Formed originally as a result of intense class struggle coupled with the top-heavy development of capitalism—and monopoly capitalism more specifically—the labor aristocracy has now risen to play a pivotal role in the development of the communist movement, especially in the imperialist core. The first mentions of what can be understood as the nascent labor aristocracy come from Marx and Engels in their descriptions of the english working class through the course of their struggle with the capitalists in britain. Engels remarked that through the development of colonial monopoly and the saturation of english markets with cheap goods from the colonies, that the situation “had turned the English working-class, politically, into the tail of the ‘great Liberal Party,’ the party led by the manufacturers.” The process he describes, although embryonic in its understanding, was the development of a new stratum of workers, sharing more ideologically with the petty bourgeoisie than the proletariat.
Since then, much has changed, although a definite connection exists which binds the historic labor aristocracy to the one that now dominates class struggle in the united $tates and the First World as a whole. Great histories have been written by important Maoists and Marxist-Leninists on the history and development of the labor aristocracy in great detail: Che, Cope, John Smith, Bromma, Torkil Lauesen and the KAK, etc. This is not something we have an interest in repeating here. Their works are long, well-sourced and meticulously researched. In broad strokes it is necessary to evaluate this development in brief to establish a base from which to move forward in this discussion.
The labor aristocracy in the united $tates developed as an extension of both internal colonialism and their many forays into international imperialism before the conclusion of the second world war, but it was certainly at the close of WWII that its lasting character would be cemented. Its formalization as a political bloc of significant power came first with the development of the bourgeois labor bureaucracies in the form of the large, majorly anti-communist unions and union federations, principally the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and its successor, the AFL-CIO. Despite the role of communists in the Confederation of Industrial Organizations (CIO), after the abandonment of communist trade unions to participate in the “popular front” with all “pro-democratic” forces in the united $tates, the CIO itself served better to atomize communist power than magnify it beyond the explicit reigns of communist organizers. This was epitomized with the agreed-upon expulsion of communists by the CIO upon its merger with the AFL.
This labor bureaucracy was an effective means for workers to organize and, often with the help of the bourgeois state itself, to break the narrow interests of the manufacturers to gain concessions and reforms that were beneficial to the longevity of the bourgeois state and social peace, as well as the condition of amerikan workers. The catch here was that these benefits were exclusive, monopolized by the white working men in unions that resisted any racial integration for decades. Beyond the borders of the united $tates, they also benefited directly from amerikan colonial holdings in the Third World, such as the Philippines or Puerto Rico, various quasi-colonial ventures into Latin Amerika, and their unique trade relations with european colonial empires. Inside the united $tates, not only were the captive colonial nations excluded from this monopoly, but it was their labor which fed it, first through outright slavery and theft, and then through backward agricultural exploitation and industrial super-exploitation.
Despite the fact that the labor aristocracy developed first in prominence as an extension of the labor bureaucracy, the ideological and material conditions of their existence would soon be, through the institutions and civil structures of imperialism, expanded in the interests of the bourgeoisie. After WWII this process received a boost with the unification of the imperialist economies in opposition to communism, as imperialism advanced in new directions under the stewardship of the bourgeois state. It is worthwhile to note that while social democratic measures were often opposed by individual bourgeois and manufacturers, and were struggled against by their attendant representatives in the state, the bourgeois state as a whole, representing the long-term interests of the bourgeoisie and financial monopoly, pushed forward on those measures. This is, in part, the role of the bourgeois state, to defend the long-term interests of the bourgeois system against the short-term intra-class contradictions among the bourgeoisie.
It was in these conditions that we saw the rise of general “consumer class” interests in the united $tates, where workers obtained higher wages, guarantees through social programs, opportunities to invest, greater mobility and, most of all, extraordinarily cheap commodities produced via the divergent conditions in the “developed” west and the “backward” economies of the Third World. This process had been in place for a long time, but it was the confluence of the strong labor bureaucracy, the new class line of the monopoly capitalists in the First World, and the homogenization of western markets that allowed for a unique acceleration in the development of this class. Soon even those outside the unions, even those opposed to the unions, began to benefit from the political alliance between the labor aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. Whether they liked it or not, the ideology of the union spread far beyond its roster.
Yet the labor bureaucracy was not immortal, and we in the united $tates have seen a great decline in both union membership and in the excessive privilege of this bureaucratic layer. That is not to say they have become irrelevant, but certainly their political leadership of the now organic labor aristocracy has reached an impressive low. The workers, in fact, traded the supremacy of this bureaucratic layer for even more short-term benefits, due in part to the reality that the labor aristocracy had outgrown its political representation, and with such a “gracious” ruling class, the direct leadership of bureaucratic structures seemed to hamper, rather than expand their own sovereign interests. This short-sightedness has, more than likely, doomed them in the long-term, as they have no unitary political structure with which to fight the digestion of their gains.
First-Worldists often exaggerate the speed with which this is happening, however, as the monopoly capitalists and their state still have a vested interest in maintaining the high velocity of exchange present in the First World, which requires consumers perhaps more than it needs workers. As Dr. Zak Cope explains in Divided World Divided Class, despite the First-Worldist claim that wages are stagnating or even shrinking, the relative purchasing power of First World workers has in fact risen, if haltingly. It is clear that, for now, the labor aristocracy is still a stable economic category, although its position as an organized class appears weakened by the assaults on its uniform structures and bureaucracy by the neoliberal state. We are currently at an interesting juncture, and although the labor aristocracy bears its teeth from time to time to defend itself against the most brazen actions taken against it by certain factions of the bourgeoisie, it is unclear whether or not its organized aspect is capable of resisting a real offensive of the monopoly capitalists—a pressing question in the face of a rapidly declining u.$. empire.
