Monopoly capitalism and the bribery of the labour aristocracy

By Jonathan Strauss

The labour aristocracy in monopoly capitalism

The sources of monopoly superprofits

The bribe and other causes of working-class material differentiation

The bribe as a mass social relationship

Incorporation and integration


The theory of the labour aristocracy argues that opportunism in the working class has a material basis. The superprofits of monopoly capital support the benefits of a stratum of relatively privileged workers, whose interests in this are expressed by class-collaborationist politics. 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 second in a series of four,2 will begin to discuss Lenin's development of the theory and the controversies that surround the theory about the source and nature of the "bribe" to the labour aristocracy.

The labour aristocracy in monopoly capitalism

The contribution Lenin made to the theory was to address the transformation of the character of monopoly capitalism when it became the principal form of the capitalist mode of production and the consequences of this for politics in the working class. His analysis of "[capitalist] imperialism … as the development and direct continuation of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism … a definite and very high stage of [capitalism's] development, when certain of [these] fundamental characteristics began to change into their opposites"3 involved:

  • Monopolising capitals becoming a permanent feature of capitalism: "Imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism … capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital [merged bank and industrial capital] is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun; in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed".4
  • The enjoyment of monopoly superprofits by "finance capital not of one, but of several, though very few, Great Powers".5
  • The possibility, therefore, and also the practice of the various monopolising capitals and blocs of such capitals of "brib[ing] smaller strata [than in England in 184868] of the `labour aristocracy'",6 which was needed by these capitals because "the working class movement of the twentieth century … can neither be brushed aside nor suppressed by brute force, [but] must be demoralised from within, by buying its top section".7
  • The increasing oppression "of the mass of the proletariat and the semi-proletariat", because of the intensified competition among the monopolising capitals.8
  • The further development of the history of the labour movement, therefore, in the struggle between two tendencies: "On the one hand, there is the tendency of the bourgeoisie and the opportunists to convert a handful of very rich and privileged nations into `eternal' parasites … to `rest on the laurels' of the exploitation of Negroes, Indians, etc., … On the other hand, there is the tendency of the masses, who are more oppressed than before and who bear the whole brunt of imperialist wars, to cast off this yoke and to overthrow the bourgeoisie … the first tendency is not accidental; it is `substantiated' economically. In all [imperialist] countries the bourgeoisie has already begotten, fostered and secured for itself `bourgeois labour parties' of social-chauvinists. The difference between a definitely formed party … and [a] semi-formed near-party… is an immaterial difference."9

Lenin believed a lengthy prevalence in the working class movement of the bourgeois labour parties "improbable … in view of the desperate struggle [the imperialist countries] are waging for the division of the spoils".10 This sharp rivalry among monopolising capitals had restricted the capacity of each to bribe "its" proletariat (as would determined struggles of oppressed nations and peoples). He did not anticipate subsequent historical developments, in particular the hegemonic position US capital and its state would attain within monopoly capitalism after a second world war, which created a period of economic and political stability among monopolising capitals, however. This allowed an increase in the bribery, which became the basis for a strengthening of the opportunist trend.11

Murray Smith pointed out that the capitalist class overturned the "postwar consensus" more than 25 years ago, after the end of the postwar boom, as it attempted to take back the gains made by the working class. This, he argued, qualitatively transformed all social-democratic parties in the advanced capitalist countries, among others, into bourgeoisified "direct agents of neo-liberal capitalism". These parties' relationship to the working class changed because there was "no basis for a stable, durable reformism that can maintain the allegiance of the working class by delivering the goods".12 The material basis of the opportunist trend in the workers' movement—monopoly superprofits, which can support relative privileges for a labour aristocracy within the working class—will exist, however, as long as capitalist monopoly does, for at least a part of the class rather than the whole class, or, more precisely, for at least a smaller part of the class than previously, even if the mass of the class faces increasing oppression.13

While the general conditions of the existence of the labour aristocracy spring from monopolising capitals' superprofits, the development and political significance—principally in a national context, the form of the class struggle imparted by the bourgeoisie's domination—of each labour aristocracy is historically played out through its specific relations with the state and monopolising capitals, with the labour bureaucracy and with the rest of the working class, in each country. Only the broader, more significant and general social, political and historical features of the stratum, stemming from its basis, can be defined.14

Lenin did not do this systematically. His formulations in this regard are scattered and imprecise. In his time, the existence of a labour aristocracy was hardly disputed; the controversy in the socialist movement was about its role in the class struggle. His remarks about it are chiefly concerned with the political demands of struggling against opportunism and, therefore, with showing the economic and political connections of the stratum to monopolising capitals to establish the material basis and source of opportunism. Related questions, such as the size and forms of the bribe, the composition of the stratum and the relations of the stratum to the labour bureaucracy and to the rest of the working class, had political significance but were to be analysed within the theory's general framework.15 So, for example, he wrote:

The bourgeoisie of an imperialist "Great" Power can economically bribe the upper strata of "its" workers by spending on this a hundred million or so francs a year, for its superprofits most likely amount to about a thousand million. And how this little sop is divided among labour ministers, "labour representatives" … labour members of war industries committees, labour officials, workers belonging to the narrow craft unions, office employees, etc., etc., is a secondary question.16

Yet these "secondary questions" about the theory have subsequently proven to be among the most controversial. Among the issues raised are: the capacity for, character of and possible limits to bribery; whether the stratum is confined to skilled workers or the craft unions' membership; the labour bureaucracy as the base of opportunism; and the argument that relatively privileged workers can't be the base for class-collaborationist politics because revolutionaries also come from there, or support for the opportunist party is strong in the lower layers of the working class.

