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Socialist Sport

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One of the greatest illusions created and systematically encouraged by Stalinist ideologues is that of the so-called “socialist (communist) sport”. Bourgeois ideologues enthusiastically accepted this fraud. It did not occur to them, although they persistently maintained that all that came from the East was “propaganda”, to question the “socialist” and “communist” attributes, overlooking the fact that a number of Marxist theoreticians from the West strongly opposed the theory and practice of Soviet “socialism” and that in the USSR, itself, a number of Marxist critics of Stalinism were liquidated or forced to leave the country. The most important goal of the “free world” ideologues was obviously to intimidate the workers in their countries with the “specter of communism”, reducing Marx’s vision of socialist (communist) society to the practice of Stalinism. It is in that context that the official attitude of the West towards Soviet sport should be viewed. The West sought to present the overwhelming domination of Soviet and East-European athletes on the world scene as the result of “manipulation” and “abuse” of these competitors by “communist totalitarianism”, while, at the same time, unofficially of course, doing everything, including mimicking Eastern sports training, to overcome the painfully inferior position in which it found itself. Even after the disintegration of the “Eastern bloc” and the Soviet Union, “socialist sport”, considering its results, remained the unattainable ideal for the “Western world”.

                   Great doubts about the endeavors to develop free physical culture were caused by the so-called “Marxist-Leninist” project of physical education (sport) in the USSR. The very term “Leninist” suggests an adaptation of Marx’s critique of capitalist society – whose realization presupposes a bourgeois society, its contradiction developed to the utmost, which in its “bosom” created possibilities for the “leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom“ (Engels) – to the conditions of the post-revolutionary Soviet society (by turning it into a positivist “theory of socialism”, i.e., a means for obtaining the “scientific” legitimacy for the practice of “real socialism”), built on the ruins of an order which hardly stepped into capitalism and which contained not one essential element for stepping out of it, let alone for overcoming the capitalist world. The “new socialist physical culture” was built on the conception, which became dominant in the USSR after the collapse of the revolutionary workers’ movement in the West, that it was possible to “build socialism” on the foundations of an underdeveloped bourgeois society by relying on “indigenous forces” and by “taking from capitalism whatever was useful for the development of socialism” (Lenin). By using this mechanistic logic, the chief ideologues of the USSR “overlooked” the fact that “taking” the institutions of capitalist society simultaneously necessitated the establishment of the very social relations that the Revolution sought to abolish. The principles inherited from the “legacy” of capitalist society became the unquestionable guiding principles in the development of theory and practice in the USSR. The true socialist ideas, arising from Marx’s libertarian humanism, were to be discarded immediately after the Revolution as “leftist radicalism”. What appears in Marx, with respect to a developed capitalist society, as a (concrete) utopian project, was proclaimed, in the post-revolutionary (especially Stalinist) period, a utopistic fantasy. Instead of overcoming sport and establishing a libertarian physical culture, which was particularly supported by “proletarian-cultists” (opposed to the “mania” of setting records), a “socialist sport” and a “socialist physical culture” were established, hopelessly remaining within the boundaries of the capitalist ideological horizon.

                   The uncritical attitude to sport involved an uncritical relation to quantitative measurement as a basis for determining human “value” and as an intermediary in human relationships; to a technologized and functionalized mind and relating that to industrial “aesthetics” (body mechanization); to inhuman combat between people in “blood sports” such as boxing (which was particularly supported by Anatoly Lunacharsky, one of the leading figures in post-revolutionary sport), which retained the attribute of a “noble art”; to breaking links with national cultures with the establishment of “uravnilovka” (equal compensation regardless of contribution) based on physical “qualities”; to institutional degradation of women, e.g., the use of military drills reduced unto eliminated the erotic, the sensuous, the spiritual, spontaneity, imagination, in effect, disregarded man’s playing nature, without which there is no genuine humanism.

                    It is only in this context that those consequences of Lenin’s view, fatal to the overall development of human beings and genuine human relations, that athletics, gymnastics and other forms of physical exercise, are more important for young people than issues pertaining to their sexual life, become clear. By appealing to one of the most reactionary principles of bourgeois thought, “a healthy body is a healthy soul” (1), Lenin significantly contributed to the oppression of the body, which peaked in “Stakhanovchina” – “a bureaucratic death of the body” according to Jean-Marie Brohm. It is about a systematic suppression of authentic human needs and the creation of a masochistic-productivistic character, which is ideally suited to the character of a model citizen from the period of the original accumulation of capital.

