The “Labor Aristocracy” and Working-Class Struggles: Consciousness in Flux, Part 2

Charles Post

[This is the second of a two-part essay on “The Myth of the Labor Aristocracy.” The first section appeared in our previous issue (ATC 123)]

WHATEVER THE THEORETICAL and empirical problems with the economics of the labor aristocracy thesis, its defenders still claim that well paid workers have generally been more reformist and conservative in their politics than lower paid workers. They point to the example of mostly white New York City construction workers (“hardhats”) attacking antiwar demonstrators in the Spring of 1970; and contrast them with the militancy and progressive politics of some of the recent “Justice for Janitors” campaigns.

A more systematic examination of the history of workers’ struggles in the global North in the past century, however, does not bear out the claim that well paid workers are generally reformist or conservative, while poorly paid workers are more revolutionary or radical.

The most important counter-example is the Russian working class in the early 20th century. The backbone of Lenin’s Bolsheviks (something he was most definitely aware of) were the best paid industrial workers in the Russian cities – skilled machinists in the largest factories. Lower paid workers, such as the predominantly female textile workers, were generally either unorganized or apolitical (until the beginnings of the revolution) or supported the reformist Mensheviks.(1)

In fact the mass base of the left, antiwar wing of the pre-First World War socialist parties and of the postwar revolutionary Communist parties were relatively well paid workers in the large metalworking industries. These workers led militant struggles against speedup and deskilling that became political struggles against conscription and the war.

German Communism became a mass movement when tens of thousands of well paid metal workers left the Independent Socialists and joined the Communists in 1921. The French and Italian Communists also became mass parties through the recruitment of thousands of machinists who led the mass strikes of the postwar period. These highly paid workers were also overrepresented in the smaller Communist parties of the United States and Britain.(2)

Well paid, although generally deskilled, workers in large scale industry continued to play a leading role in mass upsurges throughout the 20th century. During the CIO upsurge during the 1930s, relatively well paid workers in the U.S. auto, steel, rubber and other mass production industries, often with skilled industrial workers in the lead, spearheaded the creation of industrial unions that united skilled and unskilled, highly paid and poorly paid. Well paid and skilled workers were, again, over represented in radical and revolutionary organizations in the United States during the 1930s.(3)

Well paid workers were also in the vanguard of proto-revolutionary mass struggles in France (1968), Italy (1968-69), Britain (1967-75), and Portugal (1974-75). Relatively “aristocratic” workers in trucking, auto, telecommunications, public education and the postal service were at the center of the unofficial, wildcat strikes that shook U.S. industry between 1965 and 1975.

In France in 1995, well paid workers in telecommunications, public transport, postal, health care and education led the public sector strikes that mounted the first successful workers’ struggles against neoliberalism. In the Fall of 2004, auto workers, some of the best paid in Germany, stood up to layoffs, defying their own union leaders in an unofficial strike.

In the U.S. working class during the past decade, relatively poorly paid workers (janitors, hotel workers, and grocery clerks) have engaged in strike actions much more frequently than relatively well paid workers. However, better paid workers – from UPS workers in 1997 to New York City transit workers in 2005 — have not been absent from militant workplace struggles.

Nor is this pattern of militancy and radicalism among relatively well paid workers limited to the global North. In Chile between 1970 and 1973, and Argentina between 1971 and 1974, copper miners and metal workers engaged in industrial struggles and took the lead in mass mobilizations against the military and the right. In Brazil, it was the well paid metal workers in the “ABC” suburbs of San Paolo who led mass strikes in the 1970s that created the CUT (United Workers Confederation) and eventually the PT (Workers Party) in the early 1980s.

Similarly, it was the highest paid Black workers in South Africa – in mining, auto, steel – whose struggles in the 1970s created the radical and militant FOSATU trade union confederation. FOSATU and its successor COSATU were able to build on workplace organization and power in the political struggle against apartheid in the 1980s and 1990s.

