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Isaiah Berlin on the Inherent Atavism in Populism
The great liberal thinker believed that a majoritarian sense of victimhood was the hallmark of this movement
Supposing we say that what is common to all populism everywhere — this cannot be true, but we will try it on — is a vague notion, and a vague name for it, which is intelligible to everybody here, the notion of Gemeinschaft — that is, that famous integral society which everybody talks about, some kind of coherent (all these words are capable of being shot down in the same way as ‘populism’) – some sort of coherent, integrated society, which is sometimes called Volk, which has roots in the past, either imaginary or real, which is bound by a sense of fraternity and by a desire for a certain kind of social equality and perhaps liberty – but of the two equality is probably nearer its heart than liberty — and which is opposed to competitive, atomised society, although in the American case it obviously believes in limited competition which is regulated in some so-called ‘natural’ fashion as against all kinds of ‘unnatural’ distortions of it.
It is broadly speaking apolitical: that is to say, it is not principally interested in political institutions, although it is prepared to use the State as an instrument for the purpose of producing its ends. But a State organisation is not its aim and the State is not its ideal human association. It believes in society rather than in the State. The State is an instrument, as Professor [Donald] MacRae said. Moreover all these movements believe in some kind of moral regeneration. I am sure that that is common to them all.
In some sense they are dedicated to producing spontaneous, natural men who have in some way at some time become perverted by something. There must have been a spiritual fall somewhere. Either the fall is in the past or it is threatening – one of the two. Either innocence has been lost and some kind of perversion of men’s nature has occurred, or enemies are breeding within or attacking from without. Who the enemies are, we do not need to classify. That will depend upon the specific situation.
The enemy may be capitalism, it may be foreign States which have forms of political, social or economic organisation which threaten the spontaneous integral group and the sense of brotherhood which unites them. It still unites them, or once untied them, so that one can now resurrect the unity from the past.
Populism certainly does not believe, so far as negative propositions are concerned, in the uniqueness of historical stages in the sense in which, say, most historicists believe that nothing from the past can ever be rescued: that what happened once has happened once and for all, and, therefore, that there is no way of looking back to the past to try to salve its values. It may believe in the translation of these ancient values into contemporary terms, but it believes these values to be rooted somewhere in the past: they cannot be brand new. I do not think I know of any populism which assumes that man was born in a low or undesirable state and that the golden age is somewhere in the future, a novel situation which has never given any evidence of existence in the past. Some degree of past-directedness is essential to all populisms.
I am trying to think what else is common to them, because these characteristics seem to me to be common to the American and the Russian types — the principal varieties. I cannot speak — I know too little about Africa and Latin America. It seems to me to be one of the roots of American populism — I speak in ignorance and I am sure Professor Hofstadter will put me right — it is one of the causes, for example, of the indignation, say, in the relatively undeveloped Middle West, against all kinds of phenomena which its spokesmen regard as hostile — the excessive civilisation of the East Coast, its centralised capitalism, Wall Street, the cross of gold, frivolous, polite, smooth forms of insincere behaviour on the part of Harvard or Yale university professors, or smooth members of the State Department, contrasted with the free, spontaneous, natural behaviour of uncorrupted men, cracker-barrel philosophers in the village drugstore, from whom simple wisdom flows, uncorrupted by the sophistication of the Eastern cities, the result of some kind of degeneration of a political or of some other kind. This is common to all the populisms: that is, the central belief in an ideal, unbroken man, either in the present or in the past, and that towards this ideal men naturally tend, when no one oppresses them or deceives them.
Professor MacRae talked about personalism. Localism, I think, is part of the phenomenon, but it is not an absolutely essential one. I do not think we need put that in now.
Having established very tentatively something as common to all these various forms of populism, let me add this. One must again return to the notion of the people. Who the people are will probably vary from place to place. On the whole, they tend to be, as somebody said quite correctly — I think it was Professor Seton- Watson — those who have been left out. Professor MacRae said this too. They are the have-nots, in some sense. They are peasants in Russia, because they are the obvious majority of the deprived; but they might be any group of persons with whom you identify the true people, and you identify the true people with them because the ideology of populism itself springs from the discontented people who feel that they somehow represent the majority of the nation, which has been done down by some minority or other. Populism cannot be a consciously minority movement. Whether falsely or truly, it stands for the majority of man, the majority of men who have somehow been damaged.
By whom have they been damaged? They have been damaged by an elite, either economic, political or racial, some kind of secret or open enemy — capitalism, Jews and the rest of it. Whoever the enemy is, foreign or native, ethnic or social, does not much matter.
One more thing can be said to be true of all populisms. That is that in some sense it would be just to say that it occurs in societies standing on the edge of modernisation — that is to say, threatened by it, or hoping for it; it does not matter which, but in either case uneasily aware of the fact that they cannot sit still; that they will have to take steps towards meeting either the challenge or the danger of modernisation, whether at home, on the part of classes or groups in their own country who are pushing towards it, or on the part of persons outside it, whose economic and social development is of such a kind as to threaten them if they do not in some way catch up or create some kind of walls with which to resist them. This seems true of all the varieties of populism…
[T]he enemies of the people have to be specified, whether it be capitalists, foreigners, ethnic minorities, majorities or whoever it might be. They have to be specified. The people is not everybody. The people is everybody of a certain kind, and there are certain people who have put themselves beyond the pale in some sort of way, whether by conspiring against the people or by preventing the people from realising itself, or however it may be. The people must be specified. So must the enemy. The people is not the whole of society, however constituted.
The other thing is that there is a studied vagueness about means of political action. I do not think that populism as such indicates the specific way in which it is to act. Provided that the people act as a whole to bring about that in which they believe, the means are left in various stages of indefiniteness. The people is not committed to any form of political action, except that on the whole it is directed against any form of control by minorities, whether representatives of a parliamentary democracy, or members of other institutions which it allows because of its fear of elites, even democratic ones, as a permanent form of government…
There was a doctrine in the eighteenth century according to which there had existed such a creature as natural man. Natural man was done in by artificial man. I do not mean that someone did natural man in. Man did himself in. Natural man is struggling inside artificial man, trying to get out. This is what Diderot says.
Alternatively you can conceive the situation as one in which there are large numbers — a majority — of natural men who have at some time or other been done down by various minorities of artificial men. If you do not accept this proposition, and think that it is a fantasy, then the whole structure begins to collapse. Professor Venturi remarked that the notion of the populists — which is also to be found in writings of his and my friend, the late Professor Salvemini — is that there are fetters which bind men, certain fetters with which artificial man is strangling natural man. If you strike off these fetters, natural man asserts himself and there is no further problem. You have reset his life, so to speak, in a natural pattern. No guidance, still less force, is required by the liberated prisoner. To direct him then is to main him again: to substitute new yokes for old.
There is no point, then, in asking what the new organisation, the post-revolutionary establishment, should do in the name of democracy. Should there, for example, be consultation or plebiscites? All these questions fall away because they arise only in connection with the use of organised power; this is eo ipso a perversion of original uncorrupted human nature. This disaster has been brought about by some kind of terrible event: the Flood, original sin, the discovery of iron and agriculture, or whatever else it may be: there was a blissful natural state, then the Fall and the yearning for the original unity. This can be restored, possibly by violence.
If populists were asked who the people are, I think that they would produce a definite answer. They would say that the people is the majority of their society, natural men who have been robbed of their proper post in life; then try to point to groups of artificial, corrupt men as holding down large groups of natural men. If the victims are not the large majority, populism falls…
This essay was obtained from the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library