Labour Aristocracy II: reformism and reaction

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In the previous issue,1 we showed how Charles Post’s attack on the theory of imperialism, the material basis for the labour aristocracy, was factually and theoretically flawed. In this issue, we discuss Post’s own explanations of reformism and struggle.2

Those who reject the theory of the labour aristocracy3 create a difficulty for themselves: they must find some other explanation for the stubborn hold of reformism on the mass of the working classes in the imperialist countries. Post takes three runs at it but never clears the bar.

Attempt number one
He first tries to blame the labour bureaucracy: ‘the bureaucracy of the labor movement is the social foundation for … reformist practice and ideology in the labor movement’. After a couple of pages developing a sociological explanation of bureaucracy – based on material privilege – Post realises that he still hasn’t answered the question of why workers support these bureaucrats: ‘Why do most workers, most of the time, accept reformism?’

Attempt number two
The hold of reformism – you see – is because workers are satisfied so long as the bureaucracy delivers: ‘the continued hold of reformism over the majority of workers requires that labor officials “deliver the goods” in the form of improved wages, hours and working conditions’. Yet Post immediately runs into trouble for, as he shows himself, the bureaucrats haven’t been able to ‘deliver the goods’ for years. We still need an explanation of reformism.

Attempt number three
It turns out that this is inherent in capitalism: ‘The objective, structural position of workers under capitalism provides the basis for collective, class radicalism and individualist, sectoralist and reactionary politics’. The working class can’t take one step forward without taking two steps back. For Marx, by contrast, ‘the working class is revolutionary or it is nothing’. For Post, the working class is reactionary: objectively, structurally, it is condemned to ‘individualist, sectoralist and reactionary politics’. The result is that:

‘the stronger sections of the working class…defend their positions by organizing on the basis of already existing ties against weaker, less organized sections. They can take advantage of their positions as Americans over and against foreigners, as whites over and against blacks, as men over and against women, as employed over and against unemployed, etc…when reformism proves incapable of realistically defending workers’ interests – as it has since the early 1970s – workers embrace individualist and sectoralist perspectives as the only realistic strategy.’

The working class, it seems, is objectively, structurally, condemned to bounce back and forth between reformism and reaction forever: workers, left to themselves, gravitate toward adopting reactionary ideologies.

For adherents of the labour aristocracy theory, there is no such problem. The working class inherently tends toward internationalism and toward socialism. Reformism and reaction are not objective structural consequences of capitalism afflicting the entire working class, but temporary, historical consequences of imperialism. Part of the working class, the labour aristocracy, acts as a brake on the overall struggle with the ruling class, passively acquiescing in or actively supporting their betrayal and repression. It is a sad fact that, for example, during the Civil Rights Struggle in the 1950s and 1960s, the US labour aristocracy stood aside as millions of black workers struggled for equality.

But after all, struggles for civil rights, against immigration controls, for the right to abortion and so on, are not, for Post, the ‘real’ struggle. The ‘real’ struggle, you see, is in the workplace:

‘Only through the experience of collective, class activity against the employers, starting at but not limited to the workplace, can workers begin to think of themselves as a class with interests in common with other workers and opposed to the capitalists. Workers who experience their collective, class power on the job are much more open to class – and anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-militarist, anti-nativist – ways of thinking.’

Rather than join with workers who, whether ‘starting at’ the workplace or not, are already anti-racist, we have to wait around in the workplace, hoping for the racists to wise up. It’s clear that Post unconsciously assumes that his workers are generally white, male and employed. After all, how many black or Hispanic workers are spontaneously racist? How many women workers are sexist? And what are the unemployed to do?

Post’s entire theory of revolution rests on the crude idea that ‘workers’ self-organization and self-activity in the workplace struggles is the starting point for … an effective challenge to working class reformism’. Workplace struggle supposedly automatically dispels reformist illusions: ‘Without the experience of such struggles, workers will continue to passively accept reformist politics or, worse, embrace reactionary politics’. This being the 21st century and Post being anti-racist, anti-sexist and all those good things of course, other struggles are important – sort of. But, really, Post implies, it ain’t a serious struggle unless it’s in the workplace.

Post gives himself theoretical air cover for this idea by appealing to Marx:

‘As Marx pointed out, it is through the workplace and union struggles that the working class “becomes fit to rule” – develops the organization and consciousness capable of confronting capital.’

