Rethinking Populism: Opinion

To achieve real political change, populism is necessary

But the Left needs to know how to mobilise the people against power blocs

Cihan Tugal
15 October 2021, 12.01am
People waving Syriza flags in the last public speech of Alexis Tsipras before the elections on 18 September 2015 in Athens, Greece
Bill Anastasiou / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved
Rethinking Populism partner banner: Lund, Helsinki and Istanbul Bilgi universities

Political change is inconceivable without populism. Populism is not simply a way of talking about politics that pits the people against the elite. It is a political logic that organises, mobilises and empowers the people. Without populism, politics can legislate and transform, but the change it brings about is likely to be absorbed into the existing system, as we have learned from the writings of the late Argentinian political theorist, Ernesto Laclau, and his collaborator, Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe.

This kind of populism needs a progressive-revolutionary strategy if it is to be effective. Podemos and Syriza, radical left-wing parties in Spain and Greece respectively, are stark examples of what happens when populism is missing this crucial component.

To be transformative, politics still requires what self-acclaimed populists seek to avoid: a comprehensive, intellectual understanding of the world capitalist system; a revolutionary subject which cannot be as loose as “the people” but rather comprise organised social groups that struggle for a radical and sustainable transformation of society; and cadres – seasoned activists that can build bridges between the subject and the people.

The populist Left that governed for years in several Latin American countries failed to transform social structures. In Greece, the populist Left failed to properly govern and ultimately gave up on its radical agenda. Meanwhile, in most of Europe and North America, the populist Left is nowhere close to government.

This failure is partly caused by a lack of cadres who can give popular movements durability and direction. It is also caused by a lack of a revolutionary subject that can constitute a serious threat to established and resilient institutions and structures. This is the case not only in Europe, but also elsewhere in the world.

The NGO-ised social activist and the communist militant

A durable social transformation is unlikely in the absence of cadres and militants who have a lifelong dedication to egalitarian and libertarian principles. At the turn of this century, this view of left-wing politics, typically associated with Leninism, was abandoned, along with the dream of socialism.

Indeed, the lack of cadres doesn’t matter as long as the Left doesn’t aspire to build an alternative to capitalism. But there is a problem when left-wing movements and intellectuals claim to both be anti-capitalist and adverse to building a movement organisation supported by cadres. Although not alone in this regard, Laclau’s writings constitute a strong example of this.

That militant communist is long gone, replaced with today's social movement activist

In his early writings, Laclau drew on a dialogue from Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Dirty Hands’ between Hugo, the “party intellectual” of aristocratic origin and Hoederer, a communist activist, albeit “impure” and empathetic. Laclau and Sartre offer a caricature of the stereotypical communist: Poisoned by a “pure” understanding of Marxist-Leninist ideology that has nothing to do with current national realities and their “impurities.” Unable to understand concrete struggles. Devoid of authentic emotions, full of doctrinal theories, haughty, unable to maintain a conversation with ordinary workers, ready to sacrifice 100,000 people for principles “with the stroke of a pen”.

But this is no mere scholarly issue, since many movements throughout the world that consciously or unconsciously resonate with Laclau’s populism have a similar assessment of cadres and militants.

That militant communist is long gone, replaced with today's social movement activist – generally an expert, someone who knows how to talk to a certain constituency, yet is uninterested in appealing to the masses. Today’s activist is issue-focused, frequently ‘shaped’ through NGO activism, and in some ways, just as dry and professional as Laclau’s communist militant. But are there alternatives to the NGO-ised social activist and the communist militant?

It’s worth taking into account the cultural universe and social-historical context of Laclau’s suspiciousness of communist militants. Laclau’s engagement in a revolutionary Peronist party and his broader experience of Peronism in Argentina influenced his theory of populism. The movement arose from the personal popularity of Colonel Juan Perón, who would eventually be elected president with the support of the workers, labour unions and even Argentina’s industrialists.

Intense emotionalism

Even though there was something specifically Argentinian about the Peronist movement, it displayed parallels with movements throughout the world in the 1960s and 1970s. The national-democratic revolutionary tradition in Turkey and its relatively more socialist Turkish and Kurdish offshoots are some examples. It also resonated with varieties of anti-imperialist socialism throughout Latin America and southeast Asia. Parallels are also evident in some aspects of Black nationalism in the US. While all of these movements are different, they share a key characteristic: an intense emotionalism marks out both the leaders and the led. That’s very different from yesterday’s militant communists and today’s NGO-ised social activists.

In contrast to communists, these populist movements cleaved to an eclectic mix of ideas. Sometimes they drew on Marxist texts to criticise official communists. Sometimes, they were much more radical than the communists; in many cases aggressively sectarian; yet with the ambition of mobilising broader masses than the communists would.

