Accessibility links

East European Perspectives: March 8, 2000

8 March 2000, Volume 2, Number 5

Part I: Populism in Eastern Europe

By Cas Mudde

In the last decade, many scholars have proclaimed a reemergence of populism within European politics. With regard to the Western part of the continent, the term is generally used with reference to modern or moderate types of so-called "extreme right" or "radical right" parties. In Eastern Europe, however, populism is considered to be a more general phenomenon, spreading throughout the ideological specter. Like nationalism, populism has become a catchword for both the media and many scholars that deal, generally only in passing, with the post-communist East. For example, already in 1990, Time ran a story under the title "Populism on the March" (Walsh, 1990), while seven years later the academic journal Communist and Post-Communist Studies included an article titled "Slovakia and the Triumph of Nationalist Populism" (Carpenter, 1997).

In this two-part article, I will critically evaluate the general claim that populism has returned to the center of East European politics. However, rather than looking at one specific interpretation of populism, I will discus three different types of it. My aim in the following study is threefold: first, to assess whether populism is relevant at all in the post-communist context; second, to assess which populisms are relevant; and, third, to assess the role of the "Leninist legacy" (Jowitt, 1992), i.e. in what way is populism in contemporary Eastern Europe influenced by the legacy of the Communist regime?

The Concept Of Populism
I will not dwell on the often noted observation that populism is a highly contentious concept, having more enemies than friends within social science. The fact is that populism is an often used concept in both social science and the public debate, seemingly denoting some specific form of politics. Leaving the normative discussion aside, much can be said about what the actual meaning "is" or "should be." The most important question within "populism studies" is whether there is one overarching form of populism or whether there are (only) different populisms (Ionescu and Gellner, 1969; Canovan, 1981; Weyland, 1999b).

I will scrutinize three different types of populism. As the claims of a resurgence of populism in Eastern Europe have been made on the basis of a variety of often implicit definitions of populism, a more flexible framework might in this instance clarify more than it obscures. The three types of populism are the most often mentioned in the literature. However, it must be stressed that these are ideal types. Moreover, the types are overlapping in both practice and theory. They should be seen merely as tools to provide better insight into a complex situation rather than as a conceptual answer to the question of how to define populism.

In this first part of the study, I will discuss the first two types of populism: agrarian and economic. In the second part, I will address the third type, political populism, as well as present a short, general discussion of the findings and their consequences.

Agrarian Populism
The origins of agrarian populism are found in two rather different movements from the end of the 19th century: the Populists, a political movement constituted mainly, though not exclusively, by farmers in the "Heartland" of the United States (Hofstadter, 1969; Wilson, 1995), and the narodniki, a cultural movement made up mostly by members of the urban intelligentsia in Tsarist Russia (Walicki, 1969). What these movements shared was an anti-elitist ideology in which the peasant was considered to be the source of morality and agricultural life the foundation of society (MacRae, 1969; Breitling, 1987; Held, 1996b). Vehemently opposed to the urban elites and the centralizing tendencies and materialist basis of capitalism, agrarian populists argued for the preservation of small family farms by founding cooperatives and strengthening the communities, and for self-governance (Piccone and Ulmen, 1995).

The Eastern Europe of the pre-communist period was still largely backward, rural, and at best marginally democratic (with the notable exception of the Czech lands). This meant that for most of the time agrarian populist movements were severely restricted in their possibilities to mobilize supporters or influence politics. Not surprisingly, the first movements were mainly regionally organized, mobilizing farmers within certain parts of a country in opposition to the often deplorable situation of the rural population. Given the authoritarian structure of the East European regimes of that time, these actions generally involved clashes with the government authority, such as in Bulgaria at the turn of the century (Bell, 1996).

