[Marxism] A forwarded message on class

Haines Brown brownh at hartford-hwp.com
Sun Dec 17 07:13:07 MST 2006

> "ek starts by saying that I prefer populism to class struggle (see
> p. 554). This is a rather nonsensical way of presenting the
> argument. It suggests that populism and class struggle are two
> entities actually existing in the world, between which one would
> have to choose, such as when one chooses to belong to a political
> party or to a football club.  The actual fact is that my notion of
> the people and the classical Marxist conception of class struggle
> are two different ways of conceiving the construction of social
> identities, so that if one is correct the other has to be
> dismissed—or, rather, reabsorbed and redefined in terms of the
> alternative view. [...] "

This statement is a bit imprecise and could lead to
misunderstanding. Technically, the first sentence should be, "I prefer
thinking in terms of populism to class struggle...". The issue here is
not two different movements that are contradictory, but two different
ways to represent them in thought. I'll assume here my supposition is

What is at heart here and what I will conclude is that it is not here
are not simply two contradictory representations of a social reality,
but two different class positions from which those representations are
made. That is, they are both one-sided viewpoints that result from
one's class location. They are ideological; each has truth value for a
particular class.

What is "populism"? According to my dictionary, it is a struggle for
the rights and power of the common people. To sharpen the analysis,
let's assume these common people are the the same as the modern
working class. That is not quite accurate, but it helps to assume it
at least provisionally.

Although class struggle might also be for the rights and power of the
same people as populism, as the quotation above suggests, they are
entirely different ways to represent rights and powers. In Marxist
terms, working class struggle is determined by the real capacities and
the unmet needs of the working class that have emerged because of
capitalist contradictions. That is, working class struggle depends on
workers not just knowing their real unmet needs, which is easy enough,
but also their real potentials. These potentials are real
"unobservables" and therefore more difficult to grasp. One needs a
scientific understanding of the capitalist system to expose them -
i.e., Marxism.

On the other hand, populism does not seem to rest on any such real
basis that necessarily contradicts the capitalist order. Rights are
something that was promised by the capitalist state right at its
beginning, and on the whole it has delivered on that promise. The
suggestion that rights are natural and essential to all individuals
simply harks back to the roots of capitalist ideology. Power might
seem to be otherwise, but in fact it is not. Power is an abstraction,
and so we must ask what particular form it takes. Power is usually
thought to be a democratically based leverage over the state. If so,
like rights, it presumes the the capitalist state.

The point I'm trying to make is rather subtle. While class struggle
and populism both presume the capitalist order. The former is a result
of capitalist contradictions and necessarily contradicts capitalism
because it is the real effects of capitalism's contradiction. Embedded
within capitalism is its own radical critique. Populism, on the other
hand, responds to the promises of capitalism, not its reality, and it
does not challenge capitalism except to force it to realize its own
ideals. As a result, it is intrinsically reformist. Of course, such
reform deepens capitalism's contradictions, which in turn makes class
struggle more possible and necessary.

So I'll end by suggesting that populism is a kind of preliminary or
catalyst for class struggle. If it fails to result in class struggle
it can well end up as fascism as history shows. If so, what of the
quotation's suggestion that class struggle and populism are
contradictory ways of seeing things? The only way in which the two
notions of people's struggle are contradictory is that class struggle
is the ideology specific to the working class, while populism is an
ideology within and defined by the capitalist order. That is, it is
bourgeois ideology held by members of the working class.

Rights and political power do not at all contradict the capitalist
system, but move its development forward; class struggle necessarily
contradicts capitalism. The former is radical and revolutionary; the
latter is reformist and implicitly represents capitalist
ideology. This is not to say that popular power and rights are not
important and should not be pursued, but only that their pursuit does
not contradict capitalism, which is the ultimate goal, but only
deepens its contradictions. The former is a strategy; the latter a

Haines Brown

More information about the Marxism mailing list