Mostly, they were thwarted in the aim of mass mobilisation because of state repression or sectarianism, or both. Wherever they did connect with the masses, the populist revolutionary spark was a flash in the pan. Impressive, but short.

Turkey’s Revolutionary Path is an excellent example. Founded in the late 1970s, a political movement loosely based on Marxist-Leninist ideology sought to develop a native Turkish model of its own. The Revolutionary Path’s loose organisational structure and ideological fuzziness helped it to quickly grow into a mass movement and appeal beyond the proletariat of the time, especially as it struggled against decentralised exploitation and paramilitary violence. However, the reasons for its success were ironically to prove its biggest problems.

Such organisations, truly, if only occasionally, captured the heart of broad masses. This can’t be ignored. Nor can their inability to sustain mass mobilisation, and turn it into solid, durable organisation, in the absence of trained and committed cadres, the kind of militant communist that Laclau deplored.

Building blocs

But there is yet another alternative, mostly buried in history. In his early writings, Laclau highlighted Maoism, alongside Yugoslav and Italian communisms, as the highest kind of populism. They were both Marxist and populist. But Laclau never theorised Maoism, or any other kind of revolutionary Marxist populism thoroughly and we cannot know what a full theorisation by him might have looked like. His lines about Mao are largely forgotten. This is the biggest gap in political theory today. And if the erosion of the Left is to be reversed, we need to rethink the compatibility between revolutionary Marxism and populism.

In our 2015 ‘Building Blocs: How Parties Organize Society’, my co-authors and I addressed this issue. We showed how the work of Laclau and Mouffe is the starting point to understand transformative politics both on the Left and on the Right but also how this work suffered from a lack of attention to and theorisation of the place of cadres and of organisations.

Populism today lacks a narrative that can build bridges between the people and the aim of sustainable social transformation

As politicians and activists of the populist Left modelled themselves on Laclau and Mouffe’s work, they tended to eschew the need to breed, create, nurture, deepen, and spread organisations, cadres, and institutions. What used to be the turf of socialist and official communist parties during the Cold War is now the turf of professionalised social movements especially with socialists in Europe no longer on the Left and with communists marginalised.

Missing narrative

Populism today lacks a narrative that can build bridges between the people and the aim of sustainable social transformation. Populist leaders need to galvanise the people. But only organised ‘subaltern’ actors – marginalised social groups critical of today’s capitalist system – can form the basis of an alternative basis of power.

The entrenched divides within the Left can no longer be justified. Professionalism, organisational tact, flexibility and agility need to be combined with emotions and mass appeal. Defying established binary divides, cosmopolitanism and pragmatism need to go hand in hand with a romanticisation of the homeland and an integration of folk culture into transformative politics.

A populism fused with cosmopolitanism, would be “at home all over the world,” but would not be “free from … local, provincial, or national ideas … and attachments,” inevitably transforming the dictionary meaning of this term for the purposes of revolutionary politics.

We now need to move beyond Laclau’s sterile attack against the communist militant. Non-revolutionary populisms of the Left (such as those of Podemos and Syriza) and revolutionary populism (such as that of the Revolutionary Path) had a common pitfall: the underrating of a theoretical analysis of the world capitalist system and a long-term strategy adequate to that analysis.

The ridiculousness of the communist militants (as caricatured by Laclau), who spit out memorised sentences about Marxism-Leninism with no appreciation of the social formation they are seeking to change, only hides the necessity to nurture cadres equipped with a basic understanding of the complex mechanisms of capitalism and imperialist domination. This can only be learned and appreciated within concrete struggles, i.e. neither through party imposed indoctrination nor seminars in the academia, even if some flexible form of both could aid the process.

For most of the 20th century, the training of cadres had come to mean the inculcation of a Marxist-Leninist ideology devoid of ‘impurities’ – according to Laclau, the communist militant took only class contradictions seriously, and either disregarded or simply manipulated other kinds of contradictions.

If the intellectualism that glorifies analytical understanding at the expense of strategy, organisation, coalition-building, tactics, and emotions is fatally empty, emotional appeals and mobilisations of the people without a structural analysis of world capitalism and imperialism is hopelessly blind.

Without a comprehensive conception of global capitalism, we cannot gauge where Syriza and Podemos fell short as hegemonic alternatives. Their unwillingness to devise concrete programs, premised on concrete analyses of the strategies, organisations, and institutions of their national and global enemies was as important as these parties’ inattention to the exact dynamics of global capitalism.

