Some questions on the DSP’s “labour aristocracy” theory


Bob Gould

Green Left weekly discussion list, January 22, 2004

The responses of Peter Boyle and Jon Strauss to questions from myself and Shane Hopkinson have been very useful in beginning to lay the basis for a more informed and possibly constructive debate about this question. However, I’ve got a couple more.

Firstly, is this Leninist theory of the labour aristocracy a theory which you, yourselves, or the DSP school of Marxism, derive directly from the writings of Lenin and Zinoviev?

Are there intermediate developers of this theory, so to speak, on whom you also rely for interpretation and development? I’m thinking possibly of the later Zinoviev of the mid-1920s, and also of Eugene Varga.

Obviously Max Elbaum’s document is an influential text in this context, and both Peter Boyle and Jon Strauss speak confidently about a conception of an accomplished and complete construction they dub historical materialism, and I assume they are referring to the kind of constructions put forward by Doug Lorimer in his collection of extracts cum book published by the DSP.

It’s not absolutely clear to me the intellectual influences at work in this book. Some parts of it seem to rely heavily on important Soviet Marxist writers of 15 or so years ago, such as Ilyenkov.

I’m not looking for a long and elaborate intellectual history here, that would be a pain in the neck for all of us in this kind of discussion. I’m just looking for a few brush strokes to give me and others who may be interested some idea of the evolution of this school.

In this context, I note that Peter Boyle was influenced by discussion of theoretical questions by comrades in the Philippines, particularly in 1994.

As these comrades were, at that stage, independently moving away from, and in the process of criticising, their Maoist political training, I’d be interested to know what elements of their original Maoist training and development that they regard as still valid, and what they reject, and what Peter might regard as still valid and useful to the development of the theory that he puts forward with such enthusiasm.

The texts of Lenin and Zinoviev (which as they point out, correcting me, I mistakenly conflated in memory, but which I have now dug out and read again) contain both generalising and theoretical constructions but the starting point is, particularly in Zinoviev’s pamphlet, but also in Lenin, some sociological observations for that place and time, which are then used in the development of the sweeping general thesis.

So much so that these empirical observations seem to become part of the general theory. Are those empirical observations a significant part of the general theory, according to the DSP school?

It would be useful for John or Peter, or even Doug Lorimer or John Percy, to attempt to answer these questions so that we can get a somewhat more fleshed out framework for proceeding with the discussion of this important historical and political question.

Clarification of my questions

January 22, 2004

Peter Boyle and Jon Strauss both write confidently suggesting that your views are a currrent expression of Lenin’s theory of the labor aristocracy. This discussion is having a good effect, in that we’re all digging out our bits and pieces of Marxist texts and knowledge to educate or remind each other. For instance, I’m surprised that I’d conflated Lenin and Zinoviev’s 1915 and 1916 pamphlets in memory.

Jonathon tells me, rather to my surprise, that despite the confident way in which he writes about an implicitly coherent and comprehensive doctrine of historical materialism, he hasn’t completed reading Lorimer’s book on the subject. C’est la vie, we’ll have to work with what we’ve got, what we can remember, and what we can find, now, on the web, which is a wonderful aid to memory.

My core question is this: both Jonathon and Peter speak about the theory of the labor aristocracy and Peter Boyle expounds it a bit, explicitly criticising me for try to include empirical investigation of current circumstances in the discussion. The justification for this seems to be that historical materialism is a broad-brush, general, global historical kind of construction, which it is implied, and at times explicitly argued, makes contemporary data more or less irrelevant.

The replies so far seem to indicate, particularly Jonathon’s reply today, that you don’t rely on any intermediaries for what you call historical materialism or Lenin’s theory of the labour aristocracy. Jonathon throws in E.P. Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory, a text that I too greatly admire, but the relevance of which in this particular discussion so far escapes me.

When I go back to looking at Lenin on the aristocracy of labor, and Zinoviev on the same question, I find a lot of empirical, sociological and historical observations that serve to butress the theory, some of which are very current for that time, for instance Robert Michels in Zinoviev’s pamphlet, which seemed to be an organic part of the theory. The theory as expounded by Lenin and Zinoviev at least, appears to have a series of sweeping global observations, into which are incorporated concrete historical and sociological observations and on which, to an extent, the broad theory is based, and by which it is informed. I’m just asking, are these empirical sociological and historical observations out of place in Lenin and Zinoviev’s texts, or are they integral to the development of the theory, as they seem to be.

It seems to me that it is necessary to establish this kind of framework before we can meaningfully discuss the theory.

