🔮 Back to the future of populism?

Looking back should be the future direction of populism research, insists David Arter. He holds that political scientists would benefit from using a longer lens when viewing the genealogy of the populist party family, and demonstrates this with reference to Finnish agrarian populism

Footslogging to first-wave populism

In current populism research, a ‘here-and-now’ attitude prevails, and we can observe a penchant for oven-ready panel survey data. But there is a strong case for research based on footslogging through the range of historical sources, the better to recreate and understand the contemporary conditions in which populism has flourished. This would uncover the largely untouched world of first-wave populism.

Trawling through the historical sources would uncover the largely untouched world of first-wave populism, and would help us understand the range of conditions in which populism has flourished

In their Aunt Sally for this Loop series, Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti take care to expose the myth that we can pigeonhole populism narrowly, as left- or right-wing. They also suggest that agrarian populism is precisely such a case that reaches beyond left and right. And they allude to the Finnish Rural Party as a past example of this agrarian populist party type.

My view is that sharper optics – a longer telescope – would reveal that an agrarian-populist lineage long antedated Veikko Vennamo’s Finnish Rural Party in the 1960s. Not only that, but we would see it emerge in the decade before independence in 1917, when Finland was still a Grand Duchy of the Czarist Romanov empire.

Finnish agrarian populism was sui generis

In a recent article in Scandinavian Political Studies, I claim that Finnish agrarian populism at this time was distinctive. It was not the revolutionary peasantism (socialism?) propagated by the city-based intellectuals in the Russian Narodniki movement. Nor was it stridently anti-capitalist, in the manner of the American People’s Party. It differed, too, from the ‘authoritarian populism’ of many of the Green Rising peasant parties of the inter-war period, in that it was not anti-democratic, nor was it anti-pluralist.

Rather, Finnish agrarian populism was a by-product of the superimposition of mass democracy – universal franchise rights for men and women over 24 years – onto an overwhelmingly rural society. It sought representation for farmers in the new unicameral legislature.

The comparative literature views the Finnish Agrarian Party, formed in 1906, as a single-interest class party, along with its Norwegian and Swedish sister parties. But I argue that the nascent party displayed many of the characteristics of diffuse populism. In fact, we could consider it the first Scandinavian agrarian populist party.

Neither Left nor Right

Agrarian populism, in its Finnish variant around the time of the First World War, could not readily be located on a conventional left-right continuum. It was embedded in rural-urban cultural antagonisms and the politicisation of a visceral suspicion, bordering on hostility, toward city-based elites or 'bigwigs'. That is, it manifested ‘bigwig hatred’ or herraviha.

In Finland, the city-based elite was the paramount ‘other’ and hatred of such 'bigwigs' was central to the taxonomy of agrarian populism

This was not the monopoly of agrarian populism. It also underpinned agrarian socialism. But agrarian socialism subsumed herraviha within a Marxist class-conflict framework as an integral component in the capitalist bourgeoisie. However, in Finland, herraviha was the paramount ‘other’ and central to the taxonomy of agrarian populism.

No word in Finnish for ‘peasant’

In the agrarian populist schema there were two opposing categories. Herrat comprised an oppressor elite. Meanwhile, talonpojat (to translate them as ‘peasants’ is misleading) were oppressed family-based farm-owners. They worked smallholdings, were burdened with the land tax, lacked capital to develop, and operated in challenging climatic conditions. Crucially, however, talonpojat were independent farmers for whom Marxist-driven agrarian socialism had no appeal.

The prominence of ‘bigwig hatred’ in the negative stereotyping of the ‘other’ was as striking as the way it sought to identify and mobilise the talonpojat in terms of who they were not. Examples are legion.

Herroja pittää aina eppäillä

In rich Karelian dialect, the slogan of the Agrarian Party MP K.K. Pykälä (an eccentric character who went barefoot in parliament) ran: herroja pittää aina eppäillä – 'you should always be suspicious of bigwigs'. The Agrarian Party organ Talonpojan Lehti insisted that 'enough is enough of walking on the bigwig’s tight leash'. In 1906, Finnish farmer Teppo, a self-styled ‘long-haired troublemaker’ bemoaned the naivety of his fellow villagers. 'They would', he claimed, 'dance a mazurka every time the herrat cared to play'. In the vocabulary of Finnish agrarian populism, ‘bigwig hatred’ linked sentences and practical grievances. The beauty of the term lay in its malleability.

As to who these ‘hated bigwigs’ were, they included tax-regulating and tax-collecting bureaucrats; tight-fisted bankers reluctant to advance loans for farm improvements; factory and mill-owners infringing traditional grazing and fishing rights; Lutheran clerics who had abandoned religion for more ‘earthly’ pursuits; politicians from the ‘old’ parties; educated persons including schoolteachers; the Swedish-speaking urban middle class; and not least the Helsingin herrat who were presented as living a sybaritic existence with no conception of what life outside the capital city was really like.

The denigration of a lumpen bigwig class and an elevation of the virtues of country people remained the fundamental axis of agrarian populism in the 1960s and 1970s

The denigration of a lumpen bigwig class and an elevation of the virtues of country people remained the fundamental axis of the agrarian populism of Veikko Vennamo’s Finnish Rural Party in the 1960s and 1970s. In a uniquely colourful and acerbic rhetoric, Vennamo referred disparagingly to rötösherrat – ‘sleaze merchants’. He also claimed that 'the real Finnish people live in the countryside and do honest Finnish work. Then there are the herrat who live a luxurious lifestyle and get the roses whilst the people simply get the thorns'.

One case among many

Enough of Finland. It may be my age but, far from being passé, superceded by the multi-author brigadiers and unique data-setters of today, I see enormous value in country-specific case studies. These, based on the available documentation, illuminate the particulars of populism past – its language, ephemerality, electoral cycle and so on. By extension, they thus inform work on populism in the future.

47 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of David Arter
David Arter
Emeritus Professor and Docent, Tampere University, Finland

David has built up an eclectic portfolio of work on Scandinavian politics and government over many years.

His particular interests lie in party politics and electoral politics.

The Nordic Parliaments: A Comparative Analysis

The Nordic Parliaments: A Comparative Analysis
Palgrave Macmillan, 1984

Scandinavian Politics Today by David Arter

Scandinavian Politics Today
Manchester University Press, 2015 – now in its third edition


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