Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism, and Myth in Post-Communist Europe by Vladimir Tismaneanu

An Exploration of Why Collectivism Has Re-Emerged in Many Post-Communist States

Princeton University Press • 1998 • 216 pages • $29.95

David Prychitko studied the former Yugoslav system on a Fulbright grant in 1989, and currently heads the department of economics at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. He is co-editor, with Nevenka Cuckovic, of a collection of classic articles by Mises and Hayek, translated into Croatian.

Communism is dead, but collectivism is quite alive. Vladimir Tismaneanu’s book Fantasies of Salvation explains why. Tismaneanu, once a Romanian dissident and now professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, argues that while the centrally planned, socially engineered visions of Marxism-Leninism are dead, the false, utopian hope of emancipation through the state lives on. The myth of socialist internationalism has now been replaced by a new myth, populist nationalism.

Communism declared that its aim was the unification and collective freedom of workers around the world, but the new post-communist vision abandons that myth for a much narrower but equally deadly one. The new political vision in many former socialist regimes is not the Western ideal of individual freedom and civil society. Instead, “the nation” is the focus of attention.

The 1990s are a stubborn and sobering reminder that classical liberalism does not necessarily replace socialism by default. Although there have been success stories—countries like the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovenia, for example—the 1990s might be better remembered for the Bosnian war, the growing Kosovo crisis, and the return of refugee camps. Who would have thought that the collapse of the Berlin Wall would be followed by the return of ethnic cleansing?

Tismaneanu shows that the problems of post-communism remain because the fight is less about the freedom of individuals and more about the emancipation of the ethnic enclave. Throughout eastern and central Europe “the nation” is paraded as the true center of history, the source of dignity, the subject of sorrow and oppression. The author demonstrates how this emergent populist-nationalism seeks to destroy individuality, pluralism, and democracy and instead champions unity, stability, and authoritarianism.

Tismaneanu’s explanation of why collectivism has re-emerged in many post-communist states is worth quoting at length:

The end of communism has left individuals with a sense of loss: even if they hated their cage, it offered at least the advantage of stability and predictability. Like former prisoners, they now have freedoms but do not know exactly what to do with them. Under these circumstances, they are ready to espouse the rhetoric of the tribe with its emphasis on group identity and community values. The neurosis of the transition period, the collective fear of a general collapse, the closing of the historical horizon and the anger at the new economic barons nourish sentiments of revolt, distress, and intolerance. There is need to find scapegoats, to identify those culpable for the ongoing sorrows. The political myth of lost and reconquered ethnic unity serves precisely this purpose: to explain defeats and alienation and reassure the individual that he or she has a place within the volkisch community.

In the face of all this, Tismaneanu remains optimistic over the prospects of the liberal intellectual dissidents in the post-communist countries and their continued resistance against collectivist nationalism. The emergence of classical liberal institutions—a market economy, a fully flourishing civil society, and constitutional democracy—remains critically dependent on them.

I highly recommend this book. Those familiar with Ludwig von Mises’s Nation, State, and Economy: Contributions to the Politics and History of Our Time will find in Tismaneanu’s book a fascinating and probing updating to our time.

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