Populism, yesterday and today

Both Respect and Ralph Nader's election campaigns are examples of leftwing populism. What lessons can we learn from the history of populism in the United States?

The political struggles of the 20th century were relatively straightforward. Due to the success and development of the October 1917 revolution in Russia, the main protagonists were those who claimed to fight for the liberation of working people from exploitation and oppression, and those who claimed to fight for the maintenance and expansion of the capitalist status quo. The struggles of the 21st century, on the other hand, are increasingly looking like those of the 19th. As the 20th century movements of liberation retreated in the face of the collapse of the ex-USSR and 'people's democracies', forces long dormant began to fill the vacuum. Among these resurrected currents is populism. Of course, there are several varieties of populism that exist. The US Republican Party, for example, uses a kind of reactionary populism to rally poor and 'middle class' whites in the south and west against 'liberal elites' and for their corporatist agenda. But the populist trend we as communists and socialists are most concerned with is leftwing populism - progressive populism and social-populism. The independent political movement around Ralph Nader in the US, the Respect unity coalition in Britain, the Green parties that sprung up around the world in the last two decades of the 20th century, etc, represent this reborn leftwing populist movement. Over the last five or six years, leftwing populism has become one of the chief expressions of protest and rebellion against capitalism and globalisation, and for 'social justice'. At the end of the 19th century, socialists and communists struggled to fully understand the populist phenomenon, and looked for ways to intersect many of the diverse elements that are attracted to their banners. And, once again, we find many socialist and communist movements doing the same thing ... and making the same mistakes. In order to better understand how we, as communists and revolutionary socialists, can intersect with and attract the best elements from the populist movements of today, it is helpful to look back at the experiences of our predecessors and, once again, learn the lessons. Beginnings Populism emerged as a mass political movement in the last three decades of the 19th century. It was, at the time, mainly an American phenomenon, arising from the economic and political conditions of the day. The economic crisis of the 1870s had ruined millions of workers and small farmers. Hyperinflation of the US 'greenback' dollar - the first paper money issued by the government, mainly to help pay for the civil war - aggravated the crisis. Discussions between workers and farmers at local bars and saloons about the collapse of the greenback soon gave way to a national debate, involving all classes, over US currency policy and economic regulations in general. The Panic of 1873 led to the formation of the first populist movement in the US: the Greenback Party. Initially, the party languished in electoral obscurity. However, after the Great Uprising of 1877, which culminated in the short-lived St Louis Commune, the Greenback populists formed an alliance with the sections of the labour movement and launched the Green-back-Labour Party. Greenback-Labour was able to win over one million votes in the 1878 election, and was directly responsible for getting 21 independent candidates elected to the US House of Representatives. They were most successful in the midwest and the south, where they united with remnants of the Radical Republicans and black civil rights organisations to take control of the state legislatures of West Virginia and Arkansas. By 1880, however, the economy had improved, and Greenback-Labour lost much of its steam. In that year's election, they only won one-third of the votes they had two years before. As a result, many of the state parties turned to the electoral tactic of 'fusion' - ie, having candidates listed on two party ballot lines. This spelled the end of Greenback-Labour as a national force. Throughout most of the 1880s, the populists went through a tortuous process of attempted regroupment with radical labour organisations, trade unions and socialists, all of which failed. By the close of the decade, populism as a movement had all but disappeared, making way for the rebirth of the American communist movement. Socialists Contrary to popular belief, the communist movement in the US is roughly the same age as its European counterpart. There was a functioning group affiliated to the Marx-Engels Communist League working in New York as early as 1850. After the failure of the 1848 German Revolution, thousands of 'red 48ers' came to the US as political refugees. Among these émigrés were veteran communists like Joseph Weydermeyer. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, there were several small communist circles operating throughout the US, including in the union army during the civil war. After the war, many of these groups came together with other local currents of radical workers to form the National Labour Union, which had close relations with the International Working Men's Association - the First International. By the beginning of the 1870s, the NLU had begun to fracture along regional and political lines. In 1874, dissident members of the IWMA left the NLU and formed the Social Democratic Workingmen's Party. Three years later, in the wake of the Great Upheaval, they fused with the remnants of the International in the US to form the Workingmen's Party of the United States - later that year renamed the Socialist Labour Party of America (which exists to this day). The SLP had an uneasy relationship with the populist movement. The party itself was a fusion of 'Marxists' and Lassalleans; the former rejected electoral politics while the latter embraced it. They participated in the 1880 presidential campaign of the Greenback-Labour Party, but the modest showing caused them to withdraw shortly thereafter and remain basically aloof of the populist movement for the rest of the decade. In 1891, after a series of bitter factional battles, the SLP began to reorient itself. In that year, they ran an unknown Columbia Law School graduate for governor of New York, who gained a relatively impressive 13,000 votes: Daniel DeLeon. DeLeon, who quickly became the leading figure in the SLP, would be responsible for guiding the SLP in its dealings with the last great populist movement in the US of the 19th century. It is hard to overestimate the influence of DeLeon on both the