[The following chapter is excerpted from Politico-Economic Problems of Capitalism (1968), by Eugen Varga, entitled “The Labor Aristocracy after the Second World War” whose content is self-explanatory. Included are our notes to the piece, meant to re-align and expand the conception of the labor aristocracy presented here, which suffers from several key defects, notably those of distance and orthodoxy. As always, the following has been republished and annotated here for the purposes of study and struggle.]
The role of the labour aristocracy has been thoroughly studied by the founders of Marxism-Leninism. But the deep changes wrought by the development of capitalism, especially since the Second World War, have not failed to affect the labour aristocracy, its composition, and the sources of its privileges.
Under pre-monopoly capitalism only Britain had a labour aristocracy. The monopoly superprofits of British capitalists provided the funds ensuring its privileged position. Britain was then the workshop of the world and, in addition to ordinary profits derived from exploiting the working class within the country, British capitalists garnered huge superprofits from exploiting the enormous colonial empire. Engels said of Britain that “this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie”.
[eds.] As important as inflated purchasing power, and inevitable with the expansion of colonial trade, is an influx of increasingly affordable products—sugar, rum, tea, maize, chocolate, textiles, etc.—consumed eventually by all classes. We do not fault Varga here for claiming only Britain possessed a labor aristocracy, since their amerikan counterparts, even richer and consuming near as many colonial staples, were almost to the man petty bourgeois at this time, as Varga notes later. The hyper-exploited slave population would not be challenged by foreign and domestic laborers for some decades, and even then, their gains came at the price of annexations from natives, asian rail workers, xicanx farmers and black tenants.
“This aristocracy of labour,” Lenin wrote, “which at that time earned tolerably good wages, boxed itself up in narrow, self-interested craft unions, and Isolated itself from the mass of the proletariat, while in politics it supported the liberal bourgeoisie. And to this very day perhaps nowhere in the world are there so many liberals among the advanced workers as in Britain.”
This and many other statements by Lenin show that he regarded the labour aristocracy primarily as a political factor.
Lenin’s stance begs clarification. Varga has chosen, as we will see eventually, to generally endorse Che’s assertion (true, as it happens) that the mass of workers of the advanced countries comprise the labor aristocracy. Though one can certainly find this suggestion in Lenin, for every suggestion of this kind, Lenin has another passage where he claims the labor aristocracy is comprised merely of the tiniest craft sections of the workers, as well as the labor lieutenants and the social democratic politicians. This is the conception of the labor aristocracy endorsed later by Stalin. This is one of those few questions in marxism where it is vital to come down on the side of experience, rather than narrow book-worship.
The feature typical of the labour aristocracy is its divorce from the mass of workers, its desertion of the working class and its siding with the bourgeoisie and the anti- revolutionary influence exerted by it on the mass of workers.
The principal reasons for its betrayal of the working class are the economic privileges enjoyed by the labour aristocracy.
A concrete historical analysis of this phenomenon shows that this problem is far more complicated than would seem at first sight.
This aspect of the labor aristocracy is vital for understanding its development and the politics it endorses, as well as the destructive and chauvinist effects it has on the left. The opposition of the labor aristocracy, the bourgeois working garrison of the advanced countries, to the working masses of the world through its support for tariffs, borders, preferential arrangements, as well as its rejection of internationalism except in the case of intervention, that is, imperial internationalism, suggests at the class-nature of the labor aristocracy. They are opposed both to the world-proletariat, with whom they compete, as well as their own bourgeois. They maintain political organs, such as trade unions, which also organize ractionary state repressive apparatuses like the police and border patrol. In this light, it is clear that the labor aristocracy, as it is constituted in north amerika, organizes itself as a class against the bourgeoisie, the colonial proletariat and semi-proletariat, as well as the dispossessed masses of the oppressed nations, and the world proletariat as a whole, whom it confronts as a racialized mass.
It is not only colonial superprofits which are responsible for the comparatively good conditions of the labour aristocracy and for its defection to the side of the bourgeoisie. In economic respects the U.S.A. was for a long time a colonial country. But the American workers (except new immigrants) were economically in a better and more privileged position than their European counterparts. This was because there was practically no land rent in America, because large tracts of land were waiting to be cultivated, and anybody having worked a few years as a hired worker could become an independent farmer.
