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Review: Zak Cope's "Divided World Divided Class"

[I promised this review when I promoted the Kalikot Book Series several posts back.  Since I had the privilege of doing some copy-editing for this book , I'd already read the book thoroughly enough to write a review.  Even still, I wanted to wait for a print copy to arrive so that I could cite properly and not have to review the electronic "track changes" file that is still on my computer.  (Also, I would be able to see, with horror, the typos I missed and thus have more reason to be annoyed with myself.)  The book arrived just before the baby, so the review has been in limbo until now.  Thankfully, some people have been promoted it (like the excellent Speed of Dreams' recent promotion, for example) so hopefully word will get around that this book is worth buying––as I plan to convince you in the following review!]

These days, at the centres of capitalism, it is en vogue for leftists to attack Lenin's theory of the labour aristocracy.  Some marxist critics, feeling like they know better than the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, would like to remind us that Lenin's theorization of a term bandied about by Engels showed no understanding of what Engels meant in the first place––indeed, the same critics said much the same about Lenin's theorization of the dictatorship of the proletariat.  Others would just have us believe that this theory is utterly erroneous and that Lenin, regardless of his influence, was wrong when it came to labour aristocracies, super-profits, and maybe even imperialism.  These denials, usually vocalized by a privileged group of leftist academics at the centres of capitalism, are either rhetorical or a grand act of obfuscatory sophistry but still part of the zeitgeist at the imperialist centres. Where the rest of the marxist movement still believes in the theory, though perhaps in various ways, a bunch of privileged marxist "experts" in the so-called first world would have us believe otherwise.  Do these experts protest too much?  Maybe… Social circumstances are always enlightening: the difference in analysis between marxists at the centres and marxists at the peripheries might be just as important as the difference in analysis between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat––but I digress.

In any case, since asinine attacks on the theory of the labour aristocracy are now common amongst a sector of leftists who live in the centres of imperialism, it is about time that someone like Zak Cope wrote Divided World Divided Class, a book which re-theorizes Lenin's notion of the labour aristocracy from a thorough political economic perspective.  Indeed, Cope's book is the antidote to Charlie Post's somewhat recent bullshit and unscientific attacks on the theory.  The fact that Cope doesn't cite Post is only proof that a rugged political economist like Cope doesn't take the rhetoric of Post, which demonstrates no political economic awareness and is little more than a hatchet job filled with straw-person and red herring fallacies, very seriously.  Cope, after all, not only spends hundreds of pages tracing the historical emergence and meaning of the labour aristocracy, but he also expends appendices of economic data that thoroughly demonstrates the point.  Best to be scientific when you have to deal with rhetoricians who live at the centres of capitalism and don't want to admit that they're part of a movement that might be affected by imperialism!

Before writing some asinine comment about how you reject the theory of the labour aristocracy and thus don't like Cope's book, do yourself a favour and buy the book now so at least whatever critique you plan to level is not some straw-person and ill informed complaint, as is typical for so many of us internet leftists!

Cope really does provide the first full-fledged political economy of the labour aristocracy.  Amin has talked around this issue, especially in the re-issue of The Law of Worldwide Value, but even that wasn't about the labour aristocracy per se.  To date, there has not been a single and thorough book of political economy dedicated to the general theory's efficacy––not from those who support the theory, not from its detractors––and so Divided World Divided Class is an extremely important book.  If anything, it should reignite a debate that some leftists at the centres of global capitalism, terrified at being classified as ideologues of a labour aristocracy, have been hoping to avoid.

Due to this fact, Cope's Divide World Divided Class is monumental: it is a fully unified work of political economy about the theory of the labour aristocracy that synthesizes all of the analyses, along with quantitative data, in one book.  It proves without a doubt that there is such a thing as a labour aristocracy, that the working class movements at the centres of capitalism benefits from this labour aristocracy, and that all talk of its non-existence is little more than banal sophistry, an act of extreme denial.

Unfortunately, in its effort to prove the existence and persistence of a labour aristocracy, Cope lapses into an undialectical and unnuanced understanding of qualitative phenomena.  Absorbed in the positivism of political economy, he overlooks the necessity to grasp the theory of the labour aristocracy according to the scientific method of historical materialism––that is, like so many political economists, he is not a very good dialectical materialist.

