Topmenu Calendar Archive Links Faculty and staff Publications Research projects Sitemap Main page

Uffe østergård

Peasants and Danes. the Historical roots of national identity and political culture in Denmark.

From a historical sociological perspective, the Danish case represents a rare situation of virtual identity between state, nation and society. Around 1800 'Denmark' was a middle ranking European power, roughly equal to Prussia in military and economic potential, with a fleet second only to mat of Great Britain. However, the socalled "Gesamtstaat" (Helstaten) of Denmark proper, Norway and Schleswig-Holstein gradually shrank to a size smaller even than its present borders (1864). This produced some despair among ruling elites, both conservative and liberal, but it also let loose a major outburst of popular energy, an outburst that was made possible because of the ethnically homogenous character of the amputated Danish state. Contrary to the situation in most other emerging nation-states, the class of middle peasants became capitalist farmers in the second generation after the agrarian reforms of the 1780's, i.e. the 1820's. Eventually they came to determine the ideological and political hegemony in a formal political sense from 1901 ('systemskiftet').

The reason for their success lies in the relative weakness of Denmark's bourgeoisie and the country's late industrialization, with a take-off in the 1890's and a break-through only in the 1950's. In developing an awareness of themselves as a class für sich, the middle peasants established an ideological hegemony, stressing rural, economically liberal and politically libertarian values. This ideological system was, however, based on a crass exploitation of the landless agricultural workers, an exploitation that reached its peak in the 1880's. The emerging Social-Democratic Labour movement adapted itself to the middle peasant ideological hegemony and very early on developed a strategy that recognized the importance of collaboration with other classes, itself becoming more of a people's party man a class-based party.

It has been hotly debated among Danish historians and sociologists to which extent the hegemony of peasant ideology was a cause or a byproduct of Denmark's particular class structure and national situation. I intend to contribute to the discussion by investigating the specific significance of the virtually untranslated and untranslatable thinker, writer and theologian Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872). Grundtvig was a contemporary of Kierkegaard, but he has attracted much less international mterest. This is due to the fact that his thoughts were written in an extremely metaphorical language. To paraphrase Marshal MacLuhan, his language in many ways was both medium and message at the same time. Singlehandedly, this extremely productive writer expressed the selfconsciousness of an emerging class in hundreds of poems, historical-philosophical treatises and sermons. The Hegelian inspired national-liberal bourgeoisie did not understand a single word of his thinking (and when they did, they tried to censor him). But the anti-establishment religious and political movements gravitated towards Grundtvig, and a number of very able organizers succeeded in transforming his thoughts into highly successful, educational, economic and political institutions.

One may very well argue that Denmark's successful popular (not populist) educational system and cooperative agragian structure developed because of a particular class-structure and what can be termed Denmark's unique agrarian-capitalist road to capitalist modernization. This pattern of development was left out of Barrington Moores sweeping analysis of the main roads to political and economic democracy and authoritarianism because of the small size of the countries involved (Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, 1966 p.X). I intend to (re)introduce this rather unique experience to the comparative historical sociology.

Some aspects of the Danish agrarian-capitalist pattern may be said to have appeared in other regions such as Saskatchewan in Canada, Wisconsin in the USA, and in regions of Germany and France (Länder and departements). But because these regions were situated within larger political entities, something comparable to the uniquely Danish ideological hegemony of the farmers never emerged.

The small size of the Danish nation-state combined with a rapidly expanding, export-oriented economy were decisive factors in the development of the Danish liberal social-democratic welfare-state (as distinct from the more statist Swedish type). Hence, the distinctive aspects of Danish development which gave rise to the cooperative movement and the folk high school system. But maybe mere is more to it than sheer size. It seems to me that the "Danish" agrarian road to industrial capitalism and democracy should be accorded more importance in comparative historical sociology, than is normally the case. On top of that the particular Danish liberal and sometimes libertarian political culture still seems to exercise a considerable influence, even in todays Danish society and in the worid at large. Even though it often takes the forms of a self proclaimed rather selfrighteous and pompous example of moral superiority - moral understood as a norm for the treatment of the less well off members of society. Regardless of the small size of the nation-state (or maybe because of it) we Danes tend to mink that we haven't done too bad at all. And maybe there is a little to it.


Updated 23 November 2000 by csc. Please mail comments to the webmaster at Centre for Cultural Research.