To achieve real political change, populism is necessary

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As politicians and activists of the populist left modeled themselves on the work of Laclau and Mouffe, they tended to avoid the need to multiply, create, nurture, deepen and disseminate organizations, frameworks and institutions. What was the terrain of the official socialist and communist parties during the Cold War is now the terrain of professionalized social movements, especially with socialists in Europe who are no longer on the left and with marginalized communists.

Missing story

Populism today lacks a narrative capable of building bridges between the people and the goal of lasting social transformation. Populist leaders must galvanize the people. But only organized “subordinate” actors – marginalized social groups critical of today’s capitalist system – can form the basis of an alternative power base.

The divisions entrenched within the left can no longer be justified. Professionalism, organizational tact, flexibility and agility must be combined with emotions and mass appeal. Defying established binary divisions, cosmopolitanism and pragmatism must go hand in hand with a romanticization of the homeland and an integration of popular culture in transformative politics.

Populism merged with cosmopolitanism, would be “at home everywhere”, but would not be “free from … local, provincial or national ideas … and attachments”, inevitably transforming the dictionary meaning of this term for purposes. revolutionary. Politics.

We must now overcome Laclau’s sterile attack on the communist militant. Left-wing non-revolutionary populisms (like those of Podemos and Syriza) and revolutionary populisms (like that of the Revolutionary Way) had a common pitfall: the underestimation of a theoretical analysis of the world capitalist system and of a strategy to long term. adequate for this analysis.

The ridicule of communist militants (caricatured by Laclau), who spit out memorized phrases about Marxism-Leninism without any appreciation for the social formation they seek to change, only conceals the need to train cadres with an understanding. base of the complex. mechanisms of capitalism and imperialist domination. This can only be learned and appreciated in the context of concrete struggles, that is, neither through party-imposed indoctrination nor through seminars in academia, although a flexible form of the two could facilitate the process.

For most of the twentieth century, cadre training had come to mean inculcating a Marxist-Leninist ideology devoid of “impurities” – according to Laclau, the Communist militant only took class contradictions seriously, and just ignored or manipulated other guys. of contradictions.

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

Without a holistic conception of global capitalism, we cannot assess where Syriza and Podemos have failed as hegemonic alternatives. Their reluctance to design concrete programs, based on concrete analyzes of the strategies, organizations and institutions of their national and global enemies, was as important as the inattention of these parties to the exact dynamics of world capitalism.

This does not mean that Syriza and Podemos have not made progress in any of these areas. Many elements of Syriza are indeed drawn from communist traditions, including former cadres in its ranks. Syriza has certainly inherited some of their strategic legacies and experiences. Yet one should ask whether the truly existing left-wing populism has diverted them from the central task of updating and developing Leninism for the 21st century.

The main theoretical references of Syriza and Podemos did not offer them a complete and coherent framework to transform their advances (for example during the elections) into organizational successes. These issues were of even greater concern in the Spanish case.

The missing subject

The other missing piece in revolutionary and non-revolutionary populism is the subject. The people cannot be the guiding subject for a lasting social transformation, and cannot prevent capitalism from functioning or from building an economic system that goes beyond capitalism without this crucial layer of subordinate organized actors who can form the basis of ‘an alternative power base, while at the same time acting as a brake against the power-usurping tendencies of populist leaders. These actors – the subject – can keep a resilient grassroots movement on the path to societal transformation.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the organizational innovations of the proletariat laid the foundations for an alternative power structure. Before 1917, radical ascendant power formations (such as the Paris Commune) had no populist dimension.

The Soviets established democratic councils of workers, peasants and soldiers as early as 1905 but did not achieve hegemonic capacity until 1917. Bolshevik leaders such as Grigory Zinoviev used populist speech to disseminate their ideas, but their ability to achieve hegemonic capacity and bring about change was mainly due to structural factors. Above all, unlike the Commune, they rose on the shoulders of peasants, workers, but also soldiers (mainly peasants who interacted daily with Marxist workers throughout the First World War and during the formation of the Soviets in wartime).

In contrast, autonomous formations such as democratic councils led by the Soviets were not at the heart of leftist governments in Latin America. The workers ‘and peasants’ organizations were subordinate to the populist logic imposed by the rulers, when the reverse should have been the case – with the people as the driving force giving direction to their leadership.

Autonomist criticism

My objection in no way supports the Puritan autonomist critique of those governments that have developed in Latin America. Autonomists have rightly pointed out that the self-organization of subordinate groups is the basis of social change; and also that populist politics risked both going too deeply into electoral calculations and concessions, and the formation of cults of leaders.


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