The proletariat is, in Engels’ words, “the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live”. The concentration of the means of production in the hands of the bourgeoisie and the expropriation of the small producers is mirrored by the growth of the proletarian class. At the turn of the century the majority of the U.S. labor force was still made up of farmers and other small proprietors. By 1940, the importance of the petty proprietors had declined greatly, but they still made up over 22% of the labor force. By 1982 the number of petty proprietors had been so reduced that they made up less than 10% of the labor force. Nearly 90% of the labor force had been converted into wage workers.

The extreme degree of economic concentration and class polarization can be further seen by the fact that only 6% of wage workers in the private sector work for the petty proprietors; the remaining 94% work for the capitalist class (employers of five or more workers). The majority work for large capitalist enterprises that employ at least five hundred workers.

U.S. society has been almost completely polarized into a tiny number of large capitalist property owners and a massive number of propertyless wage workers. Not all of those who work for wages, however, are proletarians. The population that works for wages is divided into two fundamentally distinct classes – the proletariat and the petty bourgeois employees. Both of these classes own no means of production and are compelled to sell their labor power to the capitalists. However, the proletarian wage-earner and the petty bourgeois wage-earner are distinguished by differences in the nature of their work, the conditions of their work and the level of their compensation.

The great mass of the wage earning population are proletarians. The characteristics that distinguish this class from the petty-bourgeois strata of wage-earners are its separation from the responsibilities of management, the relatively greater weight of manual labor in its work, the relatively smaller amount of education required to carry out its work, and, for the great majority, lower wages and worse working conditions. Out of some 96,000,000 wage and salary workers in the United States, more than 68,000,000, or 71 %, are proletarians (see Table B-1).

Table B-1

Proletarian Occupations (1981)

Government ClassificationMain OccupationsEmployed Full-time6Employed Part-time7Unemployed8Seasonal9Total
Operatives (Non-transport)Manufacturing and Mining Machine Operators, etc.9,440,000778,0001,781,000 11,999,000
Transport OperativesDrivers, Forklift Drivers, etc.2,792,000402,000382,000 3,576,000
Laborers (Non-farm)Construction Laborers, Freight Handlers, Stock Handlers, etc.3,227,0001,039,000935,000 5,201,000
Farm workers 766,000217,000179,0001,259,0002,421,000
Craft workersBuilding Trades, Metal Trades, Maintenance Workers, Mechanics, Repairers, Printers, etc.8,786,000525,0001,253,000 10,564,000
ClericalSecretaries, Bookkeepers, Computer Operators, Telephone Operators, Postal Workers, Clerks, etc.13,839,0003,883,0001,110,000 18,832,000
Retail WorkersRetail Clerks1,411,0001,649,000163,000 3,223,000
Service WorkersJanitors, Food Service Workers, Health Service Workers, Childcare Workers, Household Workers, Guards, etc.6,320,0005,208,0001,303,000 12,831,000
Total 46,581,00013,701,0007,106,0001,259,00068,647,000
Total, excluding “self-employed”68,227,000
Explanation of Table B-1The figures in Table B-1 are based on data provided by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on the number of workers in the occupational classifications used by the government that are principally composed of proletarians. The BLS occupational classifications have a number of weaknesses, the main one being that they cover up class distinctions by including owners, petty bourgeois employees and proletarians within the same classifications. Therefore we had to separate the bourgeois and petty bourgeois sectors from the proletarian sectors in a number of classifications.First of all, where possible, we have removed all supervisors from the classifications of clerical workers, service workers, farm workers and “blue collar” workers (craft workers, operatives and laborers). We have divided the BLS classification of “sales workers” into sales representatives, who are petty bourgeois, and retail sales workers, who are proletarians. From the classification of “service workers” we removed 796,000 police, firefighters, sheriffs and bailiffs who are part of the special sector of armed enforcers of bourgeois rule.We have also removed 420,000 people from these classifications who identified themselves as “self-employed,” indicating that, although they officially worked for wages, they owned the corporations that they worked for. Presumably, most of these are petty bourgeois craft workers, such as master plumbers, who have incorporated their businesses. Because they officially pay themselves wages, the government statisticians include them among wage and salary workers. A detailed breakdown of these “blue collar” owners by occupation was not provided, so although it is likely that most of them were in the craft occupations, we subtracted the total number (420,000) from the total of all proletarian occupations.The wage and salary workers not included in this table, those in the petty bourgeois occupations, are listed in Table C-4.

The petty bourgeois section of the wage-earning population, so-called because of its intermediary position between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, is composed of several broad groups of employees. First, there are the management personnel employed by the capitalists, including the administrators of the bourgeois state. Among this group are included the capitalists’ sales representatives, and all supervisors and foremen. Second, and closely related to the first group, there are the officers of the repressive apparatus of the bourgeois state (military officers, police officers, etc.). Third, there is the intelligentsia, composed of the professional employees and upper-level technical workers. The wage-earning petty bourgeoisie will be discussed in a separate section.

Productive and Non-Productive Labor

The distinction that Marxism makes between productive and. non-productive labor does not aim to distinguish between the utility of different kinds of labor; its purpose is to analyze the relations of production under capitalism. “Productive labour”, wrote Marx, “is… – in the system of capitalist production – labour which produces surplus value for its employer.” Marx wrote that it did not matter whether labor produced material goods or whether it produced services; what mattered was that it produced surplus value for the capitalist that employed it. Moreover, Marx wrote:

“The same kind of labour can be productive or unproductive…. A singer who sells her song for her own account is an unproductive. labourer. But the same singer commissioned by an entrepreneur to sing in order to made money for him is a productive labourer; for she produces capital.”11

Productive labor, therefore, refers first of all to labor in the employ of capital and not to labor which is not employed by capital (i.e., the labor of the small proprietor, the labor of the government administrator, domestic labor). Second, among the labor employed by capital, productive labor refers only to that labor which produces surplus value. Only labor which directly produces the goods and services from which the capitalists derive surplus value is productive; the realms of commerce, finance, etc. are necessary for capitalist production but they do not produce surplus value.

“It is in the nature of things that labor consisting merely of intermediate operations connected partly with calculating values, partly with realizing them and partly with re-converting the realized money into means of production, is labour whose magnitude therefore depends on the quantity of the produced values that have to be realized, and does not act as a cause, like directly productive labour, but rather as an effect, of the relative magnitudes and masses of these values…. The capitalist increases the number of these labourers whenever he has more value and profits to realize. The increase of this labour is always a result, never a cause of more surplus value.”

The proletariat as a class carries out nearly all of the productive labor in society. This does not mean that all sectors of the proletariat are engaged in productive labor, or that productive labor is limited to the proletariat.* The proletariat, on the whole, however, is the class charged with productive labor. On the other hand, the petty bourgeois wage earners, on the whole, specialize in the non-productive sphere, with commerce, finance, government administration, etc. being their special responsibilities.

*For instance: bank tellers, who are proletarians, produce no surplus value through their labor, while engineers and foremen, who are petty bourgeois employees, produce surplus value to the extent that their labor is directly connected to the production of commodities. In this regard, Marx wrote:

“With the development of the specifically capitalist mode of production, in which many labourers work together in the production of the same commodity, the direct relation which their labour bears to the object produced naturally varies greatly. For example the unskilled labourers in a factory referred to earlier have nothing directly to do with the working up of the raw material. The workmen who function as overseers of those directly engaged in working up the raw material are one step further away; the works engineer has yet another relation and in the main works only with his brain, and so on….

“It is indeed the characteristic feature of the capitalist mode of production that it separates the various kinds of labour from each other, therefore also mental and manual labour – or kinds of labour in which one or another predominates – and distributes them among different people. This however does not prevent the material product from being the common product of these persons, or their common product embodied in material wealth; any more than on the other hand it prevents or in any way alters the relation of each one of these persons to capital being that of wage-labourer and in this pre-eminent sense being that of productive labourer. All these persons are not only directly engaged in the production of material wealth, but they exchange their labour directly for money as capital, and consequently directly reproduce, in addition to their wages a surplus value for the capitalist.” (Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Part I, p. 412)

Marx distinguished between the labor of supervisors who directly oversee production and the labor of the rest of capitalist management which is involved in the purchase of the means of production, raw materials and labor power and the sale of the finished product (which are essentially commercial functions), identifying the former as productive labor and the latter as non-productive.

The productive sectors of the proletariat include not only those involved in the production of material goods (industrial workers, agricultural workers, construction workers, etc.) but also those involved in the transportation of these goods (truck drivers, railroad workers, warehouse workers, etc.) and those who render services sold by the capitalists (restaurant and hotel workers, laundry workers, hospital workers etc.) The sectors of the proletariat in the non-productive sphere include private domestic wage workers, retail clerks, and clerical, janitorial and maintenance workers in the spheres of finance, commerce, government administration, etc.

