On a certain level, Cas Mudde's definition of populism (the most accepted in academia today, it seems), namely an

ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.

seems to give us "class struggle" and thus basically Marxism if we conceptualize "the pure people" as the working class. (Conversely, it gives us identitarian aka right-wing populism when "the pure people" is conceptualized on ethnic/cultural grounds.)

In fact, Ernesto Laclau has called socialism “the highest form of populism”. As he argued:

If classes cannot be hegemonic without articulating ‘the people’, ‘the people’ only exist articulated to classes. The degree of ‘populism’, therefore, will depend on the nature of the antagonism existing between the class which is struggling for hegemony and the power bloc … Therefore, the only social sector which can aspire to the full development of ‘the people’ power bloc contradiction, that is to say, to the highest and most radical form of populism, is that whose class interests lead it to the suppression of the State as an antagonistic force. In socialism, therefore, coincide the highest form of ‘populism’ and the resolution of the ultimate and most radical of class conflicts. The dialectic between ‘the people’ and classes finds here the final moment of its unity, there is no socialism without populism, and the highest forms of populism can only be socialist.

Is this theoretically uncontroversial though? Are there grounds to object to calling Marxists (left-wing) populists?

Edit: I see from the answer below that one objection is that not all Marxism (broadly construed) is revolutionary, especially some "post-Marxism" like Wertkritik ("Value criticism "). But what about Marxism-Leninism? Does it entirely fit in the populist envelope (as defined by Mudde)?

Edit2: I see (from the 2nd answer) there's the impulse here to answer "you're wrong, you Marxist fool, capitalists are not the corrupt elite!" I'm not asserting from my own viewpoint that capitalists are corrupt anymore than I am asserting than "the pure people" needs to have a certain skin color. As an aside, there are some who argue that capitalism is corrupt.

Those who regard capitalism as corrupt have often based their indictment on the charge that the process in which labor is bought and sold is typically exploitive and have looked to Marx’s writings as the classic exposé.

I'm simply saying that in Mudde's populism template (in which "the pure people" and "the corrupt elite" are variables--he could have called them X and Y) there are some obvious substitutions one could make, based on antagonisms posited in other political ideologies. My question is: when we make the substitution in Mudde's template with the Marxim-posited antagonism (quoting Wikipedia: "Marxist theory considers the proletariat to be oppressed by capitalism and the wage system."), do we get something resembling an actual Marxist movement, e.g. Marxism-Leninism? Or is that off-the-mark in certain respects? (If so, in what respect[s]?)

  • 2
    Though you are a frequent contributor and definitely knowledgeable, I was half expecting when writing my - soon-to-be-deleted- answer that you would have posted an answer. And, sure enough, there was. It is one thing to ask a question and find an answer later on. That's encouraged. But it more problematic when it is a highly recurring pattern, on questions on which no claim of recent discovery can be made. A rhetorical question rather than seeking info. This might belong in Meta, but it isn't relevant to most SE.PO, not even to your valued contributions. Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 16:49

5 Answers 5


Marxism is a very broad subject, and there are movements which reject the idea of a revolutionary subject (see eg value criticism) and instead see the proletariat as taking part in the capitalist system.

As your definition notes, populism is generally a strategy using simplified ideas and purporting to be about the will of the people, while Marxism is a socioeconomic analysis.

  • Populism is a strategy while Marxism is both a strategy and a blueprint for governance. Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 13:49

Does Marxism-Leninism entirely fit in the populist envelope as defined by Mudde?

Among the counter-examples one might include the Lumpenproletariat -- the underclass defined by Marx and Engles as those devoid of class consciousness, and typically including criminals, vagabonds, and prostitutes -- as they are clearly neither ‘the pure people’ nor ‘the corrupt elite’.


Marxism pits the working class versus the "capital owners" class. What you are confused at is that you are assuming that all "Capital Owners" are corrupt. If fact Marxism does not posit that simply because you are an owner you are automatically corrupt. Having the skills of being an owner is needed to make the standard of living of the worker be as best as possible.

With populism it is the vox populi speaking against corrupt elite, not all elite. The evidence is that the populist leader is actually a member of the elite class that somehow understands and champions the population against this corruption. That is subject to the time period being examined. Caesar was a populist elite during a time period of stratified classes (See India's recent past as an example of caste society). More recently the American Presidency of Clinton, Obama and Trump are all examples of populist campaigns. You may now be thinking that you oppose the policies of one or more of these examples. I am speaking about their public campaign. Brief examples: Clinton - Putting People First; Obama - Yes we can; Trump - Make America Great again. These themes include all the people and subtly has a flavor of fighting against those that are preventing "that" from happening.

It is easy to think that the "voice of the people" equals the struggle of the working class. The problem is that leaves out the skilled workers (white collar), merchants (small business owners, i.e. local pizza joint) and academia. Marxism needs all those classes to make life fair for the working class.

