Populism vs. Socialism

: October 20, 2017

Populism and socialism on their surfaces may seem similar, but they are not the same.  Populism advocates for “the people” against the elites in a national context.  Socialism is international and in certain forms vanguard oriented (which means its more about a cadre of activists than an organic bottom to top movement).

Populists may object to foreign policy that is aggressive and nonsensical (or they may lie like Donald Trump), but they usually do not frame it in class based terms.  A true socialist (not necessarily a social Democrat like Bernie Sanders) sees imperialist war itself as a class issue – the bourgeoisie is invading the third world and the primary victims are not the troops of the invading country (though they are secondary victims) but the countries that are being invaded.

Lenin himself was accused of borrowing from Louis Auguste Blanqui but denied doing it.  Blanqui supported revolution for the sake of revolution with little connection to the masses.  Whether or not Lenin disputed this claim, it is clear that Lenin advocated a centralized cadre of professional revolutionaries and such a viewpoint does not really come from Marx or Engels, who pushed the views of historical materialism and dialectical materialism respectively and saw revolution as more spontaneous and inevitable because of these observations.


Mao further moved away from the inevitably of revolution with his attack on dogmatism – to Mao Socialism and Communism were not guaranteed to happen if organized action was not taken, whereas Lenin saw himself as expediting the process and speeding it up.  See this source:

A third feature of Maoism is the idea that the bourgeois menace is ever-present, so party officials must always be vigilant to prevent the revolution’s corruption

We can see that from Marx, to Lenin, to Mao – each line of “Communist” thought moves further away from populism. Marx was the most populist of the bunch, but even he differed from populism by advocating internationalism though without the same vanguardism and with more of a sense of the inevitably of socialism and communism. Not all populists are the same – some can be progressive but against aggravating a class struggle and others can be extremely reactionary. Further explanation is outside the scope of this post.

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