In recent decades, there has been much discussion of “populism” as newly significant form of political movement. Some on the left even say we should embrace it.
Admittedly, there are major conceptual difficulties when discussing “populism”. Even if we limit ourselves to examples on the ostensible left, movements labelled “populist” can be so different in their substantive politics and theoretical groundings that they conflict directly.
On the one hand, there is Chantal Mouffe’s highly pluralistic and heterogenous “left-populism”, which is very much oriented towards liberation politics such as black liberation and women’s liberation. On the other hand, there is the deeply nationalist and socially conservative populism of the Blue Labour faction of the UK Labour Party, which is generally hostile to liberation politics.
Other conceptual difficulties arise in another way. Although some variants of populism identify as either “left-wing” or “right-wing”, populist movements often adopt the rhetoric of overcoming or transcending the left/right divide.
In my view, the key tenet of populism is a central opposition in society between “the people” and “the elites”. This tenet is well expressed in the Occupy Movement’s famous slogans about the “1%” and the “99%”. In Marxist class analysis, the opposition between “the working class” and “the capitalist class” is based on an exploitative relationship of surplus value extraction, but the populist opposition between “the people” and “the elites” is different.
I submit that all forms of “populism”, including those with the most progressive political content, are a dead end for socialists. I will illustrate this with two very different political parties regarded as both “left-wing” and “populist”: Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise and Podemos in Spain.
My case is that, although these parties vary significantly in their substantive politics, the deficiencies they have shown in practice all stem from an inherent theoretical weakness in populism itself: the displacement of class. Here I understand class as a material position in relation to the productive forces in society, as opposed to a cultural category or just a matter of relative incomes.
In other words, the central problem of populism is that it has “the people” as its master concept instead of “the working class”. “The people” as a category obscures class distinctions, especially between (i) the working class; (ii) the traditional petty bourgeoisie (that is, independent traders and artisans who sell the products of their labour without employing others as wage-workers), and (iii) small capitalists.
Accordingly, any turn to populism only makes us lose sight of why we as socialists turn to the working class as the key agent of social change, and why we need to build independent and democratic bodies for organised labour.
In short, to adopt populism is to step away from the central task of socialist politics: the self-emancipation of the working class.
La France Insoumise
Led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, formerly a long-serving member of the French Socialist Party, La France Insoumise is a self-styled “movement” founded in 2016. Mélenchon saw some success in the 2017 French Presidential election, where he won 19.58% of the vote in the first round, but in this year’s European Parliament elections La France Insoumise picked up only 6.3% of the vote in France. It has seen major figures defect to other parties.
One such defector, Andréa Kotarac, a former regional adviser to Mélenchon, has gone so far as to back Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National as a means of stopping President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche.
Despite offering redistributive policies, Mélenchon’s political programme is essentially nationalist populism with a left-wing veneer. The central pillar of Mélenchon’s project is French national sovereignty. His rhetoric often plays up anti-German and anti-EU themes rather than united class struggle against the national and international bourgeoisie alike.
For example, in his 2015 book Le Hareng de Bismarck, he denounces “the German poison” imposed on Europe. Mélenchon also nationalistically denies any French responsibility for the anti-Jewish action of the Vichy regime during World War 2. Vichy ruled southern France by agreement with Nazi Germany, which occupied the north of the country.
Despite previously saying that migration was not a problem, Mélenchon now openly advocates tighter border controls. He repeatedly describes immigration as means of putting “pressure on wages and social gains” and expresses hostility towards freedom of movement and residence. He has even gone so far as to adopt far-right rhetoric about migrants “stealing bread”.
Mélenchon’s placement of national sovereignty over class solidarity and his consequent pandering to xenophobia obscure France’s internal class exploitation and divide workers on lines of nationality. They also make starkly apparent why a high-profile La France Insoumise member should have found it so easy to defect to the far right.
La France Insoumise lacks of internal democracy. Although the party has a “conference”, 60% of the conference delegates are chosen by lot from online members who have expressed interest. As they were never elected, these are delegates are not even ostensibly accountable to the rest of the party.
In practice, most decision-making power lies with Mélenchon’s inner circle because they can deliberately set a limited conference agenda. Consequently, La France Insoumise has no meaningful and open debates over its political positions.
Indeed, in his speech at the left-wing festival The World Transformed in 2018, Mélenchon took pride in how the absence of a membership structure in La France Insoumise means it has “no internal power struggles”.
