The Scum of Humanity (1935)

by cominsitu


by Paul Mattick

(International Council Correspondence Vol. 1, no.6, March 1935, pp 9-18)


Anyone unfamiliar with politics who strolls into a workers’ meeting (leaving out of consideration the gatherings of the unemployed) is surprised by the fact that the larger part of those present is not to be numbered among the most impoverished stratum of the proletariat. The best organized workers are, of course, those who belong to the so-called labor aristocracy, which takes a social position between the middle class and the genuine proletariat. These trade-unionist organizations espouse the direct vital interests of their members, bringing to them immediate advantages; and yet they are neither able nor do they attempt to politicise their adherents in the socialistic sense. The radical labor movement, on the other hand, can provide its adherents only with ideological satisfaction; it offers them no direct material advantages. And this is precisely why it is incapable of embracing the truly impoverished part of the proletariat. This part, by reason of its very misery, is compelled to concern itself only with its pressing and direct interests if it is not to abandon life altogether. For this reason, the political radical labor movement hovers between the two poles of the working population, namely, the labor aristocracy and the Lumpenproletariat, and is carried on by those elements which, though without illusions on the point that within the present society genuine possibilities of advance are barred to them, nevertheless still maintain a standard of living which permits them to devote money, time and energy to endeavors the fruit of which, in the form of real material advantages for themselves, is deferred to some uncertain future. They set themselves in opposition to the existing society from a recognition of the fact that it has to be changed and because, in spite of this position, it is possible for them to live in it.

The activity of the radical labor movement in times which are not revolutionary is mainly directed to transforming the prevailing ideology. Agitation and propaganda demand material sacrifices; they bring no material advantages. The members of these organizations have time available; they wait for the masses to become revolutionized, even though they seek, meanwhile, to hasten the day of the overturn; they educate, discuss, philosophize. Those elements of the working class which flock to their standard but which, because of their circumstances, are not in a position to wait, are continually repelled by these organizations. The fluctuation in membership within the radical movement is not exclusively the result of a false policy or of the lack of tact displayed by the bureaucracy to members not yet settled in their ideology; it is also the result of the increasingly imperious compulsion, for a growing stratum of the impoverished workers, to “restrict the horizon”. The activity of the movement from which they expected help gives them only words and something to keep themselves occupied; it does not assist, but hinders them, in their individual struggle for existence – a struggle which becomes ever more difficult, time-consuming and nerve-wracking the more the impoverishment spreads and the deeper the individual becomes submerged in it. However much socialist propaganda they have absorbed, their present existence compels them to actions which stand in opposition to their conviction; and as a result, this conviction itself, sooner or later, fades out, since it is “practically worthless”.

This is also one of the reasons why the political labor movement goes to pieces in periods of economic crisis and functions better in boom times. And accordingly, a large part of the labor movement on the basis of its “experiences” has taken a hostile position to the idea that the impoverishment of the masses is identical with their revolutionizing. To those who hold to the theory of impoverishment, the existence of the Lumpenproletariat is heatedly pointed out as proof that pauperization makes the workers apathetic rather than revolutionary, sets them in opposition to, rather than serves the interests of, the proletariat, since the ruling class frequently engages the Lumpenproletariat to serve the needs of that class. And so the labor movement set about, with great zeal to improve the economic position of the workers, considering that precisely in that way proletarian self-consciousness would be raised. As a matter of fact, in the upgrade period of capitalist society the improvement in the workers’ standard of living was bound up with a growth in the trade-unionist and political labor organizations and with the strengthening of their political consciousness; but this consciousness, like the organizations themselves, was not revolutionary. So that the theory of raising the proletarian standard of living as a means to revolutionizing was just as much a failure as the rejected theory of impoverishment. This difficulty was gotten over by the unfortunate and meaningless explanation that the reactionary attitude of the organized workers was the result of the reactionary leadership, since the contradiction involved in combatting impoverishment and at the same time holding it to be necessary was recognized as injurious to the existence of the organization; the masses cannot be brought together in organizations without at the same time being made some promises.

