Academic journal article East European Quarterly

The Supra-Class Rhetoric of Nationalism: An Introductory Comment

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

The Supra-Class Rhetoric of Nationalism: An Introductory Comment

Article excerpt

One of the most fascinating problems encountered in the socio-historical study of nationalism is the difficulty in consistently relating the object of nationalism to the specific interests of social classes. This indisputable theoretical weakness appears in comparative analyses of the phenomenon of nationalism in the form of two of its most permanent features: namely, the great diversity in the social composition of its supporters and the non-existence or vagueness of nationalist references to social problems.

I believe that this lack of association between nationalism and particular social class interests lies at the heart of the so-called nationalist mystery -- the historically unprecedented plasticity of form, dynamism, expansiveness and durability of nationalism. It is by focusing on this particular problem that we may hope to grasp the inherent capabilities of nationalist ideology to develop, expand, succeed and persist -- in other words, that we may accomplish something which existing theoretical approaches with their conventional exegetical schemes and conceptual categories have, thus far, failed to do.

Considering briefly the social composition of nationalist support across time and space, it would be fair to say that any generalization from the historical evidence is virtually impossible. Nationalism cannot be generically identified with or even related to any social stratum. The gentry, the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, the peasantry -- all may be found within the social substructure of nationalism. What is more, the supporters of nationalism comprise a dramatically changeable spectrum not only across different societies, but even within a given society at different temporal phases of nationalism's development.

This may seem, prima facie, somewhat surprising, as it contravenes the old and fairly widespread conception of nationalism as an ideology that promotes primarily the interests of the bourgeoisie. To be sure, such a connection contains more than a grain of truth, especially with regard to those first-generation cases of West European nationalism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, where the modernization process assumed immediate socio-economic dimensions and where the role of the bourgeoisie was more or less given by definition.(2) But the emergence and development of nationalist ideology does not presuppose either the active participation or even the existence of the bourgeoisie, as is testified by the numerous examples of the second-generation nationalisms in Eastern Europe and the Balkans as well as by a large part of the younger nationalisms in the so-called Third World. To nationalism's success during the past three hundred years have contributed in a protagonistic role the clergy and the aristocracy (Poland and Rumania), the small gentry (Hungary), the conservative and oligarchic class of the meiji (Japan), the owners of large plantations manned mainly by slave labor (Latin America), traders in the Diaspora (Greece), small holders of merchant of usurious capital (the Balkans, in general), bureaucrats and the military (Turkey, Third World), even the proletariat (Germany), while it has not been unknown for an existent bourgeoisie to assume an indifferent or even hostile posture towards the emergence of nationalism (Belgium, Poland, Scotland, Basque Country).(3)

Perhaps the only social constant of nationalism may, after all, be the ex definitio involvement of the intelligentsia -- i.e., of that social group which is extremely difficult to define precisely by conventional criteria.(4) The intellectuals are indeed represented amongst the following of nationalism with great constancy and disproportionately to their numbers in society at large. They are the protagonists in the production, reproduction, and dissemination of nationalist ideas either in an explicitly propagandist role or under the mantle of "objective" scholarship.(5)

Like all ideologies, nationalism does not declare the vital role performed by its own ideologues. …

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