From Parlor to Politics: Catalan Romantic Nationalism as a Bourgeois Political Instrument

Christopher Kark
Arizona State University 



When European nationalism came to the fore in the 19th century, Spain had failed to modernize itself. The country remained petrified in feudal structures, remnants of its faded glory in the 16th century. At its zenith, the Castilian monarchy possessed more than half of the Americas, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Portugal, the Low Countries, Bohemia and a handful of other territories. Although the Catholic Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand had united the peninsula by 1512, the later Hapsburg kings1 largely ignored domestic affairs. Only after Spain entered its long period of decline in the 17th century did the monarchy understand its need to develop the country’s internal polity. By that time, however, the crown lacked the funds to homogenize and govern each of the former kingdoms (Linz 43-44).

The consequences of Spain’s shoddy state-building became more apparent as modernizing forces trickled across its borders in the 18th century. One region in particular-Catalonia-began to industrialize itself much earlier than the rest of the country. The mechanization of textile production in Barcelona restructured urban society, transforming the former artisan classes into an urban bourgeoisie. Though Catalonia’s new social class generated enormous amount of capital and soon led Spain’s economy, it lacked political power. As tensions grew between Madrid-based proponents of laissez-faire policies and Barcelona’s manufacturers who demanded protectionism, Catalans found themselves increasingly at odds with Madrid.

With the arrival of Romanticism in the 1830s, Catalonia’s frustrated bourgeois intellectuals turned their focus to the region’s medieval history, cultural particularities and literary tradition, resulting in the formation of a “national character” (Volk) unique from a Spanish one. Most scholars of Catalonia2 agree that this movement-called the Renaixença (or, “Renaissance”)-provided a foundation for Catalan nationalism. However, they overlook two crucial issues: the reasons theRenaixença was able to develop in a quasi-feudal country and the reasons that the ponderings of a few Romantics gained so much popularity in the late 19th century. This paper argues that the relationship between center-peripheral socioeconomic inequalities and the ideas of Romanticism led to the success of political nationalism in Catalonia. Frustrated industrialists needed justification for their desires for economic protectionism and political autonomy-a justification that Romantic nationalism provided.

Catalan political nationalism (or Catalanism) took root for four reasons, each of which will be treated in separate sections of the paper. First, Catalonia’s modernization in the late 18th century reopened an ancient rift between central and peripheral elites. In this particular case, Catalan manufacturers demanded protectionism while Spanish liberals favored laissez-faire policies. Secondly, because Catalonia was the only region in Spain with a true middle class, it was more susceptible to the claims of Romanticism. Bourgeois intellectuals in particular looked for reasons to “explain” the socioeconomic disparities between Catalonia versus the rest of Spain. Thirdly, the regional manufacturers concentrated in Barcelona needed a way to gain the support of rural elites in order to wrest political power from Madrid. Romantic nationalist rhetoric provided a common framework in which rural conservatives and the bourgeoisie could push for autonomy. Here, the bourgeoisie’s ulterior motive was to use rural elites’ support for autonomy as a justification for industrial protection. Fourth, the dominant nationalist parties that formed in the 1880s had a strong bourgeois base, suggesting that the Romantic nationalist and protectionist currents had coalesced.

Before going any further, we should define two fundamental concepts in this paper: nation and nationalism. Like the terms culture and democracy, defining a “nation” is a tricky business. But in recent years, two definitions have prevailed: Benedict Anderson’s “nation” and Ernest Gellner’s “nationalism.” Anderson sees the nation as an “imagined political community” that is “imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (6). This is a convenient definition because it treats the nation as a cognitive abstraction and, unlike earlier scholars of nationalism, it does not use objective criteria.3  In this sense, the idea of an imagined community fits whether a particular nation rallies around its religion, language, ethnicity, race or another characteristic. Likewise, Ernest Gellner’s definition of “nationalism” is simple and does not presume too much. To him, “nationalism is primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent” (Gellner 1). In the Catalan case, however, the “political unit” would be an autonomous community rather than an independent state.4


The Center-Periphery Economic Dispute

While the main purpose of this section is to explain the development of the Catalan-Castilian economic rift, a short overview of Catalonia’s history may benefit the reader. In 801 CE, following the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in the previous century, Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne set up a series of buffer states called the Spanish March (Marca Hispanica). Over the next 300 years, these territories congealed into a seafaring empire that rivaled Genoa and Venice until the 15th century. The most salient developments in medieval Catalonia were those that shaped something of a common identity, parts of which still endure. Around 1150, the king approved a series of pacts (Usatges)5 that “explicitly acknowledged legal equality between burghers […] and nobility” (Woolard 17). The region also developed its own parliament (the Corts),6 a corpus of maritime laws, an executive (Generalitat), a municipal government and a handful of guilds. In his analysis of the development of Catalonia, French historian Pierre Vilar observes:

Between 1250 and 1350, the Catalan principality was perhaps the European country to which it would be the least incorrect and least dangerous to apply the apparently anachronistic terms of political economic imperialism or “nation-state.”[…] In any case, one can find in Catalonia’s medieval structures enough surprising features of a nation-state. (Cataluña en la España moderna 236-237)7

Between the 15th and 18th centuries, two salient events led to Catalonia’s decline. Bad harvests and bouts of the bubonic plague in the 14th century led to the attenuation8 of the region’s political institutions, preluding the 15th century civil war. In an effort to increase his power vis-à-vis the Generalitat9 and Corts, King John II appealed to unrepresented peasants. This maneuver led to the monarchy’s victory but at the expense of Catalonia’s resources. In search of allies and money, John II married his son Ferdinand of Aragon to Isabella of Castile in 1469 (Linz 39). Shortly after Ferdinand assumed the throne, Castile and Aragon unified, which ended Catalonia’s independence.

Until the early 18th century, the Castilian monarchs had largely ignored Catalonia’s political institutions. The region’s absorption into the Spanish state at the end of the 15th century decreased its relevance, although they did assist in the maintenance of a collective Catalan identity. As J.H. Elliott points out:

Apart from sharing common sovereigns, neither Castile nor the Crown of Aragon [Catalonia was an Aragonese province] underwent any radical institutional alteration which might begin the slow process of merging them into a single State […] the Crown of Aragon had been added, with the retention of its own laws and privileges (6-8).

