Skip to main content

The Labour Aristocracy Exists

This somewhat onerous post is inspired by my recent review of Sakai's Settlers.  I am just becoming more and more shocked that certain marxist academics are rejecting this concept which is core to the most significant anti-imperialist marxism.  I am well aware that some marxists tend to confuse Lenin's conceptualization of the labour aristocracy with an analysis of union bureaucratization, and so I am interested in why this confusion leads to a rejection of the initial concept.

Amongst certain "marxists" it has become popular to dispense with the theory of labour aristocracy, conceptualized by both Engels and Lenin, because it apparently cannot account for reality.  As noted in my previous post, there are academic radicals who believe––and mobilize various sophistic arguments––that there is no such thing as a labour aristocracy.  The fact that some factions of the working-class can be parasitical upon others, that workers can be bought off and accept a petty bourgeois consciousness at the expense of other workers, is more of a problem of ideology rather than concrete and material social relations.  If we are historical materialists, however, we have to ask after the origin in social and historical conditions.

The lazy dismissal of the theory of labour aristocracy is due to a rejection of Lenin's theorization of the concept.  Sometimes Lenin's theory is simply misunderstood, dismissed for the most bizarre reasons.  Sebastian Lamb, in his terrible review of Sakai's Settlers that I critiqued in the previous post, actually thinks that it has something to do with an essentialist notion of class - which is bizarre considering the very concept denies that the working class is automatically revolutionary.  Rather, its point is about consciousness and how occupying a privileged position affects class consciousness.  His other points are equally bizarre: he complains that class is too complex to figure out who counts as the labour aristocracy, and that since the Russian revolution was led by the most privileged workers the theory makes no sense.  Both of these arguments have nothing to do with the concept.  If complexity disqualified a concept then we should also stop using proletariat.  And, unless Lenin was too stupid to understand the composition of the revolution he led in Russia (as Lamb is apparently implying), we can argue that those leading the revolution in Russia were not the "labour aristocracy."  The concept has to do with imperialism, the long history of modern colonialism that includes genocide and slavery:
"And now we see that, as the result of a far-reaching colonial policy, the European proletariat has partly reached a situation where it is not its work that maintains the whole of society but that of the people of the colonies who are practically enslaved.  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 these circumstances create the material and economic basis for infecting the proletariat of one country or another with colonial chauvinism." (Lenin, from the "Thesis on the Fundamental Taks of the 2nd Congress of the Communist International")  
Nor are those who occupy the position of "labour aristocracy" automatically doomed to be petit-bourgeois lackeys of the capitalists.  Thus, "high profits from monopoly capital is the economic basis of revisionism in the labour movement" because
"The monopoly bourgeoisie plunders and exploits the proletariat of colonies, staellite countries, and their own countries to obtain large amounts of high monopoly profits.  To suppress opposition from the toiling masses, they use a small part of the huge monopoly profits to bribe a number of scabs to become agents of the monopoly bourgeoisie." (Fundamentals of Political Economy: The Shanghai Textbook, 190)
(Most amusingly, in his review of Settlers, Lamb seems to think that the possibility that the proletariat can be bribed means that the people who believe in the labour aristocracy are asserting that the working class possesses "a supposedly revolutionary class essence" from which they can deviate.  But if they can deviate from a position then it is not their essence.  If you can be bribed, and change class position, then there is nothing that makes you automatically the revolutionary class––it means that class is made and not found, a social relation.  If anything, Lamb's rejection of the labour theory of value implies an essentialism.  Indeed, most people who try to reject the labour theory of value are [and one wonders why Lamb does not know this] committed to an uninterrogated class essentialism, usually an assumption of Trotskyist theory, that the Maoist tradition has rejected time and time again.)

