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Imperialism Part 2: Super-profits and the labour aristocracy

We continue our series debunking the view that workers in the First World live off the backs of those in the Third World by examining in further detail Lenin’s mistaken theory.

(Link to Part 1 here)

 Lenin’s theory of the ‘weakest link’ led him to believe a ‘socialist proletarian revolution’ would most likely occur first in parts of the world still transitioning towards full capitalism, not the advanced capitalist countries themselves. Partly, this arose from his belief that a stratum of workers in the latter – the ‘labour aristocracy’ – had been ‘bribed’ into supporting capitalism out of imperialist ‘super-profits’ produced by a super-exploited colonial workforce.

In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), Lenin quotes the arch-imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, reminiscing about a meeting of the unemployed he once attended. The discontent he encountered there convinced Rhodes that Britain should expand its empire, thereby improving the economic prospects of British workers, in order to avert a civil war.

Yet, incongruously, Lenin states elsewhere in his book (Ch. 4) that if capitalism could ‘raise the living standards of the masses, who in spite of the amazing technical progress are everywhere still half-starved and poverty-stricken … it would not be capitalism’. This prompts the question – why then would the capitalists go to such lengths to raise the living standards of some workers by ‘bribing’ them?

Lenin’s definitive statement on the subject appears in the 1920 Preface of Imperialism:

Obviously out of such enormous super-profits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their “own” country) it is possible to bribe the labour aristocracy. And the capitalists of the “advanced” countries are bribing them, they bribe them in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect. This stratum of workers-turned-bourgeois, or the labour aristocracy, who are quite philistine in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings and in their entire outlook, is the principal prop of the Second International, and in our days, the principal social (not military) prop of the bourgeoisie. For they are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class, real vehicles of reformism and chauvinism’.

Prior to the First World War, as Eric Hobsbawn notes, Lenin did not really make a connection between the ‘labour aristocracy’ and imperialist ‘super-profits’ as an explanation for the reformist outlook of workers. Rather, he seems to have attributed this to the influence of certain ‘petty bourgeois’ tendencies becoming more prominent due to a changing occupational structure and the development of a purely ‘economist trade union movement fragmenting the working class into ‘selfish’ (“petty bourgeois”) segments each pursuing its interest at the expense of others’ (Monthly Review, December 2012).

It was the impact of the First World War and Lenin’s profound sense of shock induced by the various Social Democratic parties (comprising the Second International) abandoning all pretence of international solidarity and aligning themselves with their respective capitalist governments in the cause of an imperialist bloodbath, which jolted him into further developing his idea of the labour aristocracy. That War, he reasoned, was the quintessential expression of the capitalist rivalries inherent in imperialism. By supporting it, the parties of the Second International betrayed their own inadvertent support for the imperialist project.

Imperialism had been condoned on the grounds that, by imposing capitalist development on the newly colonised countries, this would hasten the advent of socialism. However, behind the superficial rationalisations portraying imperialism as some kind of objectively ‘civilising’ and progressive project there lurked ulterior motives.

Lenin argued that by materially benefitting from the imperialist project, by increasing their living standards at the expense of the colonial workforce, the labour aristocracy comprising the ‘principal prop of the Second International’, found their appetite for socialist revolution had been considerably dulled if not altogether extinguished. Thus did they succumb to the politics of ‘opportunism’ – or reformism – and, in their leadership role as representatives of the wider working class, they set about persuading the latter to adopt this course of action as well, in the process abandoning their earlier commitment to socialist revolution. Indeed, reformism itself could likewise be construed as a form of bribery insofar as it held out the prospect of workers improving their circumstances within the framework of capitalism itself, thereby shoring it up.

Earlier theories

The term ‘labour aristocracy’ was originally coined by the anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, in 1872. Bakunin felt it was not the organised and more skilled workers within the proletariat that were its most radical elements but, rather, those lower down the labour hierarchy: ‘To me the flower of the proletariat is not, as it is to the Marxists, the upper layer, the aristocracy of labor, those who are the most cultured, who earn more and live more comfortably than all the other workers’ (On the International Workingmen’s Association and Karl Marx,1872).

This, in a way, anticipated Lenin’s view that revolution was more likely to break out first in the poorer countries of the world. In both instances, the underlying (and rather mechanistic) assumption seems to have been that the more intense the poverty experienced, the more likely are people to revolt.

However, this raises the question – what are the people supposedly revolting for? A violent uprising, however understandable, does not of itself constitute a social revolution if all it does is to replace one ruling class with another. Social revolution means a fundamental change in the basis of society irrespective of how it is achieved.

Bakunin’s basic argument has been endorsed by others – like Frantz Fanon, whose seminal work The Wretched of the Earth (1961), contended that it was the lumpenproletariat and Third World peasantry who, precisely because of their social distance from the capitalist mainstream and its dominant ideology, embodied the greatest revolutionary potential within modern capitalism. Similar sentiments have been expressed with regard to the newly-identified ‘precariat’ of more recent times.

