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.
In the article we print below, a South African militant has for the first time attempted to demonstrate scientifically the existence of an authentic labour aristocracy—the white manual workers of the apartheid Republic. His careful calculations, if verified, show that the white section of the working-class in South Africa is maintained on a major scale out of the surplus-value extracted from the mass of the black working class. This exceptional economic position, he argues, is the objective bedrock of the reactionary political allegiance of the white workers to the settler regime—which cannot be explained merely by the intoxication of racist ideology. In effect, these workers can be seen as a financial charge on the aggregate surplus-value pumped out of the African proletariat by the white capitalist class—whose function is essentially to provide a mass social base for the settler bourgeois State, which without them would be reduced to a relative handful of exploiters incapable of resisting the onset of indigenous black revolt, as elsewhere in the continent.
Two points must be made about this phenomenon. Firstly, the structural position of the white workers in the South African politico-economic system appears to be a unique one. Nowhere else in the world—neither in Israel, let alone, say, Northern Ireland—does any comparable stratum of the proletariat exist, paid wages far above a computed ‘surplus-free’ level. Perhaps, indeed, South Africa precisely offers the one true historical example of a labour aristocracy—which has elsewhere so often turned out on inspection to be a myth. At the same time, it is essential for socialists to remember that even such a labour aristocracy remains a part of the labouring population—a section of the working class that is still defined by its deprivation of any control over the means of production. As the author of this article stresses, Marxists can have no truck with the slogans of bourgeois black nationalism, or the ‘two-stage’ theory of revolution that tails behind them. Proletarian internationalism, however difficult in local conditions, forbids any inverse adoption of colour as a dividing-line for revolutionary politics in the Republic. The national liberation of the African masses can only be achieved by socialism; and socialism can only be achieved by resolute struggle against nationalism in all its shapes and guises. Lenin’s ringing and unequivocal words on this question retain all their force today: ‘Combat all national oppression? Yes, of course! Fight for any kind of national development, for “national culture” in general?—Of course not. Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the “most just”, “purest”, most refined and civilized brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations in a higher unity.’ footnote1