The Labour Aristocracy: A Crucial Marxist Theory in an Imperialist World

By Danial Nikovich

In 2022, there is every chance the Australian Labor Party (ALP) will win the federal election. Does this mean we are in the final months of Australian capitalism? Are we set to see the ushering in of a system based on worker’s control? Definitely not.

The Australian Labor Party campaigning for the upcoming Australian federal election

Writing about Australia in 1913, Lenin pondered how it was that a supposed ‘workers party’ could hold government, “…and yet the capitalist system is in no danger.” How is it that these “so-called workers representatives”, to borrow Friedrich Engels’ apt term, are so often the bastions of class-collaboration and bourgeoise reformism? A powerful explanation for this state of affairs is the theory of the labour aristocracy and Australia’s place as an imperialist country.

This piece is intended as a general introduction and defence of the labour aristocracy theory. After outlining the general contours as developed by Engels and Vladimir Lenin, it will seek to dispel some of the myths surrounding the theory, particularly those put forward by Tony Cliff, the chief theoretician of the International Socialist Tendency (IST) and Charles Post, an academic at the City University of New York whose two part article on the labour aristocracy has been widely read among the international left.

Because the theory of the labour aristocracy as outlined by Engels and Lenin is so closely associated with capitalist imperialism, opponents of the theory necessarily also reject the Marxist theory of imperialism outlined by Lenin. Post, in particular, introduces a number of caricatures of Lenin’s theory in his attempt to take it down and to take down with it, the theory of the labour aristocracy which rests upon the imperialist exploitation of the poor countries.

A key aim of this article is to give the reader some indication of how Lenin’s theory of imperialism can be readily applied to the contemporary world economy, and thus help outline a contemporary understanding of the labour aristocracy. To do this, it will provide a brief explanation of how imperialism’s stranglehold over the highest forms of labour results in the ‘super-profits’ that can be used to bribe sections of the working class today.

General Overview of the Theory 

The basis of the labour aristocracy theory lies in years of correspondence between Marx and Engels between 1858-1892. In their many letters, Engels sought to understand the apparent rise of conservatism and class-collaborationism among sections of the working class in 19th century England. In a letter to Marx in October 1858, Engels wrote “…the English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie.” To analyse this phenomenon, Engels linked opportunist trends in working class politics with the dominant material, economic conditions of the time.

After economic crisis in the 1840s, the years between 1850-1870 saw a general improvement in the conditions of the working class in England. These changing economic conditions influenced class relations as capital sought to win the support of workers by granting a number of concessions. As Strauss points out in his 2004 article, “the capitalists submitted to the application and extension of the Factory Acts, recognised the legitimacy of the unions, and repealed the harshest laws governing workers’ relations to their employers”.

This period of overall prosperity was eroded in the mid-1870s as foreign competition challenged England’s position as the single, most dominant imperialist power. Nevertheless, English capital was able to maintain huge profits owing to its position as a premier colonial power. According to Engels, these conditions supported the emergence of labour leaders and a section of the working class whose political outlook was fundamentally bourgeois.

In a letter to Karl Kautsky in 1882, Engels wrote, “you ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as what the bourgeois think. There is no workers’ party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies”

According to Engels, the basis for bourgeoise thinking among sections of the working class, as well as reactionary politics among labour leaders, lay in the conditions of 19th century England. These conditions were underpinned by the nation’s colonial monopoly which persisted despite growing competition from Germany, France and the United States. At the turn of the 20th century however, capitalism underwent a radical transformation from free competition to imperialist, monopoly capitalism. This was characterised, among other things, by the rise of monopoly corporations in both banking and industry (and their merger in what Lenin called ‘monopoly finance capital’) as well as the division of the entire world among a handful of colonial powers.

Drawing on the ideas of Marx and Engels, Lenin developed the labour aristocracy theory to demonstrate its political and economic implications in the imperialist era, which came into existence at the end of the 19th century. Like Engels, Lenin also demonstrated that the basis for opportunism lies in the specific historical and material conditions of capitalism. However, the material conditions that confronted Lenin were fundamentally different to those in Marx and Engels lifetimes.

