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History & Theory

Populism: An Adjective or a Noun?

SS Editorial

Working Class Couple

Is Populism a descriptor for someone else’s class politics, an adjective, or is it a noun, a political alternative in and for itself?

Certainly the adjective populist is used frequently to describe any political leader, movement or party with an ability to mobilize large numbers of people based on a claim that their political leadership embodies a popular democratic will to better manage existing social relations.

However, what is more important to examine are Populist movements that claim to challenge the economic-political system in some transformative way.

In modern Canadian politics, the noun Populism, describes three large, mass representative political challenges to mainstream bourgeois politics: the Farm Progressives of World War One, Social Credit, as an Albertan response to the Great Depression and as a Quebecois rural-small town response to post-1945 modernity, and the Reform Party of the 1980s and 1990s.

In the first two cases, the Farm Progressives and Social Credit, while containing deflective leadership currents, which ultimately demobilized or reoriented these protest movements as conventional parties, each functioned, in their minds, as a genuine anti-system movement in moments of system crisis – of world war, economic collapse or socio-cultural identity.

The problem with these authentic populist movements is that these alternative transformative movements never left the terrain of bourgeois democracy. In other words, despite their fierce critiques of Canada’s economic and political structures, and mass appeal (no third party has yet rivaled the Farm Progressive national electoral achievement in 1921), Populists believed radical reform (based on common small-propertied rural ideas at that time) would transform capitalist inequities.

In this sense, authentic Populism has functioned as a form of liberal utopianism.

In the last case, the Reform Party began as a deflective exercise, i.e., as a pseudo-populist movement. How was it possible, a wealthy and elite Western Canadian Reform leadership asked, to harness 1980s middle and working class insecurities, to move mainstream conservatism to neo-liberalism? Perhaps it was possible by talking about bourgeois conceptions of direct democracy such as flat taxes, an elected Senate, and equal citizenship rights regardless of national minorities like aboriginal and Quebecois people?

This proved to be a relatively popular narrative in an era of growing economic insecurity. But it has taken repeated elections, organizational transformations as the Alliance and now the Conservative Party (no longer the Progressive Conservatives), and leadership changes (from Alberta’s Social Credit based Preston Manning, to Stockwell Day, to Stephen Harper), to realize this goal.

The result has been the election of two minority Conservative governments since 2006 that, in administrative practice and ideological rhetoric (if not yet in substantive legislation), echo the harsh self-reliant politics of the1930s.

Given this proven historical practice, of mass mobilizations for transformative change, and deflective susceptibility to ruling class agendas, it is important for Canadian socialists to analyze this alternative tradition of radicalization in both its authentic and inauthentic forms. And, having identified which form of populism is expressed, decide on the appropriate tactical responses, whether to relate, or to expose and oppose, to advance the class struggle for genuine social liberation.

It is also important not to confine our analysis to past forms. While the Farm Progressives, and even Social Credit, drew on working class voters and co-operation with labour groups as allies, these were rural small propertied movements. Examples of modern populism like Peronism in Argentina, or the Green Party in Germany, show a new class alternative - the potential to build modern populist movements directly upon the urban middle and working classes.

For example, while the New Democratic Party, as a social democratic labour based party is English Canada’s third party, the NDP has to be concerned that the Green Party, which has polled over 10% of voter preferences, could be an authentic populist spoiler in a system crisis. And Marxist currents can be confronted with an ideological struggle over utopian hopes in liberal bourgeois democracy.

With Populism as a movement in and for itself (a noun), therefore, we offer the following essays and reviews as reflections on Populism as an alternative radical tradition.