Book Reviews Essays Political Theory Reviews

Pre-Marxism in the Last Instance: A Review of Chantal Mouffe’s “For a Left Populism”

by Brant Roberts
“The current political order is riddled with obstacles along legal and economic lines, not to mention the concrete structure of the state, making social democratic reforms appear more utopian than communism.”

“An effective Jacobin force was always missing, and could not be constituted; and it was precisely such a Jacobin force which in other nations awakened and organised the national-popular collective will, and founded the modern states.” – Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

“Bonaparte would like to appear as the patriarchal benefactor of all classes. But he cannot give to one class without taking from another.” – Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Eva Perón devora las entrañas del Che Guevara by Daniel Santoro (2008)

For a Left Populism. Chantal Mouffe. New York: Verso, 2019. 112pp. $16.95 pb.

For many organizations across the left-spectrum, the recession of 2010 was an opportunity. A host of figureheads, from David Harvey to Tariq Ali, began to push for alternative solutions amidst the popular movements in Spain, Greece, United States, Tunisia, Bahrain, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and elsewhere. These alternatives were embodied in opposition not only to establishment politics but also the practice of politics itself. The new parties that emerged from these movements – in particular, Podemos in Spain, La France Insoumise in France, Syriza in Greece, as well as new progressive factions of the Labour Party in Great Britain and the Democratic Party in the US – were left to oppose the status-quo of neoliberalism, while also rejecting the possibility of building a similar model of Soviet socialism or any of the various political alternatives that shaped the global south during the last century. With the latter, there were the mixed experiences of socialism across Eastern Europe; with the former, the stale and lifeless form of politics akin to what Chantal Mouffe calls ‘post-democracy.’ However, what these new parties have taken for alpine-clarity has been a half-baked Jacobinism, embodying more pre-Marxism than the post-Marxism they claim to practice.[1]

Leading this political approach, Chantal Mouffe’s For a Left Populism is more of an intervention into the debates surrounding her well-known works co-authored with her late partner Ernesto Laclau than a new body of work. Those works ranging from Hegemony and Socialist Strategy to On Populist Reason. Standing at 98 pages, it is a relatively short book, but its rigorousness gives it a surprising density. What follows is as much a book review as a critique of left populism.

Notes Towards a Critique of Post-Marxism

Within the introduction, a variety of claims are made in order to build the argument for left-populist strategy. The first is her insistence on an anti-essentialist approach that falls deeply into essentialism. Missing the forest for the trees, Mouffe writes “I am convinced that so many socialist and social democratic parties are in disarray because they stick to an inadequate conception of politics,” critiquing the deficiencies of essentialism in the context of the political [2]. At the same time, as the book continues, Mouffe herself falls short of properly addressing these “inadequate conceptions.” While there is no doubt that these parties, particularly in Europe, have terrible political practices, she never once considers what has structured their conception of politics. Throughout the book she leaves aside the structure of the imperialist world system based on the enforced exploitation of labor forces and financial markets in the global south via the threat of sanctions and war – both equally destructive forces – and the role played by the governments of Western Europe in maintaining this arrangement. It should be no surprise then that the socialist and social democratic parties of these countries maintain an inadequate conception of politics.

Mouffe defines left populism as “[a] discursive strategy of construction of the political frontier between ‘the people’ and ‘the oligarchy”[3]. Before proceeding further in our discussion of the book as a whole, it is worth delving into the specific language and framing that Mouffe uses in her definition. Firstly, its sociological schema gives the impression that the matter of left populism is purely polemical in nature, and unfortunately, this has been historically accurate, as the strategy of left populism never seriously rises above discourse. Also worth noting is the term ‘political frontier,’ which refers to the space between left populism and right populism. It is at this juncture that several problems are revealed – the first is the term right populism, or right-wing populism, itself. Although reference to ‘right populism’ signifies a hazardous relation to left populism, or left-wing populism, neither of these two forces share any significant ideas. This leads to an inevitable question: why use the term ‘populist’ at all? The second problem is that by grouping various ideologies under populism we give too much credibility to those parties and personalities that could just as easily be called fascist. Rather than obfuscating different political realities with shared terminologies, we should draw sharp distinctions. For example: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is a fascist and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is a socialist.

