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labour aristocracy

labour aristocracy A concept developed by Friedrich Engels to designate an upper section of the working class which was in receipt of higher wages and hence liable to be bribed into a surrender of its class interests. The money for this payment was, in Lenin's interpretation of the argument, held to come from colonial profits.

The major discussion of the concept has been in relation to the development of class relations in Victorian and Edwardian Britain (the so-called ‘labour aristocracy debate’ of the 1970s). Among other things, the principal protagonists (who included sociologists of class and culture) disputed the definition of the concept itself; the role of this stratum in promoting working-class militancy and quiescence; standards of living in the immediate aftermath of the Industrial Revolution; conditions of employment, authority in the workplace, and the social construction of skill; the cultural and political elements in class consciousness; the emergence of the ‘domestic ideal’ and the changing role of women in industrial society; and the links between the development of the British working class and nineteenth-century British imperialism. The debate petered out—largely unresolved—but yielded a prodigious amount of excellent historical research at both the national and local levels of analysis. A convenient summary of the issues will be found in Robert Gray's The Aristocracy of Labour in Nineteenth-Century Britain, c. 1850–1914 (1981).

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labour aristocracy

labour aristocracy. Top 10–15 per cent of manual wage earners in the 19th cent., characterized by relatively high and regular earnings, membership of a trade union, and respectable life-style. This élite of skilled artisans—engineers, cabinet-makers, printers, and cotton-spinners—set the tone of working-class leadership between the 1840s and the 1890s. The gulf between the labour aristocracy and the mass of unskilled or semi-skilled workers was virtually unbridgeable; but at the upper end of the social stratum the labour aristocracy merged with the lower middle class. The strength of the labour aristocracy rested partly on its control of entry to a trade (usually through apprenticeship) and the custom of subcontracting. Some historians have suggested that a labour aristocracy with a conservative ideology and a stake in the status quo helps to account for the social stability of mid-Victorian Britain; and Marxists have used the concept of a labour aristocracy as a partial explanation of the non-revolutionary character of the British working class. However, the labour aristocracy maintained a distinctive working-class ideology through its unions, and also provided the leadership in some radical reform movements.

John F. C. Harrison

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