It is not surprising that relatively well paid workers have been at the center of the most militant and radical workers’ struggles of the last century. These workers tend to be concentrated in large, capital intensive workplaces that are often central to the capitalist economy. These workers have considerable social power when they act collectively. Strikes in these industries have a much greater impact on the economy than workers in smaller, less capital intensive workplaces (garment, office cleaning, etc.) Workers in capital intensive industries are also often the first targets of capitalist restructuring in periods of falling profits and sharpened competition.

Explaining Working-Class Reformism


How do we explain the fact that most workers, most of the time, do not act on their potential power? Why do workers embrace reformist politics – support for bureaucratic unionism (reliance on the grievance procedure, routine collective bargaining) and Democratic party electoral politics – or worse, reactionary politics in the forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, nativism, militarism?

The key to understanding working-class reformism (and conservatism) is the necessarily episodic nature of working- class struggle and organization. The necessary condition for the development of class consciousness is the self-activity and self-organization of the workers themselves. The experience of mass, collective and successful struggles against capital and its state in the workplace and the community is what opens layers of workers to radical and revolutionary political ideas.(5)

The working class cannot be, as a whole, permanently active in the class struggle. The entire working class cannot consistently engage in strikes, demonstrations and other forms of political activity because this class is separated from effective possession of the means of production, and its members compelled to sell their labor power to capital in order to survive. They have to go to work!

Put simply, most workers, most of the time are engaged in the individual struggle to sell their capacity to work and secure the reproduction of themselves and their families – not the collective struggle against the employers and the state. The “actually existing” working class can only engage in mass struggles as a class in extraordinary, revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situations. Because of the structural position of wage labor under capitalism, these must be of short duration. Most often, different segments of the working class become active in the struggle against capital at different times.

In the wake of successful mass struggles, only a minority of the workers remain consistently active. Most of this workers’ vanguard – those who “even during a lull in the struggle…do[es] not abandon the front lines of the class struggle but continues the war, so to speak, ‘by other means'”6 – attempts to preserve and transmit the traditions of mass struggle in the workplace or the community. However, a sector within this active minority, together with intellectuals who have access to cultural skills from which the bulk of the working class is excluded, must take on responsibility for administering the unions or political parties created by periodic upsurges of mass activity.

This layer of fulltime officials – the bureaucracy of the labor movement – is the social foundation for “unconditional” reformist practice and ideology in the labor movement. Those workers who become officials of the unions and political parties begin to experience conditions of life very different from those who remain in the workplace.

The new officials find themselves freed from the daily humiliations of the capitalist labor process. They are no longer subject to either deskilled and alienated labor or the petty despotism of supervisors. Able to set their own hours, plan and direct their own activities, and devote the bulk of their waking hours to “fighting for the workers,” the officials seek to consolidate these privileges.

As the unions gain a place in capitalist society, the union officials strengthen their role as negotiators of the workers’ subordination to capital in the labor-process. In defense of their social position, the labor bureaucracy excludes rank and file activists in the unions and parties from any real decision-making power.(7)

The consolidation of the labor bureaucracy as a social layer, distinct from the rest of the working class under capitalism, gives rise to its distinctive political practice and world-view. The preservation of the apparatus of the mass union or party, as an end itself, becomes the main objective of the labor bureaucracy. The labor bureaucrats seek to contain working-class militancy within boundaries that do not threaten the continued existence of the institutions which are the basis of the officials’ unique life-style.

Thus what Ernest Mandel called the “dialectic of partial conquests,” the possibility that new struggles may be defeated and the mass organizations of the working class weakened, buttress the labor bureaucracy’s reliance on electoral campaigns and parliamentary pressure tactics (lobbying) to win political reforms, and on strictly regimented collective bargaining to increase wages and improve working conditions.

The labor bureaucracy’s stake in stable bargaining relationships with the employers and their credibility in the eyes of the capitalists as negotiators further reinforce their conservative ideology and practice. From the bureaucracy’s point of view, any attempt to promote the militant self-activity and organization among workers must be quashed. At this point, the bureaucracy’s organizational fetishism (giving priority to the survival of the apparatus over new advances in the struggle) produces a world-view that demands the workers’ unquestioning obedience to leaders who claim they know “what is best for the workers.”