As capitalism has developed, the number of productive workers has declined relative to the number of non-productive workers. This relative decline is, fundamentally, the result of the tremendous development of the productivity of labor. With the introduction of ever more modern technology and the intensification of labor, the same number of workers produces a much greater quantity of goods (and surplus value). This, on the one hand, limits the number of workers required in production and, on the other hand, increases the number of workers required to market these massive quantities of goods, keep track of the capitalists finances, etc. “[T]he extraordinary productiveness of modern industry”, wrote Karl Marx in Capital, “accompanied as it is by both a more extensive and more intense exploitation of labour-power in all other spheres of production, allows of the unproductive employment of a larger and larger part of the working class….”

The increasing productivity of labor is the fundamental factor which both causes and allows the capitalists to employ a larger amount of unproductive labor. Other characteristics of the capitalist mode of production, however, also act to inflate the unproductive sector. The spontaneity of the capitalist market requires the development of massive, redundant and competitive marketing apparatuses. Private appropriation leads to sharp contention between capitalists over the distribution among them of the surplus value appropriated from the workers, with all of the industrial, commercial and financial enterprises building up extensive bureaucracies for this purpose. Finally, the class antagonisms inherent under capitalism require a tremendous state apparatus for the control and repression of the exploited classes. The size of this state apparatus, and especially its repressive organs, has grown during the imperialist era as the contradictions of capitalism have become more severe.

In the following pages we will discuss some of the changes that have taken place in the structure of the working class and the current characteristics of three different sectors of the class: the industrial proletariat, the agricultural proletariat, and proletarian clerical and technical workers.

The Industrial Proletariat

The industrial proletariat is the heart of the working class and has traditionally been its largest and most powerful section. The decisive role of the industrial proletariat is derived, first, from the productive nature of its work, and, second, from the collective and large-scale nature of its work.

Proletarians who work in production are in the best position to understand the nature of capitalist exploitation. It is their hands that produce the goods and services which provide sustenance for all of society. Factory workers, farm workers, construction workers, contract janitors, etc., are in a position to see that the product of their labor is the source of the capitalists’ profits. This picture of the essence of capitalist exploitation, which is critical to the development of class consciousness, is not so readily visible to the bank teller, the government clerk, or the private domestic worker. In addition, the conditions of work in the productive sector sharpen class antagonisms. Industrial workers are driven by capital to continually intensify their labor to the limits of human endurance, and their workplaces are almost universally dirty, unhealthy, and dangerous. Of course, many workers in the non-productive sector suffer under similar conditions, but these conditions are most extreme where material production and the creation of surplus value are involved.

The industrial proletariat stands out among productive workers, not only because it is the largest contingent of the productive workers, but also because in manufacturing and mining production takes place in the most collective fashion, and. on the largest scale.* Many factories and mines employ thousands and even hundreds of thousands of workers. The highly collective nature of this work imbues the industrial workers with a sense of discipline and organization which is invaluable in waging the class struggle.

* Here we use industrial to mean manufacturing and mining as opposed to other productive sectors of the economy such as agriculture, construction, transport, etc. Industrial capital, in a broader sense refers to all productive capital. See Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, pp. 750-751.

The massive concentration of workers facilitates organization and political and economic activity. The dependence of the economy, first and foremost, on the production of industrial goods gives the industrial proletariat decisive economic strength. The concentration of industrial production in the hands of the monopoly bourgeoisie (to an even greater degree than other economic sectors) places the main contingent of the industrial proletariat in a position of direct confrontation with the ruling sector of the capitalist class. For these reasons the industrial proletariat has always played the decisive role in the working class movement.

The industrial proletariat includes within its ranks major contingents of all nationalities that make up the U.S. working class and a large proportion of industrial workers are women (39% of “non-transport operatives”, an occupational classification that principally refers to the operators of factory machinery).14 Some industries are predominantly female (i.e. textiles, electronics, food processing) while others are predominantly male (i.e. mining, iron and steel, chemicals). National composition varies by region, and even though the majority of industries have been integrated, systematic discrimination and artificial stratification have kept national minority workers, in most cases, in the lowest paying, hardest and most dangerous jobs. There are, however, a great number of Anglo-American and national minority and male and female workers laboring side by side in the same jobs in many factories and this is a major factor which builds unity within the industrial working class.

In 1979, according to government statistics, there were 15,787,000 production and related workers employed in the manufacturing and mining sectors. This number specifically included production, maintenance, construction, repair, material handling and power plant workers in manufacturing and mining. This then was the approximate size of the employed section of the industrial proletariat, to which must be added the several million industrial workers who were on layoff.

The size of the industrial proletariat has varied greatly over the years. The industrialization of the economy led to the growth in the absolute and relative size of the industrial proletariat until World War II, although this growth was stunted and irregular because of the recurring, severe, capitalist economic crises. During the colossal industrial expansion that accompanied World War II the number of industrial workers grew to an all-time high of over 16,000,000. During the industrial contraction that followed the war, millions of workers were laid-off with the number of industrial workers reaching a low of 12,629,000 in 1949. Since then the number of industrial workers has grown again, reaching, as we reported, 15,787,000 in 1979. This growth was once again marked by severe contractions during the periods of industrial crises.

Another long-term trend, however, also began to limit the growth of the industrial proletariat. The accelerated introduction of labor-saving technology and the intensification of labor had reached the point that the size of the industrial proletariat had begun to decline in comparison to other sectors of the working class. In 1947, the first year for which comparable statistics are available, the industrial proletariat made up over 41% of all “non-supervisory workers on private non-agricultural payrolls.” By 1979 this proportion had fallen to just over 26% (despite the fact that the absolute number of industrial workers had grown).

The decline in the relative size of the industrial proletariat does not in the least take away from its role as the leading and decisive section of the working class. This leading role is connected with social and economic factors (the productive, collective, large-scale and decisive nature of its work) and not with its relative size. In czarist Russia, the industrial proletariat was only a small minority of the working masses (most of whom were peasants) but this did not diminish its leading role in the revolution. The industrial proletariat plays the leading role in the working class movement in all capitalist countries regardless of its size relative to the entire working population.

The Agricultural Proletariat

The size of the agricultural proletariat has declined greatly, along with the entire agricultural workforce (farmers and farm workers alike), as agriculture has become increasingly mechanized. The number of hired farm workers, however, has not fallen nearly so fast as the number of farmers because the development of capitalism in agriculture means the replacement of the labor of small producers with the labor of hired workers. Thus, the size of the agricultural proletariat in proportion to the entire agricultural labor force has grown greatly: from 25% in 1910 to 44% in 1981, according to U.S. government statistics. This figure, however, fails to completely show the importance of hired labor in agriculture in that, first, government figures greatly underestimate the number of hired farm workers and, second, the productivity of hired labor on large capitalist farms is tremendously greater than that of the small farmer on a small tract of land. The fact is that today the great bulk of all agricultural products are produced by hired labor on large capitalist farms. Government statistics indicate that since 1970, the number of hired agricultural jobs has not only grown relative to “family labor”, but absolutely as well.

The agricultural proletariat is the lowest paid and most oppressed section of the proletariat. With the development of large-scale capitalist farming, however, the ability of the agricultural proletariat to organize itself has grown greatly. The unionization of the farm workers on monopoly capitalist farms in Hawaii, California, Arizona and Florida after protracted and heroic struggles attests to this fact.

We have included in the number of farm workers, in addition to the 1,162,000 hired agricultural workers listed as full-time, part-time and unemployed, another 1,259,000 farm workers whom the government statisticians classify as “not in the labor force” because of the seasonal nature of their work. Still, this total number (2,421,000) greatly underestimates the actual number of farm workers, especially migrant workers and undocumented foreign workers. For instance, the official government statistics reported that there were less than 59,000 “Hispanic” migrant farm workers in the entire country. Another survey, however, which studied the migrant labor force in Hidalgo County, Texas, reported that 40,000 Mexican-Americans leave this single county each spring to do farm work elsewhere in the U.S. Obviously, 68% of all “Hispanic” migrant farm workers do not live in Hidalgo County! The severe limitation of the official statistics about farm workers is illustrated by the national composition of the workers that are counted in the government survey: in 1979, 75% were white while only 12% (318,240) were “Hispanic”, and 13% (344,760) were Black and other nationalities. There are clearly far more farm workers from the oppressed nations than these figures indicate.

In addition to the hundreds of thousands of Afro-American farm workers in the Black Belt South and the hundreds of thousands of native Chicano farm workers in Texas and the Southwest, hundreds of thousands, if not over a million workers come to labor in the fields of the U.S. from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Haiti and other countries. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) estimated that there were some 10 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. in mid-1977, in addition to 4 million immigrants with legal work permits (green cards). The number of undocumented immigrants, the INS added, was growing by about 10% per year. Of the undocumented workers apprehended by the INS, about 90% are Mexicans and of the Mexican workers who are employed at the time they are apprehended, about 60% are working in agriculture. It would surely not be an exaggeration to conclude that the actual number of farm workers could be more than twice as high as the official government estimates.

The figures that we are using also do not reflect the great number of children working in the fields because only workers 16 years of age or older are included. A special government report in 1969 estimated that “approximately 375,000 children between the ages of 10 and 13 perform hired farm labor.”