Additional clarification

January 23, 2004

I did not mean any disrespect at all to the comrades of broadly Maoist background in the Philippines and India, who have been rethinking Marxism and Leninism, obviously starting with the previous framework of their views.

I’ve met several of these comrades, particularly those from the Philippines, and they seem to be extremely serious and I don’t dismiss their contribution to the development of Marxist theory.

Nevertheless, their training and initial development was in a political school in which the work of Lenin tended to be addressed in a rather Talmudic, big-L Leninist way, about which I’m rather uneasy.

I’m genuinely anxious to discuss, in a careful way, the “Leninist theory of the aristocracy of labour” in imperialist countries as a central political focus, but I’m very anxious to start this discussion within a framework that we all will understand.

Neither Peter nor Jon have really answered my core question about the methodological framework, so I’ll repeat it.

I understand it’s a fairly complex question, even if the asking of it may appear simple, and I don’t ask either comrade to over-simplify or crudify their response, if they try to answer the question. They can, and no doubt will, answer in any way they choose, but my question is still this: what is the Leninist theory of the labour aristocracy?

Peter Boyle, in particular, has indicated certain texts: the introduction to Lenin’s theory of imperialism, the Lenin and Zinoviev pamphlets of 1915-1916, which we have now satisfactorily established are separate works, and a large part of Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder. These Lenin and Zinoviev extracts contain both global analysis and observation, but they also have an element of empirical description of the nature and causes of the bureaucratisation of the labour movement in imperialist countries.

Are the empirical parts — the analysis and description of the bureaucratisation of the Western labour movements, and the causes of this bureaucratisation — part of what Jon and Peter understand by Lenin’s theory of the aristocracy of labour? Are they an integral part of it, and is the theory partly based on these empirical observations?

Obviously, Lenin and Zinoviev both extend their empirical observations into a general analysis.
Do the empirical observations on which the analysis seems to be based form part of what Jon and Peter understand to be the Leninist theory of the aristocracy of labour in imperialist countries?

It would be useful to clarify this before we carry the discussion further.

A basis for discussion

January 23, 2004

Genuine thanks to Peter Boyle for his latest post. This satisfies me as an initial exposition of what he understands the theory to be, and it seems to me to be a good starting point for the discussion.

I share Peter Boyle’s view that Lenin was the greatest revolutionary of all places and all times, so far, and I share his respect for Lenin, which makes us both rather unfasionable in the current intellectual environment that is dominant in western countries.

In addition to this I’ve got a kind of personal fascination with Lenin as a human being, warts, contradictions, human weaknesses, mistakes, false starts and all. I appear to have a different approach to reading and understanding Lenin to Peter Boyle and the DSP leadership.

I don’t think I’ve ever regarded myself as a “big-L Leninist”, because that posture seems to me to lay the basis for major political mystifications. I prefer an approach to Lenin that incorporates the idea he was probably the best student and practitioner of Marxism and that we should study his legacy sympathetically and critically, and attempt to use it as a basis for an informed socialist practice that also, however, incorporates the theoretical work of other Marxist thinkers.

In another post a while ago Peter Boyle rather recklessly dubbed himself a Jacobin, and I thought was overstating it a bit to apply that categorisation so personally to oneself.

Nevertheless, I feel a bit the way he seems to feel about Lenin’s legacy from that throwaway remark. To properly understand Lenin, it is necessary to share some of the Jacobin spirit that obviously motivated him, and that so fiercely angers and alienates many ideologues who comment on Lenin. Unless one shares something of Lenin’s Jacobin spirit, his practical politics and his theoretical work are is almost incomprehensible.

I intend, as possibly Peter Boyle intends, to commence my discussion of the labour aristocracy question with a short appraisal from my point of view of Lenin’s theoretical legacy, and the legacy of his practical politics. This appraisal also can serve as a kind of introduction to another article I’m working on, which is a commentary on Doug Lorimer’s party conceptions, published recently in Links.

In this discussion I intend to try to be fairly objective, keep wit and personal observations to a minimum, and to write medium-sized essays, rather than engage in the short paragraph exchanges, that for instance Shane prefers. There’s a place for those kinds of exchanges, and I think Shane is a consummate master of that style, but it is not particularly my style.

I envisage that we ought not to be in too much of a hurry in this discussion. We should do it in a measured way, over time. Not too much time, but enough to consider each others’ arguments, and maybe do a little of the reading that we will inevitably indicate to each other. I would hope to post my first contribution in a few days.

Once again, thanks to Peter for the last post, and laying the basis for a sensible discussion to proceed.

On Peter Boyle’s outline theory

January 28, 2004

I found Peter Boyle’s Part II of Part I of an introduction on the labour aristocracy very interesting, but I’d like a few clarifications.

