The “labour aristocracy” and groundhog day


Bob Gould

Nick Fredman and I could very well drive each other mad by going over the same piece of territory again, and again, and again. I’ve already discussed the aristocracy of labour theory with Peter Boyle and Jon Strauss at considerable length on Marxmail and Green Left. I’d also draw attention to an extract from A.J. Polan’s book, Lenin and the End of Politics.

I regard Polan’s description of the inadequacies and limitations of the labour aristocracy theory as pretty well definitive, and I’m not convinced by the authorities you quote.

In addition, I reject the proposition that the AWU and the other unions that pushed for the formation of the Labor Party were either an aristocracy of labour at that time, or predominantly petty bourgeois.

This goes to the general point as to whether the colonial proletariat and the proletariat of the new century after 1900 was working class at all. I assert that it was a proletariat with a limited, reformist class consciousness and it’s hardly surprising that with such a limited consciousness, in the majority it participated in the formation of a reformist mass Labor Party.

There was no viable alternative to such a possibility at that time, and as I’ve pointed out previously, that was the view of Marx and Engels on the labour movement in the United States at about the same period.

While the existence of the all-pervasive British imperial racism in the labour movement was a significant factor, it didn’t prevent the colonial proletariat having a limited consciousness of its own class interests.

As far as racism goes, the Australian proletariat wasn’t significantly worse or better than the colonial proletariat in a country such as Canada, or the proletariat in a metropolitan country such as Britain.

The existence of racism and stratification based on racism can’t be
seriously taken as negating the independent class impulse of the
Australian, British or Canadian working class.

The formation of mass labour parties based on the trade unions and the proletariat in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, roughly in the same time frame, were substantial steps forward for the working class, despite the limited, reformist character of these newly formed labour parties.

The same Comintern whose formulation on the labour aristocracy you quote with such conviction, was also the Comintern that turned the face of the young Communist parties in English-speaking countries towards intervention in and around the much larger mass labour parties, despite the Comintern’s exposition of the partly overstated thesis on aristocracies of labour.

I suggest that Fredman and other DSP leaders seriously consider all of the material on this question from a number of angles.

Racism and the AWU

Further to Tom O’Lincoln’s point about Aboriginal Australians and the AWU. The AWU rules, almost from the beginning, excluded Chinese and South Sea Islanders, but allowed Maoris, American Negroes and Australian Aborigines to join.

The provision allowing Maoris to join is of some significance because for a time the AWU had a rural workers’ union in New Zealand as an affiliate.

The provision allowing Aborigines to join obviously had a material base, in that Aboriginal workers were an important part of the rural workforce all over Australia, and obviously the people who formed the AWU saw the wisdom of bringing Aboriginal rural workers into the union, if only to reduce the danger of a non-unionised section of the workforce being used as scabs.

The early leaders of the AWU often had reasonably friendly things to say about Australian Aborigines, and generally avoided racist statements about them.

It would be gilding the lily to conclude from this that the organised rural workers in the AWU were paragons of virtue on racial matters. The rhetoric of the AWU was certainly fierce against Asian migration to Australia, and in some periods against even non-British southern Europeans.

Nevertheless, this contradictory set of attitudes on race questions considerably undermines any proposition that the AWU was part of a rigid labour aristocracy with rigid stratification based on race.



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