“Sweeping claims which assert the primacy of one agency or set of relationships over all others will never wash with historians, who are acutely aware that the devil is always in the details.”
-The Great Transition, by Bruce M.S. Campbell (not the actor)
I think Campbell is a little optimistic here- there are definitely plenty of historians who fail this test. (Nationalist historians, most often.) Nonetheless, when dealing with not just history, but with any social science, it is important to weigh any claims against this standard. There are, simply speaking, so few times when we can trace the causes of an event or situation back to a single origin. It’s always far more complex than that.
The Great Transition is an in depth analysis of the later Medieval period centered on the 1300s- that period of massive change that included the Great Famine, the Black Death, the collapse of the Mongolian Empire and its associated land trade routes, the collapse of the European Truce of God that had been reducing warfare in Europe, the end of the Medieval Climate Anomaly (centuries of pleasant, kindly climate) and the beginning of the Wolf Solar minimum and the Little Ice Age, etc, etc. Basically, this time period was one of the most eventful, and important, in human history.
Historians grow worse at making generalizations the further they educate themselves. The same applies to any expert, of course. Some topics are harder to generalize than others about by their nature- often due to the fact that they’re already generalized topics.
Populist movements are one of those topics. Academic definitions tend to be muddled at best- read Wikipedia’s section on it to get an idea. Definitions of populism frequently try to associate it with particular segments on the political spectrum, which can’t help but muddling it further. For whatever reason, it’s usually: populism is only populism when it occurs on the left. I attribute that to it achieving some sort of positive buzzword status there. I’ve never seen anyone able to successfully explain why right-wing or fascist popular movements aren’t populist movements without extensive mental contortions, however. Even if we were to exclude right-wing or fascist movements from populism, we’d still be trying to fit an astonishing range of movements into one category. Arab Spring, the American Civil Rights Movement, the Boxer Rebellion, etc, etc. So let’s not exclude movements from populist status based off of their location on the political spectrum.
We could try to dismiss the term populist movement in favor of social movement to fix the definition problem, but social movement is a much, much more generalized one, which somewhat defeats the purpose of dismissing the term in the first place. Similar problems apply to most other terms. If we keep down that path, it takes us towards the realm of useless semantics.
We should stop for a second and actually talk about the definition of populism we’re going to use here.
“I am not speaking of randomness, but of the central principle of all history—contingency. A historical explanation does not rest on direct deductions from laws of nature, but on an unpredictable sequence of antecedent states, where any major change in any step of the sequence would have altered the final result. This final result is therefore dependent, or contingent, upon everything that came before—the unerasable and determining signature of history.”
-Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life
Gould was primarily concerned with natural history, of course- he was writing about the Burgess Shale and its consequences for evolutionary theory and history. He chose his words very, very carefully, however- he didn’t say contingency was the central principle of natural history, he said it was the central principle of all history. Historical contingency in biology has a pretty well established opponent and bedmate in convergence- even the most ardent supporters of one acknowledge that the other plays an important role as well.
In more traditional historical studies contingency faces a very different set of opponents. The first, and most immediately obvious, is the material dialectic. It seems like it could be easy to include the Hegelian dialectic as an opponent of historical contingency if you tried hard enough, but I won’t be attempting either- the Hegelian because I don’t understand it well enough, the material dialectic because I don’t want to try and win a prize for writing the one billionth refutation of Communist historical theory. Let’s skip the question of what other opponents of historical contingency are out there for a second, though.
If you accept that contingency is the central principle of history (even if you don’t, just play along for the duration), (more…)