The discussion of these questions misses the essential political point. For example, attempts to state the composition of the labour aristocracy have started with occupational categories, presenting the connection between various trades and opportunism as automatic. Instead, opportunism suggests a labour aristocracy might exist, because it corresponds to a concern of workers for relative privileges sustained by monopoly superprofits. These privileges constitute the relationship of the labour aristocracy with monopolising capitals, which opportunism expresses politically.17

Nevertheless, from an understanding of that relationship, an approach to answering these questions should be possible. The confusion engendered by the discussion of them has served many in their denial of the existence of the labour aristocracy as the social base for class collaboration. An examination of these issues consistent with the framework of the theory is necessary.

The sources of monopoly superprofits

Monopoly superprofits, which the theory argues provide the material basis for the labour aristocracy's relative privileges, are often understood to have a single source: the exploitation of oppressed nations through colonial and neocolonial imperialism—that is, higher profits related to capital export and unequal exchange in trade. In part this stems from a superficial reading of Lenin's work.18 A.J. Polan, for example, wrote: "In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism … Lenin outlines the general features of the imperialist stage of capitalism, stressing what he considers to be the key factor—the export of capital from the metropolitan countries to the colonies or semi-colonies."19

Lenin's emphasis on the superprofits generated from colonial exploitation is found in his polemics, however.20 Moreover, since the emergence and consolidation of monopoly capitalism and the social crisis of capitalism were tied closely, respectively, to the extension of colonialism to the entire world in the 1880s and 1890s and to attempts by monopolising capitals to re-divide the world through the first world war, this stance seems somewhat justified.

When Lenin defined imperialism, it was "the monopoly stage of capitalism", or "(1) monopoly capitalism; (2) parasitic, or decaying capitalism; (3) moribund capitalism". In it monopoly manifests itself through the concentration of production (which also means an advanced socialisation of labour) and capital, transformed into finance capital, the basis for the creation of financial oligarchies of rentier capitalists. Monopolising capitals economically dominate their own nations, while also economically and, through their states, territorially dividing the world. These divisions are linked to the export of capital ("parasitism raised to a high pitch") as "a highly characteristic phenomenon".21 The "high monopoly profits" making the labour aristocracy's bribe economically possible could be received, he said, "by the capitalists in one of the numerous branches of industry, in one of the numerous countries, etc.".22

Ernest Mandel discussed the existence of three main sources of surplus profits, created by the uneven development of countries, of regions within a country and of branches of industry (and also within a branch of industry). These juxtapositions and combinations of development and underdevelopment are produced by the accumulation of capital itself, as competing capitals seek to realise their surplus-value not just at the average rate of profit but at the highest available rate. This is the process which would equalise profit rates, except that the integrated unity of capitalism is of non-homogeneous parts.

Institutional or structural restrictions of this process result in monopoly superprofits. Although no monopoly is absolute in the long run, monopoly superprofits are distinguished by their fundamental basis in lasting higher productivity among monopolising capitals than in other capitals.

Mandel also pointed out that the weight of these forms of uneven development as sources of surplus profits has varied over time. The significance of regional differences, when capitalism was freely competitive, and then of national differences, was replaced in "late capitalism", after the second world war, by that of "technological rents". These accrue to the more advanced industries, coming principally from within their country, but also from other countries, including other industrially advanced ones. He noted, however, that the forms of uneven development didn't "merely follow each other in succession as the main sources of surplus-profit… they also coexist side by side in each of the three phases of the capitalist mode of production".23

An attempt to estimate the capacity of monopolising capitals to bribe sections of the proletariat will tend to understate that capacity if it considers only the superprofits of colonial and neocolonial exploitation. All the sources of monopoly superprofits must be taken into account and not even just the main ones, which, on a world scale, have been gained by at most a few, especially dominant, blocs of monopolising capitals, but also those which accentuate or to an extent replace these.

Lenin, for example, discussed how "a handful of wealthy countries—there are only four of them, if we mean independent, really gigantic, `modern' wealth: England, France, the United States and Germany—have developed monopoly to vast proportions", yet "in Japan and Russia the monopoly of military power, vast territories, or special facilities for robbing minority nationalities, China, etc., partly supplements, partly takes the place of, the monopoly of modern, up-to-date finance capital".24

Around the same time, another Bolshevik leader, Grigorii Zinoviev, wrote that in the Netherlands, "a small country that does not dream today of dominating the world market … is a bourgeoisie bursting with wealth, whose few remnants of past colonial grandeur still bring it annually a golden shower of enormously large profits".25 The hegemonic position of the monopolising capitals of the US in the capitalist world after the second world war has a basis not only in their economic advantage but in the military strength of the US state, which has restricted challenges to this hegemony and, since it has stood as a key defence of the capitalist system dominated by monopolising capitals, has created some interest among them all in the stability of capitalism in the US.26 Thus, the other monopolising capitals have become, to varying degrees, "junior partners" of those of the US, with more restricted, but still substantial, sources of monopoly superprofits: England, for example, has especially rested on her history of vast capital exports,27 and many have carved out spheres of influence in various regions of the world.