Proletarian Clerical and Technical Workers

Until relatively recently workers employed in the capitalists’ offices were a small group, the great majority of whom enjoyed the privileges allowed petty bourgeois employees. With the further development of capitalism, however, the number of office workers has grown tremendously, and a sharp class differentiation has taken place among them. The lower strata, which includes the great majority of clerical workers and a growing number of technical workers, have been made to conform more and more to the conditions of proletarian work. Marx foresaw this development and, speaking of workers in the sphere of commerce, explained the reasons why these workers would be reduced to the level of the common proletarian:

“The commercial worker, in the strict sense of the term,* belongs to the better paid class of wage-workers – to those whose labour is classed as skilled and stands above average labour. Yetthe wage tends to fall, even in relation to average labour, with the advance of the capitalist mode of production. This is due partly to the division of labour in the office, implying a one-sided development of the labour capacity, the cost of which does not fall entirely upon the capitalist, since the labourer’s skill develops by itself through the exercize of his function, and all the more rapidly as the division of labour makes it more one-sided. Secondly, because the necessary training, knowledge of commercial practices, languages, etc., is more and more rapidly, easily, universally and cheaply reproduced with the progress of science and public education the more the capitalist mode of production directs teaching methods, etc., towards practical purposes. The universality of public education enables capitalists to recruit such labourers from classes that formerly had no access to such trades and were accustomed to a lower standard of living. Moreover, this increases supply and hence competition. With few exceptions, the labour power of these people is therefore devaluated with the progress of capitalist production.”

* Meaning those involved in purely commercial activities, such as bookkeeping, as opposed to the transport, packing, storage and distribution of goods.

Clerical Workers. These developments were only in their infancy at that time (1865). The development of the clerical workforce over the last century shows that Marx’s conclusions have been fully verified with time. In 1870, according to the U.S. Census, there were only 98,000 “clerical and kindred workers” making up about 3/4 of 1% of all “gainful workers.” As a strata, clerical workers were considered highly skilled and carried out many of the functions of management; in 1900 three quarters of them were male and they typically made twice the wages earned by production workers in their respective industries. The change over the last century has been dramatic. By 1981 the number of clerical workers had grown to 18,832,000 and they made up over 17% of the labor force. Seventy eight percent of all clerical workers were women. The average weekly pay of clerical workers was $233, which was about $10 below the average pay of most factory workers. The reasons for these changes were exactly those that Marx spoke of. Clerical work has been broken down into a series. of detail jobs, each of which requires a relatively limited amount of training (usually available in high school), and most of which have been reduced to manual operations on the machinery of the office: typewriters, word processing machines, key punch machines, copy machines, billing machines, switchboards, postage meters, etc.

In the financial centers, corporate headquarters and government offices clerical work has been organized into office assembly lines divided into data processing centers, word processing centers, switchboards, etc. which employ thousands of workers in single concentrations with a high degree of division of labor. The epitome of the “factory organization” of clerical workers is the post office where thousands of postal employees work in assembly line fashion in the major distribution centers. In these massive clerical operations there is certainly no place for the antiquated relations of paternalism which characterized the old capitalist office. Fully developed capitalist/proletarian relations are encountered complete with systematic (and low) wage scales, time clocks and time-study work procedures.

Work in the capitalist office has been divided into two increasingly distinct strata – an upper, petty bourgeois stratum composed of managers and professionals and a lower, proletarian stratum composed of lower-level clerical workers. This division can be clearly seen in computer operations. On the one hand, there are the computer analysts and programmers, who are considered professionals, have fairly extensive training, do almost exclusively mental work, and receive high salaries (1981 average weekly pay: $454). On the other hand, there are the computer and key punch operators, who are considered clerical workers, receive a minimum of training, largely are limited to mechanically entering information, and receive low wages ($238).

Among clerical workers there are certain upper strata which still carry out some of the functions of management. This is true not only of those who supervise clerical work, but also of a small number of upper-level workers in the capitalist bookkeeping, payroll, timekeeping, bill collecting departments, etc. (the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of workers in these departments, however, are simply lower-level clerical operatives). .Certain occupations among clerical workers have much in common with lower-level management occupations, both in the nature of their work and the level of their compensation, such as production expeditors and controllers (1981 average weekly pay: $328) and estimators and investigators ($319).

That intermediate strata still exist between management and clerical occupations is not surprising – at one time there was little that distinguished the two. The whole process of class differentiation in the office and proletarianization of clerical workers, however, works to narrow these intermediate strata and produce two ever more distinct class forces within the capitalist office.

Technical Workers. The same process of class differentiation that has taken place in the capitalist office is also taking place in the scientific and technical spheres of work. Employees in these spheres have traditionally enjoyed the status of petty bourgeois employees, with the accompanying privileges. As these fields have grown and developed, however, capitalism has been impelled to create proletarian strata in these fields as well. Engineering offices, scientific laboratories, etc., many of which now employ hundreds or even thousands of workers, have a high degree of labor stratification ranging from engineers, chemists and other professionals at the top (themselves highly stratified) to the many detail workers at the bottom who perform increasingly routine and mechanical tasks. The more complex the technology involved the more routine become the tasks of the lower level technical workers who increasingly are converted into machine operatives akin to their counterparts in the factory or the clerical office. The introduction of computer drafting machines, for instance, further stratifies design work between engineers and architects, on the one hand, and drafting data entry operators on the other.

Employment as a detail technical worker in many cases requires no more than a high school diploma; in other cases the completion of a special technical course is necessary. In any case, an increasing number of these workers are drawn from the working class and continue to share the fundamental class characteristics of the proletariat. Those classified as technical workers by the government are a diverse group with diverse characteristics. Health technicians (X-ray technicians, clinical laboratory technicians, dental technicians, etc.), most of whom are women, were paid an average weekly wage of $287 in 1981. Radio operators made an average of only $233 a week. Electrical and electronic technicians, on the other hand, made an average of $387 a week. In the clerical field class differentiation has already produced a large and clearly identifiable proletarian stratum. This process is at an earlier stage in the field of technical work, and the proletarian stratum is smaller and more difficult to distinguish precisely. What is unmistakable, however, is that this class differentiation is taking place.

For the purpose of figuring the overall number of proletarian and petty bourgeois wage-earners (and only for this purpose) we have included all workers classified by the government as clerical workers, with the exception of clerical supervisors, among the proletariat, and all workers identified by the government as technical workers among the petty bourgeois employees. Precisely identifying the number of clerical workers that belong among the petty bourgeoisie, and the number of technical workers that belong among the proletariat would have been a very difficult task, especially given the limitation of U.S. government statistics. Our failure to do this is not of great consequence in terms of the overall size of either the proletariat or the wage-earning petty bourgeoisie. The relatively small number of petty bourgeois clerical workers is more or less comparable with the number of proletarian technical workers. In any case, the number of workers that have been misclassified in both of these groups add up to less than 2% of the labor force.

White Collar and .Blue Collar Workers. Bourgeois social “science” divides the working population into “white collar” and “blue collar” workers, “white collar” referring broadly to office work and “blue collar” referring broadly to work in the shop. Both of these terms are used to cover up class distinctions.

The classification “blue collar” includes both proletarian laborers and petty bourgeois supervisors (not to mention “independent” craftsmen who are small proprietors or even capitalists). The classification “white collar” includes both petty bourgeois managers and professionals (as well as small proprietors and capitalist owners) and proletarian clerical, retail and technical workers. Nevertheless the term “blue collar” assumes a popular meaning akin to proletarian while the term “white collar” assumes a popular meaning akin to petty bourgeois employee.

Bourgeois social “scientists”, using these anti-scientific classifications, attempt to show that capitalist society is becoming “deproletarianized” and that the working population is being “upgraded” by pointing to the relative increase in “white collar” workers compared to “blue collar” workers. The increasing ratio of “white collar” workers to “blue collar” workers is a reflection of the relative increase of the number of non-productive workers compared to productive workers in capitalist society.* This shift in no way reflects a decrease in the relative size of the proletariat. The exact opposite is true – it is the proletarian strata among the “white collar” workforce that are growing the fastest. In 1870 clerical workers made up only 13% of all “white collar” workers while today they make up nearly 40% of this category.The other proletarian sections of the “white collar” workforce, retail sales clerks and lower level technical workers, make up another 8%, more or less, of “white collar” workers.Together then, the proletarian strata among “white collar” workers today make up nearly half of this group, and their weight within it is growing.

* The term “white collar,” however, is not synonymous with non-productive labor and the term “blue collar” is not synonymous with productive labor. “White collar” operators at the telephone company, for instance, perform productive labor while “blue collar” maintenance workers employed by government offices perform unproductive labor.

Any suggestion that capitalist society is being “deproletarianized” is absurd. The great mass of the people have never been so removed from ownership of the means of production. These means of production have never been centralized into so few hands. There has never been such a great division between mental and manual labor, and between the organization of production and production itself. In short, there has never been such great class polarization as there is today. Moreover, the process of proletarianization is continuing relentlessly and irreversibly with the further centralization of capital, the ruthless expropriation of the remaining small proprietors, the growth in the scale of capitalist operations and the increasing division of labor within them. The size of the proletariat in this or that sector may change, workers may be shifted from one sector to another, but the overall size of the proletariat is always growing.

