lifers and mauvais garçons; and another, The Assassination of Paris, three years earlier, devoted to a different sort of criminal dangerous class, a lumpenbourgeoisie. This time the perpetrators were more dangerous than ever before, principally because they came from the “respectable” high-life and wore suits and ties: the polytechniciens—the elite bureaucrats educated at France’s grandes écoles—who’d systematically orchestrated the deadly coup de grâce.

This dangerous dangerous class has instigated a greedy feast—a Grande Bouffe—of rape and pillage; technocrats, in cahoots with a new breed of neoliberal business executives, more brazenly entrepreneurial than their forebears, frequently schooled in the U.S., had reorganised Parisian space, done it rationally and profitably in their own crass class image. The wrecker’s ball had torn into medieval neighbourhoods, emptying them of their popular life, built superhighways along the Seine, ripped out old market halls. “Paris is now a closed universe,” Chevalier said, “disinfected, deodorised, devoid of the unexpected, without surprises, with nothing shocking, a well-protected ordered world.”

Chevalier saw the destruction of les Halles, Paris’s central wholesale food and flower market, with its wonderful old glass and cast iron pavilions, as the violation of the City of Light, as its fatal blow. “With les Halles gone,” he said, “Paris is gone.” It’d been the heart and soul of Paris, its ignoble viscera, a palpitating living tissue attached to the rest of the city by nerves and ligaments, by vessels and veins; and such “radical surgery” augurs very badly for the popular future of the city, Chevalier thought. The bloody smell of les Halles—the authentic odour of its working class streets, of butcher’s shops and triperies, of flower sellers and cheap cafés—had been supplanted by “that frightful jumble of pipes and conduits and ducts that they have dubbed the gas works.”

Chevalier meant the Pompidou Centre, “baptised after my unfortunate comrade,” he said, “whom I cannot bring myself to believe was personally responsible for this horrible thing.” “It is blue,” Chevalier quipped, “yet Paris is grey.” He’d been a schoolmate of the French President, still lunched with him almost every week; yet Chevalier ventured into a demi-monde where his President never ventured and loved the democracy of old les Halles, where people from all walks of life and classes—from high society to no society at all—once mingled. “In the old popular neighbourhood from which all the bums have been removed,” he lamented, “one now meets only countless copies of the mink-coated woman walking her dog. Thank God, the dogs at least are not all of the same species. As for the bums, I put amongst them, without hesitation, those most cherished children of Parisian historians.” [4]

Chevalier’s attack on planners and urban managers in The Assassination of Paris was perhaps the first to challenge the emergence of a new brand of city, underwritten by a new kind of economic philosophy: the neoliberal city, dominated by a dangerous class of neoliberals who over the course of the 1980s and 1990s would supersede the ancien urban régime. The popular city began wilting under a historic compromise between a neomanagerialist class and an ascendant cadre of free market businessmen. They’d soon conjoin into a hybrid Frankenstein: entrepreneurs transmogrifying into state managers and state managers into commercial entrepreneurs, embracing one another on the threshold of urban change and global capitalist transformation.

At the new millennium, this new order was well and truly over its birth-pangs. As it stands to date, the assassination of almost all big cities has been perpetrated by a shadowy criminal underworld similarly beyond the law. The only difference now is that this underworld makes the law, rules governments, controls the mass media, operates unashamedly overground, across the planetary airwaves, peddling its credos and crudities morning, noon and night and much of the time in between. It also presents itself with an irreconcilable contradiction, an insuperable dialectic of a neoliberal economy, on the one hand, with its laws of motion sucking in and spitting out a residual surplus population as a condition for its billionaire wealth production; on the other hand, this economic order at the same time begets its progeny, the neoliberal city, which wants to rid itself of this self-same poor lumpen, cleanse its streets of people who have no place to go and who won’t disappear. [5]

What can today’s dangerous classes learn from yesterday’s? When Balzac was scribbling away in the 1830s and Marx still a fresh-faced lad, another kind of clandestine society—“The Society of the Seasons”—met, countenancing conspiracy as one method for instigating insurrection. Its leaders, like the haute-pègre, went largely unseen; secret meetings recruited foot soldiers from the intelligentsia and lumpenproletariat, who all pledged allegiance within a hierarchy of cells—a “week” meant six men and a leader; a “month,” twenty eight members plus a leader; three months made a “season,” and four seasons a “year.” This network hardly stretched beyond Paris; its membership never topped a thousand revolutionaries, around three years of “seasons.” [6] Yet the covert nature of its cells unsettled the powers-that-be, and meant the Society punched above its weight—or else seemed to threaten to.

Maybe The Society of the Seasons offers some suggestive hints about what needs to be done now, about how to change our own inclement weather? Maybe we could experiment with a similar seasonal underground today? That way we might avoid those dangerous classes—as Fanon and the Black Panthers had insisted—getting recruited by the enemy, woo them over instead to participate in a new progressive movement. Just as it did almost two centuries earlier, this Society would need to establish covert cells in the faubourgs and banlieues, setting up leaders and organisers there. Full-time organisers and tacticians could then spearhead a plot to stymie the dominant flow of things.

