At present Europe is seeing a war of words between political parties of the right, centre and left leaning. In general the centre is holding its ground but the left is at an all time low and the right always very present and beginning to be electorally successful. The parties that are most successful at present are being described as ‘populist’ while the ones attracting most attention are right wing, mainly toward the hard rather than centrist right. Whilst each of the parties is in fact very different because of the element of nationalism constructed to suit the country they are in, they share a certain amount of ideology in which the type of rhetoric and selection of political themes is common.

The rhetoric often consists of anti-elitist and establishment sentiments, opposition to the established system of governance and claims to speak for the ‘common people’ of their country. Right wing populism is the term used to describe groups, politicians and political parties by and large known for opposition to immigration, especially Muslims, and in most cases they are ‘Eurosceptics’. Populist groups and parties are also often associated with ideological positions such as the new wave of nationalism, anti-globalisation, protectionism and opposition to the increasing support for the welfare state shown by the left of centre and liberal groups and parties.

In the past, academic definitions of populism varied so that it was often used inconsistently to refer to political appeals to ‘the (common) people’, which had the appearance of demagogic ‘catch-all’ politics where what was said to represent the supposed views of supporters was, in fact, the words of the leadership shaped carefully to capture the hearts and minds of people. Parties and politicians use the terms ‘populist’ and populism pejoratively to describe it as demagogy, thus appear to empathise with the public through politically manipulated impressions to increase their own appeal across the broader political spectrum. In that sense it is a political philosophy that claims to support the rights and power of the people in their shared struggle against the privileged elite who rule their country. That is used to challenge the extant social order by consolidating and mobilising the resentment of the people against those privileged elites and the establishment. It is the one political philosophy that oscillates between the left and right of politics in such a manner that it portrays both bourgeois capitalism and socialism as the two poles of hegemonic control of the political sphere. The use of conspiracist scapegoating has been gainfully used by populist movements including it being the seedbed of fascism.

Twentieth century populist movements and their origins

In Germany in the 1920s and 30s National Socialists used populist messages to interact with and facilitate social unrest during the interwar period.  Concerned middle class populists mobilised in anger against the Weimar government and big business, thus enabling the Nazis to ride of the wave of the forms and themes of populists in order to move their constituencies to the far right through ideological appeals that relied on demagoguery, using scapegoats and conspiracies. Even the term ‘National Socialism’ derived from attempts to create a nationalist redefinition of ‘socialism’ that was an alternative to international socialism and free market capitalism without actually being socialist and relying on the generosity of the very capitalism it appeared to oppose. Nazism rejected the Marxist concepts of class conflict and internationalism instead seeking to convince all members of their new German society to subordinate personal interests to the common good of the nation whilst accepting political interests as the main priority of economic organisation. It was a very cleverly redesigned version of socialism, itself a populist movement, that discredited class theory by making all Germans equals in a race that was superior to all others and disavowing internationalism because that single nation was above all others. What it relied on was nostalgia for a Germanic world in which the short lived single German state had been patched together from kingdoms, principalities and duchies that had nominally been united within the German Empire, but apart from Prussia by and large there was little homogeneity and certainly no cohesion until unification in 1871. In just over 40 years Germany became embroiled in a war that broke its back, cost it parts of it territory and ended the monarchy. Nazis used the nostalgia for a return to the pre-war Germany whilst carefully driving the population who were hard hit by the worldwide ‘Great Depression’ that began in 1929 in a manner that appeared to allow Germany to rise above the economic malaise in the rest of the world.

Socialism, from which they borrowed the basis for the construction of their ideology, is an economic system in which the production and distribution of goods are controlled substantially by the state rather than by private enterprise, in which cooperation instead of competition steers economic activity. Socialist theory states that the means of production, movement and trade should be owned or at least strongly controlled by the community as a whole. In Marxist theory, that is a transitional period of the social state between capitalism and communism. Its origins were a response to the harsh poverty and inhumane working conditions in industrialised Europe in the early 19th century. One of the first people called a ‘socialist’ was Robert Owen, whose New Lanarkshire mill was the first of a number of short lived ‘utopian communities in Britain and the American Midwest during the 1820 and for a short period thereafter. In his model community, Owen owned the mill but provided housing, education, health service, care for the young and elderly with fair, regulated working hours, rest days and a holiday for a fair wage. He was, in fact, providing what the then earliest unions were demanding, yet what he offered was not taken up more widely. There was no popular demand at that time. Modern socialism itself took off in the mid 19th century inspired by the work of Karl Marx and the rise of labour unions, although other thinkers and workers’ gilds had long preceded them. Using what we now consider populist rhetoric, socialists rejected the argument that the wealthy deserve wealth because they created it, instead adopting view that wealth is created by the working class then appropriated by the rich. Thus socialism and communism are economic and political structures that advance equality and seek to eliminate social class structures. Early socialists were at variance on how socialism would be achieved or organised. They did not agree on the role of private property, the way egalitarianism should develop or whether the traditional family should be preserved. However, others sought a more populist approach which took in the ideas of scientific socialism and the newer notion of communism readily.

