The labour aristocracy and imperialism - Part I

FRFI 161 June / July 2001

This is the first part of a talk given by DAVID YAFFE to the Free University of Turkey in Zurich on 13 May 2001. Further parts will appear in future issues of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! Capitalism is failing the vast majority of humanity. 1.3bn of the world's population live in absolute poverty. Inequalities are rapidly widening between rich and poor nations and within all nations whether rich or poor. Britain has registered the greatest inequalities in wage levels since statistics began in 1886. Yet within imperialist countries like Britain, no political party has so far arisen to represent the interests of the growing numbers of poor working class people. There are few signs, as yet, of an organised, coherent anti-capitalist movement or the revival of the socialist movement. Indeed, leading up to May Day this year, we saw the unprecedented unity of the police, the Labour Party, the media, Ken Livingstone (darling of the left and Mayor of London) and 'radical' journalists such as George Monbiot in what can only be described as a witchhunt against anti-capitalist campaigners and their intended protest on 1 May.

How can this be explained and what possibilities exist for changing this? How can socialism be revived in imperialist countries like Britain? What forms of organisation can meet this challenge? Are existing labour organisations adequate for this purpose? What attitude should communists take towards them? In this contribution I will advance a number of propositions which can serve as a basis for discussing these issues.

In Marxism Today January 1990, the British historian Eric Hobsbawn, who in his former 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:

'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 carries little weight. The same is true of a theory that sees social democracy as an expression of the narrow interests of a privileged section of the working class or labour aristocracy. 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, over a decade later, Hobsbawn's position lacks credibility, as it becomes evident that capitalism suffers from long-term contradictions which increasingly threaten its destruction.2

British imperialism
Britain is a major imperialist power. Over the past 150 years, the very structure of British capital and, therefore, the nature of the working class movement has been determined by this obvious, but seldom acknowledged reality.3 The imperialist character of Britain has been decisive in determining British economic and political developments.

Globalisation today means we live in a world of competing imperialist power blocs; the US, Japan and the European Union and their cluster of allied countries divide the world according to economic power, with multinational companies, banks and financial institutions the driving force in this process. These multinationals are in the main tied to and supported by particular imperialist countries or are part of one of the three power blocs. Britain, the leading imperialist power after the United States, is one of the five countries together responsible for two thirds of global foreign direct investment and for spreading the resulting poverty, destruction and death around the world. While investment in Britain stagnates, British investment abroad is booming. In 1993, following the 1990-92 recession, British investment overseas (direct and portfolio) at £101.9bn was greater than the total capital investment in Britain at £94.2bn and more than eight times the investment in manufacturing industry. Last year, driven by a mergers and acquisitions boom, British investment overseas reached a massive £250.6bn, more than one-and-a-half times capital investment in Britain and over 15 times manufacturing investment. Such a relationship between the export of capital and capital investment in Britain last occurred in the period before the First Imperialist War. Lenin's categorisation of imperialism as parasitic and decaying capitalism has never been so appropriate.

Much of the discussion of British capitalism by the left has been focussed on Britain's 'long-term economic decline' which is said to have begun in the last decades of the nineteenth century.4 At the root of this decline, according to these explanations, has been the overwhelming dominance of trade and commerce, of financial capital and the City of London with its international orientation, over industrial capital. Britain's relative weakness industrially could be offset by the returns from overseas investments and international commerce. In starting a debate in 1964 in New Left Review, Perry Anderson formulated what is a widely held position: '

Export of capital, under-investment at home, lagging technological innovation, all mark the British economy from the last decades of the 19th century onwards. But the huge quantitative returns of the Empire and British overseas investment masked this qualitative deterioration for a long time, and ended, inevitably, by severely exacerbating it.'5

