Chris Harman on labour aristocracy theory

Tom O'Lincoln suarsos at
Thu Jan 30 21:22:36 MST 2003

In reply to Ben:

>>I have a big problem with Harman's rejection of the labour aristocracy

Harman is basically criticising Lenin's theory, much recycled, which argues
that workers in the 3d world are super-exploited, with some of the proceeds
being used to buy off a layer of workers in the west. By extension, it can
apply to non-whites or women in the west as well. Ben refers to:

>>the social stability engendered by this quiescent section of better-off

If they were quiescent, they wouldn't get concessions from the ruling
class. In fact such workers are not any more quiescent than anyone else.
Consider the Australian wharfies and their 1998 struggle. Or the West Coast
dockers in America recently. Relatively well paid, secure males, who have
displayed both militancy and advanced political consciousness.

Let  me take this one step further. We agree, I think, that the recent big
votes for the Australian Greens raise some hope of a challenge to the
system, because they represent a vote against racism and war as well as
environmental destruction. Have the Green votes come from the most
oppressed workers, or have they come more from tertiary educated white
collar employees? And which type of worker typically turns up at anti-war

>>[this] means that those who are much poorer are unable to shake bourgeois
society and obtain benefits for themselves.<<

Maybe. Then again maybe benefits conceded to one group of workers will tend
to flow on to others. For example, under the postwar welfare state in
Australia, poor immigrant workers got the dole. Pay rises granted to
skilled workers also flowed on to others, a principle known as "comparative
wage justice". More recently, of course, it has broken down. But that has
been accompanied by ATTACKS on the privileges of the "labour aristocrats"
-- for example on the wharfies, but also on me and my fellow public
servants, whose job security has declined and workloads increased. An
injury to one is an injury to all.

>>The notion that better paid workers are more exploited is an odd one,
albeit with some truth. It's important to distinguish between absolute
exploitation (measured in surplus value) and oppression.<<

ALL exploitation is "measured in surplus value", which may be "absolute" or
"relative".  Oppression  is  not the issue. Of course some workers (black,
women, 3d world etc) are more oppressed than others. But paradoxically,
they may be less exploited, because they are less productive and the bosses
can therefore extract less surplus value from them.

>>you can't really measure social oppression by an economic equation<<

Of course not. But Harman's argument is about exploitation,  not

>>the poorest workers are still generally the most oppressed.<<

True but irrelevant. See above.

>>By trying to argue with the privileged (as Harman's argument does) and
tell them that they are not privileged<<

Presumably you want to convince them they ARE  privileged. But in that
case, you are convincing them they have a stake in the system.  In 1998,
should we have told the wharfies they were privileged? The bosses would
have been delighted to hear it. Should I tell my office colleagues they are
privileged?  After all, they have relatively secure employment at
above-average wages. But you see, I am trying to convince them they deserve
BETTER, so that they will fight the bosses in our forthcoming bargaining

It's true that  male workers THINK they benefit from sexism. White workers
THINK they benefit from racism. And your logic tells them it's true, that
they have a stake in the system. So why then should they oppose sexism and
racism? Why should they fight the system? We would be reduced to moralistic
arguments, and Marxism would be utopian.

>>The opportunists such as Kautsky<<

Kautsky was not a worker. He was part of an social layer on top of the
working class, consisting of party aparatchicks, union bureaucrats, MPs,
intellectuals and so on. This, along with ideological hegemony, commodity
relations, and the discipline of working life is the actual basis for
reformism and opportunism. It is not primarily about corruption and
betrayal. Lenin and Trotsky didn't get this quite right, because the
phenomenon of labour bureaucracy was underdeveloped in Russia. Luxemburg
and Gramsci understood it better. Read them; forget Lenin on the "labour


This is the second time a DSP comrade has raised this issue (Peter Boyle
did it some time back.) Since you comrades clearly feel it's important, it
would be good to see it argued CONCRETELY, with EVIDENCE. Specifically:

*what is the mechanism by which surplus value from super-exploiting the 3d
world working class, or women in the west, or American blacks, ends up in
the bank accounts of the labour aristocracy?

*how do the bosses prevent the "flow-on" tendency noted above from
spreading this outside the aristocracy?

*who is part of this aristocracy, and who is not? It should be possible to
give some rough outlines for the Australian or American work force.

*Are relatively privileged workers in (say) Indonesia part of an Indonesian
aristocracy? If so, what do we make of the fact that they are probably
worse off than many Australian non-aristocrats?

*what is the evidence for a correlation between political consciousness (eg
quiescence and non-quiescence) and your place inside or outside the

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