The same term is often employed by different people with different meanings, and this can be a source of immense confusion. The World Bank has done this to good effect in the past, taking over terms that are being used in a particular sense, especially by the Left, and using them in a very different sense, in order to create deliberate confusion and exploit in some way the sympathetic feeling that the term had attracted from people in its initial usage. “Structural adjustment” is a prime example of such appropriation by the World Bank. In its initial usage it had suggested that the market solution was inadequate in third world countries, and what was needed was “structural change” associated with changes in property relations, such as land reforms. But the World Bank used the term “structural adjustment” to mean the very opposite, namely to avoid any change in property relations and to introduce “free markets” everywhere.
The term “civil society” used by Hegel, and often mentioned by Marx, is another obvious example. “Civil Society” in their writings was to be distinguished from the State, and referred to the whole ensemble of social relations (which according to Marx were determined ultimately by the property relations within which production was carried out). But nowadays the term is used essentially to refer to the NGOs which are designated to be “Civil Society Organizations”.
A very similar fate is now being visited, alas, upon the term “populism”. The term is being used these days to refer to a tendency to create, or to pander to, a mood among the people that is anti-elite, anti-intellectual, and is suffused with a certain primordial unreasoning majoritarianism. Thus Donald Trump is said to arouse “populism”; the Brexit vote is said to reflect “populist” sentiments. In both cases the reference is to the revival of racist or xenophobic feelings among a majority group, feelings which might have been dormant earlier or lying dormant for some time, but are now being deliberately re-kindled. The term “populism” in this usage is close to terms like “fascism”, “semi-fascism”, “quasi-fascism” and so on. In fact given the context of the economic crisis which has hit people hard and created the conditions for the emergence of “populism” in this sense, and also the fact that those promoting such “populism” invoke a “nationalism” without at the same time taking any explicit stand against the hegemony of finance, the affinity with “fascism” is quite strong.
But while the term “populism” these days is often used as a euphemism for “fascism” or “semi-fascism”, this is not always the case. The jallikattu agitation in Tamil Nadu for instance has been described as “populist”. While it has something in common with the Trump-style movement, it is obviously not invoking some particular group of people as the “other”, and therefore differs greatly from such movements. A more general characterization of the term “populism” in its current usage as an anti-elite, anti-intellectual, “irrational” majoritarianism therefore seems to be altogether more apt.
This however is very different from the way the term has been traditionally understood in the Marxist literature. “Populism” here refers not to an anti-intellectual mood among the people but to a very specific intellectual tendency, which sees the people, especially the peasantry, as a more or less homogeneous group not already divided into classes and not experiencing any strong process of differentiation. The Russian Narodniks were “populists” in this sense. They believed that a direct transition could be made from the Russian village commune, the mir, to socialism without going through a phase of capitalist development. And Vera Zasulich, a leading Narodnik, had written to Karl Marx seeking his opinion on such a possibility.
The Narodniks were revolutionaries. The intellectual tendency of “populism” attributed to them had nothing to do with any fascism, semi-fascism or quasi-fascism; they were “populists” only in contrast to the social democrats: they saw the peasantry as the leading revolutionary force as opposed to the working class that the social democrats saw as leading the revolution; they saw the peasantry as being undifferentiated; and they envisaged a direct transition from the mir to socialism. Indeed many of them, Vera Zasulich included, later joined the Social Democratic Party; and Zasulich, along with Plekhanov, Axelrod, Lenin, Martov and Potressov, was on the editorial board of Iskra the journal of the Russian Social Democrats.
Lenin had written his classic work The Development of Capitalism in Russia as an intellectual critique of the Narodnik position, in which he had argued on the basis of detailed statistics that capitalism was developing rapidly in Russia, because of which the old Russian mir had disintegrated, giving rise to differentiation within the peasantry, and a working class had emerged that could, as in other capitalist countries, provide leadership to the Russian Revolution even in its democratic phase.
The Narodniks and the Trump phenomenon are thus as far apart as chalk and cheese. No single concept can possibly unite them. Hence when the term “populism” is being used for the Trump phenomenon, it is being used in a completely different sense compared to its use in describing the Narodniks. Not drawing this distinction can be a source of immense confusion in Marxist ranks.
The intellectual tendency of “populism” as understood in the Marxist literature was not confined only to the Narodniks of the old days. It is a strong and persistent tendency, especially in extant peasant societies. All theories emphasizing the primacy of the “country-versus-city” contradiction, fall into this category, since they see an undifferentiated “country” being exploited by an undifferentiated “city”. Even refracted forms in which the primacy of the “country-versus-city” contradiction often appears, such as the “organized sector” exploiting the “unorganized sector”, or the “formal sector” exploiting the “informal sector”, which were much in vogue at a time when the organized working class was seen as a “privileged class”, a beneficiary of the “unequal exchange” imposed upon the unorganized sector by the organized sector, can broadly (though arguably) be said to belong to such a “populist” tradition.
When the development of capitalism is weak, such as in pre-revolutionary Russia (where, notwithstanding Lenin’s labours, there is no gainsaying that compared to Western Europe Russia had a lesser degree of capitalist development), or in colonial economies, that is, when the working class is a small force and the question of its being or not being a “privileged class” is not even very relevant, the tendency towards “populism”, towards perceiving society in “country-versus-city” terms, is particularly strong. Indeed a good deal of Gandhi’s writings can be described as falling into the genre of “populism” in the Marxist sense.
In the more recent period, the late V.M. Dandekar the economist who propounded, on the basis of J.K. Galbraith’s writings, that in India it was the organized sector, consisting of both “organized capital” and “organized labour”, which exploited the unorganized sector, can be said to belong to this genre of “populism”. Such “populism” in the Indian context, however, where it always was inaccurate, since even the organized workers had been a perennially marginalized group, has died out completely under the impact of neo-liberalism: the fact that the “working people” as a whole have been severely squeezed under the new dispensation, makes any allusion to the primacy of the “country-versus-city” contradictions obviously inappropriate.
In Russia itself, even after the Bolshevik Revolution, there had been a revival of the “populist” tradition, or an emergence of what has been called “neo-populism”, in the writings of A.V. Chayanov, who had denied the existence of any tendency towards differentiation among the peasantry, arguing instead that the observed differences in farm-size were because of differences in family-size. This was completely contrary to the Marxist intellectual tradition on the agrarian question, articulated inter alia by Kautsky and Lenin, which sees capitalist commodity production giving rise to a differentiation within the peasantry, and its division into a proto-capitalist class of rich peasants on the one side and a semi-proletarian class of poor peasants on the other.
This entire line of thinking which is a serious intellectual tradition, with which Marxism has been in continuous engagement and conflict, and which Marxists have generally understood as “populism”, must be distinguished from the Trump-style movements, that are springing up all over the world at the current juncture, which are also being described by the same term. We have once more in other words the same term being used to describe entirely diverse phenomena; we must be on guard against the possible confusion that this is likely to generate.