After the Bourbon victory in the War of Spanish Succession (1700-1715), King Philip V issued a decree that eliminated most of Catalonia’s remaining institutions. Drawing from their French heritage, the Bourbon dynasty sought to homogenize Spain’s governing institutions and punish the Catalans for their resistance during the war. Ironically, Philip V’s prohibition of the Catalan polity aided the region’s economic heyday during the 18th century. Buttressed by relative peace and openness to the rest of Spain, cotton production skyrocketed between 1730 and 1790. As a result, Catalonia grew much richer than the rest of Spain, sowing the seeds of industry and a regional-nationalist movement (Vilar, “Spain and Catalonia” 567).

Madrid’s approval of Catalan economic ambitions during the 18th century opened a rift between Catalonia and the rest the country. It would widen as Barcelona’s textile economy mechanized and after Charles III opened imperial markets to the entire country.10  Philip V’s abolition of Catalonia’s remaining autonomy led to the disintegration of the Catalan aristocracy and artisan guilds (McRoberts 16). This emancipation from feudal institutions moved the economic base from agrarianism to commerce, gave rising to a regional bourgeois society (Vicens-Vives 115). We shall examine how this was instrumental to the formation of a nationalist movement in the next section. But for now, let us focus on the economic division of interests springing from Catalonia’s industrialization.

Following the expulsion of Napoleon’s troops in 1814, two economic strands developed. One the one hand, laissez-faire economics gained immense popularity amongst Spanish liberals and parliamentarians, which supported the liquidation of mining operations and trading facilities while inviting foreign investment. These actions reflected a deep ignorance of the logic of industrialization and foreign competition, which infuriated Catalan industrialists (Balcells 19). Although Catalonia was far more industrialized than the rest of Spain, its industry paled in comparison to England. Its incapacity to compete on an international scale thus animated the demand for protectionism. The words of one Catalan deputy in 1820 best articulate this concern: “Internal freedom is what we need. Free trade from abroad would be a mortal blow to our factories. For Catalonia’s poverty would ruin Spain” (Vilar, “Spain and Catalonia” 555). Yet these claims were inconceivable to the latifundistas, rural conservatives and liberals who dominated 19th century Spanish politics. Catalonia’s pressure for protectionism struck most Spaniards as a sign of arrogance, evidenced by anti-Catalanism in the Madrid press (Balcells 22). These disputes became commonplace in the 1870s and 1880s after the Restoration of 1874.11 In another article, Vilar notes that the free trade-protectionist spat reflected a “double inferiority complex-political in Catalonia, economic in Castile-which produced an invincible distrust” (Historia de España 102).

The restructuring of Catalonia’s economy in the 18th century led to its industrialization and prosperity throughout the 19th century. However, the high concentration of industry in one region and the persistence of agrarianism in the rest of Spain created a division of interests. If we contrast Catalonia’s economic dynamism to Spain’s colonial losses and uneven development in the 19th century, it becomes clear why industrialists would become frustrated. Just before the Catalan nationalist movement emerged, many began to ask, “[c]an we, Catalans, continue participating in a system that is decaying, that is out of tune with the times and whose inefficiency is patent?” (Linz 61).


The Restructuring of Catalan Society and Romantic Nationalism

As mentioned above, Catalonia’s new industrial class constantly found itself at odds with elites from other parts of Spain who were incapable of understanding the dynamics of an industrialized society. This clash led many Catalans to believe that they were somehow different and unique from other Spaniards (Balcells 19). The arrival of the German Romanticism in the 1840s provided an intellectual and ideological basis for explaining these presumed differences. As we shall see, Johann Gottfried Herder’s idea of the Volk played an instrumental role in this process. The purpose of this section is to explain why Romanticism impacted the development of Catalan nationalism. To address this question, we use Ernest Gellner’s notion of a “context-free” society to explain the appeal of Romantic nationalism to Catalan intellectuals.

Gellner tells us that industrialization rearranges the social fabric, making it more susceptible to different social phenomena than agrarian societies. Rather than participate in hunting rituals or village traditions, inhabitants of industrialized societies move from place to place and job to job so fast that nobody can “erect deep barriers of rank, of caste or estate” (Gellner 25). Additionally, context-free societies require that their population receive a standardized education. The need to communicate with strangers with whom a person has had no previous association creates the need for literacy in a common language. Therefore, industrialized societies must satisfy two requirements. First, they must have linguistic unity, or at least attempt it. As Benedict Anderson observes, the advent of print-capitalism expedites this process because it establishes “unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernaculars” (44). This, in turn, facilitates communication between laborers of distinct backgrounds.

The second requirement is mass education. Gellner describes this as the spread of “high” culture to the masses (35). However, I see this process less as the massification of “high” culture and more as an increase in literacy and the teaching of “national” histories. Stress on universal literacy embedded in national history and literature forges collective identities. Before industrialization, a people may have disseminated local identities in regional vernaculars. But as a country begins to industrialize, it stresses the use of a common language and possession of a common identity.12 With the fading of kinship and village identity because of social mobility, a population needs a new group with which it can identify. Only at this point, when “well-defined educationally sanctioned and unified cultures constitute […] the only kind of unit with which men willingly and often ardently identify,” does the nation become the preferred object of identification (Gellner 55).

Of course, 19th century Catalonia did not achieve linguistic standardization, let alone universal literacy. But the region’s industrialization did foster a “context-free” environment where kinship ties were increasingly irrelevant. Also, because the laboring and managerial classes were new, they were by definition uprooted from whatever pre-industrial organizations to which they had belonged. This created the need for another kind of group of identification, one that Romantic nationalism soon provided. The German Romanticism arrived in Catalonia in the 1830s and gained popularity in the following decades (McRoberts 17-18). It soon took on a form of its own and transformed into a cultural movement called the Renaixença (Renaissance). The Renaixença began as a literary movement that spread from the bourgeoisie into the Catalan hinterlands. As Conversi notes, it soon “touched all fields of the humanities-poetry, theatre, architecture, painting, sculpture, philosophy-and spread all over the Catalan-speaking regions” (The Basques 14).

