Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Copying National Populism, the Left and Brexit.

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Image result for national populism

The ‘left’ that copied National Populism so much that it joined it.

The deeply affecting Retour à Reims, (2009, translated in 2018) by Didier Eribon  describes growing up gay in a hard working class area of Northern France. His parents who were manual labourers and cleaners. Eribon, who began a University career, and journalist on left of centre papers and magazines,  known for his critical writing on Michael Foucault and gay politics, stayed away from the city of his youth for many years.  His ‘return’  is  physical, visits, but it’s principally a trip through his memories.

Reims is hard to summarise in a few lines. Even so, for once the publisher’s puff is spot on. It is “breathtaking”.  Perhaps one outstanding theme is important for today, when we see national populism rise across Europe, and channel through the rise of the Brexit Party in the UK. In the sometimes harrowing pages he asked “how did people like his working class family who used to vote communist when he was a child, end up voting in such large numbers for the far right?

That is, how did large numbers of ordinary working people once on the left become voters, if not more, for the nationalist right.

“To be a communist had next to nothing to do with a desire to establish a government resembling the one found in the USSR … In working-class environments, leftist politics meant first and foremost a very pragmatic rejection of the experience of one’s own daily life. It was a form of protest, and not a political project inspired by a global perspective.”

Working Class.

His own answer focused on this, as Steven Pool put it in the Guardian review of he recently translated English version, “the problem, as he sees it, is that the left ended up abandoning talk of the “working class”, a political concept through which people could experience fellow feeling with others in the same boat. After the turn in the 1980s and 90s towards talk of individual rights and responsibilities, by contrast, this idea of group feeling, indeed of fraternité, had been atomised. And what took its place was the cynical exploitation and fomenting of anti-immigrant attitudes by the far right, which brought the working class back together but this time under a mood of hostile nativism rather than economic solidarity. The National Front, Eribon asserts, was now “the only party that seemed to care about them, the only one, in any case, that offered them a discourse that seemed intended to provide meaning to the experiences that made up their daily lives”.

Authoritarian Populism.

In his memoir Erbion refers to the work of Stuart Hall on authoritarian populism in The Hard Road to Renewal (1988),  and to Raymond William’s novel Border Country (196) inspired by his own working class origins. Hall tried to explain how people came to vote for Thatcher’s mixture of hard-line economic liberation through a cultural brand of law and order populism that ‘articulated’, gave voice to, their anxieties. Williams helped more personal insights into how somebody may move class but still be moulded by the ‘habitus’ (Pierre Bourdieu, a key reference) of his ‘popular’ (working class) background.

Erbion, who had been a Trotskyist in a group which ignored issues of identity (he does not name the tendency), as a gay man, asked, how can we neutralise this support for the far-right, or the drift to the more traditional right of his brothers?

The most recent – paperback –  French edition of Retour à Reims has an introduction by ‘Édouard Louis.

The gay writer was inspired by Erbion in his own more recent literary career, books which have an international impact (En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule  Le Seuil. 2014.  The End of Eddy. 2017) 

Louis has recently written Qui a tué mon père (2018). translated this year, Who Killed My Father.  It ends in a few moving pages where he rages against the French  welfare reform designed to attack “spongers”.  Since the new millennium  ‘reforms’, which cut disability benefits and  forced his father to accept low paid gruelling jobs, raised prescription charges  and which, through a reduction in Housing Benefit.

Louis’ anger is very easy to grasp in the country of Universal Credit and Pip Disability Tests.

Other themes are also easy to relate to.

For French Communist Party read the  ‘traditional Labour supporting’ North.

Does this exasperation following the end of the traditional working class and welfare reforms designed to compel people to be ‘flexible’ and turn to precarious jobs,  explain the rise of national populism?

Is part of its support mourning for the end of the traditional working class?

Is the Brexit Party surfing on this wave of emotion  able to direct people’s hatred onto the EU.

Anybody reading Lexit (pro-Brexit) left-wing material will find the idea that somehow the salt-of-the-earth working class have been ‘betrayed’ and ignored by the cosmopolitan elites including the rights based  left – not that Erbion or Louis romanticise  past or present workers, beginning with their own families...to say the least!

Today the Guardian publishes this essential read which deals with some of these issues, above all how can the left tackle the support for national populist parties, like the French Front National/Rassemblement National.

It takes apart some of what might be called the mythic interpretation of the working class.

Why copying the populist right isn’t going to save the left

Cas Mudde.

