Originating out of the class conflicts in the capitalist economies of the imperialist core of the late 19th century, the labor aristocracy has become the most significant variable in contemporary class analysis. It is the most important aspect of any serious study of the nature and hierarchy of classes in our present world. In its quiet, yet paradigm-changing development, the labor aristocracy has succeeded in sneaking past the majority of Marxist economists and activists. Although, to the more avid readers of Marxist literature, the labor aristocracy is no new phenomenon. It occupies a much more extreme and staving role today. From what was originally referred to as part of the vague elite of trade unions in the united kingdom, developed in the last few decades into a macabre, nation-spanning, massively popular and visible parasite-class. Its existence and its nature, like those of an éminence grise, is, in spite of its enormous size and overall impact on the global stratification of labor, a total riddle to most – and to those in the imperialist core, who are aware of its existence and impact, it is hitherto one of the greatest thorns in the sides of their political work.
[T]the ultimate aim of this most bourgeois of all nations would appear to be the possession, alongside the bourgeoisie, of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat. In the case of a nation which exploits the entire world this is, of course, justified to some extent.1
Engels already describes inter alia in this letter to Marx, dated October 1858, the germinating labor aristocracy as a result of colonialist developments of the British Empire; the import of incredible amounts of raw materials, in turn constant capital, allowed for the bourgeoisie to gift the English proletariat a glimpse of the new economic paradigm, the new economic status quo in the making by the English bourgeoisie, in which the national class struggle may be largely done away with by exterminating their source, their root: national class contradictions. This marked the birth of an economic specter that truly haunts the development of Marxism up to this day and has continually gained importance within Marxist economics.
What is true in any case, however, is that the phenomenon of the labor aristocracy today is absolutely not reducible to the trade-unionist elite, or any other elite within labor organizing, which may have been true in the past. Alongside the imperial bourgeoisie and the world proletariat, it affects the conditions of class struggle in the whole world. It is necessarily its own helmsman, not just an interesting side phenomenon. Notwithstanding their differences, we can easily observe a historical red thread starting with the original labor aristocracy and ending in the current labor aristocracy – after all, this is the reason we entitle this contemporary phenomenon a “labor aristocracy”.
As a consequence, the development of the modern European labor aristocracy is rooted on the original labor aristocracy in England and, as opposed to the amerikan labor aristocracy, we can historically see a rather fluid evolution of the original English labor aristocracy into the modern one. The original English labor aristocracy founded itself primarily on an excess of constant capital that was extracted from the English colonies – a flow of capital that not only England enjoyed, that shall be in existence all the way up to the second world war and slightly beyond. Yet, it is exactly this era in our history that marks a somewhat indistinct, yet noticeable break between the original labor aristocracy and its modern successor. Workers of the imperialist core have, since the end of the first world war, found more and more easier ways to claim back ever-larger shares in form of concessions from the bourgeoisie of the surplus labor they had performed. These demands and claims were, however, only enabled in their magnitude, as the extracted capital from the imperial periphery in turn enabled the bourgeoisie to pay a certain scale of concessions, without endangering their own living standards. In between the second partial inter-imperialist war, the second world war, questioned gravely the distribution policies of imperialist spoils up to this point, meaning that it was a war fought over imperialist spoils, although the levels of such within the bribery of the working classes of the core have by far not reached the levels of the 1980s and today. In non-socialist Europe it was the 1950s, after which the path towards the formation of a European imperialist economic standard was cleared, unlike in the united states, where it took shape almost immediately following the end of the war. The formation of this imperialist economic standard has paved the way for the export of capital into the world periphery.
Concurrently, with the avowal of the European nations to imperialism, the workers’ parties of these nations distanced or disconnected themselves entirely from their, at least traditionally, social-democratic views, and as a consequence assisted with the building of the typical European labor bureaucracy standing in the tradition of classic corporatism. As well, these parties, in order to fully complete the removal of true, classic social-democratic measures – basically anything that could be considered remotely socialist – had drafted new party constitutions and programmes that concretized explicit social liberalism. Of such programmes, the most famous was most likely the Godesberger Programm of the SPD from 1959, with which it has removed any and all goals of nationalization of key industries etc. This labor bureaucracy, while quite powerful, had in the long run secured the existence of the bourgeois state and “internal peace” by restricting open class struggle with the balancing out of workers’ interests with those of the bourgeoisie – a strategy, once more, only possible in this form by the existence of vast flows of plundered value in the core economies. The creation of this strategy too marks the subordination of the contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat on a national level in Europe to the primary imperialist contradiction acting on a global scale.