This is not to say Syriza and Podemos made no headway in any of these fields. Many elements of Syriza indeed came from communist traditions, including erstwhile cadres in its ranks. Syriza certainly inherited some of their strategic legacies and experiences. Yet, it should be discussed whether actually existing left-populism derailed them from the central task of updating and developing a Leninism for the 21st century.

The main theoretical references of both Syriza and Podemos offered them no comprehensive, consistent framework to turn their advances (e.g. in elections) into organisational success. These problems were even more troubling in the Spanish case.

The missing subject

The other missing piece in both revolutionary and non-revolutionary populism is the subject. The people cannot be the subject guiding a sustainable social transformation, and cannot prevent capitalism from functioning or build an economic system that goes beyond capitalism without that crucial stratum of organised subaltern actors that can form the basis of an alternative basis of power, while, at the same time, constitute a check against the power-usurping tendencies of populist leaders. These actors – the subject – can ensure that a resilient popular movement stays on the course of societal transformation.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the proletariat’s organisational innovations laid the groundwork for an alternative power structure. Before 1917, radical bottom-up power formations (such as the Paris Commune) had no populist dimension.

The Soviets set up democratic councils of workers, peasants and soldiers as early as 1905 but attained hegemonic capacity only in 1917. Bolshevik leaders such as Grigory Zinoviev used a populist discourse to spread their ideas, but their ability to attain hegemonic capacity and bring about change was due mainly to structural factors. Most importantly, unlike the Commune, they rose on the shoulders of peasants, workers, but also soldiers (mostly peasants who interacted daily with Marxist workers throughout the First World War and during the wartime formation of the soviets).

In contrast, autonomous formations such as the Soviet-spearheaded democratic councils were not central to Left governments in Latin America. Organisations of workers and peasants were subordinated to the populist logic imposed by leaders, whereas the reverse should have been the case – with people as the driving force giving direction to their leadership.

Autonomist critique

My objection by no means supports the puritan autonomist critique of these governments that developed in Latin America. Autonomists correctly pointed out that the self-organisation of subordinate groups is the basis of social change; and also that populist politics risked both sinking too deep into electoral calculations and concessions, and the formation of leader cults.

Ecological populism has to be cosmopolitan, as well as national. But for a proper ecological strategy, we need a subject and cadres able to provide vision and direction

Nevertheless, as Laclau has pointed out, we have to live with impurities. What really matters is not whether a populist movement avoids the sin of electoral manoeuvring, making concessions to enemies and suchlike, but whether such sins undermine self-organisation and the objectives of the movement in the long run.

Autonomism, in the sense of self-organisation from below, is not a natural enemy of populism. In fact, it can serve as the structure for a bottom-up organisation. Of course, this is only possible if the populist argument is fused with a critique of capitalism.

In their bid to abandon class reductionism, Laclau and Mouffe (mostly) abandoned class. But Laclau’s earlier work called for a full integration of class struggle and populism. We do not yet know if the organised subaltern groups of the 21st century will rise as the proletariat.

In this respect Standing’s and others’ attempts to rethink the class basis of the future are more than welcome. What we do know is that we need a post-capitalist counterpart to the proletariat that created organisational forms like the commune and the soviet.

There is no socialism without populism and autonomism, and the highest forms of populism and autonomism can only realise themselves if they are integrated by revolutionary cadres and militants. This approach to populism also requires synthesising Marxism and anarchism/autonomism with populism – a synthesis the precursors of which can be glimpsed from 20th century political practice such as pre-1930s Bolshevism, the Cultural Revolution, and aspects of the global 1968 upheaval.

A revolutionary ecological populism for a post-capitalist world

For all of the reasons above, Bolshevism and Chinese revolutionary practice need to be our guides into the universe of populism.

Domination and the struggle against it have disappeared from most theories of populism developed by scholars of performance, style, discourse, and rhetoric who are usually cited along with Laclau. Yet, Laclau called for an all-out war against different and multiple types of domination. When seen in this way, populism becomes more than a performance, style, or the rhetoric to which the Left resorts at election times, and becomes a fundamental part of a society’s struggle to go beyond capitalism.

The Left needs to mobilise the people against existing power blocs, which reap the benefits of financial and real-estate speculation and pillage nature worldwide. The populists of the 21st century have to love the land of their neighbouring countries just as much as they do their own. They must remember that when others’ seas are polluted, their own waters will be too. All the waters of the Earth are interconnected, as are its peoples.

Ecological populism has to be cosmopolitan, as well as national. But for a proper ecological strategy, we need a subject and cadres able to provide vision and direction. However, a love of the land, and a populist mobilization against its pillagers, can’t hurt.

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