While the unconditional ideological commitment to reformism grows organically from the privileged social position of the labor officialdom, how do we explain the conditional reformism of most workers? Why do most workers, most of the time accept reformism? Put bluntly, why is this conditional reformism the normal state of working class consciousness under capitalism?

In “normal times” – of working class quiescence and passivity – the majority of workers come to accept the “rules of the game” of capitalist competition and profitability. They seek a “fair share” of the products of capitalist accumulation, but do not feel capable of challenging capitalist power in the workplace, the streets or society. For most workers during “normal times,” mass, militant struggle seems unrealistic; they tend to embrace the labor officialdom’s substitution of liberal and reformist electoral politics, institutionalized collective bargaining and grievance handling.

However, the continued hold of reformism over the majority of workers requires that labor officials “deliver the goods” in the form of improved wages, hours and working conditions. As Bob Brenner points out:

“(G)iven even a minimum of working-class organization, reformism tends to be widely attractive in periods of prosperity precisely because in such periods the threat of limited working-class resistance – symbolized by the resolution to strike or a victory at the polls – actually can yield concessions from capital. Since filling orders and expanding production are their top priorities in the boom, capitalists will tend to find it in their interests to maintain and increase production, even if this means concessions to the workers, if the alternative is to endure a strike or other forms of social dislocation.”(8)

When capitalism enters one of its unavoidable periods of crisis and restructuring – like the one that began in the late 1960s through most of the capitalist world – the paradox of reformism becomes manifest. In a world of declining profits and sharpened competition, capitalists throughout the world went on the offensive at the workplace and at the level of the capitalist state. The restructuring of the capitalist production along the lines of lean production, and the neoliberal deregulation of capital and labor markets,(9) required all-out war against workers and their organizations across the capitalist world.

At this point, reformism becomes ineffective. Workers can and have made gains against their employers in the past fifteen years – the success of the UPS strike and the “Justice for Janitors” campaigns in various cities cannot be ignored. However, these victories often required substantive rank-and-file organization and mobilization – including independent organizations, like Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

In fact, the reformist officialdom of the unions and social-democratic parties embraced realpolitik – adapting to the new “reality” of declining living and working conditions. As Mandel pointed out:

“(T)he underlying assumption of present-day social-democratic gradualism is precisely this: let the capitalists produce the goods, so that governments can redistribute them in a just way. But what if capitalist production demands more unequal, more unjust distribution of the ‘fruits of growth’?  What if there is no economic growth at all as a result of capitalist crisis?  The gradualists can then only repeat mechanically: there is no alternative; there is no way out.”(10)

Eschewing militancy and direct action by workers and other oppressed people, the labor bureaucracy and reformist politicians in the West have no choice but to make concessions to the employers’ offensive and to administer capitalist state austerity. The spectacle of reformist bureaucrats shunning the struggle for reforms has been repeated across the capitalist world in the last three decades, with tragic results.

Again and again, the reformist bureaucrats have surrendered to the requirements of capitalist profitability. The Italian Communist party embraced austerity in the 1970s. The U.S. AFL-CIO officials have accepted concession bargaining since 1979, usually without even the pretense of struggle. Social-democratic regimes across Europe (Mitterand and Jospin in France, Blair in Britain, Schroeder in Germany) embraced neoliberal realism – cutting social services, privatizing public enterprises, and deregulating capital and labor markets.

Nor has the reformist retreat been limited to the imperialist countries. In the early 1990s, the ANC-COSATU-led government in post-apartheid South Africa has embraced what some have called the “sado-monetarism” of the IMF and World Bank. The debacle of the Lula regime in Brazil – attacking workers’ rights, opening the agricultural economy to transnational investment and systematically retreating from its promise of popular reform – fits the pattern all too well. Today, even the most moderate forms of social-democratic gradualism have become utopian, as the labor bureaucracy across the world has been unable to defend the workers’ past gains much less win significant new reforms in an era of crisis and restructuring.

Why Working-Class Conservatism?


