In politics there’s always something to be learned from the names you are called by your opponents.
A few weeks ago the label of choice for the serious left, primarily the Anti-Austerity Alliance –People Before Profit, was ‘the Trots’ i.e. followers of the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky. Then it was ‘extremists’ in contrast to the supposedly moderate centre. This week it’s ‘the populists’ along with, where the trade unions are concerned,‘the hard liners’.
Populism is a term that has a long history in politics. It was used to describe a movement of Russian intellectuals in the 19th century, the Narodniks (‘Friends of the People’) who wanted land for the peasants and tried to assassinate the Tsar. It was also used to describe Huey Long, the Louisiana Senator in the 1930s, who campaigned against the banks on the slogan, ‘Share our Wealth’.
Historically it was usually applied to radical sounding politicians who evoked ‘the people’ and their grievances but who were NOT socialists i.e. did not stand for social ownership of the main means of production or working class struggle.
In Ireland today it is being used by establishment politicians and the media to refer to BOTH the socialist left AND Donald Trump. This, of course, is no accident. It is clearly designed to discredit the left whose recent rise alarms them.
In this context ‘populists’ means political forces who ‘irresponsibly’ articulate and support the demands of ‘the people’ i.e. the majority, for better wages and living conditions, less inequality, less austerity and cut backs, less unfair taxes and so on instead of ‘responsibly’ explaining that these are unreasonable expectations and that they should be content with their lot.
Similarly they suggest that those who object to the massive enrichment of the 1% at the top while ordinary people suffer are ‘populists’ dangerously stirring up discontent and inflaming the passions of the mob when they should be ‘moderately’ and reasonably explaining to people that the super-rich only accumulate their billions out concern for the country and that without them there would be no jobs.
If ‘populist’ means giving expression to the entirely justified anger of working class people and standing with the people in their struggles for more equality and a fairer deal from society then we are happy to be called populists. If, however, it is suggested that this makes us the same or similar to Trump then this is completely false.
Trump is a billionaire property developer who is absolutely part of the establishment he claims to be against. In no way does he really represent the interests of working people or those feel abandoned by deindustrialisation in the Rust Belt and elsewhere. On the contrary he will stand with the bankers and the bosses against them.
Trump’s crude racism and sexism are further proof of this. No genuine supporter or advocate of the interests of working people will ever preach bigotry and racism which have always been used by the bosses and the rich, especially in America, to divide the workers movement and divert and hinder any real resistance.
Quite the reverse: racism and sexism are the mark of the cynical politician, who Trump exemplifies, who wants to exploit workers grievances to get himself into power without actually having to do anything about them. And when, as WILL happen, Trump sells out those working people who foolishly voted for him, he will probably respond with even more racism to divert attention from his failures.
As far the charge of populism levelled at People Before Profit is concerned it is a clear sign that our ideas are striking a chord with the people. But let’s be clear: we defended a woman’s right to choose in the teeth of the bishops and the bigots and long before it was a popular idea. Similarly we will stand against all forms of racism, in solidarity with Travellers and refugees and immigrants whether these ideas are popular or not. That is not ‘populism’ it is socialism!
It is true that as neoliberal capitalism, with all its inequality and austerity, becomes ever more untenable and revolt against grows so society will polarise between right and left. But that doesn’t make right and left the same. Rather the represent fundamentally opposed interests and fundamentally different directions for society, here in Ireland and globally – either descent into dog eat dog hatred, war and barbarism with the likes of Trump or hope for a future based on working class unity, solidarity and equality