The conviction, based on a superficial view of the phenomena, that impoverishment makes the masses reactionary rather than revolutionary, and abhorrence of the Lumpenproletariat as the living manifestation of this “truth”, remained for a long while a common property of the political labor movement and is still continually brought up in political arguments when the question is one of explaining the aid recruited by the ruling class from the camp of the proletariat. Just as the defective degree of organization and the relatively undeveloped class-consciousness of the unemployed tends apparently to refute the theory of impoverishment, so also does the role played in society by the Lumpenproletariat. Of course it is the “scum of humanity” which, in alliance with the petty bourgeoisie and at the order of monopoly capital, fills the fascist ranks. The elements which the fascist movement attracts to itself from working class circles expect and obtain advantages which at any rate are immediate, however slight they may be. Those elements attach themselves to no movement from ideological motives; these are quite beyond their power to possess. The fact that these advantages are of a merely temporary nature cannot disturb these elements, which of course are constantly in a state of living “from hand to mouth”. To reproach them with class betrayal is merely to attribute to them the possibility of a conscience and of a set of convictions, a luxury which, however, their determinate mode of life precludes. They act on the strength of their most proximate interests, as, for that matter, the mass of workers in general later accepts the fascist movement, passively or actively, in order not to injure themselves. As to who first and who later goes over to the class enemy, that depends on the degree of impoverishment. Apart from this factor, the investigations of social scientists in almost all countries have proved that the decline in revolutionary tendencies is bound up with the impoverishment of the masses. Their conclusions are based exclusively, however, on the last few years and hence can do no more than indicate that impoverishment is at first bound up with the regression in revolutionary tendencies.


The concept of Lumpenproletariat is by no means strictly delimited. Thus the communist groups to the left of the official parliamentary and trade-unionist labor movement have given such broad bounds to the concept that “Lumpenproletariat” has become a term of abuse, is made to cover all those elements which, in virtue of their class situation, would naturally be counted among the proletariat but which perform some service or other for the ruling class. In this conception the lumpenproletarian element is made up not so much of the “scum of humanity” as of the so-called flower or top, i.e. of the governing bureaucracy of the labor movement. In this extension of the notion is mirrored the hatred directed at sell-outs; there is consciously left out of consideration the fact that the betrayal is more the product of the whole historical development than of the individual self-interest of corrupted leaders.

Almost the whole of the labor movement includes under the term Lumpenproletariat, the many pillars of present society who are thrown into the struggle directly in opposition to the workers, as, for example, the police, provocateurs, spies, strike-breakers, etc. To the reformist “labor movement” striving for power within the existing society, however, these elements forthwith lose their lumpenproletarian character as soon as the reformist bureaucracy is given a share in the government. The policemen then become the “brothers in uniform”, the spies turn into worthy citizens who protect the country from threatening anarchy, and the strike-breakers become the “technical emergency workers.” A change of government suffices to take away from these elements the stigma of “Lumpenproletariat”.

The hounds of the existing or of any other antagonistic society cannot, however, be properly embraced in the concept of Lumpenproletariat, since they are quite necessary to the social practice. This is not quite true of the strike-breakers; but even they are logically to be excluded, since, to use an expression of Jack London’s “with rare exceptions, all people in the world are scabs.” As a matter of fact, the scab can be reproached only from the standpoint of a social order not yet in existence. Today they act in complete accord with the social practice, which, however much it has socialized production, nevertheless permits no other rule of conduct than private interest. The scab has not yet realized, nor sufficiently experienced in practice, that it is precisely his individual necessities which impose upon him collective action. He is not yet sufficiently disillusioned by the fruitlessness of the efforts directed to making his way on the basis of the existing society. He hopes to assure himself advantages from a better fitting into the practice of society and it is only through the nothingness of his endeavors that he can be convinced that in reality he stands estranged from that society, however much he has striven to do justice to it. However much the workers are forced to oppose the scabs, these latter cannot be denoted as Lumpenproletarians.