  • 1
    I think you're confused about what I'm actually saying. I'm not asserting from my own viewpoint that "Capital Owners are corrupt". I'm just saying that if we replace "the corrupt elite" and "the pure people" in Mudde's template with the appropriate Marxist-inspired substitutes we get "the proletariat vs the capitalists". Which is not at all an unreasonable substitution to attempt. The Wikipedia article on the proletariat says "Marxist theory considers the proletariat to be oppressed by capitalism and the wage system." Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 13:54
  • Also, my question is not whether there are other forms of populism (besides left-populism). There clearly are, as I even exemplified in the question. Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 14:02
  • 2
    @Fizz The point of the answer is that you can't just replace "the corrupt elite" with "the capitalists" and "the pure people" with "the proletariat" because those pairs of terms are not equivalent. So the answer to your question is "No". Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 14:15
  • @PaulJohnson: you seem to be missing the point that Mudde is using those terms as variables. He could have called them X and Y. He used those specific terms ("the pure people", "the corrupt elite") for dramatic/hyperbolic/ironic effect. In fact, most secondary works citing Mudde have dropped his dramatic attributes and related his template as "the people" vs "the elite", but with the reminder that those are variables in the template. That's how you get multiple forms of populism, by various substitutions of those variables. Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 14:24
  • @PaulJohnson A lot of modern Marxists do seem to believe that all capital owners are inherently corrupt. I suspect if they were actually living in a Marxist society, they would not actually believe that (e.g. I expect they would not lynch an inventor for building a fruit-picking machine, unless the inventor extracted unfair amounts of profit) but they do say it. Commented Feb 27, 2020 at 11:45

To answer my [narrower] question (and in relation to the answer on the Lumpenproletariat), Marxism-Leninism posited a special role for the Party in illuminating and leading the proletariat. It is thus not exactly a pure populist approach if we concede that the Party was basically an elite. As elaborated in a paper,

Among the most famous left-wing populists were the Russian Narodniki of the 19th century. Their ideas informed Lenin’s and therefore Marxism-Leninism as a whole, especially its radical rejection of constitutional limits on the state and its assertion of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry. [...] The Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s declaration in the 1960s that it was a ‘party of the Soviet people’ appeared to indicate that populism had become mainstream.

However, this argument can be overstated: Marxism-Leninism’s concern with doctrinal purity and correct class politics only evaporated under Gorbachev, while the emphasis on the elite party of dedicated revolutionaries and communist socialization is inherently anti-populist. Populists do not aim to educate or change their chosen people, and argue that “the consciousness of the people, generally referred to as common sense, is the basis of all good [politics].” [quoting Mudde] For the Marxist-Leninist, the Party is the epicenter of politics: it leads and guides popular interests, rather than simply reflecting them, hence the often anti-populist communist campaigns of the Soviet Union such as Gorbachev’s 1985–86 anti-alcohol campaign that sought to instill labor discipline among the Soviet people.

It's also interesting to note here that Laclau described himself as a "post-Marxist" and he rejected "kindergarten" Leninism.


Populism is not is not a political ideology, or even precisely a political orientation. Populism is a political reaction that arises under particular contexts: namely, when the populace has an expectation that certain Liberal principles will apply, along with a perception that those Liberal principles are being disregarded or violated by powerful groups. This can happen within any system along the spectrum of Liberal ideologies.

Marxism is, of course, part of the spectrum of Liberal ideologies, though it is often maligned as being something 'other.' Marxist philosophy, properly understood, is a critique of capitalism that focuses on the exploitation of those who are deprived of control over productive property. It is 'populist' in the sense that it asserts that people should receive rewards commensurate with their participation in the production of goods (a standard Classical Liberal position stemming from Locke's treatises on government), but that this is denied by a combination of private ownership of productive technology and state sponsorship of the capitalist class. But the same could be said said of most forms of representative democracy, of both Right and Left Libertarianism, of anarcho-capitalism... Populaism is by no means unique to Marxism. Nor is Marxism necessarily populist: Marxism would be perfect compatible with some non-exploitive, non-class-based form of productive capitalism (e.g., where private businesses are run as worker's co-ops, or within syndicalist systems), where there is no perception that general Liberal principles are being ignored or abused.

In short, populism is merely a separate dimension of political behavior that can be applied (or not) to all sorts of systems, orientations, and institutions.

  • 1
    I already knew all that and stated it in my question. Also, I was interested in having the question answered in view Mudde's conception of populism, not yours, which is a bit different (template/schema vs "reaction") Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 17:24
  • @Fizz: Well, no you didn't say that, really, but that's not worth arguing over. Looking at the other comments you've left on this page, I have the growing impression that you are not asking an earnest question, but are seeking out someone who will confirm and elaborate on your already established views. If true, that is (perhaps) a bit disingenuous. But in any case, sorry I didn't comply with your wishes. Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 17:35
  • Also, I think quite a few would take issue with your unconditional statement that Marxism is "part of the spectrum of Liberal ideologies", especially in view of Marxism-Leninism. Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 20:09
  • @Fizz: I learned long ago that there will always be someone who 'takes issue', so I hardly think that's a concern. I'll listen to anyone who makes a reasonable, analytical objection, and brush off those who are merely ego-bruised ideologues. I can defend this position quite thoroughly if needs be, but is there any point to that just at this moment? Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 20:21
  • 1
    Marxism is very much not a liberal ideology. It’s in the core of it all: liberalism stands for free markets with little state intervention. Marxism advocates state control of the economy. The two are contrary to each other. I am interested in how you’ll attempt to defend an unsustainable position.
    – Jan
    Commented Feb 27, 2020 at 10:49

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .