Politics without a Past: The Absence of History in Postcommunist Nationalism by Shari J. Cohen, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Politics without a Past: The Absence of History in Postcommunist Nationalism

Politics without a Past: The Absence of History in Postcommunist Nationalism

by Shari J. Cohen, Shari J. Cohen, Cohen

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In Politics without a Past Shari J. Cohen offers a powerful challenge to
common characterizations of postcommunist politics as either a resurgence of
aggressive nationalism or an evolution toward Western-style democracy. Cohen
draws upon extensive field research to paint a picture of postcommunist
political life in which ideological labels are


In Politics without a Past Shari J. Cohen offers a powerful challenge to
common characterizations of postcommunist politics as either a resurgence of
aggressive nationalism or an evolution toward Western-style democracy. Cohen
draws upon extensive field research to paint a picture of postcommunist
political life in which ideological labels are meaningless and exchangeable
at will, political parties appear and disappear regularly, and citizens
remain unengaged in the political process.
In contrast to the conventional wisdom, which locates the roots of widespread intranational strife in deeply rooted national identities from the past, Cohen argues that a profound ideological vacuum has fueled destructive tension throughout postcommunist Europe and the former Soviet Union. She uses Slovakia as a case study to reveal that communist regimes bequeathed an insidious form of historical amnesia to the majority of the political elite and the societies they govern. Slovakia was particularly vulnerable to communist intervention since its precommunist national consciousness was so weak and its only period of statehood prior to 1993 was as a Nazi puppet-state. To demonstrate her argument, Cohen focuses on Slovakia’s failure to forge a collective memory of the World War II experience. She shows how communist socialization prevented Slovaks from tying their individual family stories—of the Jewish deportations, of the anti-Nazi resistance, or of serving in the wartime government—to a larger historical narrative shared with others, leaving them bereft of historical or moral bearings.
Politics without a Past develops an analytical framework that will be important for future research in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and beyond. Scholars in political science, history, East European and post-Soviet studies will find Cohen’s methodology and conclusions enlightening. For policymakers, diplomats, and journalists who deal with the region, she offers valuable insights into the elusive nature of postcommunist societies.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A pioneering study. This book should be required reading for journalists and diplomats who deal with postcommunist Europe.”—James Felak, University of Washington

“Cohen's deft and ingenious examination of the historical, political, biographical, and moral features of Slovakia's present and recent past, in particular the peculiar and powerful quality and impact of the Leninist legacy, contributes substantially to our grasp of this area's novel political sociology.”—Ken Jowitt, University of California, Berkeley

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Duke University Press Books
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Politics Without a Past

The Absence of History in Postcommunist Nationalism
By Shari J. Cohen

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2399-0

Chapter One

The Legacy of Two Totalitarianisms

Ten years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the plot line of the transition from communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union remains obscure and puzzling. The characters in the drama are themselves part of the puzzle. Former communists have become nationalists, or at least taken up nationalist slogans. But they have just as often become free marketeers. Heroic dissidents, who captured the imagination of the Western world in 1989, have all but disappeared from the political scene. Others of them have disappointed as they took up the banner of fascist periods from the past. Party labels and identifications are fleeting and have little to do with policy positions. Populations, which seemed to be empowered in 1989, remain cynical and apathetic and have increasingly turned to the 1980s with nostalgia. References to the past resurface like debris, with little apparent meaning, as these societies remain confused about the most important moments in their history. But this picture does not fit well with either of the primary paradigms put forward by analysts trying to interpret the first few acts of the postcommunist play. History has not returned from the past, either as aggressive nationalism or as a seamless continuation of the precommunist period. Butneither has history ended: democratic institutions and liberal ideologies introduced from outside have not pushed these societies on the pathway toward liberal democracy. Observers have been deceived by the democratic and nationalist costumes and masks which hide a more important reality.

Indeed, it is the very amorphous nature of these societies emerging from communist domination that is so central to their character. While there is certainly variation across the former communist countries, what has often been missed is the very profound lack of unifying ideologies, a devastating legacy left by the fifty- or seventy-year experience of Leninist domination. These are societies trying to create new polities without common standards of moral or historical judgment. It is this absence, I argue, that should stand at the center of our analysis. The absence itself needs to be explained and its significance explored. Can democracies be built without common ideologies? Might we be misunderstanding the significance of the appearance of nationalist mobilization and even ethnic conflict by assuming a continuity with the past that is not there? What exactly has returned from the past and what did Leninist regimes succeed in wiping out? This book shifts the lens in an attempt to make the drama more comprehensible. It does this through the case of Slovakia, which is used here as an emblematic case to develop ideas that I hope can be used fruitfully elsewhere.

Past, Present, and Future

Looking Backward

Hannah Arendt, in her Origins of Totalitarianism, and George Orwell, in his 1984, alerted Western readers to the novel nature of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. Although neither projected what political life would look like after totalitarian regimes collapsed, these authors' insights remain useful for understanding communism and postcommunism and have been discarded by most Western analysts too easily. In Orwell's 1984 the regime's control of history is the central and insidious mode of exerting its power. It is no accident that East European dissidents in the 1980s saw Orwell as accurately describing life under communism, focused as it was on wiping out all competing interpretations of history. In one scene the hero Winston Smith enters a pub in a part of town inhabited by "proles," the working classes, a place where at least some link to the period before the revolution remains in folk songs and expressions. In the hope of finding out information about the past, Smith approaches a prole and asks what life was like before the revolution. But Smith is disappointed to discover that while the old man could tell him a bit about his personal experiences, he could not locate those experiences in any larger interpretive context.

This larger interpretive context-which I refer to throughout the book as historical consciousness-into which individuals can place their family stories is at the very heart of what we understand as modern national ideologies. National ideologies, with their standardized society-wide histories, create an "imagined community" in which individuals feel connected to people they do not know through a common history. These narratives of history which come to be shared keep individuals connected to state institutions. They allow elites to cooperate to achieve common goals that stretch beyond personal enrichment; they cause members of society to participate; they allow for a society to move forward. Without this glue, societies would be comprised only of the individual families within them. National ideologies function this way whether they are civic-meaning membership is based on the individual-or ethnic, where membership is based on birth. Family stories and even ethnic stereotypes-which often float free of these larger narratives of history-cannot integrate societies. While communist regimes did not eliminate family stories, and even fostered and preserved ethnic stereotypes, these other types of connection to the past have very different political implications than do commonly shared national ideologies.

Of course, standardized meanings of history have to come from somewhere. A process needs to take place whereby either states or groups of intellectuals articulate new ideologies to substitute for the breakdown of the face-to-face and religiously based ties of the village. Articulation is what happens in a nation-building process through education and socialization, political speeches, novels, and films. If this process never takes place, collective meaning of similar individual experiences-even something as traumatic as a war-would never develop.

I argue here that like Orwell's proles, postcommunist elites and the societies they govern lack that larger interpretive context into which their individual family stories could be placed. This is particularly surprising in the case of the elites and intelligentsias, since we expect intellectuals and key political figures to share historical narratives and to define the meaning of key moments of history for ordinary people.

In order to understand this striking and important legacy left by Leninist regimes we need to look backward and reevaluate what exactly the nature of these regimes was. We need to look at the imposition of communist institutions as a peculiar process of nation-building. Like Orwell's infamous "ministry of truth," communist regimes successfully rewrote history, claiming for themselves exclusive insight into past, present, and future. However, Leninist regimes were notoriously poor at winning loyalty to the newly propagated histories they tried so hard to instill. Unable to build "new Soviet men," but highly successful at keeping alternatives from developing, these regimes left much of the elite as well as the larger society without common meanings of history. It was, after all, mostly agricultural societies, with weak national identities, which became the focus of Leninist nation-building. Only small islands of continuity with precommunist ideologies remained amidst this sea of homogenization. Nowhere can we see this better than in Slovakia. However, the Slovak case is only an extreme of what happened, to varying degrees, elsewhere in the communist world.

Making the Question Concrete

The absence or weakness of ideology left by Leninist regimes is very difficult to observe. It is the actors in the play who give the best clue, once we look beneath their masks. The elites who became important after communism's collapse will be the focus of this book. Elites offer a way to trace continuity through the tremendous political, economic, and cultural changes that the fall of communism represented. After all, individual people constitute one of the few constants amid the baffling institutional flux of postcommunism.

In Slovakia, and across the communist world, elites with a particular profile came to dominate politics and, in many cases, to mobilize nationalism. Vladimir Meciar, who was the major figure to mobilize the postcommunist movement for Slovak autonomy, and who presided over the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993, shares a common set of traits with Leonid Kravchuk in Ukraine, Alexander Lebed in Russia, and even Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, just to name a few. They, and those who surround them, are all products of a communist socialization process. Beneath their ideological masks, they all embody the absence of ideology that is proving so difficult to overcome. Thus the victory of this type of historyless elite, which embodies ideological weakness or absence, is the phenomenon that needs to be explained and whose significance needs to be analyzed.

Leninism and Postcommunist Elites

If we look across postcommunist countries we find similar casts of characters, though Leninist regimes varied in their ability to destroy national ideologies from the past. While noncommunist institutions were largely destroyed, small groups remained as the sole bearers of the alternatives to communism-both democratic and nationalist, both civic and ethnic. These groups were heirs to a precommunist nation-building process through which, during the communist period, they developed or preserved historical consciousness. I refer to these elites as "ideological elites." It was these anticommunist elites who presided over the revolutions in Slovakia and throughout the communist world.