It is unconscionable, not just for Varga, but all marxists, to speak in this sort of innuendo. “Practically no land rent,” and “vast tracts of lands waiting to be cultivated” are sterile code phrases for genocide and dispossession. This is not merely a rhetorical preference. White-washing the history of conquest in the north amerikan empire deprives us of the context for the historical development of settler-colonial and labor aristocratic consciousness as it exists today. For the workers of north amerika to come to confront the workers of the world on a racialized basis, they first whet their knives against the original inhabitants of this land, as well as those natives who had lived in the mexican territories before annexation, and also black bodies, free and unfree.
This error begins with Marx himself in Capital I, and has continued ever since. We are not surprised that a Hungarian economist from the revisionist eastern bloc would glance over these facts, as Stalin had once endorsed the position that national oppression was impossible in north amerika due to the absence of a “landed gentry.” We will neither excuse nor fail to assert these important historical facts.
The labour aristocracy, formed of white workers in the colonies, stands on a different basis. The difference between their incomes and those of the native population (Rhodesia, South Africa, etc.) considerably exceeds that between the labour aristocracy and unskilled workers in metropolitan countries. Their function, too, is different. They have no ideological influence on native workers and are bribed by the white capitalists solely to make them allies in their oppression of non-white workers.
Found here is the common charge that the white workers have been bribed to create division between themselves and the colonial workers. This is also wishful thinking. In fact, the cause of one of the largest labor upheavals the world has ever seen, that of the Rand Rebellion, was the increasing use of black labor in the mines of south afrika. The uprising, supported by the CPSA and the syndicalists, saw the lynching of blacks and calls to reinforce the color-bar, epitomized by the slogan “Workers of the world unite and fight for a white South Africa!” The Comintern criticized CPSA and foisted on it the (almost equally terrible) native republic thesis as an answer to its settler-colonial one-sidedness on behalf of the white workers.
After quashing the rebellion, the government granted concessions to white unions, introduced health and safety regulations, and reinforced the color-bar. It was the bourgeois tendency to exploit cheap oppressed labor without regard for national feeling that led to white rebellion.
The settler-colonial instinct, nurtured and reproduced more efficiently in the bosom of the white workers than the big bourgeois, lashed out, laying the groundwork for apartheid as it came to be known internationally. Crusty formalists like Varga cannot grapple with the possibility that apartheid was merely another form of social democracy.
Often the bourgeoisie is supported not only by the labour aristocracy, but also by low-paid workers, the bulk of which has not yet been drawn into the trade union movement. These include farmhands, workers in villages employed by artisans, unskilled factory workers, especially women, etc. They are politically backward, irresponsible, badly organised and fall under the influence notably of religious parties. They also vote for these parties, in other words, for the bourgeoisie. Only a revolutionary crisis is able to stir them from the political lethargy into which they have fallen.
But it would be dogmatic and wrong to believe that the labour aristocracy always sides with the bourgeoisie. Historical events have demonstrated that it is not only economic conditions which determine the political behaviour of workers. Workers are able to suffer adverse conditions for a very long time, in fact they even get used to them. Dissatisfaction is caused primarily by a worsening of conditions, especially by a rapid worsening. The same also applies to the labour aristocracy. It holds the side of the bourgeoisie so long as its economic privileges are stable, but, if its position sharply deteriorates, it may become an active participant in the revolutionary struggle. This happened in Hungary in 1918-19 before the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat when a sharp inflation plunged down the living standard of the workers. Skilled workers who were receiving the highest rates reacted far more vehemently to the worsening of their position than did badly paid workers. They joined the Communist Party and often played a leading role in the fight to overthrow the bourgeoisie. Similar developments were observed in the workers’ revolutionary movement in Germany.
