1. Editorial #4
  2. Brown v. Ferguson
    1. A History of Separation
    2. Preface
    3. Construction
    4. Infrastructure
    5. Fracturing
    6. Strange Victory
    7. Defeat
    8. Afterword
  3. gather us from among the nations
  4. its own peculiar decor
  5. An Identical Abject-Subject?

A History of Separation

The construction of the workers' movement

Both of the above-mentioned fallacies were elements in the story that the workers movement told about itself, via its leaders and theoreticians. The first fallacy, the stagist, progressivist view of history, was a staple of 19th century bourgeois thought, from Ranke to Comte to Spencer, and one that proved particularly attractive to the workers’ movement’s official scribes. Kautsky, Bernstein and Plekhanov, as well as Lenin, Luxemburg and Lukács, all took heart from the idea that their revolution inherited the baton from a previous one, the so-called “bourgeois revolution”, which they saw as the inevitable result of the development of the forces of production and the rising power of an urban bourgeoisie. In early writings Marx himself subscribed to this view of inevitable stages, but as we shall see in the postface, “The Idea of the Workers Movement”, he rejected it in his later writings on the Russian Mir.

In this section we show that the “final” Marx was right in repudiating the stagist perspective that he himself had promulgated. Except in England, capitalism did not develop in nuce within the old regime; the European bourgeois revolutions, when and where they took place, were not really bourgeois at all.1 Instead, they largely found their basis in the internal tensions of the old regime, that is to say, first of all, in an ongoing contest between peasants and the elites who extracted an income from their labours, and second, in contests among elite factions, vying for dominance. As we will see, these old regimes tried to modernise themselves in response to the onset of capitalist development in the UK, and the military expansionism with which it was associated. That eventually led to attempts to institute capitalist social relations, by decree, on the continent.

We do not claim that capitalist development failed to take place outside of the UK and US. It’s just that the political revolution which was supposed to accompany the economic revolution did not take place on European soil. Thus, the establishment of liberal norms — with assurances of universal (male) suffrage, individual freedoms, and government by laws debated in parliament — was not guaranteed. Instead, the old regime, with its system of privileges, largely preserved itself alongside an ongoing capitalist development. Elite privileges would be abolished only where the working class completed the political tasks that the bourgeoisie had not. Such was the social setting for the emergence of the labour movement, and also for the development of socialist and anarchist perspectives. The labour movement had to fight its way into existence in a world where both the peasantry and the old regime elites remained powerful forces.2

a non-transition

According to the formerly prevailing stagist view of history, the rise of the absolutist state was already a symptom of the transition to capitalism, which was supposedly going on all across Europe in the early modern period. Towns were swelling with the commercial activity of the bourgeoisie; the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 were supposed to mark its rise to political power. But in fact, the peasant revolts at the heart of modern revolutions — which spanned the centuries from 1789 all the way down to the 1960s — did not usher in the political rule of capital; rather, they largely continued class struggle within the context of the old regime. Peasant communities were fighting to free themselves from the domination of feudal lords. However, the upshot of doing so “would not be the transition to capitalism, but the strengthening of pre-capitalist social property relations”.3 Peasant revolts had as their goal to strengthen the resistance of their communities to all forms of exploitation — both capitalist and non-capitalist.

The peasants could carry on without the lords for they were already constituted as a community: they had “direct access to factors of production — land, tools, and labour — sufficient to enable them to maintain themselves without recourse to the market”.4 Under these conditions, the removal of external domination by lords would not release peasants into capitalist social relations. For that to happen, their communities would have to be dissolved. But it was difficult to make that happen. On the one hand, peasant communities did not dissolve themselves. On the other hand, they fought tenaciously against attempts to separate them from the land. Therefore, peasants — like every other non-capitalist social formation — do not necessarily become imbricated in markets. There is no historically inevitable tendency to proletarianise the world’s population.