Since the capitalistic relations of production serve to advance the general human development during a certain historical period, these working-class “pillars of society”, however parasitical and hostile they may be to the workers, must nevertheless themselves be recognized as productive elements. If the productive capacity of society was driven forward at a dizzying tempo by the market and competitive relationship, then the means for the safe-guarding and promotion of this relationship must likewise be understood as productive ones. The means can be properly opposed only by one who stands opposed to the society itself. The function of both groups of the proletariat, the directly productive as well as the indirectly productive, which assures the safety of society, are different only in manner; in principle, they serve the same purposes, The overthrow of existing society would show at once that the concept of Lumpenproletarian is applicable only to those outcasts of society who are taken over by the new society as the successor of the old; the shiftless and criminal elements which, though a product of present society and constantly denied and frequently employed by it, must also be combatted by the new society. These are nothing other than what is regarded as the scum of humanity: the beggars, tramps, bootleggers, prostitutes, pimps, floaters, drunkards, thieves, swindlers, etc.


At the time when unemployment could still be denied as a regular social condition, since the temporary booms concealed the fact that it is inseparably bound up with the present system, a large part of bourgeois criminology came to regard all criminal activities and propensities within the lower strata of the population as having their roots primarily in shiftlessness. This attitude was nourished even in working-class circles, and the organized worker with a fairly regular income looked with no slight contempt upon the shiftless canaille of the large cities and highways. The source of this shiftlessness, in cases where the word could really serve as an explanation, was quite a matter of unconcern to the judges. The socialist movement, to be sure, made existing society responsible for it; and yet wherever the socialists had occasion practically to combat the tendency, they also merely reached for the bourgeois criminal code.

Impoverishment, Lumpenproletariat, criminality are not a result of the capitalist crisis; that crisis can only explain the great increase in their manifestations. Unemployment accompanies the whole development of capitalism; it is necessary to the present system of production in order to keep wages and working conditions at the low level corresponding to the demands of a profitable economy. Even though unemployment alone does not explain capital’s mastery over the workers, it yet explains the greater success of that mastery. Apart from the providential effect of the industrial reserve army upon the rate of profit attained by the various enterprises, the very existence of that army has its basis in the economic laws which determine the movements of capitalist society. The tendency of capital accumulation, producing superfluous capital on the one hand and excess population on the other, has become a very painful reality which is no longer deniable. So it comes to be admitted however reluctantly, that unemployment can never more be entirely eliminated and efforts are devoted less to setting it aside than to lessening the dangers which it involves for society. Hence also the vigorous discussions concerning reform of the penal system, discussions which only mirror the changes occurring on the labor market. Thus even H.L. Menken, in a recent number of Liberty, raised the demand for Chinese practices in the American penal system: the unrestricted physical destruction of criminals with or without proof of guilt, that is, a form of justice such as is common in countries with chronic overpopulation. In Germany there is talk of introducing the corporeal punishments in vogue during the Middle Ages, since the prisons have ceased to be means of frightening, and the gratuitous labor power of the prisoners can no longer be used. The increased misery resulting from the permanent crisis and large-scale unemployment diminishes the fear of punishment, since life in jail is not much worse than existence on the outside. The criminal elements are multiplying; a fact which compels to the further brutalization of punishment and hence to the impossibility of reforming the inmates. “When we get down to the poorest and most oppressed of our population,” says Bernard Shaw, “we find the condition of their life so wretched that it would be impossible to conduct a prison humanely without making the lot of the criminal more eligible than that of many free citizens. If the prison does not underbid the slum in human misery, the slum will empty and the prison will fill.” So that legal punishment is not only barbarous and compelled to ever greater barbarism, but its institutions become hothouses of criminality – as proved by statistics, which show that the majority of those previously convicted repeatedly find their way back into the jails.

