Labour Aristocracy, Opportunism and National Chauvinism – A Historical Split in Socialism

By Nick D.

Corporate resistance to FDR’s New Deal. The National Association of Manufacturers’ billboards praised US institutions to counter Roosevelt’s call to action for the one third of Americans who were ‘one-third of a nation ill-housed ill-clad ill-nourished.’ Dubuque Iowa April 1940.

The following was presented on day two of Red Ant’s Peace and Liberation Conference in August 2022.

This talk will focus on the theory of the labour aristocracy – which in its most simple form can be understood as the notion that the relative privileges that imperialism provides to sections of the working class inside imperialist countries like Australia have an effect on their general level of political consciousness and social outlook.

This link between colonial or imperialist plunder and the political consciousness of workers inside the rich countries was first developed in the 19th century by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, before being taken up by other Marxist thinkers like and Vladimir Lenin and Grigory Zinoviev.

Despite being important for these revolutionaries, the labour aristocracy theory has been abandoned by the Australian left. While some groups – at least sometimes  – acknowledge global inequality, the notion that systematic exploitation of poor nations has an effect on the consciousness of workers in rich countries remains fiercely opposed.

By abandoning both the labour aristocracy theory, as well as the Leninist understanding of imperialism, a systematic analysis of opportunism among the contemporary working class in Australia has not been carried out for a long time. It is hoped that this talk can help to provide the necessary theoretical background so that the first steps towards renewal can be taken.

This will be done with reference to classical texts by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Zinoviev. In the next session, we will explore changes in the composition, sociology and outlook of the Australian working class in the neoliberal period. This will put us in a better position to apply the labour aristocracy theory to contemporary Australia.

Marx and Engels

The origins of the theory of the labour aristocracy lie in the works of Marx and Engels. The key works are taken from correspondence between Marx and Engels, as well as letters to other Marxists like Karl Kautsky. The theory was developed further in Engel’s 1892 preface to the work (written 50 years earlier) titled The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Firstly, it is clear from correspondence between Marx and Engels that they had identified certain trends in which there was a rise in conservatism, opportunism and class-collaborationism among some 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”.

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.”

In later works, particularly the 1892 preface to The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels provides an explanation for this phenomenon. The explanation relates to the material conditions of England during the 19th century, especially England’s position as a monopoly colonial power. 

In the 19th century, England had became the ‘workshop of the world’ (to use Engel’s phrase). While the majority of the world’s economies were based on agriculture, England was able to industrialise – and for a time had a monopoly over industrial commodities. Through industrialisation as well as vast colonial possessions, England became the most powerful economic and political country on the planet – dominating the world economy.

From the 1840s onwards (coinciding with the Chartist movement pushing for political reform), the capitalist class in England began to make concessions to the working class in order to achieve industrial peace. In winning such concessions, the relative position of the working class improved. These changing economic conditions influenced class relations as capital sought to win the support of workers:

…A new spirit came over the masters, especially the large ones, which taught them to avoid unnecessary squabbles, to acquiesce in the existence and power of Trades’ Unions, and finally even to discover in strikes – at opportune times – a powerful means to serve their own ends. The largest manufacturers, formerly the leaders of the war against the working-class, were now the foremost to preach peace and harmony. And for a very good reason. The fact is that all these concessions to justice and philanthropy were nothing else but means to accelerate the concentration of capital in the hands of the few…

1892 preface to The Condition of the Working Class in England

Importantly, these social and economic benefits did not mostly flow to the “great mass of working people” and when they did, they only resulted in a temporary improvement:

And the condition of the working-class during this period? There was temporary improvement even for the great mass. But this improvement always was reduced to the old level by the influx of the great body of the unemployed reserve, by the constant superseding of hands by new machinery, by the immigration of the agricultural population, now, too, more and more superseded by machines…But as to the great mass of working-people, the state of misery and insecurity in which they live now is as low as ever, if not lower…

1892 preface to The Condition of the Working Class in England

Rather than the majority of the working class, it was only “a small, privileged, protected minority” of the working class that “permanently benefited” from the privileges accruing from England’s colonial monopoly.

In his analysis, Engels identifies two groups that received a permanent benefit: factory hands (mainly in textile mills and iron foundries) and members of the ‘Great Trades Unions’ (i.e. the long-established unions, most of which were based in London), for whom “competition neither of women and children nor of machinery has so far weakened their organised strength.” Engels writes:

That their condition has remarkably improved since 1848 there can be no doubt…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 working-men…and they are very nice people indeed nowadays to deal with, for any sensible capitalist in particular and for the whole capitalist class in general.

