Labor Aristocracy

Rob Ryan robryan at
Fri Jan 31 07:05:11 MST 2003

While, at the moment making no claims for it's historical validity, but
merely as a matter of historical record, and merely as I understand it, the
term "labour aristocracy"  and some at least of the various ideas involved,
come down to us (or at least those of us who have encountered it) not from
Lenin, as the authors of this discussion seem to assume, but from Marx and

Here is Lenin's version of it's "provenance" extracted from his article
"Imperialism and the Split in Socialism", written in October 1916, which can
be found in his Collected Works, Volume 23 which is on the web at

"These two trends, one might even say two parties, in the present-day labour
movement, which in 1914-16 so obviously parted ways all over the world, were
traced by Engels and Marx in England throughout the course of decades,
roughly from 1858 to 1892.

Neither Marx nor Engels lived to see the imperialist epoch of world
capitalism, which began not earlier than 1898-1900. But it has been a
peculiar feature of England that even in the middle of the nineteenth
century she already revealed at least two major distinguishing features of
imperialism: (1) vast colonies, and (2) monopoly profit (due to her monopoly
position in the world market). In both respects England at that time was an
exception among capitalist countries, and Engels and Marx, analysing this
exception, quite clearly and definitely indicated its connection with the
(temporary) victory of opportunism in the English labour movement.

In a letter to Marx, dated October 7, 1858, Engels wrote: "...The English
proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most
bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession
of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the
bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course
to a certain extent justifiable." In a letter to Sorge, dated September 21,
1872, Engels informs him that Hales kicked up a big row in the Federal
Council of the International and secured a vote of censure on Marx for
saying that "the English labour leaders had sold themselves". Marx wrote to
Sorge on August 4, 1874: "As to the urban workers here [in England], it is a
pity that the whole pack of leaders did not get into Parliament. This would
be the surest way of getting rid of the whole lot." In a letter to Marx,
dated August 11, 1881, Engels speaks about "those very worst English trade
unions which allow themselves to be led by men sold to, or at least paid by,
the bourgeoisie." In a letter to Kautsky, dated September 12, 1882, Engels
wrote: "You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy.
Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general. There is no
workers' party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals. and
the workers gaily share the feast of England's monopoly of the world market
and the colonies."

On December 7, 1889, Engels wrote to Sorge: "The most repulsive thing here
[in England] is the bourgeois 'respectability', which has grown deep into
the bones of the workers.... Even Tom Mann, whom I regard as the best of the
lot, is fond of mentioning that he will be lunching with the Lord Mayor. If
one compares this with the French, one realises, what a revolution is good
for, after all." In a letter, dated April 19, 1890: "But under the surface
the movement [of the working class in England] is going on, is embracing
ever wider sections and mostly just among the hitherto stagnant lowest
[Engels's italics] strata. The day is no longer far off when this mass will
suddenly find itself, when it will dawn upon it that it itself is this
colossal mass in motion." On March 4, 1891: "The failure of the collapsed
Dockers' Union; the 'old' conservative trade unions, rich and therefore
cowardly, remain lone on the field...." September 14, 1891: at the Newcastle
Trade Union Congress the old unionists, opponents of the eight-hour day,
were defeated "and the bourgeois papers recognise the defeat of the
bourgeois labour party" (Engels's italics throughout)....

That these ideas, which were repeated by Engels over the course of decades,
were so expressed by him publicly, in the press, is proved by his preface to
the second edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1892.
Here he speaks of an "aristocracy among the working class", of a "privileged
minority of the workers", in contradistinction to the "great mass of working
people". "A small, privileged, protected minority" of the working class
alone was "permanently benefited" by the privileged position of England in
1848-68, whereas "the great bulk of them experienced at best but a temporary
improvement" ..."With the break-down of that [England's industrial]
monopoly, the English working class will lose that privileged position..."
The members of the "new" unions, the unions of the unskilled workers, "had
this immense advantage, that their minds were virgin soil, entirely free
from the inherited 'respectable' bourgeois prejudices which hampered the
brains of the better situated 'old unionists"' .... "The so-called workers'
representatives" in England are people "who are forgiven their being members
of the working class because they themselves would like to drown their
quality of being workers in the ocean of their liberalism..."

We have deliberately quoted the direct statements of Marx and Engels at
rather great length in order that the reader may study them as a whole. And
they should be studied, they are worth carefully pondering over. For they
are the pivot of the tactics in the labour movement that are dictated by the
objective conditions of the imperialist era."

PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.

More information about the Marxism mailing list