Haunted by the Labour Aristocracy: Part 1: Marx and Engels on the split in the working class

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The SWP is obsessed by the concept of the labour aristocracy. Every few months without fail, an article appears in Socialist Worker, Socialist Review or International Socialism, always with the same refrain: there is no such thing as a labour aristocracy, nor has there ever been any kind of privileged stratum of the working class, especially one whose privileges were dependent on the survival of imperialism. Robert Clough analyses the latest attempt to revise this theory. Part One examines whether Marx and Engels had a theory of the labour aristocracy.

The latest article by Corr and Brown in International Socialism (Issue No 59, Summer 1993, pp37-74) is a lazy, frequently dishonest production. The tone is set in the introduction, where they condemn a well-known writer on imperialism, Arghiri Emmanuel, for postulating 'a fundamental asymmetry in the system - in one area high wages and low profits, in the other low wages and high profits.' (p38) Their comment? 'This comes very close to the purely national division of the world into "proletarian" and "bourgeois" nations.' To more normal people, it comes 'very close' to Lenin's description of the 'essence of imperialism' - the division between oppressor and oppressed nations.

As we shall see, what is really at issue in the argument is indeed the existence and nature of imperialism, and that far from undermining the concept of the revolutionary role of the working class as the SWP argues, recognising and understanding the concept of the labour aristocracy is critical to re-affirming that revolutionary role. Hence we are not debating some abstract historical point. Bourgeois democracy depends on capitalism's ability to recruit a section of the working class to its side. But not just any section: it must be a stratum which controls the principal organisations of the working class, and which can constantly exclude any revolutionary element from these organisations - that is, act as the 'labour lieutenants of capital'. To win and retain the allegiance of this section, capitalism must be able to offer it a relatively privileged position, to give it a stake in capitalism's survival. The stratum is not fixed: its composition will change according to capitalism's development. Over the last hundred years (150 in the case of Britain), the fate of this stratum or labour aristocracy has been tied up with that of imperialism. Its form has changed: a hundred years ago, it was made up of skilled manual workers, whether in Britain, the US or Germany. Now it is more made up of white collar workers in the higher echelons of the public and service sectors. But without its support, imperialism could not maintain its democratic facade. In conditions where this privileged layer has proved incapable of controlling the organisations of the working class, or where imperialism has been unable to sustain it to any degree, the ruling class has had to resort to military or fascist rule,

In contrast, the struggle of revolutionaries and communists is to drive this privileged stratum from its positions of control, to isolate it from the rest of the working class. Without this political and ideological struggle, there can be no prospect of socialism. We can begin to see already the close connection between the SWP's rejection of the concept of the labour aristocracy, and a political practice which involves building an alliance with the left wing of this privileged stratum, particularly the left of the Labour Party. Hence Corr and Brown are not just discussing history: they are defending the political practice of the SWP. As we shall see later, their attack on Lenin in particular serves as a justification for their uncritical alliance with the left of the Labour Party on any issue to do with British imperialist foreign policy - be it Ireland, the Falklands or the Gulf War.

However, Corr and Brown have a major problem: that every contemporary political commentator on the phenomenon of the classic, late nineteenth century labour aristocracy not only recognised its existence, but usually predicated part of their political activity on either fostering it (The Liberal Party, Disraeli), organising it (the New Model Trade Unions), or fighting its bankrupt political standpoint (the revolutionaries). The existence of a privileged stratum of the British working class, overwhelmingly its skilled section in this period, was taken for granted in every political circle in the second half of the nineteenth century. In fact, the only people who have questioned it have done so at a distance of at least half a century, and are eithervirulent anti-communists (in particular Professor Seton-Watson who really started this hare running in 1953), bourgeois labour historians who deny the existence of classes let alone strata within classes (such as H Pelling), other modern labour historians who have a vested interest in playing down the significance of privilege (such as Stedman Jones), or the SWP. There is not a single authority within the revolutionary movement either now or at any stage in the past century who contested the issue; as materialists, they liked to deal with real phenomena rather than conjure them out of existence.

So how do our authors perform their own conjuring tricks? Selective quotation, sleight of hand, innuendo, a vast amount of ignorance, in other words, by using all the normal tools of the bourgeois academic trade. They start with Marx; so shall we.