While it was important as a step towards the formation of the modern state, the emergence of absolutism in continental Europe was only indirectly related to the transition to the capitalist mode of production. Absolutism arose because, in the aftermath of the Black Death, peasant communities in that region were stronger. It was difficult for feudal lords to extract rent from the peasants: “suffering from reduced revenues, local lords were often too weak to stand up to the expansionist designs of those great lordly competitors, monarchs and princes, who extended their territorial jurisdiction at [the local lords] expense.”5 On that basis, the absolutist state was able to centralise lords’ rent-extracting activity as state taxation (though only in a highly conflictual process, which pitted elites against one another). Thus, the wealth of absolutist states was won by squeezing the peasants more severely. What commercial development took place in this context merely reflected age-old cycles of urban growth and decline. While this process laid bases for what would become the modern state, there was no transition to the specifically capitalist mode of production necessarily implied in these developments.

Likewise, elsewhere in Europe, the strength of old regimes remained a constant feature of the landscape. But outside of Western Europe, that was not because peasants were growing stronger. Rather, it was because their communities were weak. In Eastern Europe, where territories were more recently colonised, lords retained a tight grip on the peasants. Even in the aftermath of the Black Death, lords were able to keep peasants in conditions of servitude, in some cases into the twentieth century, without having to centralise lordly extraction.

And beyond Europe? Marx had expected European colonialism to bring capitalism to the rest of the world.6 However, colonial administrations, even as late as the 1920s and 30s, only ended up reinforcing the power of the local elites, who ruled, in different ways, over various agrarian societies. Where those elites did not exist, for example, in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, colonial powers designated certain individuals as “chieftains”, sometimes inventing this role out of whole cloth. The point of colonialism was not to proletarianise the population, initiating a transition to fully capitalist social relations. On the contrary, the point was to reinforce existing social relations in the countryside — pinning “natives” down and then partially proletarianising them — in order to secure the space and the labour needed for limited projects of resource extraction.


It was only in England that capitalist social relations emerged as an unanticipated development out of the old regime. Here, class struggle in that context had a novel result. After the Black Death, strong peasant communities won formal freedom, but well-organised lords secured the right to charge rent on the land peasants farmed. The latter became market-dependent for the first time. There followed a veritable agricultural revolution, marked by the consolidation of land-holdings and an adoption of new techniques, as well as the growth of the division of labour in the countryside. Agricultural productivity rose, and that, in turn, fostered demographic growth and urbanisation. It was unlike what was happening anywhere else in Europe, or anywhere else in the world.

This capitalist pattern of development swelled the military power of the state in Britain. The resulting European power imbalance drove a logic of territorial conquest through which the British Empire would eventually cover a quarter of the Earth’s landmass. In response, the absolutist states of continental Europe tried (and failed) to rationalise their empires, leading to fiscal and social crises, the most famous of which was the one that led to the French Revolution. For elites outside of Britain, regime change thus appeared a political necessity. Otherwise, they were going to fall further behind it militarily, as was proven in the course of the Napoleonic wars. Elites had to figure out how to introduce capitalist social relations by political design — and as fast as possible: “while Britain did not have a policy to ‘industrialise’, most countries since have had a strategy to emulate its success.”7 That strategy came to be known, at least in the economics literature, as “late development”.

The key point is that, in the mid-nineteenth century, late development was based on alliances between a capitalist class and old regime elites: “Iron and Rye”. In fact, it was often unclear whether there was any separation in the first place between these classes, from which alliances might be concluded: the emergence of a bourgeoisie was often merely a partial embourgeoisement of a section of the aristocracy. In regard to late development, “the decade of the 1860s was a fundamental conjuncture. It saw the US Civil War, the unification of Germany, the unification of Italy, the Russian serf emancipation and the Meiji Restoration in Japan.”8 While wars and internal conflicts in the 1860s served to consolidate the power of elites over territories, protectionism in the 1870s created a space for national industry. It also preserved peasantries against grain imports from the United States and Eastern Europe.

Some of the countries where elites made power plays on this basis were able to catch up with Britain, and thus to join the club of rich countries: “not only did continental Europe and North America overtake Britain in industrial output between 1870 and 1913, but they manifestly joined it in technological competence.”9 However, the nature of late development ensured that old regime elites and the peasantry persisted. On the continent, “industrialisation proved to be compatible with the preservation of a firmly entrenched agrarian ruling class and a dynastic state of a conservative and militaristic stamp. It took place without the destruction of the peasantry as a class and gave opportunities for the emergence of prosperous peasant strata producing for the market.”10 The old regime went into decline in Europe only following the First World War. Then, after limping back onto the scene, it was decimated in the Second: old regime elites were finally liquidated only by the Red Army, which — having already eradicated the Czar and the Russian aristocracy in the Civil War — now opened up a path of slaughter that marched all the way into Prussia, the heart of the old regime in Central Europe.

