The labour aristocracy and working-class politics

By Jonathan Strauss


Dimensions of the composition of the labour aristocracy

Skilled workers in the labour aristocracy

The bureaucratisation of the labour apparatus and opportunism

The labour apparatus and the labour bureaucracy

The labour aristocracy and the labour bureaucracy

The labour aristocracy and the `lower strata' of the working class

Opportunism and preparation of the proletariat for revolution

Proletarian tactics under the domination of monopolising capitals

The labour aristocracy as the social base for opportunism


The theory of the labour aristocracy argues that opportunism in the working class has a material basis. Class-collaborationist politics express the interests of a relatively privileged stratum of workers supported in their benefits by monopoly superprofits. Karl Marx and, especially, Frederick Engels first developed this theory. It is most closely associated with V.I. Lenin, however, for whom it became "the pivot of the tactics in the labour movement that are dictated by the objective conditions of the imperialist era".1

This article, the third of four,2 continues to discuss Lenin's development of the theory and the controversies that surround it. It considers the stratum's composition and the relationship of the labour aristocracy to the labour bureaucracy and to the rest of the class. It also discusses the political strategy and tactics Lenin proposed to counter the stratum's opportunist influence in the working-class movement. The final article in the series will apply the theory of the labour aristocracy to an understanding of the political history of the Australian working class.

Dimensions of the composition of the labour aristocracy

The conditions of monopoly capitalism affect the entire working class, not just the labour aristocracy. In the countries where monopoly superprofits are accumulated, profit rates are raised, especially for the monopoly firms. The pressures of capitalist competition are dulled. In turn, workers are spared the full brunt of efforts to minimise wages and employment.

Broader sections of the working class than the labour aristocracy also benefit from democratic forms in bourgeois political life and related social reforms in state employment, social security and state provision of goods and services. The historical extension of these has partly been a response to the cost to the bourgeoisie of failures to do so.3

Indeed, Lenin wrote that in the mechanics of political democracy, "it is impossible to gain the following of the masses without a widely ramified, systematically managed, well-equipped system of flattery, lies, fraud, juggling with fashionable and popular catchwords". Therefore there will be "all manner of reforms and blessings to the workers right and left—as long as they renounce the revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie".4

Because some relative privileges for workers supported by monopoly superprofits extend to substantial parts of the working class in the industrially advanced capitalist countries, Tony Cliff, and also M.C. Howard and J.E. King, criticised the view that the opportunist trend in working-class politics springs from the interest in such privileges of a stratum of workers differentiated from the mass of the working class.5 Tom O'Lincoln, following Cliff, denied the existence of such a stratum: "Wage gains and other concessions granted to one section of the class tend to flow on to others, [negating] any tendency to elevate one section into an `aristocracy'."6 This criticism of the theory of the labour aristocracy does not recognise that the extension of benefits has only partial effects on the formation of the social base for opportunism.

The extension of benefits moderates the division between the labour aristocracy and the rest of the working class in each country and reinforces the stratum's numbers and influence. Lenin observed: "To a certain degree the workers of the oppressor nations are partners of their own bourgeoisie in plundering the workers (and the mass of the population) of the oppressed nations; politically … compared with the workers of the oppressed nations, they occupy a privileged position in many spheres of political life; ideologically … they are taught, at school and in life, disdain and contempt for the workers of the oppressed nations".7 On these bases, notions about collaborative class relations and effective working-class politics within bourgeois democracy, and "national superiority", can develop to varying degrees among all sections of the working class and tend to align them with the opportunist trend.8

The division of workers globally is accentuated, however. Max Elbaum and Robert Seltzer pointed out, "relative to the masses in the colonies and semi-colonies, the entire working class in the advanced capitalist countries possesses political, economic and cultural advantages".9

Also, the labour aristocracy still receives a greater share of the concessions of monopolising capitals within a stratified working class. The limited gains of broader sections of a working class are part of a "steady gradation in benefits" that also creates a section "which by virtue of its privileged position vis-à-vis the rest of the working class … is most susceptible to opportunist political lines".10 Examples of relatively privileged strata within national working classes previously discussed—in England in the nineteenth century, in Germany before the first world war and in the us at the turn of the century and after the second world war—show that the tendency towards the formation of such strata has not been negated by the extension of some benefits for workers.

Elbaum and Seltzer argued that the theory of the labour aristocracy still expects a "pronounced correlation between the extent of privilege and opportunist politics", spontaneously based in the distinct interest of the labour aristocracy in maintaining its privileged position, but does not assume an automatic relationship of the two, since broader political experience and class consciousness could produce a politics among labour aristocrats expressing their class interest as proletarians. It will, therefore, be fruitless to attempt to reduce the labour aristocracy to an occupational profile, or otherwise draw an exact dividing line between the stratum and the rest of the class or "locate sociologically that point when quantity (of privilege) turns into quality".11

Elbaum and Seltzer continued, however, by stating that their concern was "not primarily with privilege, but politics", and they identified "the influence of the labour aristocracy through political practice rather than income levels".12 This apparently contradicts any attempt to characterise the composition of the stratum socially. Yet Lenin identified it with the "upper strata of the working class", and Engels, Lenin and Elbaum and Seltzer themselves discussed the inclusion of various groupings of workers in it—unionised skilled workers, workers in "privileged" branches of industry, office employees, producers of luxury goods or, more extensively, the bulk of organised workers.13

Historically, the stratification of the working class places uppermost those workers who, as a result of their position within capitalist production and social life, including, perhaps, their organisation, have the greatest economic and political leverage. Elbaum and Seltzer argued that the problem for the theory of the labour aristocracy is to understand the category "labour aristocracy", the objective social grouping of those sections of the working class that are the main beneficiaries of bribery from monopoly superprofits, in its component parts in each historical period of a country, without obscuring its unity.14

The particularity of the stratification between the labour aristocracy and the rest of the working class is its link to monopoly superprofits through the course of the latter's development. This determines the capacity for and desirability of bribery of sections of the working class through varied concessions that "allow a section of the proletariat to struggle with capital for its own sectoral interests on more favourable grounds". In relation to more prosperous and powerful monopolising capitals, the labour aristocracy can include broader sections of the working class, but the stratum will narrow if the capitals that support its bribery are crisis-ridden.15 In 1926, for example, Leon Trotsky contrasted Britain, where "the danger is not that the bourgeoisie will once more pacify the proletariat, nor that an epoch of Liberal-Labor politics will open up before the trade unions", with the US, which had "monopolised for itself the possibility of a privileged position for wide circles of the proletariat".16

Which sections of the working class are promoted by bribery to relative privilege, however, is historically conditioned by intersections of the aristocratic stratification with other stratifications, such as those around skill, employment, organisation, regional differences and national, gender, racial and religious oppression. The bribe is drawn towards those parts of the working class that are in a strategic position in the class struggle, partly as a consequence of these other stratifications. It moves according to changes in the division of labour and in the social relations within and between classes. Thus the social category of the labour aristocracy both follows the development of the upper strata of the working class and "seiz[es] upon previously existing stratifications within the proletariat, enveloping them, incorporating them … qualitatively transform[ing] the various advantages and protections of the already existing upper strata, creating a labour aristocracy, which is reflected politically in the cohering of various opportunist tendencies into a mature, all-sided … trend".17

Skilled workers in the labour aristocracy

The labour aristocracy has frequently been equated with skilled workers and/or craft unionists, leading to a questioning of the relevance of the theory because the proportion of and the degree of differentiation of these workers within the working class has declined. The equation collapses two different categories of analysis, however. The basis of determination of the category of skilled workers is not the labour aristocracy's bribe, but the production process and its division of workers' productive activity—again, historically, intersecting with other social phenomena, such as women's oppression. The two categories do not inevitably coincide.18