                      In spite of attaching great importance to the achievement of better results (records), the utmost goal of post-revolutionary Soviet sports pedagogy was not the creation of an athlete-record holder, but above all of a loyal (“conceptually conscious”) and usable (“useful”) “Soviet citizen”. In the 1925 “Resolution on Physical Culture”, it is pointed out that physical culture is not only a means for improving health, for physical education, for the development of cultural and labor values, and the enhancement of military training, but also a means for “educating the masses”, which, above all, means for the creation of a model citizen suited to the “needs of the time”, i.e., the demands on society made by the Party leaders. At the same time, physical culture has the task of instructing workers and peasants to take part, through the Party, in the activities of the trade union and the Soviets, of social and political life. It becomes the chief political means for integrating people into the established order. As for competition, according to Nikolai Semashko, President of the High State Council for Physical Culture in the post-revolutionary period, “It should ultimately serve as an instrument for including people in the building of socialism”. (2) In his speech to the Komsomol in Dniepropetrovsk in 1934, M.I. Kalinin, one of the leading Soviet pedagogues at that time, says the following: “Here, however, we should pay attention to this very important area of activity of the Komsomol, physical culture. Sport is a good thing; it builds you. However, in spite of that, it is but an ancillary activity, and it is not good if it becomes its own end, a matter of merely setting records. We want people to develop in all ways, we want them to run and swim well, to walk briskly and elegantly and every part of their body to be healthy – to put it concisely: we want them to be normal and healthy, able to work and defend themselves; we want proper development of all their physical qualities with a corresponding development of their mental qualities. – During our numerous visits to military schools, comrade Voroshilov paid special attention to these issues. He said that we should avoid the mere setting of records; that we should not engage in sport for sport’s sake; and that sport should be secondary to the general issues of communist education. Because all we do is not only toward the creation and development of athletes, but of citizens participating in the development of the Soviet state, people who must not only have strong arms and good digestion, but, above all, possess a broad political perspective and organizational skills. Hence, simultaneously with winning over millions of new young workers for the physical culture movement and raising sport in our country to the highest level, the Komsomol must see that our sports people have clearly shaped views of political matters and matters of general importance. I would like the members of the Komsomol to understand me properly. I do not want them to think that I wish to curb their enthusiasm. I want them to realize how important it is that things in all areas of our life and work are organized properly and in the Bolshevik manner.“ (3)

                On the eve of the Second World War, physical culture and sport were developed under the motto: “Everything for the defense of the Soviet country!”. In December 1938, in his speech to school teachers, Kalinin emphasized the importance of physical culture for the development of a “collective comrade spirit”, starting from school days, which should enable the construction of a “steel wall” protecting the USSR from the West, which “waits for the right moment to destroy the Soviet Union”. (4)

                 After the Second World War, during the period of the “cold war“ and the appearance on the international scene of Soviet athletes (as well as athletes from the “socialist lager”), the (proclaimed) pre-war pedagogical doctrine was definitely abandoned, first in practice and then in theory. Sports victories and records became one of the most important means of order in the struggle for international prestige and the strengthening national power, and athletes consequently became the frontline warriors. To set a record (“For the country!”) became the chief, unquestioned goal of any sports competition. By including science, sport became an industry engaged in the production of record holders, with physical culture as the “broadest basis for the development of world-class competition”. Instead of criticizing the one-sided physical activism and a complete subjugation to sport, which turns people into anti-social beings and physical and mental invalids, the record holders are being praised and granted the status of “heroes of socialism”.

                    Professionalism is an inevitable step in the current development of sport: athletes acquire the peculiar status of state hirelings. Certainly, a proper “socialist” justification was found for that. After the international athletics became part of the global entertainment industry (show-business), “socialist sport” became commercialized and after the disintegration of the “Eastern bloc” and the Soviet Union, Western capital bought “socialist sport” at a low price and without any resistance in order to turn it into its advertising billboard.

                     The most important point in this context is that the entire process of the “transformation” of sport in the USSR developed under the guise of “progressive changes in socialist sport”. Never were the (Marxist) humanist ideals of socialism (communism) confronted with the reality of established “socialism”. Under the ideological mask of a “struggle for communism”, a ruthless struggle with critical thought developed, with thinking that might have demonstrated the true nature of “socialist sport” and, coincidentally, the true nature of “real socialism”. And while Marxist thinkers in the West were criticizing the inhuman nature of sport and revealing its political background, in the USSR and other “socialist” countries the undisputed authorities in sports pedagogy and the “amateur sport” movement were personalities like Pierre de Coubertin, who devoted the entirety of his “Olympic” life to the struggle against the libertarian workers’ movement and the ideals of socialism and bequeathed all of his written legacy to the Nazis, entrusting them with the task of preventing his Olympic ideal from being “distorted”. Under different ideological guises, Coubertin and Soviet bureaucracy were united in one thing: sport is an institution that serves to preserve the ruling order. Their common enemy was the working class as a possible agent of social changes. This orientation led to Juan Antonio Samaranch, for forty years one of the leading figures in the Spanish fascist movement and who never renounced his fascist past, being elected (with the decisive support of the Soviet bureaucracy) President of the International Olympic Committee in Moscow, capital of the country where fascism caused terrible sufferings, killing over twenty five million people.