Marx’s opinion of the ‘lumpenproletariat’ contrasted starkly with Bakunin’s. Living largely outside of the constraints of formal wage labour and subject to the vagaries of desperate poverty, the lumpenproletariat, by virtue of its very life situation, was more likely to become a ‘bribed tool of reactionary intrigue’ rather than a force for revolution. This was a reference to elements of the lumpenproletariat being employed by the French state within its armed forces for the purposes of maintaining order during the social upheavals of the mid-nineteenth century – the bribe in question being a soldier’s wage rather than something received in addition to this wage (The Class Struggles in France 1848-1850).

Marx’s reference to the lumpenproletariat being ‘bribed’ is ironic, given Lenin’s insistence that it was labour aristocracy, instead, that was the beneficiary of capitalist bribery.

However, this may be a case of over-theorising on both sides. One’s own circumstances – be one a lumpenproletarian or labour aristocrat – need not be particularly decisive as far as one’s receptivity to socialist ideas are concerned. Indeed, Marx and Engels themselves in the Communist Manifesto speculated on the possibility of even some capitalists (Engels himself, being a prime example), cutting themselves adrift from their class and seeking common cause with the workers.

Nevertheless, the weight of historical evidence suggests that the more militant elements within the working class (particularly those who have embraced revolutionary socialism) have, indeed, tended to be drawn from the ranks of semi-skilled and skilled workers.

There is a further irony in Lenin’s depiction of the labour aristocracy as a force for conservatism since it was precisely this segment of the Russian working class that formed the social base from which the Bolsheviks primarily drew their support – skilled machinists in the large factories whereas ‘Lower paid workers, such as the predominantly female textile workers, were generally either unorganized or apolitical (until the beginnings of the revolution) or supported the reformist Mensheviks’ (C Post, Solidarity Sept-Oct 2006).

Engels, before Lenin, had suggested a link between capitalist monopoly and the labour aristocracy, in a letter to Kautsky, concerning the political situation in England: There is no workers party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s Monopoly of the world market and the colonies’ (12 September 1882).

However, unlike Lenin, Engels held that the tendency for capital to penetrate everywhere would eventually break down England’s global monopoly (and, by extension, undermine the super-profits it derived from such a monopoly), thereby reversing the ‘embourgeoisement’ of the English proletariat.

Bribery but how?

For all Lenin’s talk of how the capitalists bribe the labour aristocracy in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect’, it is difficult to envisage even a single way in which this might happen – not if we are to remain faithful to the meaning of the term ‘bribe’ as a premeditated act to materially induce the other party to the transaction to do your bidding. For Lenin’s concept of a bribe to make any sense, and to work on its own terms, it would need to imply something given in addition to the wages received – meaning one would need to transparently disaggregate the income of the labour aristocracy into a ‘legitimate’ wage and ‘illegitimate’ bribe component. This obviously did not happen; all workers received was a wage so any alleged bribe would be hidden within this wage.

This raises multiple problems. If the capitalists of the imperialist countries were so amenable to surreptitiously sharing the proceeds of their investments abroad with (some of) their workforce at home, one might surmise that they would be less resistant to pressure from the latter for better wages than was the case. As Tony Cliff noted: ‘No capitalist says to the workers: “I have made high profits this year, so I am ready to give you higher wages” Socialist Review, June 1957). Workers always have to struggle for higher wages. Indeed, Lenin rather contradicted himself by suggesting that super-profits are obtained over and above ‘the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their “own” country’ – implying a systemic need, arising out of market competition, for these capitalists to exert a constant downward pressure on wage levels.

If Lenin’s thesis was correct we would expect income differentials between the labour aristocracy and other workers to vary in proportion to a country’s level of colonial investment. However, the evidence suggests otherwise. According to Cliff, wage differentials between skilled and unskilled workers were higher in a country like Rumania which had very little foreign investment compared to, say, Britain – in Lenin’s time by far the world largest source of foreign capital.

Moreover, though wage differentials in Britain did widen significantly between, roughly, 1850 and 1890 because of the growth of craft unions (e.g. the Amalgamated Society of Engineers) dominated by ‘labour aristocrats’, these differentials narrowed towards the end of the nineteenth century with the appearance of the ‘new unionism’ which sought to reach out and organise unskilled and semi-skilled workers. The point is that it was precisely then when the age of imperialism commenced (as Lenin saw it) that these differentials started narrowing, thus contradicting what his theory predicts.

There are other grounds on which one might question the theory. For instance, it overlooks that what might theoretically be in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole to collude in bribing workers to achieve some nebulous political objective, may not be a sufficiently persuasive reason for individual capitalists (in competition with other capitalists) to become involved in this stratagem. Meaning it may never take off as a stratagem.

Likewise, workers succumbing to such bribery and seeing themselves as indebted to their employers would probably be less likely to militantly struggle for better wages and conditions. This would probably more than wipe out the value of any hypothetical bribe they might have received.

There are other problems with Lenin’s theory which we will consider later in the context of a ‘post-colonial’ world. While Lenin fondly imagined ‘national liberation struggles’ would serve to undermine imperialism and thereby strike a blow against ‘monopoly capitalism’ the outcome of such struggles, as we shall see, has been quite the opposite of what he hoped for.

(To be continued)


Socialist Standard September 2020

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