Yet even then, the old regime persisted in the rest of the world, strengthening itself by allying with other classes in the anti-colonial movements of the middle twentieth century. Without an international war (on the scale of the World Wars), which might have unified nations and strengthened the hands of developmentalists, it proved difficult to dislodge such elites. The task of doing so was made even more difficult in the global context of imperialist interventions: the US feared that any attempt at real land reform would lead inevitably to communist revolution and regional contagion. And indeed, where elites were not defeated by communist revolution, they managed to retain much of their control, both of politics and of the economy. It is still the case, even today, that many national economies in low-income countries are overseen by a few extended families and their retinues.


It was in the context of “the persistence of the old regime” that the new industrial cities first materialised in continental Europe, in the second half of the nineteenth century.11 In some places, cities emerged from the transformation of medieval towns; elsewhere, conurbations sprung up where only villages had been. In any case, by the end of the nineteenth century, the speed of urbanisation was unprecedented. That was true in spite of the fact that, throughout this period, there remained a substantial number of peasants. From great reservoirs in the countryside, peasants streamed into the towns — in a slow trickle or in a torrent — either because they had lost their land due to expropriation, or else because, on account of demographic growth, their parents did not have enough land to divide among all of their descendants.12

Nevertheless, individuals were not only pushed into the cities; they were also drawn to them. Cities offered a real if partial emancipation from rural patriarchy, from the law of the father as well as the lord. The total dependence of children on their fathers was grounded in the fact that land — not labour — was the limiting productive factor in rural areas, and so also the real source of social wealth. Men had to inherit land from their parents, or to acquire it with their parents’ resources; likewise, in order to marry, women needed dowries, which only parents could provide. That was the source of an overbearing paternal power: children couldn’t make decisions about their own lives. They couldn’t afford to upset their fathers. The prospect of finding work in a nearby city disrupted that age-old relation: the autonomy of the young was won via the wage. In that sense, capitalist social relations extended an existing feature of medieval cities, delimiting a zone of relative freedom in a world of strictures.

However, that freedom was secured only in a situation of immense danger. The facilities where proletarians worked were hastily constructed. Their jobs required them to handle lethal machinery, with little fresh air or daylight. Capitalists found that they did not have to worry about the working conditions they offered. For no matter how bad those conditions were, young proletarians, often fresh from the countryside, still lined up for work; they even fought over it. Internecine conflicts emerged between peasants arriving from different villages, speaking mutually unintelligible dialects of a national language, or different languages altogether. Capitalists played workers off one another to secure low wages and a docile workforce. The same sorts of conflicts and in-fighting then emerged in proletarian residences.

In this strange new world, laden with suffering, proletarian freedoms created openings for self-destruction: “if at the end of the week the worker had enough left to enable him to forget the hell he lived in for a few hours by getting drunk on bad liquor, it was the most he could achieve. The inevitable consequence of such a state of affairs was an enormous increase in prostitution, drunkenness, and crime.”13 Households were always one step away from penury, and thus could be pushed into begging, petty crime, or sex work when one of their members became an alcoholic.14 In the new industrial city it was easy to fall down and difficult to get up. That was all the more true, insofar as moving to the cities meant cutting the ties of support that existed in rural communities. Nor were capitalists going to help workers survive: under conditions of capitalist competition and an oversupply of labour, employers couldn’t afford to care whether any individual worker or family survived.

That was to be expected: after all, the working class would be emancipated only by the workers themselves.15 And yet, contrary to the narrative of the workers’ movement, the development of the productive forces was not tending to strengthen the working class by giving birth to the collective worker. The workers’ movement supposed that this collective worker would be a byproduct of the factory: it would stamp its universal form on its victims, annihilating their relationships to the past (which remained all around them, in the form of villages outside the city limits); the class in-itself would then become the class for-itself. But that did not happen automatically. Most workers were not even factory workers. And in any case, those who did work in factories were often divided, not only by skill, or position within the division of labour, but also by religion and customs. Many did not even speak the same language! Lacking a basis for solidarity, proletarians found it difficult to convince their co-workers to risk their jobs for the greater good by going on strike. The working class was a class that tended to express itself not by striking, but by rioting.


