In 2013 the Left in Britain was thinking of Greece. That year, a ragtag coalition of Trotskyists and obscure communist splinter groups set up Left Unity, a party hailed by its activists as the British equivalent to Syriza. According to Andrew Murray, a senior figure in the trade union Unite and later an adviser to Jeremy Corbyn, Left Unity would inevitably fail because working-class voters in the UK remained deeply wedded to the Labour Party. “The British working class will support a ‘British Syriza’ when they regard the British Labour Party in the same way as the Greek working class regards PASOK. That is not where we are at present,” Murray wrote.
In the event, Murray was proven right. Less than two years later, in 2015, Left Unity gained a national total of 455 votes in a general election that saw the Liberal-Conservative coalition replaced by a small Conservative majority. The attempt at a British Syriza won less than half the votes of the pop-up party fronted by Bez, the maraca-wielding dancer from the Happy Mondays. For its part, despite a small favorable swing in the popular vote, Labour lost twenty-six of its MPs. The day after the election, Ed Miliband resigned as Labour’s leader — yet even the prescient Andrew Murray failed to predict what would happen next.
Unlike elsewhere in Europe, which has seen a surge of new left-wing parties in the 2010s, in the UK some of those same radical forces erupted within the 120-year-old Labour Party. As a skeptic of Left Unity’s chances might have pointed out, Britain’s electoral system is a decisive factor in explaining Labour’s persistent appeal. This first-past-the-post system based on geographical constituencies punishes smaller parties who are unable to accrue the most votes in any particular area. This also helps us understand why fiercely opposed political perspectives have historically inhabited Labour, typically referred to as a “broad church.”
Britain’s winner-takes-all democracy provided an opportunity for Corbyn, too. Across the West, with the exception of Greece, new left-wing parties have constantly failed to win power. But in 2017 in Britain’s largely two-party system, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party saw its biggest increase in vote share since 1945, rising to 40 percent. Labour denied the Tories a majority and gained an extra thirty seats in parliament.
It seemed conceivable back then that the UK’s electoral system could help get Corbyn over the line and into power. Thus, late in 2019, the Left’s gaze from Britain to Southern Europe was reversed. But the result was Labour’s worst in almost a century. While Syriza failed in power, other Western left populists have failed on their own to get that far. So, we might ask — is left populism over?
The Populist Condition
There is some agreement among commentators that the slippery concept “populism” amounts to “illiberalism.” In 2019, the Guardian reported comments by Barack Obama blaming populist movements for a contemporary “politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment” that, he claimed, would lead to authoritarianism. The problem, according to scholar Jan-Werner Müller, is that “in addition to being anti-elitist, populists are always anti-pluralist.” Perhaps illiberalism works as a definition for right-wing populism (although, we should ask, why not simply call this fascism?). But does this accurately describe left populism?
It appears that much like populists themselves, contemporary commentary has dispensed with the notion of a political left and right. Yet wherever distinctly left-wing movements have mobilized the populist idea of a “people” and an “elite,” these movements have also defended liberal democracy.
This is true however you slice the liberal-democratic ideal. In Spain, the staunchly republican Podemos mobilized a language of human rights, opposed government corruption, and has itself been the subject of an “arbitrary” use of political power. In Greece, Syriza sought to challenge a domestic oligarchy that has corrupted Greek politics, distorted the economy, and smothered the ideal of a free press. Left populists belonging to powerful, post-imperialist countries have called on the UN to mediate conflict abroad, rather than join the chorus for yet more failed attempts at unilateral aggression. Both Corbyn and Mélenchon responded to terror attacks in terms that sought to maintain the safety of citizens while also protecting their civil rights.
On Brexit, Corbyn went from one part of the liberal-democratic dyad to the other as his position shifted from supporting the democratic outcome of the referendum to joining the Supreme Court in opposing executive attempts to circumnavigate parliament in order to leave the EU. A general feature of all left populists has been the effort to avoid scapegoating minorities for issues that these movements have claimed are better understood in terms of class. In these ways and more, left populists have been more “liberal” than supposed centrists.
Populism, therefore, is better understood from a contextual point of view. For political sociologists like Peter Mair, populism is a means of linking increasingly fragmented voters with increasingly unaccountable leaders. Having left behind the era of the mass party as built upon relatively frozen voting blocs, such as those defined by class or religion, populism corresponds to a context in which these traditional representative linkages between the state and society have come undone. Populists deploy the concept of the “people” and the “elite” in order to build an electoral majority, often centered on voters who find themselves excluded in some way from a political status quo. In this sense, populism is a political strategy that corresponds to a sociological condition defined by atomization, while its success can depend on the existence of a representational crisis.