“Despite the changes that have taken place in the contemporary capitalist world,” wrote Enver Hoxha of the Party of Labor of Albania, “the working class is stripped of any kind of ownership over the means of production, of its management, organization and aim… contrary to the sermons of the bourgeois and revisionist ideologists, capitalist society is not being deproletarianized, but on the contrary is being proletarianized continuously.”

The Labor Aristocracy

The most critical question that we must address in analyzing the U.S. proletariat is the extent and influence of the labor aristocracy – the privileged upper stratum of the working class.

“One of the chief causes hampering the revolutionary working class movement in the developed countries,” wrote Lenin, “is the fact that because of their colonial possessions and the super-profits gained by finance capital, etc., the capitalists of these countries have been able to create a relatively larger and more stable labour aristocracy, a section which comprises a small minority of the working class. This minority enjoys better terms of employment and is most imbued with a narrow craft minded spirit and with petty bourgeois and imperialist prejudices. It forms the real social pillar of the Second International, of the reformists and the ‘Centrists’; at present it might even be called the social mainstay of the bourgeoisie. No preparation of the proletariat for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie is possible, even in the preliminary sense, unless an immediate, systematic, extensive and open struggle is waged against this stratum….”37

Numerous positions have been put forward about the extent of the labor aristocracy in the U.S. Right opportunists, represented in the first place by the Communist Party, USA, deny the existence of a bribed sector of the working class. Other pseudo-Marxists have advanced the thesis that the entire U.S. working class is bribed, or at least, that the industrial proletariat has been “bourgeoisified.” Both these positions are wildly inaccurate and have been created to justify counterrevolutionary political lines. A correct understanding of the extent of the labor aristocracy in the U.S. must be based on a concrete analysis of the actual conditions of all the various sectors of the working class, and of the social and political role they play.

The condition of the U.S. working class can be compared to that of the British working class during the period of Britain’s industrial monopoly and colonial hegemony during the second half of the 19th century. In 1885, Engels wrote:

“[D]uring the period of England’s industrial monopoly the English working class have, to a certain extent, shared in the benefits of the monopoly. These benefits were very unequally parcelled out among them; the privileged minority pocketed the most, but even the great mass had, at least, a temporary share now and then.”

According to Engels, the fact that the great mass of workers received “a temporary share now and then” did not mean that the entire working class was bribed, that it was in its interest to support imperialism, that it was no longer exploited, that it no longer suffered under capitalism, etc., as certain American pseudo-Marxists claim in regard to the U.S. working class (a position completely consistent with the propaganda of U.S. imperialism that “the workers and the capitalists have the same interests”). These benefits, said Engels, had led to a temporary decline in the proletarian socialist movement in Britain but, he added, these benefits would be eroded and the socialist movement would rise again.

Following World War II, the U.S. bourgeoisie enjoyed a monopoly position in imperialist plunder and world trade. It was able to create in the U.S. a relatively large and influential labor aristocracy and, at the same time, spread temporary and partial privileges to much larger sectors of the working class. A large trade union bureaucracy has been built under the administration of the labor aristocracy, staffed with the most loyal and pro-imperialist “labor leaders.” It is the strength and influence of the labor aristocracy and the trade union bureaucracy that has temporarily retarded the revolutionary proletarian movement in the U.S.

We estimate that the labor aristocracy in the U.S. numbers some 5,700,000, or 8% of the proletarian class. This includes some 2,000,000 workers in the industrial sector, some 1,300,000 workers in the construction sector, some 1,000,000 workers in the transport sector with the remainder in the utilities, services, financial, commercial and government sectors. In the following pages we will examine the extent of the labor aristocracy in the two sectors where most of this stratum is concentrated: construction and industry. We will also discuss the trade union bureaucracy and the class position of those who administer it. First, however, a few general characteristics of the labor aristocracy must be discussed.

The distinction between the labor aristocracy and the common proletariat has its origin in the division between skilled and unskilled labor that arose with the development of capitalism. The system of handicraft production, typical of the feudal era in Europe, relied on the skilled labor of the artisan. Capitalist cooperation brought artisans together in large workshops and, subsequently, manufacturing led to the strict segmentation of labor and created a new stratum of unskilled workers alongside the skilled workers. These unskilled workers could be paid less than the skilled ones because the value of their labor power did not include the additional costs of training. With the introduction of machinery, the number of unskilled and semi-skilled workers was greatly enlarged, while the number of skilled workers was reduced. Though feudalism was not established in the U.S., handicraft methods were the basis of early production in the colonial era, therefore the evolution of the capitalist workshop proceeded along the same lines as in Europe.

At the dawn of the imperialist era the great mass of workers had been reduced to performing unskilled and semi-skilled work, while mental and skilled labor had been increasingly monopolized in the hands of a small elite. The capitalists nurtured the small number of skilled workers into a labor aristocracy, providing wages and other privileges that, in comparison with those of the common worker, far outstripped any justification in terms of the greater value of skilled labor. The capitalists, with conscious purpose, stratified the workforce to the maximum extent possible, with the responsibilities, compensation and working conditions of the different strata specifically designed to divide the working class politically.

“Historically, the bourgeoisie of every country,” wrote Filip Kota of the Party of Labor of Albania, “has bought off some of the qualified workers, the working class aristocracy, and detached them from the masses of the proletariat, by providing them with easy jobs and posts with fewer headaches but greater rewards. Fat salaries, favours and advantages brought about their gradual estrangement from the working class, both economically and ideologically. [T]he bourgeoisie is interested in increasing the ranks of this aristocracy by artificially increasing the number of job qualification and categories which leads to pronounced differences between the wages of the ordinary workers and those of the specialized ones, and by promoting the latter to various jobs and responsibilities in and outside production.”40

With the introduction of imperialist superprofits the bourgeoisie of the developed capitalist countries have been able to effectively bribe the top stratum of workers, the labor aristocracy, and turn it into a trusted and loyal ally.

The selection of those workers to receive special training is not a matter left up to chance. The capitalists select and promote a certain category of workers to skilled positions. Whether this selection is the responsibility of the capitalists’ supervisors or of the reactionary union officials (who are direct beneficiaries of the traditions which maintain the labor aristocracy), the results are the same. National minority and women workers are, for the most part, excluded from skilled positions in order to perpetuate the special oppression of these workers and inflame national chauvinism and male supremacy. In order to guarantee the political character of the labor aristocracy, the most “loyal” and reactionary workers are selected.

The size of the labor aristocracy, the jobs associated with it, and the extent of the privileges given to the workers holding these jobs, are not fixed permanently. The size and privileges of the labor aristocracy grew with the monopoly position of U.S. imperialism and its temporary revival following World War II. With the deepening of the economic crisis the capitalist class is forced to narrow the ranks of the labor aristocracy, reducing many to the position of common workers.

The labor aristocracy cannot be identified by any simple measure of skill because it is not primarily defined by skill, but by privileges. Some skilled workers are included among the labor aristocracy, others are not. A railroad car repairer may be no more skilled than an auto mechanic, simply measuring mechanical knowledge. But rail transport is critical to the bourgeoisie and it is therefore willing to pay a premium to preserve “labor peace” in this sector. Thus, the railroad car repairer is given the privileges of the labor aristocracy while the auto mechanic remains, more or less, a common worker.

Nor can the labor aristocracy be identified by a simple measure of wages. Wages vary considerably among regions and various economic sectors because of national oppression, women’s oppression, the labor market, the organization of labor, the importance of an industry to the economy, etc. To one degree or another, the capitalists have created a labor aristocracy in every region and in every economic sector. The wages of the labor aristocracy are not set by any country-wide standard. However, they are set in relation to the common wages in a particular region and industry.

An electrician in a Southern textile mill, for example, may only make half the wages of an electrician in a steel mill in the industrial Midwest; his wages may, in fact, be only slightly higher than those of a common worker, taking the average of all regions and all industries. But in the context of the Southern textile mill he is a labor aristocrat, receiving wages 50% higher than those received by most of the textile operatives (whose wages are particularly depressed because of special oppression).

In addition to money wages, moreover, he enjoys all the non-monetary privileges granted to industrial maintenance workers (including relief from having to do much work), and may receive other fringe benefits commonly received by labor aristocrats, such as the use of company tools and property for personal profit, the operation, in his free time, of concessions (drink machines, etc.) or other small businesses in the plant, etc. In identifying the labor aristocracy we must, therefore, consider a number of factors including wages and other privileges, taking into account all the conditions faced by each group of workers, and the particular conditions in each region and economic sector.

In addition to economic privileges the labor aristocracy receives political privileges unavailable to the masses of workers. Access to the bourgeois political system is afforded, in the first place, through the trade union apparatus, which is the bastion of the labor aristocracy. The legal trade unions are completely tied up with the bourgeois political parties: primarily with the Democratic Party and, in some cases, with the Republican Party.

Through their connections with the bourgeois political parties the labor aristocrats have access to the state apparatus to some extent, both on a national and local level. In some industrial centers like Chicago, the labor aristocracy plays a significant role in the Democratic Party and the local political bureaucracy. Many labor aristocrats serve as local Party precinct leaders (and so on) and receive all the traditional benefits built into these positions. Of course, their access to them is predicated on their reactionary political stand and they use these positions, not to fight for the interests of the working class, but to increase the influence of the labor aristocracy, to promote its political position and strengthen its ideological and political grip on the masses.