Periodic explosions of urban riots gave rise to what was known as the “social question”. What did the workers want? And what would it take to pacify them? In fact, it seemed, at first, that there was no need to pacify workers: as capitalists expanded production, their power over them only grew. Moreover, when proletarians did revolt, the ownership class found that it could call on the army and the police to beat or shoot them for disturbing the peace. Against these repressive interventions, proletarians had few resources on which to draw.

They needed to organise themselves. According to what became the prevailing revolutionary theory, workers needed to organise themselves to win rights that would help them in their further struggle. They needed the right to assemble and the freedom of the press. They needed to force the army and the police to remain neutral in the class struggle.16 To get all that — so the theory went — workers needed power at the political level: they needed to win the right to vote. On that basis, they could form a class party which would compete for power in national elections. This political perspective was reinforced almost everywhere by the failure of alternatives: “While strikes oriented toward extensions of suffrage were successful in Belgium and Sweden, the use of mass strikes for economic goals invariably resulted in political disasters: in Belgium in 1902 … Sweden in 1909 … France in 1920 … Norway in 1921 … and Great Britain in 1926 … All these strikes were defeated; in the aftermath, trade-unions were decimated and repressive legislation was passed.”17

The problem for workers, in trying the parliamentary route, was that the old regime controlled politics. The lower classes were “not supposed to share … the prerogatives of full-fledged human beings”, who made up the elite.18 There was a material basis underlying this perspective: elites feared that recognising the lower classes as equals, even formally, would undermine the basis of their power in the countryside: that power was based not on success in free markets, but rather, on strictly controlling access to limited resources — including the rights to own land, and the rights to mine, log, or graze animals on that land — all of which was determined by elite privileges.19

As it turned out, the bourgeoisie in Europe did not displace those elites as the workers’ movement had expected. Instead, factory owners grew up within the old regime, often taking on noble titles. In defending their interests, the ownership class appealed to privilege as much as liberal economics. There was a material basis underlying that perspective as well: capitalists benefited from workers’ lack of freedom. Particularly in agriculture and in resource extraction, aimed at international markets, employers did not need workers to be fully free in order to make a profit. Plantation owners, engaged in the production of all sorts of raw materials and agricultural products, profited handsomely from the employment of slaves. On the Russian steppes, exported grain was produced by quasi-serfs. Thus, capitalist development did not automatically lead to the double freedom that Marx described as its foundation: workers were not transformed into formally free commodity sellers who also happened to be free of access to means of production. Only some workers obtained the economic right to sell their labour-power; fewer achieved the political rights of equal citizens.

The old regime had only contempt for workers’ calls for full economic and political equality, arguing that they didn’t deserve it, for they lacked the self-control and independence that comes with owning property. Instead, proletarian neighbourhoods were rife with unconventional and ecstatic forms of religious belief. Drunks begged in the street, while in ports and public parks proletarian prostitution and male homosexuality disturbed refined sensibilities. These indecencies became the subject matter of newspaper exposés; elites gawked and laughed at the lawlessness and penury of proletarian life. Politically-minded workers could see that these were problems, not just for their image, but also for their capacity to organise: how were workers going to win the vote — let alone abolish class society — if they could not even keep their own houses in order?


In order to abolish class society, workers needed to win reforms, and in order to do that, they first needed to present themselves as capable and worthy of power. The difficulty they faced was twofold. In the cities, workers had to acclimatise to dangerous conditions of life. Coming from different villages (and having such diverse experiences), they had to figure out how to organise together. Meanwhile, in newly-constructed liberal states, workers faced the hatred of their social betters, who were looking for any excuse to exclude them from civil society. In response to these problems, the workers’ movement constituted itself as a project: proletarians would fight for their right to exist. They would show that there was dignity and pride in being a worker; the workers’ culture was superior to that of other social classes. Eric Hobsbawm suggests that “no term is harder to analyse than ‘respectability’ in the mid-nineteenth century working class, for it expressed simultaneously the penetration of middle-class values and standards, and also the attitudes without which working class self-respect would have been difficult to achieve, and a movement of collective struggle impossible to build: sobriety, sacrifice, the postponement of gratification”.20 This mid-century notion of respectability then matured into the more developed programs and projects of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century workers movement in all its forms: as socialist and communist parties, as anarchist unions, and as assorted other revolutionary forces.

