Watchdogs of capitalism: The reality of the Labour Aristocracy Part 2

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In his continuing analysis of the SWP's position on the labour aristocracy, Robert Clough, having shown how Corr and Brown distort Marx and Engels, examines their critique of Lenin's theory.

Last issue, we showed how Corr and Brown (International Socialism, No. 59, Summer 1993) misrepresented Marx and Engels in their efforts to deny the existence of a labour aristocracy in nineteenth-century Britain. With the assertion that neither Marx nor Engels 'had a consistent analysis of such a phenomenon', they concluded 'much less that their use of the term laid the basis for a causal explanation of reformism in the way which Lenin uses it., (Corr and Brown, p39) This article shows that they have as little basis for their position on Lenin as they did on Marx and Engels.

Although Lenin's analysis of the nature and role of the labour aristocracy was most fully developed during the First Imperialist War, his awareness of the connection between opportunism and imperialism was already evident in his contribution to the debate on 'socialist colonialism' at the 1907 congress of the Second International. The debate, on a proposition that advanced capitalist countries had the right to colonial possessions as part of a broader 'civilising' mission, revealed widespread support for such racism (from German trade unionists to Ramsay MacDonald, an ILP delegate), even though it was eventually out-voted. Reporting the discussion, Lenin wrote:

'Only the proletarian class, which maintains the whole of society, can bring about the social revolution. However, as a result of the extensive colonial policy, the European proletarian partly finds himself in a position when it is not his labour, but the labour of the practically enslaved natives in the colonies, that maintains the whole of society ... In certain countries this provides the material and economic basis for infecting the proletariat with colonial chauvinism. Of course, this may be only a temporary phenomenon, but the evil must nonetheless be clearly realised and its causes understood.' (Collected Works [CW], Vol 13, p77)

Significantly, at the same Congress, Lenin had also opposed the unconditional admission of the Labour Party to the Second International because of its refusal to recognise the existence of the class struggle. Politically, Labour was still tied completely to the Liberal Party as the most effective means of representing the interests of the upper stratum of the working class. The division between this small minority and the mass of the working class was as great as it had been in Engels' day: a study by the Liberal Sir Leo Chiozza-Money in 1905 estimated that 33 million out of a population of 43 million lived in poverty, of whom 13 million lived in destitution. In 1911, it was estimated that it required 30 shillings per week to support a family in minimal comfort: 5 million out of 8 million manual workers earned less than this, their average income being 22 shillings per week. During this period, the normal wage for skilled workers was some 40 shillings per week.

The Labour Aristocracy and the Working Class

It is impossible to understand Lenin's conception of the role of the labour aristocracy unless we accept his starting point: that the proletariat must be a revolutionary class because of its position within capitalist society. This revolutionary character is expressed first in its actions, and subsequently in its consciousness. This distinction is vital: that is why Lenin spoke of the political work 'that brings closer and merges into a single whole the elemental destructive forces of the masses and the conscious destructive force of the organisation of revolutionaries.' (Lenin, CW, Vol 5 p512) In the beginning was the deed: thus Marx quotesGoethe in Chapter One of Capital, giving his warm approval to this pithy statement of the materialist position. The starting point for the development of revolutionary consciousness within the working class is its 'spontaneous movement' (Lenin, CW, Vol 4 p260), not the other way around.

Given this, it is the role of the labour aristocracy to undermine, fragment and destroy this spontaneous movement in order to prevent the working class acquiring a consciousness of its revolutionary role. Through its control of the organisation of the working class, its privileged access to resources such as finance, the media, meeting halls and so on, the labour aristocracy actively fights to isolate every act of working class resistance to prevent it developing a revolutionary character. Thus there is no single act of betrayal, but a continual process of struggle in which the opportunists pit themselves against the emerging movement of the proletariat, and in which the defeat of the labour aristocracy is the precondition to the working class achieving self-consciousness.