In addition to these institutions many labor aristocrats belong to a host of other political organizations which play extremely reactionary roles, such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. These organizations serve as mass bases for fascism among the working people. Their active membership is largely made up of small proprietors, petty bourgeois employees and labor aristocrats. All these organizations – the trade unions, the bourgeois political parties and the various other political organizations – serve as centers for bourgeois ideological and political indoctrination of the labor aristocracy, in order that they might best play their role as “the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working class movement, the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class, real vehicles of reformism and chauvinism.”41

The Labor Aristocracy in Construction. The most visible and one of the largest sections of the labor aristocracy has always been in the “building trades.” The wages paid skilled union construction workers are far better than those paid the masses of workers and many receive compensation equal to that of lawyers, doctors, engineers and other petty bourgeois professionals. In 1980 the median weekly wage scale for union carpenters was $489; for union plumbers, $509; for union structural ironworkers, $508; for union electricians, $526, etc.42 The median weekly wage for all union construction craft workers in 1980 was $502, more than twice as high as typical proletarian wages.

The elite status of the construction craft workers has been perpetuated by the building trades unions. Craft unions are fundamentally different from industrial unions and are completely reactionary both in concept and practice. Organized along the lines of guilds, the craft unions have no interest in organizing the masses of workers or in fighting for the interests of the workers as a whole; on the contrary, they are interested in limiting entrance into their unions in order to protect the privileged position of their members.

The craft unions have arrogantly barred membership to women and national minority workers. A 1979 government survey of 317 locals of the Plumbers Union, for instance, showed that of 210,194 members over 92% were white and over 99.5% were men. Entrance into craft unions is many times limited to relatives and friends of members, reinforcing the exclusive nature of these organizations. Craft unions consistently engage in strike-breaking against other unions and they are the most disgusting promoters of national chauvinism, imperialist patriotism, class collaboration and reaction.

In May, 1980 there were somewhat more than 1,000,000 construction craft workers who belonged to the building trades unions. However, the majority of construction craft workers are excluded from the building trades unions (we say excluded because most at these workers undoubtedly would join the union if they were allowed, so as to receive union rates). Non-union construction workers are paid dramatically less than their union counterparts. Non-union carpenters were paid an average of only $252 a week in 1980; all other non-union construction craft workers made an average of only $278 a week. Among these non-union construction craft workers earnings were sharply divergent – 142,000 (11%) made over $400 a week, while 312,000 (24%) made less than $200 a week. Part of this divergence is attributable to regional differences but the main reason is the distinction between high-paid and low-paid crafts. Clearly, some of the workers in the more elite crafts (plumbers, electricians, structural ironworkers, etc..) can make high wages despite their lack of union membership, while workers in the lower-paid crafts (carpenters, roofers, painters, drywall installers, etc.) who cannot get into the union are forced to work for common proletarian wages or less.

On top of this, the less qualified construction workers bear the brunt of the high rate of unemployment in the construction industry, which is more than twice the average rate for all sectors. The lower strata of construction craft workers, consisting of most of those who are excluded from the building trades unions, do not share the privileges of the labor aristocracy, are not so infected with the elite craft mentality and see themselves as common workers. They are not part of the labor aristocracy. Neither are the 700,000 to 1,000,000 construction laborers who carry out the heaviest and most difficult work involved in construction and are paid the least (1980 mean weekly wage: $264).47 Thus, in the construction industry the labor aristocracy makes up a very large part of the workforce (probably a larger part than in any other major sector of the economy), but they are still a minority.

The reduction of the size of the labor aristocracy under the weight of the capitalist economic crisis can be seen most distinctly in the construction industry where the capitalists are increasingly using non-union labor. The response of the reactionary building trades unions to this is typical. First, they are further restricting entrance into their unions to compensate for the smaller sphere of union construction work and insure that their members have sufficient work. At the same time they occasionally organize militant demonstrations attacking non-union construction sites, demanding that hiring be restricted to their elite ranks. Never does their policy call for organizing the non-union construction workers because that would be counter to the whole philosophy of the elite craft unions, which is to restrict their ranks.

The Labor Aristocracy in Industry. The industrial labor aristocracy is particularly important to the bourgeoisie because of its critical role in maintaining bourgeois control over the industrial unions and infecting the industrial workers with chauvinism, class collaborationism and reformism. Numerically, it is the largest section of the labor aristocracy, and it wields influence far greater than its numbers. Nevertheless it makes up a small portion of the industrial proletariat – perhaps 10-12%.

The main section of the labor aristocracy in the mining and manufacturing industries is the skilled industrial maintenance workers. This section includes 507,000 industrial maintenance mechanics (1980 median weekly wage: $381), 135,000 industrial maintenance electricians ($407), 91,000 millwrights ($430) and a smaller number of pipe fitters, boilermakers, maintenance welders, maintenance machinists, etc.48

Closely related to this group are the workers in the factory tool rooms who make the dies, patterns, jigs and specialized machinery parts for the manufacturing industry. This group includes 166,000 tool and die makers (1980 median weekly wage: $414) and a smaller number of tool room machinists, patternmakers, etc. Altogether then, the industrial maintenance and tool room workers number somewhat over 1,000,000, making up a little over 6% of the industrial proletariat. Their wages are, on the whole, over 60% higher than those of most industrial workers.50 But their privileges go beyond higher wages. In the midst of the intense pace of factory production the pace of their work is leisurely. Industrial maintenance workers work only a few hours a day when machinery breaks down and many times they are provided with air conditioned “offices” with refrigerators, micro-wave ovens, etc.

In addition to maintenance and tool room workers a section of the workers directly involved in production has been elevated to the position of labor aristocrats. These workers occupy a relatively small number of the more highly skilled jobs that are critical to the overall production process. In industries characterized by a large number of individually operated production machines, for instance, a small group of workers is selected to set up those machines for the workers who operate them – such as job and die setters in large machine shops and loom fixers in the textile industry. In oil and gas extraction each drilling rig is run by a drill operator who is relieved from all the dangerous and difficult work which is carried out by other lower-paid workers (roughnecks, roustabouts, etc.).

In the steel industry, the operators of the mammoth rolling and casting machines (tandem mill rollers, blooming mill rollers, continuous slab casters) are labor aristocrats, commanding wages even higher than the maintenance workers and nearly twice as high as a steel mill laborer. Furthermore, many of these operators are insulated from the heat and smoke of the steel mill in air-conditioned control rooms where their labor consists mainly of watching dials and flipping switches; any difficult work is delegated to helpers. The most dangerous, dirtiest, heaviest and hottest work in steel mills – which is concentrated in the coke works, the furnaces and the finishing mills (wire mills, rail mills, etc.) – is reserved for the workers who receive the lowest pay.

In paper mills, the situation is similar. The operators of the huge paper machines make the highest wages and do the least work; the rough and intensive work – feeding logs into the barker, finishing the paper and operating the cutting and converting machines that turn it into envelopes, cartons, etc. is carried out by the lowest-paid workers.

This is the way that capitalist industry is organized. In each case, the privileged workers make up a small percentage of the workforce and they typically make 30-60% more than the median wage in the plants in which they work, and many times more than twice as much as the lowest-paid workers.

Most factory workers are paid low wages. The great majority of industrial workers are classified by the government as either operatives or laborers. In 1981 the median weekly wage for operatives (almost all of whom operate industrial machinery) was $242; the median weekly wage of non-farm laborers, of whom about 26% work in manufacturing (the others work in mining, construction, transport, etc.) was $238. A large number of factory workers are paid just above minimum wage. Low wages are prevalent in the textile, garment, lumber, furniture, plastics, electronics and food processing industries. Nearly one-third of all operatives and 40% of all manufacturing laborers made less than $200 a week in 1980.

On the other hand, workers in some industrial sectors – steel, automobiles, armaments, mining, etc. – have won substantially higher wages than most industrial workers. This has led some pseudo-Marxists to classify all workers in these industries as part of the labor aristocracy. This is a wrong and, in fact, a dangerous assessment.

Production in these sectors takes place on a huge scale, and this production is critical to the economy. Therefore these workers have been able to organize powerful industrial unions and wrest concessions from the capitalists. After suffering great defeats at the hands of the industrial union movement in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the capitalists adopted the tactic of granting concessions to maintain “class peace” in these critical sectors. Following World War II, the temporary economic revival and the monopoly position of U.S. imperialism enabled the capitalists to grant many of the workers’ economic demands in these sectors. These economic concessions were combined with a fierce attack on the workers’ political rights and a drive to eliminate communist presence in the trade union movement. These tactics were used to insure the domination of the reformists in the legal trade unions.

Even the economic concessions, however, were only partial and temporary. While wages were increased, working conditions remained horrendous. The pace of work in the auto plants is geared to the absolute limit of human capacity. Steel mills and coal mines in the U.S. remain among the most dangerous in the world, and tens of thousands of steel workers and coal miners are killed or disabled each year. These workers have also been especially subject to the cyclical crises of capitalism and the development of automation. A laid-off autoworker, steelworker or coal miner has no choice but to look for work as a laborer or an operative in some low-paying industry. All this differentiates these workers from the aristocratic craft workers who, in addition to better pay, have far better working conditions, are often retained during mass layoffs, and who, despite layoffs, retain their skilled trades which they can use in looking for other aristocratic jobs. Many use their skilled trades to go into business for themselves, at least temporarily.