This is another misconception born out by the experience of the left in the settler-colonial countries. The labor aristocracy certainly does not always side with the bourgeoisie, but it is not because their demands are at odds with capitalism-imperialism, merely that they are at odds with neo-liberalism and globalization. Very often, they struggle against the bourgeois and their attempts to dismantle the welfare state, to utilize foreign labor, to relocate production overseas, and to integrate workplaces and hire minorities.
The move rightward by working class voters in europe and amerika shows us how a resentful labor aristocracy behaves when it believes it has endured shame and stagnation—they vote for semi-fascists like Trump, Orbán, AfD and others who promise retribution against supranational entities and the world proletariat in the form of migrants.
We say that the labor aristocracy, like the petty bourgeoisie, cannot be progressive of themselves. Struggle in terms of their class is struggle against the bourgeoisie and the world proletariat both, and only when elements of these blocs defect on a subjective level to the communist project can they be said to be progressive. Their politics are trade union consciousness writ large, and communists have no use of walls and tariffs. This is not to say that our propaganda should not exploit the gulf between our enemies, but we must also reject endorsing micro-chauvinistic struggles for the sake of uneasy alliances.
Attempts to establish the numbers of the labour aristocracy are of a certain scientific interest, but numbers do not decide the political influence of the labour aristocracy on the behaviour of the working class as a whole in a definite historical situation.
The reasons responsible for that influence changed during the course of capitalist development. In the 19th century, workers’ skills played the decisive role. The labour aristocracy consisted exclusively of skilled workers, even though not all skilled workers were part of it. At that time the composition of the working class was comparatively simple.
It consisted of two categories (excluding supervisors): skilled workers who had acquired their qualifications after three to five years of empirical study under artisans, and unskilled workers who worked under the skilled workers. The ideological influence of the labour aristocracy was based on their role in production—unskilled workers could not work without them; when skilled workers went on strike, unskilled workers could not work.
With the development of the machine industry and especially of conveyorised and automatic lines, the composition of the industrial working class changed substantially. The number of skilled workers became relatively small, that of “trained” workers rose steeply, and the term of training became much shorter. At the Ford Motor Works, for example, it took only one day to “train” a worker. This led to the emergence of a small layer of highly skilled workers who had acquired their skills not empirically but at special schools where they had been taught to adjust and repair automatic lines, appliances, etc. There is practically no difference between these workers, technicians and production engineers.
This change can be seen by the example of the U.S.A. and Britain.
For the USA we have the following data.
It will be seen that in the U.S.A., too, wages tend to equalise even though this tendency operates exceedingly slowly.
The data given above shows that there is a tendency towards a levelling of the wages of skilled and unskilled workers. This shows that the position of the labour aristocracy (in the old sense of the word) is weakening for two reasons—the share of skilled workers is diminishing and the pay differential between them and unskilled labour is decreasing.
Aside a leveling of the wages of the labor aristocracy with those of unskilled labor (which undoubtedly happened), we can see with the benefit of hindsight that what was actually happening was an expansion of the number of both labor aristocrats and unskilled, and the expansion of the sphere of reaction to include unskilled workers whose politics often overlapped with the workers of the narrow craft unions, now infused with fresh color-bar chauvinism and a street-fighting militancy which would see use in explosive race riots throughout the early 20th century.
Yet in spite of this tendency there is still a great difference between some categories of American workers. According to official statistics, in November 1962 industrial workers in the transport equipment branches were drawing the highest hourly rate—2.98 dollars; those in the garment industry, the lowest—1.67 dollars. Partly this is due to the fact that in the former branch only about 10 percent of the workers are women, while in the latter they account for more than 80 per cent. Since the above figures give the average for the whole branch, and there are large differences within the branch itself, it follows that some workers in America earn twice as much as those in the low bracket. These figures show that even though wages tend to equalise, pay differences are still very high and a labour aristocracy continues to exist.
