Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 12, 2019

Charles Post, Left Voice, and the question of a labor aristocracy

Filed under: Lenin,two-party system,workers — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

Rodrigo Carrillo, a farmer in Hoja Blanca, Guatemala, says falling coffee prices mean he can no longer make a profit on the once-lucrative crop. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

On May 25th, Left Voice published an article by an Argentine Trotskyist named Matías Maiello on “Social Democracy and Imperialism: The Problem with Kautsky” that was the latest in a series of critiques of Eric Blanc, a DSA/Jacobin figure who has justified backing Democratic Party candidates on the basis of Karl Kautsky’s pre-1910 writings.

On June 5th, Charles Post responded to Maiello’s article in Left Voice, which to its credit has opened its pages to criticisms. Despite the magazine’s professions of Leninist orthodoxy, this is a departure from the norms of the American SWP that I belonged to from 1967 to 1978. Then again, the norms of the SWP might have been in violation of Bolshevik practice, given Iskra being published to further debate among socialists.

Like Maiello, Post is a critic of Jacobin’s neo-Kautskyism, even going so far as to refer to Eric Blanc as a “left reformist”. In the world occupied by Post and Maiello, the “left” that qualifies “reformist” might be regarded as damning with faint praise.

Most of Maiello’s article is an attempt to demonstrate the affinity of the German Social Democracy with the leftwing of the Democratic Party, personified by figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In either case, you are dealing with self-described socialists adapting to imperialism. This is obviously manifested by the German socialist parliamentarians voting for war credits in 1914 and Sanders voting in favor of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which called for removing “the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power.” I should note that Maiello cites my editor Jeff St. Clair of CounterPunch on Sanders’s voting record. I commend the Argentinian for his ability to keep on top of the truly radical press in the USA. This sets an example for the kind of proletarian internationalism so necessary in a “globalized” world (please excuse the tautology.)

After stating his agreement with the main thrust of the Left Voice article, Post parts company with Maiello for his alleged support for the theory of “labor aristocracy”:

We differ, however, in our analysis of the material roots of the bureaucratization of the workers movement. Maiello relies on Lenin’s notion of “labor aristocracy” to explain working-class reformism. According to Lenin, the export of productive capital from the Global North to the South since the late 19th century allowed large, “monopoly” capitalists to accrue “superprofits,” which were used to “bribe” a sector of the working class and create a labor officialdom. Thus, reformist bureaucrats defend their national imperialism in order to maintain the social basis for their relatively privileged position in the working class.

You’ll note that Post refers to Lenin’s “notion” but in the next paragraph refers to a “theory”: “Unfortunately, the theory of the labor aristocracy, in all its variants, is without factual-empirical basis and rests on questionable theoretical assumptions.” This is an important distinction and one that he neglects to clarify. In Lenin’s copious writings, there are not many references to the labor aristocracy. Probably the best known of them was his 1916 “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism”  that only refers to some letters by Engels that express his dismay over the state of the British working class: “…The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable.” Not only did Engels write this letter prior to the mature imperialism examined in Lenin’s writings but as an off-the-cuff remark without much of a “theorizing” ambition.

Once he is finished quoting from Engels and Marx’s letters, Lenin adds his own thoughts that add up to a “notion” rather than a theory:

Formerly a “bourgeois labour party”, to use Engels’s remarkably profound expression, could arise only in one country, because it alone enjoyed a monopoly, but, on the other hand, it could exist for a long time. Now a “bourgeois labour party” is inevitable and typical in all imperialist countries; but in view of the desperate struggle they are waging for the division of spoils it is improbable that such a party can prevail for long in a number of countries. For the trusts, the financial oligarchy, high prices, etc., while enabling the bribery of a handful in the top layers, are increasingly oppressing, crushing, ruining and torturing the mass of the proletariat and the semi-proletariat.

Other than this article, the only other attempt by Lenin to present his own understanding of the labor aristocracy is in the preface to the French and German edition of “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” that only contains a couple of paragraphs similar to the one above. There are several other articles that offer up a line or two but are hardly worth mentioning. My advice is to consult the Marxist Internet Archives (MIA), an invaluable resource for researching such matters.

The MIA reveals that in the entire “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, as opposed to the preface, there is not a single reference to the term. There’s a good reason for that. That 1914 work was an attempt to explain the economic basis for WWI as a conflict between monopoly capitalist powers, using J.A. Hobson as a primary source. If you are looking for a class analysis of the trade union bureaucracy and its base of support among skilled tradesmen, you won’t find it in Lenin. You only can find “notions”, to use Post’s word, but that’s about it.

If you are looking for a fully developed theory, you can find it in a 1982 pamphlet by Max Elbaum and Robert Seltzer titled “The Labour Aristocracy The Material Basis for Opportunism in the Labour Movement” that tries to bridge the gap between Lenin’s theory of imperialism and his scattered and rather minimal references to the upper layers of the working class being bribed, etc.