With this in mind, we can understand how Corr and Brown 'disprove Lenin: it is by turning the problem back to front. They do not believe the working class is capable of struggling in a revolutionary manner until it has achieved a revolutionary consciousness. Thus they are obsessed with the backwardness of the working class, or as they term it, 'mass reformism'; and this fixation means that they cannot conceive how the proletariat is forced despite itself into the movement which is the precondition for transcending its backwardness. Corr and Brown draw here on their mentor Tony Cliff, who argued in the early years of the boom that the working class in the countries in the West 'show a stubborn adherence to reformism, a belief in the possibility of major improvement in conditions under capitalism'. He continued:

'Why is this so? Why the general apathy and rejection of revolutionary changes in society, when humanity as a whole is in the grip of life and death struggles? Only if we find the correct answer to this question can we answer a further one: for how long can reformism push aside revolutionary aspirations in the working class?' (all quotes drawn from 'The Economic Roots of Reformism', in Neither Washington Nor Moscow, 1982)

For Cliff, the way Lenin 'explained reformism, or to use the term he coined, opportunism' was inadequate, because 'an inevitable that a small thin crust hides the urges of the mass of workers. Any break in this crust would reveal a surging revolutionary lava. The role of the revolutionary party is simply to show the mass of the workers that their interests are betrayed by the "infinitesimal minority" of the "aristocracy of labour".' But according to Cliff, this 'is not confirmed by the history of reformism in Britain, the United States and elsewhere over the past half century: its solidity, its spread throughout the working class, frustrating and largely isolating all revolutionary minorities makes it abundantly clear that the economic, social roots of reformism are not in "an infinitesimal minority of the proletariat and working masses as Lenin had argued.'

So the critical issue is the reformist or backward consciousness of the working class: it is this that explains the absence of revolutionary struggle. However, the social and political conditions of 1957 when Cliff wrote this are a surer guide as to why there should be no revolutionary struggle: imperialist boom was creating 'full' employment and rising living standards. Lenin was writing in a quite different period of deep social and economic crisis when 'the actuality of proletarian revolution' (Lukacs) was no empty phrase. Conditions in the first quarter of this century threw the working class into constant struggle regardless of its prevailing level of consciousness; and at every stage, the labour aristocracy used its privileged position to frustrate, limit and undermine that struggle, and as a consequence frustrate, limit and undermine the development of an independent class consciousness. Thus Cliff's reference to 'surging revolutionary lava' is a ludicrous and bombastic caricature: the labour aristocracy as the 'class enemy within the camp of the proletariat' was indeed the critical obstacle to the development of communist movements, not as Cliff would have it, 'reformism', or the class enemy of the proletariat within its own mind.

Corr and Brown take Cliff's standpoint and attempt to give it a veneer of scientific respectability by culling numerous quotations from respectable bourgeois labour historians. The only basis on which they choose these academics is their common hostility to Lenin. Thus they can be Eurocommunists, structuralists, avowed revisionists or anti Marxists - Corr and Brown don't particularly care. Hence they see no methodological problem in treating the arguments developed by (say) Henry Pelling or AE Musson, reactionary bourgeois historians the pair of them (sorry: academics with a 'particular Whig interpretation of labour history' - Corr and Brown, p73) as of equal validity to those advanced by Lenin. We can only assume that Corr and Brown believe that these historians are neutral figures whose statements possess a scientific objectivity in and of themselves - a preposterous position for those who claim to recognise theexistence of a class-divided society.

For our part, there is a good reason as to why Corr and Brown have no methodological axe to grind with such people: they share the same class position, that of the petit bourgeoisie. And whilst the preconditions for the working class acquiring revolutionary consciousness is its spontaneous movement, it is the other way round for the petit bourgeoisie: they must acquire the consciousness before the commitment to the struggle. The result is that Corr and Brown, along with radical bourgeois historians, project their class position on to the proletariat. The obsession with reformism is none other than an obsession with the problem of the consciousness of the petit bourgeoisie.

Lenin on Opportunism

So what did Lenin really mean by 'opportunism', and how does it differ from the concept of 'reformism' advanced by Corr, Brown, Cliff and the bourgeois academics they cite? Essentially, it is an alliance between the ruling class and a privileged stratum of the working class directed against the mass of the working class. Thus he argued:

'The relative "peaceful" character of the period between 1871 and 1914 served to foster opportunism first as a mood, then as a trend. until finally it formed a group or stratum among the labour bureaucracy and petty bourgeois fellow- travellers. These elements were able to gain control of the labour movement only by paying lip-service to revolutionary aims.' (CW Vol 22, p111)

And later on:

'A few crumbs of the bourgeoisie's huge profits may come the way of the small group of labour bureaucrats, labour aristocrats, and petit-bourgeois fellow-travellers. Social chauvinism and opportunism have the same class basis, namely the alliance of a small section of privileged workers with their national bourgeoisie against the working class masses; the alliance between the lackeys of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie against the class the latter is exploiting. (ibid, p112)

An alliance against the working class: hence Lenin's fondness for the phrase 'labour lieutenants of the capitalist class' as a description of the labour aristocracy. Yes, this represents a considerable development of Marx' and Engels' arguments, but there is no call for criticism on this account (see Corr and Brown p45). Events had moved on since the 1880s and 1890s: Lenin was writing in the midst of an imperialist war, where despite its earlier protestations, the leadership of the Second International were either openly or tacitly supporting 'their' ruling class in a revolting slaughter of working class people with the aim of deciding how to re-divide the colonies amongst the major capitalist powers. If Marxism could not keep pace with such changes, it could no longer be the science of revolution.