The temporary nature of the economic improvement received by the common workers in these industries is becoming clearer today in the midst of a chronic economic crisis, in which the erosion of the U.S. monopoly in world trade is being acutely felt. Massive layoffs have been accompanied by the drying up of special unemployment benefits (TRA, SUB pay). The autoworkers and steelworkers have been forced to accept steep wage cuts, surrendering billions of dollars in wages to the capitalists. The coal miners have also lost certain benefits, and have only prevented much greater losses through militant strikes.

Therefore, the autoworkers, steelworkers, coal miners and other workers in similar positions cannot be viewed as part of the labor aristocracy. The higher wages they receive, however, have clearly been successful in dampening the class consciousness and class struggle in these sectors. The lack of militant resistance to the wage-cutting offensive of the last several years by U.S. autoworkers and steel workers has been the painful result of the years of “class peace” under reformist leadership that lulled the workers to sleep.

The Trade Union Bureaucracy. All the major trade unions in the U.S. are controlled by the bourgeoisie and administered by the labor aristocracy. The control of the labor aristocracy has been extended beyond the craft unions to the great industrial unions that were built by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930’s and 40’s. The trade union officials as a whole have been converted into a special petty bourgeois order of labor managers. In fact, of all categories of capitalist managers, trade union officials are among the highest paid. All full-time union officials receive salaries and other compensation (expense accounts, bribes, etc.) sufficient to insure them of a comfortable, petty bourgeois standard of living. The top rung of union officials receives salaries and “fringe benefits” comparable to top corporate officials. Many international union presidents receive over $100,000 in annual compensation, placing them in an income bracket that includes only the top 0.4% of all income recipients. Jackie Presser, the new head of the Teamsters Union, is paid over $500,000 in annual salary.

Some of the top union officials have become capitalists in their own right. The multi-million dollar financial dealings of the top Teamsters officials, including the transformation of the union pension funds into their own personal capital, are now infamous. George Meany, Lane Kirkland and various other AFL-CIO officials went in with a number of U.S. capitalists to buy a large plantation-resort in the Dominican Republic, receiving in this way a more direct share of imperialist superprofits.

Confirmation of the fact that the top trade union officials have become a special sector of the capitalist class has been provided by the appointment of Douglas Fraser, former head of the United Autoworkers, to the Board of Directors of the Chrysler Corporation, and the selection of Lane Kirkland to join the Council on Foreign Relations.

Union officials are typically drawn from the ranks of the skilled craft workers. This holds true not only in the craft unions, but in the industrial unions as well. In addition to these union officials, all the major unions have established a large technical apparatus composed of petty bourgeois lawyers, “labor relations” experts, economists, etc. During the course of their careers, these “labor relations” professionals will move back and forth between the unions, the employers and various government labor boards and offices, working for the highest bidder.

The trade union officialdom as a whole has become an institution of the labor aristocracy, the greatest exponents of “labor peace” and the most despicable chauvinists and imperialists.

The Superexploitation of National Minorities and Women

By denying national minorities and women workers equal social and political rights and promoting national and male chauvinism, the capitalists have been able to pay them wages far below the general rate. National minority and women workers have been relegated to specific occupations and industries in which the wage rates have been held particularly low. They have been used as a reserve labor force by the capitalists to be drawn into production during times of growth and thrown out in great numbers during periods of crisis and stagnation. The bourgeoisie has taken especially brutal measures to deny the workers in the oppressed nations (the Afro-American nation, the Chicano nation, Puerto Rico, the Native people’s territories), immigrant workers and women the right to union organization. Despite the concessions that have been won by the movements of the oppressed nationalities and women in recent years, this system of superexploitation continues in full force.

In 1980, the median annual wage of national minority men was only 65% that of white men. The annual income of national minority households was only 56% that of white households. Moreover, the gap between the income of white and national minority households has not narrowed, but has grown in recent years. Between 1970 and 1980 the income of national minority households compared to white households fell by 5%.58 These facts explode the myth of “growing equality.” The fact is that while a handful of the petty bourgeoisie have improved their positions, the vast majority of the oppressed nationalities have become more oppressed with time.

National minority workers continue to be excluded from managerial, professional, technical and skilled trades occupations, and are concentrated in the lowest-paying proletarian occupations. They continue to suffer unemployment rates twice the national average. In December, 1982, the employment rate for national minority workers was 20.2%. Another 15% of national minority workers were also unemployed but had given up looking for work and therefore were not considered in the unemployment statistics. Thus, even according to government statistics, over 35% of all national minority workers who wanted work were unable to find jobs.

In 1981, the median annual wage of women was only 48% that of men. Women made up only 4.7% of all engineers, 16% of manufacturing sales representatives, 2.1% of truck drivers and 5.6% of craft workers, while they made up 78.4% of clerical workers, 60.3 % of retail clerks, 68.7% of textile operatives, 87.4% of health service workers and 94.6% of private household workers. The sectors where women are allowed to work are characterized by low wages. In 1981 the median weekly wage for full-time women clerical workers was only $220; for women factory operatives, $187; for women service workers, $146. In addition, 11,069,000 women had only part-time jobs (28% of all employed women) and these women had a median weekly wage of only $84.

The most oppressed section of the working class is the women of the oppressed nationalities. A large number of these women are restricted to work as domestic slaves in the homes of the wealthy, while others are restricted to cleaning and cooking jobs in restaurants, schools, hospitals, etc. or to jobs in factory sweatshops.

This system of superexploitation has obvious benefits for the capitalists. First, the low wages paid to national minority and women workers result directly in higher rates of surplus value extracted from their labor. Second, the capitalists have been able to use this lower wage rate to bring downward pressure on the wage rate of the working class as a whole. Third, the relatively better wages and greater social rights granted to Anglo-American and male workers act as material incentives to support the system of national and women’s oppression and the spread of white and male chauvinism. This support for white and male chauvinism within the working class acts to divide the class, weakening the workers’ resistance against the capitalists’ wage-cutting offensive and holding back the development of a proletarian revolutionary movement.

Is the Anglo-American Working Class Bribed? A popular theory among certain pseudo-Marxists is that the entire Anglo-American working class has been bribed, and that its material conditions determine that it cannot be a revolutionary class. This argument is absurd and indefensible on the basis of both theory and fact. All Marxists must agree that the Anglo-American proletariat, in comparison to the proletariat of the oppressed nationalities, receives numerous economic, social and political privileges, and that these privileges are the material underpinning of widespread white chauvinism within the working class. This condition of the Anglo-American proletariat is part and parcel of the system of national oppression. In 1916, Lenin wrote that the conditions of the working classes of the oppressed and oppressor nations were distinct from the standpoint of the national question:

Economically, the difference is that sections of the working class in the oppressor nations receive crumbs from the superprofits the bourgeoisie of those nations obtains by extra exploitation of the workers of the oppressed nations. Besides, economic statistics show that here a larger percentage of workers become “straw bosses” than is the case in the oppressed nations, a larger percentage rise to the aristocracy. That is a fact. To a certain degree the workers of the oppressor nations are partners of their own bourgeoisie in plundering the workers (and the mass of the population) of the oppressed nations.

Politically, the difference is that, compared with the workers of the oppressed nations, they occupy a privileged position in many spheres of political life.

Ideologically, or spiritually, the difference is that they are taught, at school and in life, disdain and contempt for the workers of the oppressed nations. This has been experienced, for example, by every Great Russian who has been brought up or lived among Great Russians.”64

These national privileges accorded to the proletariat of the oppressor nation do not affect its basic condition as a class. It remains exploited by the capitalists, it remains stripped of the means of production and political power, its political and social rights remain severely restricted.

The Anglo-American proletariat makes up a majority of the U.S. population. Is it possible that the majority of the working class can become a “labor aristocracy?” Facts show that this is not the case and that, despite its petty privileges, the Anglo-American proletariat suffers severe class oppression and exploitation.

Table B-2 lists the median weekly wages of the U.S. proletariat, divided by occupation, .sex and nationality. Unfortunately, we are forced to use the government’s unscientific classifications in terms of both nationalities and occupations. The data in the table confirm that Anglo-American workers get privileged wages in nearly every sector (the only exception is among farm workers where Chicano and Mexican farm workers earn more because of the large number who work on the huge corporate farms in the Southwest and California and have been able to win union recognition). At the same time, the data confirm that the great majority of the Anglo-American proletariat is not getting rich, and that its wage privileges are very restricted. (The exception is, of course, the labor aristocracy, whose wages are not adequately described in this table because only median wages for each category are given.)