Did Marx have a theory of the labour aristocracy?

Yes he did, whatever our authors say. Their view is that when he referred explicitly to its existence, it was in a 'descriptive' not 'analytic' manner (p41), or he used the term to refer to the trade union leaders, not to the privileged workers they led in the late nineteenth century. In particular, they say that whenever Marx made reference to the bribery of this upper stratum, 'the form of that bribery was left vague' (p42). However, it was quite overt. Marx worked alongside English trade union leaders in the Workingmen's International in the 1860s. The International was the prime force behind the formation of the Reform League in 1865, which agitated for universal male suffrage and a secret ballot. Its committee of twelve consisted of six workers and six middle class reformists.

Despite Marx's efforts, the workers soon adapted to the standpoint of the middle class reformists. The League started to receive considerable finance from far-sighted capitalists, and in particular leading Liberal politicians. As a result, the League qualified its demand for male suffrage with the phrase 'registered and residential'. This property qualification would exclude the mass of unskilled and casual workers. Marx condemned the manoeuvres of these working class leaders for the compromises they made. In 1868, it was the Tory Disraeli who 'dished the Whigs' by granting the extension of the suffrage to include about one in five workers; this respectable upper stratum had proved themselves worthy of this right, one which the ruling class was sure they would exercise with moderation. Later, in the 1868 general election, working class leaders were paid election expenses and £10 a head to canvass for the Liberals - a very direct bribe in any terms. Hence Marx's comment on one Barry 'that he is not one of the so-called leaders of the English workers, since these men are more or less bribed by the bourgeoisie and the government.' (Minutes and Documents of the Hague Congress of the International, p124)

Marx's experience in the First International was one of continuous struggle against the English trade union leaders, firstly on the Irish question and the defence of Fenian prisoners, and secondly in defence of the Paris Commune. Corr and Brown say that when Marx addressed the London Congress of the First International in 1871 and 'made reference to the unions as "an aristocratic minority" with most workers outside them, (he) again seemed to use the term in a general descriptive sense' (p42). They clearly have not read what he said, which completely undermines their position:

'The Trades Unions are an aristocratic minority - the poor workers cannot belong to them: the great mass of workers whom economic development is driving from the countryside into the towns every day has long been outside the trades unions - and the most wretched mass has never belonged; the same goes for the workers born in the East End in London; one in 10 belongs to Trades Unions - peasants, day labourers never belong to these societies.

The Trades Unions can do nothing by themselves - they will remain a minority - they have no power over the mass of proletarians.' (Minutes of the London Congress of the International, Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol 22, p614)

This conclusion was drawn from the experience of nearly a decade of struggle, through which the unions had shown their complete contempt for the most oppressed sections of the working class, both at home and abroad. To suggest that he was using the term 'descriptively' is utter nonsense. It was these trade union leaders who attempted to get a motion of censure on Marx in the International in 1872 for saying that the English labour leaders had sold themselves 'to Gladstone, Morley, Duke and others' (Minutes and Documents of the Hague Congress of the International, p702). Those nineteenth century union leaders hada better understanding of Marx's threat to their position than do twentieth century academics.

Did Engels develop Marx's position?

Yes, he did, and in discussion with Marx too. Our two authors aren't quite clear on this; on the one hand, they say 'Like Marx, Engels began to detect the emergence of labour aristocracy in the early 1850s' (p43), on the other, they refer to the 'somewhat ambiguous ideas sketched by Marx and especially by Engels' (p46). But there is nothing ambiguous in his description in 1885 of the situation between 1850 and 1870, when be writes that 'A permanent improvement can be recognised for two "protected" sections only of the working class.' The first section are factory workers protected by limits on the working day, and:

'Secondly, the great Trade Unions. They are the organisations of those trades in which the labour of grown-up men (his emphasis) predominates, or is alone applicable. Here the competition neither of women or children nor of machinery has so far weakened their organised strength. The engineers, the carpenters and joiners, the bricklayers are each of them a power to the extent that as in the case of the bricklayers and bricklayers' labourers, they can even successfully resist the introduction of machinery... They form an aristocracy among the working class; they have succeeded in enforcing for themselves a relatively comfortable position, and they accept it as final. They are the model workingmen of Messrs Leone Levi and Giffen, and they are very nice people nowadays to deal with, for any sensible capitalist in particular and for the whole capitalist class in general.

