Lenin's theory of the aristocracy of labour and proposed solutions

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Lenin's theory of the aristocracy of labour and proposed solutions

Post by Rook on Wed Jun 27, 2012 3:07 am


I'm not a Marxist or a Leninist. However, in search of correct policy and strategy I have read widely, and I believe that among other advancements Lenin made to revolutionary theory, the concept of 'the aristocracy of labour' is one that corresponds to the real situation in many countries.

For those unfamiliar with the idea, Lenin suggested that socialist revolutions in the most developed countries was near-impossible, or at least unlikely, due to the interplay of imperialism upon the class structure. Workers in imperialist countries reap the benefits of their country's exploitation of the labour and natural resources of other nations. In this way they become collaborators with the capitalist mode of production and disincentvised from overthrowing the economic order, from fear of losing their privileges. This protects the capitalist elites from facing revolution at home, whilst still allowing them to continue their exploitative policies abroad.

For some reason, the 'mainstream' revolutionary left (the SWP, I'm looking at you) either ignore or specifically refute this theory. I believe this to be from simple denialism and cowardice. It presents a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to overcome, so they deny its existence.

Personally I believe there must be a way around it; and if not then we must keep trying to find one regardless. My current strategy is born from this analysis. I intend to transform the working class of England through a social and cultural revolution. By drawing on the history of progressive movements in England, I hope to establish a rift in culture and identity between the working classes and the elites. If we can shift the workers away from from perceiving themselves as British and identifying with the Empire, we can sever their emotional ties to the system and make them more inclined to revolt against the status quo.

I would be interested in hearing the opinions of other members of the forum on this matter.

Rook
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Re: Lenin's theory of the aristocracy of labour and proposed solutions

Post by Rev Scare on Wed Jun 27, 2012 4:32 am

Well, if I am not mistaken, one of the primary reasons Lenin cited in support of national self-determination was to foster international solidarity between the various national working classes. Support for national liberation movements by the proletariat in imperial states would build trust and establish the foundation for a common cause. Clearly, Lenin could not have dismissed the possibility of revolution in developed nations, as his political strategy depended upon revolution in such advanced capitalist countries as Germany. Lenin was far more concerned with the trade union consciousness he saw emerging in Western Europe and Russia, which inspired the concept of the vanguard party. His position on the matter echoed Marx, who wrote this about Irish independence:

"The English working class...will never be able to do anything decisive here in England before they separate their attitude towards Ireland definitively from that of the ruling classes, and not only make common cause with the Irish, but even take the initiative in dissolving the Union established in 1801. And this must be done not out of sympathy with the Irish, but as a demand on the interests of the English proletariat. If not the English proletariat will forever remain bound to the leading strings of the ruling classes, because they will be forced to make a common front with them against Ireland."

Personally, I do not believe most Americans actually support U.S. imperialism, although many are blinded by the false consciousness of bourgeois patriotism. I suspect that the same holds true for the working classes of other industrialized countries. Working class movements should simply recognize that the revolution, while initiated at the national level, is ultimately a struggle against global capitalism. The working classes of the Global North must be taught that they stand to gain nothing from imperialism, that it merely perpetuates their own bondage in a worldwide system of exploitation.


Last edited by Rev Scare on Wed Jun 27, 2012 4:57 am; edited 1 time in total

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Re: Lenin's theory of the aristocracy of labour and proposed solutions

Post by Rook on Wed Jun 27, 2012 4:56 am

Rev Scare wrote:"The English working class...will never be able to do anything decisive here in England before they separate their attitude towards Ireland definitively from that of the ruling classes, and not only make common cause with the Irish, but even take the initiative in dissolving the Union established in 1801. And this must be done not out of sympathy with the Irish, but as a demand on the interests of the English proletariat. If not the English proletariat will forever remain bound to the leading strings of the ruling classes, because they will be forced to make a common front with them against Ireland."

This is an excellent quote! I'll have to hang onto it.

Yes, actually, you're correct - I think Lenin's position was merely that the world revolution could not begin in industrialised countries, and would have to spread from the periphery (i.e. Russia) but I see the problem as greater than that. It's one thing to say

Rev Scare wrote:Working class movements should simply recognize that the revolution, while initiated at the national level, is ultimately a struggle against global capitalism. The working classes of the Global North must be taught that they stand to gain nothing from imperialism, that it merely perpetuates their own bondage in a worldwide system of exploitation.

