Populism is a very important object of struggle in the ideological and theoretical development of the working class. The struggle against populism is and will be a very important component in the struggle of the working class for immediate demands and for the long-term objective of the class. It is indispensable that we have a clear-cut conception of populism and its nature.
What is populism?
- Populism is a political, theoretical and ideological approach in which we look at the masses (or the oppressed, or the people) without looking at class. It is to talk about the masses or the oppressed without attempting to understand the differences among them, even if there is an attempt to lean on particular classes or fractions of classes.
- In the moment of imperialism, in the US and internationally, there is a strong tendency to look at people or oppressed as an amalgam without, once again, making a class distinction. In reality, it is an approach of looking at the non-proletarian dominated classes as a political alternative, because they are more numerous, or even poorer than the working class, or may play a conjunctural and immediate contextual or historical cultural role. This approach is not innocent. It is rooted in the classes that practice populism.
These classes can be:
a] A fraction of the capitalist class with their political representatives in the Democratic or Republican Party or other fringe bourgeois parties in the US social formation, or similar configurations in other imperialist social formations,
b] in other social formations, the feudalist class,
c] fractions of the petite bourgeoisie
In general, a class practices populism in order to lean on (realize the support of) other classes or fractions of classes in the people’s camp, in order to attain their own political objectives. In other words, populism allows certain sectors of the dominated classes to be used for the advancement of the dominant classes. It also allows certain sectors of the dominant classes to resolve their internal secondary contradictions (among themselves) by constructing a social base among the popular masses, for aims that are against the interest of the dominated classes. Populism attempts to hide class struggle, in the interest of the dominant classes.
Leaning on other classes by practicing populism is not a mechanical question. It is rooted in the class nature of the classes that practice it. Populism can manifest due to the nature of these classes in the process of their historical constitution. For example, it will take root in the fraction of individual laborers in the petite bourgeoisie (small business). This occurs in their relation to the dominant classes as well as in the social relations that link them. The reproduction of these classes and the relations between them lays the basis for populism. In the relations between these classes, populism is a pertinent effect on class struggle, present in the dominated classes that constitute the base. However, at the same time it is a class position (political-ideological/theoretical-practice) of the classes that are leaning on these dominated classes.
Concretely, we find populism mostly in the social practice of the dominant classes. It is also a common practice of the petite bourgeoisie due to their position in the relation of dominant/dominated in any social formation.
We may find the co-existence of many forms of populism. One is directly connected to the interests of the dominant classes, and is overtly reactionary. This is right populism. Another is connected to the interest of the petite bourgeoisie. In the short-term this may be progressive, but in the final analysis it is reactionary in the long term.
Historical practices of class struggles confirm the quick transition of left/progressive populism to right populism. Right populism is always accompanied by political repression of the masses, including the masses that the dominant classes are leaning on.
Petit bourgeois populism can appear to be progressive. If we visit the program of many left populist organizations or of left parties, we will find populism based on their existing relation with and struggle against the dominant classes. But it is very unstable. For example, the left populism of the Black Panther Party and many others of the radical left during the 1960s has, by now, largely crossed over to right populism, under the clear leadership of the Democrat Party (even when some remnants of left populism are still manifest). The undertone of such left populism is reactionary, and inevitably will transfer to a reactionary political orientation: electoralism.
The populism articulated by the petite bourgeoisie will come with some demands that are in the immediate interest of all classes that comprise the dominated classes. It is usually based on a non-organic relation with the rest of the masses, under the leadership of that sector of the petite bourgeoisie. The petite bourgeoisie can and will come with demands in the interest of the masses, and bring certain amelioration to the over all conditions of the masses.
But in reality these petit bourgeois elements are really defending the interests of capital, even when they do have to satisfy some of the demands of the masses. In general and more often than not, in the evolution of class struggle the petite bourgeoisie gives a safe conduit to the passage of capital. For example, in facing the issue of environmental destruction, their main response is to promote green capitalism.
To realize this safe conduit, to attain these objectives for capital, these petit bourgeois usually start out dressed as revolutionaries but quickly disrobe to become reactionary. Mandela, Ortega and many others in our current historical period have quickly become reactionary, their true self.
One of the most important characteristics of the petit bourgeois, which exposes them as reactionary (during this stage of development of capitalism to imperialism) is that they are quick to deny the historical role of the proletariat, the autonomy of the proletariat, and the direction of the proletariat. If they don’t do that, they attempt to pass for workers under the populist theory “whoever works is a worker,” a theory that would make almost every soul in every social formation a worker. This theory is based on a very superficial theory of a social formation. But a rigorous theory from the interest of the proletariat shows that these types of positions are really reactionary.