In particular, Lenin pointed out that the monopoly of one country (England) had been replaced by the monopoly over the rest of the world by a handful of advanced countries such as Germany, France, Japan, the United States and other smaller advanced capitalist states like Belgium and Holland. As he put it,

“The distinctive feature of the present situation is the prevalence of such economic and political conditions that are bound to increase the irreconcilability between opportunism and the general and vital interests of the working-class movement: imperialism has grown from the embryo into the predominant system; capitalist monopolies occupy first place in economics and politics; the division of the world has been completed; on the other hand, instead of the undivided monopoly of Great Britain, we see a few imperialist powers contending for the right to share in this monopoly, and this struggle is characteristic of the whole period of the early 20th century. Opportunism cannot now be completely triumphant in the working-class movement of one country for decades as it was in Britain in the second half of the 19th century; but in a number of countries it has grown ripe, overripe, and rotten, and has become completely merged with bourgeois policy in the form of “social chauvinism”

(Lenin, 1918)

According to Lenin, the domination of “a few imperialist powers” over the rest of the world supported the growth of opportunism among sections of the working class. As he observed, a clear split arose in the workers movement between what Lenin called ‘opportunism’ and ‘class-collaborationism’ on the one hand, and revolutionary internationalism on the other. The former was exemplified by the support given by socialist groups and trade unions in Europe for the first world war,

“What is the economic substance of defencism in the war of 1914–15? The bourgeoisie of all the big powers are waging the war to divide and exploit the world, and oppress other nations. A few crumbs of the bourgeoisie’s huge profits may come the way of the small group of labour bureaucrats, labour aristocrats, and petty 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.

Opportunism and social-chauvinism have the same political content, namely, class collaboration, repudiation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, repudiation of revolutionary action, unconditional acceptance of bourgeois legality, confidence in the bourgeoisie and lack of confidence in the proletariat. Social-chauvinism is the direct continuation and consummation of British liberal-labour politics, of Millerandism and Bernsteinism”.

(Lenin, 1915)

The labour aristocracy works with capital by securing ‘crumbs’ for themselves and other sections of the working class. The throwing of these crumbs, which Lenin also referred as a bribe, is not done so evenly and certain sections benefit more than others. Furthermore, the receipt of these bribes may be conscious or unconscious, and as Lenin argued, the process is not monolithic and takes a variety of forms,

“… it is possible to bribe their labor leaders and an upper stratum of the labor aristocracy. And the capitalists of the ‘advanced’ countries do bribe them: they bribe them in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect, overt and covert”

(Lenin, 1916)

The source of these crumbs is the enormous profits that imperialist capital is able to extract from the exploitation of the colonies and oppressed countries. To this day, the same is achieved by imperialist exploitation of poor ‘Third World’ societies. This point is emphasised throughout Lenin’s writings,

“The bourgeoisie of an imperialist “Great” Power can economically bribe the upper strata of “its” workers by spending on this a hundred million or so francs a year, for its superprofits most likely amount to about a thousand million. And how this little sop is divided among the labour ministers, “labour representatives”…labour members of war industries committees, labour officials, workers belonging to the narrow craft unions, office employees, etc., etc.,”

(Lenin, 1916)

“The receipt of high monopoly profits by the capitalists in one of the numerous branches of industry, in one of the numerous countries, etc., makes it economically possible for them to bribe certain sections of the workers, and for a time a fairly considerable minority of them, and win them to the side of the bourgeoisie of a given industry or given nation against all the others. The intensification of antagonisms between imperialist nations for the division of the world increases this urge.”

(Lenin, 1917)

“The opportunists (social chauvinists) are working hand in glove with the imperialist bourgeoisie precisely towards creating an imperialist Europe on the backs of Asia and Africa, and that objectively the opportunists are a section of the petty bourgeoisie and of certain strata of the working class who have been bribed out of imperialist superprofits and converted into watchdogs of capitalism and corrupters of the labour movement.”

