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2 June, 2011  ▪  Oleksiy Sokyrko

Bourgeois Nationalism

The European middle class opted for national identity over belonging to a specific social class, turning itself into the foundation of European state building, while the architects of independent Ukraine ignored it

For over two centuries the success of the middle class, which is the core of all European societies, has determined the line of a state’s social and economic development. The European middle class has become a promoter of technological and economic evolvement, which has put European civilization at the center of the Universe and made it the architect of countries as they stand today. Yet the prospects of the middle class in Ukraine cause as much concern as the future of Ukraine’s sovereignty and national identity.   

Freedom and property!

The modern national identification of European nations and the emergence of a number of new countries on the map dates back to the 19th century. The scale and significance of the victorious march of national revivals of one-time stateless abject nations was nothing less than the social and economic transformation of the modern world; meaning social, industrial and technological revolutions.  

Growing in both numbers and quality the new bourgeoisie acted as the mouthpiece for most of these changes.

In the eyes of the leaders of the Hungarian national revival, the need for social and economic changes was closely linked to the problems of average Hungarians. István Széchenyi(1791–1860), a spin doctor of the Hungarian movement, published three political pamphlets addressing the Hungarian nobility, who regarded themselves as the keepers of old Hungarian values and rights. In his publications, Széchenyi promoted the benefits of a free market as a tool for the nation’s revival. He proposed to turn land and work into marketable commodities, intensify lending and foreign trade, and improve education and relations between different social classes.

Széchenyi and his followers promoted specific initiatives, such as the funding of all kinds of societies - from Hungarian language and literature to steam shipping, the establishment of the first commercial bank and a national club. His most ambitious and significant project was the bridge from Buda, the old downtown and nest of Hungarian kings, and Pest, the new district of entrepreneurs and merchants, uniting both parts of the city into Budapest. The newly-united city became an obvious cocktail of national values and a triumph of its new promoter, the middle class.

Széchenyi's initiatives brought forth a more radical generation of politicians who demanded parliamentary freedoms and national autonomy based on “Freedom and Property,” the slogans used by their predecessors. Their leader Lajos Kossuth (1802–1894), a young lawyer and writer, was appointed Prime Minister and Ruling President of Hungary during the Spring of Nations in 1848.  While the national bourgeoisie showed more and more interest in ways to improve their economic position, the local intelligentsia used this growing economic power to protect the national rights of Hungarians. The success of agricultural capitalism and industrialisation, coupled with the aggressive cultural policy of the intelligentsia, facilitated the assimilation of Germans and Jews who were economically powerful. Compared to the largely German-speaking Budapest of Széchenyi’stimes, 90% of the locals spoke Hungarian by the early 20th century. After the revolution, Hungarians boycotted elections to the Austrian parliament until they got their federation status within the Austrian Empire in 1867.  

The Czech recipe

The special nature of the national revival experienced by Czechs, who were deprived of their statehood by the Habsburgs back in the 17thcentury, largely laid the foundation of their successful industrial revolution. At times of Romanticism, only a narrow circle of professors and intellectuals involved in historical and folklore studies and textbook writing was concerned about national self-identification. The industrial revolution which turned the Czech Republic into a leader within the Austrian Empire, boosted social mobility, the development of the transport infrastructure, and the spread of education. While the high-flying bourgeoisie was largely of German origin, middle and small entrepreneurs were mostly Czechs who blended intensely with the young intelligentsia. Without being represented in the government, the Czechs focused on education and economy, though preserving loyalty to Wien initially.

Economic power which supported the national movement was growing based on agriculture and the food industry, especially sugar making. In 1865, the first Czech lending bank was founded, while the early years of the next century saw local commercial institutions grow into the drivers of the region’s industrialisation and offer huge support for national political parties. Urban development and the growing industrial potential resulted in the transformation within the nation itself: the balance of urban population affected by the continual inflow of one-time peasants into the bourgeoisie environment and the assimilation of Jews changed, becoming more and more Czech.  

Polish and Ukrainian ways

The expansion of the bourgeoisie and national revival of most Poles and Ukrainians who lived in the Russian Empire, which was completely different from Europe in terms of politics, social policy and economy, followed a different scenario. Polish prospects were slightly more encouraging and promising. Poland underwent intense economic transformations in the late 19th century, including railway construction and the development of the textile, food and coal mining industries. Entrepreneurs turned into loyal allies of political immigrants and national movement leaders. After the failure of yet another revolution in 1863, national bourgeoisie focused on social and economic activities through the programme of “harmonious work.” Its goals included industrialisation, education and the improvement of the nation’s welfare.  A bourgeois lifestyle based on economic independence and values was widely promoted in periodicals and literature. A bright example of this ideology in literature was Stanisław Wokulski, a typical nationally aware bourgeois protagonist in Boleslaw Prus’s The Doll.   

The situation in Ukraine seemed far less inspiring. Urban russification coupled with the regulation of trade and manufacturing, which was supposed to meet the social status of entrepreneurs as intended by the Russian government in the early 19th century, virtually left no chances for purely Ukrainian business to grow. The nobility had the most potential for developing manufacturing given their financial and legal opportunities, yet it became russified very quickly. Socially, the bourgeoisie had not been a separate group in Russia until the reform in the 1860s. Fiscal and administrative policies of the Empire were aimed at minimizing growth opportunities for the middle class, and this policy was completely in line with the anti-liberal attitude of the Russian elite.

The phenomenon of Ukrainian entrepreneurship did not show itself until the industrial revolution, though it made a statement in big business rather than small and medium ones. Sugar tycoons with Ukrainian surnames, including Kharytonenko, Symyrenko or Tereshchenko, did not always have a Ukrainian identity and felt perfectly comfortable in the Russian world. The only exception was Vasyl Symyrenko (1835–1915), a philanthropist and a patriot of Ukraine, who funded Ukrainian publications, research projects and even political immigrants. Moreover, most leaders of the national revival were terrified by factory workers and saw the nation’s future in peasants. Playing and getting carried away with the rural population actually laid a time bomb under the national movement. Instead of sending the flow of migrating peasants to towns and struggling to improve their cultural and education level for the benefit of the Ukrainian cause, community and national leaders  actually encouraged urban russification, even if indirectly.

The shortsightedness of the national liberation supporters who failed to realize how strategically important it was to communicate their ideas to the middle class, was one of the reasons for their defeat. The middle class is a natural driver of any nation’s development. Marxists were right when they added the word bourgeois to nationalism. Indeed, the stronger middle class preferred to use national identity, which allowed it to influence the rest of the society, as a road map, rather than the narrow identity of a social class.  

István Széchenyi was the spin doctor of Hungarian national movement and promoter of the free market as a tool for revival. The bridge that turned Buda and Pest into one city is a symbol of his approach.


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