Revising Class: Lumpen in Literature

Against the Current, No. 195, July/August 2018

Keith Gilyard

Ragged Revolutionaries:
The Lumpenproletariat and African American Marxism in Depression-Era Literature
By Nathaniel Mills
Amherst & Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2017, 208 pages, $27.95 paperback.

“LUMPENPROLETARIAT” HAS HAD a hard life in critical circles. The term was not much embraced by Marx and Engels, the very authors who coined it. They did not theorize much about the social formation other than to portray it negatively, and generations of commentators have remained wary of the construct.

The lumpen, dregs and outlaws of society, existing outside the forces of economic production, went the argument, could not be counted upon to engage in anticapitalist struggle because they had no investment in labor, had no commitment beyond their individual interests, and were susceptible to being co-opted by reactionary forces.

However, Nathaniel Mills, a refreshingly flexible Marxist thinker, valiantly recuperates the idea of the lumpenproletariat as a way to reinvigorate Marxism and speak to current organizing needs to overcome the oppressive aspects of the American social order. He does so by examining some of the most salient attempts to portray the dynamic potential of the lumpenproletariat, namely, the 1930s writing of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Margaret Walker.

Mills contends that by departing from the classic conception of the lumpenproletariat, those writers did not reject Marxism. Instead they enriched it. They transcended the proletarian literary formula of contemporaries like Mike Gold, Robert Cantwell and Clara Weatherwax, who cast the working class heroically but not the lumpen.

They were more radical in outlook than the “bottom dogs” writers like Edward Dahlberg, whose 1929 novel gave the genre, which focused on descriptions of the lower depths of society, its name.

In Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Native Son, Wright offers, according to Mills, “African American literature’s most representative lumpenproletarian character.” (49) Bigger is animated by the desire to matter as a subject in mainstream society.

Bigger wants to fly metaphorically and literally, expressing early in the novel his wish to be a pilot. But constrained and marginalized within a racist, capitalist patriarchal system, he develops into a warped antihero, placing criminal aspirations above any impulse to work or any allegiance to workers.

He only becomes a public subject after he accidentally kills Mary Dalton. While trying to evade capture, he rapes and murders his girlfriend Bessie Mears, whom he has decided is a threat to his newfound subjectivity. Bigger, then, should be nobody’s ideal. Indeed, even though condemned to die, he is often seen as an unsympathetic victim in Wright’s world, and Wright himself is often viewed as a practitioner of crass environmentalism.

But for Mills, the key to the novel is the transformative agency that Bigger represents. “The objective import of his actions,” writes Mills, “which fundamentally challenge a racial and economic system designed to objectify African Americans, positions him on the left.” (83) The challenge for organizers, in this case the Communist Party, is to harness the “transformative force” and keep it from the “ranks of reaction.” (63)

Bigger Thomas is Stagolee as rebel and potential revolutionary. Unfortunately, Bigger and the CP have no chance for a long relationship with one another.

Wright avoids the sentimental ending. The organization can affirm him but not redeem him in practical terms. He does not get the payoff that domestic worker Ollie Knight receives in Black Hope, Wright’s subsequent fiction project.

Fluidity, Fissures and Disruptions

At points early in his book, Mills treats the lumpenproletariat as a totally separate entity, a group that can “access modes of revolutionary knowledge and possibility unavailable to the socially incorporated working class.” (18) Wright knew better than to claim such a dichotomy.
To Mills’ credit, as he moves to discussion of Ralph Ellison, he makes it abundantly clear that he agrees with Ellison that fissures and disruptions exist in class relations and that there is transit by people, whom Mills labels the “lumpen-folk.” (110)

Some are of the drug element, dives, strolls, and working class all at the same time. Some may be lumpen one day, college student the next, and vice versa. Ellison learned this latter transition firsthand when he had to hobo his way from Oklahoma City to Tuskegee University and was physically brutalized along the way.

Fluidity exists in folk milieux, and permeable identities can share insights and enact insurgent responses to harsh and cruel social surroundings.

Illustrating this process is the genius, Mills shows, of Ellison’s early fiction. The two most noteworthy examples are the unpublished stories Tillman and Tackhead and Slick. The protagonists lose employment at the beginning of both tales and thus transition from the working class to the underclass.

Tillman and Tackhead are among a group of waiters preparing for dinner service at a Jim Crow club when the latter notices a painting, Winslow Homer’s famous The Gulf Stream, in one of the private rooms. The painting, with its depiction of a seemingly passive Black man adrift at sea and surrounded by sharks, unsettles Tillman and when alone in the room, he slashes the painting with his knife as a means of self-affirmation.

During dinner service, the result of the act is discovered. But Tillman faces a more immediate peril than being suspected of vandalism. A white patron accuses him of theft and attacks him. Tillman, moving from self-creation to self-preservation, slashes the man with his knife and manages to escape from the club amid the ensuing confusion.