(which is completely true) but it's another thing to actually successfully convince the workers of the west that they have more to gain than to lose through revolution. The relative luxury of their condition speaks otherwise.

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Re: Lenin's theory of the aristocracy of labour and proposed solutions

Post by Celtiberian on Wed Jun 27, 2012 9:52 am

Rook wrote:For some reason, the 'mainstream' revolutionary left (the SWP, I'm looking at you) either ignore or specifically refute this theory. I believe this to be from simple denialism and cowardice. It presents a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to overcome, so they deny its existence.

They marginalize the concept because it's largely irrelevant today—and it's doubtful it was even relevant when Lenin first developed the theory in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Bourgeois imperialism has changed character considerably since the ascent of globalization, but at no point in history did companies ever pay their workers higher wages in the global north at the expense of the "super-exploitation" of cheap labor abroad. Wage payments have always depended on the relative scarcity or abundance of labor per job in the economy. At most, imperialism provided cheaper material inputs for firms, which in turn made commodities more affordable for the populations within imperial countries. In other words, the benefits were indirect, thereby diminishing whatever common ideological commitments between labor and capital could have emerged as a result of imperialism. Today, capital flight contributes to the general impoverishment of the working class in the global north, because manufacturing jobs are regularly replaced with precarious, low wage, service sector employment. That is why, when polled, workers routinely express their opposition to "free trade" and capital mobility.

Moreover, Eric Hobsbawm (among others) has proven that Lenin's theory is factually incorrect when applied to the past as well. As counterintuitive as it may seem, skilled workers who benefited most from imperialism were among the most radical elements in the European labor movement at various points in history. As Laura Engelstein explains,

"The worker who responded positively to socialist propaganda in this period [1830-48] was the wage-earning craftsman, in both shop and factory—the skilled 'labor aristocrat,' not the impoverished manual laborer. The European working class of midcentury was thus distinguished by its mixed social complexion and by the radicalism of its most stable and most socially privileged sector.

Such radicalism was not merely a rearguard action on the part of 'declining artisans' anxious to defend privileges threatened by social progress. Recent work challenging this interpretation argues that artisans did not, in fact, dissociate themselves from factory workers; rather, industrial and craft workers both identified themselves as part of a broader class movement
."
Engelstein, Laura. Moscow, 1905: Working-Class Organization and Political Conflict, p. 10.

Thus, we find that it is possible to conjoin disparate segments of the proletariat within a common movement for socialism. It would likely be more difficult to organize in a similar manner today, and I certainly don't advise radical parties to exert much effort toward appealing to the coordinator class, but it's definitely within the realm of possibility. (Only Maoist Third-Worldist believe that the aristocracy of labor theory demonstrates that revolution is infeasible in the global north.)

I intend to transform the working class of England through a social and cultural revolution. By drawing on the history of progressive movements in England, I hope to establish a rift in culture and identity between the working classes and the elites. If we can shift the workers away from from perceiving themselves as British and identifying with the Empire, we can sever their emotional ties to the system and make them more inclined to revolt against the status quo.

I don't believe this idealist tactic will be very effective. Emphasizing the history of class struggle within the United Kingdom is admirable, if only for its historical accuracy; but a socialist revolution will not be achieved by way of persuasion alone. I realize that you're not a Marxist, so perhaps you reject Marx and Engels scientific socialist theory of revolution. However, I see no other way for false consciousness to abate sufficiently enough for class consciousness to be developed aside from the internal contradictions of capital causing the relative immiseration of the working class. Simply put, people are not going to look for alternatives to capitalism until the system is no longer capable of sustaining a sizable middle class—which, I submit, it is no longer able to (the so-called "golden age of capitalism" was a historical anomaly).

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Re: Lenin's theory of the aristocracy of labour and proposed solutions

Post by Rook on Wed Jun 27, 2012 10:10 am

Celtiberian wrote:They marginalize the concept because it's largely irrelevant today—and it's doubtful it was even relevant when Lenin first developed the theory in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Bourgeois imperialism has changed character considerably since the ascent of globalization, but at no point in history did companies ever pay their workers higher wages in the global north at the expense of the "super-exploitation" of cheap labor abroad. Wage payments have always depended on the relative scarcity or abundance of labor per job in the economy. At most, imperialism provided cheaper material inputs for firms, which in turn made commodities more affordable for the populations within imperial countries.