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, the political situation in most East European countries somewhat improved, as the feudal nobility increasingly allowed for some form of democratic participation next to their own (still dominating) power. Not surprisingly, in an area where farmers constituted the large majority of the population, agrarian populism soon became the dominant ideology among "the people." While in some countries the populists' influence was mainly intellectual/cultural, for example in Hungary (Bozoki, 1994; Lacko, 1996), most of the East European populists developed action-oriented political movements (Ionescu, 1969; Held, 1996a).

These movements, however, were very broad and diverse encompassing both intellectual and peasant leaders, right- and left-wing ideologies, pro- and anti-regime wings, a.s.o. What all agrarian populists had in common was:

the philosophic foundation...that the peasants were biologically and morally the healthiest stratum of society and that they were destined to create a society more balanced and more just than the existing system which was dominated by the urban bourgeoisie and a corrupt bureaucracy dependent upon its favors (Dziewanowski, 1996, p. 171).

In practice this meant the demand for an "agrarianist" program, in which agriculture was seen as the foundation of the whole economic system and small farms were to be rescued from fragmentation through the formation of rural cooperatives (Ionescu, 1969; Dziewanowski, 1996). Just like their brethren in the U.S., East European populists were strongly anti-capitalist and anti-liberal (see Hanak, 1996). However, in addition to the usual critique of the anti-social and materialist features of capitalism, East European populists also criticized its "alien" roots. Capitalism was seen as an alien element forcefully implanted in East European societies by anti-national elites. In virtually all countries, the usual suspects were the Jews (Csepeli, 1996; Treptow, 1996). Like the American populists, the East Europeans considered the Jews the archetypal speculators, making money without actually producing anything.

Despite resistance from the bourgeois and noble elites, populist agrarian parties gained overwhelming electoral victories in the early 20th century (Ionescu, 1969; Held, 1996a). However, their governments were generally short-lived, falling prey to authoritarian coups d'etat in the 1920s and 1930s (e.g. in Bulgaria and Poland). The consequence was a split rather than a demise of the agrarian populist movement, with one part opposing the new rulers and one part collaborating with them. This process repeated itself when the Communists took power after World War II. Though various populist leaders had originally believed in a sincere cooperation with the Communists, they were soon to be disappointed and more often than not landed in prison for "subversive activities." Once the Communists had taken full power in a country, peasant organizations were either forcefully integrated into the ruling Communist Party (for example in Bulgaria), or co-opted as so-called "bloc" or "satellite" parties (as was the case, for example, in Czechoslovakia and Poland). These parties were more communist than populist or even agrarian, functioning as the Communists' "transmission belt to the masses" (Narkiewicz, 1976; Dziewanowski, 1996).

After the fall of communism, peasant parties reappeared in all East European countries. These included some "historical" parties, i.e. dating back to the pre-communist period (e.g. the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union, BANU) in Bulgaria or the Slovenian People's Party in Slovenia), some reformed bloc parties (e.g. the Polish Peasant Party, PSL), as well as some completely new parties (e.g. the Latvian Farmers' Union). With a few notable exceptions, agrarian parties have not been particularly successful in post-communist elections. Moreover, the few successful parties have been non-populist, i.e. the PSL. Among the few successful populist agrarians have been two very different parties, the Hungarian Independent Smallholders' Party (FKgP)and the Polish Self-Defense.

The Hungarian FKgP, lead by Jozsef Torgyan, started out as a party championing the rights of all people who were robbed and looted by the former communist regime and by the allegedly similar post-communist elite (Kovacs, 1996). In the 1990 "founding elections," the FKgP gained 12 percent of the votes and entered a coalition government with the national-conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) and the Christian-Democratic People's Party (KDNP). However, Torgyan acted as the leader of a semi-oppositional party, which lead to a split in the party in 1992. After the split the FKgP increasingly resorted to agrarian (and political) populism. This said, the party and its leader are too eclectic and capricious to be labeled as just agrarian populist (Bozoki, 1994). Moreover, from the outset the party's support has not been limited to the rural areas, as its anti-political rhetoric went in well with part of the urban population. In 1998 the FKgP again joined the government, this time with the liberal-conservative Young Democrats/Civic Party (FIDESZ) and the MDF. Though having taken possession of the Department of Agriculture once again, the FKgP now seems to have moderated its stand, implementing modest agricultural reforms aimed at EU-accession rather than at the exclusive defense of the Hungarian peasantry.

