Populism And Class

The first characteristic of populism is that it serves as a displacement of class antagonism and class conflict.

The preconditions of which are, firstly, the crisis of capitalist society whether political, economic or social. Secondly, of the immaturity of the political struggle of the working class and the dominance or preponderance of confused petty bourgeois layers. Lastly, the proletariat is in a situation in which they are not in an adequate objective position to seize power.

Populism, in the movements in which it is reflected, acts to transform,  separate and condense classes into an amorphous mass. The affected layers of the population are converted to a self-alienated plebeian body who are reliant on a section of the bourgeoisie for organization and leadership. Discontent with the exploiting class as such is dissipated by the populist framework. It disappears and is always hidden behind a diversionary campaign against a narrow sub-strata of the ruling elite or social establishment representing a displaceable, disposable section of the exploiting class proper that is, moreover, unnecessary to the maintenance of the rule of the whole. Contrariwise, the populist movements life may be channeled against certain legislative or economic practices which similarly disguise the processes which gave birth to these conditions.

The class basis and class foundation of discontent is distorted and rerouted until it is ultimately integrated into one form or another of continued bourgeois rule.

The various class origins of discontent themselves becomes sublimated by the form of the movement determined by the intervening forces which become the leadership and organizers of the populist movement. These forces take the role as a “tribune of the people,” invoking a tenuous plebeian origin – real or imagined – and leading an intercession against some manifestation of the status quo.

Populist movements are necessarily reformist or reactionary in appearance;  and either way in this they are twins. This is because the goal is not plebeian control but rearrangement in the management or composition of the ruling class establishment. The means and forms of governance may be threatened by a populist movement, but never their content.

Populism’s second characteristic is that it explicitly counterposes a plebian mass to traditional leaderships and traditional processes, either operating outside of them or against them. Populism produces redistributive attitudes, sentiments and demands. This aspect of redistributive agitation always has a class character, or the intersection of multiple class interests. It is possible for the populist movement to be speciously anti-capitalist in various aspects of its appeal and it is possible for the populist movement to represent the reactionary interests of petty bourgeois layers.

In its operation the populist movement raises the vague specter of open rebellion or forced leveraging by mass action. This is always channeled by the leadership into the reconciliation of discontent with the status quo through the symbolic resolution of the populist struggle. Almost always, this is equivalent with the leadership’s elevation or acceptance by the establishment.

Exploring the range of populist movements, we must note that there are two forms of populism, that originating with bourgeois politics and that originating from spontaneous actions of mass discontent.  In respect to the first kind, we note that demagoguery is not necessarily an example of populism. When a plebeian mass, already spurred by objective conditions, unites behind a bourgeois political force it must regard that bourgeois political force to represent it against traditional leaderships and against traditional processes.

We see this represented meekly in the recent Trump and Sanders presidential campaigns, which picked up on underlying trends of discontent and made an appeal to workers and the middle classes on this basis. Consider the slogans of the Trump campaign: “drain the swamp” “build a wall” “renegotiate NAFTA” “bring back jobs.” Sanders similarly promised reforms and a political “revolution” that seem quite impossible in the present context, even if his proposals were never more extensive than the 20th century bourgeois politics they echo, such as single payer healthcare and student loan reform.

The key to the tepid bourgeois phrase-mongering presented by Trump and Sanders that equates their campaigns with populism is the intent of the masses who professed to back them, crowded their rallies, displayed their signs and clothing and voted for them. There is no question that these masses, if not the parties or leaders themselves, wanted to “drain the swamp.”

It is no surprise then, that the history of populism has witnessed movements that have often taken a personalist or even putschist character under the delusion that individuals or small groups of petty bourgeoisie or bourgeoisie can lead a true intercession against the injustices of the political and economic order.

What then is the difference between a populist movement and a radical movement? They share several things in common. One is the rejection of old (and bourgeois) leaderships and processes of political life. Bourgeois reformism (and even traditional bourgeois reaction), in contrast, always cements the dispossessed and disempowered classes to the traditional forms of rule. Despite its different appearance, however, populism from its beginning indicates the political reintroduction of the masses into these same forms of rule by agitating on the basis of and adhering to the redistribution of power within the old forms of rule.

The radical movement is of necessity an attempt to remove the old leaderships, the old ruling framework and the old economic system as a whole (or implicitly set in this direction). In doing so the radical movement raises the question of proletarian leverage against the bourgeois order as a whole and overall creates the conditions and necessity for the independent and autonomous jurisdiction of the dispossessed. The political tendency which flows out of the radicalism of such a movement is the supersession of would be tribunes of the people by independent impetus and organs of power. Unlike populism, the existence of the radical movement is untenable alongside the continued power of the old institutions and elites as a class.

A socialist movement has as a conscious basis the idea of a working-class identity determined by exploitation and is conscious and moves against the ruling class to end the bourgeois order. It is possible for a movement to fall well short of a conscious socialist basis but still be anti-capitalist. At minimum it may be concentrated on a specific aspect of capitalism which to the movement’s participants encapsulates all of the proletarian demands and animus of the movement and equally brings the movement up against the entire order of capitalism. In contrast it may be directed against capitalism as a social system in general while lacking in any specific practical orientation, in this case suggesting a protest movement. Lastly, it may be characterized by almost entirely undirected efforts at preservation of basic rights and principles that bring it up against the capitalist order.

The radical movement which is anti-capitalist in a significant way or direction is known by its resoluteness, principles, penetration among the masses and the quality and class origins of its leadership. If the leadership is socialist this is because the opposition itself is already anti-capitalist and sees the party as a means of its own organization and action. This brings a final comparison with populism; that the radical proletarian movement in its full development seeks out and produces its own leadership, which has the tendency to become the focal point of its efforts. The difference is that the radical movement does not subordinate itself and its goals to the elevation of this fraction of its ranks, but rather expects the leadership to prepare the radical movement for further autonomy and independence from the established order, ultimately culminating in the transfer of the means of production from the ruling elite to the proletariat as a whole.

The question of whether a populist movement can become a radical movement is necessarily a matter of distinguishing between the class nature of a movement and the class nature of the demands raised by and the actions which emanate from the movement. A mix of petty bourgeois and proletarians moving forward behind sentiments of disenfranchisement focused on appealing to sections of the bourgeoisie or even forcing the hand of the bourgeoisie to merely redistribute their ill gotten gains more evenly among some section of the population cannot produce anything but a reconciliation of such a movement with the status quo. A general movement of proletarians who put on the order of a day even modest class demands that can never be met by the bourgeoisie may present a dynamic of development into a radical movement, despite the localism or vagueness of such a movement, or even its reliance at first on a section of the bourgeois establishment. It is evident, however, that upon its entry into the world, the populist movement has the tendency to already be entangled with the bourgeois order and just as much a subordinate part of the bourgeois political and economic direction as a force for itself.  The victory of the populist movement is merely a consolidation of the bourgeois order, and can be foreseen as such. The defining aspect of the radical movement from its beginning is its incompatibility with and its tendency to develop independently from the bourgeois order.


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