Does the disrepair of the labor aristocracy’s bureaucratic structures provide an opportunity to communists in advancing class struggle in the First World? Possibly, but we should seriously examine how this should take place. On the one hand, the excessive wealth and flexibility of the amerikan economy still hampers the development of any new class structures. Globally high wages, low costs in terms of commodities, and a functioning social welfare system keeps the night at bay for a vast majority of amerikans. This is undeniable. Starvation is virtually nonexistent in the united $tates, homelessness is stable and below previous economic highs in amerikan history, and the adjusted poverty line recognizes certain “necessities” for amerikan workers that are virtually exclusive to their existence. One is likely to consider a refrigerator, cell phone, computer, high-speed internet access, a microwave, a television and air-conditioning the foundation of life in amerika, and the poverty line is still set above this foundation. On one hand, access to these items do not preclude dissatisfaction and discontent, even suffering, but they have come at the expense of the world, and assure some status within the system, a status whose loss provokes real reactions.
It is even claimed by First-Worldists that while the labor movement exists in such disrepair, that the ability to connect immediate struggles of workers to any internationalist demand is impossible, or nearly so, and that the main focus should be to repair the labor movement as-is. Honestly, despite the truth of rampant chauvinism among the amerikan working class regarding internationalist demands, the idea that this precludes even the attempt to inject internationalism into the workers’ struggles in the united $tates on the basis of its infertility is evidence of labor aristocratic and petty bourgeois corruption on the part of those supposed communists. Ultimately the only way to break with the labor aristocratic monopoly on class struggle is to emphasize internationalism, and while that is difficult, we would dispute the notion that it is impossible. To repair the labor movement “as-is” would be simply to enter into the service of the labor aristocracy, if one has not already, and work to rebuild the labor bureaucracy that strengthens imperialism and suppresses the world proletariat. That is not a “starting point” for eventual revolutionary work, but a counterrevolutionary betrayal.
These retrograde positions, that propose we “infiltrate” the unions, strengthen them and saturate them with communist propaganda, refuse to accept the whole history of the communist movement in this country and elsewhere. It is not as if they propose this as a parallel strategy to the development of internationalist communist organization along the fault-lines present in the generally embourgeoisified working class. Unable to contemplate the full extent of its corruption, they seek to reinforce it, and advance the reconstruction of its reactionary leadership. Perhaps worse are those who, fearing that the labor movement is beyond salvage, have moved to exclusively organizing among the petty bourgeoisie (particularly students) around politically sour issues of debt and faculty “repression” on campuses. Some will occasionally pay lip-service to the existence of a “labor aristocracy” but rather than tackling the issue directly, they prefer to remove themselves from the quagmire completely. These movements have unsurprisingly gotten nowhere despite supposedly “advanced” positions on these questions.
To build a successful communist movement in the united $tates, we must respond to the issue of the labor aristocracy, the relative embourgeoisement of the First World working class and the swelling of the petty bourgeoisie through massive enrollments in universities and the entry of former workers into self-service or artisanship. We must analyze the political deterioration in the imperial core, and the sharpening of contradictions regarding the national question, colonialism and patriarchy, as well as the growing lumpenproletariat. However, this does not mean we should abandon the struggle between labor and capital completely in favor of others. We must prevent the response in the labor aristocracy from becoming overwhelming, and leading to the recapture of all institutions relevant to class struggle once an offensive begins. To retreat to the petty bourgeoisie, or to accept the leadership of the labor aristocracy, as so many have done, either through failure to properly analyze conditions and the prospects for change, or out of undisciplined ideological filandery, is a complete betrayal of the world proletariat and the revolution.
Our response, as a result, must be work doubly against the reconsolidation of the labor bureaucracy in sectors where it has been weakened or destroyed, as well as the advance of monopoly capitalism in its absence. However, unlike the First-Worldists we cannot suffice in reactionary struggles to preserve the privilege of the greater labor aristocracy, rather we must displace chauvinist and narrow, self-interested currents with something unapologetically internationalist. This does not mean pursuing repugnant political esotericism, but bold, and principled political work in accordance with our general ideological line. It means a program of political education extending beyond the promise of higher levels of consumption, and action which in many cases directly connects the livelihood of workers in amerika with that of the global proletariat in the Third World, and the declassed lumpenproletariat existing all around them.
Ultimately, we must push forward the primacy of the struggle against imperialism, and develop this kind of class struggle as another front in a multifaceted struggle against amerikan empire. In fact, an acute ideological struggle must be waged against those that would obscure the class struggle in the united $tates, deceiving others into thinking that below the crumbling labor bureaucracy exists the proletariat, unconscious and waiting for leadership. This is not the case, rather we see a decadent class, whose political leadership has deteriorated but whose material conditions are still potently petty bourgeois. We must understand this, and all of our work must undermine and displace the consciousness that has risen out of these conditions, and unite all who can be united in a broad front against imperialism and for global new democratic revolution and communism.
2. Cope, Zak. Divided World Divided Class, p.109. “Thus, between 1970 and 1997, the real price of a food basket containing one pound of ground beef, one dozen eggs, three pounds of tomatoes, one dozen oranges, one pound of coffee, one pound of beans, half a gallon of milk, five pounds of sugar, one pound of bacon, one pound of lettuce, one pound of onions and one pound of bread fell so that it took 26% less of the workers’ time to buy it.”