Here, it is important to return to Lenin's approach to the theory.  Lenin might not have been a positivist political economist, but he was a dialectical materialist interested in making sense of his global conjuncture.  And when Lenin spoke of a labour aristocracy and imperialism he was indicating two interrelated facts: i) because of imperialism and the fact that the working-class movements at the centre were bribed by "super-profits"––that their material interests might not necessarily be invested in proletarian revolution––revolution was more likely to happen (and it did happen) at the "weakest links" of global capitalism; ii) because of the higher level of economic development, based of course on imperialist exploitation, at the "developed" centres of capitalism, revolutions at the peripheries could only sustain themselves if revolutions also happened at the centres.

But Cope, perhaps following the erroneous line of third world marxism, seems to assert that it is impossible for revolutionary movements to develop at the imperialist centres because, positivistically following the data of his analysis, he does not appear to believe that there can be revolutionary movements in the global metropoles.  For in these spaces, according to Cope, the working-class is so thoroughly bought out and invested in imperialism that there can be no proletarian movement.  Nor does he seem to care about a praxis that anticipates capitalist crises at the global centres––those moments where even the general labour aristocracy is reproletarianized––so he doesn't appear to care about a praxis at the global centres that would build the subjective forces capable of dealing with objective circumstances.  Indeed, his comments about praxis seem to indicate the third world surrounding the first world in a global peoples war solution, simplistically tendered by third worldist "maoism", though he doesn't precisely make this claim.  In two words: revolutionary abdication.

As mentioned in an earlier post, this kind of "third worldism" represents the very chauvinism it claims to reject.  To accept that there is no point in making revolution at the centres of capitalism, and thus to wait for the peripheries to make revolution for all of us, is to abdicate revolutionary responsibility––it is to demand that people living in the most exploited social contexts (as Cope's theory proves) should do the revolutionary work for the rest of us.  Even worse are the "third worldists" (and Cope is not one of these) who think they can theorize this revolution even though they benefit from first world privilege, who malign these "third worldist revolutions" for not following their theoretical line, and thus foster a division between theory and revolution: the third world will make revolution, the first world dedicants of third world revolution will provide the proper theory of this revolution––the mental and manual division of labour is thus reproduced.  And Cope, where he attempts to indicate praxis without demonstrating that he is practically involved with any significant political project (a general problem with first worldism which has always ended up promoting political abdication), justifies this banal third worldist end game.  Indeed, while the labour aristocracy is predominant a the centres of capitalism, this does not meant that possible revolutionaries at the centre have no other duty but to wait for third world movements to do the revolutionary work for them; nor does it mean that this labour aristocracy should not be understood contextually, that it does not articulate itself in very particular ways with its own gaps and fissures…

And yet these are only tangental problems, a product of Cope's positivism that is no less positivist than every modern political economy, and it is still clear that he has proved the existence of a labour aristocracy despite the angry mutterings of any "first world" polemicist who would think otherwise.  If the rest of the political economy universe, marxist or not, is going to play a positivist game, then you might as well do the same.  (Indeed, the only political economist I have ever encountered who has been able to escape this positivist game and practice dialectics is Samir Amin… and, by the way, he also believe in the theory of labour aristocracy!)  The problem, though, is it okay to be a positivist that rejects the very existence of a labour aristocracy and celebrates so-called "first worldism" while, at the same time, it is not okay to elevate "third worldism" by the same positivist logic.  Eurocentrist political economy, after all, is contingent on a lot of unquestioned assumptions; its third worldist counterpart, even if it is just as thorough (if not more so) in its research, is less acceptable.

In any case, Cope is extremely thorough in proving the existence of the labour aristocracy, the privilege of workers at the global centres due to the exploitation of workers at the global peripheries, and even more thorough in explaining why phenomena such as racism is a product of the material fact of imperialism rather than, as I have also complained, "simply presumed to conflict with the real interests of all workers and, thereby, to be a set of ideas disconnected from material circumstances." (p. 4)  He is able to cover a lot of territory, and provide a lot of data––so much so that if anyone reads this book and continues to lapse back on opportunistic rejections of the theory of the labour aristocracy I would bet tempted to suspect that they are living in racist denial.

But where Cope really shines, and what makes me hope that he will write another book dedicated only to this issue, is in his analysis of fascism.  This is only a side-point of his book, something that appears at the end, but it might even be more monumental than the fact that he has economically theorized the labour aristocracy.  Indeed, the fact that he uses the theory of the labour aristocracy to make sense of the emergence of fascism in Germany, and then draw out a theory of fascism from this analysis in order to chart the rise of modern fascism,  is extremely intriguing; it needs to be a book in itself.

