The ‘labour aristocracy’: a sociological theory to divide the working class
There is a class antagonism within the working class itself, an antagonism between the “most exploited” strata and the privileged layers. There is a “labour aristocracy” enjoying higher wages and better working conditions; a section of the working class which receives a share of the super-profits extracted by “its imperialism” from colonial exploitation. Thus there is a layer of the working class which does not in fact belong to the working class, but to the bourgeoisie, a layer of “bourgeois-workers”.
These are the main points common to all theories of the “labour aristocracy”. This is a theoretical tool whose principal value lies in the fact that it allows one, to whatever extent one feels to be necessary, to blur the line which divides the working class from global capitalism.
This theory allows one to condemn whole sections of the working class (workers in advanced industrialized countries, for example) as “bourgeois”, and to define bourgeois organizations (the left-wing parties and the unions, for example) as “working class”.
This theory originated in the analysis developed by Lenin during World War I, and taken up by the Third International. Some proletarian political currents, who give themselves the strange title of “Leninist”, still cling to this theoretical oddity, which they do not always know what to do with, apart from using it to cloud over questions of primary importance to the class struggle. For decades, the Stalinists have also made use of this theory, invoking the prestigious name Lenin to legitimize their counter-revolutionary politics.
But this theory has also been taken up, in various different forms, by groups coming out of Stalinism – via Maoism – which have come to reject many of the worst lies of official Stalinism (in particular the myth of the existence of socialist states, whether in Russia, China or elsewhere.)
These groups, such as Operai e Teoria in Italy, Le Bolshevik (now Groupe Ouvriere Internationaliste, publishing Revolution Mondiale) in France, and the Marxist Workers’ Committee in the USA, take up very radical positions against the unions and the left-wing parties. In this way they have gained a degree of influence among some groups of militant workers. But for these currents, ex-“Third Worldists”, the critique of the unions and the left-wing parties is based on their enthusiastic support for the division of the working class, between the “lowest layers” — which they call the true proletariat — and the “labour aristocracy”.
This is how Operai e Teoria formulates this theory of the division of the working class:
“Not to recognize the internal divisions among productive workers, the importance of the struggle against the labour aristocracy, and the necessity for revolutionaries to work towards achieving a split, a clean break between the interests of the lower strata and those of the labour aristocracy, not only signifies the failure to understand the history of the workers’ movement, but — and this is more serious — also allows the proletariat to be lined up behind the bourgeoisie.” (Operai e Teoria, no.7, Oct-Nov 1980, our emphasis.)[i]
In this article, we will not attempt to chart the theoretical contradictions of the “Leninist” groups. Our aim is to demonstrate the theoretical inconsistency and the political dangers of the theory of the labour aristocracy as it is defended by various Maoist and ex-Maoist groups, often working within the most combative sections of the working class. We aim to show:
– that this theory is based on a socio‑logical analysis which ignores the historical nature of the proletariat as a class;
— that the definition, or rather definitions of the “labour aristocracy” become even more flawed and contradictory in the light of all the different divisions which capitalism has sown within the working class;
— that the practical result of conceptions of this kind can only be to divide workers from each other in their struggles, and to isolate the “most exploited” workers from the rest of their class;
— that these conceptions lead to confusions about the nature of the unions and the left-wing parties — specifically to the confusion that these are “bourgeois-workers” organisations (this ambiguity was already present in the conceptions of the Communist International);
— that it is wrong to look to Marx, Engels or Lenin to support this theory, since even when they talked, more or less precisely about the existence of a “labour aristocracy” or about the “bourgeoisification of the working class in England in the nineteenth century”, they never supported any theory about the necessity to divide the working class. Just the opposite.
I. A sociological theory
One can look at the working class in two ways. One can look as it is most of the time, that is, downtrodden, divided and atomized into millions of solitary individuals, with no relation to each other.
Or one can look at the working class from an historical standpoint. One can see it as a social class with a history of more than two centuries of struggle, and a future as the instigator of the most far-reaching revolution in the history of humanity.
The first vision is an immediatist vision of a defeated class, while the second is a vision of class struggle. The second is the Marxist vision which understands that the working class is more than what it is now; that it is above all what it will be forced to become. Marxism is not a sociological study of a defeated working class. Its aim is to understand proletarian class struggle which is something completely different.
The theory that fundamental antagonisms exist within the working class is based on a conception which takes account only of the immediate reality of a defeated, atomized working class. Anyone who knows the history of workers’ revolutions knows that the highest moments of proletarian struggle have only been achieved through the widest possible generalization of working class unity.
