Labor Aristocracy

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Labor Aristocracy


the stratum of workers that the bourgeoisie bribes by means of superprofits from the export of capital to the colonies and semicolonial territories and also (especially after the disintegration of the colonial system) by means of superprofits obtained as a result of the redistribution of a portion of the national income and the exploitation of newly independent countries. Under conditions of the scientific and technological revolution, which began in the second half of the 20th century, the supplementary surplus value obtained as a result of the introduction of advanced technology, while maintaining monopoly prices, has become an important source for the bribery of the labor aristocracy.

The labor aristocracy emerged in Great Britain in the mid-19th century. According to the definition of K. Marx and F. Engels, it consisted of privileged strata of highly paid, skilled factory workers turned bourgeois, who were organized in exclusive, closed-shop trade unions and who advocated a reformist policy of compromise. The source for the bribery of the labor aristocracy was the British commercial-industrial and colonial monopoly, a monopoly that made it possible to allocate a portion of the enormous superprofits to the elite of the working class with the goal of splitting the class and retarding the workers’ movement. With the onset of the era of imperialism, the labor aristocracy, which had formed in a number of imperialist states, including Germany, the USA, and France, became the social base for opportunism in the working-class movement. During World War I, the labor aristocracy was the bulwark of social chauvinism. “This stratum of workers-turned-bourgeois, or the labour aristocracy,” wrote Lenin, “who are quite philistine in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings and in their entire outlook, is the principal prop of the Second International, and in our days, the principal social (not military) prop of the bourgeoisie. For they are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class” (Poln. sobr. soch, 5th ed. vol. 27, p. 308).

The influence of the labor aristocracy in various capitalist countries differs, since it is dependent upon relationships between class forces and the nature and political maturity of the workers’ movement. In Russia the bribery of the elite of the proletariat was carried out on a considerably smaller scale. The labor aristocracy was much weaker there than in the USA and Western Europe and exerted no significant influence on the working masses, a fact that was pointed out by Lenin (ibid., vol. 26, p. 331).

After World War I, the position of the labor aristocracy weakened owing to new socioeconomic, political, and ideological factors. Changes in capitalist production and in the structure of the working class narrowed the traditional range of the labor aristocracy: the widespread use of the conveyor belt and production-line method resulted in a decrease in the role of skilled labor. The labor aristocracy suffered greatly as a result of the world economic crisis of 1929–33. Its positions were further undermined by the growth of the influence of industrial trade unions involving broad masses of workers, a growth accompanied by the weakening of the old closed-shop unions.

Since World War II, the internal processes and policies of imperialism have been influenced to an ever greater extent by the might of the socialist system, by the liquidation of colonial regimes, and by the pressure of the workers’ movement. Because of this, the monopolist bourgeoisie now disseminates its ideology by new methods and means, including “human relations,” the demagogic propaganda of the “equality of all the employees of the enterprise,” the “introduction to ownership” through the distribution of “workers’ stocks,” and the introduction of “profit sharing” (seePEOPLES CAPITALISM, THEORY OF). By such means, the monopolist bourgeoisie attempts to draw the most varied strata of the working class into “the collaboration of labor and capital.” The old stratum of the labor aristocracy has decreased sharply as a consequence of the development of the scientific and technological revolution, which has led to profound changes in the structure of the working class and has produced detachments of workers with a higher level of general education and professional training. Since labor aristocracy’s role as a vehicle of the bourgeois ideology serves as the major criterion for defining the labor aristocracy, the term cannot be applied to contemporary skilled, highly paid workers, who take an active part in the antimonopoly struggle and are members of progressive trade unions and mass democratic organizations.

The existence of a labor aristocracy, however small, promotes the preservation of reformist illusions among a certain portion of the working class and among routine office workers and members of the intelligentsia close to the working class. On the whole, however, the rise in the workers* sociopolitical consciousness and the formation of a broad front of anti-imperialist forces attest to the crisis in bourgeois ideology and the decline in the influence of the labor aristocracy. Because of the conditions indicated, the concept of labor aristocracy is no longer widely used in sociopolitical literature.


Engels, F. “Marksu 7 okt. 1858 g.” (Letter.) K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 29.
Lenin, V. I. “Krakh II Internatsionala.” Poln. sobr. sock, 5th ed., vol. 26, pp. 227, 248–50,255,262–63,265.
Lenin, V. I. “Imperializm, kak vysshaia stadiia kapitalizma.” Ibid., vol. 27, pp. 307–08,402–06,423–24.
Lenin, V. I. “Imperializm i raskol sotsializma.” Ibid., vol. 30, pp. 165, 168–79.
Sovremennyi rabochii klass kapitalisticheskikh stran (lzmeneniia v strukture). Moscow, 1965.
Sotsial’no-ekonomicheskie problemy trudiashchikhsia kapitalisticheskikh stran. Moscow, 1974.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in classic literature ?
The members of the favored unions became the aristocracy of labor. They were set apart from the rest of labor.
Markey, 'The aristocracy of labor and productive re-organisation in NSW, c.
He argues against the conservative "aristocracy of labor" thesis (first propounded by Lenin) and contends that privileged workers can demonstrate class consciousness, but he does so without citing the seminal work of Eric Hobsbawm and others, who have written convincingly that skilled workers are often most radical precisely when defending their historical trade union gains.