Here we are disappointed to see a true failure of imagination. Varga, and even most marxists today, cannot conceive of a labor aristocracy whose wages, while globally exorbitant, are not historically high. If Varga and others truly must define the labor aristocracy as simply the upper layer of earners after showing so much promise thus far, we can oblige, though it is nonetheless disappointing. The difference between the lowest and highest paid industrial workers on earth provides us with a good rough portrait of the global labor aristocracy. Where these workers are located also traces 1:1 the boundaries of the imperial core and the exploited periphery and semi-periphery. We also point out that the tendency for wages to equalize between the lower-paid and higher-paid workers is precisely the phenomenon the labor aristocracy mobilizes to oppose. Decreases in living standards and wages will not destroy the labor aristocracy; indeed, this is it political trigger, the field wherein the labor aristocracy comes to face the global proletariat.
In Britain women workers are still subjected to discrimination.
Now, as before the war, women are earning about half as much as men. Admittedly, they are generally less skilled, but even when they are doing the same work as men, they receive much less. In the U.S.A. this discrimination is less pronounced.
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If we approach the problem of the labour aristocracy on a world scale we must consider most U.S. industrial workers (except Negroes, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, etc.) as forming a labour aristocracy as compared with workers in other capitalist countries. This does not mean that there is no poverty among the U.S. working class. Even President Kennedy had to admit that more than 30 million Americans live in poverty. These are mainly Negroes, Mexican workers, new immigrants or homeless farm labourers who wander from place to place, the unemployed who have exhausted all legal sources of aid, etc. Nevertheless, the layer of the labour aristocracy is wider in the U.S.A. today than it was in Britain even during the period of its highest prosperity.
Herein lies the rub. The problem of the labor aristocracy must always be approached on a world scale. Imperialism is generally a zero-sum game, and parasitic growths not only expand at the expense of their hosts, but block opportunities for other parasites. This is largely the case with emergent Chinese social-imperialism. The development of a large labor aristocracy has been delayed by the export-status of the Chinese economy. The situation that supplies cheap goods that both pad the u.$. workers’ incomes as a fringe benefit of imperial-nation citizenship and suppress the value of their labor power, ensures that China will be, for the foreseeable future, a low-wage export economy.
The average hourly wages of workers (men and women) in the manufacturing industry in 1961 amounted to:
We are well aware that these figures distort facts in favour of the American workers. Computations according to the official rate of the dollar tend to lessen the purchasing power of West European currencies. Unemployment is much higher in the U.S.A. than in Western Europe. West European workers having children receive special benefits, are given aid in case of unemployment, disability due to illness, complete disability, etc., while in the U.S.A. only a minority enjoys such benefits. But even if we evaluate these additions at 50 per cent of their wages, the wages of West European workers are only a half or a third of those of their American counterparts. The difference in the hourly wage level in the American and West European manufacturing industries exceeds the difference in wages between the labour aristocracy and unskilled workers in Britain at any time in its history.
Assuming the above to be true, the nail is indeed poised over the coffins of both the ‘wage differential’ thesis as well as the ‘revolutionary situation’ thesis. European workers at the time Varga wrote were not only better organized and more militant than their anglo/amerikan counterparts, but earned much less, and yet 1968 still represented little more than the last significant show of force of the european communist movement.
That the American industrial workers are the labour aristocracy of the capitalist world becomes even more obvious if we compare their wages with those of industrial workers in the less developed capitalist countries. U.S. workers earn as much in a week as workers in neighbouring Mexico earn in a month, and as much as African workers earn in two to three months.
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Where does the big bourgeoisie of the highly developed countries get the money to bribe and maintain the labour aristocracy?
One often hears that the liberation of the colonies from the imperialist yoke has deprived, or at least considerably decreased, the bourgeoisie’s possibilities of bribing a part of the workers.
In our opinion this is untrue. Only the former colonies and semi-colonies which liberated themselves under the leadership of the working class and the Communist Parties (North Korea, North Vietnam, China and Cuba) and took the road of socialist development, have succeeded in freeing themselves from imperialist exploitation. In all other large Asian countries—India and Pakistan, the Middle East, the whole of Africa, Latin America (except Cuba), political sovereignty did not bring economic liberation from the domination of foreign capital. Britain’s capital investments in India doubled after that country’s liberation and profits grew correspondingly. The overt imperialist rule of old was replaced by neo colonialism, mixed capitalist companies were set up, loans were granted by the World Bank, government “aid” was extended, etc. We are unable to give accurate data but there is no doubt that the total capital investments of imperialist countries in the less developed bourgeois countries and the profits and superprofits being pumped out of them are much higher now than they were before their liberation.