                The ideologues of “real socialism” were of one voice when it came to emphasizing the “emancipatory” character of “socialist sport”, which included most importantly its “mass character”, the active participation of women, the achievement of heightened results (records) as an expression of its “progressive strivings”, and so on. As for “mass character”, it should be said that Nazis maniacally insisted on the value of “mass physical culture and sport” (“Kraft durch Freude“). It was also the practice in the USA (“Recreation Programme”, etc.), particularly today when “physical culture” has become one of the main forms of consumerism in the struggle for survival in the increasingly cruel everyday life of capitalist society. Thus, it is not the mass character, itself, that differentiates “capitalist physical culture” from “socialist physical culture”; it is rather its nature: is it a libertarian activity or is it about integrating man into an order where he is ruled by capital or the state? It should be added that so-called “mass physical culture” has officially become the “broadest rationale for the reproduction of world-class sport”, with millions of children involved in “sports programs” (above all, in the former-Eastern Germany), whose norms and working methods are dictated by the so called “world-class sport” that has led to the ultimate physical and mental destruction of man. Abuse of children, for the sake of “progress”, has taken on a monstrous dimension. The “emancipation of women” through sport should be viewed in the same context. It means that sport, in practice, has become a space for the (increasingly brutal) exploitation of women. To make matters worse, due to biological constraints (and in spite of the increasing use of “stimulants”) that are ever more dramatically effecting so-called “men’s sports”, woman has become the principal “engine” for setting records and the means for proving the “progressive” character of the ruling order. The true position of “women’s emancipation” in Soviet sport (society) can be seen in the fact that, before 1972, in spite of the domination on the international scene of female Soviet athletes and a growing number of women coaches, only one woman, and for only about three months, ever held a leading position in Soviet sport. (5)

                    Where the “Marxist” legitimacy of “socialist sport” is concerned, it should be noted that for Marx socialism is not a socio-economic end-stage, but a transitional period to the establishment of communism, the stage in which both the basic capitalist (economic and proprietary) relations and institutional spheres of bourgeois society will be abolished. It is about the “dying out” (Engels) of the institutions of bourgeois society, including sport, and not about “building socialism” by “strengthening” them (Stalin). Marx insists on workers as an “association of agents” participating directly in governing the overall social reproduction (social ownership), while Stalinism insists on the strengthening of State institutions, on the state’s power over man (state ownership). Society as a community of free creative people, namely, a communal life which is neither mediated nor subjugated by the repressive institutions of bourgeois society (the so called “public sphere”), but is always a novel, more developed, wealthier product of creative human activity in terms of its forms and contents – this is one of the main challenges of Marx’s humanism, totally opposed to Stalinism, which reduces society to a peculiar labor camp.

                    The Soviet conception of physical culture (sport) is not only a deviation from the fundamental postulates of Marx’s critique of capitalist society and its institutions, but also from Marx’s “Instructions” to workers from 1866 regarding the use of physical exercise as a means for strengthening the body and educating young workers. (6) Marx emphasizes the importance of physical education primarily as a means for developing class-consciousness and class integration of workers – for fighting against the bourgeoisie, which in Marx means against exploitation and subjugation. Workers, united as a class, are a revolutionary agent of changes and, thus, are free from the tutorial guidance of the bourgeoisie, the state and the Party. Physical, just like spiritual and poly-technical, education does not serve to turn man (worker) into a loyal and usable “citizen”, but, rather, is an authentic activity for a libertarian-oriented man who seeks to “destroy all relations in which man is a humiliated and oppressed being” (Marx) and create his own (genuinely human) world.

                    In the Soviet doctrine of physical culture (sport) there is no class integration since workers have already “seized power” (through Revolution) and thereby abolished class society, which means abolishing themselves as a class. In the “new” society, they are, as individuals, reduced to being “citizens” who are in a subordinate position with relation to the government (state, Party), and in terms of collectivity, they are the amorphous and unconscious “working masses” or “working people”. The ideologues of Stalinism reduce man, as does the church, to a “sheep” that is to be led to “paradise” (“communism”) by its “shepherds” (Party leaders), and be shorn and milked along the way. Man is by his nature “good”, but not sufficiently grown-up to account for his actions and assume responsibility for social development. So-called “historical materialism” becomes the fatal force that, through the Party leaders’ holding the key to the “holy secret”, governs human lives and determines the course of the development of society. What is left to man is to unquestioningly believe in the “infallibility of leaders” and obediently execute what is required of him. It is not the consciousness of an emancipated citizen, but the consciousness of a subject. The worker is no longer a revolutionary agent in the struggle against capitalism for a communist society; he has become part of the “working masses”, which have been reduced to a tool of the Party leaders for the “building of socialism”. Instead of encouraging man to overcome the institutions of bourgeois society, his main task is the “struggle for their strengthening”. Physical culture is no longer a form of workers’ self-organization and the means for heightening their class-libertarian consciousness; it is rather an instrument for subjugating man and bending his behavior to the will of the ruling “elite”. Hence the ideologues of Soviet physical culture (sport) understand it primarily as organization, norms, “common goals” dictated by party decrees, i.e., a mechanism for keeping the “masses” under control. “Personal initiative” is welcome, but only when it follows the ruling spirit. Like “bourgeois physical culture” and “bourgeois sport”, “socialist physical culture” and “socialist sport” have become one of the chief political means for destroying the critical-changing (class-libertarian) consciousness of workers and for integrating them into the established order – which is the opposite of Marx’s idea of libertarian physical activism.