I don't understand this line of thinking at all. Our economy is entirely dependent on the international exploitation of labour and resources. Unemployment and low wages may be one result of outsourcing - but in comparison to the situation for a worker from the third world, being unemployed in the west is a walk in the park!

If it makes me a Maoist Third-Worldist to recognise that the highest stage of imperialism (and, indeed, capitalism) is the extension of the class system to an international level, then so be it.

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Re: Lenin's theory of the aristocracy of labour and proposed solutions

Post by Celtiberian on Wed Jun 27, 2012 10:21 am

Rook wrote:I don't understand this line of thinking at all. Our economy is entirely dependent on the international exploitation of labour and resources. Unemployment and low wages may be one result of outsourcing - but in comparison to the situation for a worker from the third world, being unemployed in the west is a walk in the park!

Our economy obviously depends on the exploitation of foreign resources and workers to a considerable extent, but the average working person in the global north isn't aware of that fact—they don't spend their limited leisure time studying political economy (minor exceptions not withstanding). That is one of the factors contributing to why working people haven't developed some sort of imperial solidarity with the bourgeoisie. And yes, even poor workers in the global north have a much higher standard of living than do those in the global south, but that is not how they measure success. What matters to people is the distribution of the social product in the country within which they reside. For example, a cashier in the United States seldom thinks to himself, "I may be poor, but at least I'm living better than workers in Guadalajara are! I need to support bourgeois imperialism so I can maintain this lovely standard of living." They instead wonder why, despite working just as hard as, say, a hedge fund manager on Wall Street, they hardly earn enough money to get by, while the hedge fund manager "earns" millions of dollars each year.

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"Nationality. . . is a historic, local fact which, like all real and harmless facts, has the right to claim general acceptance. . . Every people, like every person, is involuntarily that which it is and therefore has a right to be itself. . . Nationality is not a principle; it is a legitimate fact, just as individuality is. Every nationality, great or small, has the incontestable right to be itself, to live according to its own nature. This right is simply the corollary of the general principle of freedom."
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Re: Lenin's theory of the aristocracy of labour and proposed solutions

Post by Rook on Wed Jun 27, 2012 10:54 am

Celtiberian wrote:Our economy obviously depends on the exploitation of foreign resources and workers to a considerable extent, but the average working person in the global north isn't aware of that fact—they don't spend their limited leisure time studying political economy (minor exceptions not withstanding). That is one of the factors contributing to why working people haven't developed some sort of imperial solidarity with the bourgeoisie. And yes, even poor workers in the global north have a much higher standard of living than do those in the global south, but that is not how they measure success. What matters to people is the distribution of the social product in the country within which they reside. For example, a cashier in the United States seldom thinks to himself, "I may be poor, but at least I'm living better than workers in Guadalajara are! I need to support bourgeois imperialism so I can maintain this lovely standard of living." They instead wonder why, despite working just as hard as, say, a hedge fund manager on Wall Street, they hardly earn enough money to get by, while the hedge fund manager "earns" millions of dollars each year.

I can't speak for the experiences of most, but it seems to me that comparisons to the rest of the world are hammered into us from a very young age, starting with "Eat your dinner, there are children in Africa...", going through "You don't know how lucky you are" and into big charity drives as you reach maturity. It also seems to me that the working people do have a sort of imperial solidarity with the bourgeoisie, which is why there are large sections of people who, while in other periods would be considered working class, identify as middle class, I would argue accurately. They themselves recognise their position of economic superiority over the rest of the world. Even while ignoring the vast disparity of wealth that still exists in western countries, of course.

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Re: Lenin's theory of the aristocracy of labour and proposed solutions

Post by Celtiberian on Wed Jun 27, 2012 11:16 am

Rook wrote:I can't speak for the experiences of most, but it seems to me that comparisons to the rest of the world are hammered into us from a very young age, starting with "Eat your dinner, there are children in Africa...", going through "You don't know how lucky you are" and into big charity drives as you reach maturity.

Such comparisons are abstractions. Consequently, the disparity of wealth within one's own country feels more meaningful, because it's observed on a daily basis. This has implications for the manner by which people prioritize their political commitments.

It also seems to me that the working people do have a sort of imperial solidarity with the bourgeoisie, which is why there are large sections of people who, while in other periods would be considered working class, identify as middle class, I would argue accurately.

