Vol 1, No 18
25 October 1999
B O O K R E V I E W:
Fantasies of Salvation:
Democracy, Nationalism and Myth in Post-Communist Societies
Princeton University Press, 1998
One decade after the collapse of Communism, it has become painfully clear that we are not witnessing the "end of history," in which Western-styled democracy wins the final victory over all forms of authoritarian rule. In his recent book, Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism and Myth in Post-Communist Societies, Vladimir Tismaneanu tries to explain the rise of nationalism and anti-liberal ideologies by discussing the political psychology of post-Communism.
Several months ago, Tismaneanu kindly published an article that I wrote for his journal East European Politics & Societies, in which I claimed that the collapse of Communism created a political vacuum, which made it possible for charismatic leaders such as Vaclav Klaus to gain mass support. In his book Tismaneanu uses a similar argument about the rise of nationalist, authoritarian ideologies. In his words: "the main hypothesis is that these societies are still in search of a new exis mundi, because traditional identities have fallen apart and new mythologies have emerged to inspire unity in a despairingly fragmented body politic. As the Leninist authoritarian order collapsed, societies have tended to be atomized and deprived of a political center able to articulate coherent visions of a common good" (p. 14). In this situation, new discourses have often arisen about the supposed past glory of nations or the alleged sins of other peoples. "Often focused on the past, the new mythologies are actually discourses about the present and especially the future of post-Communist societies" (p. 15).
Tismaneanu is not necessarily against the creation of political myths. During this period of political vacuum and psychological anxiety myths can play a positive role, depending on the nature of the myths. "Political myth, a fantasy of a better world, cannot be simply discarded as infantile daydreaming. Although some myths are exclusionary, vindictive, and potentially disastrous, others are favorable to dialogue and a commitment to a free community of equal individuals. It is always a matter of interpretation and, as in the case of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's general will, the same myth can be used for expansion or limitation of one's freedoms and responsibilities" (p. 21).
Even though Tismaneanu's book is explanatory in nature, he writes it more in the form of a political essay than an academic treatise. This intention comes out as well in the cover notes, in which the former Polish dissident Adam Michnik notes that "Tismaneanu is a prominent essayist and an expert in contemporary policy." The main advantage of this style of writing is that the language flows smoothly and it makes for easy reading. Rather than indulging in long digressions about what others have written, Tismaneanu is able to come straight to the point and make his case clearly. The disadvantage of this method is that it tends to weaken his arguments. Since an enormous amount of literature has emerged on nationalism during this decade, the reader - or at least the more academically inclined reader - cannot help but wonder how Tismaneanu's views compare to other theoretical schools. Tismaneanu's arguments are certainly very logical and convincing, but might not competing explanations also be logical and convincing? And what are the advantages of Tismaneanu's explanations over the others that have been offered? So although I basically sympathize with his political-psychological approach, I don't feel as convinced as I would like to be.
One of Tismaneanu's most interesting discussions is about the emergence / re-emergence of anti-Semitism in a region in which hardly any Jews live anymore. This phenomenon is not limited to those countries where the economic transformation has failed the most, and so the need has arisen to look for a scapegoat. Even some of the most successful post-Communist countries such as Poland and Hungary have had their bouts with anti-Semitism. Tismaneanu notes that: "As people learned that political emancipation is not accompanied by immediate economic improvement, many developed nostalgic sentiments for the bygone days of authoritarian certainties....The question of 'who is to blame?' has resurfaced as the main political slogan" (p. 88). Even though socioeconomic conditions make the populace more susceptible to racist ideologies, the blame lies on the intellectual and political elite "who manufacture the narratives of exclusion that later become ammunition of illiberal demagogues. It is also the intellectual elites who are responsible for the continuous rewriting (or cleansing) of history in terms of self-serving, present-oriented interests" (p. 90-91).
So far, Tismaneanu's argument is not very original, but it is nevertheless important that he emphasizes that the intellectuals who fought against Communism were not automatically democrats and that intellectuals bear a great responsibility for their ability to shape the political discourse. More original is the manner in which Tismaneanu explains the reasons why anti-Semitism is still powerful in the region. In his words: "Implicitly or explicitly, anti-Semitism has accompanied the political and cultural evolutions of most of these nations during their delayed and often distorted modernization. As a general rule, their encounter with modernity coincided with the Jewish emancipation, the struggle for minority rights, and the decline of feudal, agrarian, and communitarian forms of existence. Jews were seen as agents of transformation and innovation. Furthermore, their association with capitalist practices and institutions permitted the blending of anti-industrialism, anti-Westernism, and xenophobia into a resentful conglomerate. The anti-democratic and anti-capitalist nationalism of the interwar period had anti-Semitism as its core ideological component" (p. 96). He adds: "Jews were ... essentialized as enemies of the soul, incarnations of demonic efforts to dissolve the organic community rooted in shared bonds of ancestry, mores, and destiny. Associated with the Enlightenment and its ideals of tolerance and universal civic rights, Jews were targeted as the main enemies by all those for whom modernity, that is capitalism and liberal democracy, appeared as a social and moral catastrophe: romantic thinkers, Catholic doctrinaires, social demagogues, and racist maniacs" (p. 97).