Elbaum and Seltzer were members of Line of March, a Maoist sect that was founded by Irwin Silber, the film critic of the defunct but essential Guardian Newsweekly. Line of March was part of a significant Maoist current in the USA that existed from 1968 or so to the mid-80s. The Maoist press wrote about “white skin privilege” and Third World revolution swamping the imperialist strongholds after a protracted People’s War, etc.

For Elbaum and Seltzer, the aristocracy is not just the workers you’d expect to be singled out, like the white construction workers who beat up antiwar protesters in 1970. It is the entire American working class that benefits from imperial bribery:

Certainly relative to the masses in the colonies and semicolonies, the entire working class in the advanced capitalist countries possesses political, economic, and cultural advantages. Just as monopoly capital consolidated the split between the labour aristocracy and the lower strata of the proletariat, it accentuated the division between workers in imperialist countries and the masses in the oppressed nations. Indeed, this latter division has often served to moderate (and obscure) the tensions between the labour aristocracy and the lower strata in imperialist countries, as both have benefited somewhat from imperialist exploitation of workers in the colonies and neocolonies. Lenin observed this phenomenon and didn’t mince words about its meaning: “To a certain degree the workers of the oppressor nations are partners of their own bourgeoisie in plundering the workers (and the mass of the population) of the oppressed nations.”

Post does not refer to this pamphlet in his Left Voice article but in 2006, he wrote a two-part article in Solidarity on “The Myth of the Labor Aristocracy” that took aim at the Elbaum/Seltzer pamphlet as well as articles written by a member of the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia that endorsed their findings. What makes this linkage interesting is the Trotskyist heritage of the DSP, which despite the name had little to do with the DSA politically. For Post, it might have seemed odd for people with the same ideological background as his to be defending nominally Maoist beliefs but not so strange in light of what Leon Trotsky had written over the years. For example, in “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”, a 1940 sketch for an article that was never written due to his assassination, he wrote:

Hence flows the need of the trade unions – insofar as they remain on reformist positions, ie., on positions of adapting themselves to private property – to adapt themselves to the capitalist state and to contend for its cooperation. In the eyes of the bureaucracy of the trade union movement the chief task lies in “freeing” the state from the embrace of capitalism, in weakening its dependence on trusts, in pulling it over to their side. This position is in complete harmony with the social position of the labor aristocracy and the labor bureaucracy, who fight for a crumb in the share of superprofits of imperialist capitalism.

Part of the problem, of course, is the failure of Lenin or Trotsky to flesh out what they meant by a “labor aristocracy”. Is it the same as the labor bureaucracy? Evidently not, or else they wouldn’t have used two different terms.

Ironically, Post and Elbaum/Seltzer agree on the existence of a class-wide privileged layer in the imperialist heartland but draw different conclusions. Post writes:

Higher profits result in more investment across the board in the industrialized countries. More investment eventually brings a growing demand for labor (within limits set by investment in newer, more capital intensive technology), falling unemployment and rising wages for all workers in the industrialized capitalist countries.

Put simply, this means that imperialist investment in the global South benefits all workers in the global North – both highly paid and poorly paid workers. Higher profits and increased investment mean not only more employment and rising wages for “aristocratic” steel, automobile, machine-making, trucking and construction workers, but also for lowly paid clerical, janitorial, garment and food processing workers. As Ernest Mandel put it, “the real ‘labor aristocracy’ is no longer constituted inside the proletariat of an imperialist country but rather by the proletariat of the imperialist countries as a whole.” That “real ‘labor aristocracy’” includes poorly paid immigrant janitors and garment workers, African-American and Latino poultry workers, as well as the multi-racial workforce in auto and trucking.

For Post, the “bribe” is distributed across the board almost like Social Security and as such it would refute the notion that it was only hard hats with their fishing boats and 6,000 square foot houses in Suffolk County that are “aristocrats”. It would also include the janitors and garment workers, et al. This is his way of discounting the viability of this theory. On the other hand, it might explain the willingness of African-Americans to vote for Joe Biden by 46 percent as opposed to Bernie Sander’s 10 percent approval rating in the Black community.

It is always necessary to remind ourselves that Lenin wrote articles and books in the heat of the moment. Within 5 years, he referred to “What is to Be Done” as a work that was obsolete. To regard “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” as a work that can explain today’s world is a useless exercise but often taken to dismiss the idea that imperialism exists since definitionally it was next to useless. Those committed to formal logic rather than Marxist dialectics were the loudest in questioning its applicability.

In Post’s Against the Current article, he scoffs at the idea that the imperialist nations were in any way reliant on superprofits extracted from the Third World:

Imperialist investment, particularly in the global South, represents a tiny portion of global capitalist investment. Foreign direct investment makes up only 5% of total world investment – that is to say, 95% of total capitalist investment takes place within the boundaries of each industrialized country.

