The Everyday Nationalism of Workers
A Social History of Modern Belgium
Maarten Van Ginderachter


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Workers into Belgians, Flemings and Walloons
chapter abstract

The role of the masses in the rise of modern nationhood remains one of the great unresolved issues in nationalism research. This book aims to fill this gap. Drawing on often underexploited source materials from the major urban and working-class centers of Belgium, the book uncovers the everyday nationalism of the rank-and-file of the socialist Belgian Workers Party during the fin de siècle.

1 A Socialist Pillar of a Hyperliberal State
chapter abstract

This chapter sets the stage with a condensed history of Belgium's nation building project. It contends that the country, despite its industrial precociousness, lively civil society, and liberal democracy, did not mass-produce Belgians. Belgium was founded in 1830 as a unitary but non-centralizing state that took a hyper-liberal position in matters of nation building. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, local administrations and private organizations began to fill the void and started a nationalist campaign specifically targeted at workers. The increased nationalist propaganda coincided with the onset of 'consociationalism' or 'pillarization,' i.e. the compartmentalization of society into distinct ideological or confessional communities. In Belgium three pillars gradually took shape: a catholic, a socialist and a smaller liberal community. Nationalism, ethnicity and language did not drive the pillarization process. Its engine was ideological dissension between conservatives and progressives, and confessional conflict between catholics and anti-clericals.

Part I
Trickle-Down Nationalism: The Institutional Forces of Nation Building
2 Voting the Nation
chapter abstract

Suffrage rights and political participation were crucial nation-builders all over Europe. In Belgium the vote was democratized during the fin de siècle. In 1893 plural manhood suffrage replaced the elitist, tax-based census vote, but there was no official agenda ingraining the vote as a patriotic duty. Nevertheless, fighting for their political and social rights within the Belgian arena and shouldering local government responsibility, gave socialists a taste for oppositional patriotism. They did not experience this civic identification uniformly, however. Due to the diverging electoral outcomes of the plural voting system in the urbanized and industrial parts of the country as opposed to the rural and small-town regions, socialists increasingly interpreted ideological divergences within an ethnic framework of Flemings vs. Walloons. The introduction of proportional representation in 1899, though meant to assuage such tensions, in fact aggravated them within the BWP.

3 Nationalist Celebrations and Mass Entertainment
chapter abstract

The most conspicuous occasion to bring the nation to the public were the Independence Day festivities. But, here again, the government was anything but energetic. Outside of the capital it left all initiative to local authorities and private organizations. In the closing years of the nineteenth century these celebrations and the entertainment sector in general were swept up in a wave of nationalist mass consumption. The BWP urged workers to keep their distance to avoid 'contamination' with bourgeois chauvinism, but to the despair of the party, its supporters often joined in. Mere exposure to nationalist entertainment did not simply turn workers into Belgians as they were confronted with competing discourses of class solidarity, ethnicity, religion, internationalism, localism, etc. The actual outcome was dependent on the strength of nationalism in other realms of their public lives.

4 An Anti-Militaristic State in Militaristic Times
chapter abstract

This chapter examines why the Belgian army did not realize its full potential as a nation-builder before the Great War. First and foremost was the obsolete recruitment system. Belgium was the last country in Europe to abolish the military draw and to introduce personal military conscription in 1909. Despite a pro-military propaganda campaign emanating from the reinvigorated Belgian nationalist movement in the latter years of the nineteenth century, public opinion remained firmly opposed to army service and did not view it as a civic duty. The radical antimilitarism of the BWP's youth organizations did not resonate among the rank-and-file either. In this sense socialist workers were part of the Belgian mainstream.

5 The Royal and Colonial Paradox
chapter abstract

As the cornerstone of bourgeois nationalism, the king was the ultimate icon of the nation. This chapter relates the lengths the royal entourage went to to popularize the king and to propagate Leopold II's exploits in the Congo. The court's propaganda was unable to change the deep-seated enmity towards the person of Leopold II, but it was successful in convincing people that the monarchy was a natural part of public life. Leopold's successor Albert I reconciled socialism to the monarchy, by projecting an image of political neutrality and basic human decency. Leopold II's Congo was caught up in a similar paradox as his personal image. While pro-colonial initiatives did not turn socialist workers into eager imperialists, Leopold's social imperialism 'normalized' the idea of European dominance over the inferior black race.