The problem with this chapter is that in devoting so much space to the question of anti-Semitism, he leaves little space for discussing a problem that is much more pressing in many countries: the plight of the Roma (commonly known as "Gypsies"). In countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, anti-Semitism is a minuscule problem compared to the rampant racism which Roma face. In addition, there is the problem of integrating them into society. Many, or perhaps most Roma lost their jobs during the transition to a market economy. Their situation also reawakens the old debate as to whether the state should try and turn the Roma into "good" Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians etc., or whether the state should encourage them to preserve their cultural heritage. If the state chooses the latter, multicultural option, then the difficult task remains of ascertaining how Roma can keep their language and cultural identity and still be integrated into society, in the sense of having stable incomes and a tolerable living standard. It also raises the question of what the state can do to fight the rampant racism not just among the populace, but also among the police force and judicial system.
My main criticism of the book is that Tismaneanu sometimes seems unclear about his usage of some key terms. He sets up the dichotomy of the "good" liberal, individualist, tolerant Western tradition against the communitarian, collectivist, intolerant authoritarian tradition that is gaining ground in the East. To his credit, he is not a cultural determinist; he does not believe in Huntington's battle of civilizations, and instead believes that any society, regardless of its religion, race or history, can potentially develop in a democratic direction. Nevertheless, he greatly oversimplifies his terms in setting up this dichotomy. For example, many of the world's leading communitarians would consider themselves to be liberal. Communitarians do not have to be against democracy and protection of human rights. The main communitarian criticism of the utilitarian tradition of liberalism, is that it sees humans as isolated individuals without any social context. Communitarians, by contrast, stress that we all live in a social context, and that this society affects our behavior. They would add that any society needs some shared norms to survive. There is nothing in this formulation that implies disdain for democracy or disrespect for human rights. On the contrary, in a society in which people share norms in support of honesty, tolerance and anti-violence, there is a greater possibility for a democratic order to survive than in a country, in which there is nothing but a collection of individuals, without any social ties to each other, and in which many people consider it perfectly acceptable to lie, cheat, and kill at will.
Similarly, liberals are necessarily democrats and collectivists are not necessarily anti-democratic. Historically, it was the more "collectivist" social democrat labor movement that was the main fighter for democracy in Europe, while liberals and liberal parties remained skeptical to democracy. Even the founder of modern liberalism, John Stuart Mill, argued that only property owners should have the right to vote and that anybody who receives any kind of state welfare payments should be denied the right to vote. Since liberals were mainly concerned about property rights, they considered democracy a potential danger, since a majority of the population could vote for socializing property or taxing high incomes and redistributing the money to the poor. Meanwhile, there is no reason why collectivists must be anti-democratic or why they should not respect human rights. Take the Israeli kibbutz, for example: it is hard to imagine anything more collectivist than the kibbutz. Yet, the kibbutzim are extremely democratically run; in fact, they are run by a direct democracy rather than a representative democracy. The kibbutz have also provided Israel with many of its leading democratic politicians. In the Israeli political debates, the kibbutzim have consistently stood on the side of greater tolerance for the Palestinians. I should add, that even John Stuart Mill had collectivist leanings, as he was very positive to the idea of worker cooperatives replacing privately owned enterprises.
These example show a great danger for the present intellectual elite: with the defeat of Stalinism, the rise of a market liberal hegemony and the decline of social democratic political alternatives, it is easy to glorify liberalism and pretend the intellectual history has ended, even if political history has not. This too can represent a danger for democracy, because in a world in which the economy appears ungovernable and no alternatives exist to market liberalism, it is very possible that democracy will fall into a deep crisis. Voter turnout is declining in almost all Western democracies, while contempt for politicians is on the rise. More and more people are concluding that voting is a meaningless act, because all parties follow basically the same policies anyway. Under such circumstances, it is not impossible that "liberal" Pinochets will eventually come to power in the West as well. Thus, the best guarantee that political liberalism can survive is if it must compete against a rejuvinized, democratic alternative from humanistic communitarians and collectivists.
Steven Saxonberg, 25 October 1999
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