Its other focus was the distant past. Like most Romantic currents, the Renaixença gave history a central role. Texts on Catalonia’s medieval glory-inspired by the Romantic philosophy of history-laid the foundations of a Catalanist movement. Works like Valentí Almirall’s Lo Catalanisme, Victor Balaguer’s Historia de Cataluña y de la Corona de Aragón and Prat de la Riba’s La nacionalitat catalana used history as evidence for Catalonia’s nationhood. According to Elie Kedourie, such claims were common in 19th century nationalist discourse because “the ‘past’ is used to explain the ‘present,’ to give it meaning and legitimacy. The ‘past’ reveals one’s identity, and history determines one’s role in the drama of human development and progress” (36). Publications of histories thus “explained” why the Catalans constituted a nation instead of a Spanish region or coastal province.

At the heart of many of works of the Renaixença laid a powerful idea: the Volk. Indeed, the concept of Volk (pl. Völker) played a vital role in mainstream Catalan Romantic nationalism. It has its origins in the writings of German philosophers like Friedrich Carl von Savigny, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and, most notably, Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder was one of the first intellectuals to reject Enlightenment thought by proposing an alternative philosophy of history. An integral part of his thought is “particularity”-that is, the belief that a person “cannot define himself except in terms of a particular religion, a specific language, a communal pattern of feeling” (xix). Any group sharing these cultural particularities constituted a Volk. Beyond this, argued Herder, each Volk has a spirit (geist), one that could not mix with others because it was unnatural and unauthentic. In his introduction to Herderian thought, Frank. E. Manuel describes the Volk as follows:

When Herder analyzed the creation of a genius he considered it as an expression of the Volk spirit [Volksgeist]: a man could not think freely in all possible forms and languages-he was born to one only. If a man tried to assimilate what was not his natural Volk spirit, he would never be able to give utterance to a harmonious song, for its bastard quality would obtrude. (xx)

Put in another way, Herder viewed every Volk as an organism manifested in a “national character,” which was determined by its physical surroundings, historical environment and ordained by God (Penrose and May 168). This last point is crucial in understanding the Volk as an organism. Like many Christians, Herder believed that each individual had a soul, that is, a divine essence. But Herder took this idea a step further by applying it to Völker. To him, each Volk had a “soul-an individuality or personality of its own-and suggested that this was expressed through what might be called culture” (Penrose and May 170). Clearly, this line of thought would appeal to an oppressed people with a strong collective consciousness. What made it more potent was its resonance among nationalist groups in regions that held autonomy in the Middle Ages, such as the diverse peoples living in the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires. The Herderian or Romantic stress on group particularity, historical analysis and the incompatibility of different Völker did not bode well for large multi-ethnic states. The idea that a particular Volk cannot “mix” with another undergirded many of the philosophies that developed into full-fledged nationalist movements. Catalonia was no exception.

The concept of Volk entered Catalan intellectual circles in the 1830s, stemming from the emphasis on the region’s medieval history and literature. It first appeared in the writings of Joan Cortada, Marti d’Eixalà and his disciple, Francesc-Xavier Llorens i Barba, intellectuals who reinvigorated the literature on the Catalan national character.13 Inspired by the ideas of Herder, Savigny and the entire Scottish School,14 they asked why the Catalans were different from other Spaniards-especially the Castilians (Conversi, The Basques 15). For example, Cortada wanted to determine why, despite its poor natural environment, Catalonia was so much more successful than other parts of Spain. In a series of generalizations, he concluded that the “Catalans have succeeded in developing a strong sense of resolution and constancy over the centuries. Another feature of their character was […] the fact that they were hardworking people” (Llobera, “The idea of Volksgeist” 342). D’Eixalà and Llorens held a similar understanding of the Catalan national character. They held that that two characteristics particular to Catalans were common sense (seny) and industriousness. To them, “the traditional Catalan seny was a manifestation of the Volksgeist,” one which made Catalans essentially different from Castilians (Llobera, Foundations of National Identity 75).

The early works on the Catalan Volk would remain on paper long before they entered politics. This is because the Catalan bourgeoisie had not yet abandoned the hope of spearheading the Spanish state (Conversi, The Basques 14). Indeed, in the 1830s, the Renaixença was still embryonic and the industrial class still thought that it could at least control the Spanish economy. Notions of Catalonia’s uniqueness mattered little to a group believed it could integrate and spearhead the entire country. But this all changed around 1880. After decades of discrimination from Spanish elites, Catalan industrialists buried their dream of leading Spain. As Vilar observes:

It is only because, in its acquisition of the Spanish market, the Catalan industrial bourgeoisie did not succeed either in securing the state apparatus or identifying its interests with those of the whole of Spain, in influential opinion, that Catalonia, this little “fatherland,” finally became the “national” focal point. (“Spain and Catalonia” 551)

This switch of allegiance was particularly easy because the idea of a Catalan nation had already matured into a corpus of texts about the region’s “uniqueness” andVolksgeist. Inspired by these works of Romantic nationalism, the Catalan economic elite became conscious of “the growing dissimilitude between the Catalonia’s social structure and that of the rest of the nation” (Vilar, Historia de España 101).15 Consequently, Romantic nationalism expanded beyond its philosophical bounds into the political arena.


Romantic Nationalism as a Cover for Bourgeois Protectionist Interests

This section explains how the Catalan middle class masked their economic concerns in the vocabulary of Romantic nationalism to gain allies. To demonstrate this, we examine three developments beginning in the 1860s: a shift in the bourgeois perception of “nation,” the public space created by the Renaixença and the unlikely incorporation of rural elites into the protectionist movement. By the mid-19th century, Catalan manufacturers realized they could not persuade Madrid to pass protectionist legislation. Much to the contrary, the Spanish government extended free trade in 1869 and was planning a commercial treaty with England and France in 1885 (Balcells 36). The problem was, of course, that Madrid misunderstood the socioeconomic problems of industrial societies because it didn’t have one.16 This put Catalonia in a difficult position. Whereas in the past its bourgeoisie spoke of the “national industry” in reference to Spain, it now realized that “the ‘national industry’ was, in fact, a Catalan industry” (Vilar, “Spain and Catalonia” 556). Ironically, Spanish politicians also seemed to believe this. As they pushed to open the copper, iron and lead markets to foreign investors in 1869, Catalans began to protest. They initiated a protectionist campaign in the name of national industry-one that struck Spaniards as egotistic and a “threat to the country’s unity” (Vilar, “Spain and Catalonia” 556-560). This reaction is revealing. Spaniards realized that the country’s industry was concentrated in Catalonia and therefore inferred that to protect “national industry” was to recognize a Catalan nation.