La France Insoumise’s hollow shell of party democracy and Mélenchon’s contemptuous attitude towards internal political struggle are antithetical to the socialist project of building the working class’s own capacity to take leadership over society.
In other words, if we take seriously the idea of working-class agency, then we must allow the rank-and-file of the organised labour movement to put forward and debate its own proposals on a transparent, political basis.
As such, in both its embrace of nationalism and its top-down, monolithic structure, La France Insoumise’s “left-wing” populism is no model for socialists.
Pablo Iglesias founded Podemos in 2014 in the aftermath of the Spanish anti-austerity protests in Spain, as a left-wing movement targeting unemployment or inequality.
Podemos has seen political success. It is the second largest party in Spain by membership. In the November 2019 General Election, Unidas Podemos, the electoral coalition of Podemos, and other left-wing parties, won 35 out of 350 seats in the Spanish Parliament’s lower house, the Congress of Deputies, and 6 out of 265 seats in the upper house, the Senate. On 12 November, it signed a coalition government deal with the social-democratic PSOE, written, so the Madrid daily El Pais reports, “in such broad terms that it could contemplate any sort of measure”.
Overall, Podemos is much less nationalist than La France Insoumise. It also has much more internal political life and features formal mechanisms for submitting proposals to the national bodies.
Despite Podemos’ commendable strengths relative to other left-populist parties, its politics have serious weaknesses. Its adoption of an “electoral war machine” strategy has come at the expense of the street movements that made Podemos notable in the first place.
Like much of the 21st century left, Podemos has something of an obsession with “e-democracy”. Whilst online votes might seem appealing on grounds of accessibility, reliance on them squeezes out deliberation and debate.
Members often vote alone, from home, without a chance to hear the proposals being debated fully and transparently. That benefits those actors with most control over the organisation’s internal communications. E-democracy can easily become a tool for the organisation’s leadership to gain plebiscitary approval for its positions rather than a means of critically discussing and deciding between proposals from the membership.
Despite Podemos’ impressive democratic structures on paper, in practice Iglesias’ personal leadership is the central stem of the party. This follows a broader trend of left-wing populist movements coming to resemble Bonapartism because of their ideology of being in direct communication with “the people” as an undifferentiated mass.
In other words, because populism rests upon the notion of a unifying common sense that overcomes the internal fractures of “the people”, including class conflict, populist movements tend to revolve around a leader figure who can embody that unifying common sense.
In the case of Podemos, the ideology of direct communication with “the people” has even gone as far as basing decisions solely on polling data, as if simply reflecting the existing beliefs of “ordinary citizens” is an adequate or desirable substitute for fighting to change those beliefs through a democratically decided programme.
Podemos’s hopes that the populist division of “the people” versus “the elites” would create a new, unified left have proved false. After a rapid but brief rise in 2014-5, its electoral performance has been poor. After years of heated disagreement between Iglesias and fellow Podemos founder Íñigo Errejón, the party has now split. Errejón argued more strongly in favour of a “neither left nor right” politics that emphasises patriotic unity against “the caste”. He now leads his own party, Más País, based on this platform.
All this speaks to the underlying problem with populism: for all its talk of constructing a new social alliance that transcends the traditional left/right dichotomy, one cannot simply articulate away material interests divided along class lines. As long as it is rooted in the idea of building such an alliance, Podemos will remain an inadequate vehicle for the left.
The Proletariat, not “the People”
All this brings me to the classic question posed by the great American socialist Hal Draper: “Why the working class?”
We Marxists do not place the working class at the centre of our politics because we believe that workers are inherently virtuous people or because we believe that all forms of oppression in society are reducible to class conflict.
We do so because, as the wealth-producing class in capitalist society, the working class is uniquely positioned to challenge capitalism from within. In other words, the fact that capitalist wealth production stems directly from the extraction of surplus value from our labour means we have a distinct economic leverage within the capitalist system.
Moreover, because it is a universal class — because the global spread of capitalism creates wage labour across all nations — the working class has a unique capacity to unite people around the world based on their common interest in ending their economic exploitation.
Far from being merely one of many constituent elements of “the people”, the labour movement and its organised bodies are distinctly vital to the left precisely because material class interests provide an objective basis for uniting most of capitalist society against its rulers and a means of overcoming capitalism from within.
No matter how generously one interprets “the people” as a category, it can never provide the truly worldwide basis for united struggle that the working class provides.