National Sections of the L5I:

Populism against the people

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In certain semi-colonial countries and regions wracked by neo-liberalism and globalisation, populism has re-emerged as a mass force and one which has found an echo in the anti-capitalist movement in the west, especially after the emergence of the Zapatistas in Mexico in the mid-1990s.

Populism has a long history. Over the last hundred years, mass populist parties emerged in the United States, Russia and Latin America. Intellectuals, responding to the suffering of the peasantry, the small farmers and the rural poor, developed a radical, sometimes even a revolutionary, movement against the rich and powerful.

In Latin America, they championed the indigenous peoples against the white elites. Apart from the farmers, the populists sought a social base amongst the working class, the lower middle class and a home market-oriented, “patriotic”’, section of the capitalists. These classes were referred to together as “the people”.

The declared enemies of the populists were the big monopoly corporations, the financiers and bankers, the big capitalist ranchers and agribusinesses. In Latin America, they centred their attack on “the oligarchy” of latifundists (big ranchers), bankers and sections of merchants and capitalists who acted as agents of imperialism. Latin American populism developed a strategy of industrial development by import substitution, the promotion of state services and industries, measures in many ways similar to those initiated by the social democracy in Europe. It also tended to develop a cult of charismatic leaders, known as caudillismo, around figures like Lazaro Cardenas (Mexico) and Juan Peron (Argentina).

During the inter-war and post-war years, populist parties like APRA in Peru, the PRI in Mexico, the Justicialists in Argentina and the MNR in Bolivia represented the radical “anti-imperialist” force in their countries. They succeeded in tying the working class movement to the populist coalition, at first by radicalism and real social reforms, later by integration of the trade union bureaucracy and widespread clientelism (political favours).

In the years of the long boom, most of the populist parties became regular bourgeois parties – albeit with a nationalist rhetoric and a commitment to “development”. But in the 1980s and 1990s, one by one, they succumbed to neo-liberalism and abandoned their development programmes, just as the social democrats were doing in Europe.

But, from 1994, a new wave of populism began to emerge. It was boosted by the emergence of the Zapatistas in the Mexican state of Chiapas, amongst the landless poor fighting multinational agribusinesses and ranchers. This was not a traditional guerrilla force and it denied seeking to “take power”. Instead, it pursued a doomed strategy of stimulating social movements to surround, overwhelm and replace the state. In Venezuela, a more typical caudillo, Hugo Chavéz, came to power with the support of the urban poor and sections of the armed forces.

The problem with populism is that it weakens the class independence of the working class, makes it dependent on “saviours from above”, and tries to convince it that patriotic sections of the capitalist class are reliable allies. Inevitably it resigns itself to national capitalist development.

In Eastern Europe too, after the downfall of Stalinism, a whole a range of populist parties emerged.There is a danger of the growth of populism in ex-USSR too as a result of the decline of industrial proletariat, the growth of a landowning peasantry and the large numbers of permanently unemployed.

Today, many activists in the anti-capitalist movement, under the influence of populist ideas, believe that if the working class claims a leading role in the struggle, it will somehow “divide the people”. They complain that working class leadership will in some way “exclude” the other social forces that must be won to struggle against capitalism. But the opposite is the case.

Wherever the working class comes to the head of the struggle, the masses, far from being divided, are united more powerfully than ever before. By forging an alliance with the working class, the peasantry and urban poor are not weaker, but stronger – for at last they have allies with the social power, discipline and collective strength to halt capitalism in its tracks and to create a co-operative social order.

Therefore populism does not result in some idealised “united people”, but allows the liberal intelligentsia and “radical” capitalist politicians to lead the movement back towards support for capitalism. Populism today, as in the past, is ultimately directed against the people.