To say that unity between the most exploited and less exploited sections of the working class is impossible, is to ignore the entire history of the workers’ movement. History shows that at every important stage in its struggle, the working class confronts the problem of how to achieve the greatest possible degree of unity.
There is a fundamental tendency in the development of the workers’ movement from the first associations of artisan workers, through the trade unions, to the formation of workers’ councils. This tendency is the search for ever-greater unity. The workers’ councils, spontaneously created for the first time by workers in Russia in 1905, are the most unified form of organization conceivable. Since they are based on mass assemblies, they allow the greatest possible number of workers to participate in the struggle.
This development is not only a reflection of the development of class consciousness, of an understanding of the necessity for class unity. The development of this understanding is itself a reflection of the development of the material conditions in which the working class lives and struggles.
The development of manufacturing industry destroyed the specializations inherited from the feudal artisan of the past. It brought about the uniformity of the proletariat, and transformed the working class into a commodity which is able to produce shoes, or, just as easily, cannons, without the services of cobbler or blacksmith.
Moreover the development of capitalism involves the development of gigantic urban industrial centres in which millions of workers are crowded together. In these centres, struggle takes on an explosive character, because of the rapidity with which these millions of workers can organise and co-ordinate themselves for united action.
“But with the development of industry the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows and it feels that strength more. The various interests and conditions of life within the proletariat are more and more equalized, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labour, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level.” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, ‘Bourgeois and Proletarians’)
In the recent struggles in Poland where workers have demonstrated their ability to unite and organize themselves in a way which has astonished the world, there has been no sign of a struggle between qualified and unqualified workers. Instead we have seen the unification of all sectors in the mass assemblies, in the struggle and for the struggle.
But to understand “miracles” of this kind, our eyes must not be fixed, like those of the sociologists, on the immediate reality of the working class when it is not struggling. When the proletariat is not struggling, when the bourgeoisie succeeds in reducing wages to the absolute minimum required for their subsistence, then the working class is indeed completely divided.
Since its origins, the working class, which is subjected to the last, but also the most absolute form of exploitation known in history, has lived in one way when it is passive and submissive to the bourgeoisie, and in a totally different way when it rises up against its oppressors.
This separation between two forms of existence (united and in struggle, or divided and passive) has become more and more marked as capitalism has developed. Apart from the period at the end of the nineteenth century, when the proletariat was able for a while to compel the bourgeoisie to accept the existence of genuine unions and mass parties, the level of unity achieved by the working class during periods of struggle has tended to increase, but so has the division and atomization of the working class during periods of “social peace”.
The same conditions of life and work of the working class which lead it to struggle in a more and more unified way, lead, outside periods of struggle, to the division and atomization of the working class into the mass of solitary individuals which we can see today.
Competition between workers outside periods of struggle has been a characteristic of the proletariat since its origins. But this was less strongly expressed in early capitalism, when workers “had a trade”, when education was not widespread, and when the knowledge of each proletarian was a vital “tool of the trade”. The cobbler does not compete with the blacksmith. But to the extent that, increasingly, “anyone can produce anything”, due to the advance of industry and education, this is reflected in capitalism by a situation where “anyone can take anyone else’s job.”
Faced with the problem of finding work, the worker in industrial capitalism knows that this depends on how many applicants there are for the same job. The development of industry thus increasingly tends to set workers against each other as individuals, when they are not involved in struggle. Marx described this process in the following way:
“The growth of productive capital implies the accumulation and concentration of capital. This centralization implies a greater division of labour and a greater use of machinery. The greater division of labour destroys the especial skill of the labourer; and by putting in the place of this skilled work labour which anyone can perform it increases competition among the workers.” (Marx, Speech on the Question of Free Trade – generally published with The Poverty of Philosophy)
The development of industry thus creates the material conditions for the existence of a united and conscious humanity, but at the same time, within the framework of the law of capitalism where the survival of the worker depends on his ability to sell his labour power, it engenders a greater competition than ever before.
To attempt to base a theory of the class struggle of the proletariat on an immediatist study of a divided and defeated proletariat, while ignoring the historical experience of struggles in the past, inevitably leads to the conception that working class unity will never be possible. And the more one resorts to an ahistorical, immediatist vision — under the pretexts that “we must be concrete”, or “we must have an immediate effect” — the more any real understanding of the proletariat is turned on its head.
A conception which denies the possibility of working class unity is in the last analysis a theorization of the defeat of the proletariat, of the times when it is not struggling. It is the bourgeois vision of the proletariat as ignorant, divided, atomized and defeated individuals. It is a variety of sociology.