The inability of reformism to “deliver the goods” for most working people also helps us make sense of the appeal of right-wing politics – racist, sexist, homophobic, nativist and militarist – for a segment of workers. The objective, structural position of workers under capitalism provides the basis for collective, class radicalism and individualist, sectoralist and reactionary politics.

Bob Brenner and Johanna Brenner point out, “workers are not only collective producers with a common interest in taking collective control over social production. They are also individual sellers of labor power in conflict with each other over jobs, promotions, etc.” As Kim Moody put it, capitalism “pushes together and pulls apart” the working class. As competing sellers of labor power, workers are open to the appeal of politics that pit them against other workers – especially workers in a weaker social position:

It appears possible for the stronger sections of the working class to defend their positions by organizing on the basis of already existing ties against weaker, less-organized sections. They can take advantage of their positions as Americans over and against foreigners, as whites over and against blacks, as men over and against women, as employed over and against unemployed, etc. In so doing, working people may act initially only out of what they perceive to be their most immediate self-interest. But over time they inevitably feel the pressure to make sense of these actions and they adopt ideas which can make their actions reasonable and coherent. These ideas are, of course, the ideas of the right.(12)

Bruce Nelson’s recent study of steelworkers details how relatively white workers in the steel industry struggled to defend their privileged access to better paying and relatively more skilled work after the establishment of industrial unionism. The rise of the CIO opened the possibility of classwide organization that began to reduce the racial/national segmentation of the working class.

As the CIO offensive ground to passed its peak by the late 1930s, and the industrial unions became bureaucratized during the second world war, white workers increasingly moved to defend their privileged access to employment (and with it housing, education for their children, etc.) against workers of color. In the steel industries, white workers militantly defended departmental seniority in promotion and layoffs against demands of Black and Latino workers for plant wide seniority and affirmative action in promotions in the 1960s and 1970s.(13)

As Marxists, we understand that such strategies are counter-productive in the medium to long term. Divisions among workers and reliance on different segments of the capitalist class only undermine the ability of workers to defend or improve their conditions of life under capitalism.(14) However, when reformism proves incapable of realistically defending workers’ interests – as it has since the early 1970s – workers embrace individualist and sectoralist perspectives as the only realistic strategy.

This is particularly the case in the absence of a substantial and influential militant minority in the working class that can organize collective resistance to capital independently of, and often in opposition to the reformist labor officials.(15)


Kim Moody has pointed out that everyday working class “common sense” is not “some consistent capitalist ideology” but instead:

“a clashing collection of old ideas handed down, others learned through daily experience, and still others generated by the capitalist media, education system, religion, etc.  It is not simply the popular idea of a nation tranquilized by TV and weekends in the mall. “Common sense” is both deeper and more contradictory because it also embodies experiences that go against the grain of capitalist ideology.”(16)

Only through the experience of collective, class activity against the employers, starting at but not limited to the workplace, can workers begin to think of themselves as a class with interests in common with other workers and opposed to the capitalists. Workers who experience their collective, class power on the job are much more open to class – and anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-militarist, anti-nativist – ways of thinking.

As Marx pointed out, it is through the workplace and union struggles that the working class “becomes fit to rule” – develops the organization and consciousness capable of confronting capital. Such organization will require a struggle not only against “backward ideas” among workers, but against the officialdom of the unions and other popular mass organizations that are committed to reformist strategies, no matter how blatantly ineffective.

Workers’ self-organization and self-activity in the workplace struggles is the starting point for creating the material and ideological conditions for an effective challenge to working class reformism and conservatism. Clearly, militant workplace struggle is not a sufficient condition for the development of radical and revolutionary consciousness among workers. Struggles in working-class communities around housing, social welfare, transport and other issues; and political struggles against racism and war are crucial elements in the political self-transformation of the working class.

Successful workplace struggles, however, are the necessary condition for the development of class consciousness. Without the experience of such struggles, workers will continue to passively accept reformist politics or, worse, embrace reactionary politics.