Elbaum and Seltzer referred to the historical position, nevertheless, of skilled workers, especially unionised ones, as "the most stable core of the labour aristocracy" and as an archetypal example of the transformation of a working-class stratification through bribery into "a division of profound political significance for the working class movement". The stratum of skilled workers is based on the favourable differentiation of their wages because of the higher value of their labour-power and their relative advantage in struggles with capital because of the small proportion of other workers with their specific skills, and their immediate interest in further restricting competition for their jobs by limiting training or other measures, including exclusion on the basis of other oppressions. This stratification leads to spontaneous organisation of skilled workers, which protects them to the exclusion or even at the expense of other strata of the working class, and, often, aloofness, suspicion and even hostility among skilled workers to the mass of their fellow workers. In the class struggle, however, skilled workers, being better placed to engage in collective action and, therefore, generally, a relatively experienced and organised stratum of the working class, have disproportionately greater influence in the movement and the possibility of overcoming exclusiveness through their experience where this lays the basis for a political class consciousness. The sustained concession by monopolising capitals of some benefits to the skilled workers needed instead to consolidate an alliance with capital through an aristocratic stratification of the working class.19

The transformation of skilled workers into the core of the labour aristocracy is accompanied by a development of trade union politics (workers striving to alleviate their condition as wage-labourers subject to capital, but not to abolish that condition20)—not necessarily nor exclusively practised by the craft unions—into opportunist politics.21 Recognising an inevitable relative backwardness—"a certain craft narrow-mindedness, a certain tendency to be non-political, a certain inertness, etc."—in the trade unions (they are, he said, also "a tremendous step forward … to the rudiments of class organisation"), Lenin contrasted this, "in countries more advanced than Russia", with a "certain reactionism" that had "acquired a much firmer footing in the trade unions … the craft-union, narrow-minded, selfish, case-hardened, covetous, and petty-bourgeois `labour aristocracy', imperialist-minded, and imperialist-corrupted".22 Elbaum and Seltzer noted the example of the craft unions in the United States, which in 1881 had formed the American Federation of Labor as a militant organisation: first, the AFL moved to conservative economic positions and open hostility towards socialism; then, after 1895, when monopoly capitalism was consolidated in the US, black workers were purged from the skilled trades and the AFL engaged in conscious, systematic class collaboration through support for colonial wars of the US and the participation of its leadership in civic organisations dominated by the monopoly bourgeoisie.23

The bureaucratisation of the labour apparatus and opportunism

The significance of the theory of the labour aristocracy as an explanation of opportunism is its identification of a relatively privileged stratum in the working class as a social basis within the working class for class-collaborationist politics. The theory does not propose that the labour aristocracy is isolated as the cause of opportunism in the labour movement, however. It argues, for example, that the tendency to bureaucratisation in the apparatus of the labour movement creates a further source of opportunism, the labour bureaucracy, which is a caste of elected or appointed functionaries of the movement's organisations who are propagandists and agitators for opportunism.

The conditions of workers' lives under capitalism restrict their participation in the democratic control of their organisations. Therefore, as workers' organisations grew and increased their activity, centralisation of their leadership and administration through functionaries was needed to give the masses the possibility of acting in an organised manner. These officials, who then embodied the organisations and might alone express the united will of their members, were, however, also to some extent divorced from the workers and subject to a tendency to corruption and a potential to betray the workers' interests.24

Yet the labour movement apparatus cannot be equated with the labour bureaucracy. The impulse to corruption and class collaboration arising from the nature of the apparatus is a basis for conflict between it and the ranks of the workers' organisations pursuing their historical class interests. Moreover, the bourgeoisie exposes officials' promotion of their own welfare and use of undemocratic methods to maintain control if doing so will encourage workers to oppose their own organisation.25

However, when monopoly superprofits sustain not only the benefits of the labour aristocracy but also the corruption of labour movement functionaries,26 the latter's interests can coincide with the stratum's, ostensibly losing their corrupt character.27 The power of the corrupted officials derives from this unity and, with its persistence, they are transformed into a labour bureaucracy.28

Elbaum and Seltzer discussed the relationship between the labour bureaucracy and the labour aristocracy:

As a political trend, then, opportunism includes leadership and rank and file organised around a specific political line and ideological outlook. The conscious leadership, centred in the labour bureaucracy, represents the sectoral interests of the labour aristocracy and its specific sections, not merely the interests of the bureaucracy. The labour aristocracy includes significant sections of the rank and file. The objective position of these workers is expressed, subjectively, in political support for opportunist leaders and their policies.29

The labour bureaucracy is dependent on the labour aristocracy, even while it leads the stratum. It works to prevent the organisations of the labour aristocracy joining with other sections of workers in common class-struggle movements which transform partial struggles for reforms into revolutionary conflicts.30

The relationship, therefore, is fundamentally one of political influence. It is observed more readily with regard to the totality of the labour bureaucracy, beyond the hierarchies of the membership organisations of the working class such as the unions—that is, inclusive of its parliamentarians and party officials, labour lawyers and intellectuals associated with the labour or other social movements.

The labour apparatus and the labour bureaucracy

An argument that the labour bureaucracy is the social basis of opportunism is counterposed to the theory of the labour aristocracy. This generally contrasts the labour bureaucracy's traits—a willingness to compromise and a commitment to what Antonio Gramsci called "industrial legality" and the preservation of the movement's organisations above the pursuit of the movement's aims—to those of the rank and file of the labour movement, who are understood to have an interest in opposing compromises and to be powerful through industrial action.31

John Kelly surveyed much of the international discussion of this argument, suggesting it had sources in the Marxist tradition, in particular in the work of Lenin and of Trotsky.32 O'Lincoln cited writings by Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci to support his view that only the union bureaucracy is a protagonist of reformist activity as a result of its social position.33 Tom Bramble provided a significant example of the argument applied to Australia.34 A 1983 resolution of the Socialist Workers Party in Australia said, while referring to the labour aristocracy as the "primary social base for the entrenched bureaucracies that control most unions", that the bureaucracy is "the fundamental obstacle to consistent class struggle by the unions".35

The argument that the labour bureaucracy is the source of opportunism offers two explanations for the bureaucratisation of the labour movement apparatus in addition to that of the theory of the labour aristocracy. The apparatus personnel's practice—their mediation between labour and capital—creates an interest for them in continual negotiation about the terms of workers' exploitation.36 Also, unions and the parties expressing their politics "are institutions firmly located on the terrain of capitalism, devoted to improving the terms on which labour-power is sold within the existing class system rather than striving to transform it":37 within bargaining institutions dominated by capital, the negotiating process reproduces the relation of labour's subjection to capital and promotes compromise.38

The two explanations can be related. According to Bramble, the institutional limitation of unions and their parties is the context for the constitution of their officials as a vacillating "conservatising layer". Sometimes—least of all among those most remote from the rank and file—the officials lead militant struggles, to resist or waylay anti-union measures, a loss of membership or the development of rank-and-file opposition. They restrain such struggles from challenging the social order, however.39

In the argument that the labour bureaucracy is the social basis of opportunism, there disappear the various resolutions of the contradiction in workers' organising, between the promotion of the working class's collective action and understanding and the restrictions by conditions on the workers' organisations and their functionaries. The labour apparatus becomes an invariant—that is, invariably bureaucratic—category.40

"Differences in political socialisation", Kelly noted, for example, are "disregarded or downgraded in any explanation of the behaviour of union officials" in this discussion of the labour bureaucracy.41 Like him, the Marxists who were claimed as sources for the labour bureaucratic explanation of opportunism were concerned about the role political interventions could play. They sought to secure revolutionary challenges to capitalism in the work of union and party officials.