An “ouvrierist” conception
Since it does not see the working class as an historical force, this conception conceives of the working class as a sum of revolutionary individuals. Ouvrierism is not based on the assertion of the revolutionary nature of the working class, but is a sociological cult of individual workers. Imbued with this kind of vision, political currents with Maoist origins attach great importance to the social origins of members of political organizations, to the extent that a large number of their members from bourgeois or petty-bourgeois origins abandon their studies — particularly in the period since 1968 — to take jobs in factories (which only serves to reinforce the cult of the individual worker.)
Thus, the Marxist Workers’ Committee, a group which has evolved to the point where it thinks that there are no longer any workers’ states and that Russia has been capitalist since 1924 (the death of Lenin) wrote an article in the first issue of its publication Marxist Worker (Summer 1979), titled ‘25 Years of Struggle - Our History’:
“Our experience in the old revisionist party, the Communist Party of the USA, and in the American Workers’ Communist Party (Maoist), leads us to conclude that the founders of scientific socialism were right to affirm that a real workers’ party must develop an organization of theoretically advanced workers, since not only the whole of the membership, but also the leadership, should come in the first place from the working class.”
What conception of the working class can be “learned well” in a bourgeois, Stalinist organisation? Here we should recall two examples from the history of the workers’ movement, which demonstrate the consequences of the ouvrierist principle.
We should recall the struggle by the “worker” Tolain, French delegate to the first congress of the International Workingmens’ Association, against accepting Marx as a delegate. Tolain argued against the acceptance of Marx on the basis of the principle that “the emancipation of the workers must be the task of the workers themselves,” since Marx was not a worker but an intellectual. After a debate, Tolain’s motion was rejected. Tolain, the worker, was later to be found fighting alongside the “Versaillais” against the workers’ insurrection which set up the Paris Commune.
We should also recall how German Social Democracy succeeded in November 1918 in preventing Rosa Luxemburg from speaking at the Congress of Workers’ Councils, because she also was not a worker, and how she was assassinated a few weeks later by the Freikorps, under orders from the worker Noske, who bloodily crushed the Berlin insurrection in January 1919. It is not each individual worker, but the working class which is revolutionary.
Ouvrierism does not understand this difference and thus understands neither the worker as an individual, nor the working class as a class.
II. The labour aristocracy: an impossible definition
It is obvious that different workers have different wages, and different living and working conditions. It is also a banality to say that, in general, the more comfortable the situation of an individual in society, the more he wants to preserve it. But to deduce from this the existence of a stable stratum within the proletariat whose interests are opposed to those of the rest of their class, and aligned to those of the bourgeoisie, or to try to establish a mechanical link between levels of exploitation and consciousness and combativity, is to make a theoretical leap fraught with danger.
In the early years of capitalism, when large numbers of workers were still more or less artisans, with individual skills and corporate concerns, it was possible at given moments, ie during periods of economic prosperity, to more clearly identify sections of the working class with particular privileges.
Thus, in passing, in his personal correspondence, Engels noted the existence of a “labour aristocracy” of “mechanics, carpenters and joiners, and building workers” who in the nineteenth century were organized to the extent, and enjoyed certain privileges derived from the importance of their qualifications, and the monopoly they held in these qualifications.
But the development of capitalism, with the de-skilling of work on the one hand, and on other the multiplication of artificial divisions within the working class, to attempt to define a “labour aristocracy” in the sense of precise stratum having privileges which distinguish it qualitatively from the rest of the working class, is a completely arbitrary exercise. Capitalism has systematically divided the working class with the aim of creating situations where the interests of some workers are opposed to the interests of others.
We have already insisted on how the development of industry has led, in periods when the working class is not struggling, to the development of competition between workers, through the destruction of specialist skills. However capitalism is not content with divisions which can be engendered in the labour process itself. Like other exploiting classes in the past, the bourgeoisie knows and applies the old principle: divide and rule. And it does so cynically and methodically, in a way that is unprecedented in history.
Capitalism makes use of the “natural” divisions of sex and age, taken over from past societies. Although the privileged position of adult males due to their physical strength progressively disappears with the development of industry, capitalism consciously maintains divisions of this kind with the aim of dividing the labour force and justifying the lower wages of women, the young and the old.
Capitalism also takes over from the past divisions based on race and geographical origin. At its origins, capital, still essentially in the form of commercial capital, grew rich from — among other things — the slave trade. In its fully developed form, capital continues to make use of differences of race and nationality to exert a permanent downward pressure on wages. From the treatment of Irish workers in eightteenth and nineteenth century England, to that of Turkish and Yugoslav workers in Germany in 1980, capitalism has pursued the same policy of dividing the working class. Capitalism knows exactly how it can profit from tribal divisions in Africa, religious differences in Ulster, caste differences in India, or racial differences in America and in the principal European powers, which were reconstructed after the war with the aid of a massive importation of workers from Asia, Africa and the less developed European countries (Turkey, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, etc.)
