The domination of the working masses by a small capitalist ruling class has never been based on violence alone. Capitalist rule is based on a range of mechanisms, some objective products of the economic process, others subjective phenomena arising through manipulation of attitudes. Two such mechanisms, which received considerable attention from the founders of scientific socialism, are the industrial reserve army, which belongs to the first category, and the labour aristocracy, which belongs to the second. These two mechanisms are closely related, as are the objective and subjective factors which give rise to them.

Engels pointed out that ‘English manufacture must have, at all times save the brief periods of highest prosperity, an unemployed reserve army of workers, in order to produce the masses of goods required by the market in the liveliest months.’footnote1 Marx showed that the industrial reserve army or surplus working population is not only the necessary product of capital accumulation and the associated increase in labour productivity, but at the same time ‘the lever of capitalist accumulation’, ‘a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production’.footnote2 Only by bringing ever more workers into the production process can the capitalist accumulate capital, which is the precondition for extending production and applying new techniques. These new techniques throw out of work the very men whose labour allowed their application. They are set free to provide a labour reserve which is available to be thrown into other sectors as the interests of the capitalist require. ‘The whole form of the movement of modern industry depends, therefore, upon the constant transformation of a part of the labouring population into unemployed or half-employed hands.’footnote3 The pressure of the industrial reserve army forces those workers who are employed to accept long hours and poor conditions. Above all: ‘Taking them as a whole, the general movements of wages are exclusively regulated by the expansion and contraction of the industrial reserve army.’footnote4 If employment grows and the reserve army contracts, workers are in a better position to demand higher wages. When this happens, profits and capital accumulation diminish, investment falls and men are thrown out of work, leading to a growth of the reserve army and a fall in wages. This is the basis of the capitalist economic cycle. Marx mentions the possibility of the workers seeing through the seemingly natural law of relative over-population, and undermining its effectiveness through trade-union activity directed towards co-operation between the employed and the unemployed.footnote5

The labour aristocracy is also described by Engels and Marx. By conceding privileges to certain well-organized sectors of labour, above all to craftsmen (who by virtue of their training could not be readily replaced by members of the industrial reserve army), the capitalists were able to undermine class consciousness and secure an opportunist non-revolutionary leadership for these sectors.footnote6 Special advantages, sometimes taking the form of symbols of higher status (different clothing, salary instead of wages, etc) rather than higher material rewards, were also conferred upon foremen and non-manual workers, with the aim of distinguishing them from other workers and causing them to identify their interests with those of the capitalists. Engels pointed out that the privileges given to some British workers were possible because of the vast profits made by the capitalists through domination of the world market and imperialist exploitation of labour in other countries.footnote7 Lenin emphasized the effects of imperialism on class consciousness: ‘Imperialism . . . makes it economically possible to bribe the upper strata of the proletariat, and thereby fosters, gives shape to, and strengthens opportunism.’footnote8 ‘. . . A section of the proletariat allows itself to be led by men bought by, or at least paid by, the bourgeoisie’, and the result is a split among the workers and ‘temporary decay in the working-class movement’.footnote9

The industrial reserve army and the labour aristocracy have not lost their importance as mechanisms of domination in the current phase of organized monopoly capitalism. However, the way in which they function has undergone important changes. In particular the maintenance of an industrial reserve army within the developed capitalist countries of West Europe has become increasingly difficult. With the growth of the labour movement after the First World War, economic crises and unemployment began to lead to political tensions which threatened the existence of the capitalist system. Capitalism responded by setting up fascist régimes in the areas where it was most threatened, in order to suppress social conflict through violence. The failure of this strategy, culminating in the defeat of fascism in 1945, was accompanied by the reinforcement of the non-capitalist bloc in East Europe and by a further strengthening of the labour movement in West Europe. In order to survive, the capitalist system had to aim for continuous expansion and full employment at any price. But full employment strikes at a basic principle of the capitalist economy: the use of the industrial reserve army to keep wages down and profits up. A substitute for the traditional form of reserve army had to be found, for without it capitalist accumulation is impossible. Moreover, despite Keynsian economics, it is not possible completely to avoid the cyclical development of the capitalist economy. It was therefore necessary to find a way of cushioning the effects of crises, so as to hinder the development of dangerous social tensions.

The solution to these problems adopted by West European capitalism has been the employment of immigrant workers from under-developed areas of Southern Europe or from the Third World.footnote10 Today, the unemployed masses of these areas form a ‘latent surplus-population’footnote11 or reserve army, which can be imported into the developed countries as the interests of the capitalist class dictate. In addition to this economic function, the employment of immigrant workers has an important socio-political function for capitalism: by creating a split between immigrant and indigenous workers along national and racial lines and offering better conditions and status to indigenous workers, it is possible to give large sections of the working class the consciousness of a labour aristocracy.