He eventually hops a freight train to escape from town. His further development will occur, Mills notes, in the “socially unfixed fluidity of lumpenproletarian life.” For Mills, Tillman and Tackhead expresses “how freedom, dignity, and action are accessed by the subject who drops out of his stable socioeconomic and ideologically codified position into the margins and interstices of the social.” (125)

Slick Williams has been laid off from his job. He is focused on the need to support his family rather than on a strike taking place at the factory where he formerly worked. Slick, like Tillman, lashes out violently against constraints, in his instance a Black gambler, a white police officer, and a white landlord. Mills views these impulsive actions as the “precondition for knowledge” (130).

Unlike the case with Tillman, Ellison reveals Slick’s development as a lumpen-folk figure, which includes encounters with activists Liles Jackson and Booker Smalls. The merger of lumpen-folk experiences and explanations concerning workers’ solidarity is how Ellison fashions his Marxism.

Walker’s Marxist Innovations

Margaret Walker’s writings of the Depression era are innovative revisions of Marxism in that she portrays the lumpenproletariat as a “symptomatic indictment of capitalism” (138). She presents a more varied cast of lumpen characters than Wright and Ellison and includes a focus on sexism in her descriptions of exploitation.

Her unfinished novel Goose Island recasts experiences from her time working with so-called juvenile delinquents on a WPA initiative in a Chicago neighborhood. Her alter ego is Henrietta, an African-American woman who is a secretary for a sociological project dubbed the Experiment, which is designed to study and address juvenile delinquency through efforts focusing on recreation.

On the job, Henrietta meets Bud Haynes, an underworld figure who is also a neighborhood legend. But during the Depression, Bud has lost his business connections and latches on to the Experiment, though he does not believe in its premises. To Bud, the youth possess no inherent moral problems. He attributes their so-called delinquency to the social conditions in which they live.

As the novel progresses, Bud serves as tour guide for Henrietta, making his bourgeois-oriented co-worker familiar with life in the Low End, as residents refer to the neighborhood. The climax of the novel occurs when, after a robbery, four African-American youth engage in a shootout with a police officer.

The officer and one of the youth are killed; another is apprehended. The other two become fugitives. At that time, the decision is made to cancel the Experiment. Colman, the director, opines, “Well they never seem to learn” (qtd in Mills 159). However, Walker ends the story (as far as she got) by showing the potential in the Low End for positive resistance to the status quo, in particular the police brutality that ensues in the wake of the shootout.

Aided by the Workers’ Alliance and the International Labor Defense, community residents attend mass meetings and are willing to participate in coordinated protest. Thus, Mills concludes that in Goose Island and later, in poems like “Gun Moll,” “Prostitute,” “Bad-Man Stagolee,” “Kissie Lee,” and “Two-Gun Buster and Trigger Slim,” Walker sees the lumpenproletariat as the “heart of an African American culture of resistance” (169).

Mills has performed an invaluable service in reminding us of the tremendous achievements of Wright, Ellison and Walker as creative intellectuals. He has surely provided some of the most astute readings of these writers. His overall commentary is deeply perceptive.

Perhaps his only major miss as a critic involves Margaret Walker’s majestic poem “For My People.” He understands it as a muddled critique of the failures of the Black laboring class culminating in an ill-fitting, almost illogical, call for action.

In fact, the poem functions as a celebration of Black totality and perseverance, and of revolutionary possibility. The poem’s generative aspects for Black people lie in the fact that a Walker could understand Black life enough to write it.

Mills’ biographical misstep also involves Walker. In a closing chapter discussing the post-Depression careers of the three writers in question, he casually assigns Walker to the rank of Black nationalists, or cultural nationalists, with no reference to her late-life opinions regarding political economy.

He seems unaware that even past the age of 70, Walker gave speeches in which she advocated for a “new people’s socialism of the twenty-first century.” Her Marxist commitments never became unhinged from her commitment to Black culture.

A Source of Invention

Mills’ book shines brightly despite a blemish or two. His major point, underlying his investigation of Wright, Ellison and Walker, is that Marxism never has to be viewed as an alienating Eurocentric discourse. Its essence, as Mills, following the likes of Louis Althusser, reminds us is experimentalism based on analyses of current material conditions. It is a body of theorizing with a past that includes the sterling, African Americanizing, pro-lumpenproletariat contributions of Wright, Ellison and Walker. In additions thre is, as discussed at length by Mills, the subsequent thinking of Frantz Fanon and Eldridge Cleaver.
It is a past that can serve as a source of invention for those now struggling to end racial, economic and gender exploitation. By the reckoning of Mills, Marxism instructs practitioners to be open to and involve themselves in emerging movements with anticapitalist, antisexist, and antiracist aims.

The improvisation of Wright, Ellison and Walker has been supplemented brilliantly by the improvisation of Mills. His intervention is much needed. In all, this is the finest sort of literary scholarship for our times.

July-August 2018, ATC 195