Messianism

John Dunn

  • The Myth of the Nation and the Vision of Revolution by J.L. Talmon
    Secker, 632 pp, £15.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 436 51399 4

In The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy in 1952 the late Jacob Talmon offered an influential diagnosis of ‘the most vital issue of our time ... the headlong collision between empirical and liberal democracy on the one hand, and totalitarian democracy on the other, in which the world crisis of today consists’. Empirical and liberal democracy was to be read as including social democracy but totalitarian democracy, at the time, as excluding totalitarianism of the right. In due course he promised two further volumes, one devoted to the vicissitudes of the totalitarian-democratic trend in 19th-century Western Europe, and the second to the history of totalitarian democracy in Eastern Europe. The first of these, Political Messianism: The Romantic Phase, appeared in 1960. The second, The Myth of the Nation and the Vision of Revolution, is now published posthumously. Although it is considerably the largest of the three, it fails in several respects to discharge the initial promise, passing very lightly indeed over both Russia and Eastern Europe since 1918, offering scarcely a glimpse of events further east and petering out in understandable exhaustion early in the 1920s. Less prudently, it also extends the formidable scope of Talmon’s original undertaking, altering the focus of his inquiry towards the role of nationalist sentiment in 19th and early 20th-century history and stressing the extent to which Nazi and Fascist movements also offered ‘a form of democratic participation’.

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