Also, the labour aristocracy is constituted through particular relationships with various blocs of monopolising capitals. They have different interests and their capacity for bribery may change in contrary directions. These are sources for contradictions within the stratum.28

The bribe and other causes of working-class material differentiation

Demonstrating the capacity for monopolising capitals to bribe sections of the working class does not show that a relationship of bribery exists between them. Nor can reference to the differences in living standards within the working classes of the advanced capitalist countries and the higher living standards of those classes compared with the living standards of the working classes of other countries, if these differences can be otherwise explained. Moreover, some discussion of the mechanism of the bribe must be possible, and it should be able to be historically illustrated.

Polan discounted the existence of the bribe with two alternative explanations of differences in working-class living standards. He suggested it might instead be considered "as passing through, or deriving from, the process of production in the metropolitan countries"—that is, from "the remarkable changes in the techniques of production and the nature of finished products". Thus, the "high wages" of these countries are not "purely the dividend of parasitism" but "come from the worker's position in the production process".29 He also noted that "the relatively minor material differentiation between the skilled and the unskilled" was not "unique to the imperialist stage of capitalism". Therefore, "imperialist superprofits are an unnecessary import into the discussion" about the higher wages of skilled workers.30

Both of Polan's arguments refer to the condition for an improved capacity in workers' labour-power being better conditions for the reproduction of their labour-power In the first, the higher productivity of the social formations of the advanced capitalist countries is sustained by better norms of consumption for the working class as a whole. In the second, where the level of productivity is given, the workers' acquisition of skills requires additional consumption, in a range within the norms of consumption for the class as a whole, resulting in a higher value of labour-power

These two causes of differences in wages, or, more generally, workers' living standards, do not exclude other, potential, causes of such differences, however. For example, particularly oppressed workers, such as women or nonwhites, are excluded from the norms of the working class as a whole and are super-exploited.

Polan—unwittingly, no doubt—suggested another possible cause. He pointed out, "The higher paid worker in Lenin's time achieved and maintained his position due to his skill—or rather to the short supply of that skill—or his organisation, and usually by a very specific combination of both".31

Workers' use of an exclusive possession of skills and/or of organisation to restrict the supply of a form of labour-power changes the conditions of the sale of labour-power, not of its use in the production process, however. If that condition is sustained—by the capitalist class failing to mobilise part of the reserve army of labour, train new skilled workers or introduce labour-replacing machinery and increased immigration—it is, in fact, characteristic of the improved conditions of struggle obtained from monopolising capitals that constitute the bribe to the labour aristocracy. Since only particular sections of the working class get this, it is not a norm for the class as a whole (or where the comparison is between different social formations, perhaps not of the working class in each).

The existence and significance of any particular cause for differences in workers' living standards can only be established with regard to specific historical situations. Moreover, since each of these causes has its particular source, changes in living standards resulting from them are independent (at least in the first instance) and can move in contrary directions. Therefore, evidence offered to deny the existence of the bribe, such as a tendency for the difference between the conditions of skilled and unskilled workers to decline,32 or that "wage differentials tend to be less in more advanced capitalist societies"33—these being circumstances where the bribe is supposed to have some effect and would, all other things being equal, tend to increase wage differentials—cannot sustain that argument without first accounting for changes in the requirements for the reproduction of different labour-powers within the norms of the working class as a whole and in super-exploitation. Otherwise these could be, or have become, less, without any change, or even with some increase, in the effect of the bribe. For example, Mike Davis discusses how in the US a corporate assault on the power of skilled labour beginning at the end of the nineteenth century "broke the power of craftsmen and diluted their skills" but "carefully avoided `levelling' them into the ranks of the semiskilled" through economic benefits and new social norms.34

The bribe as a mass social relationship

None of the causes of different living standards among workers discussed above, other than the bribe, suggest a material basis for opportunism in the working class, however. The others leave all parts of the class open to revolutionary politics once workers' illusions about their interests are overcome. The bribe, on the other hand, is another interest of the privileged workers, other than their fundamental interest as workers. It is not payoffs and betrayals by labour movement leaders, but a mass social relationship.35 Lenin, citing Marx as inspiration, spoke about "a bloc of a certain section of the workers with the bourgeoisie", which comes about because "the bourgeoisie supports this section of the workers directly and indirectly. That is the way in which it bribes them."36

Tom O'Lincoln protested that Lenin's argument "seems to suggest that the imperialist bourgeoisie has consciously decided to offer bribes to a section of the working class. That is, [the bribe] seems to be a conspiracy, and a rather improbable one at that."37 Nevertheless, it has been a policy of often politically dominant sections of the bourgeoisie, in Lenin's time and afterwards.