But capitalism is not content to maintain and foster the so-called “natural” divisions within the working class. Through the generalization of wage labour and the “scientific” organisation of exploitation (Taylorism, bonus schemes, etc), the task of dividing the working class has acquired the status of a profession: sociologists, psychiatrists and union officers work hand in hand with personnel managers to divise “viable” methods of organizing production and of ensuring that the law of “every man for himself” reigns in the factories and the offices, so that everyone feels that his are opposed to those of everyone else. It is in capitalism that the famous epigram “man is a wolf to man” corfresponds most nearly to reality. By making wages dependent on the productivity of others, by creating all kinds of artificial wage differentials for the same work (which is now taken to the limit through the use of computers in management), capitalisms sows more divisions within the exploited class than ever.
In these conditions, it is almost impossible to not to for each category of workers, another category which is either more or less “privileged”.
If one takes account of the privileges which a worker be given on account of his or her age, sex, race, or experience, the nature of his or her work (manual or non-manual), his or her position in the process of production, bonuses earned, etc, etc, one can find an infinite number of definitions of a “labour aristocracy”. In doing so, one will not be one step closer to an understanding of the revolutionary nature of the working class.
Following the logic of their “anti-labour aristocracy” stance, the gems of Maoist wisdom on the subject of the labour aristocracy include the need to organize the “true proletariat”, “the most exploited strata.” These groups are thus forced not only to try to find an adequate definition of a “labour aristocracy”, but also a corresponding definition of the “pure” strata of the proletariat. A large part of their “theoretical” work is dedicated to this task, and the results vary according to different groups or tendencies, and the country or period with which they are concerned.
Thus, for example, in countries like England, France, or Germany, the immigrant workers are the true proletariat, and white workers are the aristocracy. In America, according to this logic, the whole working class can be considered to be “bourgeoisified” (the living standard of a black worker in America being perhaps a hundred times greater than a worker in India); but one could also, following the same logic, deduce that only the white workers belong to the aristocracy. Looked at in one way, black American workers are “aristocrats”, but from another point of view they are the “most exploited”. For Operai e Teoria the “real working class” is made up of workers who work on production lines. For some groups however, industrial workers in the underdeveloped countries are classed as “aristocrats”, since their living standards are much higher than the unemployed masses in the shanty towns around the cities.
The definition of this famous “aristocracy” thus varies from one group to another, encompassing anything from 100% to 50% or 20% of the working class, according to the whim of the resident theoreticians.
III. A theory to divide the working class
Alongside their attempts to work out or clarify their various sociological definitions of strata within the proletariat, the intervention of these organizations towards the working class aims, to a greater or lesser extent, to divide workers — as they admit themselves.
This is based on the creation of organizations which regroup only those workers which they can be sure are not part of the “labouraristocracy”: black or immigrant workers’ organizations, organizations of workers who work on the production line, etc …
This for example is the origin of the particular form of racism which has developed in certain groups within the immigrant communities in the most industrialized European countries, which has transformed the traditional “anti-white” racism into a “Marxist-Leninist” anti-white labour aristocracy racism. In the less developed countries, which are exporters of labour, the advocates of this theory set out to stir up hostility among less qualified workers towards the qualified workers.
Within these organizations, a hostility is cultivated towards the “labour aristocracy”, which soon comes to be used as the scapegoat for all the misfortunes which befall the “most exploited strata”.
In the best of cases, it is claimed that the separate unity of the most exploited sectors serves as an example and is a stimulus towards the wider unification of the working class. But this completely ignores how working class unity is actually brought about.
The living example of Poland in 1980 makes this question perfectly clear. Working class unity is not the culmination of a series of partial unifications, one following the other, sector by sector, after years of systematic work. In real life this unification takes place in an explosive manner, in a few days or weeks. The outbreak of class struggle and its generalization are the product of many different, unforseen factors.
But Poland has only confirmed once again what has been shown by all explosions of class struggle since the 1905 struggles in Russia. For 75 years there has never been working class unity except in struggle and for struggle. But when the working class unites, it does so all at once, and on the largest possible scale. For 75 years, when workers have struggled on their own class terrain, what one has seen is not a fight between different sections of the working class, but on the contrary a tendency towards ever-greater unity. The proletariat is the first class in history which is not divided within itself by real economic antagonisms. Contrary to peasants and artisans, the working class does not possess its own means of production. It possesses only its labour power, and its labour power is collective.
The only weapon which the proletariat has against the bourgeoisie is its numbers. But numbers, without unity, is nothing. The achievement of this unity is the fundamental struggle of the proletariat to affirm its power. It is no accident that the bourgeoisie expends so much effort to prevent this from happening.
