The crisis of revolutionary theory right now is that it’s plain too old and obsolete. Meaning that in practice it’s largely unusable. This is understood as a practical reality, and we usually leave revolutionary theory behind us in the attic when people go out to play. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the lumpen/proletariat, that most dramatic, most elusive of maybe-or-maybe-not “classes.” This matters because the revolutionary movement and the lumpen have a much longer and more involved relationship than we’ve fully owned up to. Whether revolutionaries think it’s good or not, the lumpen are going to play a big part in everyone’s future. No better place, then, to start remaking the tool of theory.
Criminalization is a basic condition of our paradoxically growing yet collapsing, glittering but increasingly decaying late capitalism. Shaping the zone of the poorest and most exploited in postmodern society, the zone of the dispossessed that everyone knows of. Here it’s often called the inner city or the rez. Same same as elsewhere it’s called the favela or the ghetto, the bantustan or banlieue. Every capitalist nation or society has its own name for it; it’s always different and always the same, because it is where the dispossessed have to gather, to live and struggle to survive. It’s where criminality is out front and where the lumpen/proletariat are mass produced as jagged fragments or strata of “partial-class.” While the lumpen fall from all classes, it is in these zones of the dispossessed that they reach an open and mass character. That they themselves can take over the life of parts of the neighborhood and make it “home.”
Out of this enduring culture and criminalization of the zone, lumpen/proletarians are constantly being made in larger and larger numbers even in the most technologically advanced and affluent nations of imperialist “civilization.” Of all the classes of capitalist society, it is the lumpen/proletariat that has the most outdated theory attached to it. Just scraps of theory, really. Still pictured by many socialists as a small and marginal maybe-or-maybe-not “class,” wretched and largely unimportant to revolutionary change. But today the lumpen have become major players in the political crises of both left and right. This is something that has to be picked up, no matter how white-hot to the touch.
J. Sakai’s ground-breaking, The “Dangerous Class” and Revolutionary Theory: Thoughts on the Making of the Lumpen/Proletariat, is our first major exploration of this most controversial and least understood “non-class” in revolutionary politics. It is an attempt to unknot the puzzle. It encompasses the threads of criminality as well as gender, of breaking social boundaries and eating the bitterest of class politics.
At all times, the author interrogates the forming of left theory on this “dangerous class” by the highway flare of his own experiences, and more importantly the mass violent liberation wars of the 1950s-1960s. This is not a memoir, though, but an explanation of how anti-capitalist class theory is hammered out while red-hot.
From the day Marx & Engels’ Communist Manifesto first lit up the “dangerous class” of jumbled criminals and outcasts on the far margins of society—those stickup-boys and sex workers and thieves and mercenaries whom they named the lumpen/proletariat–radicals have been uncertain what their role should be, and even how they should be discussed. In no other area of the class structure has there been such widely divergent anti-capitalist viewpoints. Who are allies, who are enemies?
While great 20th century rebels of the capitalist periphery from Mao Z to Huey Newton forced the sharp evolution of left work with the lumpen, the general uncertainty has only persisted. Confusing not only our immediate practice but even larger anti-capitalist theory about class politics. Sakai’s work comes at a time when there has been renewed interest in politically locating the lumpen—as they assume a larger and larger role at the cutting edge of world upheaval.
The “Dangerous Class” and Revolutionary Theory is not only novel for its subject but in its approach. The author shows how the vulgar “socialist” picture of noble working people on one side of a divide and unsavory criminals and outcasts on the other, has never been true. But, rather, that the emerging outcast lumpen/proletariat and the new capitalist lower working class that they painfully grew out of—were both criminalized at birth in the rise of euro-capitalism. In all this, Sakai follows the actual “non-class” development of the lumpen in capitalism alongside the development of left theory on these declassed elements.
The “Dangerous Class” and Revolutionary Theory starts with the paper of that name, on the birth of the modern lumpen/proletariat in the 18th and 19th centuries and the storm cloud of revolutionary theory that has always surrounded them. Going back and piecing together both the actual social reality and the analyses primarily of Marx but also Bakunin and Engels, the paper shows how Marx’s class theory wasn’t something static. His views learned in quick jumps, and then all but reversed themselves in several significant aspects. While at first dismissing them in the Communist Manifesto as “that passively rotting mass” at the obscure lower depths, Marx soon realized that the lumpen could be players at the very center of events in revolutionary civil war. Even at the center in the startling rise of new regimes. Like his was at times almost a post-modern understanding.
The second part consists of the detailed paper Mao Z’s Revolutionary Laboratory and the Role of the Lumpen Proletariat. This, too, is ground-breaking work. If the major revolutionary theory we have about the lumpen was first roughly assembled in 19th century Europe, these ideas weren’t put to the test then. As Sakai points out, the left’s euro-centrism here prevented it from realizing the obvious: that the basic theory from European radicalism was first fully tested not there or here but in the Chinese Revolution of 1921-1949. Under severely clashing political lines in the left, the class analysis finally used by Mao Z was shaken out of the shipping crate from Europe and then modified to map the organizing of millions over a prolonged generational revolutionary war. One could hardly wish for a larger test tube, and the many lessons to be learned from this mass political experience are finally put on the table.
In addition, there are also two lively Addendums: The first is an informal correspondence, a back and forth of questions raised by an early draft of The “Dangerous Class” and Revolutionary Theory, between the book’s editor and J. Sakai. It starts with the question of how to place the traditional gay community in this? The second Addendum is a reprint of J. Sakai’s 1976 covert intelligence paper, "U.S. Experiment Using Black “Gangs” to Repress Black Community Rebellions" (circulated under the earlier title “The Lumpenproletariat and Repression”). There is both an extensive Foreword explaining the politics and circumstances that led to this paper, as well as an Afterword explaining how the education paper was used and some critical reaction to it.
J. Sakai is a revolutionary intellectual with decades of experience as an activist in the U.S. As he explains about the path that led him to writing Settlers, his first book:
"In the Fall 1961, i found myself with other militant Sit-In veterans in the reborn Oakland chapter of Congress of Racial Equality, picketing a major store which had refused to hire New Afrikans. Even in the Bay Area that was the custom and law back then. It had started years earlier for me in high school in L.A.'s 1950's San Fernando Valley (sent by my family after flunking out of school in Chicago). Where as the lone uneducated leftist i had tried unsuccessfully to sell copies of the socialist labor party newspaper (the only one i could get) every week to my classmates. At the same time was working as an Asian houseboy for the family of a Jewish used car dealer (stereotypes abound for a reason). Was fired for taking a night off for my own high school graduation. The wife lost it and screamed, "People like you don't need graduations!" A month later was living in a different state to find a job and avoid the "colored" military draft. And active as the novice food drive coordinator in a long, bitter, ugly hospital workers' strike, whose main public demand was pay raises up to the federal minimum wage (we lost badly).
Have been through a thousand campaigns and movement groups since then, and can't believe i've been so dumb so often. In 1975, while mostly active doing Afrikan liberation movement support with radical exiles from various countries, i started writing a historical investigation into the puzzling class politics of euro-amerikan workers. Which i naively thought would only be a quick movement paper. Eight years later what became re-titled as Settlers was finished. Even then i didn't believe there was any audience for it, and planned to only photocopy fifty copies of my typed draft for internal education in the underground black liberation army coordinating committee. Comrades with more sense than myself insisted that we publish it as a book if only for the liberation movement. Over the years, we took it through three editions, but finally it's time to hand it on to new publishers. Remember only, i wrote this with my life."