Civilization is like a very fine suit of clothes that is just slightly too small for us. The term “populism” derives from the Latin, populus, meaning “people.” It doesn’t mean “people” in the sense of “There are a lot of people who don’t read my blog.” It means “people” in the sense of a nation, a polity, a human society.
Populism has been around vastly longer than most other ideologies like capitalism, socialism, and so on. The Roman Senate featured a group known as the Populares, an unofficial but powerful party that sought to achieve success by mobilizing the Roman masses against the governing elites. Gracchus, Julius Caesar, and Augustus—a mighty trio—were populist leaders backed by the Populares. (Gracchus, by the way, was murdered by members of the Senate who feared his populist policies.)
Much of the Protestant movement during the Reformation was populist, especially the Anabaptists, leading to 16th century populist rebellions like the German Peasants’ War and the Münster Rebellion. Both the English Civil War in the 17th century and the French Revolution in the 18th century were driven in large part by populist anger over the excesses of James I and Charles I in England and of the Ancien Régime in France.
In the modern era, leftwing populism has characterized much of Latin America’s political system for many decades: Aprismo (Peru), Vargas, da Silva and Rousseff (Brazil), Ortega (Nicaragua), Péron (Argentina), Morales (Bolivia), Chavez (Venezuela) and so on.
The United States also has a long history of primarily leftist populist parties, beginning with the Greenback Party (formed in 1874), the Populist Party in the 1890s, and William Jennings Bryan’s Free Silver Party a few years later. These were followed by no fewer than three Progressive Parties (Teddy Roosevelt’s successful Bull Moose in 1912, La Follette’s iteration in 1924, and Henry Wallace’s final losing effort in 1948). We also had Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth Party in 1933.
Several recent populist outbreaks in America have tended to be more right-wing in nature: Ross Perot and the Tea Party, for example. However, the primarily leftist orientation of American populism has been continued in modern times by people like Ralph Nader, John Edwards, and Bernie Sanders, as well as the Occupy Wall Street movement. Donald Trump is certainly a populist politician, but his ideological orientation doesn’t seem to be easily classifiable: he is despised by both the political left and right.
The 20th century had barely gotten itself launched when a populist rebellion against the Tsarist regime in Russia was hijacked by the far left, in the persons of Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin. Technically (though we often forget this point), there were three distinct Russian revolutions in the first seventeen years of the 20th century, the first in 1905 and the final two in 1917.
The first Russian Revolution (in 1905) ended when Tsar Nicholas II reluctantly signed the October Manifesto, accepting most of the revolutionist’s demands, including the formation of the representative Duma, or parliament. Backsliding by the Tsar on the Manifesto agreements, plus the pathetic performance of Russian troops during World War I, led to the February 1917 Revolution, which toppled Nicholas, ending 300 years of Romanov rule.
But it is the third Russian Revolution, in October 1917, that matters: it was the one that was hijacked by radicals (organized into “soviets”) fed up with the inadequacies of the so-called Provisional Government, formed by the Duma after the Tsar abdicated. Following the Government’s disastrous summer offensive against Germany, a bloodless coup overthrew the Provisional Government. This, however, wasn’t the end, but the beginning. The coup was followed by a brutal civil war between, on the one hand, the Bolsheviks, backed by the Red Army, and, on the other hand, a loosely allied coalition of anti-Bolsheviks known as the White Army. After six years of hostilities the Bolsheviks emerged victorious, leading to the creation of the Communist Party and the formation of the USSR.
The victory of the radical left and the formation of the world’s first socialist republic in the most populous country in Europe sent chills through the rest of the continent. (Russia was more than twice as populous as Germany, the second largest country in Europe in those days.) Communist activity seeking to undermine existing governments was rampant throughout Europe, terrifying democratic and other governments, although some governments were more vulnerable than others.
A government can offer many services to its citizens, but if it can’t competently provide safety and stability to its people and secure its own borders and the integrity of its government, none of the higher services can happen. It’s like a Maslovian pyramid for countries—you can’t proceed to the higher services unless you first master the basic ones.
Between World War I and World War II France and Britain more or less mastered the basic services, at least compared to the rest of Europe. France’s recovery from World War I was weak and neither rightist nor leftist governments seemed able to do much about it. Still, despite intense pressure from communists and fascists, center-left and center-right governments managed to prevail. Britain, meanwhile, largely escaped the extremist political fighting that bedeviled other European countries and it was less hard-hit by the Great Depression.
But most European governments operating between the wars were weak and unstable, lurching from crisis to crisis. They were unable to offer their citizens even the basic services of safety and stability, and, moreover, they were unable to protect themselves from collapse under pressure from the extreme left and right. Most bizarrely of all, as we will see next week, many of these governments weren’t even interested in providing basic services to their citizens.
Next up: On Populism, Part II