Table B-2

Median Weekly Wages of Full-Time Workers (1981)

Government Occupational ClassificationAll Workers“White”“Black”“Hispanic”
Both SexesMenWomenBoth SexesMenWomenBoth SexesMenWomenBoth SexesMenWomen
Transport Operatives303307237314319237257258*261261*
Farm workers179183148181185148147154*185191*
Craft Workers352360239356364239309314239296304*
Clerical Workers233328220233335219230286220226280214
Service Workers192238165195245165182214166173190147

In 1980, there were 63,819,000 white workers in the U.S. who were paid less than $15,000 a year. The median wage for all white wage workers (including petty bourgeois employees) was $10,303 (an average of $198 a week). In 1982 there were over 21,000,000 Anglo-Americans who, according to government standards, were impoverished. These are hardly characteristics of a bribed class.

The fact that white chauvinist ideas are still widespread among the Anglo-American proletariat is not the result of actual economic interests; it is the result of ignorance of their true class interests (economic, political, spiritual). As we have pointed out, the low wages received by national minority workers puts downward pressure on the wages of Anglo-American workers, and the divisions created by white chauvinism pave the way for the capitalist offensive on the standard of living of the entire working class. Thus, even in terms of immediate economic interests (leaving aside political, social and spiritual considerations and the long-term interests of the class), the Anglo-American proletariat suffers from the continuation of national oppression and white chauvinism and stands to gain by its eradication. From the standpoint of its economic and political interests the Anglo-American proletariat is revolutionary. It can only put an end to its own exploitation by joining with its class brothers and sisters of all nationalities to overthrow its exploiters and destroy U.S. imperialism.

National chauvinism is the ideology of the bourgeoisie; it serves the interests of the bourgeoisie and it does not serve the interests of the working class. This is not changed by the fact that many workers are influenced by national chauvinism. Lenin wrote, in response to the Bund (a Jewish workers’ organization in Russia); that the ignorant, chauvinist actions of some Russian workers did not mean that the workers had an interest in national chauvinism:

“If… the Bundists had pondered a bit over this question… they would have understood the link that immediately exists between anti-Semitism and the interests of the bourgeois, and not of the working class sections of the population. If they had given it a little more thought they might have realized that the social character of anti-Semitism today is not changed by the fact that dozens or even hundreds of unorganized workers, nine-tenths of whom are still quite ignorant, take part in a pogrom.”

The Erosion of Temporary Privileges. Between 1973, when the current economic .crisis set in, and 1981, the wages of U.S. workers in constant dollars (adjusted for inflation) fell by 13.9%. Although wage data for the last two years have not yet been compiled, there is no question but that wages have been further slashed. Indeed, 1981 was only the beginning of the current wage-cutting offensive. These cuts in many wages combined with the growing number of workers relegated to unemployment and part-time work, the cuts in government social programs and increasing taxes has led to a sharp decline in the standard of living of the working class. Between 1978 and 1982 the number of people living below the government-established poverty level grew by nearly 10,000,000, an increase of 40%.

The capitalist economic crisis has led to wage cuts throughout the capitalist world, including all the developed capitalist countries. But wage cuts in the United States have been sharper than in most other developed capitalist countries. This is the result of the erosion of the monopoly position of U.S. imperialism as well as the stronger resistance of workers in other countries to wage cuts. As the temporary benefits that the U.S. working class has received are taken back by the ruling class, the U.S. proletariat will learn to fight again in the magnificent way that it has in the past.

The Mobilization of the Proletariat for Revolution

Today the revolutionary potential of the U.S. working class is smothered under the stultifying influence of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeois trade union apparatus and the Democratic Party are chaining the working class to wage slavery as the ball and chain bound the chattel slave. The main agent of bourgeois control, the link in the political and ideological chain between the working class and the oppressor is the labor aristocracy. This chain must be broken, the influence of the labor aristocracy over the working class must be destroyed.

“Without a struggle against this stratum,” wrote Lenin, “without the destruction of every trace of its prestige among the workers, without convincing the masses of the utter bourgeois corruption of this stratum, there can be no question of a serious communist workers’ movement.”71

The revisionists in the working class movement, represented first and foremost by the CPUSA, constantly seek to blunt the struggle of the workers against the labor aristocracy and the trade union bureaucracy. Under the banner of “Left-Center Unity,” the CPUSA urges the workers to trust and support the majority of the trade union bureaucrats who, according to the CPUSA, are “in transition from Right to Center, moving toward the Left.” “Left-Center Unity,” says the CPUSA, is the “centerpiece” of its trade union policy.

“Examining the forces involved and their policies,” admits Gus Hall, “it is clear that the Center forces have an intermediate position on economic struggles, not consistently militant; and a Center position on the struggle against racism, sometimes seeking to opportunistically get around the issue; and on political action they are moving in a Left direction but have not yet reached the level of the Left and broken with the two old parties.”

This is quite an understatement! The CPUSA’s “center forces” (Fraser, Winpisinger, Chavez, Sadlowski, etc.) that it admits are “not consistently militant” are actually strike breakers, class collaborationists and corporate directors; they don’t simply seek “to get around the issue of racism,” they actively inflame national divisions among the workers and promote U.S. chauvinism; they not only have not “broken with the two old parties,” they are the chief Democratic Party hacks in the working class movement. These traitors can only appear as “center forces” when compared to the arch-reactionaries who make up the right wing of the trade union leadership.

Among the leadership of the legal trade unions there is no tendency of any kind which has any interest in revolution; they are all for collaboration with the bourgeoisie and for destruction of the communist movement. Conditions might compel Marxist-Leninists to enter into limited joint actions with these labor traitors, against the capitalists; however, the purpose of these joint actions, the “centerpiece” of our trade union policy, is to isolate these labor traitors, to free the working class from their influence so that, under genuine communist leadership the workers can carry out the class struggle.

The trade union apparatus is an unofficial organ of the bourgeois state, and its leadership is reactionary, but there are honest working class activists among the lower level elected positions (on the shop floor) who can be won to the side of revolution. But in order to win these workers, and the great mass of workers, to a revolutionary position, an uncompromising and relentless struggle must be waged against the trade union bureaucracy and the labor aristocracy.

Communist work must not be directed towards the small elite of skilled and highly-paid workers, but towards the great mass of unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

“[It] is… our duty,” wrote Lenin, “if we wish to remain socialists, to go down lower and deeper, to the real masses; this is the whole meaning and the whole purport of the struggle against opportunism. By exposing the fact that the opportunists and social chauvinists are in reality betraying and selling the interests of the masses, that they are defending the temporary privileges of a minority of workers, that they are the vehicles of bourgeois ideas and influences, that they are really allies and agents of the bourgeoisie, we teach the masses to appreciate their true political interests, to fight for socialism and for the revolution through all the long and painful vicissitudes of imperialist wars and imperialist armistices.”

In organizing the common proletariat communist work must be concentrated, in particular, among the workers in the productive sector who work in large concentrations. Here we are speaking not only of the industrial proletariat in mining and manufacturing, but also of the agricultural workers who labor in the capitalists’ “factories in the fields”, the workers in the large capitalist distribution and transportation centers, the hundreds of thousands of communications workers, etc. Because of the productive, collective and large-scale nature of the work in these sectors these workers are in a better position to organize, have greater potential strength and are in a better position to gain class consciousness. For these reasons they play the vanguard role in the class struggle.

With regard to the common proletariat the level of pay cannot be used as the criteria in identifying the leading sections. Many of the lowest paid workers are outside of the realm of production, such as hired domestic workers, secretaries, retail clerks, etc. In addition, many of the lowest paid workers in the productive sphere work in small enterprises and in small isolated units, such as farm workers on middle-sized farms, restaurant workers, etc. The conditions of work in these sectors retard the organization and class consciousness of these workers. While they will no doubt participate wholeheartedly in the revolution, their conditions of work prevent them from playing the leading role.

Because of the double yoke of national oppression and class exploitation national minority workers are, in many cases, the most ready to carry out the struggle against the capitalists, and the most desirous of revolutionary change. This great revolutionary potential must be mobilized to the fullest extent, organizing the struggle of these workers against both class and national oppression.

The struggle to organize Anglo-American workers cannot be allowed to lapse, however, as many “left” organizations have done. The majority of the U.S. proletariat are Anglo-American workers and redoubled efforts must be made to organize this largest contingent of the class.

In order to break down national chauvinism and national divisions within the working class a constant campaign must be waged to combat white chauvinism and build internationalism. All working class organizations, including the party and the trade unions, must be organized along internationalist lines, and cannot be nationally exclusive. On this point we cannot succumb to the bourgeois nationalism of either the oppressor or the oppressed nations.


1. Frederick Engels, note to The Communist Manifesto, Edition cited, p. 7.

2. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1944-1945, Census Bureau, p. 124.

3. Notes III [The Bourgeoisie], 3.

4. The State of Small Business, Small Business Administration (SBA), p. 190.

5. “The Self-Employed: Their Number is Growing”, Monthly Labor Review, Nov. 1980, p. 7.

6. The figures in this column were calculated based on data provided in Analyzing 1981 Earnings Data From the Current Population Survey, BLS, 1982, pp. A-1 – A-10. We separated proletarian from non-proletarian occupations within the BLS’ broad occupational classifications as described in the explanation to this table.