This does not mean that workers of color, women and other oppressed groups in the working class should “wait” to fight until white and male workers are ready to act. White and male workers, because of the temporary but real advantages they gain in the labor market – preferential access to better jobs -are not likely to initiate struggles against racism, sexism or homophobia in the workplace or anywhere else. Self-organization and self-activity of racially oppressed groups are crucial to the development of anti-racist struggles and anti-racist consciousness.

However, a mass working-class audience for anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-militarist ideas will most likely be created in the context of mass, class struggles against capital. Today, the main audience for the idea that workers need to stand up to right-wing ideas and practices are the small layer of rank and file activists who are trying to promote solidarity, militancy and democracy in the labor movement.

Only if these activists, with the help of socialists in the labor movement, can succeed in building effective collective fight back will these ideas – the politics of class radicalism – achieve mass resonance.


  1. David Mandel, The Petrograd Workers, Volumes I and II (London: Macmillan, 1985).
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  2. Chris Harmon, The Lost Revolution, Germany 1918 to 1923 (London: Bookmarks,
    1982); Mark Hudson, “Rank-and-File Metalworker Militancy in France and Britain, 1890-1918,” New Politics 9, 3 (New Series) (Summer 2003) []
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  3. Mike Davis, “The Barren Marriage of Labor and the Democratic Party” in Prisoners of the American Dream (London: Verso Books, 1986), Chapter 2.
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  4. My alternative theory of working class reformism and conservatism is drawn from Mandel, “What is the Bureaucracy?” and Robert Brenner, “The Paradox of Reformism: The American Case,” in M. Davis, F. Pfeil, M. Sprinker (eds.) The Year Left: An American Socialist Yearbook (London: Verso, 1985); Robert Brenner, “The Problem of Reformism,” Against the Current (New Series) 43 (March-April 1993).
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  5. Clearly, successful economic and political struggles under capitalism can also encourage the development of a “militant reformist” consciousness among many workers. Some combination of successful self-activity and organization, which allows workers to experience their collective power; and the experience of the limits of struggles that accept capitalist economic and political rule are necessary for the development of revolutionary consciousness among a minority of workers.
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  6. Ernest Mandel, “The Leninist Theory of Organization: Its Relevance for Today” in S. Bloom (ed.), Revolutionary Marxist and Social Reality in the 20th Century: Collected Essays of Ernest Mandel (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, Inc. 1994), 85.
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  7. The process of bureaucratization of trade unions and working class political parties, and the resulting development of reformism, goes on in all capitalist societies where the labor movement achieves legal recognition and institutional stability. Put simply, reformism is not limited to the working classes of the global North. Thus, it is not surprising that in periods of declining mass struggle, the mass industrial unions and political parties of the Brazilian (CUT and PT) and South African (COSATU) working classes have become bureaucratized and their leaderships embraced reformist-and ultimately neo-liberal-politics.
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  8. Brenner, “The Paradox of Social Democracy,” 42.
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  9. C. Post and J. Slaughter, Lean Production: Why Work Is Worse Than Ever, And What’s The Alternative? (Solidarity Working Paper, 2000); C. Post, “The Economic Impact of the War and Occupation of Iraq,” Against the Current (New Series) 104 (May-June 2003)
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  10. Mandel, Power and Money: A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy (London: Verso, 1992), 236.
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  11. I want to acknowledge my debt to the seminal essay by Johanna Brenner and Robert Brenner, “Reagan, the Right and the Working Class,” Against the Current (Old Series) 1, 2 (Winter 1981).
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  12. Brenner and Brenner, “Reagan, the Right and the Working Class, 30.
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  13. B. Nelson, Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), Part Two.
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  14. Michael Reich’s Racial Inequality: A Political-Economic Analysis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981) presents substantial evidence that a divided working class is less capable of defending itself against capital. He finds that those areas in the US that had the greatest racial inequality in wages (an index of working class racial division), also had the lowest average wages (an index of working class weakness in relation to capital).
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  15. C. Post and K.A. Wainer, Socialist Organization Today (Solidarity Pamphlet, 1996).
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  16. The Rank And File Strategy: Building A Socialist Movement In The US (Solidarity Working Paper, 2000)
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ATC 124, September-October 2006