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21st Century Americanism

Populist symbolism can be powerful — but we can’t drop the old language of class.

Meeting of the Communist Party of the United States in Chicago, IL, 1939.

On April 26, 1935, the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) — at the time one of the most potent organizations on the American left, counting a total of 66,000 members — held its First American Writers’ Congress. Hosted by New York’s New School, the event was the CPUSA’s first meeting dedicated exclusively to the theme of political art; its task was to “extend the reach of the organization,” preparing a “decaying capitalism” for “the establishment of a workers’ government,” instantiated (rather meekly perhaps) through the medium of literature.

The list of attendees — Americans Mike Gold and James T. Farrell, literary lions such as André Malraux, Ford Madox Ford, and Louis Aragon — was reputable, to say the least. This impressive lineup, however, was not what made the conference famous. Rather, the Writers’ Congress owes its notoriety to one specific speech, given on the morning of second day: “Revolutionary Symbolism in America,” by literary critic Kenneth Burke, which still remains one of the most riveting texts ever written on the American left.

As Burke noted in his opening remarks to the conference:

“Myths” may be wrong, or they may be used to bad ends — but they cannot be dispensed with. In the last analysis, they are basic psychological tools for working together. A hammer is a carpenter’s tool; a wrench is a mechanic’s tool; and a “myth” is the social tool for welding the sense of interrelationship by the carpenter and the mechanic, though differently occupied, can work together for common social ends. In this sense a myth that works well is as real as food, tools, and shelter are.

Burke’s proposal was as simple as it was daring: he argued that communists had much to learn from the history of symbolism in America and, specifically, from the central category of American mythmaking: “the people.” “Just as the Church invariably converted pagans by making the local deities into saints,” he said, “one cannot extend the doctrine of revolutionary thought among the lower middle classes without using middle-class values.” That did not mean, he clarified, dropping “a proletarian emphasis … from revolutionary books. The rigors of the worker must continue to form a major part of revolutionary symbolism.” Nevertheless, he thought American communists should embrace an even more radical tactic: “the symbol I should plead for, as more basic, more of an ideal incentive, than that of the workers, is that of ‘the people.’”

Tactics and Ethics

Why “the people”? As a symbol, Burke claimed, it had manifold advantages. First, it had the “tactical advantage” of “pointing more definitely in the direction of unity.… It contains the ideal, the ultimate classless feature which is the revolutionary symbol of allegiance.” Additionally, “it can borrow the advantages of nationalistic conditioning,” and “at the same time b[e] used to combat the forces that hide their class prerogatives behind a communal ideology.” Further, “the people” offered a bridge to previous republican vocabularies that had long belonged to the American revolutionary tradition — the language of Jefferson, Franklin, and Paine, whose exaltation of the “yeoman-farmer” rhymed badly with the Marxist focus on the worker, who never had control of his or her tools and was initially dismissed as a mere “wage-slave” to his employer.

But Burke also acknowledged its dangers. He referred to a recent California naval strike, in which the Catholic demagogue Father Charles Coughlin had castigated a group of American strikers as “holding up the people.” With due vigilance, however, Burke thought the “propagandistic” value of the symbol was simply too great to be ceded to reactionaries. “A symbol must embody an ideal,” he said, “yet there are few people who really want to work … as a human cog in an automobile factory, or as gatherers of vegetables on a big truck farm. Such rigorous ways of life enlist our sympathies, but not our ambitions.” The worker was defined through its negativity, Burke claimed, so that the proletarian condition had become one of “dearth,” not positive content.

“The people,” in contrast, symbolized autonomy rather than heteronomy, capacity rather than lack: “I am suggesting that an approach based on the positive symbol of ‘the people,’ rather than upon the negative symbol of ‘the worker’ makes more naturally for this kind of identification whereby one’s political alignment is fused with broader cultural elements.”

The critic ventured even further. In a sense, Burke’s speech tried to convey a certain conceptual subversion. Unconsciously perhaps, he was aiming to rewrite the Marxist tradition itself, showing how a set of material preconditions was scarcely a sufficient criterion for revolutionary action, emphasizing the role revolutionary symbolism had to play in any Marxist politics.

Like another famous left dissident in the 1930s, Burke’s speech “had the discomforting feel of ideological deviance,” as one commentator noted; he was “doing Gramsci’s work before Gramsci,” a “historically independent Gramscian practice” before the “discovery of the popular front.”

Though Burke never used any specifically Gramscian expressions — notions such as “war of position,” “hegemony,” and “historical bloc” were unavailable — it was clear that he and the Italian communist were troubled by similar questions. One commentator has even argued Burke was an early proponent of Marxism’s so-called populist turn, inciting fellow socialists to join class with identity, the material with the symbolic. Burke was, to put it provocatively, Ernesto Laclau avant la lettre.