7. The figures in this column were calculated based on data provided in Analyzing 1981 Earnings Data From the Current Population Survey, BLS, 1982, p. A-11. The BLS only provides data on part-time workers by their broad classifications (i.e. “sales workers”, “clerical workers”, “service workers”), and therefore, we were unable to separate the proletarian and petty bourgeois workers in these classifications as we did for full-time workers. We assumed, however, that virtually all the petty bourgeoisie in these classifications (i.e. supervisors, police, sales representatives) work full-time. We therefore, included all of the part-time workers in these broad occupational classifications among the proletariat.

8. The figures in the column were calculated based on data provided in Employment and Earnings, Jan. 1982, BLS, p. 22. Less than 10% of the workforce is small proprietors and less than 2% of these were classified as unemployed.

The government only provides unemployment data for its broad occupational classifications. Therefore, in every broad occupational classification in which we removed a petty bourgeois section of the employed workers we removed a proportional number of the unemployed. We made an exception in the case of the police, firefighters and sheriffs, among whom the unemployment rate is very low, and, counted all unemployed “service workers” (the broad classification in which the BLS places the police) among the proletariat. This method undoubtedly overestimates the number of unemployed petty bourgeois employees and underestimates the number of unemployed proletarians because retail clerks are laid off before sales representatives, factory workers before supervisors, etc.

9. The Hired Farm Working Force of 1979, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1981. These 1,259,000 farm workers are counted as “not in the labor force” because of the seasonal nature of their work (this number does not include those seasonal farm workers who work other jobs most of the year. We have included these workers because they make up an important part of the farm labor force. We’ve made no effort to include seasonal workers in other occupational classifications who are not counted in the labor force.

10. Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Part I, p. 396.

11. Ibid., p. 401.

12.Marx, Capital, V. III, pp. 299-300.

13. Marx, Capital, V. I, p. 446.

14. “Occupational Earnings of Men and Women”, Monthly Labor Review, April, 1982p. 28.

15. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1982/1983, Census Bureau, 1983, p. 396.

16. Historical Statistics, Colonial Times to 1970, Census Bureau, 1976, p. 138.

  1. Same as 15 and 16 above.

18. The Hired Farm Working Force of 1979, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1981, p. 3; and Farm Population of the United States: 1981, Census Bureau, 1982, p.5.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Stephen Sosnick, Hired Hands: Seasonal Farmworkers in the United States, p. 10.

23. The Hired Farm Working Force of 1979, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1981. These particular figures represent ethnic rather than the government’s standard racial classifications. The classification “Hispanic” includes all people of Chicano, Latin American and Spanish nationalities while “white” refers only to Anglo-Americans.

24. Sosnick, pp. 431-432.

25. Ibid, p. 14.

26. Marx, Capital, V. 3, p. 300.

27. B. Solomon and R. Burns, “Unionization of White Collar Employees”, R. Lester, ed., Labor: Readings on Major Issues, p. 13 Z.

28. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, pp. 295-97. This book deserves some comment because it is so highly touted among some circles of academic “legal Marxists” in this country. The strength of this book is its detailed description of certain changes in the labor process, the division of labor, the development of technology, etc., and their effect on various sectors of the working population. Its analysis, however, is limited by the academic framework through which Braverman looked at these questions which has more in common with bourgeois sociology than revolutionary class analysis. Braverman was a social-democrat and not a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist. His main concern was “the degradation of work in the Twentieth Century” (the subtitle of his book), and not the social position and political roles played by the various classes and strata in capitalist society. Thus, the cultivation of an aristocracy of labor by the capitalists does not enter into Braverman’s analysis (although he was undoubtedly familiar with its social position and class outlook, working for years as a skilled craftsman in the metal trades). Just as seriously, he saw no fundamental distinction between the proletariat and those hired to supervise the proletariat. The lower strata of managerial employees, according to Braverman’s thinking, were already proletarians (page 380), or were most likely destined to become proletarians (page 407-409) because of their being subject to capitalist rationalization and layoffs, the routine nature of their work, their “increasing alienation”, etc.. In all of this the fundamental role of the foreman gets lost. No matter how low in the managerial bureaucracy, no matter how ill-paid, no matter how routine or lacking in real authority on his job, the foreman remains the agent of capital to control labor and extract from it as much surplus value as possible, and therefore remains alien from and hostile to the proletariat. Similarly, Braverman supposed that “objections might be raised” to classifying the police as workers but fails to actually raise any such objection (using his criteria the police, too, presumably join the proletariat once their work is sufficiently degraded).

29. See Table B-1.

30. “Occupational Earnings of Men and Women”, Monthly Labor Review, April, 1982, BLS.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34. B. Solomon and R. Burns, p. 132, and Ibid.

35. “Occupational Earnings of Men and Women” Monthly Labor Review, April, 1982, BLS.

36. Enver Hoxha, Report to the 6th Congress of the Party of Labor of Albania, Tirana: “8” Nentori Publishing House, 1971, pp. 216-17.

37. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, V. 31, pp. 193-194.

38. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, Preface to the English Edition, (Granada Publishing) p. 34.

39. This process is described in Karl Marx, Capital, V. l, Part IV, Chapter 13, Co-operation and Chapter 14, Division of Labour in Manufacture.

40. Filip Kota, Two Opposing Lines in the World Trade Union Movement, Tirana: “8” Nentori Publishing House, 1974, p. 68.

41. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, V. 22, p. 194.

42. Union Wages and Benefits: Building Trades, July 1980, BLS, 1981.

43. Job Patterns for Minorities and Women in Apprenticeship Programs and Referral Unions, 1979, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 1979.

44. This source lists 1,269,000 union construction craft workers. Many of these workers, however, were not employed in the construction industry per se, but rather in manufacturing or other industries. (Earning and Other Characteristics of Organized Workers, May 1980, BLS 1981.

45. Ibid. This source lists 1,312,000 non-union construction craft workers. Many of these workers, as well, were not employed in the construction industry, per se.

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid. This publication estimates the number of construction laborers at 715,000 while the BLS’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, 1982-1983 puts their number at 1,000,000.

48. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 1982-1983, BLS.

49. Ibid.

50. The mean wage for the industrial maintenance and tool room workers for whom we have data was $399 a week in 1980 (see text). The mean wage for non-transport operatives and manufacturing laborers, the two main government classifications of industrial workers, was $245 a week in 1980. (See Earnings and other Characteristics of Organized Workers, BLS, May 1980, Table 10.

51. BLS, Industry Wage Surveys: Oil and Gas Extraction in 1911; Textile Mills and Textile Dyeing and Finishing Plant, August, 1980; Machinery Manufacturing, January 1981; Basic Iron and Steel, 1978-1979; and Occupational Outlook Handbook, 1982-1983, entry on paper mill workers, BLS.

52. “Occupational Earnings of Men and Women” Monthly Labor Review, April, 1982, BLS.

53. Ibid.

54. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1982-1983, Census Bureau, 1983.

55. “Boss and Bureaucrat”, Latin America and Empire Report, May-June, 1977, North American Congress on Latin America, p. 20.

56. Money Income of Households, Families and Persons in the U.S., 1980, Census Bureau, 1982, p. 18.

57. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1982-1983, Census Bureau, 1983, p. 429.

58. Ibid.

59. Employment and Earnings, Jan. 1983, BLS.

60. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1982-1983, Census Bureau, 1983, p. 380. These were unemployed who wanted a job but were not looking for one at the time of the survey.

61. Money Income of Households, Families and Persons in the U.S., 1980, Census Bureau, p. 181.

62. “Occupational Earnings of Men and Women”, Monthly Labor Review, April 1982, BLS.

63. “Usual Weekly Earnings”, Monthly Labor Review, April 1982, BLS.

64. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, V. 23, pp. 55-56.

65. “Usual Weekly Earnings,” Monthly Labor Review, April, 1982, BLS.

66. Money Income of Households, Families and Persons in the U.S., 1980, Census Bureau, 1982, p. 181. This figure is substantially lower than the median weekly wages listed in Table B-2 for several reasons. First, this figure is from 1980 as opposed to 1981. Second, this figure includes the wages of part-time workers while Table B-2 only includes full-time workers. Third, this figure is an annual figure and therefore includes weeks in which individual workers were unemployed, while the figures in Table B-2 refer only to weekly wages of employed workers.

67. Money Income and Poverty Status of Families and Persons in the United States: 1982, Census Bureau, 1983, p. 4. According to this source some 23,517,000 “white” people lived below the poverty level in 1982. Some of these people, however, were not Anglo-Americans but rather Chicanos, Mexicans or other people of “Spanish Origin”. Approximately 56% of the people of “Spanish Origin” are counted as “white”. In 1982 there were 4,301,000 people of “Spanish Origin” living below the poverty level of whom perhaps 2,400,000 (56%) were counted as “whites”.

68. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, V. 5, pp. 331-32.

69. “Usual Weekly Earnings”, Monthly Labor Review, April 1982, BLS.

70. New York Times, August 3, 1983, p. l.

71. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, V. 29, p. 563.

72. Gus Hall, The Crisis of Everyday Living and the Winning Fightback, 1978, p. 41.

73. Ibid., p. 45.

74. Ibid., p. 42.

75. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, V. 23, p. 120.

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