Trotskyists have badly theorized fascism as a petty-bourgeois phenomenon.  Maoists have more correctly made sense of it as a monolothic capitalism.  But Cope knits these analyses together through the theory of the labour aristocracy:
"Fascism is the attempt by the imperialist bourgeoisie to solidify its rule on the basis of popular middle-class support for counter-revolutionary dictatorship.  Ideologically fascism is the relative admixture of authoritarianism, racism, militarism and pseudo-socialism necessary to make this bid successful. […] Finally social-fascism offers higher wages and living standards to the national workforce at the expense of foreign and colonized workers.  As such, denunciations of "unproductive" and "usurer's" capital, of "bourgeois" nations (that is, the dominant imperialist nations) and of the workers' betrayal of reformist "socialism" are part and parcel of the fascist appeal." (p. 294) 
As regular blog commentator "jordachev" indicated in a comment on another string which ended up being about a discussion of the rise of fascism, there have been other marxist theorist who have noted that the Nazis were "actually able to appeal to a lot of what some would call the 'labour aristocracy', e.g. the highly skilled professionals, clerks, etc."  Cope synthesizes these analyses of the rise of national socialism, binding them to a more thorough theory of the labour aristocracy and fascism:
"First World socialists (whether communists, social democrat or anarchist) tacitly accept that domestic taxation affords the welfare state benefits of the imperialist countries without examining whose labour pays for the taxable income in the first place. By singling out ultra-rich elites as the source of society's problems and tailoring its message to the middle class and labour aristocracy, First World socialism becomes First Worldist left populism.  The latter is distinguishable from its right-wing variant only by its less openly racist appeal and its greater approval of public spending. […] As capitalism makes a transition from a social democratic welfare state to a corporate security state, it finds itself confronted with the need to dispense with the formal laws and political processes of bourgeois democracy.  Typically, the labour aristocracy… provides a patina of democratic legitimacy via elections and union organizing to the increasingly repressive police bulwarks of monopoly capitalism. It enables fascism by neglecting to challenge imperialism as the source of its relative prosperity and even its basic needs for health and shelter." (p. 296-297)
 While it is true that there are communists and communist organizations in the first world who do not "tacitly accept" welfare state discourse––and who definitely base a praxis round how social democracy at the global centres is only possible because of the greater exploitation of the peripheries––Cope is right in noting that it is the general state of affairs.  Indeed, most revolutionary communist organizations at the centres of capitalism (which are usually not part of the "mainstream left" in these contexts) have had to fight against a general opportunism and economism––finding ways to openly break with this ideology much to the distress of the surrounding left––in order to even begin organizing.  Moreover, the above quotation is extremely relevant in light of the recent #occupy furor that has now evaporated despite all the proclamations to the contrary: this movement did single out the "ultra-rich elites as the source of society's problems" (the so-called 1%) and tailored "its message to the middle class and labour aristocracy."  So Cope is even charting these confused attempts to resist capitalism's current crisis at the centre––which are often still square within petty-bourgeois territory and sometimes little more than evidence of a struggle to reclaim what the labour aristocracy might be losing––into the possibility of an emerging fascism… But this is only how the book ends, where he takes the theory of the labour aristocracy, and it is intriguing and important enough to demand a sequel.

All of this is to say that if you're a marxist political economist who is also an anti-imperialist, you should get your hands on Cope's Divided World Divided Class.  (Go buy it.  Now.  Here: I'll even give you the link again!)  I know that I will probably be going back to it, again and again, as a reference for my ongoing academic work.


  1. Thanks for the plug - "Jordachev" - This aspect (incipient fascism) of the book really intrigues me. I am counting the days until my copy arrives. To add to what I had said before...this is something that people don't want to "get" about the Nazis, and I've mentioned many times, Finkelstien did a lot of damage with his critique of Goldhagen. Indeed, Goldhagen was using the point I made in a twisted sense by connecting it with a justification for Zionism, but Finkelstien snapped the stick (and of late has become somewhat of an anti-BDS crank) - but I digress. Fascism, frankly, - particularly in its Italian variety (remember that they called themselves "national syndicalists") was able to draw from the ranks of the Ultra-Left. There is a lot of concrete connection between the non-clerical varieties of fascism and the European non-communist worker's movement that a lot of the Left would prefer to forget.

