In “Notes from the Editors” in the current issue of Monthly Review, the editors discuss the phenomenon of the labor aristocracy and its demise. They begin by revisiting a special issue of MR in 1970, honoring Lenin and examining his many contributions to revolutionary theory and practice on the occasion of his 100th birthday. In that issue, two contributors, Eric Hobsbawm and Martin Nicolaus, look at the origins and role of the aristocracy of labor as it was theorized by Engels in the late 19th century and then Lenin in the early 20th century.
I won’t take the time to recount what each of them said, but suffice it to say, and they say it much better than I do here, that the combination of the growth of large concentrations of corporate power, colonial rule, imperialism, and the rise of successive hegemonic states provided the material basis for the formation of a privileged stratum of the working class, set apart from the great mass of workers. Accorded special privileges in the form of higher wages, benefits, social standing, and entry, to a degree, into the halls of power, this stratum, in exchange, acted as a conservative force in the labor movement. Class collaboration in the workplace, politics within narrow boundaries, and support for imperialist exploitation and military adventures, among other things, were its job description and practice.
Meanwhile, this privileged layer of the working class reined in and isolated any section of the labor and working class movement that dared to directly challenge capital’s dominance and move beyond the prescribed boundaries of acceptable conflict.
But in this century, things have changed, say MR editors in their Notes. The labor aristocracy is a much less formidable force.
“In the face of the relative decline of U.S. production in the global economy, associated with the offshoring of production by multinational corporations to subcontractors in the Global South (as well as growth of more traditional foreign direct investment) and the closely related rise of China, this privileged stratum of U.S. labor,” they write, “which previously received some of the benefits of empire, is now visibly waning. At the same time, the great mass of the working class, faced with an economic landscape characterized by stagnation, financialization, and neoliberalism, has been subject to increased exploitation, expropriation, and an overall degradation of their conditions, leading to diminished expectations. It is due to the historical class context arising from these epochal shifts in material relations that we are now, at long last, witnessing the nascent reemergence of a movement toward socialism in the United States.”
When they say, “ … we are now, at long last, witnessing the nascent reemergence of a movement toward socialism in the United States,” my ears perk up. It’s sure time.
But before turning to this nascent movement toward socialism, a few words about the editors’ treatment of the “privileged stratum of U.S labor” are in order. Set aside their silence on exactly who falls into this category (leaving the reader to fill in the blanks) and the degree to which some sections of the working class “received the benefits of empire,” I would quarrel with them on the singular role they attach, so it seems, to this stratum in arresting class and social struggles in the past.
Are we to surmise that racism and white skin privilege had no hand in weakening the U.S. working class and its labor movement, not to mention acting as a dissolvent of class consciousness and unity? Are we to believe much the same about patriarchy and xenophobia? And are we to think that the corporate offensive, the rise of the right, and the seismic changes taking place in the global economy during the last three decades of the 20th century didn’t divide and throw the working class on the defensive? All of this and more should tell us that the shoulders of labor’s misleaders and labor’s privileged stratum are too narrow to carry so much explanatory weight for labor’s setbacks and retreat over the past half century.
As for the emergence of a nascent movement toward socialism, I think they are on the mark. I would, however, some observations: First of all, its supporters are mainly young people who find themselves loaded up with debt, working in dicey jobs, and worried about the sustainability of the planet that they are inheriting. More than any other demographic, they enthusiastically supported Bernie Sanders, democratic socialist, in the past two presidential primaries. In contrast, other sections of the working class have yet to embrace socialism like the young have and were much less inclined to support Bernie.
Second, this nascent movement toward socialism is long on sentiment, but still short on organization, infrastructure, program, and a grounded strategy, although Sanders’ campaigns leave behind a wealth of experience and supporters.
Third, “increased exploitation, expropriation, and an overall degradation of their (the working class) conditions,” can as easily result in a turn to authoritarian rule as give a new impulse to an emerging socialist movement.
Fourth, a fledgling movement toward socialism will graduate to its more mature iteration to the degree that it sheds narrowness in its politics, dives deeply into democratic and egalitarian as well as class struggles, speaks a language that is understandable to tens of millions who are not yet on the socialist bandwagon, and is flexible enough to find common ground with tens of millions who are reeling at the present moment as the COVID-19 pandemic and a resulting economic implosion change life as we know it.
Finally, as this nascent socialist movement finds its legs in the day-to-day crises gripping the country and the planet, it is, at the same time, obligated to turn its attention to the fall elections. Too much is at stake not to, including any future for democracy, equality, economic sufficiency, a sustainable planet, and socialism, if Trump wins a second term. Unlike in 2016, socialists can’t sit on the sidelines in the fall and be satisfied with voting for Joe Biden and other Democrats on election day, while “holding their nose.” They have to be in the fight of our lifetime.