From 1912 to 1914, the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, tried to impart a revolutionary approach to the activity of their Duma members and the union governing boards they controlled.42 Luxemburg argued that the bureaucratism of German social democratic union officials could be overcome by "rejoining the trade unions to [revolutionary] social democracy" because, she believed, the mass of proletarians had been won to the social democratic view of the class struggle and understood the union movement to be part of that.43 Trotsky could treat the task more or less as given: "the sections of the Fourth International should always strive not only to renew the top leadership of the unions, boldly and resolutely in critical moments advancing new militant leaders in place of routine functionaries and careerists …"44

Gramsci did advocate that revolutionaries work in the factory committees, rather than the unions, in Italy in 1919-20.45 This was a minority view in the Communist International (CI) at the time, which instead considered that each form of workers' organisation had a specific role in the historical development of the social revolution: therefore, "Communists in all countries must join the unions in order to develop them into bodies consciously struggling for the overthrow of capitalism".46 By the time he became the leader of the Italian Communist Party, in 1923, he had adopted the CI position, while continuing to argue that in Italy activity in the factory committees had special significance because fascist repression had been directed at the unions first.47 His later prison writings upheld the idea that the party could direct political activity: "The problem must be posed in the following terms: every member of the party, whatever his position or his responsibilities, is still a member of the party and subordinate to its leadership. There cannot be subordination between union and party: if the union has spontaneously chosen as its leader a member of the party, that means that the union freely accepts (indeed desires) control by the party over its officials."48

The argument that the labour bureaucracy is the social basis of opportunism also ignores the influence of different historical conditions on the character of political approaches. For example, O'Lincoln asserted: "As to the flow-over of trade union into political organisation, it was true that the working class movement produced political parties across Europe. But they took on finished form as reformist parties, trapped within the logic of capitalism just as the unions were."49

O'Lincoln claimed "this tendency, too, was clear in Marx and Engels' day",50 but it wasn't. His concern with the "finished form" of the social democratic parties avoided a discussion of how they arrived there. In particular, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the most influential, radicalised in the 1880s. The party's new program, adopted at Erfurt in 1891, did continue to accommodate revolutionary and reformist elements that were not yet clearly differentiated together in the one organisation:51 it achieved this by "lack[ing] precisely what should have been said", as Engels put it,52 which Lenin later pointed out was discussion of the dictatorship of the proletariat.53 Nevertheless, in a context where there was no labour aristocracy that could be a root for opportunism within, rather than alien from, the working class, this was what Marxists understood to be the composition of the proletarian party, in which the revolutionary element would predominate.

Marxists continued for some time to uphold the view that their parties should include all who proclaimed themselves adherents of Marxism, even open reformists.54 Before 1914, the struggle against opportunism in the working-class movement separated the revolutionary and opportunist elements into distinct parties only in Russia.55 After 1914, Lenin changed his view about what sort of Marxism could be included in the revolutionary party, but he historically limited his criticism of the previous perspective. He said the inclusive party "has outlived itself"56 and "the old theory that opportunism is a `legitimate shade' in a single party that knows no `extremes' has now turned into … a tremendous hindrance to the working-class movement".57 The theory of the labour aristocracy, unlike the argument that the labour bureaucracy is the social basis of opportunism, accounts for this change through the consolidation of the domination of monopolising capitals, their superprofits, the relative privileges these could then sustain for a stratum of the working class and the possibility this opened up for collaboration between that stratum and the bourgeoisie.

The labour aristocracy and the labour bureaucracy

Kelly also considered that the range of policies and actions of union leaderships, and the varied reactions of union members to campaigns, including rebuffs of leadership calls for action, contradict the category of the labour bureaucracy as the explanation of opportunism. He argued that this theory, because it plays up the impact of struggle on workers' ideas, while remaining silent about workers' interest in higher incomes and better working conditions and social amenities under capitalism, and, also, the impact of struggle on officials, overestimates both workers' radicalisation through industrial action which does not become politicised, and leadership conservatism.58

Kelly suggested an alternative account. The threat of organised workers' industrial power secures agreements. Exercise of this power must be prevented once agreements have been reached, however. So, in the unions, preservation of organisation and short-term objectives, compatible with existing economic and political arrangements, are emphasised. Crises in employers' profitability and changes in government erode the external support for this emphasis. The unions are forced to rely again on their membership and its mobilisation. The result is historical variation in the role of officials.59

The carrying over of opportunist politics from circumstances of stability into those of crisis by a section of officials—the labour bureaucracy—confronts Kelly's account. These officials' consciousness is prepared by the peaceful tempo of events. They are convinced they best understand and have the strongest commitment to workers' interests.60 The material interests of the working class as a whole, including even the labour aristocracy, exert no influence on this consciousness. Its development or retardation is tied to the officials' broader politics.61

O'Lincoln suggested that the reason workers continue to follow opportunist leaders must be considered.62 The core of the argument that the labour bureaucracy is the social basis of opportunism is that bargaining by workers' organisations enforces an accommodation with capital and subordinates the proletarian class struggle. From this point of view, "any agreement … must to a degree be at the expense of workers". However, the balance of forces in a struggle between labour and capital could enforce a compromise on workers: that compromise would then be legitimate and a victory of sorts for the workers.63 What is at stake when workers make an agreement is whether or not they remain ready to carry on the class struggle or have retreated from it.64 Contrary to claims by Kelly, the CI understanding that collective agreements are only temporary cessations of open class conflict, because it doesn't refuse compromises, resembles the latter perspective, not the former.65

Officials' actions can't explain a mass retreat from the class struggle, even when this occurs through these actions. They don't show "how it came to pass that the `people' allowed themselves to be thus betrayed".66 Instead, the theory of the labour aristocracy proposes that the material interests, historical experience and political formation of the working class and its different sections would be the basis of any explanation. Among the labour aristocrats, it finds a tendency to put aside the historical interests of the working class in favour of the collaboration with monopolising capitals needed to secure their relative privilege.

The labour bureaucracy might be displaced from the labour movement apparatus, of course. Kelly's account can be interpreted in this way.

The argument that the labour bureaucracy is the source of opportunism, however, cannot ascertain the characteristics of the development of a class-struggle alternative to the labour bureaucracy. If workers are not militant, the labour bureaucracy commands. For example, Bramble partly explains the acceptance of a social contract (the Accords) by many union militants in Australia from 1983 to 1996 by the collapse in 1982 of working-class militancy as a possible alternative to the union officials and the subsequent crackdown by officials on any threat of rank-and-file action.67 If workers are militant, the possibility is not considered that their discord with the labour bureaucracy reflects disenchantment with the ability of a particular leadership to pursue, not common class interest, but aristocratic privileges. "Militancy" is abstractly hailed—"the problem of bureaucracy must be set against the continuing pattern of rank and file activity … including dissent against and resistance to official policies", Bramble wrote elsewhere68—without a critical assessment of what that activity amounts to or the struggle needed to develop it into political class action and consciousness.69 Indeed, radical leaderships and working-class activity appear to exist separately, the latter unchanging until the former develops: "In the absence of revolutionary organisations sizeable enough and politically effective enough to contend for leadership in the working class, rank and file workers will quite understandably continue to look for reformist solutions", Dianne Fieldes wrote.70

In contrast, Lenin wrote: "We are waging a struggle against the `labour aristocracy' in the name of the masses of the workers and in order to win them over to our side; we are waging the struggle against the opportunist and social-chauvinist leaders in order to win the working class over to our side."71 The theory of the labour aristocracy suggests that not only "the logic of capitalism"—the condition of all working-class politics—but also the transformation of capitalism by the consolidation of the domination of monopolising capitals, have been the conditions for opportunism and the struggle against it in the working-class movement, including in its apparatus.

