Labour aristocracy: reply to Ben

Tom O'Lincoln suarsos at alphalink.com.au
Wed Feb 5 18:43:58 MST 2003


Ben, I accept that you’ve attempted  to address my questions. I found the
replies confused, but perhaps others will find them convincing. Some
respones:

>>The post where I replied to the first question indicated that workers in
the first world are better off because they benefit from being in the
"metropole" or whatever term you prefer, where labour is more productive,
unemployment is lower, etc<<

This is undoubtedly true. And I benefit from being in Australia, where
living standards are higher than in Britain, and I benefit from being in
Melbourne rather than country Victoria. This has nothing to do with Lenin’s
theory of the labour aristocracy. Once again, here is what Lenin said:

"Obviously, out of such enormous super-profits (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 their labour leaders and an
upper stratum of the labour 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.

>>How the labour aristocracy relates to opportunism: it is the material
basis for opportunism in the labour movement. That is, opportunism
(reformism, if you prefer, Tom) exists (for example in Indonesia)
independently of any real labour aristocracy. That's why reformism is far
less stable/strong in Indonesia.<<

INSTITUTIONALISED  reformism is weak in Indonesia for various reasons, most
important the mass murder of the Communist Party in 1965 and the weakness
of ORGANISED LABOUR ITSELF. Reformist CONSCIOUSNESS is, however, as
widespread as it is in Australia -- otherwise the far left wouldn’t be so
tiny and in such disarray. And if you look at the major unions, like SBSI,
which is incomparably bigger than Dita Sari’s small organisation, they are
utterly reformist. For that matter I marched with Dita’s outfit on May Day,
and the workers struck me as fairly reformist also, though very militant.

>>Trying to equate the labour aristocracy and the labour bureaucracy leads
one to the economist position of presenting the workers as a spontaneously
revolutionary, or militant, mass, held back by only a thin line of
officials.<<

Yes I agree. Unfortunately, Lenin sometimes seems to do this. For example
he says:

"This stratum of bourgeoisified workers or “labour aristocracy”, who have
become completely petty-bourgeois in their mode of life, in the amount of
their earnings, and in their point of view, serve as the main support of
the Second International and, in our day, the principal social (not
military) support of the bourgeoisie. They are the real agents of the
bourgeoisie in the labour movement, the labour lieutenants of the
capitalist class, the real carriers of reformism and chauvinism." 

Nonsense, Vlad. The mass of workers are deeply imbued with reformism, in
Indonesia and in the west. 

>>Regarding the idea (supported, I believe, by Tom) that the nature of
trade union officialdom creates opportunism: I think this is an anarchist
theory not a Marxist one , in the end. Ed George (I think?) pointed out to
the difference between, the Protestant workers of Northern Ireland -- who
cling to the state for their relatively better status -- and the UK Miners,
who recognised that it was the struggle of their union which gave them
their better status. the MUA in Australia is another example, although the
currently opportunist leadership is probably a sad indication of how
militant unions can be transformed (not completely!) into more conservative
ones by resting on their previous victories. Backed up by militant workers,
a union official need not "sell out" (unless you consider any compromise a
sellout). Backed up by passive labour aristocrats, or by demoralised highly
exploited workers, a union official can be expected to succumb to
opportunism, if they hadn't to start with.<<

OK, let’s try to unravel this. Yes, I think that the objective position of
union officials creates reformism IN ADDITION to the powerful forces that
generate it in society as a whole, and the labour movement as a whole. This
is because they are not workers (who have an interest in winning the class
struggle) but rather intermediaries between capital and labour, who spend
much of  their time looking for ways to settle disputes. They have a
tendency to worry a lot about the survival of the union machinery (on which
their livelihood directly depends) and therefore are wary of risking it in
combat.  They will certainly not (as a social layer, of course there are
exceptions)  fight to abolish capitalism, because without class society
there is no role for union officials to play. To my knowledge Rosa
Luxemburg was the first to point this stuff out. Perhaps she was an
anarchist. But personally I think she understood the material basis of
western reformism better than Lenin, who had little direct experience of
it.

Yes, NI workers rely on the imperialist state,  while the British miners
rely on class struggle, and the latter are better off. Doesn’t this show
that imperialism does not actually benefit the “labour aristocracy”?
Anyway, the British miners were and are overwhelmingly reformist in
consciousness.

>>[MUA]  the currently opportunist leadership is probably a sad indication
of how militant unions can be transformed (not completely!) into more
conservative ones by resting on their previous victories<<

The MUA had some quite right wing leaders in earlier decades, eg groupers
in  Melbourne in the fifities, and  Charlie Fitzgibbon and Norman Docker
nationally in the seventies. I’m not actually sure that the MUA is less
militant now than then -- it was quite recently that they took action in
support of Dita Sari, and they fought quite impressively in 1998. But if
there has been a fundamental change, it had a lot  to do with
containerisation and permanency. That is,  material factors, not the
political laziness of union officials.

>>Backed up by militant workers, a union official need not "sell out"
(unless you consider any compromise a sellout). Backed up by passive labour
aristocrats, or by demoralised highly exploited workers, a union official
can be expected to succumb to opportunism, if they hadn't to start wi th.<<

That’s half right. But you have the workers in the supporting role (backing
up the officials). In my Marxism, workers are the key actors -- because
they are at the point of production, are exploited by capital (not
subsidised by imperialism) and have an interest in winning. If workers
mobilise, fight, and make themselves the subjects of history, union
officials MAY perform just fine. Then again they may not, in which case we
have to fight them. And in fighting them, workers can begin to break with
reformism. Bob Hawke did not sell out st rikes when he was ACTU president
because he wasn’t “backed up” enough by the workers. He sold them out
because it was the logic of his position at the head of a bureaucracy. The
same applies to left officials like John Halfpenny, who actually thought of
themselves as socialists but still worked quite hard to restrain militancy
in practice.

The very low level of militancy these days has obscured all this, because
when workers are passive, left officials can strike a radical pose at
little cost. It was much more obvious in the seventies and early eighties,
when workers were fighting on a mass scale. Some time when you’re at a
loose end,  have a look at my book Years of Rage.


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