The word “populism” is bandied around in the news lately to depict politicians, parties and social movements. What is populism?
Populism is a complex of ideas entrenched in and arising from American history. A common populist theme compares "the people" against "the elite", “rich against poor” or “us against them,” but avoids class identification. It urges social and political system changes.
Populism is arising now because of fundamental changes in the economy. More and more people are becoming aware that the top 1% of Americans own 42% of the wealth while another, growing section—those who create the wealth—are becoming deeply poor. A movement is developing to right the wrongs.
However, there are a myriad of social forces, most notably the capitalist class, who seek to gain hold of the new, embryonic movement. It is crucial that we understand the history of populism and how it has been used by the rulers to subvert social movements. The key question is: will the struggle be diverted to support capitalist private property and a fascist reorganization of society? Or will it move forward to a new cooperative society where everyone has equal access to food, education, healthcare and housing?
History of Populism
Populist upsurges and anger against the landlords and bankers have existed in America since the revolutionary war. Populist movements arise every time the method of production changes and a section of the population is left out of the new economy. The movement most commonly associated with populism is the struggle of the small farmers, craftsmen and workers from the 1890s through the 1930s. Their fight was directed at the railroads, large banks, and large agricultural corporations. However, the rulers guaranteed that the movement did not gain the understanding that capitalism, rather than some section of capital, is the enemy. They turned the movement against itself. The conditions of that era—an expanding economy, social bribery, and a history based on slavery—were the context for this treachery.
Populism under conditions of capitalist expansion is different than populism under present conditions. In the past, widespread social bribery was the foundation for securing the peoples’ loyalty to capitalism. Today, globalization prevents this by its constant search for lower labor costs. Nor can the capitalists solve the irreversible polarization of wealth and poverty brought on by labor-replacing technology. It has led to the formation of a new section of workers who will never find work again. These factors are creating a new and different form of populism. Today, populism has no base in the ownership of small enterprises.
The populist stage of social struggle is a historic and therefore necessary stage. As a powerful voice of opposition to fascism, it opens the door for debate, and that debate has already begun. Revolutionaries can educate that capitalism is the source of society’s ills and that there are two basic classes in society with hostile interests. Up to now, the populist movement has always wanted to go back to what was. This is the first time in American history that a movement is developing that is objectively struggling forward to a new world. The role of revolutionaries is to introduce new ideas. Workers must identify with their own class, and fight for their class and the vision of the cooperative world that is finally possible. The private property of the giant corporations must be made into public property. These conglomerates are too critical to society to remain in private hands.