1892 preface to The Condition of the Working Class in England

The closing passages of Engel’s 1892 preface sees him comment on the resurgence of militancy among the newly formed unions which were largely composed of unskilled workers (i.e. from outside the labour aristocracy) in London’s East End. For Engels, this represented a very important development:

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 (1892 preface to The Condition of the Working Class in England).

To summarise, Marx and Engels argued that due to England’s monopoly position in the global economy during the 19th century, there was a general improvement in the condition of the working class. However, a permanent improvement was only experienced by a small section of the working class, who they referred to as the “labour aristocracy”. This label was chosen to describe them because of their relative privilege vis a vis the rest of the working class, their general attitude and their proclivity for colluding with the bourgeoisie.

Politically, this group was supportive of England’s colonial policy and national chauvinism, adopted liberal-bourgeois politics, and formed alliances with industrial capitalists.

However, the actual conditions of the working class masses were one of widespread deprivation, poverty and misery. While there were occasional improvements, these were undone by periodic crises, introduction of machinery, mass migration from rural areas and competition caused by women and child workers newly entering the working class. It was among the majority of the working class, outside the labour aristocracy, that Engels recognised an important trend of reinvigorated militancy and socialism among unions of unskilled workers, without the ‘bourgeois respectability’ of the established unions.

By the end of the 19th century, industrialisation in other countries meant that England’s monopoly was no longer absolute. In Engel’s words, these other countries “set resolutely about manufacturing, not only for themselves, but for the rest of the world; and the consequence is that the manufacturing monopoly enjoyed by England for nearly a century is irretrievably broken up.” It is here that we move on to the next two important contributors to the theory of the labour aristocracy: Lenin and Zinoviev.

Lenin

Lenin wrote widely about the theory with some of his key works being Opportunism and the Collapse of the Second International (January 1916), Imperialism and the Split in Socialism (from October 1916) and Imperialism—the Highest Stage of Capitalism (published in mid-1917).

With the onset of the first inter-imperialist world war in 1914, a split occurred in the workers movement over the question of whether the Social Democratic workers parties of the day should support or oppose the war effort of their “own” national capitalist class.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks, as well as a small number of others, opposed the war outright and denounced the violent aims of their own ruling classes. Lenin characterised the war as, “an imperialist, reactionary, predatory war both on the part of Germany and on the part of the capitalists of Britain, France, Italy and America”.

The bulk of the European Social Democracy, however, capitulated to the war hysteria, at least in the early phase of the war, aligning themselves with their own ruling classes to support the mobilisation of workers to kill other workers.

The split in the workers movement was therefore between reformist, nationalist “Social Democratic” parties such as the Australian Labor Party (ALP) on the one hand and revolutionary socialists on the other. As Lenin demonstrates, this split – which occurred in many different countries at the same time – was neither coincidental nor a purely political phenomenon. Rather, it had a deep underlying social basis in the particular social conditions that the capitalist system had produced with its advance to what Lenin defined as its imperialist stage.

At the turn of the 20th century, capitalism underwent a radical transformation from free competition to imperialist, monopoly capitalism. This was characterised by – among other things – the rise of monopoly corporations in both banking and industry (and their merger to become what Lenin called “monopoly finance capital”) as well as the division of the entire world among a handful of big colonial powers.

Lenin defined this stage of capitalism, in part, as the “the monopolist position of a few very rich countries, in which the accumulation of capital has reached gigantic proportions.” This gigantic accumulation of capital in the rich countries gives the ruling class greater resources to co-opt and tame the workers movement. As Lenin put it in his preface to the 1920 French and German editions of Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism:

Obviously, out of such enormous superprofits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their ‘own’ country) it is possible to bribe the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy. And that is just what the capitalists of the ‘advanced’ countries are doing: they are bribing them in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect, overt and covert … they are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class, real vehicles of reformism and chauvinism…

In the imperialist era, the ruling class in countries like Australia, France, Germany and the US, maintain the dictatorship of capital by throwing crumbs to certain sections of the working class. 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.

Importantly, this bribe is not paid evenly and certain sections of the working class 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. These points are emphasised throughout Lenin’s writings:

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… the opportunists are a section of the petty bourgeoisie and of a 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.

Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, 1916

In all the… advanced countries the bourgeoisie rob – either by colonial oppression or by financially extracting “gain” from formally independent weak countries – they rob a population many times larger than that of “their own” country. This is the economic factor that enables the imperialist bourgeoisie to obtain superprofits, part of which is used to bribe the top section of the proletariat and convert it into a reformist, opportunist petty bourgeoisie that fears revolution.

Letter to the Workers of Europe and America, 1918

Social Democracy evolved as the main political current of the labour aristocracy manifested in social democratic and labour parties working primarily in the electoral arena. Social democracy (social chauvinism) claims to work in the interests of the working class, but in fact only fights for partial reforms to the capitalist system that permanently benefit (at best) only the aristocratic minority of the working class and leaves the exploitation and powerlessness of the working class as a whole unchallenged, and thus is subject to the easy withdrawal of concessions or the intensification of exploitation.