It is turning the world on its head to claim, as does Operai e Teoria, that the idea of the necessity of working class unity is bourgeois:
“… There is not one voice among the bourgeoisie to support this division (between the lowest strata and the “aristocracy”). On the contrary there is a chorus of bourgeois propaganda which argues for the necessity of sacrifices because ‘we are all in the same boat’.” (Operai e Teoria, no.7, p.10)
The bourgeoisie does not talk about working class unity, but about national unity. What it says is not “all workers are in the same boat” but “the workers are in the same boat as the bourgeoisie.” Which is not at all the same thing. But this is difficult to understand for those who have “learned” their Marxism from nationalists like Mao, Stalin and Ho Chi Minh. Against all these Stalinist distortions, communists can only affirm the lessons of the historical practice of the proletariat. As the Communist Manifesto already advocated in 1848, they must “point out and bring to the fore the common interests of the entire proletariat” (our emphasis)
IV. An ambiguous conception of Left parties and unions
How could such a theory find the least echo among the working class?
Probably the principal reason why this conception is listened to by some workers without laughter or anger is because it appears to give an explanation of why and how the so-called “workers” unions carry out their despicable sabotage of the class struggle.
According to this theory, the unions, as well as the left-wing parties, are the expression of the material interests of certain layers of the working class, ie the most privilege layers. In times of “social peace”, for certain workers, victims of the racism of white workers or the contempt of more qualified workers, or disgusted by the way the left parties and unions are involved in the management of capitalism, this theory seems on the one hand to offer a coherent explanation of these phenomena, and on the other hand offer an immediate perspective for action: to organize separately from the “aristocrats”. Unfortunately this conception is theoretically false and politically dangerous.
Here for example is how Le Bolshevik in France formulates this idea:
“The Communist Party (of France) is not a workers’ party. By its composition, largely intellectual and petty-bourgeois, and above all by its reformist, ultra-chauvinist political line, the CP of Marchais and Seguy is a bourgeois party.
It is not the political and ideological representative of the working class. It represents the higher layers of the petty-bourgeoisie and the labour aristocracy.” (Le Bolshevik, no 112, Feb 80)
In other words, the interests of a section of the working class, the “aristocracy”, are the same as those of the bourgeoisie, because the party which represents their interests is “bourgeois”. This identity between the political line of parties of the “labour aristocracy” and those of the bourgeoisie has an economic basis: the “aristocracy” receives crumbs from the super-profits extracted by their national capital from the colonies and the semi-colonies.
Lenin formulated an analogous theory to try to explain the betrayal of social democracy during World War I.
“For decades the source of opportunism (this is the name Lenin gave to the reformist tendencies which dominated the workers’ organisations and which participated in World War I) lay in the peculiarities of such a period in the development of capitalism when the comparatively peaceful and civilised existence of a layer of privileged workers turned them ‘bourgeois’, gave them crumbs from the profits of their own national capital, removed them from the sufferings, miseries, and revolutionary sentiments of the ruined and impoverished masses … The economic foundation of chauvinism and opportunism in the labour movement is the same: it is an alliance between the none too numerous upper strata of the proletariat and the petty-bourgeois strata, enjoying crumbs out of the privileges of ‘their’ national capital as opposed to the masses of tale proletarians, the masses of the workers and the oppressed in general.”(Lenin, The War and the Second International)
A critique of Lenin’s explanation of the betrayal of the Second International
Before dealing with the theories of his epigones, we want to pause for a while to look at the conception developed by Lenin to explain the new class nature of the Social Democratic workers’ parties, following their betrayal of the proletarian camp.
History posed the following question to revolutionaries: for decades European social democracy, founded by Marx, Engels and others, which was born out of bitter and prolonged workers’ struggles, has constituted a real instrument for the defence of working class interests. But now virtually the whole of the social democratic movement, including both the mass parties and the unions, was aligned with the national bourgeoisie of their respective countries against the workers of other countries. How could one define the class nature of this monstrous product of history?
To give an idea of the shock that this betrayal caused among the tiny minority which still clung to revolutionary internationalist positions, we can recall for example Lenin’s astonishment when he saw the edition of Vorwarts (publication of the German Social Democratic Party) announcing the vote by socialist parliamentary delegates in favour of war credits. He thought that it was a fake put out to support the propaganda in favour of the war. We can also recall the difficulties of the Germans Spartacists, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, in finally breaking the umbilical cord which linked them organically to their “parent organisation”.
When the war exploded, Social Democratic policy was overtly bourgeois, but the majority of members of the parties and unions were still workers. How was such a contradiction to be explained?
