The Demon in Democracy

Earlier this month, Polish political philosopher Ryszard Legutko was supposed to deliver a lecture at Middlebury College in Vermont. A few hours before the event took place, college administrators called off the event, explaining the decision was based “based on an assessment of our ability to respond effectively to potential security and safety risks for both the lecture and the event students had planned in response.”

Legutko is a professor of philosophy at Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland, specializing in ancient philosophy and political theory. He has served as a Polish government minister and a member of the European Parliament. He’s also an ardent anti-Communist with traditionalist views. That was enough, evidently, to make him a “threat” to the “safety” of Middlebury students.

Legutko gave a lecture anyway to a small group of students in a political science class. “All this was done in defiance of the college administration,” he later told the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher. “I was smuggled in a student’s car to the campus and entered the building through the backdoor.” Encounter Books editor and publisher Roger Kimball writes about the incident and its aftermath here.

In 2016, Encounter published Legutko’s latest book, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. In it, Legutko argues that liberal democracy “tends to develop the qualities that were characteristic of Communism: pervasive politicization, ideological zeal, aggressive social engineering, vulgarity, a belief in inevitability of progress, destruction of family, the omnipresent rule of ideological correctness, and the severe restriction of intellectual inquiry.”

The following is an excerpt from that book, republished here with kind permission from Encounter.

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Liberal democracy does not have and never had an official concept of history that can be attributed to a particular author. It does not have its Marx, Lenin, or Lukács. Nevertheless, from the very beginning, the liberals and the democrats made use of a typical historical pattern by which they were easily recognized and which often appeared not only in the variety of general opinions they formulated but also, on a less abstract level, in popular beliefs and stereotypes professed to be a representation of liberal thinking in mass circulation. According to this view, the history of the world—in the case of liberalism—was the history of the struggle for freedom against enemies who were different at various stages of history but who perpetually fought against the idea of freedom itself and—in the case of democracy—the history of a people’s continuing struggle for power against forces that kept them submissive for centuries. Both of these political currents—liberal and democratic—had therefore one enemy, a widely understood tyranny, which, in the long history of humanity, assumed a variety of additional, distinctive costumes. Every now and then it was a monarchy, often the Church, and at other times an oligarchy. The main enemy of freedom was portrayed in various ways in different countries and different traditions. As John Stuart Mill wrote in the passage opening his essay “On Liberty,” “The struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous feature of history since the earliest times known to us.”

In England, at some point there emerged a Whig concept of history that was to portray the country’s basic dramatic political history. According to this view, the history of British civilization was a progressing expansion of freedom and its legal safeguards and the disappearance into the past of bad practices of autocracy or arbitrary authority beyond the control of the people and Parliament. More specifically, the history of England could be presented—as has been done many times—as a narrative of the emergence of Parliament and creation of a constitutional monarchy, with a particular legal system sanctioning it.

But the Whig view of the history of Great Britain deserves a broader look. There were also authors who treated it as a basic libertarian model of development. If one was going to introduce the idea of freedom to Western civilization, then—as they claimed—the most clearly expressed representation of the idea of freedom at its most mature, the one most rooted in law, institutions, and customs and in freedom mechanisms themselves, was revealed in the history of England. Such were the feelings of numerous Anglophiles, from the Enlightenment thinkers to Friedrich Hayek.

Naturally, a question arises of what was supposed to happen and would happen at the end of history, when freedom would claim victory over tyranny. There, for millions of people, Communism offered a rousing but actually quite vague vision. Under Communism, people were promised to have a lot of time off from work, to be free from alienation, to find employment that was rewarding and fulfilling, and to have the means of production socialized, which would result in each person receiving according to his needs. What all that was supposed to mean in more specific terms, nobody knew. When Soviet Communism emerged, some said that in fact it was precisely the system that the socialist prophets had in mind; others categorically opposed this opinion, claiming that Communism was a terrible perversion of genuine socialism, while still others argued that the Soviet regime was merely a transitional phase—somewhat unpleasant yet necessary, leading to the future realization of socialist ideals. Given the vague notions of what true socialism was supposed to be, each of these assessments was right to some extent.

The liberal vision, although less thrilling to hearts and minds, was a bit more concrete. The impetus of liberalism was understood to lie in its cooperative feature, which was to bring the human race to a higher stage of development, then called the Age of Commerce. The era of conflicts, wars, and violence—it was claimed—was coming to an end and the period of cooperation, prosperity, and progress was near. In short, the liberal era was the era of peace. This, in any case, was the way of thinking one could find in Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, and other classical liberals. It does not sound particularly grand or original today, but we should remember that war was a ubiquitous experience then, and thus the prospect of peace appeared tempting if almost unrealistic and the theories that justified it had to appear exciting in their boldness.

