The lumpenproletariat is one of the most infamous terms in Marxist thought. It stems from the German word “lump,” which denotes scab, rag, canker, sore, and scoundrel, and connotes a series of “undesirables” – the unemployed, the sex worker, the homeless, the addict, the petty criminal, the single mother, and the cruiser. For Marx and Engels, the lumpen functions as an abject remainder of proletarian subjectivity, a disorderly rabble opposed to the politically-committed proletariat. This idea of a “social scum, passively rotting mass,” as Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, has troubled class analysis ever since its inception in the 1840s. How can one reconcile the power of Marxist analysis with this frankly disgusted gaze upon what Victorian commentators called the “undeserving poor”? Is this merely an aberrant moralism, or a more constitutive aspect of Marxist class theory? How does the condemnation of riots compared to “orderly protest” fit into a long history of the exclusion of the lumpen? And how is this term racialized, gendered, and queered?
This course will examine the intellectual biography and cultural history of this vexed category, explored through a historical morphology of lumpen formations as they appear in a number of different scenes of reception, flashpoints of agency, and moments of radicalization. It will begin with Marx’s and Engels’s coinage and development of the concept in the 1840s-60s, before moving to French naturalism of the 1870s and British socialist-feminist politics of the 1880s. Next, we will move to Depression-era US, probing how Marxist formations engaged with the lumpen. Moving into the 1950s and 60s, we will read John Rechy alongside queer of color critique to reexamine the intersections of class, sexuality and race might be rethought through the category of the lumpenproletariat. Then we will turn to John Waters and the trash aesthetic of the 70s – queer lumpens teetering between hippies and punks. Next we will watch a 1996 film by Black lesbian filmmaker Cheryl Dunye that looks back to midcentury Hollywood’s racist stereotypes of women of color.