These days, in a western and specifically British context, populism is almost synonymous with crypto or proto-fascism. Without digging deep into history, or through the tangled mess of populist analysis, you might think that it is entirely unique to our times and something we must unquestionably rise against.
No doubt, many populist currents of our times have a far-right flavour and must be resisted. In Europe, where many of us have first-hand experiences of fascism and its horrors, the focus is often on right-wing populists because of the potentially grave danger they represent, and they are rightfully framed as sinister.
However, in part because of this, “populism” or “populist” is also used as an offhand slur, to cast doubt on the legitimacy and political decency of any movement that is coming to the fore in these turbulent times. It seems that anybody who appeals for mass support and dares to suggest that society is rigged in the favour of the capitalist minority can now be labelled as a populist.
The Guardian, in their recent series on populism, have reignited the debate, using the “classic” definition of populism. There are problems with this definition, too numerous and boring for the focus of this editorial, but one thing that must be understood is that codified within it is the liberal perspective and position.
For The Guardian and political scientist Cas Mudde, populism and populists represent the “other”. In this case, “other” is any movement that does not conform to typical liberal representative democracy and that perspective, which they see as legitimate and proper.
The liberal view of history is that it is defined by great men reacting to events beyond the control of mere man. This leads liberals to understand populism as overwhelmingly right-wing and the masses as latently racist, simply awaiting a strong idol to rouse the rabble for support before ejecting them into power.
From our perspective, which is rooted in class-based or materialist schools of thought, this is obviously problematic. Not only does it imply that the people, infected by the virus of populism, have no thought of their own but to blindly march demagogues into office, but that appealing to popular support will automatically lead to repressive, racist, crypto-fascism.
Nevertheless, the definition is still useful for describing social movements and political tendencies that are rising against the neo-liberal consensus. Though, we take a different approach to understanding it.
For journalistic and even academic works that maintain they will explore the factors that brought the populists to power, what is often missing is a genuine historical analysis of populism and the continuities of events and circumstance that influence and compliment its revival, growth or development.
In our series, we take a look through history and disprove the idea that populism is uniquely of our times and right-wing. One of our editors puts populism in its historical place and explores it as an indicator of a new phase in class struggle. Through this, they offer a broader critique of the definition of populism and a fresh perspective on the bulk of current populist analysis.
Any analysis of populism will fall short if the analyst is not prepared to fairly and honestly critique the underlying economic and political factors that have created the social conditions where populism can develop.
It is a strange and almost amusing thing to scroll through a comment piece on the growth of Hungarian or Polish nationalism, but find little mention of authoritarian communism, no thoughts on the political and economic carving up of these nations in the 90s, the massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, The Great Recession, declining living standards or EU and American involvement in this.
Any detailed and proper analysis would highlight the above and the relationships between them all, and for some publications there might be uncomfortable concessions and truths to confront. New Syndicalist is unapologetically anti-capitalist, so we don’t avoid these questions and focus solely on the role of characters or individuals.
We have no interest in simply focussing on the “goodies” or “baddies” of populism, nor in re-defining the “other”, but as anti-fascists and organisers, we recognise the threat of right-wing populists, and one contributor to this series offers practical solutions to resist them.
Resistance is a feature of our times and the yellow vest movement represents this in its most bold and chaotic form. The movement is seemingly broad, shifting and has numerous faces and identities that are contradictory. Through French syndicalists who are on the frontline, going toe-to-toe with the French state, and in our podcast with an expert on the far right and social movements, we take a detailed look at this truly populist movement and the various features of its character.
In Britain, the Labour Party has become the focal point for a left-wing populist resurgence in the election of the democratic socialist Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Since, it seems that the party has subsumed and digested the raw energy that put him on the front bench. A contributor to this series reflects on whether this has translated into trade union power.
Power – the battle for it, wielding it, how it is measured abstractly, and what it represents in populism is a focus for an IWW artist who experiments with collages to provide us with both stark and promising visions of the present and future.
New Syndicalist’s series on populism is necessarily broad, but it is not unfocussed. We aim to offer insight and analysis that goes beyond understanding populism according to the narrow parameters that have come to define it recently. In doing so, we have sometimes deviated from our usual aim of offering practical advice to trade union organisers, but New Syndicalist is not an organisation with a single agenda. We aim to radically transform society along socialist lines and if we are to do so, we must do everything to understand it and affect change.