Imperialism and the split in the working class movement

Pin It

Alexis Tsipras

Members and supporters of the Revolutionary Communist Group attended the conference celebrating 50 years since the First Tricontinental held in Havana, Cuba in 1966. The event, ‘Legacies of the Tricontinental: imperialism, resistance, law’, was held at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, on 22-24 September 2016. The 1966 Conference of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America, or Tricontinental, was attended by over 500 representatives from national liberation movements and governments from some 82 countries. Among the delegates in 1966 were Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende and Amilcar Cabral.

The First Tricontinental condemned imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism and pledged solidarity with the Vietnamese people’s struggle against US imperialism. Che Guevara sent a message of solidarity before leaving for Bolivia saying ‘Create two, three…many Vietnams, that is the watchword.’

In 2016, workers and oppressed peoples of the world face many of the issues that were addressed in 1966. We print here two of the contributions made to the Coimbra conference by David Yaffe and Trevor Rayne.

Imperialism and the split in the working class movement

Speech by David Yaffe

In Marxism Today January 1990, the British communist historian Eric Hobsbawn, who in his earlier Communist Party days did much to revive the discussion of the issue of the labour aristocracy, made a reactionary and pessimistic assessment of the situation at the time of the collapse of the socialist bloc when he wrote:

‘Insofar as we envisage a change in the nature of capitalism, it will not, within the foreseeable future, be through a basic catastrophic crisis of the capitalist system, out of which the only thing that can be saved is by revolutionary means.

   ‘... certainly from the 50s on it’s been quite clear that, for instance, the argument that capitalism is no longer viable economically disappeared. It’s more than viable.’

On this basis he saw no justification for the split in the working class movement between communist and social democratic trends:

   ‘...the split in the labour movement which was introduced after the 1917 revolution no longer has any justification...The case for the split between the communist and social democratic movements I believe falls by the wayside.’1

Hobsbawn could not see the resurgence of a working class movement committed to the overthrow of the capitalist system because he could not envisage a ‘catastrophic crisis’ of that system. From his standpoint, the opportunist role of social democracy in undermining spontaneous working class revolt against capitalism is of little consequence. That is why he argued that the split in the working class movement between communist and social democratic movements was no longer justified, nor the need to build separate communist parties. Today, a quarter of a century later, it is Hobsbawn’s position that lacks credibility, as it becomes evident, after more than eight years since the financial crash of 2008/09, that we are experiencing a seemingly unending crisis of global capitalism. It is no exaggeration to say that capitalism suffers from long-term contradictions which increasingly threaten its destruction.

This is the context in which Lenin's standpoint on imperialism and the split in the working class is as relevant today, in all its essential aspects, as it was in his day. Imperialism not only divides the world into oppressed and oppressor nations but divides the working class into a privileged labour aristocracy bribed out of the superprofits of imperialism, and the mass of the working class. This privileged stratum is the social basis of opportunism in the working class movement. Lenin’s position on the split in the working class, put forward during a ‘catastrophic crisis’ of the capitalist system, is a development and generalisation of Marx and Engels’ position on the working class in Britain in the last half of the 19th century.

Marx and Engels show how opportunist currents grew out of the special features of the development of capitalism in the most industrially advanced capitalist country of their time – Britain. The further development of Marx and Engels’ position on this question is the key to understanding Lenin’s theory of imperialism: for two important distinguishing features of imperialism were already present in Britain in the middle of the 19th century – vast colonial possessions and a monopolistic position in the world market.

Marx, Engels and Lenin on the split in the working class

Marx and Engels used their analysis of British capitalism – the most developed capitalist country at the time and the dominant world power – to point to what were to become some of the crucial characteristics of capitalism in its imperialist phase.

Lenin in his pamphlet on imperialism directly refers to these developments within British capitalism, in particular to underline his explanation of the growth of opportunism2 and the split in the working class movement internationally:

‘It must be observed that in Great Britain the tendency of imperialism to split the workers, to strengthen opportunism among them and to cause temporary decay in the working-class movement, revealed itself much earlier than the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries; for two important distinguishing features of imperialism were already observed in Great Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century – vast colonial possessions and a monopolistic position in the world market. Marx and Engels traced this connection between opportunism in the working class movement and the imperialistic features of British capitalism systematically, during the course of several decades’.3

Here opportunism is given a materialist basis in the characteristics of capitalism associated with imperialism. Engels made this clear on 8 October 1858 in a letter to Marx about Ernest Jones – a leader of the revolutionary wing of the Chartist movement – who called a conference to bring about collaboration between the working class and middle class reformers:

‘The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that 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. Only a couple of thoroughly bad years might help here…’4

Engels not only gives opportunism a materialist basis, associating it with Britain’s domination of the world market but also points to the conditions which would contribute to changing this state of affairs – a few thoroughly bad years. Perhaps the most substantial statement of Marx and Engels’ position was made by Engels in 1885:

‘The truth is this: during the period of England’s industrial monopoly the English working class have, to a certain extent, shared in the benefits of the monopoly. These benefits were unequally parcelled out amongst them; the privileged minority pocketed most, but even the great mass had, at least, a temporary share now and then. And that is the reason why, since the dying-out of Owenism, there has been no Socialism in England. With the breakdown of that monopoly, the English working class will lose that privileged position; and it will find itself generally – the privileged and leading minority not excepted – on a level with its fellow-workers abroad. And that is the reason why there will be Socialism again in England.’5

Marx shared this view. He stated at the Hague Congress of the First International in 1872 that ‘so-called leaders of the English workers are more or less bribed by the bourgeoisie and the government’ – they had taken payments from the liberal bourgeoisie to work for the Liberal Party in the 1868 election.6 On 20 September 1871, at a session of the London Conference of the First International, Marx referred to the trade unions as an ‘aristocratic minority’. The poor workers, he said, cannot belong to them, the great mass of workers driven from the countryside to the towns by economic development have long been outside of them, and the most wretched mass, including workers born in the East End in London, have never belonged.7

During the third quarter of the 19th century Britain’s monopoly of the world market was being challenged by German, French and US capitalism – the narrow ‘aristocratic’ trade unionism and Liberalism among the working class began to be undermined. Conditions for the working class worsened … The class struggle intensified, socialist organisations emerged and the unskilled workers, encouraged and supported by socialists were organised in New Unions in the last decade of the 19th century. It was in this period that Engels referred to old unions as a ‘bourgeois labour party’ after their defeat at the 1891 TUC Congress in their attempt to overthrow trade union support for the eight hour day passed at the previous year’s Congress.

His revolutionary optimism in this period gives some guidance to revolutionary tactics.

‘The new Unions were founded at a time when the faith in the eternity of the wages system was severely shaken; their founders and promoters were Socialists either consciously or by feeling; the masses, whose adhesion gave them strength, were rough, neglected, looked down upon by the working class aristocracy; but they had this immense advantage, that their minds were virgin soil, entirely free from the inherited “respectable” bourgeois prejudices which hampered the brains of the better situated “old” Unionists.’8

Lenin was to bring out the practical political implications of this position in the midst of imperialist war. Engels, he says, ‘draws a distinction between the “bourgeois labour party” of the old trade unions – the privileged minority – and the “lowest mass”, the real majority, and appeals to the latter, who are not infected by “bourgeois respectability”. This is the essence of Marxist tactics.’9

Engels’ revolutionary optimism proved unjustified. The next 25 years saw the inevitable conflict between the Liberal–Labour leadership which dominated the political and trade union organisations of the Labour movement and the mass of the working class. The new unions did win major victories against the old unions and the employers but in the end leaders such as John Burns, Ben Tillett and Keir Hardie were not able to resist the opportunism of the old union structure with its army of well-paid and bought-off officials.

Imperialism and monopoly capitalism

Marx pointed to the development of monopoly immanent in capital accumulation. As a result of competition, the centralisation and concentration of capital take place throughout the accumulation process – that is the growth of ever larger concentrations of capital or ‘monopolies’.

Capitalist production, Marx argued, exists in its most ‘adequate’ form in so far as free competition develops. Nevertheless, as soon as capital feels itself threatened it will ‘seek refuge in other forms’, which appear to perfect its rule as capital ‘through curbs on free competition’. Marx offers here a clear context for beginning to understand capitalism in its imperialist phase. It is precisely the nature of capital itself and the preservation of its rule as capital that is central for an understanding of capitalism in its ‘monopoly’ stage. It has not ceased to be capital by virtue of the ‘curbs on free competition’. On the contrary it is precisely the ‘rule of capital’ that makes the ‘curbs on free competition’ necessary. Marx continues ‘although (the curbs on free competition) appear to complete the mastery of capital, (they) are at the same time, by curbing free competition the heralds of its dissolution, and of the dissolution of the mode of production which are based on it’.10 This important point is clearly central to Lenin’s description of monopoly capitalism as the ‘highest stage of capitalism’ and his view that ‘monopoly is the transition from capitalism to a higher system’.11

At the centre of Lenin’s analysis was recognition of the general revolutionary character of the whole imperialist epoch. His understanding of imperialism is concerned with the decisive political problems of the imperialist epoch and is a guide to practical political activity in that epoch.

Lenin shows how imperialism divides the world between oppressed and oppressor nations; how it brings about class differentiation within both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat (with the existence of purely parasitic financiers [rentier class] and the labour aristocracy), and how the different pace of development of ‘monopoly capitalism’ in different countries drives nations into conflicts that can only be resolved by force – that is by war.

Imperialism is characterised by parasitism and decay of capitalism. A handful of exceptionally rich and powerful states plunder the world by simply ‘clipping coupons’. Out of these super-profits of imperialism it is possible to bribe the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy. This stratum of ‘bourgeoisified workers’ or the ‘labour aristocracy’, ‘are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working class movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class, real channels of reformism and chauvinism.’