                    Marx’s thought is multi-layered. When he speaks to young workers advising them how to fight against capitalists, Marx’s thought on physical culture remains within the framework of the bourgeois order. To young workers he recommends “physical education similar to that provided in schools for gymnastics and through military drills” /emphs. K.M./ (7), the sort produced in bourgeois society that is the privilege of aristocratic and bourgeois youth, so they can become physically stronger and develop a belligerent class spirit, which will, ultimately, enable them to take power. Unlike bourgeois pedagogues who give precedence to physical education over spiritual growth, Marx gives priority to “spiritual education”, i.e., he views physical education in the context of an overall human development. Physical exercises are not the means by which the character of a “model citizen” is created, but the means for the development of a free man. The education of young workers involves the impulse of human emancipation, which derives from Marx’s view that the proletariat is not struggling for their special class interests, which is typical of the bourgeoisie and previous classes, but for the realization of common human interests. By “entrusting” the proletariat with the “mission” of liberating mankind from exploitation and tyranny, the physical education of young workers acquires a libertarian dimension. Indeed, the worker has not yet freed himself from the dominant forms of physical education, but he treats them as the means that will (along with paid productive labor, spiritual and poly-technical education) “elevate the working class considerably above the upper and middle classes” (aristocracy and bourgeoisie). (8) The superiority of young workers is based on the overall development of their personalities, which opens up the possibility of their immediate management of overall social reproduction. It is about the pragmatic logic, which, “in the given circumstances”, departs from the “general laws, the observation of which is enforced by the state power”, while the working class by “adapting them to life” “makes a tool of the power which is now used against it”. /emphs. K.M/ (9) Obviously, it is about strivings to use legal possibilities by the legal means offered by the capitalist order for the purpose of achieving the working class (universally human) goals. Civil institutions should become the instrument of the working class in its struggle against the capitalist order.

                     If it is not the true goal of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat to take power and, especially, to keep it by using the institutions of bourgeois society (Engels’ view on the “dying out” of the institutions of bourgeois society in socialism), but to abolish the power relations (subjugation), it should be consider just how it is possible to take a significant step forward by using the means that, per se, prevent man from developing his genuine human powers, and without which there are no new horizons? Let us take for example the physical exercises recommended to the proletariat youth by Marx. These are, in essence, military drills intended to “discipline” the child, and do little more than suppress sexuality, sensuality, spontaneity, imagination… Instead of respecting their personalities, children are turned into impersonal executors of exercises that do nothing more than mimic the functions of machines and are, by their nature, contrary to everything offered by the possibility of developing a spiritually rich individual – the main reason why bourgeois pedagogy used this rote training for the creation of the “model citizen”. It is precisely by departing from Marx’s epochal notion that by changing the world man changes himself, that we can ask how much the world has actually changed if man, as an individual, remained within the spiritual confines of capitalist society?

                    The struggle for human emancipation by means of bourgeois physical culture (sport) is conducted on the field of the bourgeois society. It becomes the means for integrating workers into the order dominated by the values of the bourgeois society. Coubertin saw that clearly. Despite being a fanatical anti-socialist, he supported, at the time of the crisis of European capitalism, the idea of organizing “Workers’ Olympic games” in order to keep the future horizon for workers within the framework of a society dominated by mutual struggle for victory – through the achievement of a greater result (record). He realized that a (possible) political victory by the workers does not mean the end of capitalist society if the fundamental principles of that society continue to prevail. The possibility offered to everyone freely to engage in sport does not mean that man realizes his true freedom through sport. Let us take for example boxing, where the spirit of sport is most clearly expressed. Can the true freedom of man be asserted by inflicting physical injuries on another man, who is reduced to an “opponent”, while killing is the essential part of the risk involved in a “sports competition”? Or by endeavors to create, through the increasingly ruthless destruction of the organism, ever “greater results” (records)? “To rule the heads”, through physical culture and sport – this is the basic aim of Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy”, which he earned him the respect of the Olympic gods of modern times.

                   Interestingly, the bourgeois ideologues, who until recently maintained that there was no “capitalism” in the West, that it is rather “industrial society”, now triumphantly state that “capitalism has won the battle with communism”. What does this victory consist of when it comes to sport? If it is about Western capital having become the master of the former “socialist sport” without any resistance whatsoever, it only means that it changed owners without changing its nature. The position of athletes is the best indicator of how much relations have changed. In “real-socialist” sport, athletes were engaged by the state, and the entire “sports engine” was a “billboard” for the ruling system. Since the victory of “democracy”, athletes have been hired by capitalist companies, and sport has become their advertising campaign and a banal kind of show-business. Moreover, considering the fact that, even in our country (Serbia), the leaders of the “new sport” are the same people who for decades held the leading positions in “socialist sport”, it is clear that “capitalism has won the battle” leaving behind a specter that, in collaboration with the ideologues of Stalinism, was created by the ideologues of the “free world”.


1) In: James Riordan, “Marx, Lenin and Physical Culture”, Journal of Sport History, vol.3 (1976) no. 2,158p.

2) N. A. Semashko, Puti sovetskoi fizkultury, 22p, in James Riordan, Sport in Soviet Society, 97p, Cambridge University Press, London,1977/

3) M. I. Kalinjin, On Communist Education, Literature in Foreign Languages, Moscow, 1953.

4) Ibid.

5) Compare: Riordan, Sport in Soviet Society, 406p.