(Lenin, 1916)

In Lenin’s time as with our own, the labour aristocracy includes those who claim to work in the interests of the working class, but in fact fight for partial reforms to the capitalist system that leave exploitation of the working class unchallenged. They introduce into the broader working class an outlook of class-collaboration and maintenance of the capitalist status quo as opposed to its destruction and replacement with socialism. They do this because it is in their interests: replacing reformist politics with a revolutionary outlook would risk slowing the flow of imperialist profit, and with it their privileged position in the global economy. As Lenin explained, the labour aristocracy are thereby inclined to make any promise to the working class in an effort to avoid actual revolt,

“…in this era of printing and parliamentarism it is impossible to gain the following of the masses without a widely ramified, systematically managed, well-equipped system of flattery, lies, fraud, juggling with fashionable and popular catchwords, and promising all manner of reforms and blessings to the workers right and left — as long as they renounce the revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. I would call this system Lloyd-Georgism, after the English Minister Lloyd George, one of the foremost and most dexterous representatives of this system in the classic land of the “bourgeois labour party”. A first-class bourgeois manipulator, an astute politician, a popular orator who will deliver any speeches you like, even r-r-revolutionary ones, to a labour audience, and a man who is capable of obtaining sizable sops for docile workers in the shape of social reforms (insurance, etc.), Lloyd George serves the bourgeoisie splendidly, and serves it precisely among the workers, brings its influence precisely to the proletariat, to where the bourgeoisie needs it most and where it finds it most difficult to subject the masses morally”

(Lenin, 1916)

Labour Aristocracy and Global Polarisation

Due to Australia’s position in the global economy, the crumbs that can be thrown to the working class are substantial. This is evident in the fact that the Australian working class hold a hugely better position than their counterparts in the Global South. As in Lenin’s era, many of the gains won by organised workers in Australia are done so through struggle and it is often in response to such struggles, or in anticipation, that the capitalist class can offer concessions in exchange for the denouncement of revolutionary action. These crumbs can take many forms such as higher wages, improved conditions, better housing as well as higher consumption in general. Indeed, any concession that doesn’t pose too much of a threat to the capitalist status quo.

It is true that in the neoliberal period, which in Australia was introduced by the Bob Hawke led Labor Government that came to power in 1983, wages, working conditions and social services have been under constant attack by capital and the ruling class in Australia. Indeed, at any given time, people across Australia are actively denied their fundamental right to health, education, food and housing. According to the 2021 Foodbank Hunger Report for instance,

“1 in 6 adults in Australia haven’t had enough to eat in the last year, and even more shockingly, 1.2 million children have gone hungry…More than 70% of people going hungry go a whole day without eating at least once a week. 43% of children who live in severe food insecurity go a whole day without eating once a week. Hunger is affecting people across all demographics right now, many are young working families, retirees, and indigenous people living in regional Australia.”

2021 Foodbank Hunger Report

While capitalism clearly undermines people’s fundamental rights and quality of life in manifold ways for the whole population, and while even inside a rich country like Australia an important minority of the working class suffers especially acute oppression, it is still obvious that the standard of living and wage levels are vastly higher in imperialist countries compared to the majority of the world’s population.

This divide is evident using any indicator of social development such as the United Nations Human Development Index or GDP per capita. While HDI measures life expectancy at birth, expected years of schooling, average years of schooling and gross national income per capita, GDP per capita measures the average income for an entire country, both workers and the bourgeoisie.

In 2020, Australia had a HDI value of 0.944 and was rated 8th out of 189 countries, being completely surrounded at this end of the list by other imperialist countries. The majority of neighbouring countries in Asia were at the other end of the spectrum such as Indonesia (HDI value 0.718, rated 107th), Bangladesh (0.632, 133rd) and Cambodia (0.594, 144th).