Lenin discussed a system of "promising all manner of reforms and blessings to the workers right and left—as long as they renounce the revolutionary struggle" and "obtaining sizeable sops for docile workers in the shape of social reforms (insurance, etc.)", which he called Lloyd-Georgeism after the English prime minister, whom he considered one of the system's principal representatives. In Germany the liberal Progressive Party ideologist Friedrich Nauman made imperialist military power and a democratic constitution and social legislation in response to the rise of labour, the pillars of his system.38 The early 20th century Italian prime minister Giovanni Giolitti "made no secret of his belief that the creation of an infrastructure of welfare institutions was first and foremost an antidote to socialism. If Italy was to develop a modern capitalist economy he believed that would be done `… not by shooting the workers, but rather by instilling in them a deep affection for our institutions so that we ourselves and not the socialists will be seen as the promoters of progress and as the ones who are trying to do everything possible in their favour'."39 In the US, after the second world war, figures such as the editors of Fortune and Henry Ford ii discussed how a system of private contractual relations between labour and capital, rather than attempts to smash unions, would represent "a particularly `American' solution to the `problems of class struggle and proletarian consciousness'".40

The opportunist trend is itself generally the outstanding proponent of this policy. Because the trend is committed to the political framework of bourgeois parliamentarism and substantially integrated into it, forming governments or loyal "oppositions", or least significant lobbies, however, this cannot be understood as standing outside the realm of bourgeois policy. Universal suffrage is no longer "deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class [will] misrepresent the people in parliament":41 instead, by providing the bourgeoisie with the means to measure what workers will agree to electorally, it decides what bourgeois political approach will do this.

Lenin, however, also claimed that the bribe was "the truth regarding the substance of the policy pursued by the entire world bourgeoisie",42 even though the disagreement of sections of the capitalist class with it as policy is obvious enough. Max Elbaum and Robert Seltzer argued that the cohering of the opportunist trend, in its relation to monopolising capitals, was no accident, however: "it was a historical development that proceeded regardless of the will of particular individuals" as a result of the "tendencies at play in the development of the spontaneous class struggle".43

Wherever capitalism has put down roots, workers have striven to improve their conditions using industrial, political and cultural action and organisation.44 These "guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never-ceasing encroachments of capital" have been unavoidable if workers were not to be "degraded to one level mass of broken wretches" and to "disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement".45 Moreover, through elements of these struggles, such as the greater effectiveness the workers involved find through action in solidarity among their own ranks and beyond, and their confrontations with employers and the state, "sparks of political consciousness" have been generated among them.46

This spontaneous tendency has not aimed to end the subjection of labour to capital. If socialist consciousness has not developed among the workers, bourgeois ideology must dominate.47

Nevertheless, the working class has had successes in its fights. To extinguish the sparks before they set the working class aflame, capital sometimes made concessions to try to bring workers' fights to an end. In this sense, capitalist concessions in the class struggle have become "instrument[s] of deception and corruption" of the workers.48

Competition among capitals has prevented sustained concessions, however. Opportunism has then had no stable mass base among workers. Lenin criticised the opportunist Russian Economists for bowing to the spontaneity of the workers' "trade unionist politics".49

Monopolising capitals could sustain some level of concessions for some workers out of monopoly superprofits, however, because the burden of the concessions therefore ultimately rested on the non-monopolising sectors of production from which the superprofits were gleaned. The potential of workers' struggle thus turns towards its opposite. The experience of these workers has been that reforms can be won and kept under capitalist rule. Among them a tendency has emerged towards conscious class collaboration.

Kevin Corr and Andy Brown argued the class struggle has conditioned the level of wages and to suggest otherwise would "reinforce [the] ruling class ideology of a fair day's pay for a fair day's work" since it denies "economic privileges accruing to the `aristocracy' were at the expense of the employers".50 The theory of the labour aristocracy suggests that the part of the capitalist class which it considers makes the concessions to the labour aristocracy does not ultimately bear the burden of them, however. Moreover, unionism, even when conducted by political agitation, is only part of the class struggle, so that, precisely if it develops more rapidly than the workers' class struggle as a whole, it must result in relative privileges. Marx admonished what Corr and Brown supposed to be a ruling-class ideology as, instead, a "conservative motto" of workers "exclusively absorbed" with fighting the effects of the wages system.51 Their argument does not stand against the theory of the labour aristocracy because the latter is concerned, not with the average level of wages, but with some workers' relative privileges.

The concerns and consciousness of the relatively privileged workers do not exclude militancy among them. For them, it is even necessary, to an extent, because the capitalists will certainly not give away more than the balance of class forces requires. In the labour aristocracy, therefore, the workers' experience of collective action is not only the basis for opportunism's conscious development of the politics of the workers' spontaneous struggles: between the two there is also a tension, because the workers' struggles threaten, by example and also if they turn to seeking solidarity, to take their experience into the broader ranks of the class.

