Reading ‘Populism’ in the 21st Century

Arup Kumar Sen

The term ‘Populism’ does not carry any homogeneous meaning. In 19th century Russia, populist politics carried a radical meaning. The eminent scholar, Teodor Shanin, observed in this context: “The label ‘populist’, like that of ‘marxist’, is badly lacking in precision…Populism was Russia’s main indigenous revolutionary tradition…As against the force of order, oppression and exploitation, the revolutionary populists put their trust in a class war of the Russian labouring class…” (See Late Marx and the Russian Road, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1983)

But, the meaning of ‘populism’ has undergone a radical transformation in the 21st century. In his theoretical reading of the protest movements and ‘populist’ politics in the 21st century, Thomas O’Brien observed: “Alongside the apparent increase in the breath and scale of protest in the early twenty-first century has been a resurgence of populism…Populism in the twenty-first century has taken on a variety of forms that echo the specific socio-political and cultural context”. (See “Populism, protest and democracy in the twenty-first century”, Contemporary Social Science, Vol. 10, No. 4, 2015)

India has witnessed the rise of right-wing Hindu majoritarian populism in the late 20th and early 21st century, which has distinct anti-minority, particularly anti-Muslim, dimensions.

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Feb 6, 2021

Arup Kumar Sen

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