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New Left Review I/82, November-December 1973


New Left Review

Introduction to ‘The White Working Class in South Africa’

There are few concepts in Marxist vocabulary which have been so inadequately studied and so frequently abused as that of ‘labour aristocracy’. Popularized by Lenin, the term was never rigorously defined by him. Different passages from his writings can be used for widely contrasting versions of it—from the notion of a labour aristocracy as a small minority of skilled artisans and better-paid workers, to that of the permanent officialdom of reformist trade unions and parties, or finally even to that of the entire proletariat of the imperialist world, as allegedly benefiting from capitalist super-exploitation of the colonial and excolonial world. Only the first of these versions has received empirical investigation: none of them has ever been given a solid theoretical foundation. The notion of a ‘labour aristocracy’ has thus remained a politically and intellectually suspect one—an impatient short-cut through the real historical difficulties of uneven proletarian consciousness and industrial sectionalism.

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