Whether or not the concessions of monopolising capitals are pushed out by them, or pulled out of them by workers' struggle, however, the effect of creating relative privileges for some workers is unchanged. Elbaum and Seltzer argue that this forms a relationship of bribery between monopolising capitals and the labour aristocracy, regardless of the conscious action of either.52

The fundamentally spontaneous nature of the bribery of the labour aristocracy means no definitive statement of the method of its distribution is possible.53 Lenin spoke of it being "done in a thousand different ways". He referred, at various times, to privileges such as "tolerably good wages", "better terms of employment", avoiding the "worst paid and hardest work", relative immunity from unemployment, "social reforms (insurance, etc.)", the ability to join unions, cooperatives and sporting clubs, inclusion in a restricted electoral system, "cushy jobs" for cooperative, trade union and parliamentary leaders in the apparatuses of the workers' movements and the state, cultural facilities and educational institutions.54

Numerous systems of economic, political and cultural concessions of monopolising capitals to the labour aristocracy have existed, varying according to the development of capitalism and of the workers' struggle. Generally, they have had the character of an improvement in the conditions of struggle for the relatively privileged workers. The stability of these workers' employment has been particularly significant because employers' efforts to break workers' organisation use high unemployment. The significance of political privileges should not be understated, however. Even when these have been spread broadly within the working class of a country—for example, through a generally open electoral system, so that in "the mechanics of political democracy … nothing can be done without the masses"55—this has served to privilege the working class of that country against the working class elsewhere.

Davis' ideal types of the socialisation of the wage relation, including an unorganised corporate "welfare capitalism" and four models of "state organised corporate capitalism" (northern European, British/Belgian, North American and Japanese), gives some indication of the variety of such systems of concessions.56 To these we could immediately add the protection and promotion of the "respectable" worker pursued in nineteenth century England and the Australian "wage-earners' welfare state".57

Incorporation and integration

Davis' dichotomy of the means in workers' relationship to capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries—(highly qualified and contingent) incorporation, through "mediation and regulation … by collective, self-formed institutions that tend to create and maintain a corporate class consciousness", or integration, through a class culture of internal stratification, privatised consumption and disorganisation58—is also suggestive with regard to the character of the bribe. The bribe is not just incorporative: it also resists and corrals the spontaneous tendency of the working class towards collective action and organisation by integration.

Integration partly involves bribery, supported by monopoly superprofits, which reduces the material compulsion in the working class towards its combination. In the creation of tendencies to opportunism, this has effect where reasons exist among workers for class collaboration with the bourgeoisie which are not directly related to the conditions of the sale of their labour-power These include cross-class stratifications such as gender and race, servicing the bourgeoisie by the provision of luxury products or services, or serving the bourgeoisie as authorities in production, the reproduction of labour-power or other aspects of social life. Letting go of such influence is not easy.

When, however, organisations of workers arise, but, because of tendencies materially based in the relationship of bribery between the capitalist class and the labour aristocracy, these institutions don't express the antagonism of the working class to the capitalist class, but instead mediate the classes' relationship, integration of the working class into capitalism develops in another way. The exclusivity of the bribe accentuates the stratifications of the class, works against more general and socialised provision of the class's needs, and gainsays working-class solidarity.

This was true even of the German working class before the first world war, which, because of its general social exclusion, is the apparent archetype of incorporation. The class, while experiencing reductions in working hours, relatively low unemployment and rudimentary welfare measures, was not unusually affluent: real wages growth slowed after 1900, for example. The state and large-scale industry opposed unionism, using frequent lockouts, restrictive laws and police attacks on workers in strikes. Both also paternalistically intervened in workers' lives generally: the class-specific social-democratic leisure organisations created in response reinforced class identity. Politics and the courts offered only a few opportunities to the working class for redress: the bourgeois liberals largely avoided alliances with it; the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was outlawed from 1878 to 1890 and afterwards subject to repressive regulation; the electoral system discriminated against workers through the Reichstag electoral boundaries and the class systems of voting in many Länder; and, with the parliaments denied sovereignty anyway, the workers' deputies were excluded from decisionmaking.59

"This exclusion … generated a mass socialist movement demanding qualitative economic and social change", even if what that meant was debated in the movement, Dick Geary wrote.60 The same movement also followed the SPD's growing support for German imperial adventures and military expansion, culminating in the Reichstag deputies' vote for war credits in August 1914, which was motivated by a belief in national defence, a desire to escape pariah status and a fear, which Carl Schorske argued was most important, of state repression of the leadership and institutions of social democracy.61 Yet, Geary argued, "August 1914 did not mark the integration of the German working class into the political nation, as subsequent upheavals proved".62

The key to this situation is that the social-democratic movement became the social integration of a part of the working class. Geary noted:

there is some evidence that the daily culture of trade union and social democratic organisations … expressed the attitudes and values of only certain sections of the working class, in particular those of the skilled, relatively well-paid and respectable … many SPD militants had little understanding of or sympathy for the less "respectable" actions of a large section of the working class … [they were] not speaking the same language as many casual labourers and the frequently unemployed. For such groups of workers there was little point in developing a lifestyle geared to the future.63

The organisations did this when, after 1900, their interlocking memberships increasingly included the mass of those sections of the working class, and their industrial, political and cultural activities partially recreated the social life of these workers.