This massive divide is also evident by reference to GDP per capita. The latest available data from the World Bank found that GDP per capita for Australia was $51,693 in 2020. This is compared to the 2020 levels for Malaysia ($10,412), China ($10,435), The Philippines ($3,299) and India ($1,928). This divide is even more stark if we were to compare Australia to the least developed countries such as those located in sub-Saharan Africa including Burkina Faso ($858), Ethiopia ($936) and Liberia ($633). This is despite the significant amount of production carried out by workers in all of these countries.

Responding to this vast global divide, that already existed in his time and remains largely unchanged, Lenin observed that, “a privileged upper stratum of the proletariat in the imperialist countries lives partly at the expense of hundreds of millions in the uncivilised nations.”

Contemporary Denial of the Labour Aristocracy

With reference to any indicator of social development, it is clear that the world is divided at two poles. While capitalism exploits the proletariat of all nations, the working class of a few rich countries enjoy much higher wages and quality of life than their counterparts in the Global South. However, in trying to disprove the labour aristocracy theory, many IST writers are forced to ignore this stark divide. For example, Cliff asserts:

“Again, one can argue that imperialism throws “crumbs” to workers through the fact that it gets foodstuffs (and raw materials) extremely cheaply from the backward, colonial countries. But this factor, again, affects the standard of living not only of a minority of “aristocracy of labour” but the whole of the working class of the industrial countries. To this extent, by raising general living standards, it diminishes differences between sections of this same working class.”

Tony Cliff, Economic roots of reformism (1957)

To drive home his point, Cliff then refers to an extract from Engel’s The Conditions of the Working Class in England about the typical standard of housing in working class areas. In a similar passage to the one quoted by Cliff, Engels summarises the general condition of the working class in 19th century England:

“To sum up briefly the facts thus far cited. The great towns are chiefly inhabited by working people…these workers have no property whatsoever of their own, and live wholly upon wages, which usually go from hand to mouth…Every working-man, even the best, is…constantly exposed to loss of work and food, that is to death by starvation, and many perish in this way. The dwellings of the workers are everywhere badly planned, badly built, and kept in the worst condition, badly ventilated, damp, and unwholesome. The inhabitants are confined to the smallest possible space, and at least one family usually sleeps in each room. The interior arrangement of the dwellings is poverty-stricken in various degrees, down to the utter absence of even the most necessary furniture. The clothing of the workers, too, is generally scanty, and that of great multitudes is in rags. The food is, in general, bad; often almost unfit for use, and in many cases, at least at times, insufficient in quantity, so that, in extreme cases, death by starvation results”

(Engels, 1845)

Cliff intends to use Engel’s observations to prove that “one scarcely needs further proof that the conditions of the working class as a whole, and not only of a small minority, have improved radically under capitalism this last century.” However, this is a polemic against the form that the labour aristocracy took in Lenin’s time. According to Lenin’s accounts, it was a minority of the working class inside the imperialist countries, though sometimes he describes it as a “considerable minority.”

Yet Lenin never counterposed the privileges of the labour aristocracy to other workers within the same country only. His entire emphasis in developing a theory of imperialism and the labour aristocracy is to advance a Marxist position against imperialist oppression of the vast majority of non-imperialist countries. Cliff, who rejects not only Lenin’s theory of the Labour aristocracy, but also his theory of imperialism appears to have overlooked this.

Rather than dispelling Lenin’s theory, Cliff has inadvertently demonstrated a crucial point. Namely, the consolidation of the imperialist powers since Lenin’s time and the resulting increase in social polarisation between imperialist and exploited countries seems to have changed the precise form that the labour aristocracy takes in our own time.

It is true that the general condition of all workers in imperialist countries has improved due to the exploitation of the third world and extraction of super-profits. However, while Cliff is correct to point out that the sort of living conditions that Engels outlines in 19th Century England are no longer the norm in England, the vivid descriptions could easily be applied to large third world cities such as Lagos, Dhaka or Manilla. In attempting to dispel the labour aristocracy theory, Cliff is therefore forced to negate the proletariat class outside of the imperialist core. Given most of the world’s population does not live in the Global North, this is indeed a grave error. Among other things, it ignores the fact that the vast majority of capitalism’s gravediggers do not live in Australia, England or the United States.