Other writers speak of Britain retreating from the most dynamic sectors of the world economy into trade and finance, into 'her satellite world of formal or informal colonies' to evade modernising industry in line with the most advanced technology of Britain's main competitors. More recently this appraisal has been challenged. Cain and Hopkins in their study of British imperialism argue that concentrating on the rise of services rather than the decline of industry changes the perspective on imperialism. They point out that 'commerce and finance were the most dynamic element in the nation's economic thrust overseas'. Britain remained a 'dynamic, expanding force long after decline as measured by British comparative industrial performance is conventionally thought to have set in.'6

This combination of a relatively stagnant industrial development with a dynamic, aggressive expansion of commerce and finance overseas is a far more adequate characterisation of the development of British imperialism than that of a retreat into trade and finance to avoid confronting Britain's international industrial competitors. It confronts the myth, so widespread on the British left, that Britain's relative industrial decline since the last quarter of the 19th century is synonymous with its decline as a major world imperialist power.

It is necessary to recognise that the technological stagnation and loss of industrial leadership of Britain in the last decades of the 19th century were rooted in a faltering rate of capital accumulation arising from an already huge accumulation of productive capital. This overaccumulation of capital underlay both the compulsion to export capital and the aggressive expansion of trade, commerce and financial services overseas. Imperialism is characterised both by stagnation and aggressiveness as capital frantically seeks new sources of profit for its surplus capital. It is, therefore, misleading to argue that there is a 'glaring contradiction between the continuing strength of British imperialism and the weakness of the British economy'.7 The contradiction is inherent in the capitalist system of production and is reproduced at a higher level as capitalism develops into imperialism.

A divided working class
As the first industrial power in the world, Britain was also the first in which the working class was a majority. There was no vast conservative peasantry, small shopkeepers or other petit bourgeoisie that could be mobilised as a reliable conservative force to support the ruling class as in other capitalist countries in the 19th century. For that reason the country could not be run, nor could the ruling class stay in power without winning the allegiance of a politically influential section of the working class, in order to maintain social stability and undermine any spontaneous working class revolt against capitalism. Such a section of the working class, a labour aristocracy, developed in Britain from the second half of the 19th century onwards. It was decisive in influencing the outcome of class struggle in Britain, as British capitalism confronted, initially, the challenge of stronger industrial capitalist nations and, later, growing inter-imperialist rivalries.

Underlying the Marxist standpoint on the labour aristocracy is the understanding that the working class is a revolutionary class because of its position in capitalist society. Its revolutionary opposition to capitalism is first expressed in its actions and subsequently in its consciousness. Mass struggles and revolts of an oppressed and persecuted working class are the necessary preconditions for revolutionary opposition to capitalism. But they do not guarantee the revolutionary transformation of society. That is only possible when such spontaneous struggles are turned into politically conscious ones to overthrow the existing order. Lenin, in expressing this position, spoke of the importance of an all-sided and all-embracing political agitation which 'brings closer and merges into a single whole the elemental destructive force of the masses and the conscious destructive force of revolutionaries.'8 The fusion of the spontaneous, popular movement of the working class with a revolutionary socialist movement was vital for effective working class revolt against capitalism. This position is central to the Marxist standpoint. Engels had already begun to argue such a position at the height of Chartist agitation in Britain in the mid-1840s.

Commenting on the working class movement in England in 1844-5, Engels said that it was divided into two sections, the Chartists and the Socialists. Chartism, 'a working-men's cause free from all bourgeois elements', is associated with violence and insurrection. The Socialists are 'thoroughly tame and peaceable, accept our existing order, bad as it is, so far as to reject all other methods but that of winning public opinion'. Engels argues that while the Socialists only have a very small fraction of the working class in their ranks, representing its 'most educated and solid elements', the Chartists are 'theoretically more backward, the less developed, but they are genuine proletarians all over, the representatives of their class'. For Socialism to be taken up by the working class it 'must condescend to return for a moment to the Chartist standpoint' and take on a revolutionary class perspective. Only when the union of Socialism and Chartism had been achieved, a process that he believed had already begun, would the working class become the true intellectual leader of England.9