Mouffe goes on to state,

“… in neoliberal capitalism new forms of subordination have emerged outside of the productive process. They have given rise to demands that no longer correspond to social sectors defined in sociological terms and by their location in the social structure. Such claims – the defense of the environment, struggles against sexism, racism and other forms of domination – have become increasingly central. This is why today the political frontier needs to be constructed in a populist transversal mode.”[4]

While these demands correspond to social categories outside of the social structure on the surface, when the roots are lifted from the soil their true essence is revealed. First, struggles against sexism and racism are far from new whether in Western Europe, or in the US where white supremacy has always been a key element of both political life and the productive process. Second, the class-based responses to these social categories are almost always different, from the rebellions of 2020 to climate change protest. In the case of the latter response, the American and Western European ruling classes have countered with the Green New Deal (GND), which seeks to maintain the same economic order in which the global north exploits the global south, but instead of extracting petroleum and coal, they seek lithium and cobalt to power solar and car batteries – a green new deal for the global north, the same old deal for the global south. This is not the place to analyze the many responses to the GND but to succinctly point out that popular movements around the world are struggling to build far-better alternatives.

Chapter one sets the stage for where the populist moment has been taking place, per Mouffe “I limit my analysis to Western Europe because, although the question of populism is, no doubt, also relevant in Eastern Europe, those countries necessitate a special analysis.”[5] In this justification of her framing, Mouffe focuses exclusively on Western Europe and the US but neglects to even mention Latin America where the Pink Tide has been a dynamic force or South Africa where the Economic Freedom Fighters continue to gain ground. While it may be easy to write off her focus on Europe as her academic specialty, we should not forget that Ernesto Laclau’s first book proposing the theoretical groundwork for left populism was written with a special focus on Peronism in Argentina, and it was via his analysis of Argentine politics that the post-Marxist trend was born. In short, too much is owed to current and past trends outside of Western Europe for Mouffe to so fully dismiss the so-called populisms of the global south.

Later in this chapter Mouffe writes “the left populist strategy that I am going to defend is informed by an anti-essentialist theoretical approach that asserts that society is always divided and discursively constructed through hegemonic practices.”[6] Why is this approach different from the way many communist parties, and other parties of the left, analyze politics? Discourse and rhetoric are not treated simply as background noise even when polemical. Also, proposing the idea that “society is always divided and discursively constructed” is even more reductive than the base-superstructure metaphor, or whatever essentialist spectre she engages with – especially since it is unclear what counts as essentialist in her work.

Writing about right-wing populist voters, Mouffe points out “it is necessary to recognize the democratic nucleus at the origin of many of their demands.”[7] What democratic nucleus? One could argue in parts of Europe that this strategy can work, for example in the UK where some UKIP (UK Independence Party) voters chose to elect the Labour Party when Jeremy Corbyn took the reins of leadership. However, in the US there is no legitimate democratic nucleus to be found within the various right-wing political factions in civil society; whatever “nucleus” exists is ultimately nothing more than a figment of the imaginations of the right. The year of 2020 made this painfully clear, but it was already blatantly obvious in 2018 when Mouffe wrote this work. The glaring contradiction of Americans’ understandings of the nation’s core – fundamentally democratic nucleus for some and foundationally a police state for others – begets more questions than answers. Finally, Andrea Nagle’s left populist xenophobia is an expression of the terrible logic embedded in Mouffe’s approach – whether or not she is aware of it, the implication for utilizing this strategy is there.

Chapter two spends most of its time rehashing much of Stuart Hall’s work on Thatcherism, and as a result, it falls short of what could have been a dynamic chapter.[8] Had Mouffe proposed new reasons for why the left should learn from Thatcherism, then her argument would have been stronger. While the hegemony built under the Thatcher-led Conservative Party is a worthwhile study for all political persuasions, one wonders why not learn from the experiences of parties and personalities of left populism elsewhere? Certainly, the Bolivian (2005-2019, 2020-present) and Venezuelan (1998-present) processes are the most worthwhile, as are the recent Argentine (2003-2015, 2019-present) and Brazilian (2002-2018) experiences.

Towards the end of the chapter, Mouffe praises the leadership of Corbyn for “implementing what corresponds to a left populist strategy.”[9] The Labour Party under Corbyn produced clear working-class programs, initiatives, and a social democratic ideal reflective of the post-war Bretton-Woods era consensus and increased party membership to 600,000, making theirs the largest left-wing party in Europe. Despite all of these impressive gains, they lost due to their inability to take a strong stance on the independence referendum by pushing for a lexit (left-exit) strategy and because they were outmaneuvered by the Blairites who swallowed them whole and continue to beat them into submission with a pro-Israel broom handle.