Mischaracterisations of Lenin’s Theory

In Cliff and the contemporary IST approach, rejection of the theory of the labour aristocracy is tied to rejection of Lenin’s theory of imperialism. The same is true for Charles Post who fails to acknowledge the realities of global polarisation in his 2-part series for Solidarity in the United States. After side-stepping the elephant in the room, Post instead focuses on what he sees as inaccuracies within Lenin’s theory of imperialism. It is important to note that Post’s article deals more so with writers such as Jonathan Strauss, Max Elbaum and Robert Seltzer than Lenin. Nevertheless, two key ‘empirical problems’ with Lenin’s theory of imperialism that Post highlights can be summarised as follows:

  1. Lenin argued that the primary modus operandi of imperialism was the export of capital from imperialist countries to the third world. This export of capital is termed ‘imperialist investment’ by Post. 
  2. Lenin argued that competition no longer exists in the imperialist stage of capitalism.

Despite being a very popular misconception of his theory, Lenin did not actually make this first argument. While foreign investment is indeed a crucial aspect of the theory, it was not the primary modus operandi. In the five features of imperialism developed by Lenin, the export of capital is merely one feature while the ‘Export of Capital’ is one of the shortest chapters in Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Overemphasis on capital export was in fact a common view in Lenin’s time – but one that Lenin opposed. In debates with other members of the Bolshevik party in 1917, Lenin emphasised that, “we must begin with the characterisation of imperialism as a whole – and in that case we must not single out only the ‘export of capital.’”

The attention given to capital export, including in Lenin’s work, is perhaps due to the fact that it is one of the most visible and easily quantifiable aspects of imperialism. To understand the source of imperialist super-profits however, the export of capital must be considered as part of Lenin’s broader theory. This point will be outlined in the next section which focuses on imperialist monopoly over the labour processes, which enables imperialism to gain super-profits through world trade – a key source of imperialist super-profits in the contemporary era.

The second critique that Post puts forward is based on a misunderstanding of Lenin’s use of the term ‘Monopoly Capitalism.’ Namely, Post takes this label to mean the absence of competition in the imperialist era, which he quite rightly labels a ‘myth,’

“The empirical problems with the monopoly super profits argument – so central to contemporary theories of the labor aristocracy – are rooted in the very notions of ‘monopoly’ and ‘oligopoly.’ The notion that the existence of a small number of large firms in an industry limits competition, allowing higher than average profits and wages, is derived from neoclassical (non-Marxian) economics’ vision of ‘perfect competition’ …The notions of perfect competition and oligopoly/monopoly are both conceptually and empirically flawed. Perfect competition is an ideological construction – an idealization of capitalist competition that makes the existing economic order appear efficient and just.”

The Myth of the Labor Aristocracy, Part 1

However, a closer reading of Lenin’s theory would have demonstrated that he did not argue that competition ceases to exist under imperialism, nor that something called “perfect competition” ever existed. For example, Lenin points out,

“Economically, the main thing in this process is the displacement of capitalist free competition by capitalist monopoly. Free competition is the basic feature of capitalism, and of commodity production generally; monopoly is the exact opposite of free competition, but we have seen the latter being transformed into monopoly before our eyes, creating large-scale industry and forcing out small industry, replacing large-scale by still larger-scale industry, and carrying concentration of production and capital to the point where out of it has grown and is growing monopoly: cartels, syndicates and trusts, and merging with them, the capital of a dozen or so banks, which manipulate thousands of millions. At the same time the monopolies, which have grown out of free competition, do not eliminate the latter, but exist above it and alongside it, and thereby give rise to a number of very acute, intense antagonisms, frictions and conflicts.”