The word ‘communism’ derives from the French communisme which originates from its Latin roots in the word communis that was used to designate various and often far more localised social situations before becoming associated with more modern concepts of economic and political organisation. Communis can be translated to mean ‘of or for the community’ with the suffix ism that signifies the abstraction of the word communism to describe a state or doctrine in which it becomes ‘the state of being of or for the community’. That use is at the core of The Communist Manifesto, which proposed a particular type of communism. It was a concept that had been seen historically for several hundred years but had never really gone far beyond theory. Then in the 18th century Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract described the basis for a political order based on popular sovereignty rather than the rule of monarchs. Those views were influential during the 1789 French Revolution in which the Jacobins supported the idea of the redistribution of wealth equally among the people. The idea was to establish a revolutionary regime based on communal ownership, egalitarianism and the redistribution of property. Whilst that failed, it was later to inspire Pierre-Joseph Proudhon to declare that “Property is theft!”. The messages that drove the French were populist; mainly proposed by intellectuals, first heard by activists who became leaders who selected the words they wished to propagate as their revolutionary tools. The end of the rule of monarchy, aristocracy, the powerful church and other structures that held people in feudal obeisance. 

Who and what are the populists?

At present, there are diverse ideas that have been referred to as ‘socialist’ that range from forms of ‘market socialism’ that advocates achieving economic justice through taxation and redistribution through state welfare programmes to the state monopolistic ‘communist’ regimes that advocate total state control of all property and the economy. Thus ‘socialism’ has often been used as a catchphrase by unscrupulous leaders seeking and holding on to political power. They feed on the frustration and the extreme sense of injustice felt by low paid and unemployed people who listen to promises of better lives. Thus both National Socialism led by Adolf Hitler and the Soviet style state monopolism that they incorrectly called ‘communism’, developed by Vladimir Lenin and particularly used by Josef Stalin, became totalitarian states that prohibited personal freedom to citizens although one of the populist messages originally was liberty and rights for all that they had hitherto been denied. In the case of the German version the populist message was developed using nationalist motifs and propaganda tools that appealed to the discontented mass. What set that aside from the revolution in Russia that had implanted a hybrid version of communism into the vast empire was that Germany had suffered the humiliation of defeat in 1918 to become a democracy that was failing, during a period of harsh global depression when simple messages raised great hopes. Thus Hitler, particularly aided by Joseph Goebbels who knew exactly the words to choose to stir up populist sentiments, came relatively rapidly to power. Where the basic ideas of populist socialism fell into place they were matched by equally powerful nationalist sentiments. What history shows and the present is proving once again, is that the means by which populist parties succeed is personality culture. Nearly all of the leaders, often the founders of parties that have achieved power have been powerful, charismatic around whom a personality cult developed. There is no hard and fast rule that says they must be popular, as Stalin illustrated very well in his turn, but that they must be able to choose words that will convince, make promises that will not be kept and the power they pledged to people never delivered. History has gone full circle to bring that combination back to the forefront of politics.

Fast forward to 2018

Thus the term populist has been used as a common label for new parties whose classification is often unclear. What is noteworthy is populists rarely call themselves ‘populists’ and generally reject the term when applied to them, which thus cast some doubt on the efficacy of the term ‘populist’ at all. If we look at the position of the right wing leaders and parties attracting most attention in Europe at present, Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party in Hungary at present are the most obvious after his massive win in the recent general election. Throughout Europe there are others who ‘sing from the same sheet’ as Orbán; they include Marine le Pen and the French Front National, NF, Alexander Gauland and Alternative für Deutschland, AfD, in Germany, Jarosław Kaczyński and Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS, in Poland, Heinz-Christian Strache and Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ, in Austria, Matteo Salvini and Lega Nord in Italy, Geert Wilders and Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV, in the Netherlands, Nikolaos Michaloliakos and Laïkós Sýndesmos – Chrysí Avgí in Greece, Christoph Blocher and the Schweizerische Volkspartei, SVP, in Switzerland and Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, in the UK. The front man or woman best known is not necessarily the leader of the party, simply the name most closely associated with the party; examples of that are Blocher of the Swiss SVP who is seen as the face of the party although he has not led it since 2008, Farage was formerly head of UKIP, but after his third resignation in 2016 has not returned to have any active role in the party yet will be the name on most people’s tongues when asked to name the leader of that party. As well as strong personality leaders, there is also a measure of deceit by which most of the parties appear far more moderate than they really are. In several countries there are parties or groups that are harder right than they are, often with totalitarian views to the point that open anti-Semitic views are not uncommon and nationalism at the core of their ideology.

