Chris Harman on labour aristocracy theory

Einde O'Callaghan einde.ocallaghan at
Fri Jan 31 05:34:50 MST 2003

Ben Courtice wrote:
> The (northern) Autumn 2002 edition of the UK SWP's journal
> "International Socialism" carries an intereting article by Chris
> Harman, "The workers of the world". It's a kind of demographic
> survey of the world's working class, with a particular point to
> answering those who claim the working class is changed or
> irrelevant. As such it's pretty good, and certainly very readable.
> But I have a big problem with Harman's rejection of the labour
> aristocracy theory of opportunism and privilege in the working
> class. To quote the relevant parts of his article:
> It was good, in a way, to read this as I had heard second hand this
> IS theory but never from the horse's mouth.
> I think Harman's points may have been developed with an orientation
> to skilled, well paid, industrially powerful sections of the
> first-world working class in mind. Of course, it's not wrong for
> socialists to orient to this stratum, nor to try and point out to
> them that they are still highly exploited and deserve to rebel. But
> to try to say that they are just as (or more) oppressed,

He actually says they are more exploited - not more oppressed - an
important distinction.

> By trying to argue with the privileged (as Harman's argument does)
> and tell them that they are not privileged, it is easy to miss a
> very important point (which Lenin wrote a whole article about): as
> he was writing, the working class had already split between
> opportunists and revolutionaries.

The origins of this theory lie in a critique of Lenin's explanation of
the roots of opportunism.


If you want to read more this critique I would refer you to Tony Cliff's
article "Economic Roots of Reformism" (written in 1957) - available at - or
the more developed (and more up-to-date) formulation in Kevin Corr &
Andy Brown "The labour aristocracy and the roots of reformism" in
International Socialism 2:59 (not yet available on-line).

Eiinde O'Callaghan

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