Apparently Post recalls Marx’s quote via Hal Draper. Actually, Marx (and Draper) ‘pointed out’ something completely different – in fact, quite the opposite. Post leaves out just one word. Marx did not say ‘fit to rule’. He said ‘fit for political rule’ [our emphasis]. Here’s what he really said:

‘Whereas we tell the workers: “You have fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil wars and peoples’ struggles [‘Bürgerkriege und Völkerkämpfe’] to go through, not only to change the conditions but in order to change yourselves and make yourselves fit for political rule”’.4

For Marx, it isn’t workplace struggle that makes workers ‘fit to rule’, but political struggles. What, then is the role of ‘workplace struggle’ in Marxist theory?

Marx, Engels, the trade unions and ‘workplace struggle’
Marx and Engels became very closely engaged with trade unions and their struggles through their work in the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), the ‘First International’ as it became known subsequently. Their reflections are very instructive.

Marx and Engels were the first socialists to recognize the importance of trade unions or ‘combinations’, as they were sometimes known at the time they wrote. They recognized that the union was the most basic form of working class organization, created in order to prevent competition between workers for jobs from driving their wages down. By uniting or combining, workers put an end to individual competition and confronted the capitalists as united wage labourers against employers, over the wage relation.

‘Trades’ Unions originally sprang up from the spontaneous attempts of workmen at removing or at least checking that competition, in order to conquer such terms of contract as might raise them at least above the condition of mere slaves. The immediate object of Trades’ Unions was therefore confined to everyday necessities, to expediencies for the obstruction of the incessant encroachments of capital, in one word, to questions of wages and time of labour.’5

Despite this limited aim, as explained in the Communist Manifesto, communists fully support such struggles: ‘The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class’.6

Trade unions give the working class collective power and give it organizational skills. Although developed in the course of spontaneous defence against the capitalist class, it prepares them for more far-reaching tasks:

‘If the Trades’ Unions are required for the guerilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wages labour and capital rule [sic].’7

They have to serve as

‘organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation’.

In order to do so, they must support, not just workplace struggles, but

‘must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction.’

They must embrace not only unionised workers, but all workers:

‘considering themselves and acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class, they cannot fail to enlist the non-society men into their ranks.’

They must help workers who are not so powerful:

‘They must look carefully after the interests of the worst paid trades, such as the agricultural labourers, rendered powerless by exceptional circumstances.’

They must make evident that they are struggling in the interests of the entire class:

‘They must convince the world at large that their efforts, far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions.’

And, since Marx was writing for an audience of different nationalities, he did not need to explain what was obvious to them all: the international dimension of these obligations.

Strikes and workplace struggle
As a devotee of ‘workplace struggle’ Post is particularly excited by strikes. Yet strikes are just tactics, and individual workplace struggles are battles, not the war. Engels could write to Bernstein, in 1879:

‘One can speak here of a labour movement only in so far as strikes take place here which, whether they are won or not, do not get the movement one step further. To inflate such strikes … into struggles of world importance, … can, in my opinion, only do harm.’8

Strikes can be utterly reactionary. The successful Ulster Workers Council strike of May 1974 by Loyalist workers brought down the ‘power-sharing’ executive and strengthened the grip of imperialism over Ireland. In Poland in 1980-82, the Solidarnosc (‘Solidarity’) trade union organized strikes and disruption to bring down socialist Poland, leaving the working class impoverished, unemployed and forced to emigrate in the hundreds of thousands in search of work.9

Clearly, what is decisive is whose interests are served by the strike.

Beyond strikes
Post doesn’t spell out in detail how workplace struggle develops, but we are left with the impression that, if workplace struggles simply increase in volume and intensity, they will, somehow, left to themselves, turn into something different. But workplace struggles have their limits:

‘the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular industry to force a shorter working day out of the capitalists by strikes, etc, is a purely economic movement’.10

To emancipate itself, the working class must take its struggle beyond the workplace, confront the capitalist class as a whole over the conditions of, not just this or that workplace, but of the entire working class:

‘On the other hand the movement to force an eight-hour day etc law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say a movement of the class, with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion.’

Organisation and struggle in trade unions provide preparation and training for this political struggle. These political struggles, in turn, help develop this organisation.

However, Marx is not saying that economic struggles somehow automatically turn into these political struggles. Capitalism brings the working class into being, but only in its most primitive form, unaware of its historical interests. When it struggles for its immediate economic interests, in trade unions,

‘this mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself.’11

‘The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle.’12

The problem is that, although objective conditions may be sufficient for a revolution, class consciousness lags behind. It is the duty of the most advanced sections of the working class to overcome that gap.

