On The Existence of the Labour Aristocracy [Fw from Socialist Register]

Richard Fidler rfidler at cyberus.ca
Fri Feb 21 19:21:27 MST 2003

Mac Stainsby, who must be lurking on the Marxmail archives these days,
posted something by our Anthony in Colombia to the Socialist Register
list a couple of days ago. It prompted this comment by Dennis Pilon, a
professor at York University in Toronto. (I am just the messenger
here. -- R.F.)

This new twist on the term 'labour aristocracy' - that essentially a
majority of all the workers of the north comprise a kind of
in relation to the poor within their own countries and working people
everywhere else - is not well thought out intellectually and ill-advised
politically.  Historians used 'labour aristocracy' to distinguish
leadership cadres from rank-and-file or skilled workers from unskilled
workers, particularly in the period around 1880 to 1930.  At best, the
helped elucidate some of the difficulties in furthering union democracy
why it was so hard to move beyond craft unionism.  But at worst, the
fueled a particularly mechanical application of Michel's 'Iron Law of
Oligarchy' (organizations always become elitist and undemocratic) or a
simplistic condemnation of union leadership.  I'm not sure 'aristocracy'
was ever much of a good metaphor for the labour problems it was trying
capture.  While it has served as an evocative way of expressing the
frustrations and inequalities amongst working people, the idea of an
'aristocracy of labour' has always been prone to distortion and a
too-literal reading.  It's kind of like the old pluralist idea of a
elite' - labour has never, and never will, form an elite on par with
elites: the wealthy, industrialists, etc.

So, given what I've spelled out above, I'm not crazy about a
of the term 'labour aristocracy', and certainly not in the form set out
'Anthony' below.  If concepts are to be meaningful - by which I mean
they might help us understand and help convey the complexity of the
situations we face on the left - then they have to have more than
applications.  Anthony makes a number of assumptions - none of which are
substantiated - and then offers his 'labour aristocracy' thesis to
complex worldwide events.  I'm afraid I don't buy it.  Let's review some
his points in more detail.

Anthony asserts:
1.  It is unassailable that there exists a privileged layer of workers
whose short term interest is in maintaining the status quo
2.  He claims many or 'possibly a majority of workers' in imperialist
countries have "a three bedroom house, a car - or two, electricity and
appliances that go with it, a university education for[their] children,
high probability of a pension, affordable medical care and dental care"
3.  And given that a majority of these privileged northern workers have
this, they "have strong reasons to fight to keep things as they are"
4.  However, he allows that though these 'privileged layers' have a
'conservative stake in the status quo', this does not necessarily
how they will respond to any given political situation
5.  In fact, he suggests that whether any given labour aristocracy
with the capitalist class, or with the oppressed masses' is an open
6.  He then he asserts that the US labour aristocracy is the most
in the world in terms of 'numbers, economic power, and potential
7.  And finally, he suggests that "[i]f the labor aristocracy of US
imperialism supports the war, it will happen. If the labor aristocracy
the United States opposes the war, it will not happen."

All in all, a pretty remarkable set of propositions.  But they either do
not withstand empirical scrutiny or border on obvious.  Some responses:

1.  Yes, Northern workers on average have higher standards of living
workers elsewhere.  So what?  What does noting this factoid tell us
anything?  The implication of Anthony's analysis is that these workers
self-consciously know that their 'privileges' come at the expense of
world workers and the poor in their own communities, and that they must
fight to keep them.  But surely Marxists know better than this.  The
standards of living for first world workers were the product of class
struggle and political concessions extracted from powerful
ruling groups over a century and a half, aided by complex historical
like war and the Cold War.  Neither is it clear that workers themselves
understand their 'privileges' this way.  Whenever anyone bothers to
actually ask workers what they think, they provide much more complex
responses than the Archie Bunker stereotypes fueling both right and left

2.  All the empirical evidence I've seen suggests that Anthony's rosy
of privilege cannot be substantiated.  Workers wages have remained
for most for the past three decades, working hours have increased,
indebtedness has increased, healthcare costs are prohibitive in the US,
even for those workers with coverage, and rising in other OECD countries
due to drug patent laws, studies show declining levels of WC kids going
university because of rising costs, and very high levels of working
have no dental coverage.  The three bedroom, two car myth is just too
laughable.  These claims should be founded on some effort at research,
rather than anecdotal asides.

3.  It stands to reason that in the absence of any other options, you
probably defend what you've got, especially given the declining
for working people over the last three decades.  This doesn't prove that
northern workers are 'fighting to keep things as they are'.  There is
plenty of evidence that northern workers would like to change a lot -
protect the environment, raise corporate taxes, keep public services
But they face real barriers to getting what they want - increasing costs
political organization, monopoly media, increasing time pressures from
and public service downloading, etc.  In other words, the conditions
affecting working class behaviour are complex.  The 'privilege' line is
designed to reduce this complexity in favour of easy judgement and oh
workers are found wanting.

4.  Cutting the 'conservative status quo' line, I think any Marxist
agree that political consciousness does not flow automatically from

5.  When are real people ever faced with such stark choices as 'siding
the capitalist classes or the opressed masses'?  If only political
engagement were so simple and easy.  The reality of most working
lives is that they feel relatively powerless to do much about the world,
and, if they vote, they probably vote for the best of the worst, with a
working class pragmatism borne of suffering through constant
and unexpected troubles.  Its all right to talk of socialist utopias,
most working people have got to worry about how to pay for this or that
find a spot of happiness in between.  At risk of 'discussing the
Register and its articles' Jenson and Ross sketch out some of the
contradictions of real working class politics in nice piece in SR in the

6.  I can agree that the US WC is potentially very powerful.  But
empirically the US WC is and has always been very weak.  Its union
and political organization has lagged behind the rest of the western
And this strikes at the heart of the whole 'labour aristocaracy' line
why it doesn't help us much right now - it makes a cohesive group out of
what is in reality a largely atomized group, it imputes motives and
to a group that it is not clear they possess or are acting upon.   The
'labour aristocracy' of the north is a sociological reduction, it is
aggratitive phantom - it doesn't exist in the real world.  The real
of working people is of largely alienated, atomized family groups, with
some community connections perhaps, amid shrinking union densities and
weaking political cleavages.

7.  To say that if the US WC opposes the war it will not happen is just
empty assertion.  What people want or don't war is largely irrelevent in
the absence of organized political power.  And that is the job of the
Instead of attacking working people with a kind of guilt trip about
'privilege', the left could stand to offer a bit of understanding to the
complex problems that working people face.  Reciprocity works.  We take
seriously the horrors of a class society for working people, even in our
relatively privileged north, and we'll build the basis for a solidarity
that can reach out around the world.

A big part of the problem with Anthony's 'labour aristocracy' thesis is
that is starts from the abstract and then tries to stretch a rather weak
thesis over a vast empirical reality.  This is the opposite of marxist
method.  We must begin from the concrete, the material, from evidence,
build our concepts in constant critical contact with them.


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