That union of Chartism and Socialism did not occur. Precisely at a time that the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels began to influence the Chartist leaders, Chartism was in decline. Not only had Chartism suffered a major defeat in 1848 but the conditions in Britain which had given rise to that movement were beginning to change. Between 1850 and 1875 British capitalism, with the markets of the world under its domination, rapidly expanded and was able to relax the extreme pressure on the working class, which had been ever present in the 1830s and 1840s. Wages rose and conditions improved, especially for the skilled craftsmen who more and more assumed the leadership of the working class. These privileged workers rejected Chartism to build their new model trade unions and their Co-operative societies. A privileged layer of the working class based in industry together with a growing 'middle class' based in the rapidly developing service sector in the south east became a conservative and reliable force within the electorate. The rebellious spirit died, as did proposals for a radical change in society.

In the middle of the 19th century Britain already displayed two important distinguishing features of imperialism: vast colonial possessions and a monopolistic position in the world market. The high profits arising from this monopoly allowed a relatively privileged standard of life for a labour aristocracy – for a minority of skilled well-paid workers. Various estimates of the size of the labour aristocracy put it at between 10% and 15% of the working class. Weekly wages of this layer were on average between 50% and 85% higher than those of labourers. Trade unionism was mainly involved with the organisation of skilled workers and craftsmen. For the first time these 'New Model' trade unions had a trained staff of salaried officials. Subscriptions were high and the unions offered their members a series of 'friendly benefits' such as unemployment, superannuation, sickness, accident and death allowances. These skilled workers isolated themselves from the majority of the working class and looked down on the mass of unskilled workers. To defend their interests and jobs they prevented unskilled workers from getting into their trades. Politically they supported the Liberals to whom they looked for political and economic reforms to secure their further advancement and continued privileged existence. This labour aristocracy was the social base of opportunism in the working class.10

Marx and Engels began to comment on this development from 1858 onwards. After Ernest Jones, a leader of the revolutionary wing of Chartism, called a conference to bring about collaboration between the working class and middle class reformers, Engels remarked on this in a famous letter to Marx:

'The Jones business is most distasteful. He held a meeting here and the speech he made was entirely in the spirit of the new alliance. After that affair one might almost believe that the English proletarian movement in its old traditional Chartist form must perish utterly before it can evolve in a new and viable form...It seems to me, by the way, that there is in fact a connection between Jones' NEW MOVE, seen in conjunction with previous more or less successful attempts at such an alliance, and the fact that 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...'11

Engels here gives opportunism a materialist foundation, associating it with Britain's domination of the world market. It was a position which both Marx and Engels developed and refined over a number of years. Through their work in the First International they continually came into conflict with the opportunist and reformist leaders of the trade unions in the struggle to extend the vote through the Reform League, on Ireland and the Paris Commune. Despite the efforts of Marx and Engels, after the passage of the Reform Act in 1867, the English trade union leaders in the Reform League worked secretly, in exchange for payment and Home Office bribes, to mobilise the working class behind the Liberal Party in the 1868 general election. The Reform League discouraged working class candidates from standing. At the Hague Congress of the International in 1872 Marx remarked that the 'so-called leaders of the English workers are more or less bribed by the bourgeoisie and the government'. In 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.12 The privileged workers were more concerned with the struggle for a larger share of Britain's colonial plunder than fighting for socialism. As Engels wrote to Kautsky in September 1882 when asked what English workers think about colonial policy:

'Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as the bourgeoisie think. There is no workers' party here...and the workers gaily share the feast of England's monopoly of the world market and the colonies.'