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The labour aristocracy and the `lower strata' of the working class

The relationship between the labour aristocracy and the other strata of the working class also develops under the conditions of monopoly capitalism. The alliance of the labour aristocracy with the bourgeoisie, in which the stratum defends its privileges, the stratifications of the working class, the political institutions of capitalist class rule and the idea of the harmony of interest between labour and capital, puts it in an antagonistic position to the proletariat as a class and to the mass of the class who do not benefit from its relative privileges.72 Robert Clough suggested, in particular, that the labour aristocracy undermines the spontaneous movement of the workers, the basis for their acquisition of a political class consciousness, "through its control of the organisation of the working class, its privileged access to resources such as finance, the media, meeting halls and so on".73 The labour aristocracy may deny solidarity to working-class resistance. Alternatively, it may subordinate the spontaneous movement to itself or even subsume the movement.

The course of the movement for the organisation of mass production workers in the us from 1933 to 1950 is an important example of these variations in the forms of interaction in the relationship between the labour aristocracy and other strata of the working class. This movement, according to Mike Davis, began from a concern for rank-and-file power in the workplace and culminated in the 1936-37 sit-down strike wave. It mobilised the second-generation immigrants and was led by groups of radical political cadres and syndicalist skilled workers. It organised, against the opposition of the American Federation of Labor, in shop committees, city-wide organisations and industrial unions, which, together with unions alienated by the AFL, would form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (cio). Yet the weight of resources possessed by the leaderships of the older unions favoured a reduction in rank-and-file direction of the unions in the new federation. After 1937, the AFL reasserted its position, building on a solid base in "the relative conservatism of its predominantly skilled, native-Protestant and `old immigrant' membership",74 through collaboration with employers or a militancy limited to members' sectoral concerns. When the cio did regain the initiative, after 1941, the general dominant position internationally of us capital was established and working-class identity was reforged by wartime nationalism, which included all whites while maintaining anti-black racism. A massive postwar strike wave institutionalised collective bargaining along with the restoration of managerial control. There was also no successful attempt to organise the labour movement for independent political action: instead, most of the left became among the most zealous promoters of the new nationalism, before being defeated in a "civil war" within the cio in which the right had the backing of laws opposing radicals and suppressing labour solidarity.75

"In fact", Elbaum and Seltzer pointed out, "for extended periods the labour aristocracy has been able to exercise political leadership over the entire working class", bringing to the fore the influence, not the antagonism, of the stratum with regard to the rest of the class.76 Large sections of the working class, including the oppressed strata, when they have no independent means of collective expression of their own, accept the representation of their interests by the labour aristocracy, which, because it tends to include the more stably organised workers, emerges as the "natural" voice of the working class. The partial extension to broader layers of the working class of some of the stratum's privileges and the coincidences of interests among the labour aristocracy and parts of other working-class strata arising from other stratifications both support this influence.77

The influence of the labour aristocracy—that is, of opportunism, and, through it, of the bourgeoisie—in the working class as a whole is the stratum's important political feature. Lenin commented that this "serves the bourgeoisie splendidly, and serves it precisely among the workers, brings its influence precisely to the proletariat, to where the bourgeoisie needs it most and where it finds it most difficult to subject the masses morally".78

Opportunism and preparation of the proletariat for revolution

As Elbaum and Seltzer noted, "the complex and shifting relationship of the labour aristocracy to the lower strata of the working class is an axis around which much of the `politics' within the workers' movement oscillates". 79 Such changes in the politics of the workers' movement bring forth the various forms of opportunism. Liberal-labour politics was counterposed to social democracy's combination of reformist and revolutionary perspectives about the struggle for working-class power. Later, the opportunist and revolutionary wings of social democracy were counterposed.

In neither case was the contrast absolute in appearance, however. Lenin referred, for example, to the remarks of a German opportunist about the spd: "It must preserve its character as a labour party with socialist ideals; for the day it gives this up a new party will arise and adopt the program the old party had disavowed, giving it a still more radical formulation". This, Lenin said, represented the view of "frank, crude, [and] cynical" opportunism about the need for "phrases with a revolutionary ring to deceive the masses".

Lenin considered the opportunists who "act with stealth, subtlety and `honesty'" a greater danger, however. Karl Kautsky, who, Lenin argued, was the chief proponent of this form of opportunism, had stated that the spd "is splitting up into two extreme camps which have nothing in common", but wanted, Lenin said, "to use a few radical parliamentary speeches to reconcile the revolutionary masses with the opportunists" and to raise "hopes that the future International will surely be revolutionary … for the sole purpose of protecting, camouflaging and prettifying the present domination of the counter-revolutionary element". Lenin sarcastically asked: "Is it not obvious that `unity' with [the opportunist Carl] Legien and Co. is the best means of preparing the `future' revolutionary International?"80

The historical experience of the crisis in the workers' movement when the first world war began, according to Lenin, suggested otherwise. Opportunism was "no chance occurrence … but a social product of an entire period of history".81 In the struggle against opportunism, the working class had needed to use this period "of political stagnation or of sluggish, so-called `peaceful' development in order to develop [its] class-consciousness, strength and militancy … towards the `ultimate aim' of that class' advance, towards creating in it the ability to find practical solutions for great tasks in the great days".82

Lenin emphasised that the working class's political activity should combine taking advantage of all legal opportunities with preparing for and when necessary adopting illegal methods of work, through, for example "illegal and revolutionary parliamentarism":83 revolutionary organisations should, he said, "know how not to confine themselves to legality", be "capable of safeguarding themselves against opportunist treachery" and be " organisations of a proletariat that is beginning a `struggle for power', a struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie".84 This was how German social democracy had operated under the 1878-90 anti-socialist laws. Later only its revolutionary wing would act in this way, such as in Karl Liebknecht's work against his own country's militarism and war effort as a youth organisation leader and parliamentarian. This was carried out in violation of the spd's discipline.85

The "pure legalism, the legalism-and-nothing-but-legalism" of the social democratic parties in the first decades of the twentieth century, on the other hand, nurtured opportunism and "become the foundation for a bourgeois labour policy", Lenin said.86 He noted the principal role of legal mass organisations of the working class for the parties, especially in Germany, and the certainty these organisations would be suppressed if they initiated revolutionary action. He said that, in reaction to this situation, "the old party—from Legien to Kautsky inclusively—sacrificed the revolutionary aims of the proletariat for the sake of preserving the present legal organisations … People are so degraded and stultified by bourgeois legality that they cannot even conceive of the need for organisations of another kind, illegal organisations for the purpose of guiding the revolutionary struggle."87 Nothing else could be done legally in any crisis, he argued: practically, the opportunists in the organisations could betray any action, and, more fundamentally, the opportunists were powerful because of the support they received from the capitalists and their state.88

Lenin contrasted his view to what he considered "`official optimism' … optimism in respect of opportunism", which rejected breaking away from what it understood to be the masses and mass organisations.89 He pointed out that the existing organisations organised only a minority, generally from the relatively privileged strata, of the working class: he, who considered "genuine organisation" in the working-class struggle against the bourgeoisie to be flexible and single-willed, capable of changing form in accordance with whether or not there was a revolutionary situation,90 said "no one can seriously think it is possible to organise the majority of the proletariat under capitalism".91 And: "Secondly—and this is the main point—it is not so much a question of the size of an organisation, as of the real, objective significance of its policy: does its policy represent the masses, does it serve them, i.e., does it aim at their liberation from capitalism, or does it represent the interests of the minority, the minority's reconciliation with capitalism?"92