Among SPD members—whose number grew from 384,327 in 1906 to 1,085,905 in 1914—adult male skilled workers predominated. In Leipzig in 1904, eighty per cent of SPD members were skilled men, in Berlin in 1906, seventy-five per cent. After laws banning women from party membership were lifted in 1908, female social democrats, who had previously organised separately and were among the more radical and committed in the movement, increased in numbers to 200,000 by 1914, but most were now the "housewives" of craftsmen who were already SPD members. The party leaders, who had criticised the youth organisations formed in 1904 for radicalism, accepted the 1908 ban on political activity for people less than eighteen years of age: its youth committees sponsored practical services.

The ranks of the social-democratic free trade unions were more numerous—about 680,000 at the turn of the century, nearly 2.5 million before the war—but this still amounted to no more than twenty per cent of all workers. Again, adult male skilled workers were the bulk of the membership, even in the industrial unions: on the eve of the first world war, only eighteen per cent of the metalworkers union, the largest, were semi or unskilled labourers. Fewer than ten per cent of unionists were female, although they constituted more than one-third of the industrial work force. When the political activity laws were applied to the unions in 1912, minors were excluded. In 1914, only sixteen per cent of the work force had collective agreements: these principally covered the printing and building industries and small firms reliant on skilled labour, not the industries of large-scale capital.

Up to ninety per cent of the members of the social-democratic clubs and associations were also members of the SPD or the unions: that is, they came, for the most part, from the same strata of workers. The organisations were not apolitical, but their activities, affiliated publications and socialising occupied much of the non-work time of these workers. Otherwise the workers' time might be taken up with reading the party and union newspapers, the circulation of which each ran into the millions, propaganda tracts and campaign literature and general books from the movement libraries. Beyond this, discussion in the family, workplace and neighbourhood was a significant basis for the making of the social democrat. There were also consumer cooperatives.

The role of the social-democratic movement as a job provider cannot be ignored. A movement handbook showed that, in 1914, 4010 paid officials in the party and the trade unions, most of whom were former workers, held about 12,000 positions as parliamentary members, municipal councilors, union officials, editors and journalists, cooperative functionaries and so on. This figure does not appear to have included the employees of the clubs or others, such as the 365 paid socialist librarians. Thousands of workers were also employed in the production and distribution of the movement's publications, many in cooperatives. Other social-democratic workers might find employment as, for example, Friedrich Ebert, who became co-chairman of the SPD in 1913, once did, as a publican of a tavern used organisationally and socially by social-democratic workers: the distribution of the journal for frei innkeepers was 11,000.64

Gary Steenson argued the SPD's "state within a state" did not form a socialist workers' culture replacing that of German society. It constituted an expanded integration, which was "negative" because it was denied access to power. He also noted it provided "a sense of belonging". This turned out, however, to be not only to the social-democratic movement, but to the social order in which that movement was allowed, if under sufferance, to exist.65

Nevertheless, incorporation, as a response to workers' organising, is the more politically significant phenomenon. For example, the bribe in the US after the second world war, according to Elbaum and Seltzer, involved: relatively high and steadily increasing wages (two or three times European and Japanese wage levels); job stability, partly coming from a major program of military expenditure, and particularly involving seniority provisions in union-negotiated agreements with employers as a protection against layoffs; "fringe" economic benefits, also tied to steady employment; a state-run university system; and state support for the associations in which the better-off workers were involved. Arising after the breakthrough to industrial unionism achieved by the US working class in the strikes of the 1930s, the bribe was focused on three groups of workers—craft workers, unionised mass production workers and proletarianised professionals, employed by the state or monopolising capitals—all of whom were or would become relatively well organised. Only these workers had single wages sufficient to support a family, home ownership and participation in tertiary education, while the fringe benefits were, typically, union health and pension plans.66

Indeed, the US working class, often cited as evidence for an argument that workers do not necessarily organise collectively, especially for political action, has been the site of many other efforts toward class unity and independent politics. The result of each of these efforts has been influenced by developments of incorporative bribery.

Between the strike waves of 1877 and 188586, when even craft organisation was difficult, the Knights of Labor expressed the wide acceptance of the idea of an inclusive labour movement, with their development of a "parallel proletarian civil society" of clubs, shops and factories, newspapers, political organisations, militia and courts. According to Davis, the causes of its decline included the "defection" from the railway workers, the only work force capable of national strikes, "of the engineers, who were bribed and pampered by railway barons grown keenly aware of the unique power of this group of workers … [which] presaged the growth within the labour movement of a counter-trend towards a narrow and aristocratic conception of organisation"67 and a political assimilation of labour's leadership through the patronage machinery of the Democrats, even before the formation of a significant union bureaucracy.