But as to the great mass of the working people, the state of misery and insecurity in which they live now is as low as ever, if not lower.' (In Marx and Engels: Articles on Britain, pp378-9)

What is the conclusion of our authors after they quote part of this passage? 'But what Engels seemed to make was a close identification of "aristocrats" with bureaucrats', continuing: 'Later writers specifically refused to identify "aristocrats" with "leaders", the whole point being to shift the focus onto a layer of workers' (their emphasis, p44). Who are they trying to kid? In fact they are so poorly researched that when they go on to say that Engels' 1892 Preface to The Condition of the Working Class in England was 'Engels' fullest denunciation of the "aristocracy among the working class" - a "small, privileged protected minority" steeped in "respectable bourgeois prejudices" and "permanently benefited" by the proceeds of empire' (p44), they do not realise he is quoting a large chunk of his 1885 article. They themselves have not read the Preface - only Lenin's citations from it! This is not a trivial point; it exposes the bogus erudition of the article - it is no more than cod academicism.

For Engels, the aristocracy are the skilled sections of the working class organised in their New Model Unions. So when Corr and Brown argue 'It is still hard to pin down exactly who the labour aristocrats were for Engels' (p45) we can only conclude it is hard for them to understand anything. Already in the 1850s Engels and Marx were discussing the corruption of the English working class movement and connecting it to England's industrial monopoly. As Engels said in a letter to Marx in 1858: '..the English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois... For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable.' (Marx and Engels: Selected Correspondence, p132). For those who would like to draw a distinction between Marx and Engels' alleged 'crudities', it is noteworthy that Marx never once contradicted Engels in his development of the position.

Our authors concede this, but then say 'there is no description or explanation of the mechanism by which the bribery works' (p43), and repeal the point elsewhere (eg p42, p45). That the bribes or privileges existed there is of course no doubt.

What were the privileges?

The labour aristocracy's privileges were both economic and political. Economically, their jobs were far more assured than those of unskilled workers; typically their unemployment rates were half or one third those of unskilled workers. Their wages were much higher - some 40 shillings per week at a time when theunskilled worker earned 20 to 25 shillings. They tended to live apart from the mass of the working class, socially and geographically. Their children had access to education. With higher wages came better food, better health and a longer life.

The political privileges were equally significant: the vote being one. The 1868 Reform Act with its property qualifications consolidated the developing aristocracy of labour by allowing it to participate in the bourgeois democratic process. This is not considered at all by our authors, although they speak for an organisation whose desire to vote Labour at every possible opportunity is remarkable if only for its single-mindedness. Yet this was the point at which the leaders of this aristocratic minority, aided by the most direct of bribes, sacrificed the interests of the mass of the working class for those of its privileged section, and became no more than an appendage to the Liberals.

Another political concession that came with increasing respectability was the legalisation of trade union organisation. However, the New Model Unions embraced only the skilled sections of the working class, and quite deliberately excluded the unskilled, through apprenticeships and restrictions on the number of labourers they might supervise. Corr and Brown, in defending these unions, argue that 'Nevertheless, it is one thing to forsake revolutionary class struggle but quite another to accept the philosophy of capitalism. The craftist unions clearly did not do this' (p60). Well, they appear to be alone in this judgement. Applegarth, leader of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, and a member of the notorious London Junta, wrote in 1866:

'Let us then unite with dignified firmness and rest not until our unions have that protection to which they are entitled, and I trust that with such protection and a few more years' experience, we shall have established a new era in the history of labour, have gained the full confidence of our employers, adopted arbitration as the first resort of our differences, and freed our unions from the expense and anxiety of strikes as far as it is possible to do so...' (Quoted in T. Rothstein: From Chartism to Labourism, p186)

Now this would seem to be very much an 'acceptance of the philosophy of capitalism'; indeed, if a movement forsakes revolutionary struggle, it can do no other. Even Francis Williams, the official historian of the Labour Party some 45 years ago, is quite clear on the moderation of the skilled unions; discussing their role in the formation of the London Trades Council in 1860, he wrote:

'What was no less important was that they understood the middle-class point of view -- the point of view of those who in increasing measure now formed public opinion -- because they shared it. Their modest ambition indeed was to establish a new group within that wide amorphous class, raising the skilled workers whom they represented to a position totally divorced from that of the struggling mass below.' (F. Williams: Magnificent Journey - The Rise of the Trade Unions, p105)

Later on, Williams cites the opposition of the skilled unions to the eight- hour day in the 1880s as an example of their 'cautious, conciliatory and self-satisfied' attitude (Magnificent Journey, p162). Corr and Brown ignore this, although perhaps more than any other question it showed how opposed the craft unions were to the interests of the mass of the working class. On the one hand there were the socialists, including Tom Mann, demanding legislation for the eight hour day. On the other stood the craft unions, opposing any state intervention on the question, arguing that it was a matter of negotiation with the employers. Given that they were the only negotiating bodies, it was tantamount to saying only skilled workers could have the eight-hour day. Engels was in the thick of this struggle, and when under the influence of the new unskilled unions, the old gang of the skilled unions were defeated at the 1891 TUC, he spoke enthusiastically of the defeat of the 'bourgeois labour party':

'The old unions, with the textile workers at their head, and the whole of the reactionary party among the workers, had exerted all their strength towards overthrowing the eight-hour decision of 1890. They came to grief ... and the bourgeois papers recognised the defeat of the bourgeois labour party.' (Engels, Letter to Sorge, 14 September 1891)

Perhaps Engels was mistaken about their 'acceptance of the philosophy of capitalism'? Certainly Corr and Brown seem completely unaware of the major political battles of the time, when Tom Mann argued:

'New unionism must be judged by its fruits. Many identified with it had long been membersof their own societies and had grieved bitterly over the workers' poverty, particularly that of the unskilled and unorganised, and at the callous disregard shown by the old societies, even for the labourers in their own trade. The old school had proved unable to organise the unskilled and even to further their own interests.' (Quoted in Dona Torr: Tom Mann ond His Times, p18)

What was the source of these privileges?

We have already shown how Engels and Marx attributed the privileged existence of the labour aristocracy to England's industrial monopoly in the 1850s and 1860s, augmented by its colonial monopoly, especially during the period of relative industrial decline from the 1870s onward. When Corr and Brown cite Gareth Stedman Jones (who has accomplished his own personal revolution, become a professor and renounced both Marxism and the class struggle) in arguing that in Engels 'there was no definitive material theory of the labour aristocracy' (p45), it was certainly true that they produced no academic treatise on the matter. But Engels made pointed reference to England's monopoly position, as Corr and Brown concede earlier on in their article when they say that Engels was 'categorical' about the 'link between England's colonial monopoly and the corruption of a certain layer of the working class' (p43).

The liberal JA Hobson also made this connection at the turn of the century, and Lenin argued that by doing so, he showed himself more advanced than the so-called Marxist Kautsky. We would say that he was more advanced than Corr and Brown writing nearly a hundred years later. If we look at the sectors where skilled workers and their organisation were strongest, we find them to be closely connected to Empire: textiles, iron and steel, engineering, and coal. Textiles because of the cheap cotton from Egypt, and a captive market in India; iron and steel because of ship- building and railway exports, engineering because of the imperialist arms industry, and coal because of the demands of Britain's monopoly of world shipping. In a myriad of different ways, the conditions of the labour aristocracy were bound up with the maintenance of British imperialism. And this fact was bound to be reflected in their political standpoint.

To sum up: Corr and Brown show an amazing ignorance of the contemporary recognition of the existence of this privileged stratum; at each and every stage, they prefer to rely on bourgeois historians writing up to a century later. Their argument that 'in fact no new layer emerged which was materially and socially distinguishable from the rest of the working class in a way which was different from long established differentiation' (p67) is quite unsustainable in terms of all the contrary contemporary opinion. The point is that such a development within the working class was inevitable if the ruling class were to survive in conditions where the working class were becoming ever more preponderant numerically, and where there was a commensurate increase in their potential political and economic power. Furthermore, the emergence of the labour aristocracy was linked with the maturation of bourgeois democracy: only at that point in time when the ruling class could be satisfied that the working class would use the vote 'wisely' would they in fact receive it. Marx and Engels were well aware of the significance of the treachery of the Reform League; Corr and Brown over a century later are not.

FRFI 115 October / November 1993

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