Marx and Engels by the phrase at once picturesque and contemptuous of “lumpen proletariat”, the “riff raff”, that rabble which, being very nearly unpolluted by all bourgeois civilization 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, and which alone is powerful enough to-day to inaugurate the Social Revolution and bring it to triumph (Bakunin in Marxism, Freedom, and the State).
Mikhail Bakunin believed, against Marx, that the lumpenproletariat were among the revolutionary classes because they remained relatively untarnished by power. By circumstance, the lumpen offer nothing to those in power, and so, they, in turn, are nothing to those with power. On the other hand, the proletariat offer up their labour – and, in so doing, they offer up surplus value – to the bourgeoisie.
Alain Badiou confused the lumpenproletariat for the proletariat when he wrote that the proletariat are, from the point of view of the bourgeoisie, nothing. The conclusion is that the proletariat must move from nothing toward something. To be absolutely precise, the point is that a revolution occurs when the proletariat move from being merely a thing toward the status of an object in the world. The conceptual scaffolding is fairly complicated here so I do not want to spend a lot of time focusing on this aspect of the argument. Rather, what I want to do is to highlight the basic moves that Badiou has made:
- The proletariat are nothing from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie;
- the proletariat as nothing are merely things in the world;
- from the perspective of the world, the proletariat do not exist;
- revolution occurs when those who do not exist, such as the proletariat, bring themselves into existence;
- thus, revolution is the change of some-thing with a minimal value of existence toward an object with maximal existence;
- the result of a revolution is the construction of a new world.
Allow me to highlight a passage from Badiou’s book, The Subject of Change (2013). The quotation is quite long, but I believe that it is an essential passage:
There is a very singular place of in-existence in a world and maybe it is also the place of suffering or negativity. You know that you are in a world and you know that you in-exist in this world, that you are nothing, and that nothing is not ontological because you are still something ontologically. But in the world, you are nothing. And so to be nothing in the world is simply to claim that your existence is minimal. For the world, to be minimum is to be zero. It is like you are not in the world, but you are in the world. In existence, it is also common that you are somewhere but nobody recognizes that you are somewhere. Nobody gives any signification to your presence, nobody knows you, and so on. And so, you are nothing. You are in the experience of not being in the world in which you are.
It was exactly this position that Marx discussed. It was the place of the proletariat in the political world of the nineteenth century. I will give you an example. Naturally, the proletariat is a collective existence in the historical world of the society of the nineteenth century. But from the point of view of political domination, the proletariat did not exist. Domination was reserved for the bourgeois class. An event, a political event, a revolution, can be defined by the transformation of no existence into real existence in a world. In a world, a political revolution has the capacity to allow us to go from something minimal to something maximal […] That is the abstract description of revolution [laughter]. Naturally, you understand, it is a change of worlds (Alain Badiou, The Subject of Change).
Badiou, impressed with his argument, later asks: “Do you know about the great music of the workers?” He continues: “‘We are nothing,’ The Internationale. ‘We are nothing, now let’s be all!’ It is precisely the same thing. We are only things, we must become objects.” At this point I want to highlight a number of points that deserve to be reinterpreted. First, Badiou’s thinking on the minimal value of existence for the proletariat seems better suited to the value of existence for the lumpenproletariat. Certainly, the lumpenproletariat – being the class which does not contribute to society but merely absorbs a small amount of pocket change for the essential day-to-day protection and nourishment – is dependent upon the other classes. But this does not imply that the other classes are dependent upon the lumpen. The lumpen are nothing from the perspective of the bourgeosie. On the other hand, the proletariat are dependent upon the other classes even while the other classes are dependent upon the proletariat’s labour power.
I realize that these are relatively basic arguments. Assuming these arguments to be accurate, the lumpenproletariat are certainly a revolutionary class. The problem is that the classes may be further distinguished on the basis of their potential to remain in fidelity to a revolutionary event. The lumpen, as the argument goes, are predisposed, out of desperation, to give up their ideals to feed their family and friends. The proletariat, on the other hand, are predisposed to adopt revolutionary ideals when the dialectic of master and slave, worker and boss, reach an impasse. It seems, then, that the lumpen are already revolutionaries (but future conservatives), and the proletariat are already conservatives (but future revolutionaries). Put another way, the lumpen are overly eager (ready, but never capable) and the proletariat are overly optimistic (capable, but never ready). The lumpen jump in head-first and the proletariat sit and wait. When the proletariat think they are jumping in head first, they are really sitting and waiting, and when the lumpen believe themselves to be sitting and waiting, they are really jumping in head-first.
However, I believe that this is not always the case. The lumpen are further distinguished from the proletariat on the basis of their volatility. If one day the lumpen are weak, another day they are strong; if one moment the lumpen are hard-headed, another day they are soft; if one day the lumpen are deceptive, another day they are true, etc. Those moments when they are true, when the stars align in their favour, they will, unlike that respectable mass that revolutionaries name the proletariat, form that trauma of their birthplace – that memory of their fathers’ public humiliation to buy a loaf of bread, that memory of their mothers’ degradation to keep solidarity intact, and a thousand other traumas – into a spear that cuts a hole into the world large enough for the anxiety of a new world to be felt again.