Among the old stalwarts of the centre-left, there is a simple explanation for the decline of the parties they used to lead: immigration. In recent interviews with the Guardian, Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair and the former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi all sounded the same note, declaring that Europe must “get a handle on migration” to stop right wing populism. Hardly a week passes without some candidate or columnist declaring that liberals will only regain power when they lock down the borders.


Mudde continues,

This dramatic shift in the rhetoric of ostensibly centre-left parties is part of a larger panic over how to halt the spread of right wing populism across the west in recent years. The conventional wisdom has been largely steered by a growing group of academics and pundits, often of the right or centre, who offer the same advice: social democratic parties will perish unless they take care of the “left behind” voters by limiting immigration. Some academics now even go so far as to openly defend white identity politics.

Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities,” Eric Kaufmann’s polemic dressed up as social science is a key book in this respect. Although it ends with a call for a ‘civic’ inclusive nationalism, Kaufmann’s premis is the ‘naturalness’ of ethnic dislike. Policies have to adapt to this feeling, not try to change it.

The argument that a tougher stand on immigration will revive the social democratic parties – and arrest the rise of the radical right – is based on two basic errors, which together reflect a larger misunderstanding about the historic role of centre-left parties.

The first mistake is the widespread assumption that the rise of rightwing populism and the decline of traditional centre-left parties are two sides of the same coin – both caused by working-class voters abandoning the old social democrats for the nativist message of the new populist radical right. The second misperception, closely related to the first, is that the voters who now support the populist radical right are largely the white working class that used to vote reliably for social democratic parties.

As the data shows, both of these widely repeated assumptions stand on loose empirical footing. In fact, most populist radical-right voters are not working class, and the majority of the working class does not support the populist radical right.

Comrade Cass Mude states,

In fact, most voters for populist radical-right parties were not working-class – and most working-class voters did not vote for the populist radical right. A recent study found that “only” 31% of “production workers” and 23% of “service workers” voted for west European populist radical right parties between 2000 and 2015. And while the FN and Austria’s Freedom party are exceptions – with workers constituting 45% and 48% of their electorates, respectively – the figures are much lower for other such parties, with Italy’s Lega Nord at only 17%, for example.

I could not put this better,

Social democracy is an ideology that supports egalitarianism and social justice through the framework of liberal democracy and a mixed economy. Inspired by the Marxist concept of class struggle, social democracy aims to uplift all marginalised groups. But those who argue that centre-left parties need to pander to white anxiety about immigration are essentially saying that social democratic parties are first and foremost an interest group for “the working class” – which is always, in these accounts, assumed to be white.


The key to reviving the fortunes of social democracy is not to pander to the nativism of part of the white working class, but to embrace the ideas and policies that are fundamental to social democracy – egalitarianism, social justice, solidarity, the right to social protection and a comprehensive welfare state. These values represented a widely shared common sense for the vast majority of Europeans in the second half of the 20th century – before their hegemony was eroded by three decades of neoliberal ideas and policies. The only way back for social democracy is to fight to make these values dominant once again.

 In other words, we should be proud of our movement’s history, and seek to build a left bloc in society inspired by these values.

Democratic socialism is inclusive. Our greatest leaders, from Jean Jaurès to Rosa Luxemburg, stood for universal  rights, and universal rights against oppression and exploitation.

It is no more viable to adopt right wing ‘identity politics’ – not too far from the ‘Identitarian’ far right, than it is to develop a US-style politics of coalitions between interest groups, in its academic version a multiplicity of different ‘sectional’ struggles.

Chantal Mouffe, who has been amply criticised on this Blog, says,

What I call the ‘populist moment’ is marked by the multiplication of resistances to this post-democratic situation. Those resistances are manifesting themselves in many different ways, not necessarily in a progressive way. Those resistances are, in a sense, all expressing ‘democratic demands’ – demands for more democracy, for the people to have a voice. But these demands can be articulated in a xenophobic way. This is why we have seen the development of right-wing populism that claims ‘the problem has come from the immigrants’. Those demands, however, can also be articulated in a more progressive way, as a call for the extension and radicalisation of democracy. This is what I refer to as ‘left populism’.