But more important and more pervasive was the Meciar type to which I just referred. I call this second type the "mass-elite," in reference to the literature on mass society associated with Hannah Arendt. The masses that, for Arendt, were the fodder for Nazism and Stalinism, had been unhinged from traditional institutions and ties but had not been integrated by any modern ideological framework or interest groups. Without intermediary organizations, she argued, masses were available for mobilization by totalitarian movements. Later historians of the origins of Nazism and Stalinism have shown that in both these cases, in different ways, more group associations remained than Arendt thought. These group associations might, in fact, have been critical for the ability of totalitarian movements to mobilize, thereby calling into question her causal argument. However, the products of the very regime type she tried to explain fit her concept better than ever. If masses were not present at the beginning of the twentieth century, Leninist nation-building brought about precisely this result. Even without the causal link made by Arendt about the availability of masses, her concept is useful for calling attention to the fact that it is unusual for elites and societies to be so impaired in their ability to join with others based on common judgments of the central elements of their national history.

The term "mass-elite" sounds oxymoronic at first. But I use this unusual designation to emphasize the fact that the elites, whom we expect to have ideologies, are more like masses, in their lack of shared understanding of the past. I also use it to accentuate that this condition is the result of a historical process. The mass-elite is not by definition limited to members of the Communist Party, though many were party members since that was the road to career advancement. This type is defined as elites who had no connection to any alternative ideology and who were solely formed by the official Leninist socialization process.

These elite types, mass-elites on the one hand and ideological elites on the other, have both a historical and a behavioral element. As we will see illustrated in the Slovak case, the different types of elites developed through fundamentally different historical pathways, through two types of nation-building processes. Their behavior in the postcommunist period-ideologically committed, on the one hand, and ideologically uncommitted and transformable on the other-should be understood in terms of the historical pathways that formed them.

While the connection between formative history and behavior is quite easy to understand in the case of the ideological elites, the link between history and behavior for the mass-elite needs further explanation. Without any integrating ideology, the mass-elite could only be motivated by short-term personal interest. It is important to distinguish between instrumental networks for material gain and ties to others who have the same understanding of their nation's history. It is also important to make the distinction between this short-term personal interest or egoism, and individualism. As Ken Jowitt points out, individualism, the cultural underpinning of Western liberal democracies, is an ideology. It is a set of beliefs which looks like, but is distinct from, the more basic egoism. Egoism is amoral. It is what is left when nothing ties individuals to one another. It is ego unrestrained by group ties or overarching societal norms.

The fact that the mass-elites are not associated with any ideological tradition makes them extremely flexible in the postcommunist period. They are free to jump from idea to idea and from party to party, and to transform themselves at will. Only in the postcommunist context, for fully opportunistic reasons, do they pick up an available idiom, whether nationalist or democratic. Their apparent postcommunist ideological orientations should not be taken as defining. Instead, knowing their past, we can understand the ephemerality of their ideological guises in the present. They are opportunists but they are historically created opportunists.

That the mass-elites are historically created opportunists is critical to the argument here. While simple opportunism is a characteristic of politics everywhere, the pervasive and all-encompassing opportunism behind what looked like a return of ideology in postcommunist politics is what needs to be better understood. The opportunism of the mass-elite differs from that of a figure like Bill Clinton. Whereas some would call Clinton the consummate opportunist, in contrast to the mass-elite, Clinton is linked to an identifiable ideological tradition. In contrast to the postcommunist setting of extreme fluidity, Clinton operates within the context of well-established institutions. In addition, the mass-elite dominate politics at a founding moment when ideology is essential for building and consolidating new institutions. In the U.S. Democratic Party, for example, it is possible to find both ideologues and opportunists. In postcommunist politics, in Slovakia and elsewhere, the mass-elite tends to come together to dominate entire parties. The ideological elites tend to be marginalized not merely as individual politicians but as a group or type. The perpetuation of this opportunism is what makes democratization so daunting in the postcommunist world, as we will see illustrated in Meciar's rise in Slovakia.

Slovakia, an Emblematic Case

In each former communist country it is possible to find ideological democrats, ideological nationalists, and mass-elites. In each country the coalitions they form, the power relationships within those, and the particular ideological labels that are adopted differ. This depends on how prevalent the mass-elite is relative to the ideological elites. But the Slovak case is an appropriate one to develop this framework because the mass-elite appear here in a purer form than elsewhere. It is only if we isolate this elite type and develop this framework in a clear case that we can then use the same approach to try to understand less clear cases. Thus I use Slovakia as a single theory-developing case.

As we will see in the next section, the argument rests on the fact that Leninist regimes came to power in societies with weak nationalisms and in societies that were largely agricultural. But Slovakia, even in comparison to other countries of east central Europe where communism took hold, had a very weakly articulated nationalism at the time communism appeared.


Excerpted from Politics Without a Past by Shari J. Cohen Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this

James Felak
A pioneering study. This book should be required reading for journalists and diplomats who deal with postcommunist Europe.
— (James Felak, University of Washington)
Ken Jowitt
Cohen's deft and ingenious examination of the historical, political, biographical, and moral features of Slovakia's present and recent past, in particular the peculiar and powerful quality and impact of the Leninist legacy, contributes substantially to our grasp of this area's novel political sociology.
— (Ken Jowitt, University of California, Berkeley)

Meet the Author

Shari J. Cohen, a political scientist, is currently Senior Research Fellow at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City.

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