The usual reason why the theory of labour aristocracy is rejected, however, is because it is argued that the bourgeoisie does not share its super-profits with any group of workers.  One argument is that there is no direct evidence of these super-profits moving from the poorest workers into the hands of the wealthiest workers.  Another argument is that the exploiting class would never "share" profits with the exploited because that would violate its class consciousness.  A third, and perhaps the strongest, argument is the fact that plants are shut down and moved overseas, that the process of globalization means cheap labour elsewhere at the expense of joblessness here––this proves the antiquated nature of the labour aristocracy.

The first argument amounts to economic sophistry, similar to the rejection of the labour theory of value on the basis of the transformation problem.  Simply because there is not a one-to-one exchange of super-profits with the bourgeois and soon-to-be privileged workers is not an argument against the general theory––just as it does not threaten the labour theory of value to claim that I cannot always make sense of labour power according to the final price of the commodity.  This is economism of the crudest type: bourgeois economists also focus on narrow details, ignoring the larger social and material conditions from which these details emerge.

The second argument is patently absurd.  As a class outside of space and time the bourgeoisie may have interests against sharing any of their profits, but we know that this class has been forced––because of anti-capitalist struggle––to make numerous concessions so as to maintain capitalism.  How else could we explain the existence of eight hour days, labour laws of any type, ratified unions, and the historic compromise between labour and capital?  In fact, this compromise is only possible to understand by accepting a theory of the labour aristocracy.  In any case, the bourgeois class has conceded potential profit, trying to win it back in other ways, and would probably be unable to survive crisis after crisis if this was not the case.  Only in libertarian fantasies can the bourgeois survive as the ruling class outside of social-historical pressures.

The third argument against the existence of a labour aristocracy is the strongest.  Especially now, in the midst of another crisis, how can we say that there are privileged workers who profit from imperialism?  Even before this crisis, in order to recapture profit lost because of its compromise with labour, capitalism resorted to vicious exports of capital––down-sizing factories in the centre to open more brutal and profit-generating plants in the peripheries.  When workers become jobless and homeless in the centre, it is argued, then there is no point in speaking of a labour aristocracy.

The implication of this argument, however, is extremely problematic because, if we follow it to its ultimate conclusion, it claims that the workers in the periphery are profitting from the workers at the centre.  In other words, an inverse version of the labour aristocracy, through reductio ad absurdum, is implied.  So those who use the capitalist tactic of down-sizing as evidence against the theory of labour aristocracy are reasserting the concept, but through a distorted mirror, without realizing that they are doing so.

This argument against the labour aristocracy's existence, that sounds reasonable by itself, is actually congruent with every reactionary and racist argument historically made by the white working class in the labour movements of the imperialist centres––the ungrounded fear that Chinese workers, former slaves, immigrants in general, women, or people in foreign countries "are stealing our jobs" is a racist rallying cry within the labour movement.  It shares the same ideology as the half-baked concepts I discussed a few posts earlier (misandry, reverse-racism) where oppressors want to see themselves as victims.

If it was actually the case that the workers in the centre were being exploited more than the workers in the periphery, or at the very least being exploited equally, then we should be able to see concrete evidence.  The fact remains that the standards of living are generally far lower in the exploited peripheries than the centres.  Generally: if we compare the tiny comprador class in an underdeveloped nation to the impoverished working class in a predatory nation we could say that the former is more privileged than the latter, but that is a category mistake and not the comparison being made by the theory of labour aristocracy.  The comparison is between sectors of the working class.

Nor can we argue, due to down-sizing and globalization, that all sectors of the working class are being exploited equally together.  We do not live in the deterritorialized utopia of Hart and Negri's Empire: classes have a national dimension.  Certain portions of the profit derived from imperialist exploitation is invested in national infrastructures, and not the infrastructures of the peripheral nations, that contribute to a difference in the general standard of living between exploiting and exploited nations.  Again I emphasize general because I know that there are exceptions.  But scientific analysis is only scientific if it can comprehend the general logic and not become side-tracked by exceptions; the best scientific theories are able to account for exceptions in reference to general theory.

