The weaknesses of the PCI on the question of populism (part I)

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In number 523 of its paper, Le Proletaire, dated February/March/ April 2017, the International Communist Party (PCI) published an article: Populism, populism you say?, in which it confronts this phenomenon and its current growth and, on the basis of this analysis, also undertakes a criticism of the analysis of the ICC on this question. The first part of our response to this polemic will be centred on the elements of analyses used by the PCI itself in order to evaluate its capacity to explain the phenomenon of populism.

We must say first of all though, through its positions, the PCI places itself in the defence of a proletarian point of view. Through this it demonstrates that it is still situated in the camp of the proletariat and that it globally defends the positions of the communist left.


What is populism, according to the PCI?


The comrades of the PCI correctly note:

- that other parts of the bourgeoisie use populism ideologically so as to drive proletarians onto the electoral terrain around the mystification of the "defence of democracy". We are thus in agreement with the PCI on the fact that the false opposition between populism and anti-populism is an ideological trap which serves the interests of the bourgeoisie.

- that the greatest danger for the working class is not the extreme-right but the left of the political apparatus of the bourgeoisie: "(Populism) cannot however replace the infinitely more powerful counter-revolutionary role that classic reformism plays (qualified by the PCI as the parties of the left), solidly implanted as it is in the working class and thus able to paralyse it" and these comrades are equally clear on anti-fascism, which completely distinguishes them from the positions of the extreme left of capital. They were unambiguous in denouncing the call to vote for Chirac in 2002 and at the last elections they once again denounced the electoral and democratic mystifications[i] .

Also Le Proletaire rightly emphasises that demagogy is not at all peculiar to populism, and the same goes for electoral promises. We undoubtedly share the same proletarian ground.

But what is the analysis of populism advanced by the PCI? Above all, it assures us that it is of a petty-bourgeois nature. In order to support this it provides a quote from Marx taken from the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte: "Only one must not get the narrow-minded notion that the petty bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest. Rather, it believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within whose frame alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided".

This general characterisation of the petty-bourgeoisie remains perfectly valid but what relationship, what link does that have with the billionaire Trump; with the advocates of Brexit? We have no idea... it explains nothing about the present situation. The only historic element that it gives is the reference to populism of Russia in the XIXth century. Again, we don't see any relationship between Russian populism of the XIXth century (relationships between the intellectual petty-bourgeoisie and the peasantry, the methods of this petty-bourgeoisie of the time oriented towards individual action and terrorism) with the present day, except instead of referring to Trump, the Tea Party or the currents of the extreme right today (the Front Nationale and other extreme right wing populists in Europe) the PCI talks to us about populism "in general".  In this way, through its indistinct rejection it mixes up in the same "petty-bourgeois" rubbish bin the populism of the extreme right (Trump, Le Pen and the partisans of Brexit) or again the zealous propagandists of bourgeois democratic mystifications (‘Democracy Now’ in Spain or the altermondialists) with authentic reactions of the working class, certainly still influenced by illusions in democracy, such the Occupy and Indignados movements...

What can one draw out of such a confusion that sees populism equivalent only to the petty-bourgeoisie, while schematically glossing over an analysis of reality and seeking to track down everything that it thinks points to the ideology of the petty-bourgeoisie? Nothing! Other than it shows a total absence of an analysis of the phenomenon of populism and its historic evolution in order to understand how it corresponds to the present situation.

By substituting an assortment of ready-made schemas for an analysis of populism, Le Proletaire ends up with aberrations and stupid affirmations completely disconnected from reality: such is the case when it raises the question of a "workers' aristocracy" in order to explain the influence of populist themes in the ranks of the workers. This "theorisation", made by Engels and followed by Lenin, was already an error in their times because it aimed to explain the propagation of bourgeoisie ideology (not specifically that of the petty-bourgeoisie) in the workers' ranks. Moreover, the most experienced workers who have the best living and working conditions with the highest wages are not those most open to the present populist ideology. The reality is contrary: it is those who are most hit with the full force of the crisis and unemployment in the most grim and ravaged regions (the ex-mining basin in the north of France or the old steel-working bastions of Lorraine, where the FN made an electoral breakthrough), who are the most permeable to the themes of populism. Reality contradicts the absurd thesis of the PCI on the weight of a "workers' aristocracy" in the question of populism today[ii].


