labour aristocracya group (or groups) within the WORKING CLASS in Victorian Britain, seen as holding a privileged position, either economically or socially, or both.
Most of the writings on the labour aristocracy concentrate on whether such a category of workers actually existed, and if so, what were its essential features and its role in segmenting the working class in Victorian Britain.
Several writers (e.g. Crossick, 1978; Hobsbawm, 1968) have identified a fraction of the working class, roughly those identified with the apprenticed trades, who were separate in several ways from both other segments of the working class and the middle class. This distinctiveness included high stable earnings, a low rate of marriage into other class groups, distinctive non-work and leisure pastimes and social values, and a strong belief in trade unionism and in voluntary cooperative action.
One criticism of this, however, is that it does not consider fully the politics of the workplace or the process whereby the labour aristocracy was created. This question has been addressed by several further studies (Foster, 1974; Stedman Jones, 1975; Gray, 1975). One question concerns the political role of the labour aristocracy. Foster claims the labour aristocracy greatly weakened working-class opposition to capitalism, identifying them as a conduit for the transmission of ‘bourgeois values’. Gray introduces a sophisticated notion of HEGEMONY, acknowledging a labour aristocracy with some level of autonomy, but recognizing that any ensuing struggles must remain locked within a framework of subordination.
The labour aristocracy can be usefully conceived as a temporary product of a particular phase of the development of British capitalism. From the mid-19th-century onwards, their experience had more in common with the rest of the working class than as an autonomous grouping.