Huey P. Newton argued that the black lumpenproletariat was the revolutionary class in US society and that one of the main purposes of the Black Panther Party was to organize and mobilize it. Lumpenproletariat is a termed invented by German social theorist Karl Marx to designate the members of the working-class outside of the wage-labor system who instead gain their livelihoods through crime and other aspects of the underground economy such as prostitutes, thieves, drug dealers, and gamblers.
Marx argues that not only are members of the lumpenproletariat notrevolutionary—hence deserving to be separated as a category of analysis from the rest of the proletariat—but they are, in fact, counterrevolutionary as their economic interests are tied to the prevailing capitalist structure. Martinican psychologist and revolutionary philosopher, Frantz Fanon, however, disagreed with Marx and, instead argued, that the lumpenproletariat were a revolutionary class. Huey combined the thought of Marx, Fanon, along with the Leninist concept of the vanguard party and Maoist ideas on armed insurrection, to conclude that an armed, revolutionary black lumpenproletariat was the key to revolution in the United States.
Newton’s ideas on the lumpenproletariat reflected the seemingly growing split between the Southern “Civil Rights” movement and the Northern “Black Power” movement. Newton and other more radical black activists criticized the Civil Rights Movement for its bourgeois nature. The Civil Rights Movement depended too much on the “politics of responsibility.” In an interesting note to history, Rosa Parks was not the first black woman to defy legally enforced racial segregation in the Montgomery, Alabama public bus system--Claudette Colvin preceded her. The civil rights leaders in Montgomery, however, concluded that Colvin an unwed mother, was not “respectable” enough to be the poster child for the fight against segregation of public transport. Newton and others argued that the assimilationism and passivity they decried in the Civil Rights Movement was a direct consequence of the class background of the majority of the movement’s leaders. The black middle-class, the ministers in SCLC and the lawyers for the NAACP, for example, Newton contended would always be reformist; only the black working-class could be revolutionary.
Newton believed that Malcolm X represented the revolutionary potential of the black lumpenproletariat
In his ideas, Newton was also heavily influenced by the autobiography of Malcolm X. Malcolm had been a thief and drug addict in Boston in the 1940s and served time in a Massachusetts jail for burglary. It was in prison that Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam and learned about Black Nationalism. According to Newton, Malcolm X represented the revolutionary potential of the black lumpenproletariat. The Black Panther Party (BPP) sought to organize as many “brothas off da block” as possible. Instead of trying to organize the “better” elements of black society (DuBois’ “Talented Tenth”) the BPP tried organizing gang members in LA, Chicago and Oakland. Newton’s own long criminal record solidified his status as a member of the lumpenproletariat. He was arrested as a teenager for minor crimes, was famously tried for the murder of a policeman in 1967, tried again for the murder of a 17 year-old prostitute, became a crack addict and was finally gunned down in front of an Oakland crack house in 1989. Many even claim that Newton used money earned from illegal drug sales and prostitution to fund programs offered by the Oakland BPP.
Newton’s idea of the revolutionary black lumpenproletariat is still controversial. Critics like Errol Henderson argue that the very idea of a revolutionary class is Eurocentric and cannot apply to black liberation struggles. Most of the debate today however, centers around hip-hop and the appropriate role, if any, of the “gangsta.” Hugh Pearson says Huey Newton and the BPP are partly to blame for contemporary hip-hop’s promotion of drug dealing, pimping and gun violence. Many critics, running the gamut from Black Nationalists to right-wing Republicans have criticized hip-hop for its promotion of the gangsta lifestyle. There are still those, however, who profess Newton’s beliefs.
Slain rapper Tupac Shakur was the son of Afeni Shakur, a former Black Panther. Although he was one of the first hip hop artists to be reviled for his promotion of drug dealing, pimping and gun violence in his lyrics, the critics ignored his fiercely political lyrics and his attempt to celebrate “Thug Life” not only as a criminal lifestyle but a revolutionary one as well. Similarly, Dead Prez, a revolutionary Black Nationalist hip hop group based in New York City describes their approach as “Revolutionary, But Gangsta.” Their lyrics mention that they take much of their inspiration from Newton and the BPP, and they too see the black lumpenproletariat as central to black liberation. Their song “Hell Yeah” describes the petty crime committed by the black lumpenproletariat as a form of revolutionary resistance to white supremacist capitalist America.