Proving herself to be the biggest believer in Francis Fukuyama’s thesis on the end of history, in chapter three Mouffe states that the strategy of left populism “does not aim at a radical break with pluralist democracy and the foundation of a totally new political order.”[10] While this can be a temporary rule-of-order, any party which does not seek to establish “a totally new political order” ought to be thrown in the trashcan of history. The current political order is riddled with obstacles along legal and economic lines, not to mention the concrete structure of the state, making social democratic reforms appear more utopian than communism. As Karl Marx pointed out long ago, “the centralization of the state that modern society requires arises only on the ruins of the military-bureaucratic government machinery which was forged in opposition to feudalism.”[11] We still live among those ruins, which remain more fortified than ever.

By far the best chapter in the book, chapter four focuses on the primary question of who ‘the people’ are and how this social signifier is born in different national contexts. By defining ‘the people’ in detail, Mouffe gives life to the question of who the entire strategy of left populism falls upon. Echoing Aimé Césaire’s last point in his resignation from the Communist Party of France, “the people is not a homogenous subject in which all the differences are somehow reduced to unity.”[12] As the Venezuelan experience of multiple identities related to concrete struggles has taught us, there can be universal struggles rich with every particular.[13]

In the Last Instance

Where this book falls into more pre-Marxist conceptions than the post-Marxism Mouffe claims is in its political categorization of ‘the citizen.’ Mouffe writes, “A crucial battle in the counter-hegemonic struggle against neo-liberal hegemony consists of resignifying the ‘public’ as the domain where citizens can have a voice and exercise their rights.”[14] The focus on citizens exercising their rights, establishing new rights, and having principles of liberty should be a key element of any popular democratic movement, and clearly the category of ‘the people’ cannot exist without this focus in any meaningful way. However, her negation of class analysis is a disservice to the concept of ‘the people’ and a renewed conception of citizenship opposed to the post-democratic ideology of the ruling classes. The rhetoric of citoyen and citizenship during the French Revolution[15] and many of the bourgeois-republican revolutions across the Americas were key elements for building political hegemony in the newly independent states, but what Marxism added was class analysis that revealed the contradictory nature of citizenship as a distinct political identity with separate and unequal outcomes. Here, political theorist Massimiliano Tomba’s concept of insurgent universality allows us to further envision the distinction, by advocating that we rid ourselves of the idea of rights and citizenship based on individualism, and instead proposing an alternative practice of having rights based on belonging to particular social groups (workers, peasants, unions and associations, etc.).[16]

Within the conclusion Mouffe goes on to state that the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders “is clearly a left populist one.”[17] While hindsight is 20/20 it was already clear in 2016 that the Sanders campaign did not possess the political will to overcome obstacles within the Democratic Party and could barely put up a fight against all of the ideological-state apparatuses, especially the media. If Sanders’ campaign was a left populist one, then the efficacy of this approach is clearly limited within the US context. Two straight presidential campaign defeats at the hands of outspoken neoliberals should be enough to see this.

Further on in the conclusion Mouffe writes, “It is to be expected that this left populist strategy will be denounced by the sectors of the left who keep reducing politics to the contradiction of capital/labour and attribute an ontological privilege to the working class, presented as the vehicle for the socialist revolution.”[18] By negating political economy within left populism the structure of the world system stays intact. The left populists of Western Europe will become great managers of imperialism and continue to produce their own gravediggers amongst the fascist parties as they leave the field of class analysis open to them. After all, imperialism is not simply an economic theory, it is a political method of rule.

About the Reviewer: Brant Roberts is based out of Houston and is a member of the editorial collective Houston Review of Books. His writings have appeared in Marx and Philosophy Review of BooksThe Daily Cougar, and Threshold Magazine.

[1] The last point will be clarified later in the review.

[2] Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (New York: Verso, 2018), 1.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid., 9 and 10.

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Ibid., 22.

[8] Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (New York: Verso, 1988).

[9] Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (New York: Verso, 2018), 38.

[10] Ibid., 45.

[11] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 2008), 131.

[12] Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (New York: Verso, 2018), 62. Aimé Césaire Letter to Maurice Thorez (, 1956 – “My conception of the universal is that of a universal enriched by all that is particular, a universal enriched by every particular: the deepening and coexistence of all particulars.”

[13] George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chavez (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).

[14] Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (New York: Verso, 2018), 66.

[15] The only key differences are that the French Revolution was both popular and bourgeois, and the Haitian Revolution was popular.

[16] Massimiliano Tomba, Insurgent Universality: An Alternative Legacy of Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[17] Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (New York: Verso, 2018), 81.[18] Ibid., 80.

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