The legal working-class organisations, Lenin answered, on one of the many occasions he addressed this question, were "in the grip of opportunism", which was constituted by "an entire social stratum, consisting of parliamentarians, journalists, labour officials, privileged office personnel, and certain strata of the proletariat, [which] has sprung up and has become amalgamated with its own national bourgeoisie, which has proved fully capable of appreciating it and `adapting' it".93 The task of Marxist tactics, he said, then became to expose "the fact that the opportunists and social-chauvinists are in reality betraying and selling the interests of the masses, that they are defending the temporary privileges of a minority of the workers, that they are the vehicles of bourgeois ideas and influences, that they are really allies and agents of the bourgeoisie", in order to "teach the masses to appreciate their true political interests, to fight for socialism and for the revolution through all the long and painful vicissitudes of imperialist wars and imperialist armistices".94

Later Lenin would write that, without a struggle against the labour aristocracy, "without the destruction of every trace of its prestige among the workers, without convincing the masses of the utter bourgeois corruption of this stratum, there can be no question of a serious communist workers' movement".95 The conclusion Lenin drew in his draft theses for the second congress of the Comintern on its fundamental tasks was:

One of the chief causes hampering the revolutionary working-class movement in the developed capitalist countries is the fact that … the capitalists of these countries have been able to create a relatively larger and more stable labour aristocracy … [which] forms the real social pillar of the Second International, of the reformists and the `Centrists'; at present it might even be called the social mainstay of the bourgeoisie. No preparation of the proletariat for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie is possible, even in the preliminary sense, unless an immediate, systematic, extensive and open struggle is waged against this stratum …96

Proletarian tactics under the domination of monopolising capitals

Lenin's discussion of the struggle against the influence of the labour aristocracy as a stratum in the working class emphasised two issues, the orientation socialists should have towards the different strata of the working class and how to create the political organisation to carry this out.

Lenin claimed:

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, it will be definitely decided only by the socialist revolution.

He was "certain", however, that opportunism represented only the privileged strata of the class: "it is therefore our duty, if we wish to remain socialists, to go down lower and deeper, to the real masses". Appealing to the lower strata of the class "is the essence of Marxist tactics", he said emphatically.97

Subsequently, Lenin advocated this orientation in the CI: he noted, when discussing, in his draft theses for the second congress, how the Communist parties should effect the slogan of "closer links to the masses", that "the masses" meant "particularly those who are least organised and educated, who are most oppressed and least amenable to organisation". Then, to suggest the approach to achieve this, he drew on the experience in Russia: "The proletariat becomes revolutionary only insofar as it does not restrict itself to the narrow framework of craft interests, only when in all matters and spheres of public life, it acts as the leader of all the toiling and exploiting masses".98

In 1920, when Lenin wrote these draft theses, union membership and strike activity in Europe had been growing rapidly.99 Broad sections of the mass of workers were newly taking part in the labour movement. He called for "all-round and unstinted support especially to the spontaneous and mass strike movement".100

The upsurge in struggle stopped within a year, however. This was partly because the end of the short postwar boom led to a dramatic rise in unemployment. The third Comintern congress resolution on tactics, drafted by the Russian delegation, contrasted the opportunists' view, which regarded the unemployed as objects of state and trade union charity, with the understanding that the unemployed represented a revolutionary factor which could be organised for mass action and, by exerting pressure for and supporting action by the various sections of the proletariat, extend the scope of the class struggle:

By actively defending this layer of the working class, by supporting the most oppressed section of the proletariat, the Communist Parties are not championing one layer of the workers at the expense of others, but are furthering the interests of the working class as a whole. This the counter-revolutionary leaders have failed to do, preferring to advance the temporary interests of the labour aristocracy … Those who promote the interests of the labour aristocracy, either counterposing or simply ignoring the interests of the unemployed, destroy the unity of the working classes and are pursuing a policy that has counter-revolutionary consequences. The Communist Party, as the representative of the interests of the working class as a whole, cannot merely recognise these common interests verbally and argue for them in its propaganda. It can only effectively represent these interests if it disregards the opposition of the labour aristocracy and, when opportunities arise, leads the most oppressed and downtrodden workers into action.101

Lenin's draft theses also proposed that Comintern parties exclude those who publicly opposed strikes or "betray[ed] the workers by using the experience of strikes to teach them reformism, and not revolution".102 This continued a theme he took up from the time he first developed the theory of the labour aristocracy, that "the epoch of imperialism cannot permit the existence, in a single party, of the revolutionary proletariat's vanguard and the semi-petty-bourgeois aristocracy of the working class",103 although the earlier variation of this theme was that opportunism was a "bourgeois abscess" to be expelled.104

Elbaum and Seltzer pointed out, "these general tactical guidelines were elaborated by Lenin in … polemics with the `centrists' and `left' opportunists in the period 1914 to 1920".105 The "left Communist" interpretation of these guidelines as a call for revolutionaries not to compromise, however, was also a target of polemics by Lenin, Trotsky and others. Among other things, they argued that involvement in parliaments and "reactionary" trade unions, some electoral support for opportunists ("as the rope supports the hanged man … [to] hasten the political death") and proposals for united fronts of all workers, regardless of their political alignments, in common struggles to defend the immediate interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie are necessary when the majority of the working class is led by opportunists.106 They were concerned with workers gaining experience in struggle, a rise in the general level of political class consciousness among workers and bringing the overwhelming majority of the class under revolutionary socialist influence.107

The polemics against left communism did not abandon the guidelines developed earlier, however. For example, Trotsky was simply reiterating the view of ci resolutions about the united front tactic when he wrote that the revolutionary party could fight to win a majority of the working class only "by remaining an absolutely independent organisation with a clear program and strict internal discipline. That is the reason why the party was bound to break ideologically and organisationally with the reformists and the centrists."108 Lenin's injunction that Communists "must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found"109 needs to be considered together with his warnings against optimism that objective conditions guarantee the unity of the working class on a revolutionary basis and about the persistence of opportunism.110 As Elbaum and Seltzer noted, changes in objective conditions do not by themselves break the hold of opportunism, since the pressure on sectoral interests in periods of economic decline can encourage workers either to reject these in favour of class-wide interests or fight harder to retain them.

The continuity of tactics was underpinned by theoretical outlook and political perspective. As Lenin reported to the second Comintern congress:

Opportunism in the upper ranks of the working-class movement is bourgeois socialism, not proletarian socialism. It has been shown in practice that working-class activists who follow the opportunist trend are better defenders of the bourgeoisie than the bourgeois themselves … This is where our principal enemy is, an enemy we must overcome … That is our main task.111

Elbaum and Seltzer summarised these considerations:

In general, Lenin argued that in periods in which the labour aristocracy is firmly entrenched in [the] leadership of the mass organisations of the working class, particularly the trade unions, a correct tactical line must emphasise political work in the lower strata of the working class, among the unorganised and those whose conditions of life provide less basis to foster bourgeois illusions. In periods in which new forces from the lower strata are entering the established mass organisations, or in which objective conditions are constricting the labour aristocracy's role and influence within them, correct tactics must focus on isolating the labour aristocracy and sharpening the struggle against opportunism within the reactionary-led bodies. In all periods, political work must continue wherever the masses are concentrated, including painstaking, patient, and at times dangerous work in those organisations dominated by the labour aristocracy and opportunism (in order to be positioned to take advantage of the rank and file's discontent when conditions change).