The war had revealed the existence of three trends within the socialist movement: the open opportunists, who enthusiastically supported 'their' ruling class (in Britain, the entire trade union leadership and the overwhelming majority of the Labour Party), the pacifists, who proclaimed their opposition to the war but refused to organise against it or to break with the opportunists who supported it (in Britain, Ramsay MacDonald, and in Germany, Karl Kautsky), and lastly the revolutionaries, who called for the defeat of 'their' imperialism and organised to achieve this end (in Britain, John Maclean, in Ireland, James Connolly, in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg, and in Russia, Lenin). Marxism had to explain the origin of those trends hostile to the working class, and Lenin alone of the revolutionaries was able to do so. But he then went further and translated this understanding into the practical political position which led to the defeat of Russian opportunism and the triumph of the October revolution. What we are discussing therefore is not Lenin's so-called crudeness or one-sidedness, but quite the opposite: his complete theoretical superiority to any other living socialist.

Now Corr and Brown find themselves in all sorts of trouble as they try to develop their criticisms of Lenin. On the one hand, they declare that Lenin talked a lot about the labour aristocracy, but had no consistent idea as to who it encompassed. On the other, they say he could not have been thinking of any section of the working class such as Engels' carpenters and engineers, for if he were, 'there were enormous implications for the concept of proletarian revolution, when whole sections of the working class would becastigated as "watchdogs of capitalism and corrupters of the labour movement"' (p46) the implication apparently being that there could not be any proletarian revolution whatsoever. Yet Corr and Brown exaggerate these 'whole sections' were always a minority in Lenin's view, and might anyway be thrown back into the mass of the working class under the impact of the overall crisis. In other words, the impoverishment of sections of the labour aristocracy was a thesis as uncontentious as the proletarianisation of sections of the petit bourgeoisie (even, possibly, some former academics). This of course happened in the 1920s in Britain; as John Foster observed, 'The previously "aristocratic" sections [skilled engineers, shipbuilders, textile workers and miners - RC] now came under crippling attack. Their local cultural institutions (the backbone of the old "framework" of control) disappeared into the abyss of unemployment'. However, he then continued:

'Yet to see this as the end would be to miss the whole essence of the labour aristocracy, to see it purely descriptively, in just one of its forms, and ignore its historical role and development: as the active process by which labour's class organisation was purged of anti-capitalist elements and made safer for economism and spontaneity.' (in ed J Skelley: The General Strike, p31)

And indeed the 'active process was to continue, with new sections of the working class being elevated in the 1930s to a level of privilege that had been previously enjoyed by skilled workers in those industries on which British capitalist prosperity had been built at the beginning of the century. But Corr and Brown are adamant: it 'makes no sense to think that Lenin saw the labour aristocracy in these workers. Lenin in fact used the term "labour aristocracy" to refer to reformist leaders (in particular to Kautsky)' (p 46). 'In fact', Lenin did not use the term 'labour aristocracy to refer to Kautsky - far from it: to Lenin, they were separate trends, and he repeatedly stressed the distinction, right from 1914 through to 1917. As he wrote in a work Corr and Brown claim to have read:

'Kautskyism is not an independent trend, because it has no roots either in the masses or in the privileged stratum which has deserted to the bourgeoisie. But the danger of Kautskyism lies in the fact that, utilising the ideology of the past, it endeavours to reconcile the proletariat with that party and thereby enhance the latter's prestige. The masses no longer follow the avowed social chauvinists...The Kautskyites' masked defence of the social chauvinists is far more dangerous.' (CW Vol 23, p119)

And in 1917:

'I might remark, in passing, that Souvarine is wrong in maintaining that "they [ie, the Russian comrades who speak of the collapse of the Second International] equate men like Kautsky, Longuet, etc with nationalists of the Scheidemann and Renaudel type". Neither I nor the Party to which I belong (the RSDLP Central Committee) have ever equated the social chauvinist viewpoint with that of the "Centre". In our official Party statements, in the Central Committee manifesto published November 1 1914, and in the resolutions adopted in March 1915...we have always drawn a dividing line between the social chauvinists and the "Centre". The former, in our opinion, have defected to the bourgeoisie. With regard to them we demand not merely struggle, but a split. The latter hesitate, vacillate, and their efforts to unite the socialist masses with the chauvinist leaders causes the greatest damage to the proletariat.' (CW Vol 23, pp195-6)

There is no doubt that Corr and Brown do not know what they are talking about. But this is not a matter of simple ignorance. If Kautsky was no more than a common or garden labour aristocrat as they suggest, then the trend that his position represents de facto cannot exist. Life is not so simple, for as Lenin argued, such a trend must and will come into existence in order to reconcile sections of the working class with the open and discredited opportunists. Henderson had to have his MacDonald, and Scheidemann his Kautsky, since on their own Henderson and Scheidemann could no longer command the allegiance of the revolutionary sections of the working class. Today, it is no different: John Smith must have his Kautsky or MacDonald whose task it is to reconcile radicalised sections of the working class with the rotten traditions of the Labour Party. And how might we expect that trend to act? In the 1980s, it would form an uncritical alliance with the Labour left in pacifist opposition to the Falklands War; in the l990s, it would renew that alliance in an equally pacifist opposition to the Gulf War. It might offer occasional criticisms of individual Labour leaders as they revelled in the slaughter of the Iraqi people, but not of the Party as a whole - indeed, the trend would remind its supporters that they should still vote for Labour despite its barbarity. And how would it justify this? Why,by explaining that Labour is despite everything a 'workers party' - 'capitalist' maybe, with a 'reformist' leadership certainly, but at the end of the day, still a workers party. And what organisation has adopted these positions and arguments? Corr and Brown will know - the SWP!

The correspondence between the Kautsky of 1914-17 and the SWP of today runs deeper. They share the notion that the problem for socialists is the backwardness of the working class - Kautsky used this to justify his refusal to break from the chauvinists since he would thereby break from the 'masses'. The corollary of this is that both Kautsky and the SWP condemn the spontaneous struggles of the working class since it exposes their alliance with opportunism. Thus the SWP has consistently opposed armed liberation struggles - which should be more properly described as revolutionary than spontaneous - especially that of the republican movement; it condemned black and white youth during the 1981 and later uprisings, and it condemned the miners' hit squads during the 1984-85 strike. It is clear then that the issue is not the 'backwardness' of the working class, but the backwardness of the SWP and the class position that its politics represent - that of the petit bourgeoisie.

Once we understand the interests that Corr and Brown's arguments serve, we can appreciate the full measure of their shallowness. The ambiguous class position of the petit bourgeoisie expresses itself in their reluctance to adopt a partisan position - hence Corr and Brown's pseudo-objectivity, their willingness to accept at face value the positions of bourgeois academia, the 'on the one hand on the other' presentation of their views. Indeed, it is partisanship that they criticise in Lenin, when they suggest that 'disillusion at the collapse of the Second International probably made it very difficult to avoid a certain amount of moralism, even among the finest revolutionaries' (p48). The inference is clear: Lenin allowed his judgement to be clouded by subjective feelings. 'Moralism' here is a pejorative 'moralistic' elsewhere in the article - but we must remember that only the privileged can afford the luxury of amorality and pretend that morality. and objectivity are polar opposites. Communist and revolutionaries reject this: there is a very definite working class morality, and that morality condemned the leadership of the Second International with scientific objectivity in 1914, just as it would condemn those who defended the Labour Party during the slaughter of the Gulf War.

To sum up: Lenin's position is comprehensible only if you start from 'the actuality of proletarian revolution' - that is, from a partisan standpoint. Any other approach must lapse into sociology or psychology, the fate of a bourgeois academia which wants anything hut a proletarian revolution. But the labour aristocracy as Lenin understood is not a sociological concept describing a stratum within, or without, or in some kind of juxtaposition to the working class, hut a historical process connected to the development of imperialism. Corr and Brown cannot understand this since they have not broken from the standpoint of the radical petit bourgeoisie, a standpoint which has to deny the existence of the labour aristocracy in order to ally with its political representatives.

FRFI 116 December 1993 / January 1994