Due to the current economic crisis we can also say that the labour aristocracy is in crisis.  Now that more and more workers in the capitalist nations are beginning to experience the reality of their counterparts in other parts of the world––and the social securities established because of expansionist profit recuperation are under assault––the contradictions of capitalism are becoming less muted in the imperialist nations than they were before.  At the same time, however, the standard of living in the periphery is also dropping: globally speaking, the crisis has not resulted in a situation where every worker is being exploited equally.  There are even wars and massacres, launched by the imperialist nations, and cheered on by reactionary workers who wish to recover from their crisis: the labour aristocracy wants to remain the labour aristocracy.  These imperialist ventures mean jobs and a maintenance of a certain standard of living for various sectors of the global working-class.  This is the labour aristocracy.

The theory is not disproved by the fact that there are groups of workers living in the centres of capitalism who experience a similar standard of living to their peripheral counterparts.  Reality is complex but the existence of complexity, as I have mentioned above, does not mean we should never establish scientific categories.  There are fragments of the periphery in the central nations, and J. Sakai's importing of the concept of the labour aristocracy to explain the development of the white working class was an attempt to understand this fact.

The history of the development of the labour aristocracy, in all its manifestations, is the only thing that can, in the last instance, properly account for the patriotism, pro-capitalism, pro-military ideologies that infect the working class mainstream of North America.  The fear of migrant labour, of poor nations "stealing our jobs", and the love of a national myth (whether a social democratic or conservative version) can only be explained by the existence of a labour aristocracy and the material conditions of colonialism, slaver, and imperialism through which this aristocracy grew to senility.  These ideologies did not pop out of thin air.  Nor are they just invented one day by a group of bourgeoisie who all collaborated, behind some ruling class veil of ignorance, to spread harmful ideas amongst the working class.


  1. Great post and analysis. I also enjoyed the previous post as well (and I read McCreary's review and it is clear that whenever someone's only critique of something is that 'the world is more complex' - as McCreary repeats ad nauseum - then it is simply masking the lack of any substantive argument by using the academic trump card - insofar as we like to say these days that everything is more complex than we could possibly put into thought)

    Anyway, I think your last paragraph is crucial - that we are able to think the ideologies of patriotism, etc., as being materially based on a position of privilege with regard to the labour aristocracy. Do you know of any works that draw this out? For, the vast quantities of work done that I know of on the relation between capitalism and these types of (proto-fascist, often) ideologies seem to neglect this point (I'm probably thinking of too narrow of a context of theorizing fascism by means of a merger between psychoanalysis and marxism).

    Also, it seems that you pinpoint the origin and condition of the labour aristocracy as the functioning "to suppress opposition from the toiling masses". I suppose then we would have to trace the differential history in which this type of bribe is necessary in certain contexts (for the proletariat of the metropole/center) but not in others, where outright force is used.

    In our current context, is all other means of suppressing opposition (in the center) doomed to fail (such as hegemonic ideology, culture industry, etc...)? I am guessing you would reverse the relation, seeing the labour aristocracy as the material condition of these forms of hegemonic thought/ideology/culture industry taking hold in the proletariat of the center (of the proletariat assenting to these ideologies).

    And what do you make of the increasing loss of standards of living in the center? Is it enough that our standards of living are still differentially better than that of the periphery? Is there a point in which it will be not enough to warrant passivity? (I am not expecting predictions on your part!, these are just some questions on my mind).


  2. Hey Amrit, thanks for the generous and thoughtful response. As for knowing any works that draw out what I highlighted, at the end, in regards to the theory of labour aristocracy, obviously Sakai's Settlers: which was the motivation behind this entry following the previous entry. For the global labour aristocracy there is Lenin and Mao, obviously, but there is also contemporary work that does look at the development of privileged difference. Amin [you knew I would say that] and Abdel-Malek spring to mind.