… But a communist movement whose orientation to the revolutionary training of the proletariat is concentrated exclusively or even principally on the organised trade union movement at the expense of its work among the non-organised, lower strata is already embarking on an opportunist course … [Lenin calls on] communists to struggle, in the trade unions, against the labour aristocracy and its opportunist line. The political objective is to strengthen the class consciousness and fighting capacity of the workers in the process of defeating the influence of the opportunist trend.112

The labour aristocracy as the social base for opportunism

Because labour aristocrats can be politically class conscious, the class is not absolutely politically differentiated according to position within the aristocratic stratification. This leads to criticisms that the attribution by the theory of the labour aristocracy of the social base of opportunism to the stratum is not empirically verified.

A.J. Polan argued, for example:

Lenin's appreciation of the politics of the higher paid worker was an inversion of the truth. Clearly, ideas of respectability and conservatism could very easily flow from social stability and, more specifically, from the craftsman's elevated role in production. But very often situations of crisis or structural change produced among such people a fabric of consciousness that made them extremely and uniquely amenable to radical ideas. The experience of the communist parties after the [First World War] testifies to this. In most parties, workers from the skilled trades constituted the largest single elements of the membership, and if one considers the relatively small size of those groups in the working class as a whole, the attraction of communist politics for such people is clearly markedly stronger than among unskilled workers.113

Concessions of more favourable conditions for workers' struggle against capital are what determine the composition of the labour aristocracy, however. Therefore, the stratum's members will tend to be represented in any party composed of workers in disproportionately greater numbers than in the class as a whole. They can more readily pursue their sectoral interests than other parts of the class, if they wish, but whether or not they do so is the outcome of political struggle. The role in the 1905 Russian Revolution of the metalworkers—the best paid workers, but also the "vanguard of the proletariat … the finest elements of the working class"—was one they played, Lenin explained, because they did not "regard the class struggle as a struggle in the interests of a thin upper stratum—a conception the reformists all too often try to instil", but instead recognised the need "for the proletariat to come forward as the real vanguard of the majority of the exploited and draw that majority into the struggle",114 which was an outlook, he had argued, made possible only by revolutionaries assuming an active role in workers' political education.115

Orientation by a party to the lower strata of the working class can significantly influence its composition, however. Polan's example of the membership of the German Communist Party in 1927, in which skilled workers were forty per cent and unskilled workers twenty-eight per cent, with the remainder made up of agricultural labourers, independent craftspeople and commercial employees,116 can be compared with the figures for the spd branches surveyed twenty years earlier: the proportion of skilled workers was halved and the proportion of unskilled workers doubled,117 so the former no longer totally dominated and the latter need not have been marginalised.

The obverse argument to Polan's refers to support, especially in votes, for opportunist parties among the lower strata of the working class. It argues that these parties therefore remain, in some sense, proletarian.

The amount of support of the lower strata of the working class for opportunism is irrelevant to an analysis of the fundamental political character of the opportunist parties, however, because the support is not based on any historic common interest, not even of a particular capitalist epoch, like the benefits the labour aristocracy obtains from monopolising capitals, and, therefore, is more or less conjunctural. Lenin, in a contribution in support of the affiliation of the British Communist Party to the Labour Party in the ci discussion, criticised a description of the Labour Party as the "political expression of the workers organised in trade unions".118 He pointed out:

Of course, most of the Labour Party's members are workers. However, whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely on whether its members are workers but also on who leads it and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only the latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this point of view, the only correct one, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns.119

The empirical argument against the theory of the labour aristocracy also ignores the influence of the various class-collaboration ways in which the labour aristocracy pursues its interests on the kind of support workers from the lower strata offer opportunism. These workers are very often not involved in politics at all: partial prohibition of political abstention by the state, as with regimes of compulsory voting, may hide a lack of other forms of political participation by workers. The adoption by the labour aristocracy of the liberal organisational form of an opportunist group within an existing capitalist party can condition workers' political activity. Davis noted:

In no other capitalist country is mass political abstentionism as fully developed as in the United States, where a "silent majority" of the working class has sat out more than half the elections of the last century. Arguably this mute, atomised protest is the historical correlative of the striking absence of an independent political party of the proletariat …120

The policy of the labour aristocracy may also have a similar influence. Clough correlated increased electoral abstention in Britain by black and Irish workers in the 1970s and 1980s to how the Labour Party and the union movement adapted to the increasing individualism of a labour aristocracy undergoing reformation in its benefits and composition, and dropped any pretence of defending the poorer sections of the working class.121

The combination by the labour aristocracy of a separate political organisation and a more collectivist social democratic policy might encourage more political involvement by the lower strata of the working class. The premises of the labour aristocracy's pursuit of its interests—the maintenance and extension of the labour aristocracy, against the immediate interests of the monopolising capitals, from whom the stratum demands benefits supported by monopoly superprofits, and the undermining of class-struggle politics in the working-class movement, against the historic interests of the working class—limit this potential, however. The labour aristocracy's separate political organisation arises from a view within the stratum that its action independent of the capitalist class or various sections of that class, including mobilisation of various strata of the working class, can most effectively express its particular interests within its alliance with the capitalist class. It binds the lower strata of the working class to itself not in their interests, but in its own, and, therefore, to class collaboration.

The phenomenon of poorer workers proving to be among the most solid supporters of the opportunists misleads even some protagonists of the theory of the labour aristocracy. Clough said the appeals of the Labour Party to these strata were necessary, beyond the "piling up the votes of the poor working class", for the party's electoral victory, as if that consideration, rather than an expression of the interests of the labour aristocracy, determined the policy of the opportunists.122 Also, he presented the actions of the British Labour Party and unions as "the increasing separation of the Party from the mass of the working class"123 and "the unions … reverting much to what they were at the turn of the century, embracing only a minority of the working class … because they cannot unite the interests of all sections of the working class as they could in the 1960s and 1970s".124 These characterisations are examples of a failure to account for the extent to which working-class unity in action involves the extension of the labour aristocracy and of its influence in the working class, against which revolutionary socialists must struggle, when monopolising capitals are relatively prosperous and stable, and the development of a class-struggle wing in the proletarian movement, which the opportunists set out to destroy, in capitalist crises.125

The possibility of favourable conditions for the predominance of either the opportunist or revolutionary trends in the working-class movement should not be taken to indicate comparable conditions for existence of the two trends. The existence of the labour aristocracy and its political expression in "bourgeois labour parties" is inevitable in relation to the consolidation of the domination of monopolising capitals. The revolutionary proletariat can create itself only under suitable conditions, by the adoption of correct tactics, and through a commitment to the task. Guiding this will be "the only Marxist line in the world labour movement", as Lenin called it, "to explain to the masses the inevitability and necessity of breaking with opportunism, to educate them for revolution by waging a relentless struggle against opportunism … to expose, not conceal, the utter vileness of national-liberal labour politics".126


1. V.I. Lenin, "Imperialism and the split in socialism", in V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Resistance Books, Sydney, 1999, p. 131.

2. The first article in the series, "Engels and the theory of the labour aristocracy", appeared in Links No. 25, January-June, 2004, pp. 116-134. It considered the scope and significance of the theory and its application by Engels to understanding the politics of the English working class in the latter half of the 19th century. The second article, "Monopoly capitalism and the bribery of the labour aristocracy", appeared in Links No. 26, July-December 2004, pp. 46-63. It began the discussion of Lenin's development of the theory and the controversies which surround the theory, considering those concerned with the source and nature of the "bribe" to the labour aristocracy.

