Neo-Populism?

Rebecca Hill hillx018 at maroon.tc.umn.edu
Sun Feb 12 20:25:32 MST 1995


  John Beasley's Murray's definition of populism as class politics I think
articulated in the "interests" of another totality (i.e. the people/the
nation etc.) seems right to me (and fairly similar to my original point,
actually). I still like to be specific and tie it to a particular brand of
quasi-nationalist agrarianism. These movements may not be entirely
"popular" in shape however, and are often influenced by leaders from the
ruling class who claim membership with "just plain folks" in the manner of
a Ross Perot. Perot, I think is more of a populist rhetoritician than
Reagan, whose show of wealth and whose ties to "making the
business of America be business" seems to put him more in the Louis
Bonaparte category.
   However, the actual populist party in the United States had the goal of
creating a union between industrial and farm workers (a good book on this
is Lawrence Goodwyn's _The Populist Moment_) departed from the model of
"populism" However, the basic hostility to conspiratorial
elites/ and "outsiders" was still there, and eventually could be exploited
by racist demogogues such as Tom Watson, who used a rhetoric of the people
to attack Catholics, Jews, and African-Americans.
     Basically, I think populism is an "aestheticization" of class in the
terms described by Walter Benjamin in his essay on Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction. To a degree, this kind of "aestheticization" is
necessary - according to Laclau it's a "discursive" move creating an
antagonism between us/them that creates a "populist rupture" and which is
ultimately ideologically neutral. However, I think Laclau uses "populist"
too loosely in that essay (Populist Rupture and Discourse) because surely,
every split between "us/them" is not an articulation based on "the people"
vs. the "foriegn" - this would imply that every articulation of one's
oppression was "aesthetic" (discursive?), and not based in *any* material
conditions - thus all politics are "aesthetic" and therefore "populist."
But, being not really post-Marxist, I still believe that some politics are
more "cultural" than others. Oh me. I find Laclau's work very hard to
understand, so I could be way off here.
  -Rebecca  Hill

p.s. on Narodnaya Volya debate: I looked up more on the Russian Populists
after getting the heated reply that the pamphlet must be a forgery from
Justin Shwartz and found that not only has the document been discussed at
length by historians (Dave Offord, for one), but Kropotkin, Korba, and
Lavrov have all publicly denounced this pamphlet written by Exec. committee
member Romanenko in writing. One member of the party, Figner destroyed
rather than distributing the pamphlet, and then Jewish Populist, Pavel
Axelrod (later to be a Menshevik) was discouraged from replying to the
pamphlet by Narodnik Chernoperedeltsey on the basis that such a reply
from a Jew might "alienate the peasants." Axelrod became a social
democrat not long after this. So, Why defend the populists? Do we need
saints? It is better to recognize existing flaws and mistakes than to
ignore them and risk making a model out of a potentially problematic
political ideology.
    Also, J. Shwartz has confused his Russian populist
history. Narodnaya Volya of pre 1881 and of post 1881 were somewhat
different. The time of greatest Jewish membership occurred after 1885, when
some urban Jewish radicals attempted to revive what one historian referred
to as a "dying party." During the time of the 1881 pogroms, the executive
committee had only 3 Jewish members out of 31.  I think that if the
populists (if they were anything like the rest of the Russian population of
the time) were probably invested enough in anti-semitic culture to
marginalize those 3 Jews pretty thoroughly. The point is not to demonize
the Russian populists to the core, but rather to demonstrate that a
rhetoric based on "the people" vs. "the foriegn conspiracy of capitalists"
often lends itself to classic anti-semitism.

-Rebecca Hill



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