Where Did the Masses Go?
Liberal pundits tend to lack a coherent theory of change — or more specifically, of the agents of change. Indeed, in the classical liberal worldview (the one that populism scholars and commentators tend to defend), change is entrusted to experts, such as judges or scientists. The agent of change in such thought is the individual, acting rationally on his own or with his peers: a figure like Mill or Madison. Accordingly, liberal democracy is not achieved by means of democracy, since decisions made by the majority — as the liberal view of Brexit confirms — can lead to illiberal outcomes.
At the heart of this view is a fear of the masses. But in truth, it was only by such masses that many countries were made the liberal democracies that they are today. Britain’s majoritarian system was itself the product of constitutional changes in the latter half of the ninetieth century that crystallized into law a tension between an anxious middle class and the rising global tide of democracy.
As Adaner Usmani has empirically shown, everywhere the industrial working masses appeared there was a better chance of democracy. In fact, Usmani’s work shares an insight that was at the heart of The Communist Manifesto. A “distinct feature” of capitalist society, Marx and Engels foretold, was its “simplified class antagonisms.” Everywhere that capitalism went it gave rise to an industrial proletariat who, as compared to oppressed classes before it, had a unique capacity to act in common. What Usmani calls an increase in non-elite disruptive capacities, Marx and Engels described as “masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, organized like soldiers.”
What Marx and Engels failed to foresee was that the associations of proletarians — their parties and unions, foremost — became the bedrock of modern liberal democracy. After 1945, workers’ organizations in Western states were instituted as a counterbalance to the private force of capital. Then, after a brief and relatively anomalous “golden” period, the forward march of industrial labor came to a grinding halt.
The story of this defeat is a familiar one: a sweeping account will include not just open right-wingers like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but French Socialist president François Mitterrand’s turn to fiscal belt-tightening and the end of the USSR. In the welfare states of the West, the state’s role as a guarantor of full employment was reversed to become, in practice, a guarantor of low investment. The West, New York, and London above all, returned to their prewar status as entrepôts for global finance.
One alternative to populism, some leftists argue, is to rebuild the institutions of the working class from the bottom up, brick by brick. Since the 1960s, a libertarian strain of new left thought has told us that the working class “make themselves,” as E. P. Thompson’s history of the English working class famously put it. Social movement scholars and activists on the Left frequently corroborate this view: if class power comes from class struggle, then surely populism is a distraction from organizing the class. But is this really true?
As one of Perry Anderson’s well-known replies to Thompson pointed out, the working class was made in a certain context, just as much as it made itself. Indeed, according to Marx and Engels’s Manifesto of the Communist Party, it was the bourgeoisie who played the most “revolutionary part.” In this reading, workers may be the gravediggers, but industrial capital, which gave rise to an industrial army, is its own assassin.
Today, industry has all but departed and so, too, has the essential legal context in which trade unions operated at their postwar peak. Neoliberalism, as a distinctly authoritarian form of capitalism, rid the West of both. For the conditions that enable such enormous disruptive capacities to return the state would have to invest in manufacturing and reform labor law, much in the way left populists have proposed. This means the Left is in a bind: for want of an organized working class it is unable to assert social power outside the state, but it can’t radically enable the rebuilding of an organized working class without the state. Sociologically speaking, then, the strategic context for the Left still favors populist approaches.
While the broader social structure may necessitate left populism, the strategy faces two fundamental problems made clear by recent experience. The first concerns ideology. Since, if class struggle is the wellspring of popular class consciousness, but class struggle is structurally forestalled, then from what ideological resources can the Left draw?
While manufacturing and the legal basis for strong trade unions has been eradicated, important common-sense legacies of the working class’s earlier struggles have lived on. Ideas such as equality and solidarity, slogans such as “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” and institutions like the NHS all served as the ideological bedrock of Corbynism. Podemos, likewise, framed their agenda in terms of postwar social-democratic norms.
But on issues of national identity — posed by Brexit and Europe in Britain and France, and the Catalan question in Spain — traditional working-class ideological repertoires, especially as these relate to empire and chauvinism, deeply disoriented the Left. This divided the postindustrial part of the left-populist base from its more cosmopolitan millennial support.
While Corbyn, for example, could draw from a social-democratic repertoire in order to argue for public ownership, on Brexit he appeared to lack any source of popular common sense that could unify his base. Instead, on matters of national identity and prejudice, Labour fell back on its tradition of mobilizing economic interests. The party’s electoral slogan in 2019 talked of “real” change, which, Corbyn explained, meant “putting money in your pocket.” This attempt to square the circle of national identity with an appeal to economic rationality clearly failed.