I understand you’ve just made a few notes, and that neither you nor I are professional historians, but nevertheless, where you quote Duncan Waterson in the exceedingly useful Squatter, Selector and Storekeeper: “For although a shearer is a mighty `liberty, equality, fraternity’ fellow as far as to those above him, don’t think for a moment he believes in that trinity when dealing with those he regards beneath him, and looks upon a roustabout just as a skillful citizen does upon a hod carrier. For a shearer to call another a roustabout there is only one recourse — the backyard and blood from a nose.”

Is this a quote from Waterson, himself, or Waterson quoting someone else? If it’s the second, you really should indicated the source because, as we both know, in this kind of discussion context is extremely important.

Similarly with Ted Buckley and Ted Wheelwright’s useful book, where you quote them writing: “shearers were recognised as `aristocrats of labour’, skilled men who earned several times as much as the roustabouts (handymen) who also worked in the woolsheds. Like other skilled workers, shearers had their own sense of superiority”. Do Buckley and Wheelwright just assert this, or do they cite come sources, and if so, who are they?

Where you say: “The socialist tradition inspired by Marx and Engels is internationalist, not nationalist, even if it does support nationalist struggles against oppression.” Have you read Lenin’s short article, The National Pride of the Great Russians? Do you think that Lenin’s approach in this article might have some bearing on questions of national identity, even in Australia?

Where you refer to myths about bush workers and gold diggers, what do you understand these myths to be? For instance, is it a myth that over a period extending from the early part of the 19th century up to about the 1920s that, despite the prevailing racism of Australian society, a proletariat, with, obviously, a limited class consciousness came into being, and did the shearers, bush workers and gold miners form part of this proletariat?

It’s reasonably clear, and Humphrey McQueen constantly draws our attention to it, that there were all sorts of small proprietor elements who were part of the Australian class formation, different petit-bourgeois elements, and that they moved in and out of the working class, depending on circumstances. Nevertheless, was a proletariat constituted in this period?

The Labour History Society in both Sydney and Melbourne is considering ways of celebrating the first achievement of the eight-hour day, by stonemasons.

Stonemasons had a skill, but they died young. Nevertheless, they used the shortage of labour to bargain for better conditions and the eight-hour day. How do they fit into the aristocracy of labour thesis?

You brush off the shearers, and other bush workers, who engaged in dogged strikes over five or six years in the 1890s, many of them being imprisoned by the police. Have you read Stuart Svenssen’s books about that series of struggles? I read the literature of those struggles quite differently to you, and one of the features of those struggles is that the less-skilled workers, such as shed hands, were often involved in the strikes.

It also seems to me to stretch the point rather a long way to describe even shearers as labour aristocrats, considering the brutal intensity of the work. Isn’t it also a fact that in the shearing industry, the young workers who were shed hands were often training to be shearers, and older shed hands were often old shearers too battered by the life and the hard work to continue shearing?

I think, Peter, that you’re working over-hard to find a labour aristrocracy in Australia at this time.

The ruling class has always tried to divide the proletariat into strata, but it’s worth noting that in the development of the AWU and its predecessors it organised both semi-skilled workers, such as shearers and unskilled workers, who were usually the vast majority of the members.

Another category of workers who have a modicum of skill not unlike shearing, were cane cutters. My father, in the two or three years before he went to the imperialist war of 1914, worked as a cane cutter, mainly on the Burdekin. All his life he said it was the hardest, most brutal work he ever did. But he always insisted that cane cutters were a highly skilled group.

In most rebellions in the AWU at different times, both shearers and cane cutters, with their limited semi-skilled status, were in the forefront.

One area where the ruling class in Australia certainly tried to divide the working class into strata was the railway, where it treated the rail workers as public servants who were prohibited from striking, in the same way that nurses and police were prohibited from striking at a later time.

Railway workers in Victoria were even prohibited from voting in general elections and were forced to vote in a couple of special railway electorates. The stratification imposed by the bourgeoisie on the railway service took the form of permanent employment and a grade structure, but the wages paid to most rail workers remained very low.

Industrial struggles of rail workers were always directed, in the first period, at getting basic civil rights, including the right to strike. The notion that they may have formed part of a so-called aristocracy of labour seems very problematic.

Again, we’ve put up on Ozleft two extraordinarily interesting articles from Labour History, about the development of unionism in Sydney from 1910-1916: In division is strength: Unionism among Sydney labourers, 1890-1910 and Job control for workers’ health: The 1908 Sydney rockchoppers’ strike.

