Recent commentary by some on the left in Australia and the US has highlighted the extent of public confusion about economic policy and criticised populist campaigns by conservatives against debt and deficits. This is certainly true but it also counts against the tradition of left-wing populism that has tended to attribute economic liberalism to an elite conspiracy. Micheal Pusey’s work tends towards this interpretation. Raewyn Connell declares:
There is a great secret about neo-liberalism, which can only be whispered, but which at some level everyone knows: neo-liberalism does not have popular support. there has never been popular support for privatisation of public institutions, for deregulation for the run-down of public services, for indirect taxation, for globalisation, for more markets and wider commodification. New right leaders…have come to power because they seemed strong, or tapped into nationalism and racism, or because previous governments imploded and became vulnerable to electoral manipulation
The current unpopularity of American health reform counts against the hypothesis of a natural economic left-wing majority whose emergence is only halted by wedge politics. Privatisation is unpopular but so are government deficits.One longstanding topic of debate on the left was between those who argued that the experience of capitalism of itself generated a socialist consciousness and those who argued with Lenin:
We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. In the very same way, in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia.
Karl Kautsky’s The Agrarian Question is a strong critique of those social democrats who argued for a populist appeal to small producers.