In the working class too, we find political, theoretical and ideological manifestations of populism. In contrast to the others classes, especially the petite bourgeoisie, populism is not in the nature of the working class; it is an unnatural tendency. The antagonistic social relation between capital and labor is not an objective material condition conducive to the manifestation of populism in the working class, especially in capitalist/imperialist social formations. But since the working class is not already self-made for revolution, populism traverses it as well.
We will now explore some of those manifestations.
Some pertinent effects of class struggle manifesting as populism in the working class are conjunctural and contextual:
- Most workers develop a blind allegiance to business unions such as AFL/CIO, Teamsters, SEIU and others. These unions are very bureaucratic, which goes naturally with their substitution of a small nucleus of corrupt functionaries for workers in negotiations with capitalists and their reactionary state apparatus. Though presented in the name of the workers, these negotiations are a practice of selling out workers’ interests, in broad daylight. In addition, these union federations are doing their utmost best to contain the struggle of the workers at the democratic level so it could remain permanently under the domination of the capitalist class.
- This manifestation not only facilitates populism in the working class, but also makes large sectors of the working class vulnerable to fall prey to the populism of other classes, in particular that of the petite bourgeoisie. These bureaucratic unions become (or are becoming) an extension of the repressive apparatus of the state, of the dominant classes.
- Because of their need for membership, these bureaucratic unions are falsely enlarging the working class as well. For them, all laborers are workers. Many of these unions are referring to laborers as a class, which is an attempt to shift the role of workers to other classes among the laborers, in particular the petite bourgeoisie. This results in an amalgam in which no distinction of classes exists, and thus the pursuit of working class interests becomes impossible. The IWW is an example of this. Originally it was an organization of industrial workers, but currently it is dominantly a petit bourgeois organization, in which students are members and under the leadership of the petite bourgeoisie.
- These unions are not only bureaucratic. They have transitioned to become capitalist organizations, in which memberships are a form of primitive accumulation of capital. The allegiance of workers to these organizations, and their insistence on recognizing only their bureaucratic (rather than capitalist) nature has favored the practice of class collaboration, with the fraction of the capitalist class that is at the leadership of these unions. The opportunism of these workers will take them straight to class collaboration, the final destination of populism.
- Many workers reluctantly recognize the true nature of these unions, but still claim them as their organizations. This tendency exists in the working class in general, and especially in particular among the aristocratic fraction of the working class. This aristocratic fraction is the most effective social base of populism in the working class.
It is also a generalized practice among the workers. Workers are very reluctant to find alternatives outside of the existing bureaucratic structures of these unions. Any alternatives are mostly viewed as anti-union and subject to criticism as a scab practice. The consequence is another populist attempt, a reformist attempt, to regain control of their unions. While this is a noble approach, good intentions do not usually translate into correct political practices. Class struggles will never allow that translation. The only result of attempts to regain control of the unions has been the quick inversion of left populism to right populism.
This happened to the caucus inside the Transit Workers Union called New Directions. As a caucus they were very combative, but as soon as they took over the union leadership, they merely replaced old bureaucrats with new ones.
It is not simply bureaucratic practices that make these unions incapable of realizing the interests of their members. The problem with these unions is that they are now structurally capitalist organizations. The determining factor is not the bureaucratic practice of a capitalist structure, but the structure itself. Putting faith in attempts to regain control of these bureaucratic unions will historically lead to the same disorganized and defeated end as the faith of the brothers and sisters in New Directions, now a defunct caucus.
Populism has a class nature. In many cases, it is reactionary and has characteristics of fractions of the capitalist class, both under capitalism and feudalism. In the case of the petite bourgeoisie, populism will inevitably transition to bourgeois populism and serve the interests of capitalist class.
The populist tendency of the working class has a pertinent effect on that class in its efforts to realize its autonomous practices. Attempts to take over business unions greatly harm the potential of the working class to construct autonomous alternatives at all levels. In general, workers need to construct parallel organizations at all levels, while using the existing structure of the unions. They paid dues for their services, and workers need to make sure those services are rendered.
Populism is against our interests as workers!
No class collaboration! The working class and the capitalist class are milk and lemon: we do not mix.
Let’s build our autonomous organizations!