‘The English have at their disposal all necessary material preconditions for a social revolution. What they lack is the spirit of generalization and revolutionary passion. Only the General Council13 can provide them with this, and thus accelerate a truly revolutionary movement here and, in consequence, everywhere.’14

Thus, the economic struggles can only fully turn into political struggles as a result of the intervention of the most advanced section of the working class to raise the class consciousness of the rest of the class. This is what changes the class from being a class in itself, to a class ‘for itself’.

‘The Communists...point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat,...are...practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others...theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.’15

The economic struggle and the political struggle
Far from economic struggles building up and turning into political struggles, some of the most momentous political developments for the working class grow out of political events and catalyse economic struggle.

The IWMA was founded as an initiative originally led by English trade unionists. Yet, if we were of the mind-set where everything depends on ‘workplace struggle’ we would look in vain for the strikes we might expect to bring it about. In fact, the IWMA was founded as the result of great political struggles of the British working class, of demonstrations of its (then) internationalism.

• The British working class was spontaneously sympathetic to the US Republic and the great mass of working people supported it during the Civil War. Meetings were held all over the country in support of the United States, culminating in the great meeting in London on 26 March 1863, organized by John Bright and trade unionists.
• When the Italian republican Garibaldi visited London in April 1864 he received an enthusiastic welcome from the British working class.
• Polish independence, too, had the support of the working class. Another great meeting was organized by trade unionists in London on 22 July 1863 and made an appeal to French workers for solidarity. A joint public meeting in support of Poland was held on 28 September 1864 and led to the founding of the IWMA.

Political struggle can in fact be the catalyst for economic struggle! Many are familiar with Marx’s remark that labour ‘cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded’. But not so many are aware of the context of his remark:

‘In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation, that ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California.’16

So a great political victory – the defeat of the slave South helped catalyse the economic struggle.

The Paris Commune was a result of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, not ‘workplace struggles’. The great 1905 revolution in Russia ‘grew directly out of the Russo-Japanese war’.17 The 1917 Russian Revolution grew out of the imperialist war of 1914-18, and the Chinese Revolution developed out of the struggle against the invasion of Japanese imperialism.

The IWMA was not occupied exclusively, nor even primarily, with economic issues. Although it agitated for the eight-hour day and extension of the franchise, leading to the Reform Bill of 1867, Marx saw that the way forward for the working class internationally against Capital lay through support of the Irish struggle for independence:

‘England … [is] … the only country in which the material conditions for this revolution have reached a certain degree of maturity. It is consequently the most important object of the International Working Men’s Association to hasten the social revolution in England. The sole means of hastening it is to make Ireland independent. Hence it is the task of the International everywhere to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with Ireland.’18

This is a world removed from the ‘primacy of workplace struggle’.

Can the labour aristocracy really be revolutionary?
After his flawed attempts to undermine, empirically and theoretically, the economic aspects of the theory of the labour aristocracy, Post cites historical examples which, he claims, demonstrate that the ‘best paid industrial workers’ are generally revolutionary or radical, while lower-paid workers have been ‘unorganized or apolitical’. Post is in embarrassing company: a century ago, Eduard Bernstein, the notorious revisionist in the German Social Democratic Party, asserted that:

‘in the socialistic movement in England, just as elsewhere, the better-paid – that is, the educated – workmen of higher mental endowment form the picked troops. One finds in the assemblies of socialist societies only very few so-called unskilled workmen.’19

For revisionists like Bernstein and Post, there is no imperialism and, consequently there can be no bribery of the workers – it is just a matter of differences in pay and education. For revolutionaries, it is not a question of the best-paid workers, but of their relationship to imperialism.

Post claims that ‘the most important counter-example’ to the theory of the labour aristocracy ‘is the Russian working class in the early 20th century’:

‘The backbone of Lenin’s Bolsheviks … were the best paid industrial workers in the Russian cities – skilled machinists in the largest factories. Lower paid workers, such as the predominantly female textile workers, were generally either unorganized or apolitical (until the beginnings of the revolution) or supported the reformist Mensheviks.’

Yet these ‘best paid industrial workers’ were not, in Russia, a pro-imperialist labour aristocracy! The labour aristocracy, in Lenin’s sense, is not defined by being well paid, but by being bribed by imperialism. Lenin has already anticipated Post’s argument:

‘In countries more advanced than Russia, a certain reactionariness in the trade unions has been and was bound to be manifested to a much stronger degree than in our country. Our Mensheviks found support in the trade unions … precisely because of the craft narrowness, craft egotism and opportunism. The Mensheviks of the West have acquired a much firmer “footing” in the trade unions; there the craft-union, narrow-minded, selfish, case-hardened, covetous, petty-bourgeois “labour aristocracy,” imperialist-minded, imperialist-bribed and imperialist-corrupted, emerged as a much stronger stratum than in our country.’20

There was no significant ‘imperialist-minded, imperialist-bribed and imperialist-corrupted’ labour aristocracy in Russia! Could it be any plainer? Unlike in the more developed imperialist countries,

‘the general situation in our country is inimical to the efflorescence of “socialist” opportunism among the masses of the workers. In Russia we see a whole series of shades of opportunism and reformism among the intelligentsia, the petty bourgeoisie, etc; but it constitutes an insignificant minority among the politically active strata of the workers. The privileged stratum of workers and office employees in our country is very weak.’21

Post’s ‘most important counter-example’ falls flat on its face.