    I don't know if I exactly see the labour aristocracy as the material condition of hegemonic ideology and the culture industry. It's a consciousness that results from a material condition, which of course allows the easy acceptance of ruling class "common sense". The same material conditions (the long history of colonialism, imperialism, etc. that developed ideologies and the emergence of this sector of the working class) are behind the ideologies you point out, but it requires a certain sort of consciousness to readily accept these ideologies. Why would sectors the working class want to be "against its own interests" by acting in a racist manner, for example? Well because maybe, as those of us who believe in Lenin's concept of labour aristocracy, there are reasons why they think that racism (or other actions) are NOT against their own interests. There are reasons why they readily accept, historically and in certain instances, these ideologies. That reason has to come from their material conditions as well; it can't just drop from the sky or be some sort of game option

    And I think the culture industry [as I indicated near the end] is a sort of correlated condition that permits the labour aristocracy to flourish. The rise of the culture industry at the centre, as our good friend Sarah H.'s work points out, was only possible because of imperialism and is connected to the "buying out" of the centre nations' working class - hence the labour aristocracy. Maybe we can see the Culture Industry, metaphorically speaking, as the court of the L.A.

    Yeah, the increasing loss of standards of living are, as I indicated briefly above, indications that the labour aristocracy is in crisis. But so are sectors of the ruling class: we saw elements of the bourgeois already turn upon other elements (the scape-goating of the "bad" capitalists, the speculators). The labour aristocracy consciousness still exists, however: just because it's in crisis doesn't mean it will go away (capitalism is in crisis and it's not gone yet!) - there may be, just like in other classes, a shifting of the ranks.

  3. The sharing of value back to the white working class happens through whiteness. That is, the privileges associated with whiteness, such as better housing, access to schooling, some social mobility, less exposure to policing and the prison system, and others. The purpose of this is obvious: to divide the working class that, before the invention of whiteness, was quite troublesome for the ruling class. Of course, it's not just a top-down game; the working class has fought to expand and defend whiteness at various times as part of a conscious (though misguided if the goal is revolution) strategy. I see it now in the Southwest where I live, for instance.

    That this division is real and significant is born out in the incarceration rates and net worths of whites v. blacks, to cite just two metrics of many that could be pointed out. This fact turns the white working class against the elements within it that are not considered white (a definition which varies over time). Likewise, the settler system that distributed land early on based on whiteness has remained a store of value for many whites that they were able to draw on. Etc, etc.

    Thus, the white working class' default class position is the defense of whiteness over the rest of the class. I'm no Maoist but I will suggest to you that there are various currents within anarchism that have investigated these ideas for quite some time. My own collective (anarchist) organizes with these ideas in mind at all times. We don't use the term "labor aristocracy", though. We just tend to refer to it as whiteness and the system of white supremacy. Some say "white privilege" but I think the dialog on "privilege" is often too problematic to be useful.

  4. Indeed... I am quite familiar with the anarchist tradition having come from an anarchist background myself. There are various articulations and conceptualizations of what Lenin [and then Mao] termed "labour aristocracy." But before the modern anarchist tradition that took colonialism, imperialism, etc. into account, the classical communist (and especially post-Lenin third world communist) tradition were doing this when anarchism was still a predominantly euro-affair. And from this tradition Fanon, Babu, Abdel-Malek, and Amin eventually emerged. Nor would I suggest that your analysis above is wrong, it's just that it's not exactly what I was trying to discuss in the blog - but that's the problem with blog posts, no?

    The reason it's used to explain a certain sector [or sectors] of the working classes "default" position is mainly to shed light on the epistemic dimension of ideology. It's not the same as white supremacy, or any other ruling class ideology, but the epistemological reason why the working class at the centres of capitalism (and very specifically the white working class in a racist/colonial society) are disposed, on a class consciousness level, to accept these ideologies so easily. It's also a way to describe what their interests as a class are: not in world revolution, obviously. (I think I kind of extrapolated on this in my reply to Amrit's comment above on this issue.)

    Also I think Sakai's point in Settlers is correct: the white working class was already racist when it emerged in North America, automatically became a labour aristocracy, due to the material fact of colonialism (including slavery and genocide). Here is follows Fanon's insight that every colonial country is essentially a racist country - racism being a consequence of colonialism and then becoming causal.