    With that said..As someone who finds myself often aligned with Post - in particular his longtime work in the labour movement with Solidarity and Labour Notes(after he got his PhD from what I understand, he spent a long time as an organizer in the predominantly low income public and service sectors - took I believe a 20 year break as purely an organizer), ...Frankly I think this blog is above merely writing off his work as "bullshit". Myself, I'm an admirer more of his work on the transition to capitalism in the U.S., and have no issue with the theory of Labour Aristocracy as you use it. But all too often, as you point out in the review, it can be - often is - linked with "Revolutionary Abdication." I believe that the reason that Charlie Post, Mandel etc. theorized a critique of Labour Aristocracy - whatever you make of the critique - was precisely this point. I don't think Post would deny that high income workes in heavy industry, for example, or the Military Industrial Complex, etc. - are beneficiaries of imperialism. I believe the purpose of his intervention (which is still contentious) was that such a theory, in the early seventies, was politically debilitating. Perhaps he is wrong. But there is a motivation behind this "bullshit".

    I don't think this section from the conclusion of Post's piece (from the second part which his critics often don't read) - is not all contradictory with the perspective that you are putting forward in the above review: (in next comment)

  2. Post:
    It appears possible for the stronger sections of the working class to defend their positions by organizing on the basis of already existing ties against weaker, less-organized sections. They can take advantage of their positions as Americans over and against foreigners, as whites over and against blacks, as men over and against women, as employed over and against unemployed, etc. In so doing, working people may act initially only out of what they perceive to be their most immediate self-interest. But over time they inevitably feel the pressure to make sense of these actions and they adopt ideas which can make their actions reasonable and coherent. These ideas are, of course, the ideas of the right.(12)

    Bruce Nelson's recent study of steelworkers details how relatively white workers in the steel industry struggled to defend their privileged access to better paying and relatively more skilled work after the establishment of industrial unionism. The rise of the CIO opened the possibility of classwide organization that began to reduce the racial/national segmentation of the working class.

    As the CIO offensive ground to passed its peak by the late 1930s, and the industrial unions became bureaucratized during the second world war, white workers increasingly moved to defend their privileged access to employment (and with it housing, education for their children, etc.) against workers of color. In the steel industries, white workers militantly defended departmental seniority in promotion and layoffs against demands of Black and Latino workers for plant wide seniority and affirmative action in promotions in the 1960s and 1970s.(13)

    As Marxists, we understand that such strategies are counter-productive in the medium to long term. Divisions among workers and reliance on different segments of the capitalist class only undermine the ability of workers to defend or improve their conditions of life under capitalism.(14) However, when reformism proves incapable of realistically defending workers' interests - as it has since the early 1970s - workers embrace individualist and sectoralist perspectives as the only realistic strategy.

    This is particularly the case in the absence of a substantial and influential militant minority in the working class that can organize collective resistance to capital independently of, and often in opposition to the reformist labor officials.(15)

    So in closing, perhaps you're right that the casual dismissal of the theory of Labour Aristocracy is a result of our first world (and other forms of) privilege. I'm certainly guilty of that and have been trying to take a step back lately in understanding what informs my politics. But in how you describe the theory of Labour Aristocracy, it doesn't seem like Post is rejecting it at all - just the phrase.

    1. First of all I'll get the Post comment out of the way: the reason I said it was "bullshit" is because it has been treated as such by revolutionary communists the world over and has been treated as paradigmatic as a "protesting too much" example of rejections of the theory of the labour aristocracy from people who benefit from said labour aristocracy. To be fair, it's been a while since I read it, but I do recall it being a very weak analysis of the theory where it reads a specific version of it without even seeming to understand what Lenin meant. Even worse is the fact that it is used as a foundational document for marxists at the centre who benefit from the labour aristocracy, and who do spend their time doing precisely what Lenin was critiquing, to dismiss the grounds of their privilege. Whatever the case, I do think that some things by Post are worth reading and I'm willing to take a look at his analysis of the labour aristocracy a second time. But hey, this blog is above nothing and will stoop to the nadir of polemical dismissal! Anyhow, your points here are fair...

      So perhaps you're right about Post's analysis if the second part does lead to the positions you've described: I don't think it's worthwhile to dismiss the terminology and turn it into a semantic quibble, though, since the terminology does have a theoretical history. By the same token, we could dismiss the terminology of "proletariat" and "bourgeoisie" since, as some have complained, they do not communicate to the realities of contemporary capitalism; I think, however, that a terminology that has a history is worth defending.