By referring only to the level of pay, and not to the relationship to imperialism, Post mischievously equates those bribed by imperialism and those who are not.

‘The mass base of the left, antiwar wing of the pre-First World War socialist parties and of the postwar revolutionary Communist parties were relatively well paid workers in the large metalworking industries. … The French and Italian Communists also became mass parties through the recruitment of thousands of machinists who led the mass strikes of the postwar period. These highly paid workers were also overrepresented in the smaller Communist parties of the United States and Britain.’

This indeed proved to be the case – and the source of unceasing problems. Precisely because they were drawn from the ‘imperialist-minded, imperialist-bribed and imperialist-corrupted’ labour aristocracy, they failed to purge themselves of their support for colonialism! The young Vietnamese revolutionary communist Ho Chi Minh denounced them:

‘As for our Communist Parties in Great Britain, Holland, Belgium and other countries – what have they done to cope with the colonial invasions perpetrated by the bourgeois class of their countries? What have they done from the day they accepted Lenin’s political programme to educate the working class of their countries in the spirit of just internationalism, and that of close contact with the working masses in the colonies? What our Parties have done in this domain is almost worthless.’22

Again, Post’s misrepresentation falls flat on its face as soon as we look at it close up.

We’ll spare Post the embarrassment of exploring his quaint notion that Britain experienced a ‘proto-revolutionary mass struggle’ in 1967-75. Yet, he coolly ignores the much more important struggles of the Irish people against British imperialism, the risings of black youth in 1980-81, and the miners’ strike of 1984-85. If reality doesn’t suit his argument, he simply ignores it.

In other cases, he ignores the significance of anti-imperialist struggles in enabling the metropolitan struggle to advance. Take Portugal, 1974-75. Post conveniently forgets that the revolution was prepared, not by workplace struggle (that developed later) but by 20 years of armed ‘people’s struggles’ led by revolutionary communists in the Portuguese colonies in Africa. But, of course, they weren’t white, ‘Northern’ or in the workplace.

Post tries to portray the privileged labour aristocracy as the vehicle of socialism. In fact, he only manages to score own goals. His historical examples blow up in his face. His whole political theory of ‘workplace struggle’ tries to restrict the struggle, not to advance it, to confine it to economic struggle and to leave imperialism, the enemy of working people throughout the world, untouched. The most important struggles in the United States today are those against the war and in support of immigrant workers. But Post’s politics don’t lead us into battle alongside the most advanced workers – the immigrant workers struggling for their rights – but divert us into the dead-end of waiting for the most backward section of the US working class to turn revolutionary.

Steve Palmer
US correspondent

1. See
3. Eg Tony Cliff, ‘Economic Roots of Reformism’, Socialist Review, Vol 6 No 9, June 1957.
4. Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol 2, New York and London, Monthly Review Press, 1978, p78. The quote is from ‘Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne’.
5. Marx, Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council, Section 6 ‘Trade Unions: their past, present and future’, August 1866, hereafter referred to as Instructions.
6. Communist Manifesto, Section IV.
7. Instructions.
8. Engels to Bernstein, 17 June 1879. Our emphasis.
9. See the insightful discussions in the RCG book, The Legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution, pp60-68 and Sam Marcy, Poland: Behind the Crisis, available at
10. Marx to Bolte, 23 November 1871.
11. Marx, Poverty of Philosophy, p125.
12. Ibid.
13. Of the IWMA.
14. Marx, ‘Confidential Communication’, 28 March, 1870.
15. Communist Manifesto, section 2.
16. Marx, Capital I, chapter 10.
17. Trotsky, 1905, preface.
18. Marx to Meyer and Vogt, 9 April 1870.
19. Eduard Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism, p106.
20. Lenin, Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder, 1920, Section VI Should revolutionaries work in reactionary trade unions?
21. Lenin, Socialism and War, 1915
22. ‘The Fifth Congress of the Communist International’ 8 July 1924, Selected Works of Ho Chi Minh Vol 1

FRFI 196 April / May 2007

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