A schematic vision of a bourgeoisie without contradictions


Le Proletaire thus sees populism as a sort of rational and mechanical defensive reaction of the layers of the petty-bourgeoisie, of its particular economic interests globally compatible with, or assimilated to, the interests of the national capital. This leads them to avoid the real problem. The text even labours to show that populism doesn't pose the least problem for the bourgeoisie by using photographic empirical findings as "evidence": thus it refers to the fact that just after Trump's election Wall Street registered a stock-exchange record (along the same lines it uses a similar sledge-hammer argument of the highs of the London stock exchange after the Brexit vote in order to affirm that "the leadership of the British bourgeoisie do not at all think that this rupture is a serious problem for them"). The PCI take up the outdated and erroneous vision of the XIXth century of a bourgeoisie which plays the stock-market, whereas the stock-market is the domain par excellence of a day-to-day, short-term vision, guided by the immediate profits of the capitalists. Moreover it's for that reason that the bourgeoisie never calls into question this type of institution but make it depend on the general interests of its state, its administration, its "schedules". In reality, if the election of Trump was immediately followed by a hike in the Wall Street stock market it was simply because it was already announced that taxes would be lowered on businesses and this could only lead to a favourable welcome by the shareholders.

Another reason developed by the article doesn't get much traction either: the idea that Trump definitely serves the common interests of the bourgeoisie, since there have never been so many billionaires in the same government. There's no doubt about the capitalist nature of the government and the fact that it's full of the richest elements. That doesn't mean that it’s guaranteed to serve the best general interests of the capitalist system. We can suppose that the PCI also think that Brexit will definitively serve the interests of British capital. But we don't really see how Brexit strengthens British capital and the PCI doesn't say anything to support this notion.

It's important to reveal what the PCI doesn't say and the questions that it doesn't pose. What is the strategy followed by the American bourgeoisie with the election of Trump? What is the interest of the British bourgeoisie in carrying out Brexit? Do these results strengthen them in the defence of their economic and imperialist interests in the arena of global competition? The PCI says nothing about that and provides not the least serious argumentation in this respect. The PCI is certainly correct to affirm that nationalism is, given the competition between states, a privileged means to try to draw the ranks of the bourgeoisie together behind the defence of the national capital, but that gives no explanation nor any other framework for understanding the phenomenon of populism and still less, its present development. That makes it unfit to report on the numerous problems of present society and analyse their evolution.

The article of the PCI is obliged to pay lip-service to the idea that populism bothers or concerns a part of the bourgeoisie but it doesn't explain why when it says: "Without doubt some of its striking declarations have raised the eyebrows of certain capitalist sectors: the threat of hitting imports with raised tariffs would be a severe blow for a number of industries which have delocalised a part of their production or for the large distributions centres. But one can bet that the capitalists at the head of powerful groups of interest would make that clear to their colleague Trump". Similarly the PCI is obliged to recognise that the programmes of the populists "at certain points come into contradiction with the interests of the biggest, most internationalist capitalist groups". But they see that as an epiphenomenon that has no consequences and they depart from the presumptuous explanation that the bourgeoisie will as always use these contradictions for its own profit and overcome them. It is clear that the election and the policies of Trump a year on go in a totally opposite direction to those foreseen by the PCI, according to which the bourgeoisie would listen to reason and put a stop to the pretentions of Trump. At the present time a great part of the American bourgeoisie is plunged into disarray and several sectors, including his own camp, are trying to find the means to remove him or look for some other means to dislocate the presidential functions. For a year we've seen a growing discredit, a denunciation of Trump’s lack of seriousness, of the incoherent and chaotic  policies being undertaken by the leading world power at the international level. For example, Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel constitutes, among other things, a flagrant illustration of an international policy which has only thrown oil on the fire and stirred up a new focus for uncontrolled violence in the Middle East. At the same time we see an accumulation of obstacles facing the policies favoured by the administration (including the repeal of "Obamacare", the great Trump warhorse), the incessant waltz of resignations of the highest officials, to name just some examples of this disorder at the highest levels. In Britain, for a year now Brexit has posed serious problems to the health of the national capital, particularly by weakening and considerably undermining its power through the flight of international capital that it has provoked; and this despite the financial sector always being a strong point of the British economy.  Faced with a succession of setbacks and contradictory initiatives to reach an agreement with the EU, Theresa May is more and more weakened and openly accused by her peers of incompetence, lack of preparation and confusion[iii].

