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The "labour aristocracy": Cliff versus Lenin

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The appeal of the SWP's politics relies in part upon the idea that the working class is more or less homogeneous and "the same the whole world over".

Their political method (economism) insists that sectional struggles, generatd by economic exploitation alone, will become sufficiently generalised that they flow over spontaneously into political consciousness. Any significant objective stratification or division within the working class, be it by wage or salary level, status, gender, ethnic origin or political affiliation, is strongly denied or its effects minimised.

Hence, male workers "gain nothing from women's oppression"; the privileges in terms of jobs, housing and so on, of white workers over black workers, of the Protestants over Catholics in the Six Counties, have little or no significance. Unity in economic struggle will easily overcome this false consciousness.

If the SWP accepted that such social obstacles exist in the path of the development of class consciousness even pitting one sector of a working class against another that these obstacles have to be consciously challenged and overcome, it would hole their political method below the waterline.

Lenin's theory of imperialism was a time bomb ticking away at the foundations of economism. It suggested that the world was divided up into oppressed and oppressor nations. The latter exploited the former through a number of mechanisms, including the export of capital. This capital earned greater than average returns on the investment (super profits or super exploitation). That is why it went there in the first place. Moreover, part of the superprofits were set aside to provide premium wages in the oppressor nation (or imperialist country) for a layer of skilled workers an aristocracy of labour within the working class.

For Lenin, a labour bureaucracy arose out of this aristocracy which had an interest in capitalist stability so as to maintain its privileges. This was the basis of their reformism:

"Opportunism [i.e. reformism] was engendered in the course of decades by the special features in the period of the development of capitalism, when the comparatively peaceful and cultured life of a stratum of privileged workingmen 'bourgeoisified' them, gave them crumbs from the table of their national capitalists, and isolated them from the suffering, misery and revolutionary temper of the impoverished and ruined masses."

"Imperialism, which means the partitioning of the world and the exploitation of other countries.. . which means high monopoly profits for a handful of very rich countries, makes it economically possible to bribe the upper strata of the proletariat and thereby fosters, gives shape to and strengthens opportunism. "2

The emergence of the new epoch, in Lenin's view, underlined a view he had fought for in What is to be Done?. Any real class struggle must be a political struggle, for this is the only way to overcome the divisions "spontaneously" generated by capitalist society.

No amount of spontaneous trade union struggle could forge nationwide and international class solidarity. Under the conditions of imperialism this was made even truer by thc growth of a powerful privileged bureaucracy in the unions and the reformist parties.

This meant that the workers could only make a revolution against the material interest of the labour bureaucracy, and by overcoming the political opposition of a conservative section of the working class itself the labour aristocracy.

This layer's conservatism was nourished from the table of the imperialists themselves by means of substantially higher wages than the mass of the workers. It is precisely the task of a party of the revolutionary vanguard to lead the various oppressed and exploited sections of the class in struggle against capitalism and so weld it together into a class for itself, a class conscious of its goal, the overthrow of capitalism internationally.

For the Cliff/Kidron tradition the denial of super profits led to the denial of the labour aristocracy's existence, and with it any material basis for working class reformism.

The SWP's theory of imperialism provides support for their economism. Cliff's claim that it "invalidates the whole of Lenin's analysis of reformism" represents, to say the least, something of a challenge to an organisation that claims to represent "the real Marxist tradition"

Endnotes
1 V I Lenin, "The collapse of the Second International", Collected Works 21, Moscow 1964, p242

2 V I Lenin, Imperialism, CW 22, p281

3 T. Cliff, Neither Washington nor Moscow, London 1982

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