Of that five percent of total global investment that is foreign direct investment, nearly three-quarters flow from one industrialized country – one part of the global North – to another. Thus only 1.25% of total world investment flows from the global North to the global South. It is not surprising that the global South accounts for only 20% of global manufacturing output, mostly in labor-intensive industries such as clothing, shoes, auto parts and simple electronics.

Data for profits earned by U.S. companies overseas do not distinguish between investments in the global North and global South. For purposes of approximation, we will assume that the 25% of U.S. foreign direct investment in labor-intensive manufacturing in Africa, Asia and Latin America produces profits above those earned on the 75% of U.S. foreign direct investment in more capital-intensive production in western Europe, Canada and Japan. It is unlikely, however, that more than half of the profits earned abroad by US companies are earned in the global South.

This, of course, is consistent with his dismissal of the idea that capitalism relied on slavery in its early stages. You have to understand that his aversion to theories tainted by the Monthly Review dependency theorists and other neo-Smithians was strongly influenced by Robert Brenner whose 1977 NLR article warned against theories that called attention to how imperialism was “squeezing dry the ‘third world’”. Instead of nonsense about the core versus periphery, the cities versus the countryside, etc. the answer was in the international proletariat allying itself with the oppressed people of all countries against the bourgeoisie. Who can be opposed to that? The idea of American workers organizing a general strike against Trump’s anti-immigrant racism is inspiring, even if it is a fantasy.

Part of the problem in reducing the core-periphery relationship to one of a bribery extracted from superprofits is that it does not account for the entire ensemble of economic relationships that condemn a country like Guatemala to the desperation that drives its citizens to risk drowning in the Rio Grande or dying of thirst in the Mexican desert.

Today’s Washington Post reports that “The migration problem is a coffee problem”. It seems that falling coffee prices have driven growers into dire poverty, even when they are the owners of their own land. Now, if the USA had not intervened in Central America in the 1970s and 80s, perhaps all of Central America could have been liberated from dependency and formed socialist cartels to support prices for coffee exports that advantaged the farmers rather than Fair Trade hustlers like Starbucks, et al. This might have meant that American workers, who were addicted to coffee like me because it was the only way to take a proper shit in the morning, might have to pay $6 for a cup of coffee rather than $2. When the global South became master of its own commodities, it would have forced the American working class to decide where their loyalties should be placed. It might be possible to enjoy a cup of coffee or a banana without going broke but only if that entailed reducing the funding for the American military until it reached Costa Rica’s, namely zero.

Based on Charles Post’s analysis immediately above, you might conclude that Guatemala’s problem is one of malign neglect since American FDI in Guatemala ($1.1 billion) is dwarfed by the capital poured into Canada ($392 billion). However, this does not take into account the American support for rightwing dictators in Guatemala that have been armed and supported by both the USA and Israel for the past 60 years at least. To see American imperialism exclusively in terms of where banks finance capitalist expansion is a narrow way of understanding class relationships. Although Brenner scoffs at the notion of Andre Gunder Frank’s “the development of underdevelopment”, that is exactly the malady Guatemala and most of Latin America suffers from. I should add that it is no accident that Argentine Trotskyists writing in Left Voice have a better handle on that than him.

Finally, on the question of the reformist tendencies of the working class, aristocrats or plebeians, this is a question that has been at the heart of American politics going back to Werner Sombart’s 1904 “Why There is No Socialism in the United States” that states: “For the average American being successful means first and foremost becoming rich.” I rather have my doubts about this but after 52 years advocating socialism, I tend to accept Marx’s verdict in “The German Ideology” that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

I suspect that my take on the pace of revolutionary struggles in the USA are much more restrained than those of the Left Voice editorial board but am glad that it at least can draw clear class lines in a period when the entire capitalist press is solidly behind “democratic socialism”, whatever that is.

Most workers simply can’t be reached by revolutionary ideas today, even if their life is being torn apart by capitalist contradictions. Reaching the average worker will take something like the Ralph Nader campaign in 2000. I have vivid recollections of returning from a trip from seeing my girlfriend at the time, who was a graduate student in Albany. On the Amtrak, sitting on the opposite side of the train from me, were three UPS workers who spent the entire 2 hours discussing Nader’s ideas. Nader was not a socialist but he was a leftist who had the guts to run as a Green Party candidate. Was he a reformist? I guess by Left Voice’s standards, he was.

At some point in American history, someone like Ralph Nader will be a reformist block to socialist revolution but that will only be a result of UPS workers discussing Karl Marx rather than Ralph Nader. That might take decades to unfold but acting as if this was Russia in 1910 might be a serious error in tempo. I should add that even if it is a mistake, it is one that I would prefer to see people make, just as I made in 1970, then see them ringing doorbells for Democratic Party candidates.

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