People and Volk

And, like Laclau, Burke’s audience met his speech with considerable apprehension. One German respondent warned:

A great danger reposes in this formulation of “the people.” Hitler and Rosenberg used it. They said, let us not talk any more about the workers, let us talk about the people.… If the proletariat can become a dangerous myth in the hands of reaction, how much more dangerous is the vague symbol of the people?

It was easy to see why these commenters rejected Burke’s suggestion. Some had recently fled Nazi persecutions; for them, co-optation of the words Volk and völkisch always had a suspicious ring. On the other side of the Atlantic, “the people” were the favored instrument of counterrevolution, just as when Father Coughlin commented that “the workers” were stopping “the people” in their path. “We must not encourage such myths,” Burke’s critic pleaded. Further, “we are not interested in myth. We are interested in revealing the reality. We set up the ‘symbol’ of the worker because of the role which the worker plays in reality.”

The symbol of the people, in contrast, was a product of the bourgeois revolution: the age of absolutism and the republican jacquerie, not the age of the industrial machine. “The bourgeoisie demanded the abolition of class privileges,” he continued, and “[t]herefore it had the following of all the people.” “Then it turned out that the people were divided into classes,” and “the word … became a reactionary slogan — not because of any philosophy of myths, but because it concealed the reality, the actual living antagonism between the social classes.”

“I can understand,” Burke replied, “how such resistance arises, since the many channels of thought are in control of reactionaries.” “I still insist,” however, “that [Communists’] function as propagandists will not be complete unless they do thus propagandize by not confining themselves to a few schematic situations, but engaging the entire range of our interests.”

Revolutionary Symbolism Today

Judging by the trajectory of European politics in the last five years — from the 2011 protest movements to the success of left-wing populist movements in recent national elections — few of Burke’s arguments seem to have lost their pertinence. Debates on whether left-wing movements ought to prioritize the “worker” or the “people,” the “classes” or the “masses,” “identity” over “interest,” occupy an even more prominent place within left-wing annals, often producing fierce disagreements. And nowhere has this debate between symbolists and materialists been waged with more intensity than in the debate on left-wing populism.

It is, of course, difficult to pin down exactly what such a left-populism should mean — particularly from a Laclauian perspective. Seen from the perspective of classical Marxism, such a trade-off between class and mass seems ambiguous at best; at worst, it is positively dangerous.

Already in in her 1986 work The Retreat From Class, Canadian historian Ellen Meiksins Wood castigated Ernesto Laclau and his poststructuralist cohort for abandoning classical materialism for a linguistic determinism. More recently, American philosopher Jodi Dean has reiterated Wood’s accusation in a longer reflection on left-populism. “Compatible with different political regimes” she notes, “populism is the politics of constructing a political identity via the articulation of a chain of equivalences.” Following Laclau, she claims that “populism is indifferent to its setting, as if there were no material determinations of political possibility.” From this perspective, she states, “the state and the economy are taken as given.… Populist politics operates within the parameters of the given” and “doesn’t try to change [it].”

Dean’s main accusation, however, is that left-wing populism is itself an enthusiastic participant in the most contested political tactic of our age — namely, identity politics. A final “problem with left populism,” she claims, “is its continued embrace of identity as a central category. The cultural and electoral politics of the last few years have demonstrated the complete saturation of identity as a political category.” Alongside an empirical claim that populism has hindered the Left’s strategic effectiveness, Dean argues that this phenomenon is a symptom of a widespread error on the Left, which finds itself unable to return to the basics of Marxian political economy. “Just like the politics of multitudes and affinity groups,” Dean claims, “so does populism occlude … the fundamental antagonism at the heart of capitalism: capitalism requires proletarianization, the production and reproduction of the exploited and immiserated, those with nothing to sell but their own labor power.”

One cannot help but be reminded of the charges originally leveled at Burke back in 1935. Myths? Aren’t myths dangerous? Isn’t the symbol of “the people” bourgeois (or, even worse, petty bourgeois)? Where is the proletariat? Where, in the end, is labor power, class organization, class independence? And where on God’s green earth is capitalism?

Burke himself repeatedly insisted that he was not willing to renounce the essence of the Marxian critique of political economy, certainly not on an epistemological level; his plea for a populist aesthetics, it seems, situated itself purely on the level of language and propaganda — he thought that the language of class and that of the people were historically compatible, as if the one could be tactically subsumed under the other. In other words, “people” could become a tactical expression, but would not come to dominate in matters of strategy.

Like other communists at the conference, Burke referred to a longer history of American socialism, including Eugene V. Debs, who had found no problem squaring the circle of identity and interest. And there was certainly no irreconcilable dichotomy for the original American Populism of the 1890s, to which Debs enthusiastically belonged before becoming a Kautskyian Marxist. As American historian Charles Postel noted in a recent essay, “at its core Populism represented interest-based and class-based farmer-labor politics,” with a “cooperative commonwealth to be realized by way of majoritarian electoral democracy,” sharing considerable “ideological terrain with other labor and evolutionary socialist movements.”