6) Compare: K. Marx, “Instructions to Delegates of the Provisional Central Council”, in K. Marx – F. Engels, Opus, vol. 27, pp 157-158. Prosveta, Beograd, 1979. In “Capital”, Marx refers to Robert Owen and his “factory system”, which generated the “germ of future education that will, for all children above a certain age, unite the labor of production with education and gymnastics, not only as a method for increasing social production, but also as the only method for the production of versatile people” /Opus, vol. I, book 21, p 428/ For the formation of human character and plans for training children, including the attainment of a healthy body as the basic precondition for a happy life, see: Robert Owen, A New View of Society, p 27, Macmillan, London, 1972.

7) Marx, Instructions for the Delegates …, p 157.

8) Ibid, p 158.

9) Ibid, p 157.                             

Translated from Serbian by Vesna Todorović/Petrović English translation supervisor, Mick Collins

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New Social Compact

Anatomy of right-wing populism

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Twenty-five years ago, Fareed Zakaria introduced the concept of illiberal democracy: he revealed how some legitimately elected governments undermine liberal democratic principles by eroding the rule of law and the protection of fundamental freedoms. He predicted that this new form of regime would significantly damage the status of our democracies if not appropriately challenged. After almost two decades, the 2014 speech of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán marked the official birth of illiberal democracy in modern Europe, with a discourse that echoes the 1997 article. Except that it is the exact opposite of what Zakaria hoped to hear.

Orbán’s rhetoric and attitude are supported and endorsed by several populist leaders across Europe and beyond. What the Hungarian PM represents is the result of a long democratic recession that Larry Diamond estimated to start in the early 2000s in continents such as Asia and Africa. It appears that it is now the turn of Europe, as we can deduct from the rising popularity of multiple anti-establishment and nationalist parties across the continent. Despite populism not being exclusively a right-wing phenomenon, most of its support in the EU is represented by radical right parties that are often Eurosceptic.

This aspect is also confirmed by the outcome of the last European Parliament election in 2019. The results indicate a nationalist trend and a shift from the centre-right to the far-right within the populist vote: the relative populist electoral strength was highest in two European parliament groups, namely Identity and Democracy (ID) (including Salvini’s League and Le Pen’s National Rally) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) (including Brothers of Italy and Law and Justice in Poland), which are both very critical of the union and formed exclusively by right-wing (or even far-right in some cases) populist and nationalist parties. These two groups, albeit not achieving the brilliant results they were expecting, have won 135 seats in the European Parliament, and their main parties happened to be very strong nationally. Considering that the historic European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialist and Democrats (S&D) have lost 65 seats combined from the previous election, it is not a bad outcome overall for right-wing populism.

In 2017, Bridgewater’s populism index in developed countries revealed that this phenomenon was at its highest rate since 1930s. In addition, the think tank Timbro estimated that more than a quarter of European electors vote for authoritarian populist parties, with Poland and Hungary among the four countries with most support. Political scientist Cas Mudde observed instead that the average support for these political forces is the highest since 1940s, with over 20% since 2010. Slightly different estimations are calculated but nevertheless this shows to what extent have these parties grown in recent years. One might consider these factors as alarming, since many scholars claim the expansion of populism and nationalism could eventually topple liberal democracies and favour authoritarian regimes, as already occurred in history.

What do we mean by right-wing populism?

First and foremost, before getting into the details of right-wing populism, an overall definition and brief explanation of populism must be provided. Mudde defines populism as an “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’”. Populists also believe that all members of the ‘pure’ group have the same aims and abide by the same principles, hence they do not accept a pluralist society consisting of diverse needs and concerns. Some of them also claim that this perceived faction of ‘the people’ comprises only of one ethnicity, class and religion.

Populist parties no longer seek out compromise and consensus through tolerant and democratic practices, but instead try to overthrow what they believe is a corrupt and broken system. In this way they undermine democratic institutions such as courtrooms and media, while attacking any aspect of society that opposes the common will of ‘the people’. They also refuse the search for a balance between the needs of the majority and the minority, as they claim that disregarding the interests of the majority is a violation of democracy, thus supporting “a form of democratic extremism or, better said, of illiberal democracy”.

Moreover, the cult of the leader is crucial in the populist world. This may sound obvious because a charismatic figure is always needed in politics in order to move masses and influence opinions, regardless of the political party. However, populist leaders declare they embody the will of the people and often appeal to the worst instincts of the population, manipulating fears and anxiety to increase their support. As politics is not only made of rational thinking, but also emotions and sentiments, they interpretate fear and desperation with (sometimes false) claims and simplistic solutions to contrast complex issues.

Populist groups are usually considered ‘catch-all’ movements, meaning that they follow the popular support rather than choosing a specific side. However, it could be discussed that this wide definition of populism is reductive. In fact, French economist Thomas Piketty deems it as a generalisation and refrains from using this word since there is a variety within that group: any party criticizing the current establishment is labelled as ‘populist’ without differentiating the diverse forms of this phenomenon. For instance, right-wing populists are usually hostile to immigration and minority rights, whereas left-wing populists are often culturally inclusive.

It could be further discussed that the argument about the people versus the elite tends to be overused as we have cases in which the political system is widely corrupt, and thus brings to legitimate concern and popular discontent to demand for more transparency and equality, such as in Greece, Spain and Italy. The movements that have emerged in these countries (Syriza, Podemos and 5 Star Movement respectively) showed a different approach to politics in comparison to prominent right-wing populist parties, as they have not undermined or taken over democratic institutions when elected to govern their respective countries.