The future history of the labour movement would be determined by the outcome of the struggle between these two opposing tendencies; between imperialism’s effectiveness in sustaining ‘the political privileges and sops’ of the top layers of the working class represented by bourgeois labour parties, and the resistance of the increasingly oppressed masses who bear the brunt of imperialism and imperialist war. Lenin argues that:

‘Unless the economic roots of this phenomenon are understood and its political and social significance appreciated, not a step can be taken toward the solution of the practical problems of the Communist movement and of the impending social revolution.’12

The political significance of the split in the working class movement today

Many new books from left-wing and ‘Marxist’ writers are being produced on the current crisis of capitalism/imperialism. Some offer a robust critique of imperialism, the super-exploitation of the oppressed nations and growing global inequality. Yet they ignore the political significance of the split in the working class movement in the main capitalist/imperialist countries. In contrast to Lenin, many of these writers see the vast majority of the working class in the imperialist countries as beneficiaries to a greater or lesser extent of the super-exploitation of the working class and peasantry in the oppressed nations. They therefore reject the existence of a material foundation for the unity of the working class in the oppressor and oppressed nations in the fight against imperialism. In other words they underestimate the depth of the crisis of capitalism in the imperialist countries.

In Britain, under Thatcher’s governments in the 1980s, it already was clear that it was no longer possible to guarantee the relatively privileged conditions of higher paid workers and the middle classes, while sustaining adequate living standards for the mass of the working class. This reality was acutely driven home in many imperialist countries after the financial crash of 2008/09. The split in the working class is a tangible reality.

The essence of the labour aristocracy

After Lenin died, capitalism with its ‘bourgeois labour parties’, survived two world wars and fascism. This has occurred with a continual change in the make-up of the privileged strata of the working class over more than 100 years (in Britain more than 150 years). At first it was composed of skilled manual workers, now it is mainly made up of highly-paid white-collar workers in the public and services sectors. Workers formerly among the most privileged sections of the working class – engineers, miners, steel workers – were thrown into the ranks of the unemployed as the economy was restructured to serve the rapacious needs of capital accumulation. New privileged workers took their place in the labour organisations which had been created to sustain the political influence of a privileged minority of the working class and undermine spontaneous working class opposition to capitalism.

A change in the character of the labour aristocracy, however, in no way makes it redundant. As the communist writer John Foster pointed out:

‘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.’13

The effectiveness of this ‘active process’, of the elevation of new sections of the working class to a level of privilege previously enjoyed by skilled workers, is tied to the ability of imperialism economically to sustain these privileged layers and their political influence over the working class movement through recurring crises in the capital accumulation process.

The failure to grasp this reality has deactivated the movements against cuts in state welfare, austerity, war and ever increasing poverty in the main capitalist countries today. Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain were able to curb the spontaneous struggle against the brutal austerity imposed by the troika on the mass of the people in those countries because of the absence of political organisations prepared and ready to take up the fight against the opportunist leadership of those struggles. Similar developments are taking place in Britain, as new political organisations such as Momentum emerge, alongside much of the ‘radical’ left and key trade unions in support of the anti-austerity programme of Jeremy Corbyn. These organisations will attempt to ensure that the fight against austerity does not cross any boundaries, which would jeopardise the survival of a unified imperialist Labour Party. Similar developments are inevitably taking place in many other imperialist countries.

As the imperialist crisis worsens it is imperative that political organisations are formed determined to win the battle against opportunism in all its many modern forms. This is the lesson to be learnt from the history of the working class movement first articulated by Marx and Engels and developed through Lenin’s understanding of imperialism. m

  1. Marxism Today January 1990 p41.
  2. Lenin has given us a succinct definition of opportunism: ‘Opportunism means sacrificing the fundamental interests of the working class to the temporary interests of an insignificant minority of workers, or, in other words, an alliance between a section of workers and the bourgeoisie directed against the mass of the working class.’ ‘The Collapse of the Second International’ in Collected Works (CW) Volume 21 p242.
  3. Lenin, ‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’, CW Vol 22 p283. Also ‘Imperialism and the Split in Socialism’, CW Vol 23 pp111-12.
  4. Marx and Engels, CW Vol 40 p344.
  5. Engels, ‘England in 1845 and 1885’, Marx and Engels CW Vol 26 p301.
  6. Minutes and Documents of the Hague Congress of the International, Moscow 1976 p124.
  7. Marx, ‘Minutes of the London Congress of the International’, Marx and Engels CW Vol 22, p614.
  8. Engels, 1892 Preface to The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 CW Vol 27 p269.
  9. Lenin, ‘Imperialism and the Split in Socialism’ CW Vol 23 p120.
  10. Marx, Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie, Berlin 1953, p544-5, my translation.
  11. Lenin, ‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’ op cit p266.
  12. Lenin, Preface to Imperialism… op cit p194.
  13. John Foster ‘Imperialism and the Labour Aristocracy’ in ed J Skelley, The General Strike 1926 (1976) p31.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 253 October/November 2016