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Labour aristocracy

Anxious to work out why the oldest working class, the British, had avoided moving to revolution, external commentators at the height of empire concocted a false argument in an effort to explain away this behaviour and in some circles it is still lazily dispensed a century or so later.

The argument asserted that a section of the working class was bribed by imperialism with “crumbs” from the British Empire’s industrial and colonial monopoly and formed a “labour aristocracy” that held back the revolution out of privileged self-interest. The first person to promote this erroneous notion was Engels in the 1850s (particularly after Marx’s death in 1883); then later it was adopted by Lenin, desperate to understand the reason why workers in western Europe stuck to the Second International’s social democracy and ended up endorsing the fratricidal bloodbath of the First World War.

But the case for bribery is not supported by the actual facts of history. No capitalist ever voluntarily cedes more pay collectively to groups of workers. Increases are extracted from the employer either by class organisation and action, or are driven by skill or labour shortages. By the latter half of the 19th century, the skilled craft unions were well organised and exploited their position to force higher wages from their employers, particularly as there were no more reserves of rural labour – these had already been absorbed into urban, factory development. In such circumstances the bargaining power of workers is greatly enhanced (a process starting to happen currently in China). Dread of skilled workers underlies the false notion of a “labour aristocracy”.

When imperialism and colonial rule were at their heyday in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, British workers gained nothing from empire. Indeed poverty and unemployment were widespread; witness the poor physical state of many of those enlisting for war. Industrial and imperial monopolists in Britain were content to fritter away large amounts of their wealth on ostentatious display in their newly-constructed mansions..

The phoney argument also conveniently ignored the awkward fact that the standard of living of the working class was higher in certain countries (Sweden, Denmark) which had no colonies, but lower in countries which had large colonial territories (France, Belgium).

Blaming all on the role of a “labour aristocracy” ascribes lack of revolutionary progress to an imaginary, external, venal cause. The truth is both much simpler and yet harder to accept. Workers, though prepared to struggle against aspects of the system, were willing to live with capitalism. As capitalism now lurches further into absolute decline, the pressing task is to change the ideology of our working class. Our class is the source of change.