socialist and populist movements of the time. Throughout the last decade of the 19th century, DeLeon was the most recognisable socialist thinker in the US and one of the movement's best speakers. It was not until Eugene V Debs declared his support for socialism that this began to change. Nevertheless, even as Debs's star began to rise, it was DeLeon who was seen as the voice of revolutionary socialism in North America. Bryan In 1890, the People's Party of Kansas won control of that state's legislature and sent its leader, William Peffer, to the US senate. Peffer's presence in the senate served as a rallying point for populists in the west and south, many of whom had experience with the Greenback-Labour movement of a generation before. Two years later, these disparate forces, along with the prairie-based Farmers Alliance and the Knights of Labour, formed the People's Party - commonly known as the Populist Party. The rise of this new populist movement was seen as a major threat by the Democratic Party leaders in the south, which used its power to keep the populists out of office through fraud and intimidation. The Democrats also used their alliance with remnants of terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan to stage violent assaults on the populists. Thus, between 1892 and 1896, the People's Party was unable to gain any ground in the electoral arena. By 1896, the party had split into two factions: the majority 'fusion Populists', who advocated merger with sections of the Democratic Party and attempted to use its size to influence national politics; and the minority 'mid-roaders', who supported the People's Party staying in the 'middle of the road', between the two main parties, the Republicans and Democrats. At the 1896 People's Party national convention, the 'fusion' forces, who had anticipated the nomination of William Jennings Bryan as the Democratic presidential nominee on the basis of a semi-populist platform, also nominated the charismatic Democratic congressman as their candidate for president. The Democratic-Populist fusion campaign threw supporters of both populism and liberalism into crisis. It also brought a lot of pressure down on the fledgling socialist movement from people who were, or were influenced by, petty proprietors and independent producers. They noted the populists' call for the nationalisation of the railroads and other major means of transportation and saw it as 'proof' of their embracing of socialism. Many of those who considered themselves socialists, but were influenced by the ideas and doctrines of the petty proprietors, joined in the Democratic-Populist campaign, including Debs, who was head of the American Railway Union at the time. They had illusions that the talk coming from Bryan and the populists (many of whom were once Greenback-Labour supporters or members of the Knights of Labour) would, with a little nudge here and there, coalesce into a new mass socialist movement. The SLP, under DeLeon's direction, sought to engage those workers who were 'duped' by the populists' appeal and win them to socialism. This work was done in two ways: first, through a patient explanation of the differences of meaning between socialist and populist demands, even when they sound similar; and, second, through consistent organising of working people in their communities and workplaces. The Bryan campaign was handily defeated by his Republican opponent, William McKinley. The defeat further demoralised and disoriented the 'mid-roaders' and strengthened the 'fusion' populists. Within a year, the People's Party folded into the Democrats, but not before the party itself split. Those who left the populist movement - among them Debs - soon reorganised themselves into the Social Democratic Party of America. In 1901, the SDP merged with a faction of the SLP to form the Socialist Party. Dynamics The end of the populist movement at the dawn of the 20th century opened the way for the socialist movement to grow and gain influence. However, the dynamics that led to the rise of populism in the 19th century did not disappear with the end of the Bryan campaign. On the contrary, those dynamics were refracted through the prism of class society, with elements from all classes, and political currents within classes, using forms of populism to advance their agendas. The 1912 presidential campaign of Theodore Roosevelt under the 'Bull Moose' party banner borrowed heavily from the populist appeals of both the Greenback-Labour movement and the Bryan campaign to advance his agenda of imperialist hegemony in the western hemisphere. His nephew, Franklin Roosevelt, drew heavily from populism to win support for his 'new deal' in the 1930s; his contemporary, Louisiana Senator Huey Long, also used populist appeals to win political office. More recently, populism has served both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as their 'third party' shadows, both left and right. Catchphrases like 'common sense', 'family values' and the like are lifted directly from the populist lexicon. George W Bush's persona as the folksy provincial challenging the 'elites' is the mirror image of past populists who ran as Democratic candidates, including Bryan, Lyndon Johnson and Howard Dean. These examples show the development of populism from an ideology to a specific political method. As elements of the ruling class saw and experienced the effectiveness of populism in moving people into action, some individual capitalists saw it as a more effective method of gaining support than the traditional means. Thus, populism was stripped of its political meaning and became a commodity for capitalist politicians to buy or sell. Among the petty bourgeois 'middle class', however, populism remained an effective political method and doctrine. Because populism often borrowed what it needed from various existing ideologies, including socialism, it was effective as a means of holding movements of the 'middle class' together. Populism, refracted through the lens of the 'middle class', meant all things to all people. In modern times, we have seen this from people like Ralph Nader, who emphasised different aspects of his populist programme to appeal to both reactionaries (like Pat Buchanan's Reform Party) and progressives (including self-described socialists, like the International Socialist Organisation and Socialist Alternative). Mistakes While it is true that the socialist movement did gain overall from the collapse of the populist movement in the 19th century, this was frequently a case of the gains coming in spite of the mistakes and misjudgements of that movement. Understanding these mistakes will help us to