The only post-communist country where agrarian populism has truly survived, and indirectly even defeated, the communist regime, is Poland (Dziewanowski, 1996). There, "the populist movement still speaks for nearly four million individual peasants as well as a group of skilled professionals and a large number of peasant-workers who maintain their link with the countryside" (Fischer-Galati, 1996, p. 246). However, it is not so much the parliamentary agrarian party, the PSL, which is the mouthpiece of populism--this party lost its populism already during Communist times, when it operated as the block party United Populist Party. Rather, it is the radical extraparliamentary organization Self-Defense, which has on various occasions rallied the disenchanted farmers in violent protest against government policies. Its charismatic leader, Andrzej Lepper, has become a hero among the small farmers, and public enemy no. 1 of the Polish government. With its action-oriented political style, Self-Defense puts itself in the rich tradition of agrarian populist revolt in Poland, which includes violent strikes in the 1930s as well as successful opposition to collectivization during Communist rule (Dziewanowski, 1996).

Finally, elements of agrarian populism, such as the myth of the pure peasant, can be found among some old-style fascist organizations in post-communist Eastern Europe. For example, the RNE (Russian National Unity) of Aleksandr Barkashov attaches great importance to the "rebirth of the Russian peasantry," which it considers as "the healthiest and genetically purest part of the Nation" (Shenfield, forthcoming). This link between "fascism" and the "peasant myth" is not that surprising, as it goes back to Hitler's "Blut und Boden" (blood and land) philosophy, which the Nazi's had again taken from the popular "voelkisch" (folk) ideologies of 18th and 19th century German thinkers. This said, fascism (including national socialism) is not truly agrarian populist, as, for example, its elitism and totalitarianism stand in sharp contrast with the more egalitarian and regionalist populist ideal of self-governance (Wiles, 1969).

The marginalization of agrarian populism in Eastern Europe is, like in the West, closely related to the process of industrialization and the consequent gradual disappearance of the peasantry in the region (Fischer-Galati, 1996; Held, 1996b). However, there is more to it. Unlike in the West, where capitalism, through a process of the "survival of the fittest," merely decreased the number of individual farms, in the East the Communists' process of collectivization was like a "tornado [that] swept the traditional family farm off the face of the earth" (Havel, 1988, p. 385). The remaining collective farm (kolkhoz) had little to do with the old family farm, and peasants had become rural workers with little personal relation to the land they farmed. This rural proletariat is nowadays more susceptible to the socialist ideal of a "workers' paradise" than to the populist ideal of the "peasant society." Consequently, rural areas in many post-communist countries form the backbone of (not so) reformed communist successor parties, or of non-populist peasant parties which function as special interest groups rather than as a support base of agrarian parties (Bell, 1996; Kligman and Verdery, 1999). Not surprisingly, agrarian populism only survived in those post-communist societies where collectivization was either successfully resisted by the rural population (as in Poland; see Dziewanowski 1996) or was moderated by "gulash socialism" (as in Hungary; see Agocs and Agocs 1994).

Economic Populism
This type of populism harks back to Latin America of the 1930s-1950s, having a second upsurge in that region in the 1970s (Hennessy, 1969; Knight, 1998; Weyland 1999a). In the Latin American tradition, populism is described in terms of "a multiclass political movement, characterized by personalist, charismatic leadership, ad hoc reformist policies, and a repudiation of revolution" (Knight, 1998, p. 237).

