book cover imageThe Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies
by Ryszard Legutko,
with a foreword by John O’Sullivan.
Encounter Books, 2016.
Hardcover, 182 pages, $24.

The Polish philosopher, and sometime politician, Ryszard Legutko, has written a book of political and philosophical reflection that truly matters. His book is thoughtful and unnerving at the same time. It illuminates our postcommunist and postmodern discontents as well as any book I know. Legutko experienced the totalitarian episode from the inside and would be the last to deny the fundamental chasm separating twentieth-century totalitarianism from the freedoms characteristic of liberal societies. At the same time, he is acutely sensitive to the ways in which liberal democracy is in the process of becoming a full-fledged “ideology,” one that is in some decisive respects as illiberal as the monstrous ideologies that proceded it. This is Legutko’s disconcerting claim, one that he supports in clear, measured prose and with arguments worthy of the serious political philosopher that he is.

If Legutko experienced classic totalitarianism in a Poland under the Communist boot, he has also been witness to the “soft tyranny” that has accompanied the victory of liberal democracy in the years since 1989. Liberal democracy, too, has become associated with “thoughtless social engineering,” with a project to make every social institution—churches, the family, higher education, civil associations—“liberal-democratic” in its internal functioning and in its ultimate goals and aspirations. Thankfully, this project is not accompanied by any gulags or the systematic mendacity that defined Communist theory and practice (or by a denial of political accountability through elections, at least at the national level). But we do seeall around us today the illiberal reign of a “political correctness” that increasingly brooks no dissent. It is tempting to dismiss Legutko’s analysis as overstated, but the evidence he amasses more than supports his argument.

Legutko was active in the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland in the early 1980s and even edited a philosophy journal associated with this great effort to bring down the edifice of the totalitarian state and ideology. Solidarity was often called a “human rights” movement and it did not resist this characterization at the time. But it never identified with “human rights” in the narrow sense of that term (for Solidarity, support for human rights never entailed a bloodless universalism) and never confused human rights with an antinomian assault on the moral foundations of civilized order. It was in no way a “progressive” movement. As Legutko writes, “Solidarity stood up in defense of human dignity (in its original and not corrupted sense), access to culture, respect for truth in science and nobility in art, and a proper role given to Christian heritage and Christian religion.” And it did so at a time when the West had begun to forget the “great ideas” at the roots of its civilization. Solidarity offered the promise of rejuvenating Western civilization and recovering the increasingly moribund moral foundations of democracy. Solidarity fought an oppressive regime in the name of liberty and truth (notice this conjunction, which is so rare today and forbidden in “advanced” intellectual circles) and it would not have been possible “without its members’ strong patriotic and religious motivations.” Its members were not fighting for moral relativism, radical secularism, a diminution of national sovereignty, or a European-wide assault on traditional institutions, particularly the family and the Church. They were not fighting for a decayed—or is a perfected?—liberal-democratic ideology. What is left of the promise of Solidarity, the promise that came to a head in the dramatic revolutionary events of 1989?

In Poland and elsewhere, the ex-Communists rebaptized themselves as social or liberal democrats. They formed governments and were welcomed by European and international elites who felt more comfortable with ex-Communists than those anti-Communist dissidents who were wary of the postmodern evisceration of patriotic and religious attachments. Liberal-democrats became the new historicists, declaring the inevitability of a liberal-democratic future shorn of quaint references to “truth, good, and beauty.” Poland had lost its “exotic charm” (no more priests and workers praying together) and must therefore let go of her “initial ambitions” to keep truth and liberty together. Poland’s future was “European” and this meant the post-political, post-national, post-religious future limned by the generation of 1968. Many Polish elites went along with the new regime and the new program of democratic inevitability. In this view: The Church must “liberalize,” families must “democratize,” and “homophobia” must be fought at every level. To do otherwise, is to resist the commands of “History” itself. Modernity had an inexorable direction and Poland, trying “to catch up,” must get on board the democratic train. The only governments to effectively challenge this post-1989 European consensus, the Polish Law and Justice Party in 2007 and again today, and Fidesz in Hungary (often doing so in clumsy and heavy-handed ways) have “sparked fury of enormous intensity.” The old Communist distinction between “progress and reaction” lives on in post-Communist Europe and among European elites and intellectuals more broadly. Former Communists are perfectly at home in the new post-Western Europe, and the anti-Communist dissidents of old are said to be at odds with “European” and “democratic” values if they in any way challenge this highly “ideological” version of liberal democracy.