For A Left Populism’: An interview with Chantal Mouffe

To this argument Mudde says,

Although Mouffe stays away from the nativism lite of some other left populists – most notably Sahra Wagenknecht and her new movement Aufstehen (Stand Up) in Germany – she also clearly targets the white working-class voters, particularly the ones the third way lost to the populist radical right. In several interviews Mouffe has said: “When citizens go to vote they see no difference between the choices facing them. That has allowed the development of right-populism. Marine Le Pen speaks to the pain of the popular classes, telling them that foreigners are the cause of their problems. We need another, opposed discourse built on the basis of equality.”

The left populists share the assumption that the (white) working class votes for the populist radical right out of economic anxiety rather than cultural backlash. Hence, once the left provides them with a better socio-economic alternative, they will no longer care about Islam and Muslims.

Another aspect it that trying to turn around national ‘affects’ (emotional bonds to the ‘nation’) in a left direction have not only failed in Spain (not least because the Spanish ‘nation’ is made of multiple nations) but in France where La France insoumise is down to under 10% in the most recent polls.

And this has happened, a leading member who has just announced his support for the far-right party of Marine Le Pen.

As Éric Faisson says,

..my point is not that immigration is a good economic deal, but, first, how come those who are supposed to think in terms of good deals and bad deals don’t acknowledge this, and, second, how come those who are supposed to be critical of all this actually buy into it. In fact, when people say we cannot afford to be nice to migrants because it would be against the interests of the people, they are buying the idea that it is a bad deal. My point is not to endorse the good deal argument but to question the bad deal one. It is really about the racialisation of economic issues, about how those who are racialised (and thus considered ‘naturally’ other or radically alien) are considered worthless, and then by the same token, about how those who are considered worthless are in turn racialised and treated as ‘other’. Such an approach avoids accepting as a fact the opposition between Whites and non-Whites.

He observes,

The problem with the populist strategy, for the left, is that it’s neither left nor a winning strategy. It was even less so during the latest presidential campaign in France: everyone played that same card at the same time, including Macron, with a rhetoric of ‘centre’ populism! Of course, my argument is not just about France. The same considerations apply to the United States. But another dimension becomes apparent there, thanks to the availability of racial data. Trump’s success is not so much among working-class voters in general, but more specifically among the white working class. In a left-wing populist strategy, the racial dimension of the Trump vote is underestimated, and the class dimension is overestimated – whereas it now seems clear that his critique of the establishment was always just an illusion.

Mudde ends with these inspiring paragraphs,

Social democracy needs to reassert its ideals in a way that is inclusive of all workers. It should return to the theory rather than the practice of European social democracy – an egalitarian ideology based on solidarity with all socially weaker groups and individuals, irrespective of class, race, or sexuality. In the early 21st century, throughout western Europe, a growing percentage of the shrinking working class will be female and non-white (or of immigrant descent).


The revival of social democracy will require a new cultural and political infrastructure, centred, at first, outside of electoral politics. It should include the trade unions, which, despite weakened membership and power, still have better connections to working people. It should include progressive minority organisations, particularly those focused on socioeconomic concerns, and new grassroots organisations, rooted in local communities.

Above all, to fight national populism we need to build the internationalist left.

The issue of immigration was and still is at the heart of the Carnival of Reaction that followed the Brexit referendum result.

It and the rhetoric of ‘betray’ are tied together.

An alternative begins with a pro-European internationalism against Brexit, in opposition to the Brexit Party and those who wish to copy the ‘populists’.


The latest on those who have copied the National Populists.




2 Responses

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  1. US sociologist Stephanie Mudge on why the, eg, Dutch, Greek, German, French etc. social democrat parties lost far over two thirds of their votes:



    May 15, 2019 at 1:48 pm

  2. The party is haemorrhaging votes in the mistaken belief that the leave tendency is driven by its working-class base

    “A YouGov analysis of more than 25,000 voters suggests the following division of leave voters in the referendum, linked to the 2017 election result.

    • Middle-class leave voters: Conservative 5.6 million; Labour 1.6 million.

    • Working-class leave voters: Conservative 4.4 million; Labour 2.2 million. (A few of the remaining 3.6 million leave voters supported smaller parties; most did not vote in 2017.)”

    “So the largest block of leave voters were middle-class Conservatives, followed by working-class Conservatives. Just one in eight leave voters was a working-class Labour supporter. To be sure, had even half of these 2.2 million voters backed remain, the result of the referendum would be different. But to suggest that the referendum’s 17.4 million leave voters were dominated by working-class Labour supporters is simply wrong.”

    The polls are clear – Labour’s Brexit tactics are failing spectacularly
    Peter Kellner


    Andrew Coates

    May 16, 2019 at 12:32 pm

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