The Corbyn experience highlights a second problem for the left-populist strategy — how to balance accountability with decisive and discursively powerful leadership. Corbyn could at times deploy a powerful left-populist rhetoric. But when unscripted, and as a mark of his character more broadly, he was far too “nice” — including toward factional opponents who were trying to destroy him.
While in the Conservative party, Boris Johnson sacked twenty-one of his rebellious MPs in a single day, Corbyn, for all the talk among members and commentators of deselection, adopted a traditional stakeholder-based model of party management. In 2015, the newly elected leader was rumored to have turned down a resignation offer from Iain McNicol, the former general secretary of the party and who, as a recently leaked report has shown, led a sociopathic band of clowns within the party apparatus who sought electoral failure as a price worth paying for undermining the Left. Many of the party’s MPs behaved little better.
In a sense, having developed from within the labor movement’s pluralist traditions, the Labour Party is constitutionally anti-populist. Its polyarchal sources of power — divided foremost between MPs, members, and unions (and with multiple divisions within each group) — act as a barrier to what Max Weber called “politics as a vocation.” Charisma, in Weber’s sense, is something of an anathema to the normal rules of conduct within the Labour Party.
In contrast, left-populist leaders with far less internal constraints have faced this problem from the opposite end. In the 2017 French presidential elections, Jean Luc Mélenchon broke through with almost 20 percent of the vote, only marginally missing out on the decisive second round. But Mélenchon’s electoral vehicle, La France Insoumise (LFI), failed to consolidate a broad electoral coalition. His populist (anti-)party attracted no less than half a million supporters, but if these new recruits acted at all it was largely in the capacity of a fan club, or digital party with Jean-Luc at its head.
The hollowness of this movement may help explain some of its leader’s more erratic behavior. Mélenchon’s reaction to a police raid on his offices — in which he exclaimed “la république, c’est moi!” — was widely perceived as embarrassing. His outburst appeared to encapsulate LFI’s failure to consolidate a base beyond its leader. Thus, in contrast to Labour, the power of charisma alone was fleeting.
Podemos also struggled to solidify after its initial insurgency. Like LFI, Podemos broke through with 20 percent of the vote in the national elections in Spain in 2015. This ruptured the country’s dominance by two parties to form a multiparty system. Yet this is the very context in which Podemos has suffered.
After the left populists’ “blitzkrieg” strategy lost its momentum, the top-heavy party has been dogged by public displays of factionalism centered on its two leading lights. Grassroots supporters have played a minimal role in the party’s democracy, mainly serving to “ratify” decisions: more as spectators than active participants. When the all-or-(almost)-nothing bet on power in 2016 failed to pay off, Podemos struggled to consolidate a broad base of activists while the party slipped in the polls. But in spite of these problems, it is far from obvious that a strategy led by Podemos’s radical grassroots would avoid far worse factionalism, splits, and electoral irrelevance.
A broad survey of the left-populist parties that have attempted to wed themselves to extraparliamentary movements reveals today little but vacated intent. Podemos’s “circles” have all but disappeared, LFI’s equivalent failed to develop, while Momentum in the UK functioned not at all as a social movement and only a little better as an intraparty faction. But it would be a mistake to blame all this on leadership “betrayals.” Rather, both leaders and movements are limited by an atomized social context.
A New Round?
After five years of Western left populism, the Left finds itself knotted in binds that are sociological, cultural, and party-organizational. In terms of its sociological base, the Left should come to terms with the reality that rebuilding traditional sources of counterpower will only happen after an election victory, if at all. Certainly, the Left must promote organizations capable of defending non-elite populations in a practical sense. But the working-class subject as we once knew it will not rematerialize in this way. Of all the binds the Left is knotted in, it may have rather more agency when it comes to problems of party democracy and culture.
Across much of the West, the COVID-19 crisis appeared at a moment when the crisis of representation that came into view after 2008 seemed to have been more or less foreclosed. In the UK, issues of low investment, austerity, and Brexit have ostensibly found a voice in Boris Johnson. Elsewhere, economic growth and employment levels had finally begun to recover, while “centrists” had found a source of continuity via Emmanuel Macron in France, Pedro Sánchez in Spain, Joe Biden in the United States, and, perhaps, Keir Starmer in Britain. But the dynamics of this new and profound crisis will provide the context in which popular demands will again go unanswered — and in which new alignments of voters can once again emerge.