Supporting workers’ claims to respectability was a vision of their destiny, with five tenets:

(1) Workers were building a new world with their own hands. (2) In this new world, workers were the only social group that was expanding; whereas all other groups were contracting, including the bourgeoisie. (3) Workers were not only becoming the majority of the population; they were also becoming a compact mass, the collective worker, who was being drilled in the factories to act in concert with the machines. (4) They were thus the only group capable of managing the new world in accordance with its innermost logic: neither a hierarchy of order-givers and order-takers, nor the irrationality of market fluctuations, but rather, an ever more finely-grained division of labour. (5) Workers were proving this vision to be true, since the class was realising what it was in a conquest of power, the achievement of which would make it possible to abolish class society, and thus to bring man’s prehistory to a close.21

This vision wasn’t something implanted from the outside, transforming a reformist movement into a revolutionary one. To muster the will to take risks and make sacrifices, workers needed to believe in a better world that was already in the process of realising itself. Their victory was supposedly guaranteed: it was a historical necessity but, paradoxically, also a political project. It is precisely the simplicity and self-evidence of these tenets, their immediate appeal, that explains the movement’s exponential growth in the years between 1875 and 1921.

As mentioned above, at the heart of the workerist vision lay a mythic figure: the collective worker — the class in-and-for-itself, the class as unified and knowing its unity, born within the space of the factory. The collective worker was presupposed in workers’ organising and posited through that organising effort. But, to a large extent, the collective worker did not exist outside of the movement’s attempts to construct it.22 The theorists of the labour movement could never have admitted that this was the case. They spoke of the factory system as if it came from the future: the development of the factory system was supposedly a consequence of the “progressive socialisation of the process of production”, which created “the germs of the future social order”.23 It was expected that the socialised factory system would also prepare the workers for a socialist existence, transforming them from a disparate set of working classes, into a unified fighting force — the industrial proletariat — drilled on the factory floor.

In reality, this transformation did not take place automatically. The factory system was not a time-traveler from the future. It was the form production took within developed capitalist societies. As such, it embodied not the “actual unity” of a world to come, but rather the unity-in-separation of this world. The factory system, in itself, did not tend to unify the workforce in a way that benefited workers engaged in struggle — or, at least, it did not do that exclusively. Capitalist development may have dissolved some pre-existing differences among workers, but it reinforced or created other divisions, especially as these emerged from the division of labour (that is, mostly around skill, but also around divisions of tasks by “race” and gender, as well as according to seniority, language, region of origin, etc).

Meanwhile, outside of the factory gates, workers continued to stand in conflict with one another. They had to look out for themselves, as well as their kin: “Similarity of class position does not necessarily result in solidarity since the interests which workers share are precisely those which put them in competition with one another, primarily as they bid down wages in quest of employment”.24 Given that there were never enough jobs for everyone (the existence of a surplus population was a structural feature of societies built around capitalist exploitation), allegiances of religion, “race”, and “nation” made it possible for some workers to get ahead at the expense of others. As long as workers were not already organised on a class basis — and there was no pre-given, structural necessity for them to be so organised — they had a real interest in maintaining their individuality, as well as their extra-class allegiances.

This was the melée into which the workers’ movement threw itself. The movement encouraged workers to forget their specificity and all that supposedly came from the past. Workers should turn their gaze towards the future; they should actively merge into the generality of the collective worker. Here was the essence of the workers’ movement. Trade unions and chambers of labour, as well as social organisations, brought proletarians together on the basis of trades, neighbourhoods or hobbies. A general workers’ interest was then cobbled together out of these local organisations. The Social Democratic and Communist parties and the Anarchist federations instantiated the collective worker at the national level.

These organisations could not have succeeded in their tasks without, at the same time, relying on an affirmable class identity. Insofar as they made sacrifices in the name of the labour movement, workers generally were not acting in their immediate interests. To say that they affirmed a shared identity is to say that the movement succeeded in convincing workers to suspend their interests as isolated sellers in a competitive labour market, and, instead, to act out of a commitment to the collective project of the labour movement.