According to the thrust of your curious theory, the biggest labour aristocrats of all would appear to be the hard-drinking, highly skilled, short- lived, largely Irish rockchoppers and dynamiters who performed the arduous task of cutting trenches in the Sydney shale to build the sewage lines and water supplies that Sydney residents now all use.

The dynamiting was a very skilled and dangerous job. Industrial action was frequent, and the dynamiters tended to die young from lung diseases. A vigorous syndicalist leadership led a very hard series of industrial disputes by these workers, and defended the rockchoppers’ interests rather skillfully in the then newly formed NSW industrial commission.

After a series of bitter disputes, they forced the commission to ratify a six-hour day in this terrible industry, which stayed in place for the next 10-15 years, and was the first six-hour day in the world. It may well be the only six-hour day in the world so far.

Do these Sydney rockchoppers form part of your slightly extravagant notion of a labour aristrocracy?

I look forward to your answers to these questions.

Changing views of Australian history and the working class

January 29, 2004

Seeing my post on the screen this morning, I realised that I didn’t give the date of the achievement of the eight-hour day in Australia, by the stonemasons mainly. It took place progressively between 1854 and 1856, which is why the Sydney and Melbourne Labor History Societies are planning to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of that event in 2004.

I also didn’t spell out as much as I should the shifts in Humphrey McQueen’s position on the nature of the Australian working class in its first development.

McQueen and I have been arguing about these questions in a more or less comradely way since the 1970s, and you don’t want to latch on in an unthinking way to Humphrey’s views at any point, because Humphrey, being a very useful historian, and also a combative polemicist, has modified his views in the course of a number of debates and arguments.

In the debate in the 1970s between Humphrey and those you call the old left historians, both sides modified their views somehwat in the light of each other’s criticisms. For instance, we have put up on Ozleft the very early essay in which he experiemented with the idea that there was no authentic working class “for itself” in the 19th century, and that what the old left historians regarded as a working class was actually a petit bourgeoisie.

He later dropped this view almost completely, and it is fair to say that the afterword to the later edition of A New Britannia, which we have also now put up on Ozeft, represents his mature view on the subject, which is quite different to his early view.

The notion of the labour aristocracy, as you present it, doesn’t figure very strongly in Humphrey’s analysis, either his early analysis or his later one. For their part, the historians he was arguing with: Turner, Gollan and Ward, accepted many of his criticisms and their views matured.

In particular, the late Russell Ward produced an incomparable mature work called Australia, Since the Coming of Man, of which I still have some copies of the beautifully illustrated gift edition in my bookshop at a cheap price.

It is undoubtedly the best short history of Australia so far. It is constructed around a basic Marxist spine, so to speak, starting with a lengthy discussion of Aboriginal dispossession and European invasion. It describes the development of a modern working class through political conflict and class struggle, and it goes up to recent times.

It modifies Ward’s previous slightly romanticised view of bush workers, although it retains the exciting and interesting discussion of such things as convict ballads from The Australian Legend.

In the early 1980s Australian working class historiography about the development of both the working class and the bourgeoisie moved on somewhat from the previous debate. Andrew Wells published a major work on Australian capitalist development, and Bob Connell and Terry Irving produced the very important original work cum book of readings, Class Structure in Australian History.

During this period also, the important liberal-leftist statistician, Noel Butlin, continued his work on Australian capital formation, and even extended it into an analysis of the economic setback to Australian development that took place in the early period of imperial conquest when the harmonious and efficient aboriginal economic setup of “primitive communism” was disrupted by European invasions.

Butlin’s view was that net productivity in Australia actually dropped in the first 40 or 50 years of conquest, which is an interesting sidelight on Australian capitalist development, given that Butlin is widely regarded as Australia’s most knowledgable professional statistician.

The point of all this is, however, that Humphrey McQueen’s recent work on capital formation in Australia, while it is extremely useful, isn’t the first work in the field, which Peter Boyle seems to think.

In addition to this, neither Connell nor Irving, nor Andrew Wells, nor Noel Butlin, nor the contemporary Humphrey McQueen dispute the fact that a proletariat emerged, was made, and/or made itself, in Australia in the 19th century. The question of the prevailing racism of the time is not decisive in the evolution of the proletariat, as Boyle seems to think.

Ostensible racism is not the overarching question in the development of a modern proletariat. The fact that Australian society in the 19th century as a whole was racist did not prevent the development of a working class. The nuts and bolts of the development of the Australian working class is particularly explored in an extended way in the Connell and Irving book, which describes in parallel, and in conflict, the evolution of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

Peter Boyle should take all this work which describes all these social developments in such detail into account when he tries to fit the development of the Australian working class into his “labour aristocracy” thesis.



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