James Petras: Anti-Populism: Ideology of the Ruling Class


Throughout the US and European corporate and state media, right
and left, we are told that ‘populism’ has become the overarching threat to
democracy, freedom and . . . free markets.  The media’s ‘anti-populism’
campaign has been used and abused by ruling elites and their academic and
intellectual camp followers as the principal weapon to distract, discredit
and destroy the rising tide of mass discontent with ruling class-imposed
austerity programs, the accelerating concentration of wealth and the
deepening inequalities.

We will begin by examining the conceptual manipulation of
‘populism’ and its multiple usages. Then we will turn to the historic
economic origins of populism and anti-populism.  Finally, we will critically
analyze the contemporary movements and parties dubbed ‘populist’ by the
ideologues of ‘anti-populism’.

Conceptual Manipulation

In order to understand the current ideological manipulation
accompanying ‘anti-populism’ it is necessary to examine the historical roots
of populism as a popular movement.

Populism emerged during the 19th and 20th century as an
ideology, movement and government in opposition to autocracy, feudalism,
capitalism, imperialism and socialism.  In the United States, populist
leaders led agrarian struggles backed by millions of small farmers in
opposition to bankers, railroad magnates and land speculators.  Opposing
monopolistic practices of the ‘robber barons’, the populist movement
supported broad-based commercial agriculture, access to low interest farm
credit and reduced transport costs.

In 19th century Russia, the populists opposed the Tsar, the
moneylenders and the burgeoning commercial elites.

In early 20th century India and China, populism took the form of
nationalist agrarian movements seeking to overthrow the imperial powers and
their comprador collaborators.

In Latin America, from the 1930s onward, especially with the
crises of export regimes, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru, embraced a
variety of populist, anti-imperialist governments.  In Brazil, President
Getulio Vargas’s term (1951-1954) was notable for the establishment of a
national industrial program promoting the interests of urban industrial
workers despite banning independent working class trade unions and Marxist
parties.  In Argentina, President Juan Peron’s first terms (1946-1954)
promoted large-scale working class organization, advanced social welfare
programs and embraced nationalist capitalist development.

In Bolivia, a worker-peasant revolution brought to power a
nationalist party, the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR), which
nationalized the tin mines, expropriated the latifundios and promoted
national development during its rule from 1952-1964.

In Peru, under President Velasco Alvarado (1968-1975), the
government expropriated the coastal sugar plantations and US oil fields and
copper mines while promoting worker and agricultural cooperatives.

In all cases, the populist governments in Latin America were
based on a coalition of nationalist capitalists, urban workers and the rural
poor.   In some notable cases, nationalist military officers brought
populist governments to power.  What they had in common was their opposition
to foreign capital and its local supporters and exporters (‘compradores’),
bankers and their elite military collaborators.  Populists promoted ‘third
way’ politics by opposing imperialism on the right, and socialism and
communism on the left.  The populists supported the redistribution of wealth
but not the expropriation of property.  They sought to reconcile national
capitalists and urban workers.  They opposed class struggle but supported
state intervention in the economy and import-substitution as a development

Imperialist powers were the leading anti-populists of that
period.  They defended property privileges and condemned nationalism as
‘authoritarian’ and undemocratic.  They demonized the mass support for
populism as ‘a threat to Western Christian civilization’.  Not infrequently,
the anti-populists ideologues would label the national-populists as
‘fascists’ . . . even as they won numerous elections at different times and
in a variety of countries.

The historical experience of populism, in theory and practice,
has nothing to do with what today’s ‘anti-populists’ in the media are
calling ‘populism’.  In reality, current anti-populism is still a
continuation of anti-communism, a political weapon to disarm working class
and popular movements.  It advances the class interest of the ruling class.
Both ‘anti’s’ have been orchestrated by ruling class ideologues seeking to
blur the real nature of their ‘pro-capitalist’ privileged agenda and
practice.  Presenting your program as ‘pro-capitalist’, pro-inequalities,
pro-tax evasion and pro-state subsidies for the elite is more difficult to
defend at the ballot box than to claim to be ‘anti-populist’.

‘Anti-populism’ is the simple ruling class formula for
covering-up their real agenda, which is pro-militarist, pro-imperialist
(globalization), pro-‘rebels’ (i.e. mercenary terrorists working for regime
change), pro crisis makers and pro-financial swindlers.

The economic origins of ‘anti-populism’ are rooted in the deep
and repeated crises of capitalism and the need to deflect and discredit mass
discontent and demoralize the popular classes in struggle.  By demonizing
‘populism’, the elites seek to undermine the rising tide of anger over the
elite-imposed wage cuts, the rise of low-paid temporary jobs and the massive
increase in the reserve army of cheap immigrant labor to compete with
displaced native workers.

Historic ‘anti-populism’ has its roots in the inability of
capitalism to secure popular consent via elections.  It reflects their anger
and frustration at their failure to grow the economy, to conquer and exploit
independent countries and to finance growing fiscal deficits.

The Amalgamation of Historical Populism with the Contemporary Fabricated

What the current anti-populists ideologues label ‘populism’ has
little to do with the historical movements.

Unlike all of the past populist governments, which sought to
nationalize strategic industries, none of the current movements and parties,
denounced as ‘populist’ by the media, are anti-imperialists.  In fact, the
current ‘populists’ attack the lowest classes and defend the
imperialist-allied capitalist elites.  The so-called current ‘populists’
support imperialist wars and bank swindlers, unlike the historical populists
who were anti-war and anti-bankers.

Ruling class ideologues simplistically conflate a motley
collection of rightwing capitalist parties and organizations with the
pro-welfare state, pro-worker and pro-farmer parties of the past in order to
discredit and undermine the burgeoning popular multi-class movements and

Demonization of independent popular movements ignores the
fundamental programmatic differences and class politics of genuine populist
struggles compared with the contemporary right-wing capitalist political
scarecrows and clowns.

One has only to compare the currently demonized ‘populist’
Donald Trump with the truly populist US President Franklin Roosevelt, who
promoted social welfare, unionization, labor rights, increased taxes on the
rich, income redistribution, and genuine health and workplace safety
legislation within a multi-class coalition to see how absurd the current
media campaign has become.

The anti-populist ideologues label President Trump a ‘populist’
when his policies and proposals are the exact opposite.  Trump champions the
repeal of all pro-labor and work safety regulation, as well as the slashing
of public health insurance programs while reducing corporate taxes for the

The media’s ‘anti-populists’ ideologues denounce pro-business
rightwing racists as ‘populists’.  In Italy, Finland, Holland, Austria,
Germany and France anti-working class parties are called ‘populist’ for
attacking immigrants instead of bankers and militarists.

In other words, the key to understanding contemporary
‘anti-populism’ is to see its role in preempting and undermining the
emergence of authentic populist movements while convincing middle class
voters to continue to vote for crisis-prone, austerity-imposing neo-liberal
regimes.  ‘Anti-populism’ has become the opium (or OxyContin) of frightened
middle class voters.

The anti-populism of the ruling class serves to confuse the
‘right’ with the ‘left’; to sidelight the latter and promote the former; to
amalgamate rightwing ‘rallies’ with working class strikes; and to conflate
rightwing demagogues with popular mass leaders.

Unfortunately, too many leftist academics and pundits are loudly
chanting in the ‘anti-populist’ chorus.  They have failed to see themselves
among the shock troops of the right.  The left ideologues join the ruling
class in condemning the corporate populists in the name of ‘anti-fascism’.
Leftwing writers, claiming to ‘combat the far-right enemies of the people’,
overlook the fact that they are ‘fellow-travelling’ with an anti-populist
ruling class, which has imposed savage cuts in living standards, spread
imperial wars of aggression resulting in millions of desperate refugees-not
immigrants –and concentrated immense wealth.

The bankruptcy of today’s ‘anti-populist’ left will leave them
sitting in their coffee shops, scratching at fleas, as the mass popular
movements take to the streets!