3. Max Elbaum and Robert Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy: the material basis for opportunism in the labor movement—part I: the theory of the labor aristocracy", Line of March, May-June 1982, pp. 94-96.

4. Lenin, op. cit., pp. 133-34.

5. Tony Cliff, "Economic roots of reformism", <>. M.E. Howard and J.E. King, A History of Marxian Economics: Volume I, 1883-1929, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1989, p. 260. The authors proceed on different bases, however: Cliff attributes to the impact of monopoly capitalism only a temporary "general economic prosperity", while Howard and King see the problem "in the assertion that only a minority of the labour movement was deeply affected … and in the presumption that the revolutionary integrity of the proletarian mass was unchanged".

6. Tom O'Lincoln, "Trade unions and revolutionary oppositions: a survey of classic Marxist writings", <>.

7. V.I. Lenin, "A caricature of Marxism and imperialist Economism", in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works (LCW), Vol. 23, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1981, pp. 55-56.

8. Elbaum and Seltzer, op. cit., pp. 95-96.

9. ibid., p. 94.

10. ibid., pp. 94-95; Max Elbaum and Robert Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy: the material basis for opportunism in the labor movement—part II: the US labor movement since World War II", Line of March, Sept-Oct 1982, p. 91.

11. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part II", p. 91.

12. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I", pp. 80 and 92; Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part II", p. 91.

13. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I", pp. 79-80; Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part II", p. 97-102.

14. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I", pp. 80-83.

15. ibid., pp. 81-82.

16. Leon Trotsky, "Where is Britain going? Part 2", in Leon Trotsky Trotsky on Britain, Monad Press, New York, 1973, p. 162.

17. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I", pp. 82-83.

18. ibid., pp. 84-85.

19. ibid., pp. 85-88.

20. V.I. Lenin, "What is to be done?", LCW, Vol. 5, p. 387.

21. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I", p. 88.

22. V.I. Lenin, `Left-wing' communism—an infantile disorder, Resistance Books, Sydney, 1999, pp. 54-55.

23. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I", pp. 88-89 n.

24. ibid., p. 91; V.I. Lenin, "The collapse of the Second International", LCW, Vol. 21, pp. 240; V.I. Lenin, "The state and revolution", LCW, Vol. 25, pp. 491-92; V.I. Lenin, "What is to be done?", LCW, Vol. 5, p. 481; Grigory Zinoviev, "The social roots of opportunism", in John Riddell, (ed.), Lenin's Struggle for a Revolutionary International, Monad Press, New York, 1984, p. 485.

25. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I", pp. 89-91; Socialist Workers Party, Revolutionary Strategy and Tactics in the Trade Unions, Resistance Books, Sydney, 2001, p. 11. The Democratic Socialist Perspective (previously Democratic Socialist Party), a tendency in the Socialist Alliance in Australia, is the successor organisation of the SWP.

26. See, for example, V.I. Lenin, "The second congress of the Communist International", LCW, Vol. 31, p. 230.

27. Zinoviev, op. cit., p. 482. The proximity of two categories encourages the confusion of them, especially when there are examples of errors in the use of the terms (for example, see ibid., p. 481) and Lenin, as Elbaum and Seltzer explained "sometimes use[d] `labour aristocracy' as if it describes the opportunist political trend in the workers' movement" and, moreover, personified this by reference to leaders of the trend, thus identifying it with the labour bureaucracy. Here, as in Elbaum and Seltzer, and following the main thrust of Lenin's discussion, "labour aristocracy" means "the objectively privileged upper strata of the working class" ("The labor aristocracy … part I", p. 79 n).

28. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I", pp. 91-92; Lenin, `Left-wing' communism, pp. 47-48.

29. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I", p. 92.

30. "The trade-union movement, factory committees and the Third International", in Alan Adler, (ed.), Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the Third International, 2nd ed, Pluto Press, London, 1983, pp. 107-08.

31. John Kelly, Trade Unions and Socialist Politics, Verso, London, 1988, p. 149. Re Gramsci, see Bramble, op. cit., p. 41.

32. Kelly, op. cit., ch. 7.

33. O'Lincoln, op. cit.

34. Tom Bramble, "Managers of discontent: problems with labour leadership", in Rick Kuhn and Tom O'Lincoln (eds.), Class and Class Conflict in Australia", Longman Australia, Melbourne, 1996.

35. SWP, Revolutionary Strategy and Tactics in the Trade Unions, pp. 9 and 11. At this time, the SWP considered the Australian Labor Party a "bourgeois workers' party" (p. 4), contrasting its organisational form, "the party of the trade unions", with the bourgeois content of its program and action, which "is the political expression of the union bureaucracy" (p. 43). It said: "Revolutionary propaganda therefore argues for union involvement in and control of the activities of the Labor Party … to change it from a political instrument of the union bureaucracy to a political instrument of proletarian militants". (p. 44). In 1986, the SWP resolved instead that "the ALP is a liberal bourgeois party" fundamentally characterised by its program and confined by this within the limits set by capitalist property relations ("the ALP and the fight for socialism", in Labor and the Fight for Socialism, 2nd ed, New Course, Sydney, 1988, p. 11). It continued: "The fight to transform the unions [into class-struggle instruments] will not be successful so long as the majority of the organised working class remains politically imprisoned by Labor reformism ... the liberation of the unions from [the] bureaucracy's control will confront militant unionists with the need to break with the ALP and build a new political instrument" (ibid., p. 31). Subsequently, the program of the DSP referred to the labour bureaucracy as the "main obstacle" to the transformation of the unions (DSP, Program of the Democratic Socialist Party, 2nd ed., New Course Publications, Sydney, 1994, pp. 74-75).

36. Bramble, op. cit., pp. 40-41; Kelly, op. cit., pp. 150-51.

37. Bramble, op. cit., p. 40. Also Lincoln, op. cit.

38. Kelly, op. cit., p. 152.

39. Bramble, op. cit., pp. 40-42.

40. Kelly, op. cit., p. 160.

41. ibid.

42. Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1993, ch. 9.

43. Rosa Luxemburg, "The mass strike, the political party and the trade unions", in Mary-Alice Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1980, ch. 8, especially p. 218.

44. Leon Trotsky, "The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International", in Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1977, p. 118.

45. Quintin Hoare (ed.), Antonio Gramsci: Selections from Political Writings, 1910-1920, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1988. See also the citations in O'Lincoln, op. cit.

46. ci, op. cit., pp. 108-12.

47. Antonio Gramsci, "Our trade union strategy", in Quintin Hoare (ed.), Antonio Gramsci: Selections from Political Writings, 1920-1926, International Publishers, New York, 1978; Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, "The Italian situation and the tasks of the PCI", in ibid., pp. 368-69.

48. Hoare and Smith, op. cit., p. 226.

49. O'Lincoln, op. cit. This formulation allows O'Lincoln to ignore the role played by these parties' socialist political education and experience in the later formation of the Bolsheviks and then the Communist parties. An example of this was noted by Lenin: "German revolutionary Social-Democracy … came closest to being the party the revolutionary proletariat needs … of all the Western parties, [it] produced the finest leaders, and recovered and gained new strength more rapidly" (`Left-wing' communism, p. 40).

50. ibid.

51. ibid., p. 7.

52. Frederick Engels, "A critique of the draft Social-Democratic Programme of 1891", in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, Progress Publishers, Moscow, pp. 433-35.