The Social Democrats, now patriots, said “this proves that internationalism is not a truly working class concept.” Rejecting such an analysis Lenin replied, following the same logic, that not all workers had rejected internationalism, but only a “privileged minority” which was “removed from the sufferings, miseries, and revolutionary sentiments of the ruined and impoverished masses.” Lenin’s concern was perfectly correct: to show that the fact that the European proletariat had allowed itself to be drawn into the imperialist war did not mean that wars of this kind corresponded to the interests of the working class in the different countries concerned. But the arguments he used were false, and disproved by reality itself. Lenin said that the “patriotic” workers were those who had interests in common with “their” national capital, which corrupted a “labour aristocracy” by throwing it “a few crumbs of profit.”
How large is this corrupted section of the working class? “An infinitesimal part,” replies Lenin in The War and the Second International; “the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy,” he says in the preface to Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.
But reality demonstrates:
1. that it was not an “infinitesimal” minority of the proletariat which benefitted from the expansion of capitalism at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries, but all industrial workers. The abolition of child labour, the restriction of female labour, the reduction of the working day to ten hours, the creation of state schools and public hospitals, etc — all these measures, which workers’ struggles had extracted from capitalism during a period of rapid expansion, had benefitted above all the “lowest”, most exploited strata of the working class;
2. that Lenin’s vision of an infinitesimal minority of corrupted workers, isolated in the middle of a gigantic mass of suffering workers who were possessed by “revolutionary sentiments”, was, on the eve of World War I, pure invention. Almost all workers in the principal powers — poor or rich, qualified or unqualified, unionised or non-unionised, answered the call to arms and wanted to defeat the “enemy” and massacre them in the defence of “their” national masters;
3. that the “economic explanation” about the “crumbs of profit” shared out by the imperialist power among their qualified workers does not make any sense. First of all because, as we have seen, it was not a tiny minority of workers whose conditions had improved during the period of capitalist expansion, but all workers in the industrialised countries. Secondly because, by definition, the capitalists do not share out their profits, nor their super-profits with those whom they exploit.
The increased wages and greatly improved living standards of workers in the industrialised countries was not the result of the generosity of capitalists who were prepared to share out their profits, but of the successful pressure that workers in this period were able to apply to their national capitalisms. The economic prosperity of capitalism at the end of the nineteenth century led everywhere to a reduction in the number of unemployed workers in capitalism’s “reserve army”. On the labour market, labour power as a commodity became scarcer and thus more expensive, as more factories were set up and existing factories worked at full capacity. This was the state of affairs during this period. Workers were able, by organising themselves even in a limited way (in trade unions and mass parties), to sell their labour power at a higher price and obtain real improvements in their conditions of existence.
The opening up of the world market to certain industrialised centres, more or less confined to Europe and North America, allowed capitalism to develop with tremendous force. The periodic crises of over-production were overcome with an apparently ever increasing speed and energy. The industrialised centres expanded by absorbing an ever growing number of peasants and artisans who were thus transformed into workers, into proletarians. The labour power of qualified workers, who had acquired their skills over many years, became a precious commodity to the capitalists.
So there is certainly a link between the global expansion of capitalism and the increased standard of living of industrial workers, but is not the link described by Lenin. The improvement of the proletarian condition did not affect an “infinitesimal” minority, but the whole working class. It was not the result of the “corruption” of workers by their capitalist masters but of the workers’ struggles in a period of capitalist prosperity.
If the European and American workers, en masse, identified their interests with those of their national capital, following the lead of their political and trade union organizations, it was because, over a period of decades, they had been living in the period of the greatest material prosperity known to mankind. If the idea of the possibility of a peaceful transition to socialism made such great inroads into the workers’ movement, it was because social prosperity often appeared as the result of conscious forces in society. The barbarism or World War I drowned these illusions in the mud of the trenches at Verdun. But nonetheless it was these illusions which had allowed the capitalist generals to send more than twenty million men to their deaths in the inter-imperialist butchery.
The world war marked a definite end to any possibility of the cohabitation between the “reformists” and the revolutionaries within the workers’ movement. By transforming themselves into recruiting sergeants for the imperialist armies, the majority reformist tendencies within the Second International passed body and soul into the camp of capitalism.
From this point they were no longer working class tendencies strongly influenced by the ideology of the dominant class, but cogs in the political apparatus of the bourgeoisie.
The Social Democratic parties are no longer “bourgeoisified workers’ organizations” but bourgeois organizations working within the working class. They no longer represent the working class, or even a section of it. They are an incarnation of the interests of the national capital as a whole.