To the extent that workers were willing to believe that having solidarity was morally necessary, they were able to realise — partially and fitfully — the slogan that “an injury to one is an injury to all”. This phrase never described a preexisting truth about the working class; it was, instead, an ethical injunction. But insofar as workers accepted this injunction, their interests as individuals began to change: those interests were simplified, narrowed, or even wholly redefined, but also partially fulfilled.25 By this means, competition between workers was muted, but only for as long as the shared ethic and identity could be preserved.

In that sense, the workers’ movement was an apparatus, an urban machine, which bound workers together and kept them so bound.26 Such binding did not only happen in the factories:

This remained one of the Left’s most perduring misrecognitions: ‘labour movements’ implied a socialism beginning from the workplace, centred on strikes, and borne by militant working men; yet those movements were actually more broadly founded, also requiring women’s efforts in households, neighbourhoods, and streets.27

The collective worker was cobbled together in towns, through an array of popular workers’ organisations: workers’ “savings banks, health and pension funds, newspapers, extramural popular academies, workingmen’s clubs, libraries, choirs, brass bands, engagé intellectuals, songs, novels, philosophical treatises, learned journals, pamphlets, well-entrenched local governments, temperance societies – all with their own mores, manners and styles”.28 Through these means, proletarians were made to forget that they were Corsican or Lyonnais; they became workers. The class came to exist as an abstract identity that could be affirmed, dignified and proud.

This is how the workers’ movement solved the problems of acclimatising the constant flow of new rural–urban migrants to the industrial cities, and of making them respectable. Respectability involved three operations. (1) The movement spread new behavioural codes, either appropriated from bourgeois culture, or directly opposed to it (heterosexual family norms, temperance). (2) The movement provided a sense of community, to help workers overcome the social dislocation involved in migrating to cities. Community organisations reinforced the new codes while providing for the spiritual needs of their members. And (3) the movement built up institutions that supported workers’ struggles to transform their material situation — and to prevent individuals or families from falling into disrepute (unions and parties fought not only for better wages and conditions, but also for public health interventions, welfare schemes, provisions for the old and sick, and so on).

The first two of these operations supported the third, while it was the third that brought the class into conflict with the legal and political frameworks of the era. The workers were compelled to struggle “against throne and altar, for universal suffrage, for the right to organise and to strike”.29 It was necessary to take risks and make sacrifices, but both could now be justified through the movement’s self-understanding — as a moral community, fighting to establish a better world, guided by the lights of rational production and equitable distribution.


In truth this moral community was an ad hoc construction, supported by a beautiful dream. It was far from an ironclad reality: “what, from one point of view, looked like a concentration of men and women in a single ‘working class’, could be seen from another as a gigantic scattering of the fragments of societies, a diaspora of old and new communities.”30 Workers retained or preserved their links to the past, and did so in many different ways. Traditional artisan guilds shaded into the unions, ethnic and religious groups set themselves up in the new cities, and most new workers retained links to peasant families.

While workers did not so easily forget their links to the old communities, movement activists increasingly viewed those links as an obstacle: “world history cannot be turned back”, proclaimed the German Metalworkers Union (DMV), “for the sake of the knife-grinders” and their craft mentality.31 However, in many cases the culture of solidarity that activists were trying to build relied precisely on such holdovers, forged through the experiences of peasants and artisans. The idea that work was dignified — that one should identify with one’s essence — was itself an inheritance from artisans. The movement tried to transfer the bonds of the craft workers over to the “mass workers”, that is, the semi-skilled workers in the factories, who were supposed to identify with the class as a whole, while denying any attempt to preserve their specific trades.

Resistance to the project of the workers’ movement often took place on this basis; a conflict thus opened up between the class and its organisations. It was often workers resisting incorporation into the generality of the collective worker who undertook the most militant actions. In many places the most radical current of the workers’ movement was associated — against the prevailing theory of the Social Democrats — with a defense of shopfloor autonomy, that is, with the right of workers to make decisions about the organisation of production, even when those decisions slowed the development of the productive forces. Conflict was apparent in rapidly growing cities like Solingen, in western Germany: “Where groups like the Solingen cutlery grinders clung to older ideals of a locally rooted cooperative commonwealth based on craft autonomy, the new DMV strategists [that is, the strategists at the German Metalworkers Union] celebrated technical progress, mass material improvement, and an industrial unionism proper to the structures of a continuously rationalising capitalism”.32 Socialists and communists did not see that it was only insofar as workers had a hand in determining how production took place that they were able to identify with their work as what defined who they really were. Once that right and its corresponding experience disappeared, so did the workers’ identity.


