Populism as Masquerade (was Re: Henwood vs. Cockburn)

Max Sawicky sawicky at epinet.org
Fri Nov 12 06:18:20 PST 1999

> In my view, the most accessible source on American populism is _The
> Populist Persuasion_ by Michael Kazin. Though the book is written as an
> argument for the power & utility of the rhetoric of populism, it actually
> serves to underline the fundamental limits & problems of populism. Most
> importantly, "[t]hrough populism, Americans have been able to protest
> social and economic inequalities *without calling the entire system into
> question*" (emphasis mine, Kazin 2).

mbs: in other words, populism was a practical avenue of struggle, as opposed to an imaginary one.

> At least, for the People's Party, one can argue that populism was an
> organic & authentic expression of oppressed small farmers (i.e. true
> petit-bourgeois, both in their position in the relations of production and
> in their worldview). With the virtual disappearance of the
> farmers as a sizable & independent social & political force, populism lost
> an organic connection with any material base. Now it is merely a

mbs: farmers were the primary force in the movement, but labor was prominent as well. The populists weren't fettered by marxian classification in the sense that they understood their farmers and workers were of the same class. They made explicit alliance with labor organizations of the day.

> rhetorical tool of the Right. Some 'leftists' also try to lay a claim to
> this rhetoric, especially when they feel that they can't afford to be
> red-baited, for the unabashed Reds may not be invited to write for the New
> York Press, you see. In either case, the rhetoric has little to do with

"mbs": What's the New York Press?

> the material interest of the constituency for whom it claims to speak; it
> merely appeals opportunistically to their racially and sexually colored
> discontent, *without* arming the masses with a theoretical tool that would
> allow them to name their enemies correctly.

mbs: Any scan of populist literature would leave little doubt as to the names of their enemies.

> From the beginning, however, it must be said that:
> ***** the producer ethic [of populism] was roughly synonymous with male
> citizens who belonged to what the Philadelphian known as Publius called
> "the middling sort." They paid America's taxes, fought its wars, and
> upheld the ideal of economic independence even if, temporarily, conditions
> might force some to toil for wages. The middle was a broad category, but
> not an all-inclusive one. Above it sat a tiny elite that lived off the
> labor of others. Below it was a larger group whose poverty seemed
> perpetual and whose behavior appeared servile, undisciplined, and
> childlike. Some antebellum Protestant champions of the producing classes

mbs: this makes no sense, straight off. The agriculturists in the movement grew to be as poor as anyone. This was not a movement of the "middle", except in the sense that it entailed a defense of the efforts of farmers to become and remain prosperous owners of their own land.

Producerism could have a negative connotation in terms of exploiting hatred of certain groups, both native and foreign. This strain runs much stronger in populism after the failure of the Peoples Party in the early part of the 20th century. It also has a positive connotation -- the idea of the state supporting the efforts of individuals as workers and enterprise owners, and more broadly of supporting U.S. manufacturing.

> shoved the mounting numbers of Irish-Catholic immigrants into this lowest
> stratum, nativist tracts are full of images of drunken Paddies, licentious
> Bridgets, and famine survivors who didn't mind living like pigs. But
> African-Americans provided a far more durable and emotionally charged
> subject for collective scorn.
> The rising of "the people" was an avowedly white affair; the democratic

mbs: Bull. There was a substantial black populist movement. In some cases it organized directly in conjunction with whites, in others separately but in alliance. Now clearly race relations among populists were not models for today, but in the context of the times there were many bright spots. It's silly to criticize the pops for not organizing jointly with blacks, since in the South this would not have been permitted. It was not possible. Even so, the black components of the movement were underground to an important extent, a circumstance which contributes to a lack of information about them.

> . . . This defense of cultural apartheid did not remain the sole populist
> sentiment on race. Later, activists in the People's Party and the labor

mbs: There was no defense of cultural apartheid that the writer demonstrates for populists, either in isolation or relative to whites in general. The discomfort factor is obvious enough.

> . . .
> What's wrong with this political picture? The populist rhetoric divides
> the world into three parts: the effete elite (presented as either
> cosmopolitan or outright foreign); the white male 'middling sorts' (which
> exclude women workers and workers of color, not to mention illegal aliens
> and foreign workers, but include all who may be presented as 'productive,'
> extending the 'middle' to encompass many capitalists & capitalist

mbs: this is simply not accurate description. The portrait of the elite was not that simple, nor were the ranks as exclusive as made out. The inclusion of some capitalists in the producerist pantheon is true.

> ideologues, small or big, such as Buchanan and Perot); and the rest of the
> international working class, whose gender, race, sexuality, nationality,
> etc. exclude them from the imaginary of the 'producer ethic.' This
> political picture is an ideology that unfortunately has prevented many a
> white guy (and even a few guys who aren't white) from grasping the true
> dividing line: the line between capital and the workers of the world.

mbs: A basic point in Kazin not realized here is that the cherished labor movement of the 30's was no less populist than the Peoples Party of 40 years prior. The so-called "true dividing line" has no historical precedent in the U.S. It has NEVER been the basis for any important social movement. Is has no operational significance. It's literary, not political.

Most of the negative connotations of populism were brought into stark relief with the rise of Father Coughlin and similar types in the 1930's. They do not apply in the same measure to the 1890 movement. With Coughlin et al., in the face of FDR and the New Deal, the anti-state premise took shape and gained strength from long-standing but separate anti-socialist sentiment. After WWII, as Kazin recounts, this flowed into an anti-communist framework. By this time, we are a long way from the cooperative commonwealth envisioned in the 19th century.

Cockburn can take care of himself so I don't need to address that stuff.


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