extremism & populism



Backes and Jesse (1993: 40) put political extremism into direct contrast with a democratic constitutional state and in this context define anti-democratic thinking and action as that which rejects the constitutional state and its fundamental values, rules and institutions, including human rights, political pluralism, the rule of law and the separation of powers. A multi-party system is considered by extremists to be in conflict with the right of the one political force, which in their view should be the only one to represent the people. The idea of pluralism is rejected; interest groups are suspected of acting against the common good; parliamentary procedures are thought to falsify the national will; civic democracy is held to be a product of vice, cultural decadence and moral decline. Backes and Jesse define extremism as both an anti-systemic force and an ideology that does not recognise fundamental human rights and freedoms, including minority rights. The ideology of political extremism is intolerant and rejects the prevailing legal and moral norms. In order to achieve their political ends, extremists are willing to use practically all available means, including those that are non-democratic and violent, and might even use terrorism. Lee McGowan adds that only some supporters of right-wing extremism, namely the neo-Nazis, have as their goal a complete transformation of a political system (McGowan 2004: 24).

Current academic research has been discussing the term ‘extremism’ and there are doubts about its explanatory value and possibilities of application in practice. The term is seen as very vague and not clear. Also because of that the terminology has developed and current researchers use more often terms as extreme right or far-right, and far-left (Caiani, della Porta and Wagemann 2012; Hainsworth, 2008; Ivaldi 2004; Jamin 2013; March 2011; Mudde 2000). In this research project, we are using the term far-right and far-left.

The far-right is defined by the presence of elements such as nationalism, chauvinism, xenophobia and a call for a strong state with an emphasis on law and order. Scholars generally agree on the minimal definition developed by Mudde (2007). In this conception, the far-right is characterised by ‘nativism’, i.e. the belief that a state should be inhabited by members of one ethnic group, (nation) only. Thus nativists believe that the nation state should be ethnically homogeneous. Everything that is not related to that nation, be it people of different nationality or ‘foreign’ ideas (such as multiculturalism), is perceived as a threat. Nativism, of course, implies nationalism and xenophobia. A second characteristic trait is authoritarianism, an emphasis on order and strict social control with severe punishment for those who disturb order. Ivaldi (2004, cited in Hainsworth 2008) also consider the economic dimension, arguing that far-right entities combine elements of neo-liberalism with social and protectionist nationalism, demanding that the state act in accordance with the principle of ‘welfare chauvinism’. In this view, only the members of the ‘primary entity’ in a state, the ‘proper’ nation, should be able to enjoy social benefits. Ivaldi also cites anti-establishment populism as characteristic of the far-right. However, such populism is actually typical of radical political parties rather than parties which are described as extremist (i.e. deemed anti-democratic by their nature).

The far-left is more difficult to define. Contemporary European scholarly literature pays very little attention to the far-left, making it difficult to arrive at an up-to-date consensus. Luke March previously employed the notion of the ‘far-left’ (March 2009), but having gradually redefined the points of reference, now uses the notion of the ‘radical left’ (March 2011, 2015). According to March, radical left parties reject those socio-economic structures of contemporary society that are based on the principles and values of capitalism. Radical leftists reject a redistribution that benefits the elite, emphasising an absolute equality, both economic and social. In this radical egalitarianism, the principle of equality is the absolute and supreme value. However, freedoms that are guaranteed in democracies could not be implemented in this vision (Jamin, 2013: 43).

The graph below shows that there were 14 non-populist far-right parties and 28 non-populist far-left parties in the EU28 countries in the 2000-2014 period . Far-left parties were more obvious in the former Western Bloc countries than in the former Eastern Bloc. Far-left parties were established in party systems of only 4 out of 11 post-communist countries of the former Eastern Bloc. One of the reasons can be the legacy of the communist past and persisting aversion of voters to this type of parties. The largest number of non-populist far-left parties was in Greece (3) and Spain (4). Non-populist far-right parties participated in parliamentary elections in 11 out of 28 countries of the European Union. The most successful non-populist far-right party was the Progressive Party of Working People in Cyprus which regularly won more than 30% of the votes in the parliamentary elections in the observed period. Non-populist far-left parties won on average more of the votes (2.7%) than non-populist far-right parties (1.9%). 


Graph: Number of non-populist far-left and far-right parties in the EU28 countries in the 2000-2014 period

 Source: Database of Political Parties (2015)



  • Backes, U., Jesse, E. (1993). Politischer Extremismus in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Teil II, Analyse, Köln, Verlag Wissenschaft und Politik.
  • Caiani, M., della Porta, D., Wagemann, C. (2012). Mobilizing on the Extreme Right: Germany, Italy and the United States, Oxford University Press.
  • Masaryk University (2015). ‘Database of Political Parties‘, online, available from: http://www.populism.cz/database.
  • Hainsworth, P. (2008). The Extreme Right in Western Europe, Abingdon, Routledge.  
  • Ivaldi, G. (2004): Droites populists et extremes en Europe occidentale, Paris, La Documentation Française.
  • Jamin, J. (2013). ‘Two different realities: Notes on populism and the extreme right’, in Mammone, A., Godin, E., Jenkins, B. (eds). Varieties of right-wing extremism in Europe, Abingdon, Routledge, pp. 38-52.
  • March, L. (2009). ‘Contemporary Far Left Parties in Europe: From Marxism to the Mainstream?’, available at: http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/ipg/ipg-2009-1/10_a_march_us.pdf.
  • March, L. (2011). Radical left parties in Europe, Abingdon, Routledge.
  • March, L. (2015). ‘Out of left field? Explaining the variable electoral success of European radical left parties’, Party Politics, 21 (1), pp. 40-53.
  • McGowan, L. (2004): Radikální pravice v Německu: Od roku 1870 po současnost, Praha, Prostor.
  • Mudde, C. (2000). ‘Extreme-right Parties in Eastern Europe’. Patterns of Prejudice, 34 (1), pp. 5-27.
  • Mudde, C. (2007). Populist radical right parties in Europe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.