Yet this animalization of human beings, a phenomenon bound up with the development of capitalist society and which finds its most pronounced expression in the growth of the Lumpenproletariat, arises not only from the unemployment and the mass impoverishment by which it is accompanied. The accumulation of wealth at the one pole is not only, to use an expression of Marx’s the accumulation of misery,  but also of drudgery, slavery, ignorance, brutalization and moral degradation at the other pole. Under capitalistic working conditions labor becomes forced labor pure and simple, however “free” the workers may be in other respects. Even outside the labor process, the worker does not belong to himself; he merely recuperates his labor power for the next day. He lives in freedom merely in order to remain in condition to perform forced labor. The worker becomes completely dehumanized; he has no voluntary relations of any sort to his work. He himself is only a thing, an appendage of the productive mechanism. To expect these workers, under such conditions, to take pleasure in their work is out of the question. They have to endeavour to get away from it in order to assert themselves as human beings. Such a state of things must, in the long run, animalize them.

With external power, with force and compulsion alone, it is impossible to dispose of the Lumpenproletariat or to bring about a diminution in criminality. The question is one of maintaining or creating in human beings the psychical readiness to take their place in society and its definite mode of life; and this becomes increasingly impossible. The lack of social conscience and of social adaptability on the part of criminals is susceptible of other explanations in addition to that of “shiftlessness”. Of course there are a great number of lopsided theories by which mental and bodily defects are advanced as the essential reasons for the criminal actions of human beings. It is undeniable that biological psychological factors must be taken into consideration if criminal propensities are to be really understood. It nevertheless remains obvious that the theory which has the most to offer by way of enlightenment on this subject is the economico-social-political one. The biological and psychological factors assist in determining the conscious and unconscious actions of human beings, but these factors are in the fullest measure modified and in fact determined, as regards their quantitative and qualitative effects, through the social process. The drives of individuals are subject both to the socio-economic situation and also to that of the class to which they belong. In a society which grants the highest measure of recognition to the rich and propertied, the narcissistic impulses, for example (as has been shown by the social psychologist Erich Fromm), must lead to an enormous intensification of the desire for possession. And if, on the basis of society, those propensities cannot be satisfied along “normal” paths, they must seek their fulfilment in criminality. Even if criminality is traced back to bodily or spiritual defects, yet these defects in their turn can only be fully understood in connection with society and the class situation obtaining in it. Those crimes, the majority of which are directed against the laws of property, can be understood only from a consideration of the whole social process; and even the others are partially determined if not directly, yet indirectly by the social and political situation. Hence also they can be changed or set aside only thru changing the society in which they occur.

There is no better concrete proof of the importance of the economic factor for explaining crime than the fact that it greatly increases in times of economic crisis. As a consequence of depressions, the mentally and corporeally weakest of the poor are hurled onto the road of criminality; frequently, in fact, no other possibility is left open to them. How clearly the socio-political factor is here revealed as the essential one when we consider the fact, for example, that the sexual transgressions of children in families of the unemployed are much more numerous than in families whose economic life is orderly. How can anyone attempt to explain the decline of the family – in present society another factor in the increase of criminality – on a biological and psychological basis? How the fact of the rapid increase in prostitution during the crisis? Investigations regarding the influence of the milieu on criminality in the United States revealed that the greater percentage of convicts came from the city slums and from families which lived from hand to mouth. The majority of crimes are those committed against property, the investigations further revealed, and the majority of criminals are of “normal intelligence”.  The youthful tramps, who today are roaming planless and goalless through the States and populating the highways are in the best possible position for slipping forever into the Lumpenproletariat. No opportunities knock to them; they are embittered, and resolved to provide themselves with more of the fullness of life by all the ways, i.e. the criminal ways, which still remain open to them. “We will get ours,” they assure themselves; and their heroes are not the respectable heroes of present society, but the Dillingers. While Jack London could once characterize the tramp as a discouraged worker, most of these youngsters have never yet worked at all. They are discouraged before having begun; and the longer they remain without a job, the more they lose the capacity ever to fit themselves in to the social rhythm of life.