(Lenin, 1917, [Bold by Nick D])

Post uses these two arguments to argue against the labour aristocracy theory as a whole. In other words, he argues that the theory is incorrect because it is based on a flawed definition of imperialism. However, a closer reading of Lenin’s imperialism reveals that both of the assumptions made by Post are not accurate and therefore, his overall rejection of the labour aristocracy theory falls over. A more useful approach for explaining contemporary super-profits is imperialism’s monopoly over the highest and most profitable labour processes.

The Source of Contemporary Super-Profits

When the people of the third world threw off the chains of colonialism and declared themselves politically independent, they found themselves in a dire situation. Despite centuries of colonisation, there was barely a skerrick of modern industry and the level of social development was vastly below Western Europe, Australia and the United States. Despite starting at this low base, the second half of the 20th century was filled with promises of ‘catch-up.’ What we have actually seen however, is the constant reproduction of this relationship and stark social divide through imperialism.

Within the international division of labour, there is a clear geographical separation of different labour processes and in the neoliberal period, there has been an increased trend towards global supply chains. While many products were previously produced in a specific country, it is increasingly common for separate parts of a commodity to be produced by workers in geographically different locations. Increasing internationalisation of production processes in the past 40 years has been driven by the outsourcing or ‘off-shoring’ of non-monopoly labour processes by firms in imperialist countries. While non-monopoly processes have been outsourced, the most advanced forms of labour remain largely located in imperial centres.

At one pole, inside the imperialist countries, are located the more advanced or ‘monopoly’ labour processes which are more difficult to reproduce. Because these processes cannot be easily replicated, the capitalist class in the most advanced countries can establish ‘monopoly’ control over them. This monopoly control is maintained through constant innovation of technology, particularly through high-end Research and Development (R&D). Importantly, because these labour processes are the most sophisticated and technologically advanced, they are involved in the production of the most profitable commodities, or the ‘highest value added’ aspects of a commodity.

At the other pole are ‘non-monopoly’ labour processes that are overwhelmingly carried out in the Global South. These forms of labour can be easily replicated and as a result, it is difficult for a single capitalist firm to establish a monopoly control over them. As firms that specialise in these non-monopoly labour processes are in competition with one another, they are forced to lower the price of the commodities that they produce. Should non-monopoly capital increase the price of the commodities produced, they will be forced out of the market by firms that can maintain a lower price through measures such as extremely low wages, unsafe working conditions or environmentally destructive production techniques. In relation to the production of mobile phones for instance, King found that,

“…Apple, based in California, is a non-manufacturing company often ranked as the most profitable MNC in the world. It outsources direct production for the most part to Foxconn, a giant Taiwan-based contract manufacturer later renamed Hon Hai… Hon Hai employed some 668 million workers in 2018, giving it $6,413 profit per worker employed. Apple employed 132,000 workers and earned $451,000 in profit per worker – seventy times higher”

(King, 2021, pg. 151)

In this example, we are talking about non-monopoly capital (Hon Hai) compared to monopoly capital (Apple). While the bulk of the labour involved in producing an iPhone is carried out by Chinese workers employed by Hon Hai, the majority of profits are captured by Apple. The reason for this is the stranglehold of imperialist capital over the highest forms of labour needed to produce an iPhone. In other words, non-imperialist capital is dependent on imperialist capital because it is not itself able to produce the highest forms of labour that are crucial in modern commodity production.

Chinese workers assemble electronic components at the Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn’s factory in Shenzhen, China. AFP/ AFP/ Getty Images

The reason non-monopoly capital cannot simply ‘catch-up’ to monopoly capital is because imperialism’s monopoly is constantly being reproduced through the revolutionising of production. While this constant upgrading is necessary to ward off competition from other imperialist capital, it also means that non-monopoly capital, which is far less developed, has little hope of successful ‘catch-up.’ A telling example of this inability to ‘catch-up’ is found in the recent attempts by the Chinese state and corporations to compete with imperialist capital in the production of aeroplanes.

