What’s Left, What’s Right? What’s Populism?

Listening to almost anybody talk about American politics today unavoidably leaves one with the impression that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Populist? Nationalist? What do all those terms mean, if anything?


Click here for a glossary and lesson on political words. Click here for my previous analysis.

What one considers good or bad in politics depends on how one understands the idea of progress. Everything is moving in one direction or another all the time. A positive trend in politics is one that strengthens our side in the lifelong battle with our employers, or one that weakens the employers’ side. That’s progress.

Progressive for Whom?

If ordinary working people are strengthened by being more unified, or better informed, or by attaining positions of power, that’s progress. Progressive people are those who strengthen workers against their employers. Organizing a new union, for example, would be a progressive thing to do. Helping workers make good electoral decisions by providing useful information would be progressive.

Causing an unnecessary split in a workers’ organization is a reactionary event, the opposite of progressive.

“Left” and “Right” are Fuzzy Concepts

During the capitalist revolution in France around 1789, one group sat to the speakers’ left in parliament and another group sat to the right. That’s where we got “left wing” and “right wing,” but it’s really hard to tell what they mean today. Besides, everything is moving so what’s left today is right tomorrow!

If “Left” is Good, Then Is “Ultraleft” Even Better?

Serious activists might think “left” means “favoring the workers,” but “ultraleft” is a special term that does not mean “even more favorable toward the workers.” An ultraleft is an egotist willing to do anything, progressive or reactionary, to draw attention to themselves. Ultraleftism is a real pain in the movement. It’s been called “the infantile disorder.”

“Liberal” and “Conservative” are Confusing

If a liberal is a nice person who cares for others, what’s a neoliberal and why do the South Americans seem to hate them so? Is a neoliberal the same thing as a neoconservative or neocon? Actually, yes.

If a politician is racist and misogynistic, but votes for a giant boondoggle for his/her home district, is she/he a liberal or a conservative? If another politician is really stingy on government spending but promotes abortion and gay marriage, what is he/she?

Who’s Middle Class?

It’s common now to confuse “middle class” with “middle income.” I think the unions distorted the definition because union people, it’s true, make more money than other workers and, especially with overtime pay, often get into the middle income range.

The only useful meaning of “middle class” is that they’re neither bosses nor employees. So small shop owners, professionals, preachers, policemen, union staffers, and all the people “caught in the middle” in the great fight between workers and bosses, they’re the middle class.

The French revolutionaries called them “petit-bourgeoisie” or “small capitalists.” Ultraleft supercilious nut cases use it as a derogatory term.

Everybody hates being called middle class and will argue with you until they’re blue in the face about it, but if you can’t understand “middle class,” you probably can’t understand “worker” or “employer” either. Without clarity on those concepts, I don’t see how anybody understands anything about politics.

What’s a Populist?

It’s gotten popular today to talk about “populism of the left” and “populism of the right.” Supposedly clever people refer to Senator Bernie Sanders and Presidential Candidate Donald Trump that way. But what does it mean?

The populist movement of old was made up of agricultural interests banded together politically to fight against the industrialists who were taking over the nation. The populists lost. That battle has been over for some time.

Google says a populist is “A member of a political party claiming to represent the common people.” But don’t all politicians do that? Click here for Wikipedia’s treatment.

I’m pretty sure that what the pundits mean nowadays by “populist” is a candidate that doesn’t directly represent the employing class. As no candidate ever says he/she directly represents the employing class, it’s a pretty meaningless term.

What’s a Nationalist?

There are books on this. Nationalism, dividing people’s interests more or less by their region of origin, is usually divisive and hence reactionary. Not always, though. Groups of people fighting imperialist domination may be using nationalism in a very progressive way. People that use it to split the overall progressive movement, though, need to be avoided.

Think of the Class

If one sticks to the idea that workers are the only ones who can really overcome their employers, and that strengthening our side or weakening the employers’ side is the definition of “progressive,” one can be more clear in their communicating and their own thinking. Always, think of the class!

–Gene Lantz

Click here for more of these ideas


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