“It is better for society”, as William Petty already realized, “to burn the work of a thousand people than to let these thousand people lose their working capacity through idleness.” But it is not only from the standpoint of profit, but also from that of social security, that the present system bites into its own flesh when it robs the workers, even though against its will, of the possibility of keeping themselves occupied. It is only through the sale of their labor power that the workers can remain alive as workers. Their whole life depends on the fickle movements of the labor market. To get away from the compulsion and chance of the market is possible only in case they evade the workers lot itself. To him who fails to make the leap into the middle class – a possibility which was always very exceptional, and which today is already precluded – the only remaining way out is into the Lumpenproletariat. This “way out” is sought voluntarily only in exceptional cases, but for an ever growing element of the unemployed it becomes unavoidable. Since it is quite as much out of the question, even if desired, to accord to the unemployed living conditions befitting human beings as it is to do the same for the criminals, since otherwise the compulsion to labor would lose some of its sharpness and the workers’ power of resistance in the wage struggle would be increased, so also to the workers on relief there remains no other recourse than to increase their extremely limited means of livelihood by way of crime. Yet even in countries with unemployed relief, a larger or smaller percentage of the workers still remains excluded from its enjoyment, and this portion cannot save themselves, even assuming the greatest moderation on their part, from sinking down into the Lumpenproletariat.

Anyone who has been debarred from the labor process for some time loses also the capacity and the possibility of ever working again. Consider, for example, one who has been unoccupied three or four years: it becomes unspeakably difficult for him not merely psychologically and corporeally to take his place once more in industrial life, but has become impossible for him in many occupations merely by reason of the rapidly progressing rationalization; he is unable to meet the increased demands as performance regards. For this reason employers almost universally refuse to take back workers who have undergone years of unemployment. Toward such workers they have a very skeptical attitude, which is further strengthened by the poor and dilapidated outer appearance of the applicants. Once arrived at a certain stage of impoverishment, there is no further return into the ordinary daily grind. There then remains nothing further than the poor nourishment won by begging and the slow deterioration in the streets of the large cities. There is only the wheedled gin to enable one to forget the senselessness of his own existence; or the leap into the ranks of the underworld, which unavoidably leads to prison and violent death.


If the impoverishment taking place among the masses in the course of the capitalist development were a uniform one, and if the entire working class were affected by it in a uniform manner, then it would be identical with the revolutionizing of those masses. The numbers of the “Lumpenproletariat” would be so great that the lumpenproletarian existence would be precluded. The “lumpenproletarian” activity of the individual would in this case be capable of expressing itself in no other way than collectively. The individual parasitic existence, or the individual expropriation, would do away with itself, since sponging or stealing can never be engaged in by a majority without at the same time completely overturning the basis of society. In the fact that the Lumpenproletariat is possible only as a minority lies also its tragic character. As a result of this minority situation there remains to it, in fact, no other than the sponging or criminal form of activity. In countries at war, for example, where increasing scarcity of food, in spite of the diversity of incomes, produces a rather uniform standard of living among the great masses of the population, a revolutionary situation is more likely to result than in times and situations in which the impoverishment takes place by stages and with leaplike impetuosity. Insofar as the Lumpenproletariat arises not only indirectly but also directly from the existing relations, the predominance in the matter of impoverishment must be awarded to the blind law by which it is brought about. The Lumpenproletariat had to take form because the impoverishment first arose simultaneously with the expansion of the economic system and because, with the close of this expansion, it is itself still condemned to remain for a long while a minority, even though an increasing one. Because society grows up too quickly and declines too slowly, a part of the working population is exposed to a measure of impoverishment to which it can respond in no other than the lumpenproletarian way, and to which it must therefore submit. These first “victims” of a slow process of social overturn which does not forthwith affect the individual, cannot become a revolutionary, but only a negative force. Instead of revolutionary solutions, there remain to them only the individual and necessarily anti-social ones. So the Lumpenproletariat can free itself from its situation only through its growth, just as this growth is at the same time an index of the revolutionizing process going on throughout society. The lumpenproletarian basis of existence must become the level of life of such a great portion of humanity that there is no possibility for the individual to maintain any sort of life, even among the Lumpenproletariat.

