- Populism in Greece? Right, Left, and Laclau’s “Jacobinism” in the Years of the Goudi Coup, 1908–1910
Accusing the right and the left of establishing incongruous coalitions on the basis of a shared populism is a common topic in contemporary antipopulist discourse. Obvious political goals can usually be detected behind this argument: political opponents of the liberal center are exposed as inconsistent with their principles, and political frontiers are (re)constructed based on the contrast between modernization and its opponents—who are defined only negatively. There is a paradox here: usually it is populism that is associated with such sharp dichotomies, and nonpopulism with more complex perceptions of the political and the social.
Although the extent to which such a point of view constructs its opponent (that is, populism) is apparent, few would deny that there have been and continue to be convergences of the kind described above. These convergences transcend the opposition between the right and the left, which shaped the political geography of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and which was based on rival attitudes towards social hierarchy and authority, emancipation movements that disputed them wholly or in part, and democracy and the equality it proclaimed. Moments of transcendence of this kind haven’t been so numerous as to create a movement to change the dominant political paradigm—yet they took place and must be interpreted. Populism may be a [End Page 127] useful concept for defining the field in which the convergence of right and left political forces took place. But which populism? The concept, despite its increased use in twenty-first–century politics, remains vague. We are still far from a consensus about a definition of populism,1 although most empirical approaches to contemporary parties and movements considered as populist tend to reproduce a commonly held conception of populism as a negative picture of rational, liberal, and modernizing politics.
Ernesto Laclau’s theory of populism, based on a bold theoretical conception of the political in general and the way the struggle for hegemony is conducted, stands out for its coherence and originality, and permits us to move beyond mere descriptions of anti-elite discourse and praising people in populist movements, and frees our analysis from typologies of “common characteristics.”2
I will use Laclau’s theory of populism to conceptualize and interpret a forgotten incident in modern Greek political history: the emergence of a peculiar radical current during the transition to a new party system at the beginning of the twentieth century. This example serves as a case study of the possibility of—and the preconditions for—the development of ideological and political currents that transcend the dominant distinctions of nineteenth-and twentieth-century political systems.
This discussion contributes to a better understanding of radicalism and its relationship with populism. The two concepts are sometimes confused and used as synonyms because they both reject mainstream politics and the elite connected with them; they are not interested in occupying the political center; their worldview is based not on smooth and tranquil “moderate progress” but on abrupt change brought about by confrontation and conflict. Yet, although they often overlap, the core of the meaning of each of the concepts is linked to different levels of the political: if populism is defined mostly in relation to the discourse it employs and the social subjects to which it refers (i.e., people against elite), in radicalism there is a strong emphasis on the pursuit of major changes in social and political institutions in combination with militant action and opposition to the elites. In that sense, populism appears more suitable for conceptualizing political currents that transcend the borders between left and right, whereas radicalism is mostly defined by the specific changes it pursues to bring about and their content, and it remains more closely connected with the distinction between left and right and their [End Page 128] different aims. In this article we will explore the ways in which populism constituted a field that encompassed several variations of the radical right and left and facilitated their short-term convergence.
The Political Context: The Coup in Goudi, the Middle Class, and Parliamentarism in Greece
The year 1909 is...