Social Democracy is no more “working class” because it contains workers, than the bars of a cage are “animal” because they contain animals. The massacre of German workers after the war by the Social Democratic government was a bloody proof of which side of the barricade Social Democracy was henceforth to belong to.[ii]
The theory that the left-wing parties and their unions defend the interests of the “labour aristocracy” always entails, in one way or another, the idea that they are workers’ organizations all the same.
The practical importance of this theoretical question emerges when the working class is confronted with an attack by a section of the bourgeoisie against these organizations. It was in the name of the defence of these “workers’ organizations” that “Western democracy” led workers into the struggle “against fascism” — from 1936 in Spain to Hiroshima.
It is this ambiguity which is useful to Lenin’s epigones today. The Maoist current came out of the Communist Parties. The Maoists are chips off the Stalinist bloc, who split off under the pressure of the development of inter-imperialist conflicts (particularly between China and Russia) and the intensification of the class struggle.
Many groups of Maoist origin assert that the CPs are “bourgeois” organizations, but they are always quick to make it clear that the CPs are based on the “labour aristocracy”, and for this reason are partly “bourgeoisified workers’ organizations”…..One can see the importance that this “nuance” can have for groups which, like the Marxist Workers’ Committee, fiercely defend their “25 years of struggle”[iii], more than three-quarters of which were spent inside the Stalinist party. According to their theory these years were not spent working for the bourgeoisie….but for the “labour aristocracy”.
Any ambiguity about which side of the barricade the left-wing parties stand, can have deadly consequences for the working class. Over the past 60 years, almost every important working class movement has been crushed by the left, or with its complicity. The theory of the “labour aristocracy”, by cultivation this ambiguity, disarms the class by blurring the one issue which needs to be as clear-cut as possible before engaging in any battle: who is the enemy.
V. A gross deformation of Marxism
We have shown how the theory of the labour aristocracy, as it is defended by Maoist and ex-Maoist groups, betrays a sociological understanding of the working class, a vision acquired by these currents through their experience with Stalinism.
The understanding of this experience is replaced by a quasi-religious study of certain texts of the proletarian “evangelists”, from which extracts are quoted as the absolute proof of what they say. (The evolution of Maoist groups can be measured by the number of evangelists’ heads they have removed from their icons: to start with there is Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Mao is the first to go, and then, at a more advanced stage, when some groups begin to open their eyes towards the Stalinist counter-revolution, Stalin is eliminated as well. But at the same time, the other three remain, with their religious status further enhanced.)
To find out whether this or that idea or political position is true or false, these organizations do not ask themselves the question: has this been confirmed or not by the real living practice of workers’ struggles in the past? … but: can this be justified by a quotation from Marx, Engels or Lenin, or not?
Thus, to “scientifically” demonstrate the proof of the theory of the labour aristocracy, these groups bombard their readers with knowingly selected quotations from Marx, Engels or Lenin.
These ultra-Leninist groups base themselves on Lenin’s mistakes on the question of the “labour aristocracy”, but they forget that Lenin never drew the aberrant conclusions arrived at by Operai e Teoria, according to which revolutionaries must no longer “point out and bring to the fore the common interests of the entire proletariat,” as the Manifesto says, but work to achieve “a split, a clean break between the interests of the lower strata and those of the labour aristocracy.” (Operai e Teoria)
Lenin never called for workers to organize independently of and against the rest of their class. On the contrary, Lenin’s attack against the Social Democratic patriots as a political current was matched by his defence of the necessity for the unity of all workers in their unitary organizations. The slogan “all power to the soviets,” that is to say, all power to the broadest and most unitary organizations the working class was able to create, a slogan of which he was one of the staunchest defenders, was not a call for the division of the working class but on the contrary for the strongest possible unity for the purpose of seizing power.
As for the references by these currents to certain quotations from Engels, they are simply an attempt to make isolated phrases by Engels say something he never said. Engels spoke in many places of a “labour aristocracy” within the working class. But what was he talking about?
In some cases he is referring to the English working class, which as whole enjoyed living standards and working conditions which were much superior to those of workers in other countries. On other cases, he refers to more specialized workers within the British working class itself, who still retained artisan skills (mechanics, carpenters and joiners, and building workers). But in doing so, his aim is to dispel any illusions which might exist within the British working class about the possibility of being a real “aristocracy”. He emphasizes the fact that the evolution of capitalism takes place above all through economic crises, which force it to reduce the conditions of all workers to the lowest common level, and which destroy the material basis of the “privileges” of minority groups of workers, even among the working class in Britain. Thus in a debate in the International Workingmens’ Association (First International) he said;
“As it happens, this (the adoption of the motion from Halos on the Irish section of the IWA) would only serve to strengthen the opinion, which has already been current for too long among the English workers, according to which, in relation to the Irish, they are superior beings and form a kind of aristocracy, in the same way as the whites in the slave states think of themselves as being superior in relation to the blacks.”
