From Historical to "Dialectical" Populism: The Case of Post-Communist Romania

By Shafir, Michael | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

From Historical to "Dialectical" Populism: The Case of Post-Communist Romania


Shafir, Michael, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Populism is again a "trendy" topic in East Central European political developments. In October 2007 the highly prestigious Journal of Democracy carried a number of articles under the heading, "Is East-Central Europe Backsliding?" The question would have raised interest in any other scholarly journal but nowhere more than in that publication - which Ken Jowitt once described as the only successful transition from [Problems of] Communism to consolidated democracy. One month later, me impressive building of the Czech Foreign Office in Prague hosted a symposium on populism in Central Europe in which 1 was privileged to participate. Several papers presented there made one wonder whether democracy in the region had suffered defenestration. Or was it the location of the symposium that influenced the presentations?1 In 2007-2008, Eurozine (a network linking 70 European cultural journals and just as many associated magazines and institutions from nearly all European countries) carried a series of articles on the surge (or resurgence) of populism in the former communist countries of Europe and its implications for EU enlargement and post-enlargement prospects. Soon after, a symposium similar to the one held in Prague was organized at the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava. If Poland's Solidarity once signaled the light at the end of the communist tunnel, the Kaczynski twins once again sounded the alarm about a possible return of the populist tunnel at the end of the light. But is this really the end?

Not that Poland spearheaded the "democratic deviation." Elsewhere in the region doubts have been voiced not only concerning democratic consolidation, but even democratization. Those uttering "fantasies of salvation"2 were speaking Serbian, Croatian, and Romanian. And their fantasies had been aired considerably earlier from the Poles. But as Jacques Rupnik had pointed out back in 1989, Poland was likely to become a test case, because the question arose whether the "mix of Catholicism and nationalism that prevailed in Polish society"-one that "had made it particularly resistant to communism"-might not rum into a obstacle to "the establishment of democracy after the collapse of dictatorship."3 Though the French-Czech political scientist warns us that such conclusions would be rash, his Bulgarian colleague Ivan Krastev minced no words: "The spectre of populism," he writes in Marxian prophetical idiom, "is haunting Central Europe."4 Inspired by Krastev, I titled my article "From historical to 'dialectical' populism," in a (evidently) cynical attempt to remind readers of times when there was no escape in East Central Europe from courses on Marxism (these, of course, were divided into two parts: "Scientific socialism" and "Historic and dialectical materialism").

Yet Krastev immediately qualifies his Marxian spectre. Among scholars, he writes, "there is little agreement about the meaning of the term 'populism'." While questions such as "Who are the populists? What does populism represent? How dangerous is it? What are the sources of the current populist wave? What should be done about it?" are aired, they nonetheless are met with a deafening silence. But, as Krastev remarks, unless a consensus is reached on these queries, neither the significance of the populist phenomenon, nor its limitations, can be either measured or understood.

In what follows, I propose to cope with some issues raised by Krastev's article, which seems to me the most pertinent among the seven published by the Journal of Democracy. That does not mean, however, mat I shall ignore other contributions. I shall concentrate on the case of Romania, discussed in Alina Mungiu-Pipiddi's article, with which I partly agree and partly disagree.

1. POPULISM ANDNEO-POPULISM IN A POST-COMMUNIST CONTEXT.

Populism is a problematic concept. As a general one, I believe it is not of much use, since it suffers from a malady that Giovanni Sartori once called "conceptual overstretch. …

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