The labour aristocracy: Liberalism’s fifth column


ALEX GORDON looks ahead a forthcoming talk on labour movement history at the Marx Memorial Library


THE Marx Memorial Library is pleased to announce that our lecture series commemorating 150 years since the founding of the International Working Men’s Association is drawing great interest and will be available in published form in coming weeks.

Last week’s lecture by Professor Malcolm Chase examined the mass revolutionary upsurge of the British working class in the first half of the 19th century and the importance with which Marx and Engels viewed Chartism.

Even a movement built around limited constitutional demands that were far from new became endowed with revolutionary vigour when motivated by the new historical class — the industrial proletarians.

This Tuesday October 21, Professor Mary Davis examines the period immediately following the Chartist uprisings and the ebbing of the revolutionary tide after 1848.

The author of Comrade, or Brother? A History of the British Labour Movement will speak on the labour aristocracy and the British labour movement.

The critical development of cracks in the working-class movement based on cultivation of a relatively privileged elite of skilled workers, which Marx, Engels and Lenin commented on, has been much misunderstood both by some Marxists and by those arguing that class politics is dead.

British communist historian John Saville showed how revolutionary movements of British, French and Irish workers in 1848 were interdependent. Working people eagerly followed events abroad.

The British government equally understood the dangers of international “contagion” and worked tirelessly in February and March 1848 to break the links between the British and Irish movements.

Engels noted in 1892 that from March 1848 the British government used reportage of “communistic” aspects of events in Paris to drive a wedge between the Chartists and their former allies among small shopkeepers, the self-employed and artisans.

Marx in Capital Vol 1 first used the term “aristocracy” to describe “the effect of crises on the best paid part of the working class.” 

He noted that even this section of workers, which had fared best over the previous 20 years, was still vulnerable to hardship during the economic crises of 1857 and 1867.

Engels provided a succinct explanation of the term “labour aristocracy” in 1885 describing the transformation in working-class politics following the “collapse” of the Chartist movement in 1848.

He described an “aristocracy among the working class,” the members of the “great trade unions,” where the “labour of grown-up men predominates” — engineers, joiners, carpenters and bricklayers who became “a small privileged, ‘protected’ minority.”

Trade unions, “hitherto considered inventions of the devil himself” became over the following decades “petted and patronised.”

This transformation could not have occurred without the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the triumph of free trade, “Manchester liberalism” and England’s “manufacturing monopoly” in world markets.

Engels described this manufacturing monopoly as the “pivot of the present social system,” enabling the minority of workers with the power to sustain trade unions to secure material benefits and politically become “the tail of the great Liberal Party.”

Both Marx and Engels used the concept of labour aristocracy not primarily to describe sociological gradations within the working class but rather to explain a social process by which capitalism’s rule was consolidated.

The political and economic advances in Britain won by workers before 1848 were thus contained.

British capital exports in the 1850s and ’60s under the free trade flag of Liberal statesmen Richard Cobden and John Bright and the gunboat diplomacy of Lord Palmerston was able to offset the declining rate of profit largely as a consequence of the liberalisation and modernisation measures enacted in Robert Peel’s second ministry (1841-6).

Further working-class general mobilisations were forestalled in Britain until the eruption of New Unionism from 1888. In the intervening 40 years increased fragmentation, sectarianism and cultural stereotyping diluted the early 19th-century working-class revolutionary impetus.

The purpose of Marx and Engels’s analysis of labour aristocracy was to challenge this religious, ethnic and gender stereotyping and to prepare a communist political intervention once again in the class struggle.

For trade unionists and socialists today the dynamics of class domination and class mobilisation are particularly relevant.

For 40 years a welter of post-modern political theories built around notions of reflexive identity and diversity, of which intersectionality is the latest, have privileged difference over class solidarity, while global capitalism in its neoliberal variety has consolidated and extended its power worldwide.

Marx and Engels offer us an example of how an analysis of temporary privileges conferred by capitalism under specific historical circumstances can arm the working class to fight for the liberation of man and woman-kind.

As they wrote in The Communist Manifesto: “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”

The resurgence of generalised class struggle in 1888 with the strike of the matchwomen at Bryant & May’s factory in Bow, the London dockers’ strike of the following year and the movement for New Unionism ended the domination of craft unions in the British labour movement.

Eleanor Marx was central to New Unionism, founding with Will Thorne the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers, today’s GMB, but the scientific analysis of labour aristocracy bequeathed by her father and Friedrich Engels provided the basis for overcoming sectarian divisions and refuting liberalism’s claim to speak on behalf of the working class.

Alex Gordon is chairman of Marx Memorial Library & Workers’ School.

Mary Davis will be speaking on the labour aristocracy and the British labour movement on Tuesday October 21 at 7pm. All talks are free and open to members of the public and take place at Marx House, 37a Clerkenwell Green, London EC1.

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