Nonetheless, the majority of European populist parties have right-wing tendencies. This type of nationalist populism (also defined as ‘national populism’ by British academics Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin) is mainly based on xenophobic and protectionist sentiments, in addition to be against the neo-liberal establishment. Right-wing populist parties tend to regard nationality as a rigid and unmodifiable homogenous identity (mistakenly connected only to ethnicity), and they are therefore against any form of pluralism, whether it is based on culture or sexual orientation. Although some national populists consider themselves patriots defending their sovereignty, it could be argued otherwise. Italian scholar Maurizio Viroli observes in his book that the terms ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’ are often misused: while the former mostly reflects a protectionist and isolationist approach (rather than sovereignty), the latter is also based on the respect of other cultures.

Furthermore, most right-wing populist parties are willing to live in a democratic context, but they are against the liberal values of present-day democracies, such as media freedom and minority rights. As a matter of fact, they believe they represent the true nature of democracy, which focuses on the needs and interests of the majority that felt excluded and neglected by the ‘corrupt elite’ in recent years. Nevertheless, by emphasising the importance of the majority at all costs, they end up discriminating who is not part of ‘the people’, hence appearing to be a regressive and undemocratic response to a legitimate concern.

What are the causes of the global rise of populism?

Political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris suggest that the rise of populism is mainly due to economic inequality, which was partly caused by phenomena such as globalisation and austerity. The shift from the industrial age to what Piketty describes as a “globalised era of hypercapitalism and digital technology” has created high levels of inequity around the world. Piketty also argues that the concentration of wealth is disproportionate because the ratio of economic growth is lower than the so-called ‘return on invested capital’, hence much of the resources end up in the hands of a microscopic part of the population. Indeed, the latest Credit Suisse report indicates a great disparity in the world, with 1.1% of the population owning almost half of the global wealth (45.8%), and the bottom 55% of the population possessing only 1.3% of the total resources.

While globalisation had its own advantages (such as giving work to millions of people in emerging economies), it has also displaced many low skilled jobs and produced economic stagnation in developed countries. This has resulted in an ever-increasing wealth gap; this disparity, in turn, has created underserved communities who began to distrust the global system. Already twenty years ago economist Joseph Stiglitz (in his book Globalization and Its Discontents) warned us that rising inequality would pave the way for the rise of anti-establishment parties, such as nationalists and populists.

The 2008 financial crash further deepened the economic gap: the main consequences of the so-called ‘Great Recession’ have been high levels of unemployment, growing inequality and impoverishment of the working and lower middle classes. Moreover, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the austerity policies implemented by the European Union, including tax raises and spending cuts, exacerbated the situation. The austere measures were in fact not combined with effective social protection systems, hence degrading the conditions of workers as well. This circumstance thus led the EU into an identity crisis, which we are still experiencing today with the rise of several Eurosceptic parties. 

Some might discuss that this is connected to the decline of liberal democracy, as the European Union is mainly based on liberal values. Mudde observes that the crisis of democracy results from the failure of the liberal establishment in the political system, and not from several external challengers trying to undermine it. In fact, he also claims that “contemporary populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism”. The fact that the liberal system could be or become undemocratic is not unrealistic as it sounds, especially if we consider that in history liberalism was not always applied in democratic contexts, such as in many European countries in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The democratic crisis was also caused by the deterioration of traditional parties that lost touch with the lower middle and working classes, which have stopped trusting a system that has sold them false promises and has not met their needs. As a matter of fact, the level of trust towards parties across the EU has been in a declining trend in the last decade (just over 20% in 2019). This is also demonstrated by factors such as lower electoral turnout and decreasing participation in political activities, but also by the growing interest towards non-traditional parties. This aspect is critical because once you cease to identify in a political movement, you automatically find refuge in national identity, ideology or religion.

Furthermore, the advent of right-wing populism has cultural determinants as well: the 2015 migration crisis has indeed displaced millions of asylum seekers and economic migrants, many of which coming from Muslim countries. Their religion is a key aspect because right-wing populists have increasingly exhibited xenophobic attitudes towards Islam, which is seen as a civilisational threat, particularly after 9/11 and the rise of ISIS. Whereas there is no justification for such discriminatory behaviours, raising a question about EU’s handling of the migrant crisis may be a legitimate concern. According to Article 79 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the union “shall develop a common immigration policy aimed at ensuring, at all stages, the efficient management of migration flows”. It could be discussed whether some member states have not put enough effort and resources to cooperate and find a common solution, but it is also true that the EU could have anticipated the crisis by implementing appropriate immigration controls and reception systems. In fact, Mudde acknowledges that migration policies were often “undemocratic in spirit”, meaning that they were not the outcome of collective discussions and decisions taken together with the population. Hence, right-wing populist parties have exploited this crisis to criticize the EU with improbable scapegoats: for instance, describing migration from Africa and the Middle-East as an invasion or claiming that NGOs and liberal institutions are plotting for an ‘ethnic replacement’ of the European people.


