Workers' History Museum leaderboard

Popular participation, not populism

Social MovementsSocialism

Photo by Emilio Pedros

The struggle for the vote for workers and for women was resisted at every stage, and when universal suffrage was finally won, every effort was made to blunt and control its impact through institutional devices. These included second chambers, disproportional electoral systems, executive powers and, most importantly, a rigid separation of politics from economics. Any historical study shows us that the elites, political and economic, fear the demands, desires and collective power of the people. Hence it must be mediated and dissipated before it touches on the centres of power. The end result is minimalist democracy: periodic votes choosing different leaders.

This minimalist democracy has eased the steady growth of corporate power and its influence over the state. As the post-war generation, brought up to believe that democracy was worth dying for, discovered how little it meant, a modern Chartist movement broke out across the world, to deepen it. It was a movement for participatory democracy, among students, workers, women and communities, all demanding and taking control in a huge variety of ways of the institutions that shaped their lives.

‘Communists!’ screeched the liberal elites, as the cold war gained a short-lived boost in parts of the west, including in social democratic parties, which effectively rebuffed a whole generation of young activists and excluded them from mainstream political life. For a period this succeeded in marginalising the new left – and leaving the way open to the new right.

When the cold war was over and the free market right victorious, the new participatory left nevertheless continued to grow and make significant breakthroughs, most notably in Latin America in the 1990s. At this point, liberal elites screeched ‘populism’ as their term of abuse, for Lula’s Workers Party, Evo Morales’ Socialist Movement, and Chavez’s successful overthrow of Venezuela’s military dictatorship.

In response, Argentinian political theorist Ernesto Laclau (1935-2014) exposed this attack for what it was and still is: a class-based contempt and fear of the people as self-determining political actors; a thoroughly anti-democratic rejection of the ‘intrusion’ of workers and peasants into the sacred citadels of government. His long-time collaborator, Chantal Mouffe, has followed this with a powerful analysis of the tensions between liberalism and democracy. She shows how democracy, with its concern with inequality, will never flourish if it remains subordinate to liberalism, through which equality is sidelined by an abstract and therefore partial notion of freedom.

While there is much of value in both their analyses, their solution – to assert, from the left, the need for ‘a political frontier’ that divides society into two camps, calling for the mobilisation of the ‘underdog’ against ‘those in power’, ‘them’ and ‘us’ – is not a sufficient condition for an effective transformative strategy.

Arguably, such a reframing is a necessary condition for gaining a popular hearing electorally. Certainly, the rightward move towards a self-satisfied consensual centre, highlighted by Mouffe, left the electoral battlefield wide open to the populist right. But breaking the constraining hold of liberalism – and a proper challenge the inequalities that feed the right –– requires a more structural reconfiguration of politics and capitalism than this.

Liberating democracy

To achieve such a structural break, I start with liberalism’s insistent separation of politics from economics, often with the complicity of the workers’ movement’s parliamentary and trade union leaderships. The result is a narrow form of representation in which individual citizens are treated as ‘equal’ voters in an entirely abstract and atomistic manner, rather than as part of embedded social, and at present unequal, relationships. It is a political process that consequently tends to disguise rather than expose inequalities, and protects rather than challenges private economic power. It is no wonder that this separation was integral to the transition to democracy in a capitalist market economy.

To achieve the necessary structural break, liberating democracy from liberalism, an understanding is required of citizenship as social, economic and situated. This is the ‘socialisation’ of politics that Natalie Fenton describes [in an article titled Digital, political, radical in the latest edition of Red Pepper magazine]. In today’s societies, it implies an engagement with electoral politics while at the same time strongly challenging with collective power what has become of the universal franchise: an abstract, formal political equality in a society that is fundamentally unequal. This implies a political party or a political leader that engages supportively in economic and social struggles directly challenging inequalities hidden by the political system, at the same time as championing the wider societal changes that these struggles require in electoral politics.

A classic, and for a period of over 15 years successful, example of such a strategy would be that of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT) in the City of Porto Alegre. There, a radical mayor, Olívio Dutra, did not simply galvanise power against the elite. Instead, he turned his electoral success into the base from which to share power with the poor citizens from the favelas and other areas of the city normally excluded from political decision-making. He supported their organisations to build a process of popular participation in the municipal budget, a process that became known as ‘participatory budgeting’, which linked politics and economics in a way that began to overcome the deep inequalities of the city.

This experience, and similar ones where the party is as engaged with economic and social struggles as well electoral activities, points to party membership having a double-sided character, carrying out the work of representation simultaneously with building extra-parliamentary social and economic organisations. Moreover, this involvement would be not especially as leaders but as fellow activists, contributing to and sharing their particular sources of power and knowledge. For these characteristics to be sustainable, such a new kind of party would require specific organisational forms to counter the pressures drawing representatives into the flytrap of parliamentary politics, with all its tendencies towards a separate political class. In the end, the PT failed to develop these and in efforts to win office above all else it succumbed to the corruption endemic in Brazilian politics.

At least through its experience we had a glimpse of a different kind of politics. A politics based on popular participation, and forms of popular sovereignty based on complex institutions of economic democracy and popular control against a multiplicity of enemies, as much as on the simple division between the elite and the people.

What kind of leader?

What does this imply for notions of leadership, which play a special role in both left and right populism at present? By contrast with the narrative of the leader as a champion of the people against the elite, in effect monopolising the position of leader, the view of Tony Benn on leadership would be more relevant. He said: ‘Years ago I came across a quotation from an old Chinese philosopher called Lao Tzu who said, as to the best leaders – the people do not notice their existence. The next best – the people honour and praise. The next best, they hate. The next best, they fear. But when the best leaders’ work is done – the people say we did it ourselves.’ ‘That,’ concludes Benn, ‘is my reading of progress.’

This does not imply passivity and absence of strategy. It is consistent with a dual strategy of a strong electoral challenge to the political class, rooted in practical supportive collaboration with people exercising their transformative capacities not as ‘the masses’ but as specifically located economic and social actors working around particular struggles driven by common values.

Encouragement, facilitation and support are the key here, as distinct from a leader who draws people to him or her as their ‘voice’. Encouragement to believe in themselves and their own power rather than displace it to another.

This surely is the best way that Momentum can support Jeremy Corbyn, taking a cue from his own leadership, which is always saying, in effect, that if there is a hospital closure or a private takeover of your school, don’t come to me – get organised, occupy, build a campaign to defend and control it (see, for example, Reclaiming Holloway Homes). In other words, it is a form of leadership that frees democracy from liberalism through supporting citizens in asserting their popular sovereignty over the conditions of material daily life by getting organised as workers, as hospital users, as teachers, as students, as parents – and as citizens capable of mutual self-government.

Hilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper’s editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute.

This article originally appeared on


Our Times 3

Browse the Archive