That amerika, europe and japan live at the expense of the world is today absolutely irrefutable, and that it is from unequal trade, super-exploitation and surplus produced from domestic labor power cheapened by inexpensive consumer goods that determines the globally high wages of the workers of these countries cannot be argued with. We point the reader to Smith’s extremely sophisticated work elucidating the mechanisms by which this global robbery occurs. For perhaps a more readable, but no less important work, we suggest Cope’s Divided World Divided Class.
The profits the imperialists derive from trading with the developing countries have also grown considerably because the prices of goods being exported by them have risen steeply, while the prices of the developing countries’ staple export commodities have dropped. In other words, the terms of trade become worse for the former colonies.
Let us make an attempt to approximate the additional tribute exacted by the highly developed imperialist countries from the developing countries as a result of deteriorating terms of trade during the past decade.
This shows that although during the past decade the terms of foreign trade have improved by seven per cent for the imperialist countries, they have worsened during the same period for the less developed countries by 14 percent.
Varga marshals an interesting anodyne here for the claim (still repeated today) that, post-breakup, the colonial empires had no substantial capital in, nor carried out substantial trade with, post-colonial and underdeveloped countries.
How much do the imperialist countries trading with the less developed countries gain from this disparity? In 1960 (the last year for which data are available) the highly developed countries sold the less developed countries commodities to the value of 21,200 million dollars. Their profit, due to the worsening of the terms of trade for the less developed countries by 7 per cent, amounted to 1,400 million dollars. In 1960 the highly developed countries bought from the less developed countries commodities to the value of 19,800 million dollars. The losses incurred by the less developed countries due to the worsening of the terms of trade by 14 percent (that is the buyers’ profit) amounted to 2,800 million dollars. The total gain of the imperialists thus amounted to 4.200 million dollars in 1960 alone.
As we see, imperialist profits from capital investments in the less developed countries, in addition to the huge profits from their foreign trade with these countries, provide them with large sums of money with which to bribe the labour aristocracy.
But large as it is, this sum is not enough. This can be seen from the following comparison. Let us, for example, take the U.S.A., the richest capitalist country in the world, and Canada. In 1961 United States exports to the less developed countries amounted to 7,000 million dollars and its imports from them to 6,800 million dollars. Even if we presume that their gain from the better terms of trade was equal to that computed above (and this is an exaggeration because the U.S.A. and Canada export a lot of foodstuffs to those countries), it would have amounted to 1,300 million dollars. Let us add to it the net profit on capital investments in the less developed countries, amounting to 2,300 million dollars. To avoid any underestimation let us round the sum off to 4,000 million dollars.
Undoubtedly, 4,000 millions dollars a year is a lot of money. Yet even so this sum is not large enough to transform the bulk of the American working class into a labour aristocracy. This can be seen from the following figures.
Assuming full employment, the total sum of wages and salaries paid by private business in the United States in 1951 comprised 142,000 million dollars. The 4,000 million dollars of superprofits pumped out of the less developed countries amounted to only three per cent of that total.
In 1960 the average estimated income of a fully employed worker in the U.S. private sector amounted to 4,734 dollars. These figures are a gross overestimation, for they include the income of highly paid employees and do not exclude losses due to unemployment, taxes and other payments. Yet it is obvious that even if the American (and Canadian) bourgeoisie had spent all the superprofits pumped out of the less developed countries on bribing its workers, this would have sufficed to transform only a small share of its 40 million strong army of workers and rank-and-file employees into a labour aristocracy.
The principal source of funds for bribing a considerable portion of the working class is the rapid growth in labour productivity which is not accompanied by a corresponding shortening of working time. This can be shown by the example of the growth of labour productivity in U.S. Industry.
According to official statistics labour productivity has grown by almost 40 per cent since the Second World War. At the same time the working week has decreased but very little, in any case, by less than 10 percent. The growth in the labour productivity has not been paralleled by a corresponding drop in prices; on the contrary, the “index of consumer goods prices” is now 25 percent higher than it was in 1948 and continues to grow steadily.