Still, Madrid did not really care about Catalan industry. Economic liberalization was fashionable among the Great Powers17 and the Spanish government strained to keep up. We should not forget that by the 19th century, Spain had become a second-rate power. Its liberal thinkers raved about the virtues of laissez-faireeconomics as Madrid, still holding on the colonial dream, liquidated the treasury in a last-ditch effort to hold onto its remaining colonies. Catalonia and the other regions were simply not priorities. Once it became obvious that the Spanish state would not help them, the Catalan bourgeoisie began to look elsewhere for allies. The first place they searched was in the public space opened by the Renaixença. Although the rebirth of Catalan literature, art and history was at first a bourgeois phenomenon, it spread to other segments of society, such as urban laborers and even the rural aristocracy (the muntanyesos) (Conversi, The Basques 14-15; Llobera, “The idea ofVolksgeist” 340). This common space did not unite Catalans on political or economic issues, but it did bring them together through a “distinctive set of values, symbols and ways of thinking and acting” (Llobera, Foundations of National Identity 73). For example, a popular cultural event of the Renaixença was the Jocs Florals (Flower Games), a series of medieval poetry contests and pageants. Not only did the Flower Games bring the Catalan bourgeoisie and rural aristocracy into contact with one another, but they also highlighted their commonalities: language, history, literature and mentality.

One of the Flower Games’ protagonists was this was the priest-poet Jacint Verdaguer. Few scholars of Catalanism recognize his role in connecting themuntanyesos with the interests of the industrialists. This is probably because Catholicism per se had little impact once Catalan nationalism became a political movement.18  However, both Conversi and Fradera recognize that Verdaguer played an instrumental role in the incorporation of the rural aristocracy into bourgeois society. First and foremost, Verdaguer was a religious man. He entered seminary in 1855, became a priest in 1870 and served as a chaplain for the Transatlantic Company beginning in 1874 (Enciclopèdia Catalana). He shared the social values of rural elites and believed that the Spanish liberal state and bourgeois secularization threatened Catalonia’s livelihood. But the Renaixença changed Verdaguer’s attitude towards the bourgeoisie. His poetry’s emphasis on tradition, religion and the beauty of nature made him prestigious amongst the muntanyesos and industrial classes alike, who called him “the greatest Catalan poet of the time” (Conversi, The Basques 15).

Verdaguer’s participation in the Flower Games gave rural elites the opportunity to present their views to the bourgeoisie. For example, when he wore casual clothing (as opposed to priestly garments) during his acceptance of first prize at the 1865 Flower Games, Verdaguer “made a very strong impression on the audience, which represented the bourgeois patriciate of the capital” (Fradera, “Rural Traditionalism” 25). His unconventional approach at once charmed the middle classes and earned their respect for rural elites. In other words, Verdaguer’s poetry intensified relations between the muntanyesos and the urban middle class. This common Romantic framework gave the bourgeoisie a chance to gain an unlikely ally in the battle to protect its industry. Of course, nobody said that explicitly. The muntanyesosand some members of the bourgeois intelligentsia revered the core ideas of Romantic nationalism. To them, these they existed for their own sake and were not meant to justify anything, let alone economic protectionism. But if we look at the maneuverings of the bourgeoisie, that is exactly what these ideas became.

The muntanyesos’ participation in the Renaixença is one of the best examples of how the Catalan middle class used Romantic nationalism as a disguise for its economic goals. What makes this alliance more interesting is that muntanyesos were the diametric opposite of the bourgeoisie. They were deeply religious, supported the Church’s preponderance in civil matters, abhorred democracy and, above all, were anti-modern and anti-liberal (Fradera, “Rural Traditionalism” 51-53). Furthermore, they disdained everything urban and capitalist. One of their leaders, a priest by the name of Jaume Collell, expressed this contempt as follows:

Now, gentlemen, look for the national soul of Catalonia, look for it in the big cities and in the industrial towns [e.g., Barcelona], more invaded than the others by cosmopolitan uniformism; and you will find an unrecognizable, ugly, deformed soul behaving wildly in the bullfighting rings, soiling itself in the casinos and clubs, and laughing like a shameless whore in a café chantant. (Fradera, “Rural Traditionalism” 62)

Such a vindictive attitude towards cities and industrialism makes the bourgeoisie-muntanyeso cooperation seem bizarre. Yet this passage was not directed at industrialism per se, but instead at the corruption of Catalonia’s national soul. The muntanyesos’ preoccupation with Catalan uniqueness was not a product of Romanticism, but instead was one of many values espoused by Carlism, a conservative monarchist movement of the 19th century.19  Catalonia’s rural aristocracy had consistently aligned itself with the Carlist faction-in large part because it wanted to preserve autonomy rights promised by Charles V. However, as this movement waned during the 1870s, the muntanyesos realized that their only alternative was to engage in Catalonia’s cultural rebirth. It was around this time that rural elites “warmly embraced the program of the Renaixença” because it “offered these rural diehards a means of redemption whereby they could boost their self-esteem” (Conversi, The Basques 15). For our purposes, the most significant part of this was the muntanyesos’ belief in Catalan Volk. We already know that bourgeois intellectuals backed by industrialists had developed the idea of a Volk years before it gained popularity. We should also recall that the Volk was an intellectual response to Catalonia’s political powerlessness, despite its economic dynamism. Now because the bourgeoisie could not appeal to rural elites to help them protect and develop Catalonia’s economy, they had to fabricate a common ground. In that way, its protectionist movement would gain support while the rural elites felt that other Catalans respected their cultural identity. Fradera sees this common ground as “the twin necessity of the industrial bourgeoisie to develop, on the one hand the structure of industrial capitalism, and on the other to secure the necessary social stability during an epoch of such evident upheaval in Catalan society” (Cultura Nacional 10).