That doesn't at all mean that Trump becoming president, nor the victory of Brexit, are fatal blows to capitalism, no more than it will prevent the United States or Great Britain remaining dominant imperialist powers. Neither does it prevent the bourgeoisie from trying to channel the problems linked to populist decisions and even utilising and exploiting the manifestations of the weight of populism to accelerate the decline in class consciousness, especially themes like nationalism or the defence of democracy. But the PCI, by focusing on the undoubted ideological use of populism by the bourgeoisie, totally misses the problems posed by the general dynamic of capitalism today, by the accumulation and exacerbation its contradictions, including within the bourgeoisie itself. It completely misses the stalemate between the classes and the growing tendency towards barbarism, of which populism in its present form is one of its most significant manifestations. Similarly, it completely underestimates the threats, the dangers and the traps (nationalism, channelling of the false choice between populism and anti-populism) and the growing disorientation and disarray in the class identity of the proletariat.

The consequences, following the election of Trump and the referendum on Brexit, of putting populist programmes and policies into practice are totally denied and ignored, as if the bourgeoisie of these two powers, although among the most powerful and experienced in the world, were immunised from danger and the policies undertaken and the economic orientations taken since these events run no risk of disastrous consequences for the national and world capital. The recent example of the situation in Germany following the legislative elections and the first time entry to parliament of the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany), with 87 seats and 13.5% of the vote, once again confirms the historic tendency for the development of populism. This phenomenon in Germany is particularly strong in the old industrial centres, in particular the ex-GDR (East Germany) which doesn't at all correspond to the reductionist and false vision of the PCI.


"Nothing new under the sun": a fixed vision of history


Instead of analysing and explaining the growth, development and the dynamic of the populist phenomenon, the PCI stubbornly say in respect of the present phenomenon of populism there is "nothing new under the sun". Thus they have no framework of analysis. For it, the question of the growth of populism is almost an invention by the media, a simple instrument of propaganda. As it says at the beginning of the article, populism is nothing other than "a political orientation which denies the division of society into classes" aiming solely "to make the proletariat lose its class orientations". Which is an extremely reductionist view and comes down to saying that the growth in power of populism only corresponds to a manoeuvre, set-up and orchestrated by all parts of the bourgeoisie against the working class.

Rather than explain a phenomenon that it doesn't understand, the PCI denies reality and really gives the impression that there are no genuine contradictions within the bourgeoisie, as if it was a simple sum, an aggregate of different interests: bosses, shareholders, states, parties and candidates... It has the vision of a conscious, all-powerful bourgeoisie that has no internal contradictions and which puts forward such and such a card according to its needs, aimed exclusively against the working class, thus allowing it to divert the latter's discontent. It's paradoxical because at the same time as the PCI advances this need of mystification, it recognises that the threat to the bourgeoisie from the working class is actually at a very low level. The problem is that the PCI tries to shoehorn not only populism, but also the development of different national situations, into a pre-established mould, into finished schemas, fixed and "invariant" (to use its own term) without integrating them into the least framework of analysis nor grasping the reality of a movement. There is an incapacity of the PCI to provide a lucid analysis of reality.

Why do we attach so much importance to the necessity of better understanding the phenomenon of populism? Because in this debate where divergences could be taken for simple, Byzantine quarrels, a discussion in the coffee shop or a debate between "intellectual circles", it is essentially a question for revolutionary organisations to methodically draw out the clearest vision of the stakes, the dynamic and evolution of capitalism in order to better arm the proletariat in its class combat.


To be continued...


CB, December 28 2017

[i]  We refer the reader to their article: Bilan of the presidential elections: restructuring of the bourgeois political theatre in order to better defend capitalism, Le Proletaire, no. 524, May/June 2017.

[ii]  See our article on The workers' aristocracy: a sociological theory to divide the working class, in the International Review no. 25 (1981).

[iii]  Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner appears to have encouraged de-facto Saudi ruler, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in his destabilising adventures in the Middle East, particularly his hostilities against Qatar which go directly against US military interests. Similarly in Britain, Brexit-supporting foreign minister Priti Patel on "holiday" in Israel not only broke with British foreign policy but attempted to reverse it without the Foreign Office knowing. Prime Minister May's hesitation in sacking her showed just how weak she was.