    Mainly, though, this post was more of a blog-grumpy response to something that came out of my post on Settlers.

  5. Sure, there are various currents that speak about this idea. The point wasn't to reference anarchism to claim the idea, but to point out that it has found resonance and application in some anarchist circles. However, I dispute the idea that reactionary whiteness was the necessary outcome. I think historians like Linebaugh, Rediker and Theodore Allen, to name a few, show a different trajectory was possible, which is what proved the necessary condition for the invention of whiteness. Or, more specifically, for its imposition in the Americas. That is, without it, displaced and recently working class English, Irish mixed and organized with Africans and Indigenous peoples in ways that were quite dangerous for the ruling class. Hence the legal imposition of whiteness.

    What followed was not an inevitable march towards what we now consider whiteness (one that includes many previously excluded -- even those it was once framed against, the Irish famously). Instead it was quite a contentious process, with the ruling class as well pushing back at times to keep it a more exclusive club than it is now.

    I could go on but I think you probably get the gist of what I'm saying here. What you do with this information as a revolutionary is another question. I have my ideas and I'm sure you have some or are developing them.

  6. Thanks for this... My intent wasn't about who gets to claim an idea, but that the same ideas find resonance, as you say, in multiple traditions and with multiple names. And maybe there's importance in the multiplicity: I'm definitely not someone, despite my marxist-leninist-maoist commitments to dismiss the parallel and often intersecting tradition(s) of anarchism.

    I agree that the inevitable march towards whiteness was not inevitable, and didn't mean to suggest otherwise. Things should be understood only as "inevitable" in retrospect - possible world scenarios are interesting and do, as you suggest, explain other possibilities of organization that are historically important, but we live in this world. Sakai's analysis does a very good historical job of showing how the white working-class that developed in North America did so on a predatory basis and with, as a whole (and despite those moments of possible solidarity), a counter-revolutionary consciousness. His analysis of the IWW is very good in this respect. He wanted to understand why this was, however, which was the motivation behind Settlers, his theorization of "settlerism", and his examination of the invention of whiteness in that context.

    On the whole, however, this post was meant to examine the global concept of the labour aristocracy - Sakai's rearticulation/retooling of the theory is important but, generally, it is meant to explain why the working classes of the periphery are generally more revolutionary than their counterparts in the centre.

    (On another note, I recently jumped over to your blog... Mind if I add it to my blogroll?)

  7. Sakai's positions resonates with me because he is a skilled worker who experience similar situations as I did in the plants. I think experience makes for great research and theoretical development.

    As a former unionized worker I saw (see) the reality of the labour aristocracy daily. Some examples included:

    1) little or no sympathy for, solidarity with or willingness to organize workers (on an equal footing anyway) outside of the bargaining unit.

    2) the taking on of philantrophic projects (e.g. united way) to be seen as "great givers"...a petit bourgeois practice if there ever was one.

    3) when times got really tough (plant closures, layoffs) making appeals to the community to justify demands for public funds being injected into corporate enterprises to protect their privileged jobs. These appeals generally included stats on how one of "our" jobs created 7 of "your jobs" (when, in actuality, most of my unionized co-workers didn't give a lick of spit about anyones else's ability to make a living and were very vocal about it, they wanted the money for the company because they felt entitled to it).

    4) "Buy Domestic" campaigns which failed to recognize the nature of capitalist ownership of the means of production, the difference in the class interests between the company and the workers---in fact, constant references about the need for "co-operation" and "realistic thinking" were made by the union (and wholeheartly gobbled up by the majority of the membership)in order to pave the way for concessions (on the workplace and community level). Meanwhile, the "Harley Set", as we "radicals" used to call them, drove around on their hogs (made in China no doubt) with "Buy Domestic" shirts on on their way to Sunday double time shifts while others were laid off. This practice was especially prevalent among the aristocracy within the aristocracy (if you will) that was the majority of the steward body and appointed reps.