better understand the lessons we can learn from populism today. By far the greatest mistake made by the early American socialist movement was its division over electoralism. The 'pure' anti-electoralism of the 'Marxists' and the 'pure' electoralism of the Lassalleans not only hampered their own ability to act as a single organised force while intervening in the populist movement: it also made it almost impossible to be effective among those working people who were interested in mounting a challenge to the capitalist parties. In many respects, however, both sides operated according to the same method: both the 'Marxists' and Lassalleans failed to understand the effectiveness of elections as an educational tool. The 'Marxists', interested in political education and economic organisation, could not recognise the educational opportunities that arise from running for political office. Likewise, the Lassalleans, interested in immediate issues and agitational work, could not see the value of a combined approach. Another key mistake made by the socialist movement of the day was its approach to those workers and small farmers who allied themselves with the populists. The capitalist media of the time considered those who backed the populists to be 'idiots', 'bumpkins' and 'hayseeds'; the socialists saw rank-and-file populists as 'dupes' who were 'backward' and 'ignorant'. To the average working person or small farmer, these two characterisations sounded the same. Related to the above, the socialists also failed to recognise that many supporters of populism had all but formally accepted socialism as their own programme. They saw the calls for nationalising the means of transportation, the stabilisation of the money supply and the end of hyperinflation, and the democratic reform of the electoral system as representing themselves and their historic interests - even if they were very crude reflections of socialist politics. Here, the question of education and agitation again raises its head. Finally, when the socialists initially decided to involve themselves with the populist movement, they stopped any kind of organising, educational and agitational work among working people. They put all their eggs in one basket when they made this turn. The result was that, when the final collapse of the populist movement happened, not enough work had been done in the working class to act as a centre of gravity and draw those former worker-populists closer to the socialists (not even the work DeLeon's SLP carried out was enough). Lessons What can we learn from these experiences of the past? First and foremost, the most valuable lesson stemming from the interactions between the populist and socialist movements is the understanding that populism has different meanings to different classes, and has different expressions among those social groups. As much as it is important to differentiate between various socialist and communist organisations based on class, so it is also imperative to analyse populist movements from a class-based perspective. A second important lesson is an understanding of the dynamic that develops, as populism gains strength as an independent movement. There inevitably comes a point when individual politicians of the capitalist class 'defect' to the populists. Such politicians, like Bryan, have played the role historically of transmission belt and causeway back into the bourgeois order. These politicians ride the wave of political independence until it can serve them no more, and then, when the tide ebbs, they become the rallying point for 'fusion' and re-entry into the bourgeois parties. The third lesson we can learn from these experiences is the importance of solid political principles and tactics that are both flexible and concrete - that is, tactics that are rooted in the real situation and are also able to develop with the material conditions. This includes not only tactics in relation to the populist movement in general, but also tactics in relation to the work they undertake, such as running in elections, public campaigns, etc. A fourth lesson, flowing directly from the third, is the vital importance of maintaining an independent political presence at all times, in all situations, and not conceding that presence for the sake of a sham 'unity'. Among many populists, especially those who are working people, democratism is a strong impulse. The fifth, and final, lesson we can take from the experiences of the socialist and populist movements of the past is the importance of maintaining consistent work in workplaces and communities of working people. Even the most hardened working class populist will be influenced by the views and actions of their neighbours and co-workers. Having a presence and record of consistent work can often be crucial in a period when populist movements descend into crisis, and working people are beginning to look at alternatives. If done correctly, it builds trust between working people and the movement that claims to stand in their interests. That trust, in times of crisis and transformation, can be what makes or breaks the development of a mass movement l DeLeon's populism "Now, up step the populists - the dupers, not the duped among them - with a plan to nationalise the railroads. The standpoint from which they proceed is that of middle class interests, as against the interests of the upper capitalists or monopolists. The railroad monopolists are now fleecing the middle class; these want to turn the tables upon their exploiters; they want to abolish them, wipe them out, and appropriate unto themselves the fleecings of the working class which the railroad monopolists now monopolise. With this reactionary class interest in mind, the duper-populist steps forward and holds this plausible language: "'We, too, want the nationalisation of the roads; we are going your way; join us!' "The reform straws are regularly taken in by this seeming truth; they are carried off their feet; and they are drawn heels over head into the vortex of capitalist conflicts. Not so the revolutionist. His answer follows sharp and clear: "'Excuse me! Guess you do want to nationalise the railroads, but only as a reform; we want nationalisation as a revolution. You do not propose, while we are fixedly determined, to relieve the railroad workers of the yoke of wage-slavery under which they now grunt and sweat. By your scheme of nationalisation, you do not propose - on the contrary, you oppose - all relief to the workers, and you have set dogs at the heels of our propagandists in Chautauqua County, NY, whenever it was proposed to reduce the hours of work of the employees'"l Reform or revolution? 1894