We have referred elsewhere to the surplus population as the extreme embodiment of capital’s contradictory dynamic.33 What is the relationship between the surplus population and the lumpen-proletariat? Are they one and the same? Whereas Marx expounds on the surplus population, at length, in Capital, he does not refer to the lumpen-proletariat at all in that work; he uses the phrase only in his political writings. How did the “lumpen” become such a popular topic, among revolutionaries, in the course of the twentieth century?

As it turns out, “lumpen proletariat” was a key category for the workers’ movement, and particularly for Marxists, in their Social Democratic and Bolshevik variants. Marxists were always hurling curses at perceived lumpen proletarians and anarchists alike, so much so that the two categories blended together. According to Rosa Luxemburg in The Mass Strike, “Anarchism has become in the [1905] Russian Revolution, not the theory of the struggling proletariat, but the ideological signboard of the counterrevolutionary lumpenproletariat, who, like a school of sharks, swarm in the wake of the battleship of the revolution.”34

Who were these lumpen proletarians, preaching anarchy? Attempts to spell that out usually took the form not of structural analyses, but rather, of long lists of shady characters, lists which collapsed in on themselves in a frenzied incoherence. Here is Marx’s paradigmatic discussion of the lumpen proletariat, from The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpen proletariat of Paris had been organised into secret sections, each section led by Bonapartist agents”. These lumpens supposedly consisted of “vagabonds, discharged soldiers and jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, pimps, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.”35 Is there any truth in this paranoid fantasy? Do escaped convicts and organ grinders share a common, counter-revolutionary interest with beggars, which distinguishes them from the common mass of workers, who are apparently revolutionary by nature? To think so is insane.

The lumpen proletariat was a spectre, haunting the workers’ movement. If that movement constituted itself as the movement for the dignity of workers, then the lumpen was the figure of the undignified worker (or more accurately, the lumpen was one of its figurations). All of the movement’s efforts to give dignity to the class were supposedly undermined by these dissolute figures: drunks singing in the street, petty criminals and prostitutes. References to the lumpen proletariat registered what was a simple truth: it was difficult to convince workers to organise as workers, since mostly, they didn’t care about socialism: “a great many of the poor, and especially the very poor, did not think of themselves or behave as ‘proletarians,’ or find the organisations and modes of action of the movement as applicable or relevant to them.”36 In their free time, they’d rather go to the pub than sing workers’ songs.

In the figure of the lumpen, we discover the dark underside of the affirmation of the working class. It was an abiding class-hatred. Workers saw themselves as originating out of a stinking morass: “At the time of the beginning of modern industry the term proletariat implied absolute degeneracy. And there are persons who believe this is still the case.”37 Moreover, capitalism was trying to push workers back into the muck. Thus, the crisis tendencies of capitalism could only end in one of two ways: in the victory of the working class or in its becoming lumpen.