Renewed divisions in the US working class stymied the efforts of socialists and veteran radical unionists from the 1890s to the 1920s to unify the class and develop its independent political action. Ostensibly these divisions were ethnic and racial. The conversion of Blacks into a pariah sub-proletariat and the "frozen" unskilled employment of new immigrants from southern and central Europe were accompanied by their common political demobilisation through suffrage restrictions and a lack of integration into any political party.

Racial segregation and lynch terror, reinforced, after the defeat of the interracial New Orleans labour movement in a general strike in 1892, by Jim Crow unionism, and the purposeful mobilisation by the employers of the largely "native" craftsmen as a buffer against the organisation of the unskilled played their part in creating these divisions. The "old" immigrant workers, however, played "the ambivalent but pivotal place within the internal structure of the working class".68 The Irish, who were now also partly in skilled occupations, lived in "better" neighbourhoods and were strongly represented in the union apparatuses, the Catholic Church hierarchy and the patronage machinery of the Democratic Party, with its control over local government jobs. They led old and new Catholic immigrant workers in spurning both labour populism and the Socialist Party of America. The unionised German skilled workers, on the other hand, formed the basis of the reformist wing of the spa, capable of winning the Milwaukee mayoralty and a Congressional seat, but indistinguishable from liberal progressivism in municipal politics and the craft union American Federation of Labor in industrial organising strategy and support for racist immigration restrictions.

The revolutionary forces were strong in the spa in the first years after its foundation in 1901. The sentiment of the party membership, much of it in separate language organisations, and also the industrial insurgency that developed after 1909, continued to find expression in the radical politics of Eugene Debs, the party's popular leader, who won six per cent of the vote in the presidential election of 1912. After 1904 the party's national apparatus was allied with the reformists, however, while the syndicalist reaction, counterposed to the AFL, largely failed to address the political problems of the new immigrants' slum communities or to leave lasting union organisation. In turn, the brief success of Debsian industrial unionism, which organised the packinghouse workers in Chicago in 1918 before the defeat of the unskilled steelworkers strike in 1919, and the outburst of popular radicalism through the Farmer Labor Party movement of 191924, after the spa disintegrated in 1919, its membership falling to one-tenth of its peak 1912 level by 1922, were brought to a halt by the craft unions in a political climate of anti-radical hysteria.69

The interaction of workers' incorporation and integration into capitalist society in the bribe to the labour aristocracy, therefore, has influenced class identification through the workers' perception of relations between the working class and society. The problem is not that a worker who understands the relations of, for example, workers and employers as one of interdependent functions tends towards a more sectional, or even individualistic, identification of interests, while one who considers the two to have conflicts in industrial interests while sharing broader social interests tends towards a corporate identification with the interests of the working class as a whole. Even a hegemonic identification of the working class as the leading class can correspond with a social perspective which combines, in one way or another, complementary and conflictual views (this outlook roughly approximates that of the Communist parties that advocated the "popular front" or an "antimonopoly alliance", for example). The distinctive element of the last identification is, perhaps, that it cannot simply become more sectional through its application, but must first be broken from its equation of working-class interests with the interests of society. However, working-class political consciousness—a response to all social injustices from a revolutionary perspective, as Lenin described it70—requires both hegemonic identification and a recognition of the salience of the working class's conflict with the social order and its antagonism to the ruling class.71


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

2. The first article in the series, "Engels and the theory of the labour aristocracy", appeared in Links 25. 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 nineteenth century.

3. V.I. Lenin, "Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism", in ibid., p. 91.

4. ibid., pp. 91-92.

5. Lenin, "Imperialism and the split in socialism", p. 132.

6. ibid.. See also, for example, Lenin, "Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism", which refers to the economic possibility of bribing "the upper strata of the proletariat" (p. 105) and "certain sections of the workers, and for a time a fairly considerable minority of them" (p. 121).

7. V.I. Lenin, "Opportunism, and the collapse of the Second International", in Collected Works (LCW), Vol. 21, pp. 444-45.

8. Lenin, "Imperialism and the split in socialism", p. 133.

9. ibid.

10. ibid.

11. 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, p. 69.

12. Murray Smith, "The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front", Links, 23, January-April 2003, pp. 94-98.

13. Elbaum and Seltzer, loc. cit., pp. 69-70.

14. ibid., p. 70.

15. ibid., pp. 70-73.

16. Lenin, "Imperialism and the split in socialism", p. 132.

17. 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. 97.

18. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I …", p. 73.

19. A.J. Polan, Lenin and the End of Politics, London, Metheun, 1984, p. 165.

20. Even this should not be exaggerated. For example, Lenin wrote about a definition of imperialism by Kautsky that "it one-sidedly, i.e., arbitrarily, singles out only the national question" ("Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism", p. 93). Also, in response to Kautsky pointing to the destruction of England's industrial monopoly, he wrote: "Did all monopoly disappear? … it is not so, and that is just the point. Imperialism is monopoly capitalism. Every cartel, trust, syndicate, every giant bank is a monopoly. Superprofits have not disappeared; they still remain." ("Imperialism and the split in socialism", pp. 131-32).

21. Lenin, "Imperialism and the split in socialism", pp. 124-25.

22. Lenin, "Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism", p. 121.

23. Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism, London, Verso, 1987, ch. 3.