As a result, right-wing populists (or at least most of them) reject liberal democratic values rather than democracy in its entirety: those values that are entrenched in the EU and other international institutions. However, the populist response does not seem to respect EU fundamental goals and values, nor basic democratic principles. The main issue is the approach used to criticize the liberal system. Populist movements tend to appeal to the fears and anxieties of the voters to attack the elites, which are perceived as always corrupt and distant from the population. This cannot be accepted as a fair argument, because, as we cannot generalise that all populists are fascists or xenophobic, then we cannot assert that the so-called elite is all corrupt either. As a result, neither the growing populist sentiment nor the liberal establishment are to be completely eradicated, but rather challenged and improved through collective discussions and decisions.

Moreover, the rise of right-wing populism is not the consequence of a single issue, but it is driven by a combination of mutually reinforcing economic and cultural aspects (from unemployment and wealth inequality to racism and xenophobia). These factors are the result of a series of events that affected our society in the last decades, such as globalisation, the Great Recession, the 2015 migrant crisis and the decline of traditional political parties. It would be thus too simple to only blame the vulnerabilities of the liberal establishment or the opportunism of populist leaders, as both approaches have had negative repercussions on the public.

On the one hand, populists have gained popularity due to genuine issues that liberal institutions have failed to deal with. On the other hand, they have also promoted ‘culturally exclusive’ behaviours (racism, xenophobia etc.) through demagogy and propaganda, often accompanied by the spread of disinformation. Nonetheless, the liberal system has perhaps not effectively dealt with crucial challenges and has showed weaknesses that exacerbated the socio-economic crisis we are witnessing, hence allowing right-wing populist parties to flourish. The more the people have felt left behind by the system, the more they have found refuge in national identity and intolerant ideologies. Therefore, the first step to take in order to explain and fight populism would be to bear responsibility for the inequal policies implemented through the years that have left many communities marginalised and prone to vote for anti-establishment parties. A card that does not seem to have been played well (or at all), since right-wing populist parties are increasingly on the rise in many countries around the world.

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New Social Compact

Education needs a transformation. The same holds true with how we monitor our commitments



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Education is the key to unlock our development challenges. Yet, millions of children and young people are left behind, unable to fulfil their potential and prepare themselves for the future. In many countries, the pandemic has struck off the modest gains of the past 20 years for the generation most affected by school closures, with long-term consequences. This week, the Transforming Education Summit  comes to an end. The world’s education leaders have gathered over the last few days in New York, invited by the UN Secretary-General as part of Our Common Agenda, to debate solutions to put education back on the right track. 

The Summit has come at a time when, according to UNESCO’s latest figures, there are an estimated 244 million children and young people across the world still deprived of any form of formal schooling. Over 600 million children and adolescents are either not completing basic education or do not acquire basic skills that would help them prepare for the future. With only seven years to go until the deadline to reach SDG 4, the global education goal, they are lacking the support to access a high-quality and fulfilling education. Compounding the problem is the fact that governments in the poorer countries appear to be cutting their education budgets

The Transforming Education Summit marks a key moment. But as leaders declare their determination to improve education in their countries, we must review how to translate these words into the concrete targets, so that these promises do not ring empty, and how to monitor progress towards them. While the Summit has debated solutions to make schools safe, healthy, connected and green, countries should express the level of their ambition through national targets for each of these commitments to spur action from now to 2030. 

The issues rising to the surface during the discussions and consultation around the summit are all critical. One in six children live in areas impacted by conflict that also destroys their education opportunities. Schools are being bombed and children and teachers are killed daily. Only last year, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution on the protection of education in conflict zones. But more must be done to protect the education of affected children and young people. 

The compound effects of COVID-19, a war in Europe that disrupted grain production and exports, rising inflation and a looming economic recession, mean that the world is edging closer towards a food crisis. When schools closed their doors with little to no notice due to the pandemic, millions of students were cut off not only from their education, but also from one of their principal food sources. An estimated 39 billion school meals have been missed since April 2020. It is not only children’s physical development that was impacted. Without food, children simply do not have the energy to concentrate, and their education outcomes are therefore significantly worse. 

Another, equally significant impact of the pandemic was bringing learning from classroom to home. Laptops, computers, and iPads replaced pencils, erasers and pens as back-to-school essentials– for the lucky few: because this shift was reliant on all children having access to the technology required to learn from home. Unfortunately, with two-thirds of 3–17-year-olds unable to access the internet at home, this was far from the case. These children were left behind in systems whose efforts to catch up with the times simply failed them. As with many crises, this also predominantly affected children in disadvantaged homes and communities. The pandemic shed light on the foundations of education systems, which fuel exclusion and inequality. 

Finally, with almost two billion people affected by floods, droughts and storms every year, these devastatingly real consequences that climate change is unleashing on our planet are already being felt, though not equally by all. Climate change disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable and marginalized communities in the Global South, whose education opportunities are also poorer, further compromising their ability to adapt. At the same time, education systems in the Global North and in countries contributing most to global warming are yet to demonstrate how their schools will serve their climate change mitigation efforts.

Agreeing to the actions is one step, monitoring them is crucial to provide accountability and drive ambition. UNESCO has started a process where each country sets their own realistic ‘benchmarks’ in the road to achieving SDG 4. About 90% of countries have heeded this call and established national targets which they reasonably believe can be reached by 2030, in the hopes that this will accelerate progress. We encourage countries to also set national targets for 2025 and 2030 against each of the global initiatives to be tabled at the Summit. These will represent the transformation countries want to see. 