  1. Neil Davidson has recently attempted to save the notion of the bourgeois revolution by dropping the (now widely rejected) claim that these revolutions were led by a bourgeoisie intent on spreading liberal democracy. He claims instead that, without necessarily intending it, they gave rise to states that ‘promoted capitalist development’. That may be true of the ‘passive revolutions’ (Italy, Germany, Japan), but it is not true of the classic case, the French revolution, which consolidated peasant land rights and the tax-office state. See Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Haymarket 2012).
  2. The stalling out of what Théorie Communiste has called the ‘formal subsumption’ of society played a key role in determining what shape the workers’ movement took. However, unlike TC, we do not think this phase ended with the conclusion of WWI. Even in Europe, the restructuring of social relations along capitalist lines carried on into the post-WWII era.
  3. Robert Brenner, ‘Property and Progress: Where Adam Smith Went Wrong’, in Chris Wickham, ed., Marxist History-Writing for the Twenty-First Century (British Academy 2007), p. 89. We are heavily indebted to Brenner’s thesis concerning the historical origins of the capitalist mode of production. See T. H. Aston and C. H. E. Philpin, eds, The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe (Cambridge 1987).
  4. Brenner, ‘Property and Progress’, p. 63.
  5. ibid., p. 92.
  6. ‘England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in [India], was actuated only by the vilest interests’, but ‘whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.’ Marx, ‘The British Rule in India’, New-York Daily Tribune, 25 June 1853.
  7. Robert Allen, Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2011), p. 41 – a much more important book than its title suggests.
  8. Goldner, ‘Communism is the Material Human Community’.
  9. Allen, Global Economic History, p. 43. As we will see, Russia and Japan were unsuccessful in their attempts to catch up with Britain by means of late development. For them, catch up would come only via ‘big-push’ industrialisation, and only in the middle decades of the twentieth century.
  10. Tom Kemp, Industrialisation in Nineteenth Century Europe (Routledge 2014), p. 104.
  11. For the best account of this phenomenon, see Arno Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime (Pantheon 1981).
  12. It is important to note that it was not until the public health interventions and medical innovations of the last quarter of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th that demographic growth within the cities displaced migration as the main source of urban growth.
  13. Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice – An Introduction to a Subject Which the Spanish War Has Brought Into Overwhelming Prominence [1937] (AK Press 2004).
  14. The notion that poverty was pushing proletarian women, against their will, into sex work, was a major theme of the socialist literature of the late nineteenth and early 20th century.
  15. Although, in fact, early labour legislation was not won by workers, but rather, by teams of factory inspectors and their supporters in government.
  16. These reforms had nothing to do with ‘reformism’ –the belief that the working classes could become full and equal members of the capitalist polity, thus making revolution unnecessary. On the contrary, such reforms were seen as essential weapons for the coming class war.
  17. Adam Przeworski, Capitalism and Social Democracy (Cambridge 1985), p. 12.
  18. G.M. Tamás, ‘Telling the Truth about Class’ in Socialist Register, vol. 42, 2006; available on grundrisse.net.
  19. ‘No landlord-dominated government will happily vote itself out of landowning status and various other privileges without strong pressure from other socio-political groups.’ Russell King, Land Reform: A World Survey (Westview 1977), pp. 9–10.
  20. Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital, 1848–1875 (Penguin 1984), p. 224.
  21. This last tenet sometimes expressed a will to see the proletariat become the only class; at other times, it expressed a will to see all classes abolished and working time dramatically reduced (see afterword).
  22. False consciousness supposedly hid the class from itself, but false-consciousness was a false concept.
  23. Luxemburg, ‘Reform or Revolution’ (1900) in The Essential Rosa Luxemburg (Haymarket 2008), p. 45.
  24. Przeworski, Capitalism and Social Democracy, p. 20.
  25. See the addendum to this part, p. 103 below.
  26. The US presents only a partial exception to this story. Its distinguishing features are (1) the early achievement of universal manhood suffrage, and (2) the fact that it drew its industrial workforce not from its own agricultural periphery, but from that of Europe. Engels, in a letter to Weydemeyer, grasped the key to both phenomena, writing of the ‘ease with which the surplus population [in the US] is drained off to the farms’. Free land on the frontier (ethnically cleansed of its initial inhabitants) stimulated the largest transoceanic migration in human history. States extended the franchise to all men in order to attract these immigrants (whilst women and free blacks were disenfranchised). Urban political machines quickly arose in US cities to manage the white male vote along the lines of ethnic, religious and regional identity. These structures were only shaken in the 1920s, when the tap of immigration was turned off, and US industry for the first time began to draw on its own rural hinterland. It was only during this period of tight immigration, from 1932 to 1974, that the US came to approximate a European social democracy.
  27. Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850–2000 (Oxford 2002), p. 58.
  28. Tamás, ‘Telling the Truth about Class’.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Hobsbawm, Age of Empire, p. 119.
  31. Quoted in Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy, p. 78.
  32. Ibid., p. 78–79.
  33. ‘Misery and Debt’, Endnotes 2, April 2010.
  34. Rosa Luxemburg, ‘The Mass Strike’ [1906] in The Essential Rosa Luxemburg (Haymarket 2008), p. 114.
  35. Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ (MECW 10), p. 198.
  36. Hobsbawm, Age of Empire, p. 140.
  37. Kautsky, The Class Struggle (1892), chapter 5, available on marxists.org.