Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Rethinking Democracy, Edited by Leo Panitch and Greg Albo. Socialist Register. 2018. Review.

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Review “Populism and Socialist Democracy” 

Rethinking Democracy, Edited by Leo Panitch and Greg Albo. Socialist Register. 2018. Merlin Press. 

(This appears in the latest issue of Chartist May/June 2018 no 292).

For Leo Panitch and Greg Albo “the social revolution of building capacities for self government” is more important than gaining state power. “Actually existing liberal democracy” is entangled with anti-democratic institutions. The 2018 edition of the Socialist Register explores the potential of “socialist democracy” against reactionary “populist appeals in the name of defending ‘our’ democracy’”. In doing so some contributors see merit in forms of ‘left-populism’. 

The electoral appeal of democratic socialist ideas – they cite Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders – inner-party democracy and social struggles have come to the fore. Ramon Ribera Fumaz and Greig Charnock offer a valuable account of the ‘citizens’ revolution’ attempted by Barcelona en comú (BeC). But, away from its ideology and programme, what of the political history of BeC’s ally, Spain’s national Podemos, from personalities to strategic difficulties? The electoral bloc that has enabled the Portuguese left to win power and govern successful, involves not just ‘new’ forces but some old ones, including the Socialists and the very old Portuguese Communist Party (PCP)

Do neoliberal elites ‘fear’ democracy? A number of contributors work with Jacques Rancière’s ‘anti-institutional’ picture of radical democracy. The French theorist claimed that Western elites, are believers in technocratic competence, and have a veritable hatred of the demos. James Foley and Pete Ramand detect this in a fear of referendums. Rancière claimed that the No vote in the 2005 French Referendum on a European Constitution was a major set back to those who wished their “science” to be acclaimed by the masses (La Haine de la démocratie. 2005).

That popular consultation witnessed a division on the French left, inside both radical and reformist camps. It was between those supporting national sovereignty and those who favoured European unity, however imperfect. (1) The rejection of the European Constitution only happened with the help of the votes of the far-right Front National, and conservative ‘Sovereigntists’. The result, many say, strengthened not democracy but appeals to France, the Nation, not just by the right but also by left-wing French politicians. After eventual French endorsement, the EU went ahead with its plans anyway.

Denis Pilon’s ‘Struggle over Actually Existing Democracy’ offers critique of ‘proceduralist’ democracy. Alex Demiorović considers Radical democracy, from Miguel Abensour (1939 – 2017) who was indebted to  council communism, Rancière, to the familiar figures of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Adepts of abstract theory will find much to mull over.

Do these theorists offer “innovative democratic strategies”? Should we consider one of the few concrete ideas offered by Rancière, who looked to Periclean Athens and found public office open to selection by lot? The French La France insoumise (LFI) led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon,  uses this procedure widely, including for selecting a majority of delegates to its Conferences. It means that there are no formal currents, organised differences of opinion, inside his movement. This is even less attractive than the “consensual” decision-making imposed in the Occupy! movement.

The ‘fear’ of populists of the left and the right fails to look into why socialists may oppose populism. It is not disdain of the great unwashed, but differences over the claim that there is left-wing potential in the present ways the “people” can be mobilised against the ‘elite’.

Donald Trump once declared, “The only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.” Can the People become Sovereign on conditions that they are hurled against the ‘not-People’?

Foley and Ramand take on board Perry Anderson’s critique of the ‘vagueness’ of the term elite, and the idea that this is the Enemy. Three contributions on the media also register another side of his doubts, the way it neglects the way hegemonic ideas gain acceptance. They offer useful insights into the role of the media in constructing ruling class hegemony. The revelations about Cambridge Analytica indicate that grand ideas, from Laclau and Mouffe, about the Enemy, and the need for democratic dissensus, may be less attractive in the face of manipulated hatred. The benefits for the equally elusive People in this form of politics are less than evident.

This fear of Others perhaps sums up right-wing populism, and mass conservative ideas, too neatly. If liberals, or the very different European left, turn to Othering the rightwing Populists – and why not? – it is because their policies place them as Corporate ventriloquists. Martijn Konings brings us back to the importance of economic rationality. He indicates how a “commitment to the speculative logic of risk” continues to be attractive to some voters. It can, paradoxically, be worked into appeal to the People. While many during the Brexit Referendum claimed to defend our Home against the outside, the neo-liberal wing of the Brexit campaign offered to make Britain a free entrepreneur on the world stage. Trump embodies both at the same time: he is a free-marketer and determined opponent of open markets.

