Both Liah Greenfeld’s family history, and her own life are intertwined with the political violence and upheaval of the Soviet Union at the time. She was born and raised in Russia to a family of intellectuals. Her grandfather was a Bolshevik, spending time in prison in Siberia, eventually escaping to Italy where he knew Gramsci. All of her grandparents were devout socialists, although they were also political prisoners. Her grandmother spent 10 years in a prison camp.
Political persecution did not escape her parents, either, who were both interrogated by the KGB on several occasions. Greenfeld’s parents embraced their Jewish identity, especially her father who taught himself Hebrew and instilled in Greenfeld that her most fundamental and important identity was Jewish. Her father’s openness about his support of Israel led to further interrogation, and the constant threat of arrest. In 1972, at age 18, her family left Russia, and Greenfeld ended up attending university in Israel.
One can imagine that this family history has had a profound effect on her work on nationalism, identity, and power. When reflecting on her mother’s relationship to her Jewish identity, Greenfeld says, “I remember vividly how she blushed, when asked her nationality—a most common and devious question in the happy multinational family of the Soviet republics, in which, as it was believed in the West, all national animosities were forgotten” (p. 38).
Greenfeld gained her PhD in Sociology of Art from Hebrew University in 1982 and taught at University of Chicago and Harvard before becoming a professor at Boston University in 1994, where she remains.
Greenfeld, 1994, p. 9
For Greenfeld, nationalism is the modern culture. It is the underlying principle behind all modern institutions. Before going on to explaining her theory, it would be beneficial to outline Greenfeld’s approach. Greenfeld is of the veiw that human society is organised symbolically rather materially. This leads her to assert that the history of human society should be studied as a cultural process rather than as a history of biological evolution.
According to Greenfeld, nationalism is the ‘symbolic blueprint of modern reality’. It is our stand-point as well as the prism through which we see the modern world and construct its image in our minds.
For Greenfeld, ‘nationalism’ has three primary characteristics:
- It is based on the principle of egalitarianism which places sovereignty with the people (popular sovereignty)
- It is humanistic at its core
- It is fundamentally secular
The explanations of the above points are inter-linked and no clear lines can be drawn between each of them. According to Greenfeld, the members of the new English aristocracy in early sixteenth century England were the ‘inventors’ of nationalism. Up till this point the word ‘nation‘ implied an elite. An elite who were, of course, at the top of social hierarchy but also the source of sovereignty of the state. Sometime in early sixteenth century, ‘nation‘ came to be used for the entire population, thereby elevating the entire population to the status of ‘elite‘ and thus the concept of popular sovereignty was born. Since everyone was now an ‘elite’, everyone was equal. Thus along with popular sovereignty, egalitarianism was also created.
According to Greenfeld, this notion of popular sovereignty is what led to democracy. Nationalism placed sovereignty with the people and the assumed a fundamental equality amongst all of them. These turned out to foundations of democracy as well. For her, ‘nationalism is the form in which democracy appeared in the world, contained in the idea of the nation as a butterfly in a cocoon’.
It must be mentioned at this point that Greenfeld lays great emphasis on the ‘desire for status’ within human beings in her study of nationalisms. At one point, she writes that ‘national identity is, fundamentally, a matter of dignity. When sovereignty is placed with the people, everybody, in a sense, is an elite. And this sense of pride is brought by being a member of the nation.
As for being secular and humanistic, Greenfeld opines that nationalism, in being the modern culture, is the way humans experience and express modern consciousness. And the image thus expressed is secular, in so far as it is confined to ‘this’ world. It is humanistic since the most significant element of this world are humans.
But surely such a consciousness could have been constructed in other ways too . According to Greenfeld, it the members of new English aristocracy in England, through a conscious effort, substituted the traditional society where social mobility was non-existent with the concept of an ‘homogenously elite’ people. They could have might as well forged genealogies, which Greenfeld terms as ‘perfectly logical thing to do given the circusmtances’. She concedes, that had this happened, history would be different.
The stand-out feature of Greenfeld’s theory is its contrast with other modernists. While the ‘modernist’ view holds that nationalism was the product of industrialization and modernity, Greenfeld asserts that it was in fact the other way round. In her view, it was ‘nationalism’ which created the neccessary social ground for industrialisation and modernity; it is the ‘constitutive element for modernity’. For Greenfeld, industrialisation and modernity are not structural constituents of nationalism but its consequences.
Both industrial capitalism and the modern state could only come to be once nationalism had created an egalitarian society. With the onset of nationalism economic activities of the masses achieved an elevated status and in an egalitarian society, social mobility was finally possible. One was not ordained to an occupation for life but could dream about growth and hence a shift was bought about from subsistence model to a model of sustained growth. Greenfeld regards this as a direct consequence of nationalism.
In so far as the modern state is concerned, Greenfeld regards the concept of popular sovereignty as an effect of equality bought about by being a member of the nation. Since all modern states claim to derive their authority and legitimacy from popular sovereignty, Greenfeld opines that the modern state, too, follows nationalism and does not precede it.
