Lumpenproletariat is a somewhat controversial term that refers to the “underclass” of society, i.e. those who are “below” the working class. The term was coined in the mid-nineteenth century by Marx and Engels, who were seeking to describe the class background of the people the ruling class recruited into militias to violently suppress the 1848 revolutions. They arrived at this.

As Marx and Engels described them, the lumpenproletariat are what my Mum would call the “criminal underclass”: thieves, scammers, mooks for criminal syndicates, etc. Marx and Engels described them as a “parasitic” class that exploits wider society for its own ends, and can in turn be bribed for reactionary ends (i.e. they’re lacking in the class consciousness that would prevent them from being recruited into a far-right street-fighting force, if that force is paying them). Marx and Engels also considered sex workers to belong to this class, but from my modern perspective I don’t see how sex workers are “exploiting” people in any way like a scam artist clearly is.

But the existence of the lumpenproletariat basically stems from the harshness of capitalism. The long-term unemployed, including those with zero criminal involvement, are also considered to be part of the lumpenproletariat. People who are too disabled for paid employment, or single parents, who rely on (meagre) welfare payments to survive, are also arguably part of this class. If you hear phrases like “intergenerational welfare dependency”, that is also people alluding to the existence of this lumpenproletariat. People addicted to drugs who cannot hold down jobs are also lumpenproletarians. In this broader sense, this is a class which wider society already treats like absolute shit, so it’s not surprising that many in this group feel they don’t owe wider society anything, and that some turn to crime to try to “get something back” from people who treat them like garbage. Not that it’s then fair to smear everyone in long-term unemployment with a label that is usually used for actual criminals.

There is thus a lot of criticism of terms like “lumpenproletariat” or “underclass”. It is considered to stigmatise poverty, and also to create a divide between the so-called deserving and undeserving poor if by another name.

In the USA, some left-wing groups have identified the lumpenproletariat as a revolutionary class and sought to include them in their organisations. This includes the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. Part of the argument has been that class in the US is heavily racialised, and its lumpenproletariat is heavily Black (and to a lesser extent Latino), so this class should be organised to fight back against racist oppression (and also to preempt reactionaries paying them off to fight back against revolutionaries instead). The strategy saw mixed results. Some historians (e.g. Chris Booker and Errol Hen­der­son) have argued that the recruitment of so many “lumpenproletarians” into the Black Panthers were a leading cause of problems with discipline and an excessive readiness to resort to violence in that organisation.

Personally I think terms like “lumpenproletariat” or “underclass” do stigmatise people, even though it’s true that there is a class of people so ground down that they can’t even make it into the working class, and that in certain times and places this group has been known to play a decisively violent reactionary role (e.g. the 1848 revolutions, and fascism, including the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany). Honestly I think rather than using these broad terms, people should use more specific terms depending on what they’re actually talking about (e.g. “organised criminals” if that’s what they mean, “welfare recipients” if that’s what they mean – never using language that might conflate groups like this).