Here, the idea of a Catalan Volk was particularly useful because its religious component appealed to rural elites. As we know, the bourgeois used the Volk as “proof” of their essential difference from Castilians, thereby justifying their claim for economic and political autonomy. To the muntanyesos, however, the Volk was not only a truism, but was also essential to preserving their historical rights and religious sensibilities. Indeed, their preoccupation with Catalonia’s national soul was amenable to idea of a Catalan Volk. According to Llobera, this is because the reasoning behind the Volk was “one of divine right: the Catalan spirit was God’s creation and to preserve it was to follow God’s will” (Foundations of National Identity 66). Given that Carlism made a similar argument, it is unsurprising that rural elites would embrace the Volk as a substitute.

The best example of the rural elites’ support of the Catalan Volk occurred during the millennial celebrations of Montserrat in 1880. The city had served as a bulwark for religious conservatism throughout the 19th century and housed the famous Virgin of Montserrat. Although the celebrations were primarily religious, they also highlighted national themes. One of the festivities’ main thrusts was to canonize the Virgin of Montserrat as the patron saint of Catalonia (Fradera, “Rural Traditionalism” 67). These efforts appealed to the rural elites’ religious sentiments and their desire to preserve the Catalan “national soul.” Two of the key figures of theRenaixença-Jacint Verdaguer and Jaume Collell-shared this view. In an article written shortly before the festivities, Collell wrote: “Montserrat is the heart of Catalonia. The holy faith has made a marvelous temple of it and the love of the homeland has made it a symbol of its greatness. Montserrat is the eternal monument of the Catalan pàtria” (Etherington 164). At the same time, Verdaguer dedicated several poems for the celebrations that were religious in content, but nationalist in theme. Other poets like Manuel Milà i Fontanals and Joaquim Rubió i Ors made similar contributions.

Through this artistic output, the Virgin became the locus of both religious and national devotion, which served to “strengthen the symbiosis between Montserrat and the spirit of Catalonia” (Etherington 164). Moreover, it fostered group solidarity against the encroachments of the Spanish state. The emphasis on the “spirit” of Catalonia, the literary musings on the Catalan pàtria and, most importantly, the synthesis of religious and patriotic values in the Virgin of Montserrat, suggests that themuntanyesos’ espoused the idea of Volk. Although rural elites valued this idea for its religious quality, it still brought them closer to the bourgeoisie. As Fradera notes, “when in the 1880s they [the muntanyesos] actively and openly participated in the regionalist movement, they did it convinced that they were not involved in politics” (“Rural Traditionalism” 63). That is, rural elites contributed to the nationalist movement without concern for political intrigue, but instead to bar Spanish influence from Catalan life.

To summarize, the bourgeoisie and muntanyesos united during the Renaixença because they shared a common foe: the Spanish central government. On the one hand, the bourgeoisie approved of the Romantic ideas of Catalonia’s uniqueness-embodied in the Volk-because they needed a rationalization for industrial protectionism. On the other hand, rural elites threatened by urban values found solace in the Renaixença. The movement’s emphasis on the Volk, medieval history, religion and rural traditions was amenable to the muntanyesos’ religious worldview. Both groups would agree with Herder’s claim that a Volk “must preserve a spontaneity of nature, and be encompassed by a sphere of free actions, disturbed by no preternatural miracle” (84). Put another way, interference from an external agent (such as Madrid) inhibited the development of Catalonia’s potential because it did not operate a in “sphere of free actions.” It is impossible to determine whether the bourgeoisie actually believed this was true or not. Given their overwhelming support of the Renaixença, however, we know that they at least feigned belief to garner support for their economic interests (Llobera, Foundations of National Identity 66). Either way, what is important is that the bourgeoisie used the rhetoric of Romantic nationalism rather than of economic protectionism in order to incorporate its traditional enemy, the muntanyesos, into its movement. As we shall see, the events of the 1880s and 1890s show how successful this maneuver was.


The Politicization of Romantic Nationalism in Defense of Protectionist Interests

Despite its impact, Catalan Romantic nationalism was little more than a social theme for most of the 19th century. Although the bourgeoisie’s preponderance in Catalan politics popularized Romantic ideas, no regionalist or nationalist parties appeared until 1882. This is because for most of the 19th century, the bourgeoisie clung to the hope that it would eventually spearhead the Spanish economy, and perhaps even the government. But at every juncture, politicians in Madrid dashed this hope. These persistent rejections turned the Catalan industrialists into a “failed hegemonic class” that “rallied in support of Catalanism, providing conspicuous financial backing for both political and cultural initiatives” (Conversi, The Basques 17-18). One of these initiatives was the foundation of the first Catalan nationalist party-theCentre Català-in 1882. Under the aegis of Valentí Almirall, a radical leftist, Romantic Catalan nationalism and bourgeois interests coalesced. This is evident in three ways. First, Valentí Almirall was deeply concerned with preserving the Catalan Volk. We see this not only in his writings, but also in the creation of the Centre Català, the first Catalan nationalist party. Secondly, the Centre Català’s chief accomplishment was the Memorial de Greuges (Memorial of Grievances), a document that explicitly demands protectionism based on Romantic and particularistic beliefs. Thirdly, bourgeois support for Catalanism waned once Spain passed protectionist legislation in 1891, but spiked again after the economic catastrophe of 1898. This demonstrates that the bourgeoisie used Romantic rhetoric to further its economic designs, not because it actually believed in the Volk.

