The populism: brief evolution from a popular idea to a demagogical means

[dropcap]Is there[/dropcap] any consciousness while is it talked about “populism”, even more? Only through a synthetic but successful view to the historic roots of the definition and both to its enduring reasons, it could be possible to portrait the “hidden-faces” phenomenon.


It is complex to provide a whole definition of the term “populism”, as much as to talk about “democracy” in general, but not pointing out those important differences between a “popular” democracy and a “liberal” one, thus involving a series of negative results.

The two terms (populism and democracy) are “in practice” related (as to say, they appear strongly similar by the “developing” moment from their theoretic definitions), and firstly in etymology, since they both contain a reference to the word “people” (that is the translation for “demos” in democracy).

Although this facile fact, to be the populism concept totally defined, “demagogy” would be a more suitable complement-term rather than democracy (in fact, it is talked about “demagogic” populism), and this will necessarily entail a new “logical” consideration. According to the “anakuklosis”(i.e “circular”) movement represented by ancient Grecian  political philosophy, demagogy would stand for the  moment of involution (precisely, the inevitable degeneration proper to every “pure” government form) that leads the “absolute democracy” regime  to a  “demagogical” one, or under “demagogues” leadership, who are “those ones able to conduct the people”.

This shift is remarkable, because if democracy means “power to the people”, or “the government of the people, by the people, for the people”[1], in “demagogy” people will be not a main character anymore, since it will be put in passiveness , under the leadership of “someone” else (actually the original composition provides the term “demos” + “ago”, this last standing for the verb “to conduct”, so that  “demagogue” indicates the people’s conductor role). Then it is easy to assign the populism to be a negative meant of democracy, whereby to be one of hers “degenerated aspects”, in force of its conceptual closeness to demagogy. It has been also metaphorical defined as a “congenital disease” of democracy, or like the growing up “tale” that damages the “good crops”[2]; otherwise by currently new definition, mentioning “demo-patia” , “demo-astenia” and similar[3].In addition, if “populism” can be indicate a latest way to spell “demagogy”,(maybe a modern variant of the same plague) it should be consequentially designed by new features, and either defeated by new “treatments”.

The term was born in XIX century’s Russia , with the purpose of indicating that political-cultural movement, socialist-approached, strongly related to the people (the original Russian definition was narodnicestvo, from narod standing for “people”), and followed particularly by the peasants mass, which was deployed against modernizing changes (whom the Capitalist West-side was blamed of , through these advances and technologies that would make it a “world’s coordination center ”)[4] but conscious at once of the oppressive czarist regime, despite it was setting out to become a new one, (starting from the servants emancipation, in 1861) even founded on “social control”: it will be the soviet-issue, fiercely voted to industrialization matter (thence as well disruptive for rural life).

Instead, they suggest an alternative social model, focusing on traditional values of  rural communalism (whose symbol was the “obscina” institution, a Russian land typical community , formed and managed by the association of landowners families,  and disappeared since the collectivizing land reform, by 1928)[5], appearing arrears (if compared to the industrialized and liberalized West-side), but reported as the only way to escape from bourgeois emancipatory illusion, that was transforming the men in “human products” of capitalism, i.e the proletarian working-class[6].

Their aim, (positive, in some sense) pointed therefore to prevent the arrival of democracy as it was already looking in west-side Europe, namely a “western-polytheistic values” phenomenon that was leading the absolute power to prevail (effectively, this is what happened in Europe along XIX century, under floods of dictatorships and totalitarian regimes). So that they claim for comeback of “true” people in political scene (to say, the coming of the masses instead of bourgeois), through the advent of democracy with “entire-humanity” aspects (these last opposed to “individual” ones of contemporary life, dissolving social relationships), built on a unique natural-law foundation, inspired to Russian peasantry world.

Even with these “nobles” purposes, what can be named as a “populist overhaul of democracy” did not influence so much  Russian politics (where indeed bolshevism and Soviet Union will make the change, opening doors to modernization, even in conflict with original populism), and it can be noticed in the replacement of the Slavic original definition (narodnicestvo) occurred in the course of ‘900, by the new Anglo-saxon one of “populism”. This latter will be used like a “common name”[7], generally referred to a party, a movement or also to a leadership or another sort of government, ever negatively connoted.