    5) "Naturally", following on point 4, the constant references to Chinese workers "stealing our jobs", "Jap Scrap", and various campaigns involving singling out owners of "foreign" vehicles---I'm sure you've guessed by now, I was an autoworker---through published photographs in union literature and exclusionary parking practices on union property. This last was especially stupid, as an increasing number of (less privileged) autoworkers were making parts for these "foreign" interlopers, but, then again follows neatly on point 1.

    6) While constantly making anti-war statememts (on the leadership level at least), never once proposing stopping production in protest and in direct contradiction, courting pro-imperialist bourgeois politicians (see: Paul Martin getting a CAW jacket at joint council and glossy pamphlets featuring Buzz with Susan Whelan stating "if I lived in your riding, I'd vote Liberal"). One can see how the just mentioned rubbish falls in nicely with the earlier mentioned bailout pan-handling.

    7) the conscious practice of co-opting or ostricizing activist who may be a threat to any of the above.

    8) the creation of Caucuses which served mainly to segregrate people of colour (or any other non-white/ non-hetero persuasion) and allow oportunists of colour (see: reactionaries of colour) to take representative positions and "speak" for the rest of us.

    None of the above is meant to say that the labour aristocracy is only comprised of unionized workers. It's to say that this has been (some of) my experience of a particular segment of said aristocracy.

    Jesus, JMP, you really poked a stick in my hornet's nest with these last couple of posts.


  8. Good points, RRH. In my local a lot of effort was made to reject a top-down bureaucratic-rightist model and build, through by-laws and practice, a grass-roots, GMM-directed, participatory method of social unionism. It did succeed for a while (much to the consternation of our reps at the provincial and national levels), but it did not eradicate the remnants of labour aristocracy consciousness that were mingling with our limited trade union consciousness. The fact that we were also unionized education workers also contributed to an underlying sense of privilege, entitlement, and a "we're not workers" attitude. All of which had its revenge during our last strike. Now we're under administration and the membership is going back to the way it was decades ago.

  9. I want to second the above comment about whiteness as the "wages" being paid. But I think we have to be critical of narrowly focusing on the labor aristocracy (in either the trade union bureaucrats or bribed white workers versions).

    That said, I haven't yet read Settlers and plan to grapple with it more deeply in the coming weeks when the copy arrives.

    JMP have you read A House Divided: labor and White Supremacy that the Proletarian Unity League put out back in the 1981?

    My sense is that the above description of the labor aristocracy is basically an articulation of the line they summed us as "left economism," not to label ideas for the pure reason of calling them wrong - more to reference what I found to be a pretty good job on PUL's end of calling out the weaknesses in the line I think I understand you to be arguing in the post above.

    If you haven't seen the original and finding a copy proves difficult, the second half of Chapter 10 of FRSO/OSCL's The Cost of Privilege does an OK job of summing up many of A House Divided's arguments (in so much as 11 pages can sum up a 170 page book).

    A lot of the theory being developed in both tCoP and AHD starts from the work Ted Allen and company started with The Invention of the White Race (not surprising given the Harpers Ferry Organization's line of march).

  10. No, I haven't read A House Divided, though I am familiar with PUL (and have problems with the analysis that emerged out of PUL and a lot of other American marxist orgs), and I have heard the "left economism" charge before - which I don't think sticks, or is even "economism" properly understood. Of course, since I haven't read A House Divided maybe the charge is somewhat different.

    Still: generally speaking, this entry lacks a certain level of depth and rigor. It was more of a response to the off-handed rejection of Lenin's theory of the labour aristocracy. I think I also and unintentionally conflated (since this was posted right after the Settlers review) the larger theoretical concept of the labour aristocracy (that emerged in the 2nd Congress of the 3rd International) with Sakai's rearticulation. They both share the core concept, but they're used to explain different things.

    In the end, though, I do think a notion of labour aristocracy is useful to explain the epistemic dimension of factions of privileged workers. It's only a form of economism if it's used deterministically.

    Will check out the link you provided.


Post a Comment