This is by no means all parties, but a selection of the best known. There are fewer high profile parties of the left, but one might include La France Insoumise led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France,  Die Linke in Germany or Sinn Féin in Ireland although their founders or leaders past and present are less well known across Europe. Other parties such as the UK Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn have been called populist, possibly on the basis of  the slogan ‘for the many not the few’ having been used. However, Corbyn’s leadership has not been universally accepted within his party and supporters, so there we may have an example of where the expression populist is somewhat overstretched.

So, what is populism really?

Thus when a new group emerges and is referred as populist, questions arise as to where they belong on the spectrum of right and left. WhyEurope says it is a non-partisan and independent non-profit organisation, which was founded in 2016 in Germany by three students at the University of Freiburg who were studying liberal arts, political sciences and economics respectively who came up with an idea for a political social media project carrying an entirely pro-European message. It set out to encourage open, critical discussion about the state of the EU and its objectives without questioning its actual existence. Their stated intention is to make the EU more accessible to people who know little about the union and show the way forward. They have referred to what they are trying to achieve as ‘positive populism’. By implication, other populism is negative or may be neutral, although in the latter case it becomes an oxymoron. In that sense the word itself has gone from its stem within the conceptual range of ‘popular’ to appearing to even apply to small and little known groups who are attempting to convey a message they wish to make populist. WhyEurope use a supposedly youthful graphic style, more than clearly aimed at a younger audience than all ages, thus appears more ‘pop’, as in pop art, culture and music, than ‘populist’. This is a style that has been referred to as ‘emoticon politics’ because it tries to raise smiles, but occasionally uses less pleasant ‘facts’ that should arouse other (facial) expressions. It may be another twist on populism, but since it appears to be just another minority group at this point in time even that is questionable.

Thus, to actually understand what populism has come to mean, we have to move away from the older and established socialist/communist and national socialist initiatives that became parties with very large followings. If anything it is very much a vehicle with which to drive a political trend that has no hard and fast identity or common structure for the sake of media presentation where use of words like fascist and Nazi cause serious concern and conflict whilst putting a veneer of respectability on what have become mainstream political parties, represented in parliaments but who carry a nationalist, often overtly racist, message and are not quite as stringent as their predecessors in condemnation of capitalism, privileged elites and the establishment. Indeed, looked at closely it is relatively easy to recognise the contradictions in those groups where leadership is often from the privileged elite, indeed often very close to if not part of the establishment whilst relying on parts of the capitalist system in their countries and seeking to expand that support. Thus contemporary populism is different whilst attempting to achieve similar goals to older forms of the same, the main one being to feed on the prejudices of enough people to be able to convert that knowledge into ideology and electoral pledges that may never be kept but nonetheless assuming control over their political sphere without use of force. At present, the far right is using such tools as fears of terrorism, Islamification, foreign influence, foreigners generally and economic hardship as effective propaganda tools. Like all tools, over time they become worn out, broken or lost.

The future of populist politics

However, it is on the latter points that populist parties are not always likely to be masters of their own destiny. Pundits of all genres who include financial and economic experts whose existence itself depends on the survival of capitalism, as well as those who would welcome its downfall, are frequently speaking and writing about the end of capitalism and its inevitable collapse or implosion as it reaches all possible limits of viability. Another massive economic and financial depression or collapse with such parties in office and nobody else immediately available to blame may be their downfall. If anything, it has the potential to prove that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels ‘The Communist Manifesto’ that predicted rapacious and polarised global capitalism in the future was right and that we have the power to create a better world. That world will almost certainly not be the disciplined and centralised world of their communism or that we have seen remodelled out of it, but one that has learned from the repeated excesses of the political right and left and that rather than nations and their people attempting to forge futures alone based on their national, inward looking visions, that a shared, international and peaceful world is the way forward. In that respect, it is highly likely that the populist parties successful in their political settings at present have measurable lives and that what will follow may be the beginning of the future that those of us who believe in the strength of union look forward to. It needs to be a project into interdependence when the point in time arrives where, as all populist regimes have shown historically, their own corruption and contradictions of all they promise leave those who believed them economically, morally, socially and politically impoverished and totally demoralised. When the inwardness of nationalism breaks down will be the time to once again seek friends and neighbours who will show the solidarity that the present period of populism does not encourage, but will almost inevitably betray through its own excesses.  For those who would deny that, the idiom that tells us that history has a habit of repeating itself is very likely to be tested, tried and proven once again

Brian Milne
A Social anthropologist who specialises in the human rights of children. In practice Brian Milne has worked on the street with 'street children', child labour, young migrants, young people with HIV and AIDS. Brian’s work has taken him to around 40 countries, most of them developing nations; at least four of them have been in a state of conflict or war, thus taking him to the front line in two. Brian’s theoretical work began with migration; working on, written and publishing on citizenship and generally best known as an 'expert' on the human rights of children. Brian has a broad knowledge of human and civil rights for all ages, environmental issues and has been politically active most of his life. An internationalist and supporter of the principle of European federalisation.

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