KANSA - THE
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
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
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.