Support for British imperialism's interests has been a continual feature of the organised British labour movement policy since the last quarter of the 19th century. Engels gave the most substantial statement of their position 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.'13

During the last quarter of the century Britain's monopoly of the world markets was being challenged by German, French and US capitalism. The economic basis of the narrow 'aristocratic' trade unionism and liberalism among the working class was being undermined. Conditions worsened as the cost of living rose and real wages fell. The class struggle intensified and this period saw the emergence and development of socialist organisations. Unskilled workers, encouraged and supported by socialists, were organised in a wave of New Unionism that swept Britain in the last decade of the 19th century.14 After the old unions, with the textile workers at their head, failed in their attempt at the Newcastle Trade Union Congress in 1891 to overthrow a decision of the previous year's congress in favour of the eight-hour day, Engels said that 'the bourgeois papers recognise the defeat of the bourgeois labour party completely and with terror'.15

In 1892, Engels noted with irony that there was 'Socialism again in England', plenty of it – 'Socialism of all shades' – conscious and unconscious, prosaic and poetic, of the working class and the middle class. But what he considered far more important was the revival in the East End of London, the home of New Unionism of the organisation of the mass of unskilled workers. Although this organisation had to a great extent adopted the form of the old unions of skilled workers it was essentially different in character. The old unions accepted the capitalist system as established fact which, at best, they could modify in the interests of their members.

'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.'

Engels' revolutionary optimism again 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. It is true that the socialist movement was too divisive and sectarian to seize the opportunities confronting it, but at the root of that failure was the impact of British imperialism on the working class – a failure dramatically highlighted at the start of 1914-1918 imperialist war.

Imperialism split the working class into a privileged minority – the labour aristocracy – and the mass of the working class. This process which began in Britain became a feature of all the major capitalist countries by the turn of the century. Lenin pointed out the importance of this development in an article on the Congress of the Second International held at Stuttgart in 1907:

'...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 society. The British bourgeoisie, for example, derives more profit from the many millions of the population of India and other colonies than from the British workers. 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 understood in order to be able to rally the proletariat of all countries for the struggle against such opportunism.'16

However it was through his writings after the outbreak of the First Imperialist War that Lenin fully expressed the Marxist standpoint on the labour aristocracy. In a short pamphlet Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,17 Lenin, building on the analysis of Marx and Engels, develops their position further to take into account the existence of imperialism and the growth of inter-imperialist rivalries. At the turn of the century, he argues, a small number of other imperialist countries joined Britain in exploiting the whole world.

'A handful of wealthy countries...England, France, United States and Germany – have developed monopoly to vast proportions, they obtain superprofits...they "ride on the backs" of hundreds and hundreds of millions of people in other countries and fight among themselves for the division of the particularly rich, particularly fat and particularly easy spoils...'18

At the time of England's unchallenged monopoly ('1848-68, and to a certain extent even later'), it was possible to bribe and corrupt the working class of one country for decades out of these superprofits. With inter-imperialist rivalries turning into imperialist war, Lenin thought this was now improbable, if not impossible. On the other hand 'every imperialist "Great" power can and does bribe smaller strata (than in England in 1848-68) of the "labour aristocracy". So that bourgeois labour parties are now 'inevitable and typical in all imperialist countries.' Lenin thought it improbable that these parties could prevail for long in a number of countries. For while the existence of trusts, financial oligarchies, and high monopoly prices etc, in short imperialism, enabled the bribery of the top layers of the working class, it was also 'oppressing, crushing, ruining and torturing the mass of the proletariat and semi-proletariat'. Nevertheless, the 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.19 The important point was that, economically, the desertion of the labour aristocracy to the bourgeoisie was an accomplished fact. The split in the working class was very soon to be given concrete political form in the split between communist parties and bourgeois labour parties, between the Third and Second Internationals.

