By Ilkka Liikanen

The notion of kansa (the people) in Finnish political thought has sometimes been connected with an authoritarian heritage. British scholars rarely use the concept except when they are referring to ordinary people as opposed to the elite. In order to clear a common misunderstanding, many Finnish historians emphasise the specific historical context of the concept.

The obvious importance of the concept of kansa in Finnish political language tends at first sight to verify the notion of an authoritarian tradition. A closer conceptual history of kansa reveals that the centrality of the concept has to do with the emerging nation's status as an autonomous region in the Russian Empire.

As many scholars have pointed out, one of the peculiarities of Finnish history is that the autonomous state was constituted before the emergence of national politics and culture. Finland was one of the so-called unhistoric nations, and the importance of the concept the people can be understood from the point of view of the state-making elite. Their Leitmotif was to find legitimacy for the existence of the autonomous state inside the Russian Empire. As they could not write the history of a separate state, they wrote the history of the people.

On the other hand, for the state-making elite, the history of the people was, to follow Eric Hobsbawm, also part of the 'civic religion' of the state. One of its functions was to create a sense of obligation towards the state and establish a sense of identity with the state among the population. From this perspective the concept of kansa appears as an instrument of nation-building and a tool of the educated elite, whose position was tied to the existence of a separate state and a national culture.

Nation-building was, however, not the only context for the formation of Finnish political culture. At the beginning of the 1870s, the Fennoman intellectuals (Finnish nationalists who emphasised the importance of Finnish as a national language) embarked on a new policy of opposition and began to make political demands in the name of the people. In their writings they declared the people were the principal source of power and demanded openly that the government should follow the will of the people.

Following the rhetorical rules of modern politics the Fennoman elite attempted to seize the exclusive right to represent the Finnish people. In challenging the power structure and competing political groups in the name of the people they adopted and forced their opponents to adopt the language of modern politics.

The Fennomans rejected the establishment of a formal party organisation and the drafting of a party platform, but advocated apolitical civil organisation as proof that the Fennoman intelligentsia represented the 'will of the people'. Later, when the Fennoman leaders operated within the confines of the official political system, they strove to deny new political rivals the right to speak in 'the name of the people'. They still held to the canon that an indivisible 'will of the people' truly existed, and was represented by the Finnish Party and its leadership.

In this sense, the politicised concept of kansa lived on in the Finnish political language, and the political arena was left open to new challengers who struggled for hegemony by claiming to represent the people. As a result, the breakthrough of popular mass movements in Finland from the 1880s onwards was indelibly stamped with the political fight for hegemony. Both the competing factions of the educated elite and the emerging mass organisations, the Temperance movement, the Young Peoples' movement and the labour movement, all carried in their rhetoric the idea of representing the 'Holy Will of the People'.

The historical heritage lives on even in present-day Finnish political institutions. Since 1917 Finland had had a parliamentary system, but not a parliament. Instead we have the eduskunta, a house of representatives. And we do not elect members of parliament but representatives of the people, who gather together to implement the 'will of the people'.

Dr Ilkka Liikanen from the University of Joensuu spoke at the seminar of the Conceptual History Group at the Finnish Institute in November 1996.

See also:

Back to index of issues

The uuslogo.jpg (2750 bytes) in London