Saturday, September 12, 2020



Much has been written of late about “right-wing populism.” Sorry, but there is no such animal. Populism, genuine populism, is the agrarian socialism with a dash of anarchism, that flourished in Russia and North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and in Latin America from the 1930s to the present. It is anything but backward looking, opposed to science or in favour of irrationalism. 1. The Russian populists practically worshiped science and many were imprisoned or killed trying to educate the populace. For the Americas, both North and South, education stood at the forefront of all populist movements.

Right-wing populism” is little more than neo-fascism, an appeal to the basest instincts of a dumbed-down and lumpenized sector. For such “populism” the elite consists not of billionaires, but anyone who reads books, even if that person lives below the poverty line. For authentic populism, the elite is the ruling class of industrialists, financiers, big landowners, and the political, academic, governmental and corporate managerial class who work for them. The “people” are the great mass dominated, and thus exploited, by this elite; the farmers, artisans, workers, professionals and small traders. Right-wing populism is a sign of decadence, true populism sees the masses educating themselves, lifting themselves up from their degraded situation by their own efforts and building a “culture of resistance”, not those who wallow in servility to their masters.

Unlike “Orthodox Marxism”, which zeroed-in on the working class as the revolutionary subject, let alone the vulgar Marxists, who stupidly reduced that class to manual workers alone, populism saw the revolutionary potential in all the exploited. They were proven correct by the great revolutions of the Twentieth Century; Mexico, Russia, China and Cuba - all peasant-based. Enough of that, let us examine the populist movements in some detail.

Russian Populism, The Narodniks and The Socialist Revolutionary Party

The most important influence on the development of Russian populism was Nikolai Chernyshevsky's socialist feminist novel “What Is To Be Done” published in 1863. It became a “best seller” and the Russian youth devoured it like candy. In this novel “Russian young intelligensy found... an appealing solution” to Tsarist Russia's multitude of problems. For Lenin, the novelist stood as “the greatest and most talented representative of socialism before Marx.” 2. The book, as well as a love story, is a paean to scientific rationalism. The rejection of Christian and conventional morality in favor of science and rational self-interest earned the youth who followed these precepts the name “Nihilists” - as though the rejection of convention was a rejection of ethics in general. On the contrary, no generation of youth was more self-sacrificing and torn by moral conflict than these “Nihilists.”.

The movement must be put into historical context. Tsarist Russia was the “prototype of the modern police state.” 3. and was infamous for its cruelty and oppressiveness. Populist youth were hanged for teaching peasants to read and for having “illegal” printing presses. There was even secret police persecution for giving medical treatment to peasants. 4.

Around a million people were deported to Siberia in the 19th Century, many used as forced labor in the mines. Like Stalin's gulags – undoubtedly modeled on the Tsarist system – the death rate of prisoners was very high. One example was the Barguzin camp , “By spring of each year one quarter to one third had died of tuberculosis, typhoid fever, malnutrition, or failed attempts to escape.” 5.

Influences on Chernyshevsky included the Proudhon-influenced socialist Alexandre Herzen, Louis Blanc's and Robert Owen's, cooperatives and Fourier's utopian socialism. His feminism came from reading George Sand, 6. A big influence philosophically was the materialism of Feuerbach. 7. Like both Herzen and Bakunin, Chernyshevsky saw the peasant commune [the Mir] as a basis for socialism. Russia would not have to go through the brutal transition to capitalism. 8. [ Marx was of a similar opinion see page ] Bakunin's influence ought not to be underestimated, as at this time he was the major figure among Russian revolutionaries.

Peter Lavrov, helped create the Zemyla i volya (Land and Freedom Party) in which a later split-off became the Narodnaya Volya, or People's Will, [hence “Narodniks”] in the 1870s. He was influenced by Proudhon, Fourier, Chernyshevsky and Herzen. Lavrov was also one of Marx and Engels closer friends, and while sympathetic to them in many ways, maintained his intellectual and political independence. 9.

Nikolai Mikhailovsky spanned the era from the Narodniks to the formation of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR's) in 1901 and was thus regarded as “the grand old man of Populist socialism.“ He was “strongly drawn to Proudhon” and learned his feminism from reading John Stuart Mill. Mikhailovsky, while philosophically a materialist, rejected Positivism and Social Darwinism. While respectful of Marxism, like Lavrov, he maintained his independence as a thinker. 10. [The SR and the later Left SR continued the earlier Narodnik agrarian socialism, best encapsulated in the slogan “land and freedom.”]

The feminist strain within Russian Populism meant that many of its important leaders were women. There was Vera Zazulich, a leader of Zemlya i Volya, friend of Marx and Engels, and later, editor of Iskra. Vera Figner, a leader of Narodnaya Volya (armed struggle group of the Narodnik movement) spent twenty years in solitary confinement for her activities. Katarina Breshkovsky, member of Narodnaya Volya, founder of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and leader of the SR Battle Group (armed struggle organization) She was commonly known as “Babushka ” (Grandmother of the Revolution) There was Maria Spiradanova, member of the SR Battle Group, founder and leader of the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party, member of the Petrograd Soviet, President of the First Congress of Peasants' Soviets and part of the coalition that toppled the Provisional Government in October 1917.