Against a backdrop of rising unemployment, precarity and alienation, autonomous lefties of different stripes and persuasions—black bloc anarchists and dangerous classes who’ve never been politically active before, men and women, blacks and whites, gays, straights and trans, casseurs and voyous (and voyelles) from the ’hood—all need to be somehow encouraged to join in, welcomed into cells, so they can positively channel their energies and dissatisfactions. Sites of encounter wouldn’t be fancy: ordinary cafés and bars, street corners and youth centres in the peripheral estates, bowling alleys and pool halls at the local mall, school and university cafeterias, independent bookstores, anywhere where young people might hang out. Dialogue might sometimes be online but preferably face-to-face. Secrecy would be paramount during plotting, given how the forces of law and order crack down on subversive activity, tainting everything alternative, anything it doesn’t like, as criminal and/or “terrorist.”

One advantage to those without work is, of course, that they have free-time; so why not use this precious time socially? Fill it with other people, talking about one’s own predicament, which is other people’s predicament. Meeting people without jobs or with irregular jobs lets isolated people feel less isolated, creating a conscious collective with time on its hands, discussing publicly political affairs. Many unemployed people are glad they no longer have a life on the rack. But the perpetual menace is bureaucratic harassment and humiliation, a constant institutional intrusion into your private life, having to prove you’re “actively seeking work,” actively seeking pointless work that nobody really needs, that nobody would ever miss, that lasts too long and pays too little.

Many people, from the far right to the far left, are always up in arms about unemployment, always struggling against unemployment, always trying to dam its torrential flow. It’s never going to work. Many see unemployment as a dirty word, as a negative label, as a pathology. To be unemployed is to be a person without work. But must we forever define ourselves by work, as workers, and nothing else? Marx taught us why unemployment will never be eradicated from our society, such as it’s organised and run. The factory’s going badly. So you lay off workers. The factory’s going well. So you invest in new automation and lay off workers. It’s a no-win situation—no-win for everybody except the bosses and shareholders.

Work for the vast majority people means time spent doing something that has absolutely no meaning for the doer: an alienated activity, with an alienated product (if there is a product), commandeered by an alienating organisation, all conspiring to shape an alienated self. Many twenty- and thirty-somethings these days are learning how to re-evaluate their “career” choices, as well as the whole notion of career itself, because they’re smart enough to know that they might not have anything deemed “career” anymore. In fact, there’s now a whole generation of college-educated twenty-somethings who recognise they’ll never work a “proper” salaried job. They’re not turned on by temping or interning, either, by any “gig” economy. They’re a new lumpenproletariat.

Perhaps we can scheme alternative survival programmes, other methods through which we don’t so much “earn a living” as “live a life.” Perhaps we can self-downsize and confront the torment of work that forever jars: work is revered in our culture yet at the same time workers are becoming superfluous; you loath your job, your boss, loath the servility of what you do, of how you do it, the pettiness of the tasks involved, yet want to keep your job at all costs. You see no other way of defining yourself other than through work, than what you do for a living. Perhaps it’s time for us to get politicised around non-work? Then the lumpen might really become dangerous.

These are “truths” that any Society of the Seasons might promote and disseminate. In its Marxist guise, organisation needs to begin again underground. The underground was the stomping ground for lumpen radicals in the 1960s and it has to be again. But a new underground. Agitate again, build up again, somewhere cheap, somewhere far away. Or perhaps close by. Yet underground. For it’s true today that truth is more truthful in the poor underground than in the wealthy overground. Truth won’t be voiced from the rich core, but from the poor periphery, from the margins of life, from the margins of our cities, from bedsits and sunken basements, from communal squats, from grungy banlieues, from broken-down informal zones à défendre (ZAD), defended everywhere.

The other likelihood is that truth will get communicated via old means not new media. It’ll be shared by word-of-mouth, and on paper, in print form, not just online. Eldridge Cleaver was right to emphasise the importance of a newspaper in organising, with real pages. We need one, probably more than one. We need to reinvent the brawling underground press of the 1960s and 1970s, put a fresh spin on this old idea, and inspire a new audience of readers out there now. In their day, newspapers like Ramparts so rattled the conservative establishment that the CIA spied on them. (In its pages, Ramparts exposed the CIA’s surveillance and caused a huge uproar.)

In the late 1960s, there were around 500 underground newspapers, each belonging to an “Underground Press Syndicate.” All were run as collectives, frequently home-baked, printed on shoestring budgets; editorship usually identified with the counter-culture, with drop-outs and marginals. Some the best-known papers, like The Berkeley Barb and Rat Subterranean News (in a wink to Fanon?), had widespread and loyal readerships, shining because of the integrity of their reporting and the quality of the writing. News stories had an honesty that commercial media never had or lost long ago.