Few of Valentí Almirall’s ideas made him stand out. Other Romantic thinkers had drawn similar conclusions years before, basing their observations on the same phenomena as he did. Rather, what made Almirall’s thoughts relevant was that he was the first one to politicize them. His desire to integrate Romantic ideas into politics stemmed from a rejection of Renaixença intellectuals who did nothing practical with their theories. Before founding his nationalist party, Almirall expressed this frustration in the Diari Català:

The task is long, do you know why? Because all of us are still subject to foreign [Castilian] influences on our character because we are not sufficiently Catalan. No, not even those who are part of our renaissance […] are sufficiently Catalan […] nor are those who believe that in a single moment of expansion that we’ve reached the point to demand Catalonia’s autonomy. (Figueres 186)20

He added that “whoever is going to influence public affairs should be a politician, because only through politics does one change a comarca’s condition” (Figueres 186).21 These passages contain two distinct themes, one Romantic and the other political. First, Almirall was obviously concerned with the Catalan Volk (or “character”), and how, like Herder, “foreign influences” might preclude its growth. This was why he contended that nobody is “sufficiently Catalan.” Secondly, he followed his Romantic predecessors by recognizing the centrality of the Catalan Volk, but added that the only way to preserve it is through political action. To him, theory had mapped the contours of the Volk and reinvigorated the national consciousness. Now in order to preserve them, he argued, the Catalan literati ought to do more than merely add to these theories. Naturally, the industrial bourgeoisie and middle class intellectuals were sympathetic to these ideas because they had already used Romantic nationalism to build support amongst the muntanyesos and working classes. Thus, Almirall’s political base became principally bourgeois, as evidenced by his entry into politics.

While writing Lo Catalanisme, Almirall also established the first Catalan nationalist party: the Centre Català. Predictably, the bourgeoisie, whose primary interests were “moral and material,” would dominate the organization. But elites from other social strata participated as well. Rural intellectuals, muntanyesos, artists and conservative lawyers constituted a large portion of the Centre Català (Conversi, The Basques 16). By the early 1880s, the Catalan bourgeoisie had exhausted all avenues of participation in Spanish politics. It simply could not persuade Madrid to protect its industry, nor could it compete in open international markets because its English counterparts would easily outperform them. Manufacturers were well aware that English textiles were ninety percent cheaper than their own and that the absence of coal from the Catalan interior would drive up the price of Spanish grain (McRoberts 23-24). With the financial crisis beginning in 1866 and Madrid’s opening of its Latin American markets to foreigners, Catalan industrialists scrambled to find a way to protect their livelihood.

Almirall witnessed this desperation long before establishing the Centre Català and was able to cater his party to bourgeois interests. Thus, the defense of Catalonia’s “moral and material interests” was actually an attempt “to reconcile the traditionalist [muntanyeso] and progressive [bourgeois] strands within Catalanism, adding to them the ingredient of the defense of Catalan economic interests” (Conversi, The Basques 18). To appeal to these multifarious groups, Almirall had to perform a balancing act. On the one hand, he drew from the ideas that would later appear in Lo Catalanisme. That is, he highlighted the Catalan national character, territory, mentality, language and other substantive elements of a Volkz. Additionally, Almirall convened two congresses. The First Catalanist Congress (1880) brought different brands of nationalists together in hopes of forming a unified front, which eventually became Centre Català. The Second Congress (1883) demanded that two aspects of the Volk-the Catalan language and legal system-enjoy equal status with the Castile’s (McRoberts 24). On the other hand, Almirall saw these Congresses as a means and not an end to serving the Catalan “moral and material interests.” Attaining recognition of Volk symbols would simultaneously dignify the muntanyesos and defend the bourgeois need for economic protectionism and political sway.

As aforementioned, the main achievement of the Centre Català was a manifesto titled “The Memorial of Grievances.” The document, given to King Alfonso XII in 1885, marked the first time a Catalanist party officially protested against the Spanish state. It is also one of the best examples of the use of Romantic rhetoric to justify bourgeois political interests. Members of the Centre Català drafted the Memorial for two reasons. The first was protectionism, as we have already discussed. Their second motive was to preserve Catalan civil law, which Madrid wanted to abolish. This attack on the Catalan legal system drew conservative lawyers andmuntanyesos into the Centre Català. Both groups’ livelihoods depended on the independence of Catalan civil law, although their ulterior motives were to guard the “memory of the lost freedom of Catalonia […] [and] strengthen a renewed ethnic identity under the guidance of the cultural revival” (Conversi, The Basques 18). Almirall understood that the preservation of the Catalan civil code and protectionist interests was a crucial step in a movement with the bourgeoisie as its protagonist. We shouldn’t be surprised that, like the driving motive of the Centre Català, the manifesto’s full title was the “Memorial in the defense of the moral and material interests of Catalonia” (Linz 62). Nor should we be shocked that, just a few years before issuing the manifesto, Almirall wrote in the Diari Català:

It is true that Catalanism is not the same as protectionism, as the former is much broader than the latter; but it is also true that protectionism is an interesting part of Catalanism. Catalanists want our work and industry to be protected, not being satisfied by a derisive protectionism that depends on the good or bad moods of a minister or on political intrigue. (Figueres 174)22

This is a solid description of the Centre Català. Though Catalan nationalism was itself a broader movement, the textile industry and legal code were essential parts of it. Here, it is obvious that the immediate beneficiary would be the bourgeoisie. In the end, however, the Memorial of Grievances made little impact. Alfonso XII did accept them in 1885, but died later that year. This made it easy for Spanish politicians to brush the document aside. Although the Memorial had no tangible effect, it crystallized Catalan nationalism and for years served as the “Catalanist catechism,” especially for the bourgeoisie (Conversi, The Basques; Figueres 182).

In 1890, the Centre Català broke up. The demise of the party began when its manufacturer and intellectual members supported the Barcelona Universal Exhibition in 1888. The event symbolized the improvement of relations between Catalan elites and Alfonso XIII. This horrified Almirall, who, in the spirit of the Völkischpurism, argued that political association between Catalans and other Spaniards was anathema. As I have been trying to show throughout this paper, the industrialists adhered to this Romantic principle to the extent that it served their own ends. We see their support in the case of the Memorial of Grievances, which explicitly demanded economic protectionism. But in this case, smoother relations with the Spanish monarch better served their interests, and predictably, with the establishment of protectionism in 1890, the Catalan bourgeoisie shifted its loyalties to the Spanish state and effectively destroyed the Centre Català (Balcells 36). Some of the remaining conservatives split off to found another nationalist party, the Lliga de Catalunya, which became the voice of Catalan nationalism until the Spanish Civil War.