And Engels explains how the economic crisis tends to undermine this opinion which has already been current for too long:
“With the ending of (English) industrial supremacy, the working class in England will lose its privileged condition. As a whole — including the privileged minority of leaders — it will find itself once more at the level of workers abroad.”
And, referring to the old unions which jealously defend their position as organizations regrouping only the most specialised workers:
“Finally, it (the acute crisis of capitalism) must break out, and it is to be hoped that this will put an end to the old unions.”[iv]
The practical experience of workers’ struggles in the twentieth century, which have given rise to “new” forms of organization based on general assembles with delegates elected to committees or councils, has effectively put an end not only to the old unions of specialized workers, but also to trade unions of all kinds, which are inevitably based entirely on professional categories.
Engels spoke of a kind of “labour aristocracy” with the aim of strengthening the movement towards the indispensable unity of the working class.
To finish with these “Marxist” references, let us briefly consider the research of Operai e Teoria which claims to have found an explanation by Marx for the antagonisms which supposedly set workers against each other.
“All (the workers) as an organic whole produce surplus value, but not all produce the same quantity since they are not all subjected to the massive extortion of relative surplus value.”
From all the evidence, these people have not even gone to the trouble of finding out what “relative surplus value” is. Marx used this term to define the phenomenon of the growing proportion of labour time stolen by capital from the working class by means of increased productivity.
Contrary to the extraction of “absolute surplus value” which essentially depends on the duration of labour time, “relative surplus value” depends in the first place on the social productivity of the working class as a whole.
Increased productivity is expressed by the fact that less hours of labour are needed to produce the same quantity of goods. Increased social productivity is expressed by the fact that less social labour time is needed to produce the goods necessary for subsistence.
The products necessary to maintain labour power, those which the worker needs to buy with his wages, contain less and less value. Even if he is now able to buy two shirts instead of one, these two shirts cost less labour to produce than one did previously, thanks to increased productivity. The difference between the value produced by the worker and that part of the value which he gets back in the form of wages — this difference being the surplus value appropriated by the capitalist — increases even though the absolute duration of his labour remains unchanged.
Relative surplus value is exploitation through the strengthening of the hold of capital over the whole of social life[v]. It is the most collective form of exploitation that is possible in a class society (which is why it is the last form of exploitation.)And in this sense it is suffered by all workers with an equal intensity.
The increasing reliance of capitalism on relative surplus value does not lead to the development of economic antagonisms within the working class as Operai e Teoria claim, but on the contrary to the growing uniformity of the objective situation of workers in relation to capital.
One cannot read Marx through the eyes of Stalinist sociologists.
Certain political currents coming out of Maoism seem to adopt a radical anti-union stance. This gives the illusion of being a step forward towards class positions. But the theory which underlies their position, as well as the political conclusions which it leads to, turn this anti-unionism into a new way of dividing the working class.
The unionist form of organization is historically dead from the point of view of the class struggle, precisely because it cannot lead to a real class unity. Organization into branches, trades, on an strictly economic basis, is no longer a basis for the unity which is absolutely indispensable for all struggle under totalitarian capitalism.
Rejecting the unions, only to divide the working class in other ways: this is the result of anti-unionism based on an opposition to the “labour aristocracy”.
[i] This is taken from an article where Operai e Teoria attempt to answer the criticisms of Battaglia Communista (Partito Communista Internationalista) which, despite being “Leninist”, reproaches O e T
– for “supporting the capitalist process of division of the working class;”
– for basing their theory on the “objective incorrect idea of privileges” within the working class;
– for not understanding “the tendency of capitalism in crisis to progressively erode the conditions of existence of the entire proletariat, and thus to bring about its economic unifications.”
These criticisms of Battaglia are certainly correct, but it does not take them to their logical conclusion, for fear of casting doubt on the words of their “master”, Lenin.
[ii]The compromises the Third international was forced to make with the Social Democratic parties after 1920, at the expense of the working class tendencies accused of being “ultra-left”, found its theoretical justification in the ambiguity of the term “bourgeois-workers’ parties” that was used to describe the patriotic Social Democrats. This is how Lenin’s International came to demand that the British communists should join the "Labour" Party!
[iii] Marxist Worker, no 1, 1979, ’25 years of Struggle: Our History’.
[iv]Part of an intervention at the meeting of the General Council of the IWA in May 1872.
[v]The predominance of relative surplus value over absolute value was one of the essential characteristics of what Marx called “the real domination of capital.”