24. Lenin, "Imperialism and the split in socialism", pp. 132.

25. Grigorii Zinoviev, "The Social Roots of Opportunism", in John Riddell (ed.), Lenin's Struggle for a Revolutionary International, Monad Press, New York, 1984, pp. 489-90.

26. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part II …", p. 89.

27. Robert Clough, Labour: a Party Fit for Imperialism, London, Larkin Publications, 1992.

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

29. Polan, op. cit., pp. 167-68.

30. ibid., p. 168-69.

31. ibid., p. 167.

32. Polan said that this, arguably, had occurred in the period before Lenin's writings on the labour aristocracy (ibid., p. 169).

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

34. Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream, London, Verso, 1986, pp. 42-43.

35. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I …", p. 77.

36. V.I. Lenin, "Speech delivered at the Third All-Russia Trade Union Congress", LCW, Vol. 30, p. 512.

37. O'Lincoln, loc. cit.

38. Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917: The Development of the Great Schism, New York, Harper Torchbooks, 1972, pp.154-55.

39. John A. Davis,, "Socialism and the working classes in Italy before 1914", in Dick Geary (ed.), Labour and Socialist Movements in Europe before 1914, Oxford, Berg, 1989, p. 191.

40. Davis, op. cit., p. 102. The citation is from the Fortune editors, USA: The Permanent Revolution, New York, 1951, ch. 4.

41. Karl Marx, The civil war in France: from the February Revolution to the Paris Commune, Sydney, Resistance Books, p. 258.

42. Lenin, "Opportunism, and the collapse of the Second International", p. 444.

43. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part I …", p. 77 and p. 100.

44. John Kelly, Trade Unions and Socialist Politics, London, Verso, 1988, pp. 72-75.

45. Karl Marx, "Wages, price and profit", in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 2, p. 75.

46. V.I. Lenin, "What is to be done?", LCW, Vol. 5, pp. 416n.

47. ibid., pp. 382-86.

48. V.I. Lenin, "The platform of revolutionary social democracy", LCW, Vol. 12, p. 217.

49. Lenin, "What is to be done?", p. 387. Lenin later said this work vigorously "straightens out what had been twisted by the Economists" with regard to the relationship of spontaneity and political consciousness ("Preface to the collection Twelve Years", LCW, Vol. 13, pp. 106-108). There are many instances where Lenin, discussing the dynamics of class consciousness, emphasised the points of contact between spontaneous and revolutionary politics—and these remarks have often been discussed out of context—but as Kelly pointed out, they reveal no inconsistency in Lenin's thought, since the potential of spontaneity "was invariably to be realised through the action of the political party" (op. cit., pp. 32-33).

50. Kevin Corr and Andy Brown, "The labour aristocracy and the roots of reformism", International Socialism, no. 59, Summer 1993, p. 58.

51. Marx, "Wages, price and profit", p. 75.

52. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part II …", p. 93.

53. Cf. Polan, op. cit., p. 167.

54. V.I. Lenin, "Harry Quelch", LCW, Vol. 19, p. 370; "How the bourgeoisie utilises renegades", LCW, Vol. 30, p. 34;"Imperialism and the split in socialism", p. 134; "Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism", p. 105;"The Second Congress of the Communist International", LCW, Vol. 31, p. 230; "Theses on the fundamental tasks of the Second Congress of the Communist International", LCW, Vol. 31, p. 193.

55. Lenin, "Imperialism and the split in socialism", p. 133.

56. Davis, op. cit., pp. 114-115.

57. Stuart Macintyre, The Labour Experiment, Melbourne, McPhee Gribble, 1989, pp. 27-28.

58. Davis, op. cit., pp. 7-8.

59. Dick Geary, "Socialism and the German Labour Movement before 1914", in Dick Geary (ed.), Labour and Socialist Movements in Europe before 1914, Oxford, Berg, 1989, pp. 110-31; Carl Schorske, op. cit., pp. 288-92.

60. Geary, op.cit., p. 128.

61. ibid., p. 131.

62. ibid.

63. ibid., pp. 133-34.

64. ibid., passim; Gary P. Steenson, "Not One Man, Not One Penny!": German Social Democracy, 1863-1914, Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981, pp. 129-53; Zinoviev, op. cit., pp. 481-82, 493-95.

65. Steenson, op. cit., p. 153. He cites Guenther Roth's The Social Democrats in Imperial Germany (Totowa, N.J., 1963) as the source of the concept of "negative integration".

66. Elbaum and Seltzer, "The labor aristocracy … part II …", pp. 93-102.

67. Davis, op. cit. p. 32,

68. ibid., p. 44.

69. James P. Cannon, "Eugene V. Debs and the Rise and Decline of the American Socialist Party", Fourth International, Winter 1956; Davis, op. cit., pp. 30-50.

70. Lenin, "What is to be done?", p. 412.

71. Cf. Kelly, op. cit., pp. 86-88.

[Jonathan Strauss has been a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective for 20 years. He is currently a postgraduate student investigating developments in the working class and its consciousness during the Hawke-Keating ALP governments in Australia.]