53. Lenin, "The second congress of the Communist International", pp. 246-47.

54. Doug Lorimer, "The Bolshevik party and `Zinovievism': comments on a caricature of Leninism", Links, No. 24, Sep-Dec 2003, p. 105. For examples of how Lenin upheld this position, see V.I. Lenin, "Conference of the extended editorial board of Proletary" (LCW, Vol. 15, 1977, p. 430) and V.I. Lenin, "In Australia", where he contrasted the Labour Party of Britain, "an alliance between the non-socialist trade unions and the extremely opportunist Independent Labour Party", and the Australian Labor Party, the "unalloyed representative of the non-socialist workers' trade unions" (LCW, Vol 19, 1980, p. 217).

55. Lenin, "The collapse of the Second International", pp. 258-59; V.I. Lenin, "Socialism and war", LCW, Vol. 21, pp. 331-33, 338.

56. V.I. Lenin, "What next?", LCW, Vol. 21, p. 110.

57. Lenin, "The collapse of the Second International", p. 257. Emphasis added.

58. Kelly, op. cit., pp. 156-60, 166.

59. ibid., pp. 152-153.

60. Zinoviev, op. cit., p.484.

61. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I", p. 92.

62. O'Lincoln, op. cit.

63. Kelly, op. cit., p. 181.

64. Lenin, `Left-wing' communism, pp. 68-69.

65. ci, "The Communist International and the Red International of Trade Unions", in Adler, op. cit., p. 272; Kelly, op. cit., p. 179.

66. Frederick Engels, "Revolution and counter-revolution in Germany", in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 11, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1979, p. 6.

67. Tom Bramble, "Social democracy and the `failure' of the Accord", in Kenneth Wilson, Joanne Bradford and Maree Fitzpatrick (eds.), Australia in Accord: an Evaluation of the Prices and Incomes Accord in the Hawke-Keating Years, South Pacific Publishing, Footscray, 2000, p. 258. Bramble polemicised that the social democrats he critiqued never treat the working class as a subject (p. 262), but here he failed to do this too.

68. Bramble, "Managers of discontent", p. 53. Emphasis added.

69. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I", p. 93. Cf. Bramble, "Managers of discontent", p. 53.

70. Dianne Fieldes, "Still here, still fighting: the working class in the nineties", in Rick Kuhn and Tom O'Lincoln (eds.), Class and Class Conflict in Australia, Longman Australia, Melbourne, 1996, p. 36. See also Bramble, "Managers of discontent", p. 53 and Bramble, "Social democracy", p. 258.

71. Lenin, `Left-wing' communism, p. 55.

72. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I", pp. 93-94.

73. Robert Clough, "Watchdogs of capitalism: the reality of the labour aristocracy", Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism, #116, December 1993-January 1994.

74. Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream, Verso, London, 1986, p. 71.

75. ibid., ch. 2.

76. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I", p. 94.

77. ibid., pp. 94-97.

78. Lenin, "Imperialism and the split in socialism", p. 134.

79. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I", p. 93.

80. V.I. Lenin, "Opportunism and the collapse of the Second International", LCW, Vol. 22, pp. 114-18.

81. Lenin, "The collapse of the Second International", p. 247.

82. V.I. Lenin, "Karl Marx", LCW, Vol. 21, p. 75.

83. Lenin, "The collapse of the Second International", pp. 247-48, 256.

84. ibid., p. 250.

85. ibid., p. 248.

86. ibid., pp. 247, 256.

87. ibid., pp. 251-52.

88. ibid., pp. 247-49.

89. V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Resistance Books, Sydney, 1999, p. 121; Lenin, "Imperialism and the split in socialism", p. 135.

90. Lenin, "The collapse of the Second International", pp. 253-54.

91. Lenin, "Imperialism and the split in socialism", p. 135.

92. ibid.

93. Lenin, "The collapse of the Second International", p. 250.

94. Lenin, "Imperialism and the split in socialism", p. 136.

95. Lenin, "Letter to Sylvia Pankhurst", LCW, Vol. 29, p. 563.

96. V.I. Lenin, "Theses on the fundamental tasks of the second congress of the Communist International", LCW, Vol. 31, pp. 193-94.

97. Lenin, "Imperialism and the split in socialism", pp. 135-36.

98. V.I. Lenin, "Theses", LCW, Vol. 31, p. 194.

99. See, for example: on British union membership and strike activity, Kelly, op. cit., p. 102ff; on German union membership, which declined only slightly until 1923, see G. Beier's calculation in K.D. Ermann, Die Ziet Weltkreig, cited by John A. Moses, "The concept of economic democracy within the German socialist trade unions during the Weimar Republic", Labour History, No. 34, May 1978, p. 45. 1920 was the year of the factory occupations in Italy and the general strike in Germany against the Kapp putsch.

100. V.I. Lenin, "Theses", LCW, Vol. 31, p. 194.

101. CI, "On tactics", in Adler, op. cit., pp. 287-88.

102. V.I. Lenin, "Theses", LCW, Vol. 31, p. 194.

103. Lenin, "The collapse of the Second International", p. 257.

104. ibid., pp. 244, 249.

105. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I", p. 101.

106. See, for example: CI, "Theses on Comintern tactics", in Adler, op. cit., pp. 395-99, 400-09 [appendix: Executive Committee, "Theses on the united front"]; Lenin, `Left-wing' communism, especially p. 86; Leon Trotsky, "The school of revolutionary strategy", in Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 2, Monad Press, New York, 1977; Leon Trotsky, "On the united front", in V.I. Lenin, `Left-wing' communism—an infantile disorder, Resistance Books, Sydney, 1999.

107. CI, "Theses on Comintern tactics", p. 396; Lenin, `Left-wing' communism, pp. 73-74; Trotsky, "On the united front", p. 119

108. Trotsky, "On the united front", p. 119. See also CI, "Theses on Comintern tactics", pp. 396, 406.

109. Lenin, `Left-wing' communism, p. 56.

110. Lenin, "Imperialism and the split in socialism", pp. 128-29; Lenin, "The second congress of the Communist International", p. 231.

111. Lenin, "The second congress of the Communist International", p. 231. See also Lenin, `Left-wing' communism, p. 38.

112. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I", pp. 101, 103.

113. A.J. Polan, Lenin and the End of Politics, Methuen, London, 1984, p. 169.

114. V.I. Lenin, "Lecture on the 1905 Revolution", LCW, Vol. 23, pp. 240-42.

115. Lenin, "What is to be done?".

116. Polan, op. cit., p. 169n. Polan's example of the 1929 Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain, at which sixty-nine per cent of the delegates "were employed in coal, iron, steel, engineering or shipbuilding—the `metals' that were the home of the skilled worker" is immediately problematic, since the proportion of "unskilled" coal miners, or unskilled workers generally, among these delegates is unclear. Also, this CP, unlike the German one, was not a mass party. His other example, of the great number of skilled workers in this party's leadership, is flawed simply because many other factors influence the formation of such groups.

117. Zinoviev, op. cit., p. 494.

118. John Riddell (ed.), Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress [of the CI], 1920, Vol. 2, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1991, p. 736. The speaker was William McLaine.

119. ibid., p. 739. Gustav Noske and Philipp Scheidemann were opportunist leaders of the SPD.

120. Davis, op. cit., p. 3.

121. Robert Clough, Labour: a Party Fit for Imperialism, Larkin Publications, London, 1992, part 6.

122. ibid., pp. 151-52, 165, 176.

123. ibid., p. 167.

124. ibid., p. 182.

125. Clough discusses this with regard to the 1984-85 British miners' strike (ibid., pp. 171-74). Their union did not revert, however: it was more or less annihilated.

126. Lenin, "Imperialism and the split in socialism", p. 136.

[Jonathan Strauss is a long-time member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective in the Socialist Alliance of Australia. He is currently a postgraduate student investigating developments in the working class and its consciousness during the Hawke-Keating Labor governments, which ended in 1996.]