The passage to the Anglo-saxon context (the American, precisely) has not been casual: in 1891 in Cincinnati “People’s Party” had been created to gather mainly farmers reaction against the super-powered banks and the emergent economic system, this destined to pick up world’s dominance, though neglecting little landlords, who lived repressed under economic crisis (notably, there has been the “Great Depression” between 1870 and 1897), while opposed to the triumph of parasite billionaires’ greed and corruption.

On the other hand, the “American” version of populism arised in a society  looking completely different than pre-capitalized Russia: that was born democratic and predestinated to freedom, and it would not had renounced to individual determination such as it has prevented itself from the consequences of Russian bolshevism (as like as from continental Europe experience of totalitarianism)[8]. In political field, while the People Party’s adventure was already ending at the beginning of ‘900 (it faded away definitely in 1912), the populism, by the way, was going to assume a “neutral” and autonomous connotation (leaving also its basic socialist approach), used now to indicate that modernization “syndrome” perceived by the masses (in both cases mentioned , the farmers) when they tackle a hard historical transition. Onwards this main syndrome, a lot of minor diseases are propagated to impress other aspects of social life (from the economic to political, including judicial and cultural ones), till they manage to “erode” its structure completely, even starting from the inside.

That effect is due to the fundamentalist attitude typical of all forms of populism,basically referred to a unique creed, often relayed to national “identity”, not far to be classist or even racist (this class-focused issue can be denoted in Russian commoners’ experience, as well as in the American farmers’ contempt for emerging “melting pot” society. In addition, the “mythic exaltation” of the indigenous and ethnic heritage will be the prevalent rhetoric used by  Latin America populists during XX century[9]), whatever to cultural or religious customs (emblematically about, F. Zakaria gives an example in his book “Future of Freedom”, describing how nationalist current “Christian- socialist” founded by K. Lueger in Vienna fin de siècle  managed to raise maximum of the consensus, thanks to its equally use of socialist “rhetoric”, that attracted the working-class, and nationalistic principles, addressed to the peasantry class; finally his political “masterpiece” would be celebrated as “magnificent” in A.Hitler Mein Kampf )[10].

The masses, once that fallen into weariness and self-reference, (maybe they fallback, maybe they have been forced by external forces), they become easy preys of someone(the demagogues) who nourishes his power with their consensus (better to say, their abstention), by pretending to support people and being a “man of the people”, actually tricking them about their real role. This last in fact from a “sovereignty” position in democracy passes to the “instrumental” one in demagogy, all unconsciously.


[1] From V. Possenti, Le società liberali, pp. 103-105 , from the famous speech of Gettysburg given by A. Lincoln on 19 of November, 1863.

[2] Cit. from A.Spadaro, Costituzionalismo vs populismo (Sulla c.d.  deriva  populistico-plebiscitaria delle democrazie costituzionali contemporanee), Studi in onore di Lorenza Carlassare, 16, Quad. Cost., forum online, october, 2009

[3] Cit. from  L.Ferrajoli, Democrazia e populismo, n. 520, riv AIC, 30-07-2018 , using these definitions for political systems  : «basati sulla passivizzazione o peggio sull’astensione e sulla tacitazione del cosiddetto popolo sovrano» .

[4] Cit. from P.Paolo Poggio, Il populismo russo: percorsi carsici ,Fondazione biblioteca archivio Luigi Micheletti, Altronovecento, riv online, 2003, p.2 : «Su questo nodo si concentra l’attenzione del pensiero russo, nel momento del primo delinearsi dell’edificio che la tecnica occidentale si appresta a costruire, ergendosi a potenza mondiale, centro unificatore del mondo. Pensando alle Grandi Esposizioni Universali che celebrano il trionfo del nascente capitalismo, Dostoevskij conia la metafora del “palazzo di cristallo”, dove tutti i problemi possibili e immaginabili saranno risolti con matematica esattezza, affidando al nichilismo dell’ “uomo del sottosuolo” la protesta contro questa prospettiva, la rivendicazione assoluta della libertà, fosse pure ridotta a capriccio, follia e sofferenza».

