From Socialism to Populism and Back

Socialist congressional cand. Bernie Sanders posing in front of a pic of socialist labor organizer Eugene V. Debs. (Photo by Steve Liss/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Like training a helper monkey to use a butcher knife — that’s what the Economist crowd thinks about calls to democratize the economy. And with that overriding fear, polite liberals on both sides of the Atlantic have used the “populist” label to blur the line between Sanders and Corbyn on one side promising “the impossible” to wild-eyed kids, and Trump and Salvini on the other stoking xenophobia for political gain.

But in the United States, socialism and populism have a good deal of common ancestry. Socialist politics, after all, have always advocated a popular politics built not just around the interests of manual workers (a minority even in industrialized countries), but around a much broader bloc — farmers, the poor, pensioners, marginalized groups, and more progressive-minded members of the middle class.

This realization didn’t happen all at once. The German workers’ movement, at least as represented by the 1875 Gotha Program, was colored by the views of early socialist Ferdinand Lassalle. “The emancipation of labor must be the work of the laboring class,” read that founding social-democratic document, “opposed to which all other classes are only a reactionary body.” Writing at the time, Marx thoroughly rejected the implication that even other oppressed classes were reactionary or had interests necessarily counterposed to those of workers.

In fact, the use of popular narratives to forge together coalitions under working-class leadership has been at the center of socialist politics for the past 150 years. That was true of the revolutionary socialism of the Bolsheviks, who attempted to yoke together the interests of workers with that of the peasantry to topple the Tsar. And it was also true in Western Europe and beyond, where working-class foment created democratic institutions that could only be wielded through programs that reached beyond the ranks of organized workers.

Indeed, the tale of much of the twentieth century was that of the bloody struggle for political democracy and the incomplete battle to constrain the power of capital and extend that democracy into social and industrial spheres. Yet today that project appears to have not just stalled but continued its secular decline. After decades of capital offensive and the capitulation of social-democratic parties to neoliberalism, workers are more alienated than ever from both their electoral vehicle and democracy itself.

Working-class voters today are generally disillusioned with the ruling-class political consensus. But they and other voters don’t have faith in the potential of politics to change their lives; they don’t turn out to vote, and they’re less active in parties, unions, and civic organizations than they once were.

This isn’t a “crisis of politics” or democracy, it’s a crisis of socialist politics. The European center-right have also lost their mass base, but they can always manage capitalism in the interests of capitalists with the help of a dozen EU technocrats. In the United States, the Right is effective at seizing and wielding power as a minority, through its institutions, gerrymandering, and the court system, and the Democratic Party can get by with its cadre of Very Online Professionals. Yet the Left has always depended on mass organization, not only to win elections, but to try to challenge the undemocratic power of capital. In the absence of that mobilization, we’re left with the “swarms” often dismissed as populist.

This is the context for this issue. It aims to rebut the mainstream usage of populism, as a tool to blur distinctions between left and right and shore up a decrepit politics that will only breed more Trumps and Bolsonaros in the years to come. It also serves as a reminder that socialist politics has always been a popular politics, built around a broad conception of the working class that has never been fixed to the agency of one of its exemplars (the longshoreman, the autoworker, or the miner). And it tries to critically examine the understandable attempt by formations like Podemos and France Insoumise to use left-populist rhetoric to defibrillate a politics still rooted in socialist principles.

At best, populism for us is just a rhetorical tactic. And we will always need new tactics and strategies, adapted to our moment and national contexts. However, the core of socialism — from its aims to the universal subject that can carry it out — is in no need of radical revision.

Populism is the buzzword of the moment, but make no mistake about why the ruling class fears Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. They fear the erosion of their ill-gotten wealth and privilege. They still fear, in other words, not populism but socialism.