This definition is only partly useful outside of that tradition, especially when applied to post-communist Europe. For example, the "multiclass political movement" is the norm in an area which has been "declassed" by 40 to 70 years of communism. Also, "repudiation of revolution" is generally interpreted as pro-democratic in the Latin American context, while it would be considered anti-democratic in Eastern Europe. Even the feature of "personalist, charismatic leadership" has little discriminatory value in post-communist politics, particularly in the first decade, given the embryonic stage of party development and the general choice of party organization (Kopecky, 1995). Therefore, I focus predominantly on the economic dimension, i.e. a "policy package" that is:

aimed at steering economic activity into domestic sectors producing goods for basic consumption, includes budget deficits to stimulate domestic demand, nominal wage increases with price controls to effect income redistribution, and exchange-rate control or appreciation to cut inflation and raise wages and profits in the nontraded goods sectors (Greskovits, 1998, p. 100).

Economic populism broadly defined is a phenomenon not restricted to a recent past or a specific area. At the same time, it is more distinct than contemporary usage of the term suggests. As Torcuato Di Tella notes, "in recent years [it] has become almost a by-word to imply irresponsible economic policies" (1997, p. 188). An example of this can be found in a recent speech by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (1998), who considers populism one of the three types of backlash against globalism--the other two being nationalism and illiberalism. According to Annan, economic populism, in the form of a host of protectionist measures, is increasingly used by "embattled leaders" in a rhetoric sham fight with globalization.

As economic populism is a relatively modern phenomenon, it comes as no surprise that it did not play an important role in pre-communist Eastern Europe. Moreover, with economics being at the core of the communist model, economic populism was one of the many non-accepted alternatives to the official "socialist economic policy" in communist Eastern Europe. This said, the communist policies included some important overlap with economic populist policies, such as the preference for the public over the private sector or a stress on growth and income redistribution (Greskovits, 1998).

With the fall of communism, many observers in the West warned against the emergence of economic populist politics in the East. Not surprisingly, neo-liberal economists (like Anders Aslund and Jeffrey Sachs) were at the fore, arguing to rapidly push forth neo-liberal policies so as not to give the populists any chance. They were followed by social scientists, who also warned against a "populist threat," but did so in reaction to the increasingly unpopular neo-liberal policies (Greskovits, 1998). Only a few scholars actually focused on the populists themselves. Those that did noted a marginal role of economic populism in post-communist politics. Possibly with the exception of Slovakia (Carpenter, 1997), economic populism never got a foot on the ground in East-Central Europe. It remained, by and large, a rhetorical phenomenon (even in Slovakia), in economic terms closer to other (non-populist) political strands of post-communist politics than to traditional Latin American populism (Greskovits, 1998, chapter 7).

In the post-Soviet space the situation has been largely similar, though often for entirely different reasons. Possibly one of the closest fits is Belarus, though this might also be because of the many similarities between communism and populism. In addition, Central Asian countries seem more prone to populist leadership, although their often mainly rural economies hardly fit the Latin American model.

Bela Greskovits (1998) explains the surprising absence of "a populist episode" in post-communist Eastern Europe through a comparison with Latin America of both the 1970s-1980s and the 1990s. It is particularly the last period which is insightful for Eastern Europe today; while the economic crisis in Latin America led to violent protests and neo-populist leaders in the 1970s and 1980s, a more or less similar economic situation in the 1990s lead to neither in Latin America and Eastern Europe. The explanation can be found in the worldwide domination of neo-liberal theory and practice in the 1990s, not least of all through the powerful Bretton-Woods organizations, on the one hand, and a far less favorable socio-economic breeding ground in the East than in the South, on the other. He concludes that "while there has as yet been no convergence of political and economic factors favorable to populism, this may occur in the future" (Greskovits, 1998, p. 100).

