A speech on populism

We present the text of our secretary's speech at the rally held on Saturday 21 January in Market Square by Cambridge Stand Up to Racism, and supported by the Cambridge People's Assembly alongside many others.

My name's Neil and I'm the secretary of the Cambridge People's Assembly, which aims to link and support everyone organizing to fight the austerity imposed in Britain by successive governments since 2010.

Today, after the inauguration yesterday of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America, I'd like to talk briefly about populism. What do we mean by the word? The liberal political theorist Jan-Werner Müller has written that populists left and right

contrast an image of a pure ... people with that of a corrupt, or at least uncaring elite which colludes with those who are not properly part of the national body politic. That can mean both those at the very top of the social ladder and those at the very bottom.1

I think this is helpful, but more narrowly than Müller claims. This is the populism of the Right.

Here, as with Trump, the pure people stands for a national or ethnic identity, as moral purity fuses with racial purity. Trump's people are white people. His spoken promise to them, already suspect, is of restoration; his unspoken promise is of domination, racial and sexual, and it's this note that's called out the wolves in America's fascists, the alt-Right, and the Ku Klux Klan.

I think there's another people: not the pure, but the motley people,2 which is marked out by its subjection and unites to raise itself. 'Generally speaking, the people's basic identity of interests underlies the contradictions among the people.'3 This populism of the Left, like that of the Right, collapses politics on either side of a single dividing line,4 but the motley people welcomes, even seeks allies to join it on that line: students, members of the professions, journalists, poets.

The people's subjection could be to autocratic brutality, fascist terror, or neoliberal austerity, but today let's remember the case of colonial domination, for the special tendency of populist movements against it to identify with a worldwide people – which might explicitly include the people of the colonial power. Here is Amilcar Cabral in 1969, leading a guerrilla war against Portuguese forces in Guinea:

We want to liberate our country in order to create in it a new life of work, justice, peace, and progress, in collaboration with all the peoples of the world, and most of all with the people of Portugal.5

The American people belong to the worldwide people, which is our people. Trump's movement can be surrounded, at home and abroad. And the people, united, can never be defeated.

Neil Kirkham

21 January 2017


1. Jan-Werner Müller, 'European Elections: The False Promise of Populism', Guardian, 4 May 2012. Müller elaborates his ideas in his book What is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

2. I'm informed this phrase is also used by Jodi Dean in her book The Communist Horizon (London: Verso, 2012), which I regret I have not yet been able to see.

3. Mao Zedong, 'On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People', in Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, vol. 5 (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1977), 386. I've followed the slightly different translation excerpted in Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, 2nd ed. (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1967), 47. I assume Mao's political work is a necessary source here, not a model.

4. I mean to resume a point of Müller's description above, but my terms maybe bring us closer to the analysis of the 'popular subject position', produced by 'dividing the political space into two antagonistic camps', in Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2001), 131.

5. Amilcar Cabral, 'Message to the People of Portugal', in Revolution in Guinea (London: Stage 1, 1969), 124.

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