The Catalan bourgeoisie spurned all forms of Romantic nationalism from 1890 until the crisis of 1898, which brought them back into the nationalist fold. As most texts on Spanish history and Catalan nationalism point out, the 1898 catastrophe was much more than the loss Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the United States.23 These territories were not nearly as lucrative as México or Perú had been before they broke from Madrid. Rather, 1898 marked the disintegration of Spain’s empire, the locus of political identity for half a millennium. This threw the country into an economic tailspin accompanied by an identity crisis. The loss of Cuba, which imported 60 percent of Catalan goods, enraged the bourgeoisie (Balcells 43-44; Conversi, The Basques 25). It quickly shifted its loyalty to the Lliga and its leader, Enric Prat de la Riba, who was an ardent proponent of Völkisch ideas. Like Almirall, Prat de la Riba believed Catalonia constituted a social organism, based in a unique language, customs, mentality and national character. His book, La nacionalitat catalana (1906), applies the ideas of Savigny, Spencer, Comte, Schelling, De Maistre and especially Herder to the case of Catalonia (Llobera, Foundations of National Identity 79-80). Unsurprisingly, the Lliga adhered to a familiar dictum: the Catalans had a Volksgeist imperiled by the designs of the decadent Spanish state. Prat and the Lliga later fought to reestablish the archaic political institutions and normalize Catalan as the national language. Notice that when the bourgeoisie needed economic assistance again in 1898, it swelled the Lliga’s ranks. Also, notice that the same party rationalized its aims with Romantic rhetoric. What becomes clear is that the idea of a Catalan Volk had great expediency, and the bourgeoisie knew how to exploit it when needed.



In this paper, I have argued that the Catalan bourgeoisie clothed its campaign for economic protectionism in Romantic rhetoric. Catalonia’s rapid modernization in the late 18th century stuffed the pockets of industrialists, but did not pave an avenue for political participation. No matter what the region did, to the Spanish state it was a subservient province and nothing more. However, Catalan-Castilian tensions grew because Catalonia’s industrialization restructured its social fabric. The bourgeois and working classes replaced the feudal order dominant in the rest of Spain. Modernization also created an intellectual subclass within the bourgeoisie, one that was sympathetic to the German Romantic movement. Curious about Catalonia’s medieval past, language and particularity, intellectuals fabricated a nationalist movement based on the idea of Volk. The bourgeoisie, intent on preserving industry, used Romanticism as a vehicle for organizing a protectionist movement. Their participation and patronage of the Renaixença and flower games exemplify this intent.

Finally, a half century after the cultural revival began, Catalan nationalism entered politics in the service of the bourgeoisie. Almirall’s Centre Català united themuntanyesos, Völkisch intellectuals, conservative lawyers by their concern for the region’s “moral and material interests.” But once the Spanish state instituted protectionism in 1890, the Catalan middle class abandoned its Romantic ideology and pledged allegiance to the monarchy. Their loyalties again reverted to Catalanism with the loss of Cuba-their main client-in 1898. From this it becomes obvious that, to the bourgeoisie, Romantic nationalism was a means to a protectionist end.



1Hapsburg rule in Spain began with Charles V ascent to the throne in 1516. Each ruler following his son, Philip II, was progressively more incompetent in statecraft. See Vilar (Cataluña en la España moderna 375-485).

2A few of the standard works on Catalan nationalism are Balcells (1996), Conversi (“Language or race?: the choice of core values in the development of Catalan and Basque nationalisms,” The Basques, the Catalans, and Spain), Hargreaves (2000), Linz (1973), Llobera (“The idea of Volksgeist in the formation of Catalan nationalist ideology”; Foundations of National Identity: from Catalonia to Europe) and Vilar (Cataluña en la España moderna).

3For example, see Hayes (1931), Carr (1945) or Kohn (1955) for attempts at objectively defining a “nation.”

4Despite the similarity of its demands to the Basque Country and Navarre, which also control taxation, Catalonia has no serious separatist movement. In fact, a 2005 El País poll indicated that the majority of Catalans defined Catalonia as a nation within Spain. While the Catalan MPs are still irritated by Madrid’s reluctance to grant further autonomy (and the ensuing controversy), John Hooper observes that their preference for dissatisfaction over anger is revealing. On the one hand, the expression of dissatisfaction with Madrid’s policies is an articulation of Catalan identity and their “realistic, earnest, tolerant and at times a bit censorious” political culture. On the other hand, that same dissatisfaction “has always tended to be expressed as resentment, indignation and a demand for a substantial say in the running of their own affairs, rather than in terms of outright separatism,” (Hooper 234).

5Historians of Spain often compare the Usatges with the Magna Carta (1215), noting that the Catalans limited their monarch well before the English.

6The Catalan Corts were not “democratic,” however. Even though they curtailed the monarch’s power, but were not egalitarian or fully representative because the clergy, aristocracy and burghers constituted a small portion of Catalan society.

7My translation of “Entre 1250 y 1350, el Principado catalán fue tal vez el país de Europa a propósito del cual resultaría menos inexacto, menos peligroso, pronunciar unos términos en apariencia anacrónicos: imperialismo político-económico o ‘estado-nación.’… En todo caso pueden encontrarse en la estructura de la Cataluña medieval bastantes rasgos sorprendentes propios del estado-nación” (Vilar, Cataluña en la España moderna 236-237).

8According to McRoberts (2001), the plague hit Catalonia the worst in 1348, killing almost all of the 100 members of Barcelona’s municipal government.

9The Generalitat is Catalonia’s main governing body, which consists of the Catalan Parliament, the President and his Executive Council. In the Middle Ages, it consisted of 24 men elected from the Corts (much like a standing committee), who after 1359 controlled the treasury (Hooper 237). Although Philip V dissolved it in 1716, the Catalans revived it before and after the Franco regime.

10The imperial economy in the Americas had erstwhile been monopolized by Andalusia, and the city of Sevilla in particular. Catalonia’s population, commerce and textile production tripled around this time (Vicens-Vives 115).

11The failure and chaos of the First Republic (1873-1874) made the Restoration of the monarchy much more appealing. After a century of civil war between the Monarchists and Carlists, Spaniards wanted nothing more than stability. The Restoration brought a new kind of monarchy, however. Instead of the absolutist policies of old, King Alfonso XII accepted a Constitution in 1876, one that established a “legal state, not an arbitrary one, but on that would be backed by the vital forces of the nation” (Vicens Vives 136). To the chagrin of Catalan industrialists, this new arrangement empowered Spanish liberals pushing for free trade.