In a famous essay, Immanuel Kant wrote about the advent of the era of “perpetual peace” among the republics. What is interesting, however, is that, according to Kant, this blessed era could and actually should be preceded by a phase of enlightened absolutism. Authors such as Spinoza, who wrote favorably about democracy, made their praise conditional on people’s first meeting high intellectual and moral requirements. They believed—and it was a fairly widespread view at the time—that tyranny, despotism, and other anachronistic regimes hindered the development of human capacity, stopping it at the early stages of dependency and helplessness. Following the removal of such regimes, work was to begin—partly resulting from a spontaneous internal desire for self-improvement of the mind and partly imposed by the enlightened rulers—that in the end would generate an improved society composed of better and more rational individuals.

A comparison between the liberal-democratic concept of the history and that of Communism shows a commonality of argument as well as of images of the historical process. Three common threads occurring in Marx’s works have their counterparts in the liberal and democratic tradition. There is a belief in the unilateralism of history, leading inevitably and triumphantly to the era of perpetual peace, or, in other terms, to the refinement of commerce and cooperation that humanity will reach due to the victory of freedom over tyranny. Another is the equivalent of deliberate human action, albeit not run by the party, but by active entrepreneurs and all types of freedom fighters, as well as the distinguished minority groups, elite and enlightened rulers who will prepare humanity—until now apathetic, enslaved, and ignorant—for the new reality. The third topic—mankind’s achieving maturity and intellectual independence—is usually described in simpler language than the German-Romantic used by the young Karl Marx and amounts to a promise of a modern society liberated from ignorance and superstition.

Over the past 150 or 200 years, the concepts of Communism, liberalism, and democracy evolved under the pressures of reality. It seems beyond doubt, however, that the first two views—that history has a unilateral pattern and that a better world is shaped by conscious human activity—are still very much present in the modern political mind.

Of course, few people talk of the laws of history today, mainly because this quasi-scientific language lost its appeal in an age when the concept of science changed. Nevertheless, both the Communists and liberal democrats have always upheld and continue to uphold the view that history is on their side. Whoever thought that the collapse of the Soviet system should have done away with the belief in the inevitability of socialism was disappointed. This belief is as strong as ever and the past practices of socialism—whether Soviet or Western—are well-appreciated, not because they were beneficial in themselves, but because they are still believed to have represented the correct direction of social change. One can observe a similar mindset among the liberal democrats, who are also deeply convinced that they represent both the inherent dynamics of social development and a natural tendency in human aspirations.

Both the Communists and liberal democrats, while praising what is inevitable and objectively necessary in history, praise at the same time the free activities of parties, associations, community groups, and organizations in which, as they believe, what is inevitable and objectively necessary reveals itself. Both speak fondly of “the people” and large social movements, while at the same time—like the Enlightenment philosophers—have no qualms in ruthlessly breaking social spontaneity in order to accelerate social reconstruction.

Admittedly, for the liberal democrats, the combination of the two threads is intellectually more awkward than for the socialists. The very idea of liberal democracy should presuppose the freedom of action, which means every man and every group or party should be given a free choice of what they want to pursue. And yet the letter, the spirit, and the practice of the liberal-democratic doctrine are far more restrictive: so long as society pursues the path of modernization, it must follow the path whereby the programs of action and targets other than liberal-democratic lose their legitimacy. The need for building a liberal-democratic society thus implies the withdrawal of the guarantee of freedom for those whose actions and interests are said to be hostile to what the liberal democrats conceive as the cause of freedom.

Thus the adoption of the historical preference of liberal democracy makes the resulting conclusion analogous to that which the communists drew from the belief in the historical privilege of their system: everything that exists in society must become liberal-democratic over time and be imbued with the spirit of the system. As once when all major designations had to be preceded by the adjective “socialist” or “Communist,” so now everything should be liberal, democratic, or liberal-democratic, and this labeling almost automatically gives a recipient a status of credibility and respectability. Conversely, a refusal to use such a designation or, even worse, an ostentatious rejection of it, condemns one to moral degradation, merciless criticism, and, ultimately, historical annihilation.

Countries emerging from Communism provided striking evidence in this regard. Belief in the “normalcy” of liberal democracy, or, in other words, the view that this system delineates the only accepted course and method of organizing collective life, is particularly strong, a corollary being that in the line of development the United States and Western Europe are at the forefront while we, the East Europeans, are in the back. The optimal process should progress in a manner in which the countries in the back catch up with those at the front, repeating their experiences, implementing their solutions, and struggling with the same challenges. Not surprisingly, there immediately emerged a group of self-proclaimed eloquent accoucheurs of the new system, who from the position of the enlightened few took upon themselves a duty to indicate the direction of change and to infuse a new liberal-democratic awareness into anachronistic minds. They were, one would be tempted to say, the Kantian Prussian kings of liberal democracy, fortunately devoid of a comparable power, but undoubtedly perceiving themselves to have a similar role as pioneers of the enlightened future.