The various forms and sizes of the bribes that flow to the aristocracy are affected by the strength of different sections of the working class and their ability to advance their demands. This process is mediated through political struggle and in particular social democratic politics.

Through political parties, representatives in the trade unions and elsewhere, 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 even avoid advocating for any serious redistribution of wealth within the capitalist system, afraid of the risk of direct confrontation with the ruling class.

The labour aristocracy accepts this political outlook most readily because it is in their interest to do so. And over an extended period, as both their economic and political privileges become embedded, complacency and political-intellectual laziness are also implanted, sometimes to cretinous levels.

As Lenin explained, these social chauvinist political currents are thereby inclined to make all kinds of promises to the working class in order to avoid an 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… [who] 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 (Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, 1916).

At the same time, because even the most privileged workers are still exploited by the capitalist class, their long-term interests are in the overthrow of capital, and so they can still be won over to that view – at least in part. It is for this reason that Lenin did not advocate abandoning political work among the labour aristocracy.

Zinoviev

In 1916, Zinoviev published The Social Roots of Opportunism, a 4-part series analysing the Social Democratic (SD) Party in Germany from a materialist perspective in order to explain why it was so prone to social opportunism (evident in their initial support for World War I) rather than revolutionary internationalism.

Zinoviev firstly points to political and organisational factors such as the suppression of more radical youth elements and the impact of the bureaucracy. Important social factors were the over-representation of the petty bourgeois (and non-workers) in the party’s membership as well as the impact of the labour aristocracy itself – which was key to Zinoviev’s analysis.

First of all, Zinoviev explains that the labour aristocracy and German imperialism are inexorably linked, noting that, “the process of the transition of the German labor aristocracy to the side of the bourgeoisie naturally did not begin yesterday. The corruption of the labor aristocracy began with the entrance of German imperialism into the world arena”.

What is critically important in this work is the way that Zinoviev puts to the test the notion that there is a convergence of interests between the working class and the national bourgeois of a country. But is it true that the success of one’s national bourgeoisie (over and above the bourgeoisie of a “competing” nation) is materially beneficial for the domestic working class? According to Zinoviev:

When the social chauvinists speak of the interests of the working class, they have in mind – often quite unconsciously – the interests of the labor aristocracy. But here too, it is not really a matter of veritable interests in the broader meaning of the word, so much as of immediate material advantages. This is absolutely not one and the same thing. Marxists have never held the view that the realisation of the interests of the workers means to fill their pockets as much as possible. From the point of view of interests, understood in the more profound sense of the term, the labor aristocracy is committing treason against itself … For, the “aristocrats of labor” remain wage slaves for all that. Temporarily they do enjoy a certain advantage, to be sure, but they undermine, thereby, their own position and violate the unity of the working class (The Social Roots of Opportunism, Part 4. 1916).

Conclusion

This talk aimed to provide the necessary theoretical background so that the first steps towards a renewed understanding of the impacts of imperialism on working class politics and consciousness in Australia can be taken. As Lenin put it in his preface to the 1920 French and German editions of Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism:

Unless the economic roots of this phenomenon are understood and its political and social significance is appreciated, not a step can be taken toward the solution of the practical problem of the communist movement and of the impending social revolution.

There has never been a victorious socialist revolution in rich countries like Australia. Despite temporary upsurges (such as in Paris in 1968), capitalism has remained unchallenged in all of the imperialist countries. Why is this the case? Why has the rule of capital been strongest in places that have benefited most from imperialism?

Although the oppression and ravages of life under capitalism are very real, the fact that most workers in Australia are vastly better off than their counterparts in the global South is undeniable.

The key question is therefore: do the higher standards of living and greater level of consumption secured through imperialist robbery in turn increase the power of capitalist hegemony inside the imperialist core?

It is important to emphasise here that the labour aristocracy theory does not claim that workers in imperialist countries, or even that section of the working class that makes up the labour aristocracy itself, ceases to have a revolutionary potential. Rather, it argues that the conditions under imperialism create specific barriers to this revolutionary potential being realised.

Therefore, in countries like Australia – which is among the richest societies on earth – mobilising workers to fight for socialism will require definite and specific tactics and strategies that take into account the real and concrete conditions of the working class in the imperialist era. The immediate task therefore is to develop this analysis in order to better understand how to further the struggle against capitalism within the rich imperialist countries.

As articulated in the writings of Lenin and Zinoviev, we should also seize every opportunity, both through political education and direct experience, to appeal to the dignity and liberation of human potential that collective struggle against exploitation, wherever it exists in the world, brings to life.

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