It should as well not be forgotten that in the 1950s, plenty of European countries still had colonies. The war in Algeria, that ended with Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, was probably the clearest example of the situation of European colonies in the immediate periphery of Europe itself. Yet, the situation of Europe’s colonies was understandably even clearer far from Europe, as could be seen for example with the Vietnam war or the “African year” 1960, in which 18 colonies of France, Great Britain, Belgium and Italy – in this order: Cameroon, Togo, Madagascar, British Somaliland, the D.R. of Congo, Italian Somaliland, the Republic of Dahomey, Niger, Upper Volta, the Ivory Coast,Chad, the Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Senegal, Mali, Nigeria and Mauritania – who had long demanded and fought for their independence, had finally gained it. These developments were a few of the many more crucial points that marked the change from a colonial economic policy towards a neo-colonial and modern imperialist economic policy. A change from the primary exploitation of raw materials, constant capital, towards the exploitation of labor power itself, which is ironically quite a bit easier to justify in globalized capitalism.
In either case, the canonization of class struggle, hand in hand with its gradual demise through bourgeois concessions, led to the ever-accelerating construction of the consumer class – the modern, vulgar term for the labor aristocracy. The possibilities for now-former proletarians to invest in capital and, thus, to accumulate, to ensure the entirety of their livelihoods through various, often mandatory social programs (or, at the very basic level, simply their higher wage levels) are based entirely on the one-sided influx of cheap, finished or almost finished commodities, and thus value, from the imperialist periphery.
With the formation of the European Union and, as part of that, a common European currency, the vast expansion of the already existing European domestic market, as well as the side-effect of all of these, the Schengen area, has the hegemony of the previously heterogenous imperialist forces in Europe optimized itself. The primary interest of the imperialist economic project of the European Union, the minimization of the unfolding of class contradictions in the European economic area, has been covered broadly.
And yet, this process is by its nature unstable. Hence why we can see the unfolding of various non-primary contradictions on our television screens – riots, marches, protests etc.
It is quite puzzling for the irrational and imperfect leadership of the imperialist bloc to comprehend the origin of their advantages and wealth, especially from a Marxist perspective, although it is only the latter that could prevent such irrationality. Nonetheless, it is no epiphany that the capitalists, in their unlimited greed, become their own hangmen. To paraphrase Lenin, it is after all the capitalists themselves, who sell us the rope by which they are hanged. In the last few years, we have entered a period within this epoch of superiority of the imperialist core, in which the imperialist bourgeoisie, as a result of its irrational leadership, is not capable of preventing the unfolding of many non-primary contradictions in its immediate national surroundings. The representation of the European labor aristocracy (qua labor) in the political battlefields of Europe has been ever-decreasing. Simultaneously, the primary contradiction between the core and the periphery has intensified once more, with the “refugee crisis” serving as both an example and result. Both of these variables have led to great tensions in Europe itself and between Europe and the Third World. While the former led to an intensifying contradiction between the European labor aristocracy and its bourgeoisie, the latter has weakened it. As a result, the ratio of these two contradictions is what directs the political situation in Europe.
Even if these tensions are quite substantial, they could never surmount the primary contradiction between the core and the periphery, for if that were the case, it would cease to be primary. Indeed, all energy of the few proletarian politics that are left in the core, lies in this crisis of an imperialist society, caused by the irrationality and short-sightedness of its neoliberal leadership. Therefore, it is not only questionable if leftist policies can be kept in place in the core, but also what these left policies will look like. Will they represent truly proletarian values, such as are able to not only break the power of the core bourgeoisie, but also the international bourgeoisie? Or is it going to succumb to labor-aristocratic politics, politics that mirror the proto-strasserist views of many “leftist” parties – even mainstream ones – or plain fascism, and thus betray the international proletariat and sell it to the bourgeoisie, just like social democracy had done with the European proletariat in the past?
We hope and plead for the former. For we know that labor-aristocratic politics are politics on the back of the international proletariat. They are the politics of the literal “wannabe-bourgeois”, not of a progressive, socialist humanity. The politics of a stratum that is not immortal, and cannot outlive their masters. As is hopefully common knowledge, it is entirely impossible to completely hide and suppress the contradiction between core and periphery forever – and no later than the point at which the oppressed forces behind this primary contradiction have lost their patience, we shall know the worth of core leftism.
- Engels to Marx in London, October 7th 1858, MECW Volume 40, p. 343. ↩