      Now for your initial points about the book's analysis of fascism. Yes, as I think I've said to you before, as much as I think Finkelstein has done good work, and as much as *Hitler's Willing Executioners* had a problematic dimension (as you have aptly pointed out), he was definitely wrong in his analysis of the way fascism was perceived amongst a large segment of the German middle- and working-class population. This is not to say, as Goldhagen seems to imply, that there is some sort of essential anti-semitism to German culture [this is clearly culturalism and not historical materialism] but to say precisely what we say about racism here in North America: there are material facts that produce a willful racism amongst populations. This is why trying to make sense of the fascist phenomena through the lens of the theory of the labour aristocracy is intriguing... Also intriguing is the fact that Cope applies it to the rise of contemporary fascist currents.

  3. Much to unite with here, but I will have to read the book closely.

    I fully agree that the issue at hand, theoretically, is the problem on either side of the divide on labor aristocracy to apply historical materialism correctly, and assume on the one side a metaphysical denial of the effect of labor aristocracy under imperialist conditions, and on the other side an idealist positivism (and in fact, metaphysical nationalism) that dictates political immobility.

    Rather than seeking to draw truth from history, these views seek to validate politico-ideological assumptions, again on the one side the vulgar Marxiod proposition that the global nature of capitalism means nations lack a material basis, and on the other the vulgar revisionist proposition that the nations become revolutionary subjects in themselves.

    Thus, we still seek that synthesis - which we intuit but have not scientifically shown: that the existence of the labor aristocracy is both a fact, and that while this does affect the political outlook of the labor aristocracy all it does is present different tasks for revolutionaries, not determine - in a positivist fashion - that the entirety of the labor aristocracy is bankrupt and reactionary.

    1. Agreed... I'm working on a book (that will hopefully one day be published) of philosophical interventions into key marxist debates. One chapter is on the labour aristocracy and discusses this synthesis––hopefully it will do so in a properly dialectical manner. At the same time, Cope's book is important because, regardless of the tangental points about praxis, it is necessary to show that there is such a thing as a labour aristocracy vis-a-vis imperialism according to the dictates of political economy in order to even discuss the nuances of the context. Thus, it will be a necessary resource for a lot of anti-imperialist theory.

  4. That is my point. The issue gets caught up in a battle of positivity interpretations of empirical data. And those who accept the critique are no more automatically aligned with upper echelons of organized labour anymore than those who still make use of the concept of revolutionary abdication. Indeed people with a background of putting out the troublemakers handbook are hardly shills for pork chopper labour aristocrats!

  5. FYI - my copy arrived Kersplebedeb yesterday, and it is a real page turner - read most of it last night....I have quite a bit to say about it and may try and review it myself. What I can say preliminarily is that
    A) The pessimism about first world radical/revolutionary activity doesn't seem as pronounced as you describe it, surprisingly enough.
    B) The Political Economy/econometrics he uses are flawed and positivst (as you also point out) as if he's trying to find data that fits his theory. Of course this is common for political economists - but as you say, this is an undialectical way of understanding the social property relations of capitalism. By using statistics from official and semi-official sources, he (seems) to have a Smithian understanding of capital as something essentially finite and quantifiable which leads him to his conclusion of a "global levelling down". This is to ignore that - to quote Vol 3 of Capital, capital turns every wall into a barrier and leaps over that barrier, and also from Theories of Surplus Value, "there is no permanent crisis". Political Economists of all stripe (and as you say, excluding Amin, among a few others- Anwar Shaikh, Guilermmo Charchedi who Cope uses well, others) often fall into this "Grundrisse Face" political economy without taking into account that a dialectical approach to PE is not PE as such but a "critique of political economy". All of this is to say is that I don't find the book to even come close to a "positive" proof that there is a labour aristocracy, in terms of quantifiable metrics - since he uses one sided metrics in the first place. His case would be stronger if it was less political econometric and more around the political economy of race, class and naiton.
    C) Some of his positions are quite sober and well reasoned, but he seems to have a penchant for contradicting himsefl even within a series of pages - e.g. the section on the Wobblies uses a quote taken out of context - the full quote is anti-racist but the quote makes it seem like he's saying the only reason the Wobblies organized POC is to avoid scabbing. In turn, where does he get that the wobblies didn't oppose WW1? There are a lot of uncited assertions and facts presented as opinions.
    D) The insights, however, about race, nation, class - and fascism - make the book a mustread.

  6. Matthijs Krul has written another review of 'Divided World, Divided Class' that among other things elaborates on nazi germany and the relation between social democracy and fascism


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