Rethinking Democracy is thought provoking rather than answer-offering. The accelerating crisis of most of European social democracy is now provoking reflection and soul-searching. Recent elections have left Italian socialists of all stripes voiceless, the Dutch Labour Party has been overtaken by the Greens, and, after the long-signalled melt down of the Parliamentary left, the anti-populist President Macron and his La République en marche (LRM) holding all the reins of power. There is much to think about.


See (1) Pages 135 – 4. 68 et Après. Les heritages égarés. Benjamin Stora, Stock,. 2018.



10 Responses

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  1. Why the word ‘populism’ nowadays is usually used wrongly:



    May 3, 2018 at 11:53 am

  2. Kitty, US populism, as the Farmer Populists, the People’s Party, like the US progressive movement and party, are both very distant from our European traditions of left and right, not to mention the social democratic and socialist labour movement.

    Trump, Populism, and the Left. Tendance Coatesy:


    On the latter, about which I do not know a great deal, so distant is it to the European left I am part of, but which has cropped up with Obama, Clinton, and (misleadingly) used by Macron:

    “Progressivism in the United States is a broadly based reform movement that reached its height early in the 20th century and is generally considered to be middle class and reformist in nature. It arose as a response to the vast changes brought by modernization, such as the growth of large corporations, pollution and fears of corruption in American politics. In the 21st century, progressives continue to embrace concepts such as environmentalism and social justice.[1] Social progressivism, the view that governmental practices ought to be adjusted as society evolves, forms the ideological basis for many American progressives.

    Historian Alonzo Hamby defined progressivism as the “political movement that addresses ideas, impulses, and issues stemming from modernization of American society. Emerging at the end of the nineteenth century, it established much of the tone of American politics throughout the first half of the century.”


    Andrew Coates

    May 3, 2018 at 12:03 pm

  3. The consequence of the peculiarity of United States populism should be that it should be not used uncritically, as happens all the time now, to describe non-United States tendencies of today; or eg, Trump today.

    It is often used, abused, by journalists too lazy, or too scared to be called -shock horror!- leftist, to describe politicians like the Le Pen family or Trump; scared of using words like racist, neofascist, etc.

    It is also used by self-styled ‘centrists’ to amalgamate criticism of them from the left with completely different far-right-objections.


    May 3, 2018 at 12:46 pm

  4. But they don’t believe that capitalism needs to be replaced with socialism, so what is the point? You might as well vote for Trump, May or Putin.

    Steven Johston

    May 3, 2018 at 12:46 pm

  5. I read this a couple of years ago: Fixing the system : a history of populism, ancient and modern. Kuzminski, Adrian. (2008)

    It claims to describe, “a tradition of practice as well as thought, ranging from ancient city states to the frontier communities of colonial america-all places where widely distributed private property and democratic decision-making combined to foster material prosperity and cultural innovation.

    It was too American to grapple with, for example, the “Jefferson” system of “ward republics” was some kind of Model.


    Andrew Coates

    May 3, 2018 at 12:56 pm

  6. Not any different from the way hurling the term “racist” is used to shut down debate.

    Kitty K

    May 3, 2018 at 1:45 pm

  7. “Islamophobia” is another one. It is even in the dictionary now!

    Kitty K

    May 3, 2018 at 1:46 pm

  8. Phobias of course are irrational fears which is what most of it is in the UK. It is of course used by the loony left to shut down the debate about grooming and terrorism.

    Dave Roberts

    May 3, 2018 at 1:59 pm

  9. If by “capitalist” you mean those who possess/control/own “capital” i.e money, property, assets then aren’t “socialists” not just people who aspire to be “capitalists”. Look how many “socialists” play the Lottery. All chasing “capital”. You could argue that poor people who profess to be “socialists” are really just envious of those they perceive to have more “capital”. Then we have the “champagne socialists”, the “latte slurpers from Islington”, the bearded “hipsters” who charge £20 for a bowl of cereal, the bearded bloke form Islington who wears dated jackets and rides a rusty bicycle. And in any case who in their right mind who want to truly be a poor “socialist” , sat in prime position be exploited economically. It is by virtue of human nature that “capitalism” succeeds. We are all trying to “get ahead” acquire more “capital” than our fellow wo./man. “Capitalism” isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

    Kitty K

    May 3, 2018 at 2:00 pm

  10. Not really about the review I wrote but capitalism is worth discussing Kitty K.

    Any more about “grooming and terrorism” Roberts and you can sod off.

    Andrew Coates

    May 3, 2018 at 4:08 pm

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