Yet contemporary left-wing populism seems barely aware of this fact. It often shrugs its shoulders at the fact that the very cradle of modern “populism” (the term was first coined to describe the People’s Party) did not necessarily seek a coalition based on identity. Firmly grounded in the notion of identity — an “exclusionary form of identity politics,” as one critic has recently argued — left-wing populism has had tremendous difficulty acknowledging the importance of class in capitalism’s changing formation over the last thirty years.

As William Davies has warned, contemporary populism in this sense seems to “perpetuat[e] certain aspects of ‘neoliberal reason’” in targeting “those with a monopoly on representation such as journalists, scholars, established political parties” rather than “those with a monopoly on production” (thereby implying “a further radicalisation of a neoliberal logic,” as he rather unfairly claims).

Perhaps we should even be alert to the danger of left-wing populism becoming a mere “anti-particularist” identity politics, a charge often leveled by liberal critics such as Jan-Werner Müller, which, though essentially dishonest, is not always off the mark. In contrast to the more micro-political forms of identitarianism (so visible on the Anglo-Saxon left), such a populism might never even venture onto the terrain of political economy, self-sufficiently relying on the process of identity formation without ever asking what such popular identities are meant to achieve politically in the first place. (Politics, we must never forget, is ultimately about what one does, not about what or who one is.)

It might also seem tempting to dismiss such questions as academic hair-splitting. Why does it matter if we choose identity over interest, mass over class, as long as the rhetoric gets us where we want to be? Why not use both? People and class — the “popular” as the “highest stage of socialist politics,” as Laclau proposed in 1977?

But how does such an excessive focus on identity formation work in practice? The last great instance of left-wing populism on the European continent — the so-called Greek spring of 2015 — was characterized by immensely fruitful mobilizations. In late June, as the Greek referendum grew closer, Syriza’s leadership drew no less than 150,000 protesters to Syntagma Square, bringing back memories of the anti-regime campaigns of the 1970s.

Yet we cannot equate the capacity to mobilize or effectively deploy a discursive reservoir (in this instance, the lore of Greek nationalism) with politics per se. And as the Syriza episode illustrated so painfully, the capacity to organize does not guarantee the capacity to command institutional change — in this case, a shake-up of the eurozone’s architecture. An equivalent front might be formed (the Greek people), an enemy defined (the European oligarchy), edifying symbols gathered (“OXI!”), resistance expressed in a supreme act of symbolism (a plebiscitary acclamation). But then, inevitably: disorientation, betrayal, disintegration, anger, and resentment (in that order) — only to end in complete and utter nihilism, with Alexis Tsipras signing an anti-strike bill in late January 2018. Symbolism was hardly sufficient to bring austerity to an end, and even the most popular myths could not undo the depravity of the new EU memoranda.

All these things, of course, were far from Burke’s mind in 1935. And yet, his plea for a “symbolic politics” did not fall on deaf ears. In a 2003 review of Burke’s speech, historians Ann George and Jack Selzer sought to combat the “legend of Burke’s marginalization at the Congress,” too often promulgated in later accounts. In fact, as they pointed out, “Burke’s recommendation that ‘the people’ ought to be substituted for ‘the worker’ in Communist Party symbolism … was actually in moderate keeping with the Congress’s broad aim.” Burke, they claimed “was not so much marginalized by the Congress as identified with its controversies.”

Reconsidering Identity

The attempt to think Marxism with identity — in short, the attempt to think a left-wing populism — has always held dangers. One should remain vigilant of those dangers even today. The scenario of a populism that never goes beyond identity — the same gambit as that of the alt-right — remains a serious threat.

We should neither accept the intellectual blackmail that pits “the people” against “the class,” nor should we forget the structural bargain involved in trading the language of class for that of the people, as is too often presupposed in contemporary musings on left-populism.

History serves as an ominous precedent here. As Burke spoke in New York, the CPUSA was steadily preparing its absorption into the Popular Front — and, consequently, its absorption into the Democratic Party as such. At the same time, the Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James gave a different verdict on the behavior of the foremost European Communist Party: “[t]he French Communist Party,” he noted in 1934, “summons the whole French ‘nation’ to ‘struggle against two hundred families’; such is the Marxism of the most powerful section of the Third International.” James saw little revolutionary potential in such a strategy. “If it were a question of two hundred families,” he finished, “the whole matter could be settled any morning between nine and eleven.”

Interestingly, between nine and eleven in the morning also appeared to be the time at which Burke delivered his lecture at the Writers’ Congress — and we know that for Burke, few things were ever settled in such a short span of time.