"Middle class" represents nothing more than an income quintile; it's essentially useless for identifying one's social class. The reason so many workers in the global north continue to believe they're members of the middle class is because it's a vague category, and few people want to come to terms with the fact that their income is barely enough to remain above poverty. It has nothing to do with identifying with the bourgeoisie or imperialism.

Whether or not workers in the global north objectively benefit from imperialism has absolutely nothing to do with their subjective acknowledgement of or ignorance regarding that fact.

They themselves recognise their position of economic superiority over the rest of the world. Even while ignoring the vast disparity of wealth that still exists in western countries, of course.

Of course they realize that their standard of living is significantly better in comparison with workers in the Third World; they've seen enough images of the abject poverty afflicting the global south to know that they're fortunate not to have to endure such conditions. But they don't understand the sources of Third World poverty, and would more than likely oppose bourgeois imperialism were they aware of it. (The notion that workers in the global north gladly consider themselves beneficiaries of imperialism is, quite frankly, insulting.)

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—J. B. S. Haldane Hammer Sickle

"Nationality. . . is a historic, local fact which, like all real and harmless facts, has the right to claim general acceptance. . . Every people, like every person, is involuntarily that which it is and therefore has a right to be itself. . . Nationality is not a principle; it is a legitimate fact, just as individuality is. Every nationality, great or small, has the incontestable right to be itself, to live according to its own nature. This right is simply the corollary of the general principle of freedom."
—Mikhail Bakunin Red Star
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Re: Lenin's theory of the aristocracy of labour and proposed solutions

Post by Rev Scare on Wed Jun 27, 2012 6:59 pm

Rook wrote:
Rev Scare wrote:Working class movements should simply recognize that the revolution, while initiated at the national level, is ultimately a struggle against global capitalism. The working classes of the Global North must be taught that they stand to gain nothing from imperialism, that it merely perpetuates their own bondage in a worldwide system of exploitation.

(which is completely true) but it's another thing to actually successfully convince the workers of the west that they have more to gain than to lose through revolution. The relative luxury of their condition speaks otherwise.

I do not believe it is difficult to convince workers that overthrowing capitalism is in their interest. Successful activism, of course, is another matter, but the intellectual challenge itself is not great. Most individuals likely understand this intuitively without recourse to reason; they are merely misinformed by bourgeois ideologists.

People are concerned with the distribution of wealth and power within their own countries. The fact that real wages in the United States have stagnated and actually decreased somewhat since the 1970s is a fact, and it demonstrates how the standard of living has declined, which is why the so-called "middle class" has contracted significantly over the past three decades. The United States is one of the few capitalist experiments which has maintained a gradually increasing standard of living for any extended period of time, but this is no longer true.

Life in the global north is, in comparison, far superior to that in impoverished nations, but it is by no means a pleasant order. Despite technological progress, which is itself languishing, our overall standard of living is lower now than before. Many of us live in poverty, and we are alienated, overworked, and abused. Our future is, but moreso feels, dim. As the economic crises of a decrepit capitalism become more severe (and they inexorably will), these realities will only become more tangible, fueling social unrest and opening possibilities for revolutionary action.

Wage gains in the West were overwhelmingly the result of organized labor activism, not due to the logic of capitalism. It is perhaps arguable that imperial ventures may have aided this, but only in conjunction with a host of counteracting factors. Imperialism, on the whole, has greatly contributed to the immiseration of the Western working classes through outsourcing. The "superprofits" reaped by the Western bourgeoisie have not "trickled down"; on the contrary, they have served to reinforce domestic class structures.

Furthermore, if Western workers, according to the theory of labor aristocracy, truly harbored a conscious interest in perpetuating imperial relations, why are bourgeois governments repeatedly compelled to lie to their citizens and construct lofty propaganda campaigns in support of their imperialistic wars and economic initiatives? Expanding "democracy" and protecting "national security" are oft-repeated myths employed to sanction such despicable acts as invading poor countries to exploit oil reserves. "Assisting" the "undeveloped" world by providing "economic aid" are noble justifications for enslavement and resource extraction.

I would also argue that such relative comparisons of material conditions between countries are thoroughly insufficient, if not invalid, as far as legitimizing domestic social relations is concerned. In many ways, American chattel slaves were better off than their brethren in Africa, but this did not alter the fact that they were bound to a monstrous institution.

Lastly, I agree with Celtiberian that your proposed solution seems rooted in idealism and is therefore misguided.

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