At times, Legutko suggests the transformation of liberal democracy into an illiberal ideology was inherent in the very framework of philosophical modernity. Machiavelli, Bacon, and Descartes hated the old and inherited as such and repudiated classical and Christian wisdom. They, too, thought in terms of “progress and reaction.” But for a long time what I have called the “conservative foundations of the liberal order” humanized the abstractions to which liberal-democratic man was prone. The search for truth, the respect for classical and Christian wisdom, the cultivation of public-spirited leadership, the recognition of the monogamous family as the bosom of democratic civil society, and deference to the good, the true, and the beautiful, allowed liberalism to coexist fruitfully with the patrimony of Western civilization. As Legutko points out, older conservative-minded liberals such as Tocqueville and Ortega already had deep forebodings about whether this fragile conservative-liberal synthesis could sustainitself. Legutko rightly notes that today only a “fanatic” or a reactionary” are said to be able to defend truth as a goal of education, beauty as the aim of art, life-long fidelity as the goal of marriage. Few are the liberal-democrats who would agree with Mill’s famous claim in Utilitarianism that a human being worth his salt would always prefer to be “Socrates unsatisfied” than a “pig satisfied.” We have succumbed to a thoroughgoing hedonic calculus and an indiscriminate and vulgar relativism. The distinction between the “high” and the “low” no longer speaks to our souls. Works of art have to be ideologically “correct”—they are no longer judged by standards of truth and beauty (is this much of an improvement over overt totalitarianism?). Churches are asked to endorse “reproductive rights” (the killing of the unborn) as well as same-sex marriage. Legutko rightly concludes that “one shudders at the thought what will be expected of Christians in a few years’ time.” Democracy “democratizes” everything around it. And yet its health and well-being depends on the survival and cultivation of those humanizing and ennobling contents of life that are threatened by democracy itself. This is the conundrum that Legutko’s book explores and it is as relevant to the United States and Western Europe as it is to those in the former Soviet bloc who are mistakenly trying to “catch up” to a West that is in the process of losing its soul.

Politically correct elites in our liberal democracies share the same enemies as the Communists. Legutko’s list is not exhaustive but it is revealing: “The Church and religion, the nation, classical metaphysics, moral conservatism, and the family.” They show an arrogant disdain for everything that gets in the way of the new liberal-democratic utopia. They must be fought in the name of an older notion of self-government and the moral contents of life (so well represented by Solidarity) and by a courageous willingness to challenge the new historicism (as the “dissidents” in the East challenged the historicism of old). A member of the European parliament, Legutko captures the stifling atmosphere and the ideological newspeak that dominates that elective body. Even conservative representatives praise limitless tolerance for all—except for conservative Christians, alleged “homophobes,” or defenders of genuine national life.

Legutko seemingly offers us no way out. Yet his powerful description of “soft totalitarianism” ought to encourage the partisans of Western civilization to thoughtful and spirited opposition to the regnant ideology of our age. History’s letters are not written in advance even if modernity has a logic of its own. So a reader of Legutko’s book is left disconcerted but not in despair. Human nature should always win out over ideology, even a liberal-democratic one. In Pierre Manent’s memorable formulation, we must learn for the first time or again, that “to love democracy well, it is necessary to love it moderately.” Such is the wisdom of Aristotle, Tocqueville, Ortega—and Legutko.  

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College. His most recent books are The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order (2012) and The Other Solzhenitsyn (2014). He is presently working on a book on “the humanitarian subversion of Christianity.”