Can populism ever be principled?

George Kerevan traces the roots of populism to discern its progressive potential

How do we build a realistic alternative to BoJo, Farage, Trump et al.? Let’s start by demystifying the term ‘populism’. It was first coined in the early 1890s in reference to the US Populist Party, formed to defend poor farmers against big business and the Republican and Democrat duopoly. At this point, farming families composed a third of the US population. Prompted by the 1893 economic crash, the separate political mobilisation of this group took a radical turn with demands for public control over the railways and banks. The Populists captured governorships in nine states. But its underlying political weakness was exposed in the 1896 presidential election, when it gave away its independence by endorsing William Jennings Bryan, a left-wing Democrat and borderline demagogue. America’s poor farmers (like peasant movements everywhere) were too ideologically fragmented and lacking in economic leverage to challenge the capitalist system by themselves. They needed allies. But instead of cementing a strategic, anti-system pact with the urban working class, the Populists opted to ally with the existing Democratic political machine – behind which hid the racist, Southern landed oligarchy.

This catastrophic mistake was facilitated by the Populist’ inadequate programme. This was cast in crude terms of ‘us against the elite’, with no clear plan to dismantle the rule of finance capital and replace it with something else. At its most ideological, US Populists espoused a classless Jeffersonian utopia that was already redundant in an era where US imperialism was stealing Cuba and the Philippines from Spain. The Achilles Heel of ‘progressive’ populism is its propensity to fudge class divisions, in a vain hope of uniting ‘all the people’ against a vaguely defined ‘elite’.

During the twentieth century, progressive populism came to describe any radical, inter-class alliance consisting of (mainly) peasants, urban liberal intellectuals and workers, the latter usually in the minority. This model of populism was dominant in dependent capitalist countries, particularly in Latin America. Save Cuba, such revolutionary populist struggles proved abortive because they were ideologically confused and, therefore, open to opportunism.

This is not to decry the strategic need for class alliances between workers, farmers and intermediate social layers (e.g. students, technicians, pensioners) for such an alliance is central, not just to defeating right-wing, populist reaction, but to winning a parliamentary majority and installing an anti-system government in the first place. But the lesson of original, progressive populism is you cannot defeat the right with some vague project based on the lowest common denominator of demands. As seen in every multi-class rising – from 1848 against Absolutism to the 1930s’ Popular Fronts against fascism – you cannot stop half-way with a ‘reformed’ capitalism without strangling the progressive movement itself.

In recent decades, progressive populism has developed new forms, by seeking to identify a stronger ideological bond to hold the multi-class social ensemble together. Chávez’s Bolivarism reinvented populism by branding it with a new, proto-nationalist identity – reinforced by mobilising indigenous peasant people on an ethnic as well as class basis. In this new ideological prism, indigenous peasants and urban poor were united as the dispossessed of a mythical Bolivarian state.

In similar vein, contemporary Scotland and Catalonia have seen the rise of a progressive nationalism that blends a (mild) social democracy with a re-invented national identity based on opposition to metropolitan-imposed austerity. While the Scottish and Catalan movements are tagged as ‘civic’ nationalisms, it is just as plausible to categorise them as a variant of multi-class, progressive populism. In Scotland, the preponderant social weight of the urban working class in this popular alliance has driven the SNP leftwards from its petty bourgeois roots.

Such modern progressive populisms have proved more capable of sustaining multi-class support and so winning greater degrees of power than before. This is due not just to promoting national identity as a unifying factor, but to prioritising the explicit democratic demands that follow on from this. In Latin America, it meant defending the rights of indigenous ethnic groups for the first time. In Scotland, it meant demanding a parliament.

But modern progressive populisms also possess inherent weaknesses. They have a tendency to substitute bureaucratic control for popular democracy, when the social revolution encounters problems. In Latin America, the Bolivarian populist movement is in retreat, squeezed externally by US sanctions and internally by botched land redistribution, rampant corruption and drift from participatory democracy into ‘strongman’ leadership.

A similar betrayal of left populism’s democratic pretentions is seen in the transformation of the Podemos movement into a creature of its titular leader, Pablo Iglesias. Here, membership consultation via internet polls has become a tool for Iglesias to rule by plebiscite and exclude alterative ideological platforms. Iglesias’ conscious appeal to vague, catch-all demands was supposed to open the movement to mass appeal. Instead, it resulted in ideological obscurantism and leadership opportunism. Witness Iglesias’ open-ended support for the right-wing ‘socialist’ government of Pedro Sánchez, which led to Podemos losing a third of its vote in this year’s parliamentary election.

Here in Scotland, the SNP government stands on the brink of a new, post-Brexit independence referendum. The party secured 37.7% of the Scottish poll in the 2019 European elections – amazingly the third highest party share anywhere, and comfortably beating both Farage’s Brexit Party (32%) and Salvini’s Italian League (3%). Clearly, the SNP’s left populist-nationalist model still works.

However, the SNP leadership recently pulled out all the stops in a bid to quash a grassroots membership demand for a separate Scottish currency after independence – code for imposing an anti-system control over foreign banks. The leadership’s strident pro-NATO stance has also caused internal murmurings. Independence will bring these divisions to a head. In which case, left populism becomes either a path to a final rupture with capitalism or else an ideological device to defuse any anti-system struggle. Time will tell.

George Kerevan is the National Convenor of the SNP Socialists group and a former SNP MP