As we have already said, superficial appearances seem to belie the claims of the theory of impoverishment. If one considers only the psychological attitude of the unemployed, not to speak of that of the Lumpenproletariat, one is horrified (unless he deceives himself, as is often regarded proper for agitational purposes) at the spiritual deadness of these elements. Released, to be sure, from the stupefying toil, they are still less capable than before of developing a revolutionary consciousness. Their conversations turn on the most trifling matters: current events and sports. They have no real relations to their own situation. They turn away, almost with fear, from the recognition of that situation and its political consequences.

The impression made by impoverishment upon the unemployed can be divided into degrees. A small percentage is not at first cast down by the changed situation. They have not yet been out of work long enough, or are protected by savings from the rapid descent. They draw in upon themselves, try with increasing energy again and again to find work and still look hopefully into the future from which they expect an improvement in their situation. The intensity with which they endeavor to keep above water excludes this group more or less from political activity. More than previously, they are obliged to devote themselves to their narrowest interests; they have no possibility of applying their energy to several fields simultaneously. The great mass of the unemployed, however, – those who, as a result of the length of time in which they have been unoccupied, have left this first level, – lives on in the most profound state of resignation and lack of energy. They expect nothing more from life; fancy itself affords them no cause for hope. Nothing suffices to arouse their interest; there is nothing for which they are capable of engaging themselves; they have put off the living features of humanity; they vegetate and are conscious of the fact that they are slowly going under. From this broad, gray mass is still recruited a rather small percentage of the completely desperate who either dive down into the Lumpenproletariat or in a very short time disappear from life. Hopelessness and embitterment here border on insanity; the victims crawl or lash about each other like terrified animals. As rapidly as society is relieved of them, the places they vacated are again filled from the gray mass of the resigned, who in their turn are again replaced from the ranks of the still unbroken.

Whatever may be said against the theory of impoverishment, all the counter-arguments fall down before the impoverishment which is now under way and to which no halt can be put within the framework of present society. If the theory of impoverishment is false, then also is the Revolution an improbability. It is much more probable, however, that the impoverishment has hitherto remained without visible revolutionary consequences only because it always embraced only minorities. A great mass of the impoverished must by reason of its magnitude be converted into a revolutionary force. And this, the abolition of the proletariat as such, is at the same time the end of the Lumpenproletariat, even though it does not thereby disappear forthwith. Only the soil of its development is washed away; the lumpenproletarian ideology arising as a result of the lumpenproletarian mode of existence will still for a long while manifest itself as one of the many undesired heritages of the proletariat until the new relations have sufficiently changed humanity that the ideological traditions are still to be found only in books of history and no longer in the heads of human beings.

So one need not shrink from holding impoverishment to be a necessary presupposition for the revolutionary overturn while at the same time practically combatting that impoverishment. This is no contradiction; for precisely by reason of the fact that one attempts within the framework of capitalism to diminish impoverishment one actually increases it. But to enter farther into this paradox would lead us into the field of economics. Let us limit ourselves to the further statement that in the Lumpenproletariat the workers can only see the face of their own future, unless their efforts to change the existing relations of production proceed at a more rapid rate. It is only petty-bourgeois narrowness which can point the finger of scorn at the Lumpenproletariat; to the workers themselves, the “scum of humanity” is only the obverse side of the medal which is admired as capitalistic civilization. It is only with the setting aside of this latter that the end of the other is bound up.