For more than a decade, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) has been involved in the production of ARJ21 aircraft to compete with the existing MD80 model of small, regional jets. Despite costing billions of dollars, AVIC had only eleven of these ARJ21 aircraft in operation by 2019. The ARJ21 is based on an earlier aircraft – the MD80 – which was developed by the US corporation McDonnell Douglas. The MD80 version first reached commercial operation in 1980 when it was launched by Swissair. The contemporary Chinese version is also completely dependent on US corporations for the most sophisticated components of the plane. For example, General Electric provides the engines and Honeywell much of the avionics.

The ARJ21 is considered to have worse performance – in things like fuel economy – than competing planes that are already being mass produced by Boeing and Airbus – and those companies are already developing next generation planes. So, even if the ARJ21 can be brought into mass production in China, it is unlikely to pose any real threat to imperialism’s monopoly over mid-sized commercial airline production. In the more profitable sphere of large, sized commercial airline production, China is not even attempting to compete. What is true in commercial aviation is also true in microchips and seemingly every area of advanced production (King, 2021, p. 249-53).

Despite the advances made following the 1949 Revolution, Chinese producers do not have the ability to compete on the world market with established Multi-National Corporations like Apple or General Electric in the most advanced production processes. The result is that imperialist based corporations can continue to usurp much of the value produced by Chinese workers involved in non-monopoly production. This is the reason China has remained far behind the imperialist nations in most indicators of social development. As well as starting from this lower basis, it has been unable to ‘catch-up’ to monopoly capital given imperialism’s ability to reproduce its control over the highest labour processes.

“At no point has this article argued that capitalism cannot be challenged or overthrown by workers in imperialist countries such as Australia.”


In the imperialist era, it is clear that humanity is divided at two poles. Using any measure of social development, it is evident that workers in imperialist countries enjoy a relatively more privileged position compared to their counterparts in the Global South. As Engels and Lenin demonstrated, this relative privilege has an impact on the level of consciousness and general political outlook of many workers in countries such as Australia. Measuring this is not simple, particularly as the benefits of imperialism do not flow to workers in an even or straightforward manner.

In their attempts to dispel the labour aristocracy theory, Cliff and Post are forced to either ignore global polarisation, and in Post’s case provide false characterisations of Lenin’s theory of imperialism. In response, this article sought not only to correct these mischaracterisations, but also provide an explanation of the source of imperialist super-profits in the contemporary era. It was shown that analysing imperialism’s monopoly over the labour process and ability to, as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, “revolutionise” the labour process, provides a powerful explanation for the inequality that exists between nations as well as the super-profits that imperialist capital is able to extract from the Global South.

Despite carrying out the majority of global labour, the value created by workers in the Global South is systematically syphoned off by imperialist capital. As well as accounting for the vastly different levels of wealth in imperialist and non-imperialist countries, this analysis also provides an explanation for the difference in working conditions in these two regions. That is, while retaining the most profitable labour processes, imperialism has been able to off-shore the most poorly paid, dangerous and environmentally harmful forms of labour.

At no point has this article argued that capitalism cannot be challenged or overthrown by workers in imperialist countries such as Australia. Indeed, the inequalities that are systematically produced under imperialism can only be defeated through the struggle of the working class of all nations. However, the position of Australia and all other imperialist countries in the global economy has been an obstacle to developing a revolutionary consciousness among ordinary people. Arguably it is the reason capitalism has survived to this day. What else better explains capitalism’s longevity since the first imperialist world war? Why is it that the socialist revolutions that have taken place in imperialism’s periphery have not been replicated in its core?

How this can be overcome is a crucial question for all radical forces inside Australia today. To do that, we will need a great deal more analysis of the structure and features of the Australian working class and on that basis the refinement and updating of Engels and Lenin’s theory. This article doesn’t begin that necessary and urgent work except to introduce the reader to some of the fundamentals of the widely maligned classical Marxist work from which it has to proceed.

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