When the axe entered the forest, the trees said: “The handle is one of us.”
I remember a brief carefree idyll when I was fourteen. I lived with my family in Ventura, California, went to Balboa Junior High, and had teenager jobs the occasional evening, weekend or summer. But I spent all my spare time at the beach swimming, surfing and skateboarding. When I enrolled in Buena High School the head gym teacher, Mason Parrish, put all the incoming sophomores through a battery of athletic tests to determine in which sports we might excel. Parrish coached the football team, and was in the process of building Buena’s swim and water polo teams to win multiple national awards, compete in the 1968-72 Olympic trials, and field numerous Junior Olympic Champions. I was a natural in the water, so Coach Parrish recruited me immediately for swimming and water polo.
Parrish was an old-school, conservative high school gym coach who began and ended every game with a Christian prayer. He required loyalty from his athletes in school and expected us to practice routines, lift weights, and train regularly outside of class on our own time. All I wanted was to have fun, swim, and go to the beach. Parrish started me in a few swimming competitions and played me in a couple of water polo games. But when he realized I lacked the dedication and drive to give him the full commitment he demanded, he benched me for the duration of the semester. Parrish was openly disappointed, my gung-ho teammates disdained me, and I still had to show up for team practice and events. I was developing, maturing and acquiring new, formative interests in my adolescent life. But my love for swimming was irreparably damaged.
I kept to an honors academic track and joined the chess and science clubs. My passion for writing became all-consuming as I got involved with creative writing classes and the literary magazine. And my extracurricular interests in the 1960s hippie and New Left youth rebellions blossomed. I grew my hair long, started listening to rock’n’roll and going to concerts, declared myself a pacifist anarchist, tried to join a moribund SDS, organized an insignificant student walkout for the national anti-Vietnam war Moratorium, and published three issues of an underground newspaper. I went from being a jock to a hippie who still hadn’t smoked marijuana and a burgeoning Leftist moving rapidly further left. Much to my surprise, I was awarded a letter jacket at the Buena High School graduation ceremony thanks to my initial involvement in sports. A fellow swimmer approached me afterwards, pointed to the jacket, and said with a sneer: “You don’t deserve that.”
I too thought I hadn’t deserved my letterman jacket and felt I’d acquired my high school letter by mistake. So let’s talk about populism and how it doesn’t deserve to be considered revolutionary. That, in fact, populism is a misleading, dangerous concept. By the simplest definition, populism is about being for the people and against society’s elites. John B. Judis correctly divides populism into the straightforward leftwing dyadic populism of “the people vs. the elite” and the triadic rightwing populism that champions “the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.” (The Populist Explosion) What Judis doesn’t consider is that populism is also divided into “populism from below” (social movements and popular uprisings) versus “populism from above” (elitist demagoguery). This produces a foursquare political compass with examples of a demagogic populist Left (Huey Long), a demagogic populist Right (Donald Trump), a democratic populist Left (Occupy Wall Street) and a democratic populist Right (Tea Party). Elitist demagoguery of populist movements and rebellions is a clear danger in any form of populism. But also, because populist movements and rebellions are often ideologically and socially undifferentiated, it’s easy for populism to move back and forth from political Left to Right, even to attempt to combine elements of both Left and Right into a single “of the people, by the people, for the people” movement.
My critiques of the alt-right, neo-fascism, neo-nazism, and Third Positionism are by default criticisms of rightwing populism because of their lack of ideological coherence and tendency to scapegoat innocent social groups like Jews or black people. I won’t address Judis’s discussion that populism is “fascism lite” or an early warning sign of capitalism in crisis. To make my Leftist disagreements with populism clear, I’ll instead focus on leftwing populism.
“Leftwing populism is historically different from socialist or social democratic movements,” Judis writes. “It is not a politics of class conflict, and it doesn’t necessarily seek the abolition of capitalism. It is also different from a progressive or liberal politics that seek to reconcile the interests of opposing classes and groups. It assumes a basic antagonism between the people and an elite at the heart of its politics.”
The key concept here is social class. What defines a social class according to Marx is its relationship to the means of production. The capitalist class owns the means of production and purchases the labor power of others while workers own only their labor power which they sell for wages to the capitalist class. The working class thus starts out as a “class in itself” but becomes a “class for itself” through self-activity and self-organization to achieve its self-emancipation. Ultimately, the working class seeks to abolish itself as a class by abolishing all of class society.
Marxists have formulated two distinct concepts of how the working class might move from being a “class in itself” to a “class for itself”—class consciousness versus class composition. I’ll spend an entire future column on the differences between them. Suffice to say that without notions of social class, class struggle or the working class becoming a “class for itself”—that is, without a class analysis—all that remains is leftwing populism. Working class organizers often practice a multi-class coalition politics to win power. That’s far different from leftwing populism that lacks class analysis and class politics. Leftwing populism is like a body without a spine, or a ship without a rudder—a decidedly less-than-useful politics often fraught not just with demagoguery but conspiracy thinking. Leftwing populism and revolutionary working class movements can both arise spontaneously from society’s base and overthrow society’s ruling elites through broad popular uprisings, much as did the Spanish 1936 anarchist revolution and the Philippine 1986 Peoples Power Revolution. Both can give rise to similar forms of self-organization (popular assemblies) and an extra-parliamentary opposition that quickly becomes parliamentary rule. But whereas revolutionary proletarian movements seek to overthrow capitalism and build a new society, leftwing populism is satisfied with merely overturning the current government and calling that a revolution. Leftwing populism is thus a revolution of half measures and incomplete reforms.
Judis argues that “[p]opulism is an American creation that spread later to Latin America and Europe.” But he spends too much time pointing to the American winner-take-all political system and various triggering economic downturns as causes for why American populism is rarely working class oriented. The reasons the United States never took to socialism have been frequently debated and sometimes contested. With the decline of the revolutionary workers movement internationally over the past five decades, however, leftwing populism has taken its place or been supplanted by a rightwing populism that flirts with fascism.
Both the populist anti-globalization and Occupy Wall Street movements were majority leftwing with small but troubling conspiracy-prone rightwing minorities. The former produced a genuinely revolutionary moment in the 1999 Seattle insurrection while the latter manufactured the ludicrous 2011 two-month slumber party in Zuccotti Square. Populism can also consciously mix leftwing and rightwing elements, as with Beppe Grillo’s Italian Five Star Movement which combined calls for direct democracy with expelling all illegal immigrants. But more often it’s simply impossible to determine where the balance of forces lie in any given populist uprising. The French yellow vests/gilets jaunes movement has been judged majority rightwing/minority leftwing whereas the Hong Kong protest movement is considered overwhelmingly liberal and pro-Western. Yet it’s not hard to find ardent Trotskyist socialists who defend the gilets jaunes and fervent Crimethinc anarchists who extoll successors to the Umbrella Revolution. Finally, it’s one thing to proclaim a given populist movement or uprising leftwing or rightwing from afar; entirely another thing to throw one’s lot as a leftwing populist (or a working class radical) in with an otherwise rightwing populist uprising. It’s probably little different from a working class recomposing itself to survive in an overwhelmingly decomposing global capitalism.
Marxists associated with the Krisis Group consider the workers movement so deeply embedded and compromised with capitalism as to be unsalvageable. They propose political struggle without classes, a populism with class analysis, a leftwing populism by default. That still leaves a leftwing populism subject to demagoguery, conspiracism, and half-assed revolutionism. In other words, a piss poor Leftist politics by any measure.
The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics by John B. Judis
Class Consciousness or Class Composition? by Salar Mohandesi
Marxism and the Critique of Value ed. by Larsen, Nilges, Robinson, and Brown