All this means that American capital appropriates at present a far greater proportion of the surplus product (some 20 to 30 percent more) than it did 15 years ago.
The rapid growth of labour productivity provides the bourgeoisie with vast reserves with which to bribe a considerable share of the working class. On the other hand, it creates an ever increasing structural unemployment—the scourge of the working class.
The other advanced capitalist countries develop along similar lines.
Since the war labour productivity has grown considerably in all industrially developed countries, while the actual working time has decreased little as compared with the pre-war working week of 48 hours.
In 1961 the number of hours actually worked per week was 45.3 in West Germany, 45.7 in France, 46.8 in Britain and 48.5 in Italy.
Even though there were several hundred thousand unemployed in Britain during the week ending April 27, 1963, about 1.7 million British workers (or 28.6 percent of the total) each worked an average of 8 hours overtime a week.
We allow Varga his statistics and assumptions. Suffice it to say that he had a rather conservative idea of the size and nature of the labor aristocracy.
* * *
The functions the labour aristocracy is expected to perform are to safeguard the capitalist system, and disseminate bourgeois ideology among the working class so as to keep it from taking the revolutionary road. In carrying out these functions, the labour aristocracy, whose importance in production and influence on other layers of workers has waned because of technological progress, is being increasingly assisted, and even superseded, by the workers’ bureaucracy.
To an extent we can agree with this, but since Varga’s time the labor bureaucracy has also shrunk, and labor aristocratic wages have slumped. The consciousness of the labor aristocracy of Varga’s day—a militant philistinism, characterized politically by cynicism and anti-globalism, and all its associated chauvinism—is now the consciousness of the first world worker in general. Rather than a paradigm that saw the labor aristocracy as puppets of the bourgeoisie—a rosy view from europe—we in the settler-colonial countries observe the independence, petty bourgeois mentality, and political revanchism of the european-descended masses and posit not that they are a temporarily bought off stratum spreading bourgeois ideology, but that the labor aristocracy is a class produced from the specific conditions of late-imperial parasitism with a political and historical character all its own.
After the First World War Lenin wrote: “An entire social stratum, consisting of parliamentarians, journalists, labour officials, privileged office personnel, and certain strata of the proletariat, has sprung up and has become amalgamated with its own national bourgeoisie, which has proved fully capable of appreciating and ‘adapting’ it.”
Today the reformist workers’ bureaucracy has become even more numerous and powerful. As distinct from the labour aristocracy, members of the bureaucracy tend to be clerical rather than production workers. The incomes of the lower bracket of the bureaucracy are no higher than those of the aristocracy of labour but they have the advantage of not having to fear unemployment, the ever-present scourge of the working class. The elite of the bureaucracy has an income which is as high as that of the bourgeoisie; its way of life is also that of the bourgeoisie. The leader of “Her Majesty’s Opposition” receives a Minister’s salary from the British bourgeois government. The incomes of the American trade union bosses are equal to those of millionaire rentiers, often reaching 100,000 dollars a year.
The workers’ bureaucracy has become very numerous. Its chief detachments are:
1. The bureaucracy of the Social -Democratic parties: members of parliament, the editorial staff, party functionaries and also those stale, municipal and other officials who owe their jobs to party influence.
2. The trade union bureaucracy, which exerts a major influence on the workers. In cooperation with the bourgeois bureaucracy in the factories, it often controls the fate of individual workers (within the framework of the collective wage contract); deciding upon who will lose his job first, who will be transferred to a better-paid job, what assistance will be given in the event of unemployment; elc. If a worker quarrels with somebody from the parly bureaucracy or leaves the reformist party, he need not fear direct negative consequences, but if he quarrels with somebody from the trade union bureaucracy, this may be his undoing. A worker often cannot leave the trade union without losing his job. The trade union bureaucracy signs collective wage contracts with the bosses; the trade union members often do no more than endorse them by vote.
3. The cooperative bureaucracy—also numerous—is closely linked with the reformist party bureaucracy but exerts a much smaller influence on the workers than the trade union bureaucracy.