The loss of these brilliant, capable and above all revolutionary women in leadership positions due to lengthy prison sentences and Siberian exile had a negative effect on the development of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Compromising male politicians took over from the revolutionaries after the failed 1905 Revolution. They foolishly supported the First World War, then gave rise to the dithering, incompetent (and stupidly pro-War) Provisional Government, which the Bolsheviks and Left SR bloodlessly overthrew in October 1917.

North American Populism

Populism in North America did not fall from the sky, but was “the culmination of a united development beginning with Grangerism and Greenbackism in the early 1870s.” 11. [The Grange was an early farmer's organization and the Greenback Party sought to change the monetary system to one that benefited the populace and not just the bankers and industrialists.] In Canada populism was also rooted in the Grange and another farmer organization, The Patrons of Industry. 12. The ground had been well seeded beforehand, first by radical Abolitionists and early socialists like the Proudhon and Fourier influenced Horace Greely, Arthur Brisbane and Charles A. Dana. These three men spread their ideas through their newspaper, The New York Tribune. The Tribune was the first mass circulation and national newspaper in the USA. [ It's European correspondent was Karl Marx]

The first North American populist party was the Greenback Party, organized in 1872, uniting farmers and labour. Their plan was for the government to issue low interest loans to the public to create worker cooperatives and get the farmers out of the clutches of the usurious banks. “Greenbackism was a direct attack on the banks and private ownership.” 13.

The populists of the 1890s also read Henry George's “Progress and Poverty” in which he, unaware of Marx's Capital, showed how capital was essentially labour. George made clear that land and natural resources were given by nature, and thus should not be monopolized by a minority, but shared by all. He proposed as a first step, that land alone should be taxed as a way for the general public to get a share of what ought to have been held in common. [Hence the “Single Tax” - which became a movement after the demise of the People's Party. Henry George's influence also extended to the formation of land trusts and land trust based intentional communities.]

Populism in North America was a class movement that united farmers and workers in the face of an industrialization process that was grinding them down. It was not backward looking, and favored new technology. They were simply opposed to capitalism, desiring an economic democracy based upon cooperatives and mutual aid. “Very often a fine line separated Populism from Socialism.” 14.

In Canada the “cooperatives were a virtually a metaphor for a type of democratic public organization.” 15. Radical democracy in the form of decentralization and delegation was important to most Canadian Populists. Guild Socialism [an amalgam of democratic socialism and anarcho-syndicalism] was also an important influence. 16.

By the 1880s farmers in the US had come together in the Farmer's Alliance. They had a well developed cooperative system. 17. and these coops were the “central organizing and educational tool.” 18. By the 1890s there were about 1000 Populist newspapers being published and educating the populous. 19. Some 250,000 African American farmers formed the Black Farmers Alliance. 20. The People's Party of 1892 was a coalition of the Farmer's Alliance with the proto-syndicalist Knights of Labor. (KOL) “Wealth belongs to him that creates it” was their slogan. [The KOL's economic alternative to capitalism was a system of worker cooperatives.] 21.

Terrorism and lynching were used against the Populists, especially in Georgia and Louisiana. 22. Jim Crow was in no small way used to prevent a multi-racial populist farmer movement in the South. Along with terror and the hate propaganda in the MSM of the day, the capitalist businesses worked to destroy the cooperative movement. They came down hard on the Knights of Labor coops as well as farmer cooperative efforts. Railroads boycotted their production, manufacturers would not sell them machinery or spare parts and they were refused raw materials and capital. The loss of the cooperatives was a death sentence for the KOL, 23. and a “ a decisive blow” against the People's Party. 24.

Farmer-Labor cooperation which looked so promising with the Greenback Party, the People's Party and the Knights of Labor, never fully materialized. With the destruction of the Knights, the American Federation of Labor became the major force of organized workers. The Samuel Gompers-dominated AFL opposed the farmers for being too radical. This “guaranteed [Populism's] ultimate downfall.” 25. Many Populists went over to the Socialist Party – which helps explain that organization's strength in the agricultural states. Others formed Non-Partisan leagues in their regions and fought for progressive social reform. Some became progressive minorities within the Democrat and Republican Parties and in the South some White Populists drifted to the right as Jim Crow advocates and KKK.

In Canada, the Populists who did not return to the fold of the old line parties, helped form the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) along with Socialists in 1932. In little more than a decade, the social democrats took over the CCF and the Socialists and Populists became a beleaguered and frustrated minority within that party.