This is even more true when one takes into account the importance of socio-economic values among the masses. Largely as a result of the Leninist legacy, a significant potential for economic populist measures exists at the mass level in contemporary Eastern Europe. Socialized under the communist regime, which claimed to take care of the people from cradle to grave, East Europeans have become accustomed to the idea of a protective welfare state. Various surveys have shown that the support of extensive state involvement in providing welfare is far higher in the Eastern part of Europe than in the West (e.g. Rose and Haerpfer, 1996). Some political entrepreneurs have already successfully profited from this situation, gaining votes on the basis of a economic (and often political) populist campaign (e.g. Meciar in Slovakia or Zeman in the Czech Republic).

However, their actual policies generally resembled mainstream economic liberalism rather than economic populism. This discrepancy can be explained by the strong external pressure, discussed above, as well as by the very close ties between the political and economic elites in post-communist Europe. However, in a region with a still very open electoral market, this situation is likely to change (Tismaneanu, 1996). Even more so now the main defense walls against economic populism are crumbling, i.e., the international consensus on neo-liberalism and the social equality political culture in Eastern Europe. And the people are ready: support for the market economy as well as the belief in a better economic future are decreasing (e.g. Plasser, Ulram, and Waldrauch, 1998).

Cas Mudde is lecturer in politics at the University of Edinburgh. The author would like to thank Mary Buckley (University of Edinburgh), Zsolt Enyedi (Central European University), Petr Kopecky (Sheffield University), Michael Shafir (RFE/RL), and Kurt Weyland (Vanderbilt University) for their valuable comments.


Agocs, Peter and Sandor, 1994, "The Change Was But An Unfulfilled Promise: Agriculture and the Rural Population in Post-Communist Hungary," East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 32-57.

Annan, Kofi A., 1998, "The Backlash Against Globalism," Futurist, vol. 33, no. 3, p. 27.

Bell, John D., 1996, "Populism and Pragmatism: The BANU in Bulgarian Politics," in Joseph Held (ed.), Populism in Eastern Europe. Racism, Nationalism, and Society (Boulder, East European Monographs), pp. 21-61.

Bozoki, Andras, 1994, "An Outline of Three Populisms: The United States, Argentina and Hungary." (Budapest: CEU Political Science Department; Working Paper 5).

Breitling, Rupert, 1987, "Populismus," in Anton Pelinka (ed.), Populismus in Oesterreich (Vienna: Junius), pp. 26-34.

Canovan, Margaret, 1981, Populism (London: Junction).

Carpenter, John, 1997, "Slovakia and the Triumph of Nationalist Populism," Communist and Post-Communist Studies, Vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 205-220.

Csepeli, Gyorgy, 1996, "In the Captivity of Narratives: The Political Socialization of Populist Writers in Hungary, and the Origin of National Narratives in Eastern Europe," in Joseph Held (ed.), Populism in Eastern Europe. Racism, Nationalism, and Society (Boulder: East European Monographs), pp. 129-144.

Di Tella, Torcuato S., 1997, "Populism into the Twenty-First Century," Government & Opposition, Vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 187-200.

Dziewanowski, M.K., 1996, "Polish Populism," in Joseph Held (ed.), Populism in Eastern Europe. Racism, Nationalism, and Society (Boulder: East European Monographs), pp. 163-196.

Fischer-Galati, Stephen, 1996, "Conclusions," in Joseph Held (ed.), Populism in Eastern Europe. Racism, Nationalism, and Society (Boulder: East European Monographs), pp. 245-247.

Greskovits, Bela, 1998, The Political Economy of Protest and Patience. East European and Latin American Transformations Compared (Budapest: CEU Press).

Hanak, Peter, 1996, "The Anti-Capitalist Ideology of the Populists," in Joseph Held (ed.), Populism in Eastern Europe. Racism, Nationalism, and Society (Boulder: East European Monographs), pp. 145-161.

Havel, Vaclav, 1988, "Anti-Political Politics," in John Keane (ed.), Civil Society and the State (London: Verso), pp. 381-398.