It is difficult to establish how numerous the workers’ bureaucracy really is. Although in the large countries it definitely reaches tens of thousands. But its importance and influence depends not only on its size, for in addition to the paid bureaucracy there are large numbers of “active” trade union members who strive for paid jobs in the trade union or party apparatus and therefore willingly fulfill all orders given by these bodies.
The principal function of the labour aristocracy and the workers’ bureaucracy is to disseminate bourgeois ideology and to struggle against marxist or communist ideology within the working class. Their main ideological instruments are legal activity, the repudiation of all illegal activity, the embellishment of bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism, the teaching about the supra-class character of the democratic bourgeois state, chauvinism and religion, anti-Marxism and anti-communism.
Although the labor aristocracy tends to be anti-communist and parliamentarian, this is not always the case. Labor aristocrats partook in the 1968 demonstrations, and the vicious boer workers of South Afrika were fine with communist leadership. The RCP-USA, in its ignorance, sided with racist white workers during the integration of the Boston school system in the early 70’s, and in ’74, the RCP and CPUSA-ML attempted to enlist black dockworkers in a white supremacist-backed bid to block the distribution of South Afrikan coal under the guise of solidarity, when in fact the UMW, shot through with klan and vocal racists, meant merely to snuff out competition with their lower-paid South Afrikan counterparts. The black dockers did not fall for it.
Whenever communists are naive enough, the labor aristocracy may make use of them. Communists, from active participation in dead-end labor aristocratic wage struggles to uninformed and rose-colored paeans to the plight of the amerikan workers, regularly make themselves the useful idiots of the labor bureaucracy and the labor aristocrats they vouch for. Needless to say, the opposite should be true. When strategy calls for tactical alliances, we ought only to do so on our terms, never once liquidating our position nor giving ground to their chauvinistic impulses.
Almost half a century ago Lenin wrote that: “opportunism and social-chauvinism have the same political content, namely, class collaboration, repudiation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, repudiation of revolutionary action, unconditional acceptance of bourgeois legality, confidence in the bourgeoisie and lack of confidence in the proletariat. Social-chauvinism is the direct continuation and consummation of british liberal-labour politics, of Millerandism and Bernsteinism.
The struggle between the two main trends in the labour movement—revolutionary socialism and opportunist socialism—fills the entire period from 1889 to 1914.”
Lenin does not mention the Church as one of the conductors of bourgeois ideology to the working class. This is explained by the fact that before the First World War religion was not used as widely in the class struggle as it is now. At that time there still existed liberal, anti-clerical tendencies in the bourgeoisie and the reformist labour movement. Since the First, and especially since the Second World War, religion and the Church have become one of the principal means of deceiving workers. Catholic parties were created or strengthened. In Britain a number of Labour Party leaders—Macdonald, Lansbury, Henderson—were devout churchmen. Multiple religious sects in the U.S.A. are trying to obstruct the growth of class consciousness among the workers.
When the people recovered from the shock of the Second World War, the influence of religion and the Church in politics waned. Trade union bureaucrats (at all levels) are of working class origin; however, in the bureaucracy of the reformist parties, an increasing role is being played by bourgeois intellectuals. Attlee, Gaitskell, Wilson—all the past three leaders of the Labour Party are all of bourgeois origin; the same applies to Leon Blum, Guy Mollet, Ollenhauer, etc. This illustrates the close links between the reformist parties and the bourgeoisie.
* * *
If we were asked in what measure the bourgeoisie, with the help of the labour aristocracy and the workers’ bureaucracy, has succeeded in diverting the working class from the revolutionary path we should have to give the following reply: the bourgeoisie has, up to now, been successful in diverting the working class from the revolutionary path in the rich Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries, but has not succeeded in doing so in other capitalist countries.