The problem with today’s commercial media, especially social media, is its saturation: there’s just too much of it, too much peddling of lies, too much fear and loathing. Over the airwaves, we’re literally flooded with truths, making it hard to decide which truth isn’t a lie. Through the underground press other truths might emerge, from the bottom-up, like they once did, via the tried and tested printed word, in a newspaper you can trust, that brings integrity to its reportage, correcting mainstream bias and online distortion. It might also help shift the debate from opposing to proposing.

And from this underground a new underground might take hold, together with some new propositions, affirming a different kind of citizenship; not an official citizenship but a sense of identity inside and beyond a passport, inside and beyond any official documentation—underneath it, perhaps; not expressive of a legal right bestowed by the bourgeois nation-state; nor with any flag or country or border. At this point I can only label it something phantom-like, a shadow citizenship, something haunting, lying latent: the repressed will of masses of people yet to find its dangerous collective self.


[1] Neither translator was a professional linguist. Moore was a socialist judge, based in Manchester, whom Engels knew and who had earlier translated The Communist Manifesto; Aveling was the common-law husband of Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor. For the record, The Communist Manifesto does mention the “dangerous classes,” “the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society,” says Marx. But, as Marx sees them, the only danger they pose is to themselves.

[2] “Let us note incidentally,” Marx ironises in a footnote to Capital, Chapter 25, “that although Malthus was a parson of the Church of England he had taken the monastic vow of celibacy… This circumstance favourably distinguishes him from other Protestant parsons, who have flung off the Catholic requirement of the celibacy of the priesthood, and taken ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ as their special Biblical mission to such an extent that they generally contribute to the increase of the population to a really unbecoming extent, whilst at the same time preaching the ‘principle of population’ to the workers.”

[3] The haute-pègre really existed in the first half of the nineteenth century; and Balzac’s Jacques Collin was loosely based on a real-life character, Eugène-François Vidocq. Vidocq himself was a criminal mastermind who knew so much about this underworld that, in the end, like Jacques Collin, he turned crime against itself, morphing into the first-known private detective and founder of a national detective agency known as the Sûreté Nationale. For some time Vidocq assumed a life as double-agent, a dialectical spy, though often which way the arrows pointed was blurry. His life of crime and as a criminalist captured the literary imagination of several writers, not just Balzac but Victor Hugo and Edgar Allan Poe (cf. “The Murders of Rue Morgue”).

[4] Guy Debord, who once associated himself with the Parisian dangerous classes in the fifties and sixties, found a strange affinity with the conservative Chevalier. In Panégyrique, he wrote: “It was almost as though… I was the only person to have loved Paris, because, to begin with, I saw no one else respond to this matter in the repugnant seventies. But afterwards I learned that Louis Chevalier, the city’s old historian, had published then, without too much being said about it, The Assassination of Paris. So we could count at least two righteous men in that city at the time.”

[5] In UK cities, there’s been talk about scrapping a 195-year-old Vagrancy Act (1824). Now, there are so many homeless people sleeping rough and begging on British streets that to criminalise them is both a savage flouting of human rights and an over-stretching of police resources. According to the homeless charity “Crisis,” rough sleeping has increased 70 percent between 2014-18; homeless encampments have tripled during the past 5 years. As Crisis say, nobody should be criminalised for having nowhere to live (see “Calls for 195-year-old Vagrancy Act to be Scrapped,” The Guardian, June 19, 2019).

[6] The Society of the Seasons was founded by two great republican revolutionaries, Louis-Auguste Blanqui and Armand Barbès, prominent organisers in the armed insurrection of May 1839 and June Days of 1848. Each devoted his life’s work to not working, to conspiring to overthrow the ruling regime. Marx called Blanqui “the head and heart of the proletarian party in France”; and of Barbès, he thought him “the scourge of the establishment.” In the late 1830s, Barbès wrote a fascinatingly-titled pamphlet: A Few Words to Those Who Sympathise With Workers Without Work.

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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2 Responses to Marx’s “Dangerous Classes”

  1. Zoe says:

    I have just finished reading ‘the amateur’ which is optimistic with it’s vastly important message about what is deemed to be failure (is it really failure?) But the book reads as if written for the ‘successful’, as there is little written about ‘incarcerations’ in any of its Kafkaesque forms.

    ‘The dangerous classes’, be they poor: mad, bad or sad, are ‘labelled’ and incarcerated, ‘unable to clear their names’. Not because they have necessarily chosen an unrespectable lifestyle but because of the naming/shaming of authorities. ‘ Lumpenprole’ or ‘feeble-minded’ are labels tossed off by aristocratic writers and authorities, who have never been glad to hold onto a basic job that respectable people might call menial. Glad because being on the blacklist of unrespectability means it’s a necessity to lead a double life. A life, half of which must be invisible. The ex-incarcerated must make do and make it up sometimes, to get by. For survival is a fight to the death.


  2. asevillab says:

    Reblogged this on multipliciudades and commented:
    Andy Merrifield’s rich, meandering reflections on Marx’s ‘dangerous classes’ and ‘shadow citizens.’

    Liked by 1 person

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