In their view, today also consciously or unconsciously professed by millions, the political system should permeate every section of public and private life, analogously to the view of the erstwhile accoucheurs of the communist system. Not only should the state and the economy be liberal, democratic, or liberal-democratic, but the entire society as well, including ethics and mores, family, churches, schools, universities, community organizations, culture, and even human sentiments and aspirations. The people, structures, thoughts that exist outside the liberal-democratic pattern are deemed outdated, backward-looking, useless, but at the same time extremely dangerous as preserving the remnants of old authoritarianisms. Some may still be tolerated for some time, but as anyone with a minimum of intelligence is believed to know, sooner or later they will end up in the dustbin of history. Their continued existence will most likely threaten the liberal-democratic progress and therefore they should be treated with the harshness they deserve.

Once one sends one’s opponents to the dustbin of history, any debate with them becomes superfluous. Why waste time, they think, arguing with someone whom the march of history condemned to nothingness and oblivion? Why should anyone seriously enter into a debate with the opponent who represents what is historically indefensible and what will sooner or later perish? People who are not liberal democrats are to be condemned, laughed at, and repelled, not debated. Debating with them is like debating with alchemists or geocentrists. Again, an analogy with Communism immediately comes to one’s mind. The opponents of Communism—e.g., those who believed free markets to be superior to planned economies—were at best enemies to be crushed, or laughingstocks to be humiliated: how else could any reasonable soul react to such anachronistic dangerous ravings of a deluded mind?

After all, in a liberal democracy everyone knows—and only a fool or a fanatic can deny—that sooner or later a family will have to liberalize or democratize, which means that the parental authority has to crumble, the children will quickly liberate themselves from the parental tutelage, and family relationships will increasingly become more negotiatory and less authoritarian. These are the inevitable consequences of civilizational and political development, giving people more and more opportunities for independence; moreover, these processes are essentially beneficial because they enhance equality and freedom in the world. Thus there is no legitimate reason to defend the traditional family—the very name evokes the smell of mothballs—and whoever does it is self-condemned to a losing position and in addition, perpetrates harm by delaying the process of change. The traditional family was, after all, part of the old despotism: with its demise, the despotic system loses its base. The liberalization and democratization of the family are therefore to be supported—wholeheartedly and energetically—mainly by appropriate legislation that will give children more power: for example, allowing increasingly younger girls to have abortions without parental consent, or providing children with legal instruments to combat their claims against their parents, or depriving parents of their rights and transferring those rights to the government and the courts. Sometimes, to be sure, these things can lead to excessive measures perpetrated by the state, law, and public opinion, but the general tendency is good and there is no turning back from it.

Similarly, in a liberal democracy, everyone knows—and only a fool or a fanatic can deny—that schools have to become more and more liberal and democratic for the same reasons. Again, this inevitable process requires that the state, the law, and public opinion harshly counteract against all stragglers—those who are trying to put a stick in the spokes of progress, dreamers who imagine that in the twenty-first century we can return to the school as it existed in the nineteenth, pests who want to build an old-time museum in the forward-rushing world. And so on, and so forth. Similar reasoning can be applied to churches, communities, associations.

As a result, liberal democracy has become an all-permeating system. There is no, or in any case, cannot be, any segment of reality that would be arguably and acceptably non-liberal democratic. Whatever happens in school must follow the same pattern as in politics, in politics the same pattern as in art, and in art the same pattern as in the economy: the same problems, the same mechanisms, the same type of thinking, the same language, the same habits. Just as in real socialism, so in real democracy, it is difficult to find some nondoctrinal slice of the world, a nondoctrinal image, narrative, tone, or thought.

In a way, liberal democracy presents a somewhat more insidious ideological mystification than Communism. Under Communism, it was clear that Communism was to prevail in every cell of social life, and that the Communist Party was empowered with the instruments of brutal coercion and propaganda to get the job done. Under liberal democracy, such official guardians of constitutional doctrine do not exist, which, paradoxically, makes the overarching nature of the system less tangible, but at the same time more profound and difficult to reverse. It is the people themselves who have eventually come to accept, often on a preintellectual level, that eliminating the institutions incompatible with liberal-democratic principles constitutes a wise and necessary step.

Forty years ago, at the time when the period of liberal-democratic monopoly was fast approaching, Daniel Bell, one of the popular social writers, set forth the thesis that a modern society is characterized by the disjunction of three realms: social, economic, and political. They develop—so he claimed—at different rates, have different dynamics and purposes, and are subject to different mechanisms and influences. This image of structural diversity that Bell saw coming was attractive, or rather would have been attractive if true. But the opposite happened. No disjunction occurred. Rather, everything came to be joined under the liberal-democratic formula: the economy, politics and society, and—as it turns out—culture.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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About Ryszard Legutko

Ryszard Legutko is a professor of philosophy at Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland, specializing in ancient philosophy and political theory. He has served as the minister of education, secretary of state in the Chancellery of the late President Lech Kaczynski, and deputy speaker of the Senate and is active in the anti-communist movement in Poland. He is currently a member of the European Parliament, deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Group of European Conservatives and Reformists, and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.