Held, Joseph (ed.), 1996a, Populism in Eastern Europe. Racism, Nationalism, and Society (Boulder: East European Monographs).

Held, Joseph, 1996b, "Antecedents," in Joseph Held (ed.), Populism in Eastern Europe. Racism, Nationalism, and Society (Boulder: East European Monographs) pp. 1-20.

Hennessy, Alistair, 1969, "Latin America," in Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner (eds.), Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson), pp. 28-27.

Hofstadter, Richard, 1969, "North America," in Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner (eds.), Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson), pp. 9-27.

Ionescu, Ghita, 1969, "Eastern Europe," in Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner (eds.), Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson), pp. 97-121.

Ionescu, Ghita and Ernest Gellner (eds.), 1969, Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson).

Jowitt, Ken, 1992, The New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Kligman, Gail and Verdery, Katherine, 1999, "Reflections on the Revolutions of 1989 and After," East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 303-312.

Knight, Alan, 1998, "Populism and Neo-Populism in Latin America, especially Mexico," Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 223-248.

Kopecky, Petr, 1995, "Developing Party Organizations in East-Central Europe: What Type of Party Is Likely to Emerge?" Party Politics, Vol. 1, no. 4, pp. 515-534.

Kovacs, Janos Matyas, 1996, "Haider in Ungarn. Notizen zum postmodernen Populismus," Transit. Europaeische Revue, no. 11, pp. 182-198.

Lacko, Miklos, 1996, "Populism in Hungary: Yesterday and Today," in Joseph Held (ed.), Populism in Eastern Europe. Racism, Nationalism, and Society (Boulder: East European Monographs), pp. 107-128.

MacRae, Donald, 1969, "Populism as an Ideology," in Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner (eds.), Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson), pp. 153-165.

Narkiewicz, Olga A., 1976, The Green Flag. Polish Populist Politics 1867-1970 (London: Croom Helm).

Piccone, Paul and Ulmen, Gary, 1995, "Populism and the New Politics," Telos, no. 103, pp. 3-8.

Plasser, Fritz, Ulram, Peter A., and Waldrauch, Harald, 1998, Democratic Consolidation in East-Central Europe (Basingstoke: Macmillan).

Rose, Richard and Haerpfer, Christian, 1996, "New Democracies Barometer IV: A 10-Nation Survey" (Glasgow: Centre for the Study of Public Policy [Studies in Public Policy 262]).

Shenfield, Stephen, forthcoming, Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, and Movements (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe).

Tismaneanu, Vladimir, 1996, "The Leninist Debris or Waiting for Peron," East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 504-535.

Treptow, Kurt W., 1996, "Populism and Twentieth Century Romanian Politics," in Joseph Held (ed.), Populism in Eastern Europe. Racism, Nationalism, and Society (Boulder: East European Monographs), pp. 197-218.

Ulc, Otto, 1996, "Populism, Racism, and Society in Czechoslovakia," in Joseph Held (ed.), Populism in Eastern Europe. Racism, Nationalism, and Society (Boulder: East European Monographs), pp. 63-106.

Walicki, Andrzej, 1969, "Russia," in Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner (eds.), Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson), pp. 62-96.

Walsh, James, 1990, "Populism on the March," Time, Vol. 136, no. 27 and 44.

Weyland, Kurt, 1999a, "Neoliberal Populism in Latin America and Eastern Europe," Comparative Politics, Vol. 31, no. 4, pp. 379-401.

Weyland, Kurt, 1999b, "Clarifying a Contested Concept: Populism in Latin American Studies," paper presented at the 95th Annual Meeting of American Political Science Association, Atlanta, 2-5 September.

Wiles, Peter, 1969, "A Syndrome, Not a Doctrine: Some Elementary Theses on Populism," in Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner (eds.), Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson), pp. 166-179.

Wilson, Clyde, 1995, "Up at the Fork of the Creek: In Search of American Populism," Telos, no. 105, pp. 77-88.