Lenin continues with this argument, bringing out the practical political implications. 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!' Because the proportion of the proletariat who are following and will follow the opportunists will be revealed only in struggle, it is the duty of socialists to 'go down lower and deeper, to the real masses; this is the whole meaning and whole purport of the struggle against opportunism.' Unless a 'determined and relentless' struggle is waged all along the line against the bourgeois labour parties or such groups and trends, 'there can be no question of a struggle against imperialism, or of Marxism, or of a socialist labour movement.'20

Lenin's optimism concerning the demise of bourgeois labour parties, of course, was not borne out and capitalism with its bourgeois labour parties was to survive two world wars and fascism. This has occurred with a continual change in the nature of the privileged strata of the working class over the last 100 years (150 years in Britain) as capital in the imperialist countries continually restructured itself to sustain profitability. At first the labour aristocracy was composed of skilled manual workers who received their privileges primarily through the market; now it is mainly made up of highly paid white collar workers in the public and service sectors.21 Workers formerly amongst 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 trade unions and other labour organisations, which had been created to sustain the political influence of a privileged minority of the working class.

A change in the character of the labour aristocracy, however, in no way makes it redundant. As John Foster argued in his analysis of the 1926 general strike in Britain:

'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.'22

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 to sustain economically these privileged layers and their political influence over the working class movement, through recurring crises in the capital accumulation process. There is no single act of betrayal, but a continual process of struggle in which the opportunists through their organisations, with the support of the ruling class, actively fight to isolate working class resistance against capitalism and prevent it developing a revolutionary character. So a determined and relentless struggle against the opportunists and their organisations is the precondition for the working class movement taking the revolutionary path of opposition to capitalism and imperialism. The split in the working class movement is a material reality. So is the need to rebuild socialist labour movements and communist parties.

1 Marxism Today January 1990 p41.
2 See David Yaffe 'Globalisation, parasitic and decaying capitalism' in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 158 December 2000/January 2001.
3 One of the very few writers to make this point is Martin Spence. See Capital and Class, Spring 1985.
4 Perry Anderson, Eric Hobsbawn, James Hinton, Andrew Gamble and more recently Will Hutton.
5 Origins of the present crisis New Left Review 23 1964 p 50. See also The Figures of Descent NLR 161 1987 p42.
6 Volume 1: British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion 1688-1914 1993 p12, p46.
Volume 2: British Imperialism: Crisis and Deconstruction 1914-1990 1993. See my review of this work in FRFI 114 August/September 1993.
7 N Costello, J Michie and S Milne Beyond the Casino Economy 1989 p82.
8 Lenin Collected Works volume 5 p512.
9 Engels 'The Condition of the Working Class in England' in Marx/Engels Collected Works Volume 4 p523, and p525-527. Material comes from my article on 'The Communist Tradition' RCG 1980.
10 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 Volume 21 p242.
11 Engels to Marx 7 October 1858 in Marx/Engels Collected Works Volume 40 p344. For a discussion of Marx and Engels on the labour aristocracy see David Reed 'Marx & Engels, the Labour Aristocracy, Opportunism & the British Labour Movement' in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 27 March 1983. Further material can be found in a series of articles by Robert Clough on the labour aristocracy in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 116,117,119 and 120. October/ November 1993 to August/September 1994.
12 20 September 1871 Marx/Engels Collected Works Volume 22 p614.
13 Published in The Commonweal No 2, March 1885 in Collected Works Volume 26 p301.
14 In 1899 the Gas Workers Union and the Dockers Union were founded under the leadership of Will Thorne, Tom Mann and Ben Tillett.
15 Engels to Sorge 14 September 1891 in Marx and Engels Selected Correspondence New York 1942 p488.
16 VI Lenin Collected Works Volume 13 p77.
17 VI Lenin Collected Works Volume 23 pp105-120.
18 Ibid p115.
19 Ibid p116.
20 Ibid p120.
21 Lenin already spoke of the political institutions of modern capitalism – press, parliament, associations, congresses, etc – creating economic and political privileges and sops for office employees and workers; of lucrative and soft jobs in the government, on various committees, on staffs of 'respectable' newspapers and on management councils of 'law-abiding' trade unions etc, Ibid p117.
22 John Foster 'Imperialism and the Labour aristocracy' in ed. J Skelley: The General Strike 1926 (1976) p31.