Karl Marx felt that this class lacked the political consciousness required to lead a revolution. Newton (Black Panthers Party), on the other hand, was inspired by his reading of post-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon and his belief that the lumpen was of utmost importance, saying about these "brothers off the block" that, “If you didn't relate to these cats, the power structure would organize these cats against you.”
‘The “dangerous class,” the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society.’
Here we see Marx’s conception of the Lumpenproletariat, a group that stands on the very margins of the class system because they are not wholly integrated into the division of labour. They do not accept the idea of making their living by regular work. Thus, their position within society is not marked by the fact that they are unemployed but rather by the fact that they do not seek employment:
‘the lumpenproletariat, which in all big towns forms a mass sharply differentiated from the industrial proletariat, a recruiting ground for thieves and criminals of all kinds living on the crumbs of society, people without a definite trade, vagabonds, gens sans feu et sans aveu [men without hearth or home], varying according to the degree of civilization of the nation to which they belong, but never renouncing their lazzaroni character’.
Though they may be swept up by a proletarian revolution and are entirely capable of “the most heroic deeds and the most exalted sacrifices”, they are equally capable of “the barest banditry and the foulest corruption”, and are much more likely to play the part of “a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.”
Essentially, they are a malleable populace that is generally tempted into service of sight, as opportunistic and exploitative as the finance aristocracy. “The finance aristocracy, in its mode of acquisition as well as in its pleasures, is nothing but the rebirth of the lumpenproletrait on the heights of bourgeois society”, Just like the aristocracy, the Lumpen live off society, rather than producing for it, existing as an entirely parasitic force.
The Black Panthers’ basic understanding of the Lumpenproletariat generally conforms to that of Marx. For Eldridge Cleaver, the Lumpenproletariat were those who had “no secure relationship or vested interest in the means of production and the institutions of a capitalist society.” His wife echoed a similar sentiment, stating that the black Lumpenproletariat had absolutely no stake in industrial America: “They existed at the bottom level of society…outside the capitalist system that was the basis for the oppression of black people.”
The Panthers included two distinct groups within the Lumpen. Firstly the “Industrial Reserve army”, who could not find a job, being unskilled and unfit, displaced by mechanization and never invested with new skills, forced to rely on Welfare or receiving State Aid. They consisted of ‘the millions of black domestics and porters, nurses’ aides and maintenance men, laundresses and cooks, sharecroppers, unpropertied ghetto dwellers, welfare mothers’ The second group were the so-called “Criminal Element”, who had similarly been locked out of the economy, and consisted of the ‘gang members and the gangsters, the pimps and the prostitutes, the drug users and dealers, the common thieves and murderers’.
The “Criminal Element” quite evidently displayed the key characteristics of the Lumpen, the parasite, “existing off that which they rip off”. However, the “Industrial Reserve Army” poses something of a problem, since a large proportion of this group consists of the working poor (although their jobs are “irregular and usually low paid’ they are the working poor all the same). But Marx explicitly stated that the Lumpenproletariat formed “a mass sharply differentiated from the industrial proletariat.” However, the Panthers viewed the line that separated the proletariat and the lumpen as tenuous and fragile, and this resulted in a blending of the two classes. Indeed, some historians have argued that the Panthers “envisioned a lumpen more akin to a subproletariat class” that lacked the parasitical aspects of the traditional lumpen sector.”
Amended version of paragraphs from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_panthers