More wishful thinking. Although this mistake was partially excusable in the 1960’s, when the depth of the labor aristocracy’s penetration in europe had not yet been entirely understood, there is no longer any pretense that this is a problem exclusive to the “rich Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries”. Marxists familiar with the theories of unequal exchange and the labor aristocracy often fall into these kinds of pitfalls, as a way to free the european working class from its responsibility to understand and combat their own labor aristocracy. Even a hardened dependency theorist like Samir Amin talks of a “social europe” that must free itself from amerikan imperialism. These assertions are not just false, they have serious implications for struggle in the imperialist countries, and have helped to legitimize liquidation in the european left.
In the U.S.A., for instance, the working class does not even have a reformist mass party; tens of millions of factory and office workers vote for one of the two large bourgeois parties; the 40-year-old Communist Party has no mass influence, is persecuted and exists only semi-legally. The trade union leaders, serving the bourgeoisie, deceive the workers and propagate anti-Marxism and anti-communism. Identical conditions prevail in Canada.
Britain (as well as Australia and New Zealand) has a long-established working-class party which is, essentially, nothing more than a second bourgeois party. The bourgeoisie is not afraid of periodically handing over to it the reins of government, knowing full well that this does not constitute a threat to the capitalist system. In Sweden the Social-Democratic Party has held office continuously for the past 25 years— either alone or in coalition with other bourgeois parties— and has ruled the country without detriment to Sweden’s capitalist system. Communist Parties still do not constitute an important factor in the political life of those countries.
In these countries, the state Lenin described as the prerequisite for revolution, when the bourgeoisie is no longer able, and the proletariat no longer willing to live in the old way has not as yet set in, despite mass unemployment in the U.S.A. and Britain.
True, in the U.S.A. there are long and stubborn mass strikes, which are often regarded as an expression of the revolutionary frame of mind of the American working class. But we believe that, in the present concrete historical conditions, this is a somewhat hasty conclusion.
That’s putting it mildly.
During times of revolution, long “mass strikes are a symptom and simultaneously a factor for the intensification of the revolutionary struggle, a sign that the workers refuse to live under existing conditions. Yet the mass strikes in the U.S.A. today only prove that the workers consider themselves strong enough to resist the worsening of their position due to the constant growth of consumer goods prices, and resort to strikes to improve their conditions within the capitalist framework.
The fact that these strikes are often headed by rabid anti-Communists, by champions of capitalism, is vivid proof that they are not a threat to the capitalist system in the U.S.A. The Kennedy administration has several times (for example during the iron and steel workers’ strike or the dockers’ strike) even found it expedient to intervene in the strike on behalf of the strikers to safeguard the interests of the big bourgeoisie as a whole. The American bourgeoisie is still able to rule by the old methods, and the bulk of American workers (and also British, Canadian, Australian and Swedish workers) still prefer to go on living as they do. For the time being the labour aristocracy and workers’ bureaucracy in these countries are still managing to cope with the tasks entrusted them by the bourgeoisie.
The structural role of the labor aristocracy, that is to recreate the conditions of capitalism-imperialism, and to regulate the share of wealth, as well as acting as a counterbalance to the dissembling effects of neoliberalism, is vital to modern imperialism. For more on this, as well as the development and function of the ‘greater labor aristocracy’, see our piece What is the Labor Aristocracy?
But this does not apply to France and Italy, where the reformist workers’ movement is much smaller than the communist movement, and where the Communist Parties exert a strong influence on the trade union movement. Even though the reformist and Catholic parlies have succeeded in alienating a part of the workers and some trade unions, proletarian solidarity generally outweighs their ideological differences and in large strikes even the dissident trade unions cooperate with the communist trade unions. The mass strike of French miners in March 1963, which was supported by practically the whole of France’s working class, had (irrespective of its outcome) quite a different political nature to the mass strikes in the U.S.A.
A shame we don’t have an addendum after may of the year of publication. I wonder if this paragraph would have been revised or stricken altogether.
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The above shows that in the richest capitalist countries the big bourgeoisie is still able to bribe wide layers of the labour aristocracy, and with their help and that of the reformist workers’ bureaucracy, has so far succeeded in keeping most of the workers on its side. But this is a transient state of affairs. The development of the revolutionary workers’ movement will obviously follow the pattern of the working-class movements in Italy, France, etc., which aim to destroy the influence of the bourgeoisie.