12I am aware that Gellner’s understanding of the development of nationalism is Eurocentric. The notion of “high culture” outside the West (and perhaps China and Japan) was quite irrelevant to the development of nationalism. For example, the anti-colonialist movements in Africa and Asia after World War II were neither the result of industrialization nor the dissemination of a national high culture. However, in the case of a European region like Catalonia, Gellner’s thesis does apply because its nationalist movement was the result of industrialization and did have a preexisting “high” culture rooted in a literary language.

13The obsession with “national character” grew out of an 18th century trend. Foreigners and some Spanish writers authored a number of cultural criticisms. The focus and conclusions of these writings varied widely, although most of them tried to account for the country’s decadence. Montesquieu, Smith, Voltaire and Cadalso agreed that Spain had become a “lazy, impoverished, brutish country, inhabited by fanatics” (Llobera, “The idea of Volksgeist in the formation of Catalan nationalist ideology” 337). With the introduction of positivist thought, this line of criticism became more sophisticated.

14The Scottish School dominated the intellectual landscape in Scotland for much of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Catalan literati “feld that the standpoint of the Scottish School was in consonance with traditional Catalan thought; furthermore they maintained that this could be partly explained by the fact that Scottish philosophy was under the influence of the sixteenth-century Catalan thinker J.L. Vives. It must be remembered that the existence of autochthonous thought was one of the manifestations of the Volksgeist” (Llobera, Foundations of National Identity: from Catalonia to Europe 74).

15My translation from “la disimilitud creciente entre la estructura social de la región catalana y la de la mayoría del resto de la nación.”

16Vilar offers a more thorough description: “Spanish politics remained dominated by classes whose origins, psychology and shared interests predated the Industrial Revolution. The landowning aristocracy, old or new, heirs of the hidalgos and letrados, waiting for careers in the army, the university, or Parliament, speculators in a capitalism still commercial or financial-these are the social types who alternated in power in Madrid through tragedies and comedies” (“Spain and Catalonia” 559).

17The idea of “Great Powers” arose in Europe at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Following Napoleon’s defeat, the continent’s preeminent states tried to divide power in order to achieve a degree of balance. While this measured ultimately failed, and the countries thought to have great power varied during the 19th century, the term tends to refer to Great Britain, France, Prussia, Habsburg Austria and Russia. See Danilovic, pp. 228.

18Josep Torres i Bages, the Bishop of Vic, tried to supplant the modern bourgeois Catalan nationalism with religious traditionalism. His book, La tradició catalana (1892), “enshrined the Catholic conservatism of the Catalan countryside. He exalted rural life, the land, religion, the family and language” (Woolard 24). However, Conversi points out that Torres i Bages’ attempt to reconcile Catholic conservatism with Catalanism failed. Although Catalan nationalism was a conservative movement, it “could not drop altogether its secular ideological baggage” (Conversi, The Basques, the Catalans, and Spain: Alternative Routes to Nationalist Mobilisation 27).

19Carlism itself began when Ferdinand VII died in 1833 leaving no heirs to the crown. The dispute over his successor divided Spanish monarchists into two factions. One supported the creation of a regency headed by his widow, Marie Christine of Bourbon. The other side contended that women should not rulexix and insisted that Ferdinand’s brother, Charles, was the rightful monarch. This conflict manifested in three civil wars between 1833 and 1874, each of which the Carlists lost (Vicens Vives 127-140).

20My translation from “L’empresa és llarga, sabeu per què? Perquè tots plegats estem encara subjectes a influències entranyes al nostre caràcter, perquè no som prou catalans. No, ni sòn prou catalans els que es figuren que el nostre renaixement ha de concretar-se a escriure quatre versos sobre llocs comuns en català, ni ho són prou els que en un moment d’expansió cregueren que havia ja arribat l’hora de reclamar l’autonomia de Catalunya.”

21My translation from “el qui vol influir en la cosa pública ha de ser polític, puix que sols per medi de la política se modifica l’estat d’una comarca.” According to Conversi, a comarca is a “traditional unit that stands between the municipality and the province” (The Basques, the Catalans, and Spain: Alternative Routes to Nationalist Mobilisation 21). It has no direct English translation.

22My translation of: “Veritat és que catalanisme no és el mateix que proteccionisme, puix que el primer és molt més lat que el segon; però també és veritat que el proteccionisme és una part interessant del catalanisme. Els catalanistes volem que el nostre treball i la nostra indústria siguin protegits, però no ens consolem amb una protecció irrisòria, que depèn deixi del bon o mal humor d’un ministre o de les intrigues polítiques.”

23Several texts in the bibliography, like Cantarino, Hooper, McRoberts, Vilar (Historia de España), Balcells, Linz, Llobera (“The idea of Volksgeist in the formation of Catalan nationalist ideology”; Foundations of National Identity: from Catalonia to Europe) and Conversi (The Basques, the Catalans, and Spain: Alternative Routes to Nationalist Mobilisation), discuss or imply the identity crisis accompanying the crisis of 1898.



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Kedourie, Elie. Nationalism in Asia and Africa. London: Frank Cass, 1970.

Linz, Juan. “Early State-Building and Late Peripheral Nationalisms Against the State: the Case of Spain.” Building States and Nations: Analyses by Region. Eds. S.N. Eisenstadt, and Stein Rokkan. Beverly Hills: Sage, 1973. 32-116.

Llobera, Josep R. Foundations of National Identity: from Catalonia to Europe. New York: Berghahn Books, 2004.

—. “The idea of Volksgeist in the formation of Catalan nationalist ideology” Ethnic and Racial Studies 6 (1983): 332-350.

McRoberts, Kenneth. Catalonia: Nation Building Without a State. New York: Oxford, 2001.

Payne, Stanley. “Catalan and Basque Nationalism.” Journal of Contemporary History 6(1971): 15-33+35-51.

Penrose, Jan, and Joe May. “Herder’s Concept of the Nation and Its Relevance to Contemporary Ethnic Nationalism.” Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism XVIII (1991): 165-177.

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Vives, Jaime Vicens. Approaches to the History of Spain. 2nd. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

Woolard, Kathryn A. Double Talk: Bilingualism and the Politics of Ethnicity in Catalonia. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989.


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