[Marxism] RE: Labor Aristocracy

Tom O'Lincoln suarsos at alphalink.com.au
Sat Oct 1 20:47:23 MDT 2005

We debated this some years back. For some reason despite much searching
I can't find in the archives what I wrote then, or I'd post a link. I
agree with rrubinelli on this one. For now just one point. Joaquin
quotes Lenin (approvingly  - he says this is the key text) as follows:

>"Engels draws a distinction between the 'bourgeois labour party' of the

old trade unions -- the privileged minority -- and the 'lowest mass',
the real majority, and appeals to the latter, who are not infected by
'bourgeois respectability.' This is the essence of Marxist tactics!<

If this is the essence of Marxist tactics, it should be demonstrable in
practice. Is there clear evidence that workers on higher pay are less
militant, or less politically radical, than those on low pay? I've paid
some attention to the labour history of my own country, and I seriously
doubt it. The most important militant labour struggle in Australia in
the last twenty years is undoubtedly the Maritime dispute of 1998. These
workers were and are relatively well paid. To take another case: weren't
relatively well paid metal workers a big factor in the industrial
upsurges across Europe at the end of World War I?

Joaquin and Lenin do cover themselves to a degree. The next lines are:

>"Neither we nor anyone else can calculate precisely what portion of the

proletariat is following and will follow the social-chauvinists and
opportunists. This will be revealed only by the struggle<

But all this says is that we can't know just what is the proportional
division between the "privileged" minority and the "lowest mass" is.
I.e. just where the fault line will be. The argument that the "lowest
mass" are inherently more radical remains. But I seriously doubt it can
be sustained empirically.

My own view is that workers at every income or "privilege" level are
equally susceptible to reformist incorporation, though the mechanisms
are diverse. A good test case would be Indonesia, where there is a very
large layer of the "lowest mass", and all the big labour organisations
are utterly reformist. I once spent an afternoon with the leadership of
Muchtar Pakpahan's SBSI union, trying to convince them on the basis of
bitter Australian experience that "social contracts" with the government
and the bosses weren't the solution to workers' problems. And got
obsolutely nowhere.

This isn't to say income levels never matter, rather that they are one
factor among many.  I'll paste in below an excerpt from my book on class
struggle in colonial Australia which touches on how factors as pay
levels, skill, concentration of workers etc, actually work their way


In the course of the 1880s, union membership reached sixty thousand.
Unionism came to the railways, the maritime and the pastoral industries,
drawing new layers of workers, many unskilled, into what has been called
a ‘new unionism’.

The term itself, drawn from British labour history, can be misleading.
It has been taken to mean that organisation of the unskilled and
semi-skilled was a radical innovation, that the new unions were all
committed to industrial unionism, and that they were more militant than
traditional craft organisations. Strictly speaking, none of this is
true. Mass organisation of unskilled and semi-skilled workers in mines
and on the waterfront existed well before the 1880s. On the other hand
the Australian Shearers’ Union operated much like the craft unions,
organising the elite of the pastoral work force, and it was by no means
more militant than the stonemasons.

Yet something new certainly happened in the eighties, driven by changes
in capitalist industry. Where companies had previously brought together
concentrations of relatively expensive skilled labour, they now began
replacing that labour with machinery. As industry became mechanised, the
need to use capital equipment efficiently led to larger concentrations
of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Mechanisation also stimulated
other industries by increasing the demand for such raw materials as meat
and sugar, and for expanded rail and sea transport. Here too, sizeable
new workforces emerged. In enterprises where large numbers of poorly
paid labourers all did the same work, common experiences bred
solidarity, while unskilled workers’ lack of individual bargaining power
made the case for organisation and mass action more compelling.

The term ‘unskilled’ can also be misleading. Many with no formal craft
status did have skills; what they lacked was a strategic monopoly in
those skills. Women in the clothing trades were adept at sewing, but
since most other women could also sew, companies could easily replace
them; so they were in a similar industrial position to the genuinely
unskilled.  But we’ll use the term for want of a better one.

The majority of the unskilled were not unionised, nor did unskilled or
semi-skilled workers come to dominate the labour movement. On the
contrary, delegates to the 1888 Inter-colonial Trade Union Congress
still lamented that ‘tradesmen were united as a rule, and unionists were
pretty well protected; but what was wanted was the organisation of
unskilled labour, so that all might be protected.’  Even so, unionism
had reached enough unskilled and semi-skilled workers to alter the
industrial scene. Strikes became bigger and longer, providing practical
experience of solidarity. Where workers formed a new union or won a
strike, others followed their example.

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