Before concluding this section, it is important to know that the approach which Greenfeld adopts i.e. of regarding human societies as organised symbolically and assuming social reality to be intrinsically cultural, is an an approach that is characteristic of the Weberian school.
Case study > Russian transitions between nationalism and internationalism
Greenfeld claims that the rise of communism in Russia was due to the intelligentsia feeling inferiority towards the West. The explanation is not to be found in economics or class struggles. Contrastingly, there was a common feeling of shame amongst the Russian intelligentsia. The establishment of the Soviet Union implied the dissolving of a russian nation and becoming the representative for an international proletariat. Thus, the establishment of the Soviet Union redefined reality of the intelligentsia and a possible triumph over the West. In other words, it was a change to internationalism.
Does this view of the transition from Tsarist Russia to Soviet Russia appear convincing?
The tables below show the distribution of answers to the question: “To which of these geographical groups would you say you belong first of all?”
The question was asked to a relatively large group of Russians in 1990 and 1995, accordingly:
Do the distributions match the expectations of Greenfeld? Do you think that Russia is moving towards nationalism today?
Case study > Venezuela
Nowadays, Venezuelan Nationalism could be understood as a civic-collectivist nationalism fostered from the state political structures. The political changes in Venezuela since 1998, based on a “XXI century socialism” project, needed a wide popular support to be applied. Therefore, the renovation of nationalism feelings was an essential political tool to reach the political and juridical modifications towards the application of this model.
The Venezuelan nationalism, as the other Latino-American nationalisms, was based on the resentment to Western, especially to Spain and USA due to the economical dependence and political influence they pursued in the region. However, since Chavez administration, the social resentment and sense of inferiority, former expressed as resentment to other nations, was replaced and leaded to high classes. This was evident in the political discourse of the government and the terms used in Chavez’ speech, as “oligarchy” and “aristocracy”, instead of “businessmen” or “entrepreneurs”, as in other Latin-American countries. The Venezuelan nationalism has been also focused on exalt historical heroes, as a form of legitimation of nowadays policies. This strategy implied the reinforcement of civic holydays, giving them a new meaning and contextualized them as a palpable sign of patriotism. Even the actual name of the country “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” makes reference to Simon Bolívar “the liberator of America”, an XIX century important politician, ideologist and military in South America.
The emotional element of Venezuelan nationalism has been a very interesting factor, developed along the Chavez’ administrations. The revolutionary discourse of Venezuelan regime with Chavez and now with Maduro’s regime use phrases recalling hard-core socialism ideology as “socialist nation or death”. The state has been able to create a new national identity in some sectors of the population based in the idea of the state as a social class, in communion and solidarity with “our America” (other Latin-American countries), expressed in the Venezuelan popular culture. An outstanding example of this emotional mixture was the Chavez death and funeral, with widespread demonstration of sorrow and condolences.
A link showing a video with the public reactions towards Chavez death
The construction of Venezuelan nationalism and renovated national identity from a very personalistic form of leading has been very obvious. This new identification of Chavez with the Bolivarian revolution transcend itself the idea of class, otherwise, the identification with chavism for a big portion of the population is almost comparable with the identification with Venezuela.
Given that this policy worked fine at internal level, the Venezuelan state tried to export it to other Latin-American countries with relative success. This provoked a change in foreign policy towards USA and Latin America, basically. This was mirrored in some international cooperation forums along Latin America, principally ALBA (The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas, AlianzaBolivariana para los Pueblos de NuestraAmérica in Spanish). This international organization is nowadays the most important mean of foreign policy for Venezuelan government in the region. Until today, ALBA count with the membership of Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Venezuela (with Suriname as “special guest”). Moreover, Venezuela has strong relations with Argentina, El Salvador Brasil and Uruguay. In this way, Venezuela has been expanding his influence along Latin-America and, thus, expanding his nationalism model, specifically to Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador with relative success
According to Greenfeld. Nationalism often is an imported political movement imitation. In the case of Venezuela, it has his origin in Castro’s socialist Cuba. Moreover, in the same way that Cuba, the empowered classes in Venezuela are not the same classes that support widely the proposed political project, what coincide with Greenfeld’s idea of the usefulness of nationalism for some influential groups, especially regarding economic competence with other states. This idea is deepen explained in the following statement:
“Chavismis not a leapof nationalismto socialism, but abourgeois nationalist movement. The socialist speech is notnew.Manynationalistsinthe ’40smade use ofsocialisticspeechesto win supportamong the masses, andthus blockthe developmentof a leftanchored inclass independence. It matters little whetherthe social baseof chavism is”commoner”. The baseof Peronismwas the working class. Butneither workersleadedPeronnor addressedcommonersmovements leadchavism.In bothcases, workersand poor peopleare usedas the basis fora bourgeois policy.” (Aguirre, 2013)
¿Is the Venezuelan oil-based economy a key factor of empowerment of Venezuelan nationalism? ¿Could the class-based political project transcend to a national project in other Latino-American states with more developed and globalized economies, as Brasil, Mexico or Chile?
Sources & Further Reading
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