6 Schooling the Nation
chapter abstract

This chapter deals with public elementary education. Teachers and pedagogues often complained in private about the gap between the (successful) theory and the (ineffective) practice of nationalist education. Many pupils left school with blatantly mistaken notions about Belgium and its history. Yet proletarian children reassembled these faulty building blocks into an idiosyncratic working-class form of nationalism that stressed the national 'Other', male combativity and the blood of belonging. A close-reading of working-class sources shows the potentially subversive, disruptive or violent character of bourgeois nationalist discourses when they were appropriated by ordinary people. In the end, the effect of schooling depends on a complex of supporting and competitive social influences inside and outside the classroom, both in the short and the long run. Patriotic educational practices could only be successful over time if they were able to attach themselves to the rhythms of daily life.

Part II
Everyday Nationalism: Performing the Nation in Daily Life
7 Encounters with the Belgian Flag and the National Anthem
chapter abstract

This chapter explores grassroots encounters with the most visible tokens of the nation. Wherever socialism gained ground, the symbolic space of the national flag and anthem was overtaken by the red banner and the Marseillaise. This is not necessarily an unequivocal manifestation of national indifference or radical internationalism, so much as obstinate behavior toward bourgeois ideals (Eigen-Sinn) and as an instance of working-class nationalism. A string of incidents in the Walloon mining province of Hainaut in the late 1880s show that French-speaking workers vilified the Belgian tricolor and anthem as bourgeois and clerical symbols, but still identified as ethnic Belgians. By 1905, the party cadres and the rank-and-file seemed to have come to a grudging acceptance of flag and anthem. Yet, in Ghent - the spearhead of socialism in Flanders - wariness remained. They were not only rejected as bourgeois symbols, but also as signifiers of Belgianness.

8 Proletarian Tweets
chapter abstract

This chapter turns to Ghent and the 'propaganda pence'. This source was an annotated subscription list for the benefit of the socialist party. Because workers voiced whatever was on their mind and communicated through the propaganda pence, we can compare them to today's tweets. This chapter uses a sample of 27,529 tweets from at least 1000 different working-class individuals. An in-depth investigation demonstrates that social categories like class and anti-Catholicism were central to the everyday experience of socialist workers. Nation, ethnicity and language were only marginally present, as were some supposed core values of socialism like internationalism. This raises the question whether a low frequency is proof of the limited appeal of a particular social category or whether it was too self-evident to be made explicit. More crucially, was this national indifference or a form of banal nationalism that has retreated into the background?

9 Language, the Flemish Movement, and the Nation
chapter abstract

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Ghent, as all major cities in Flanders, had a significant French-speaking community. About 8 percent of its population used French mostly or exclusively according to the official census of 1910. Scholars have generally assumed that workers were exposed to a daily routine of bilingualism. Surprisingly, the propaganda pence show that Ghent workers lived in a practically monolingual environment with limited potential for language tension that could be politicized. The rank-and-file had little interest in linguistic matters and in the Flemish movement, as opposed to the party cadres who were relatively (and negatively) obsessed with these issues. An analysis of the propaganda pence further demonstrates that Flemish ethnicity, though hardly relevant in everyday contexts, held more potential appeal than Belgian nationhood.

Epilogue: The First World War
chapter abstract

The epilogue discusses how the book's findings relate to Belgian and European history at large. A comparison of the Belgian experience to imperial Austria demonstrates that any binary classification of European nationalisms in modern Western civic types versus backward Eastern ethnic types is highly reductionist. The history of the BWP and its rank andfile shows that explicitly civic and modern mass movements harness ethnicity and nationhood. In broader terms, the Belgian and Austrian experiences highlight the situationality of these categories of collective identification. The crucial role of nationhood and ethnicity in the turbulent history of twentieth-century Europe was not determined by their nineteenth-century roots. Rather, the contingent shifts occasioned by the First World War made them into central concerns of ever larger groups of people and turned them, to use Rogers Brubaker's terms, from one social category among several others into absolute markers of groupness.