The follow-up mechanism after the Summit, based on national target setting, will be critical to convert leaders’ statements into improved education results for children and youth, as this call for action implores countries to do. The solutions to be agreed at the Summit must be appropriately monitored if we are to come out of this global education emergency. 

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New Social Compact

Our Case for Investment in Education is Our Case for Humanity

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A 14-year-old girl works on a school assignment at home in the Central Java Province of Indonesia. © UNICEF/Jiro Ose

As world leaders gather at this year’s UN General Assembly and work to make good on commitments outlined at the Secretary-General’s Transforming Education Summit, we are calling on all of them to put education – especially for the 222 million crisis-impacted children that are in need of urgent education support – at the top of the international agenda.

Investing in education means investing in humanity. It means investing in a peaceful and prosperous future. It means investing in human rights and our global promise to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, especially our goal of quality education for all (SDG4).  

From a 50,000-foot perspective, investing in education means investing in strong nations and in resilient economies for generations to come.   

As the UN’s global fund for education in emergencies, Education Cannot Wait (ECW) launched our Case for Investment and 2023-2026 Strategic Plan during this year’s General Assembly.

Our case for investment is our case for building peace where there is war, prosperity where there is poverty, and hope where there is despair. Our case for investment is our case for realizing 222 Million Dreams for the children and youth impacted by conflict, climate change, forced displacement and other protracted crises.

From our very human vantage point, this support is ensuring refugee girls like Bchiote and Janat Ara are able to go to school to develop to their full potentials and become productive contributors to their society. ECW works through a holistic, whole-of-child approach. It’s not just about books and classrooms – because all too often education goes beyond learning in crises: education is also lifesaving and life-sustaining. This is why ECW interventions embrace a broad spectrum of support, ranging from providing safe and protective learning spaces to mental health and psycho-social support; from providing school feeding to helping build disaster preparedness in the face of the climate crisis.

Addressing the Education Crisis

Today we have a perfect storm of a global education crisis coinciding with a global funding crisis. The solution is to scale-up funding to education. From there, all else can be achieved. Without education, all else is elusive – whether it is human rights or the sustainable development goals. It all starts with an education.

It’s hard to believe that even today, education in emergencies and protracted crises only accounts for approximately 2% to 4% of global humanitarian funding. And while we have seen a noticeable positive trend in commitments, funding appeals have skyrocketed to more than US$2.9 billion in 2021, compared to US$1.4 billion in 2020. The value of 222 million children and youth enduring conflicts, climate disasters and forced displacement is priceless and never too costly. They are our investment in humanity – theirs and our own.

The world is getting hotter, more crowded, more violent and more inhumane by the minute. By investing in education, we are removing the dark veil of inaction and inequality that has stripped millions of the world’s most vulnerable children and adolescents of their basic human rights.

Most concerning, we seem to be back-sliding on our commitments to ensure quality education for all. When ECW was formed in 2016, approximately 75 million crisis-impacted children were in need of educational support. Recent analysis indicates that number has nearly tripled to 222 million today, including 78 million who are out of school entirely.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only deepened the global learning crisis. In 2020 and 2021, 147 million children missed over half of in-person instruction, and as many as 24 million learners may never return to school, according to the United Nations.

Transformational Approaches

As we grapple with war in Ukraine, the spectre of famine across much of the Sahel, armed conflicts, massive displacement and the truly apocalyptic impacts of the climate crisis, we are faced with tough choices in aligning humanitarian, development and private sector funding.

As a crosscutter that delivers returns far beyond the classroom, education has a tremendous return on investment.

For every dollar spent on education we receive $2.80 in return. And the World Bank estimates that “limited educational opportunities for girls and barriers to completing 12 years of education cost countries between $15 trillion and $30 trillion dollars in lost lifetime productivity and earnings.” 

We must take a transformational approach in our delivery of this support.

One-off responses are no longer enough. Working in silos is no longer viable. Now it is about speed and quality. It is about crisis-sensitive development approaches to education. With US$1.5 billion, ECW can provide 20 million children with holistic education supports. This doesn’t just mean building schools, it means taking a holistic approach and bringing all partners together to providing protection and psychosocial services, gender equality, teacher training, learning materials, school feeding programmes, tests and exams showing advanced learning outcomes, early childhood education and an array of supports that provides whole-of-child solutions to a whole-of-society problem.

Through its leadership of the G7, Germany has stepped up to put education first in its humanitarian spending, with over €300 million in funding to ECW and significant contributions to our partners across the globe.

This support has solidified ECW’s position as a model for UN reform. To date, we have mobilized close US$1.1 billion through our donors, allowing us to reach 7 million children in just five years of operation, and more than 30 million through our COVID-19 responses.

The private sector is joining in. The LEGO Foundation recently announced significant new funding to Education Cannot Wait and other key education initiatives.

Others must stand and be counted. In the 21st Century we stand at a crossroads. We have choices to make.

Do we invest in the young generation or do we ignore their most fundamental right to be educated? Do we invest in the 222 million children and adolescents whose only hope left is that of an education, or do we leave them behind?

The choice we make will determine the future for generations to come. Let us make the right choice. Fund education. Invest in humanity.

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