Latin American Populism

Populism in Latin America has Indigenous roots and undoubtedly some anarchist influences, since anarcho-syndicalism played a prominent role there for the first three decades of the 20th Century. This form of populism differs from the Russian and North American varieties in its strong anti-imperialism. Those who saw the need for an Indigenous- based revolutionary politics included the Peruvians, Gonzales Prada, (an anarchist) Jose Carlos Mariategui, a libertarian Marxist, Haya de la Torre, the chief ideologue of Latin American Populism, and the Bolivian anarchist, Luis Cusicanqui. The Mexican Revolution was an inspiration to all, both for its land reform and opposition to US interference.

Most Populists were influenced by Marxism, but found it lacking in a theory of development suitable to their situation of imperial dominance. Hence, they created their own theory. These movements were mainly influenced by Haya de la Torre, and were oriented to an Indigenous conception, were anti-imperialist, pro-labor, democratic, revolutionary , federalist, and decentralist, with a cooperative form of economy. 26.

Haya de la Torre attempted to create a populist international, which did not come to much, but did influence revolutionary movements throughout the continent. 27. He formed a revolutionary party, APRA, which gained some traction in his native Peru. The movement was brutally repressed with execution of militants and massacres of supporters. The worst of these occurred in 1932 in the city of Trujillo, where 6000 people were gunned down by the military. 28. Populism came to the fore in the 1930s and 40s, interestingly enough the same period in which anarcho-syndicalism went into steep decline.

In the 1940s and early 1950s there were a series of populist governments and revolutions. Costa Rica rose in 1948, which gave rise to major social reforms and Bolivia in 1952, nationalizing the tin mines and extensive land reform. The populists in Guatemala were overthrown in a US sponsored military coup. The Accion Democratica party toppled the Venezuelan dictator in 1946, and a year later was repressed in a right-wing coup. Finally, in 1958, the populists tossed out the dictator Jimenez. Once in power, they nationalized the petroleum industry. [One must not underestimate the level of violence and repression that the populist movements endured. Many thousands died.]

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara both started their political lives as populists, the former in the Orthodoxo Party, the latter as a left-wing Peronist, so the Cuba Revolution can be seen as a continuation of this historical tendency. Over time, these parties either became corrupt or evolved into social democracy. In the case of Cuba, the influence of Moscow-style Marxist-Leninism soon overshadowed – never completely – the revolution's populist roots.

In the 1980s the revolutionary movements in Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, while speaking a Marxist Leninist language, were highly populist in their programs and actions. Populism, in varying degrees resurfaced as part of the 'pink wave' in the early 21st Century with the movements and governments of Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez, Nestor Kirshner , Christina Fernandez and Lula.

The strong leader figure seems to be a particular aspect of Latin American populism, unlike its counterparts in Russia and North America. This has led caudillos such as Brazil's Vargas, Juan Peron and the Peruvian military of the 1960s, to adopt elements of the populist program in an attempt to build a support base. The existence of such caudillos as well as genuine populist strong leaders has tended to obscure the reality of Latin American Populism as an otherwise essentially democratic movement.

While making many substantial reforms and engendering economic development, Latin American Populism has never been able to create the independent, cooperative, egalitarian society that it envisioned. US imperialism and the oligarchs that support it, have proven too powerful. Even those hard-won reforms and economic advances have been rolled back by right-wing coups and IMF and World Bank 'moneterrorism'.

  1. p. 4, p. 8, Norman Pollack, The Populist Response to Industrial America, Harvard, 1962

  2. pps 31, 32, Introduction, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, What Is To Be Done, Cornell, 1989. Also of interest is that the first English language translation and publication was by the American anarchist, Benjamin Tucker, p. 35, ibid.

  3. p. 32, Margaret Maxwell, Narodniki Women, Pergamon, 1990

  4. p. 26, fn, p. 30, ibid.

  5. p 136 ibid

  6. pps 9-11, 18, Introduction, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, What Is To Be Done, Cornell, 1989.

  7. p. 16, ibid.

  8. p. 19, ibid.

  9. pps 120-121 Russian Philosophy, Vol 2, Quadrangle Books, 1965

  10. pps 170-173, ibid.

  11. p. 8, Norman Pollack, The Populist Response to Industrial America, Harvard, 1962

  12. p. 5, David Laycock, Populism and Democratic Thought In The Canadian Prairies, Univ of Toronto, 1990.

  13. p. 70 John Curl, For All The People, PM Press, 2009

  14. pps 11, 19, 97, Pollack

  15. p. 99, David Laycock, Populism and Democratic Thought In The Canadian Prairies, Univ of Toronto, 1990.

  16. p. 104, ibid.

  17. p. 32, Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment, Oxford, 1978

  18. p. 66, ibid.

  19. p. 206, ibid.

  20. p. 118, ibid.

  21. p. 106, Curl

  22. p. 190, ibid.

  23. p. 107, ibid.

  24. p. 299, ibid.

  25. pps, 61-64, Pollack

  26. pps 164-165, Victor Alba, Politics and the Labor Movement in Latin America, Stanford, 1968.

  27. p. 163, ibid.

  28. p. 171, ibid.


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