[5] From the translation of obščina, by Enc. Online Treccani

[6] About, B.Bongiovanni , Populismo, Enc.Scienze Sociali, Treccani, 1996, pp703 ss: «Ed ecco profilarsi i fondamenti essenziali dell’identità del movimento socialista-populista russo, un’identità in gran parte costruita nell’ambito del confronto-contrasto con la realtà economico-industriale europea e con il panorama sociale proletarizzato che ne era scaturito. La presunta arretratezza non era realmente tale: per i populisti rivoluzionari […] si trattava di una differenza strutturale e di una via peculiare che poteva e doveva, tra l’altro, consentire di evitare le forche caudine e le peripezie sociali dello sviluppo capitalistico, quello sviluppo che per i socialisti occidentali si poneva invece come una tappa intermedia ineludibile, nonché produttrice di enorme ricchezza collettiva e anche di irrinunciabili spazi di libertà […] .Il soggetto rivoluzionario per eccellenza era di conseguenza costituito dai contadini, che si identificavano in toto appunto con il popolo e con la virtuosa morale comunitaria che lo contraddistingueva, e non dagli operai, consustanziali – tanto da esserne il prodotto più clamorosamente visibile – con il processo capitalistico-borghese, un processo che corrompeva i costumi imborghesendoli con miraggi mercantili, divideva la comunità, degradava il tessuto sociale, creava individui e individualismi, allontanava dalle radici profonde, e naturali, della vita collettiva».

[7] Cfr. V.Pazè, Democrazia e populismo,, p.2

[8] “Prophetic” in this sense the consideration given by A. De Tocqueville, in De la democratie en Amerique, book II, conclusion, p. 411 : «Vi sono oggi sulla terra due grandi popoli che, partiti da punti differenti, sembrano avanzare verso un’unica meta: i russi e gli americani. […] l’americano lotta contro gli ostacoli naturali, l’altro è alle prese con gli uomini […] Per raggiungere il suo scopo, il primo si basa sull’interesse personale e lascia agire senza dirigerle la forza e la ragione degli individui, solo il secondo concentra in qualche modo in un uomo tutto il potere della società. L’uno ha per mezzo di azione principale la libertà, l’altro la servitù».

[9] The XXth century has been the century of Latin American populisms, definetly. By these ones,  success arrived for charismatic leaders (from Vargas in Brazil, to Pèron in Argentina, to Cardenas  Mexico between the years ’30-’40, also Garcia e di Fujimori in Peru,   Bucaram in Ecuador and  Chavez for Venezuela, to denote only priciples among those of the post-War ),  whose policy appeared similar in disdainig liberal-democracy and its social model, to that they opposed a sort of “organic democracy”, referred to the “original people”  (mestizo, o el pueblo for bolivarian and ecuadorian leaders), and to its ancient  unity of values , against disjointing forces of the external and internal “enemies”.

Also, in this sense, in L.Zanatta, Il populismo in America Latina. Il volto moderno di un immaginario antico, Biblioteca Zanatta,, p.10 : «In nome della “volontà” del popolo, infatti, del “loro” popolo, essi esprimono una radicale pulsione autoritaria, per non dire una vocazione totalitaria. Il popolo del populismo è il tutto, l’intero, il bene, la virtù, la nazione coi suoi tratti eterni e definitivi. Fuori da esso cova il male, la malattia che attacca il sano organismo della comunità. La logica manichea del populismo non lascia scampo. Decisi a rigenerare il popolo, a riscattarne l’identità pura e minacciata che essi e solo essi incarnano, si chiami peruanidad, argentinidad, brasilianidade o cubanidad, a realizzare un disegno provvidenziale, una missione salvifica e redentrice, i populismi sono impermeabili al pluralismo, nel quale, lungi dal cogliere la fisiologica risultante della differenziazione sociale, individuano la patologica manifestazione di divisioni artificiali introdotte nell’organismo sociale da qualche agente patogeno penetratovi dall’esterno. Come tale, il pluralismo è una malattia da estirpare.»

[10] F. Zakaria, The future of Freedom, op.cit., Chapter 2, The twisted Path, 59 ss


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