Postmodern Conservative

What a Dissident Notices, a Quarter-Century after Communism

Democratic Liberalism Is Increasingly Similar

Ryszard Legutko was the editor of Solidarity’s official journal of philosophy, and after Poland was freed from communism, he has served in the highest levels of Polish government, as well as in the EU’s European Parliament.  He is a professor of philosophy at Jagellonian University in Krakow, but his newly translated into English book, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies  may also gain him the title of political prophet. 

This is a dynamite and truly frightening book, and to my mind it propels Legutko into the front-rank of the thinkers today focusing upon the increasing ways in which liberal democratic societies, everywhere but especially in the EU, are falling into illiberal and soft-totalitarian habits of governance, language, and daily conduct. 


As has so often been the case, it is the great Encounter Books that makes this fine continental thought available to English speakers, and it is the great Daniel Mahoney who has called my attention it, through a brief introduction over at The Intercollegiate Review.

Read that, and consider a few of these excerpts.  Keep in mind that Legutko employs an under-developed distinction between what he calls “liberal democracy,” which didn’t really get going in strength until the 60s, and the democracy prior to that, even though he is aware of the stronger criticisms that can be made of the liberal project going back to the likes of Locke and Paine. 

Liberal democracy has created its own orthodoxy, which causes it to become less of a forum for articulating positions and agreeing on actions than—to a much higher extent—a political mechanism for the selection of people, organizations, and ideas in line with the orthodoxy.  This phenomenon can be seen especially in Europe… (82)

Even a preliminary contact with the EU institutions allows one to feel a stifling atmosphere typical of a political monopoly, to see the destruction of language turning into a new form of Newspeak, to observe the creation of surreality, mostly ideological, that obfuscates the real world, to witness an uncompromising hostility against all dissidents, and to perceive many other things only too familiar to anyone who remembers the world governed by the Communist Party.  (4)

[the EU’s] ….politicians proudly state that they are responsible for seventy percent of the national legislation.  …Every piece of legislative regulation is presented not as a simple organizational or administrative decision but a step toward something great, for which we, the Europeans, should be grateful. 

The collapse of communism and the entry of the liberated countries into the global system of liberal democracy was supposed to intensify and consolidate this change.  …the West, was believed to be founded on objectivism and truth.   After all, it was there where renowned institutions of research and education had flourished for centuries, where free media and free journalists had been giving the world at large free and unbiased information…  Those of us who had such high hopes met with disappointment.  If the reality revealed itself to us in Eastern Europe, it was short-lived and without consequences.  Very quickly the world became hidden under a new ideological shell…  Obligatory rituals of loyalty and condemnations were revived, this time with a different object of worship and a different enemy.  The new commissars of the language appeared and were given powerful prerogatives, and just as before, mediocrities assumed their self-proclaimed authority to track down ideological apostasy…  Media—more refined than under communism—performed a similar function:  standing at the forefront of the great transformation leading to a better world and spreading the corruption of language to the entire social organism and all its cells. (128)

That last excerpt indicates both the power of and one of the limitations of Legutko’s account. Sometimes in calling attention the parallel between the communist and the liberal-democratic politicization/indoctrination of society he closes the significant gap between the two, and in way that I think diminishes the magnitude of the former’s sins.  I certainly cannot claim the dissident experience, nor the nearness to dissident experience, that he can, but I have studied the subject with some diligence, and I think I can say with confidence that however bad things have become in the modern university, corporation, etc. with respect to politically correct language, it is not really right to say “just as before.”  The basic pattern may be the same, but the crudity and extent of its application is quite different, and arguably adds up to qualitative difference.  After all, as Legutko recognizes at one point, behind the suffocating obedience given to the communist mediocrities of the 60s-80s, such as is illustrated in the must-see Czech film Burning Bush, lay the memory everyone had of what Stalin and his like had done prior to 1956, and a fear that any communist authority might return to it. 

Or put it this way.  When Legutko says “one encounters a similarly narrow intellectual space in today’s humanities, which, ultimately, are dependent on liberal democracy to the same degree that the communist humanities depended on the communism,”  I recall on one hand the various worthy–if increasingly infrequent–classes taught and events sponsored by the lefty-dominated humanities departments at the various academic institutions I’ve taught at, and on the other, the unforgettable portraits of what ideologized literary life was like under the communists, found in the works of various dissident writers, such as in the Solzhenitsyn short-story “Apricot Jam.”  So I cannot swallow Legutko’s use of the phrase “same degree.”

But this is a minor complaint about a very necessary book.  Legutko is one of the first of our conservative philosophic thinkers to really take down us into a nuts and bolts exploration of how contemporary democracy could develop into a new form of totalitarianism, and in some ways already has.  I hope to compare soon the way in which his account is able to be both bolder and more reportorial with respect to contemporary democracy’s totalitarian tendencies than an important book written merely twenty years ago in a similar spirit, Chantal Delsol’s unforgettable Icarus Fallen.  Not a little of what Delsol sensed was upon us, was about to happen, is described here simply as something that is well underway, and which about there is far less to be learned through the collegial hedging and qualification than by the blunt exposure of the shocking similarities that have now emerged between our society and the totalitarian communist one we thought we had defeated.  All in all, if Legutko’s type of exploration carries with it the risk of certain kinds of hyperbole, it is one we direly need in our day.  Our thanks to Teresa Adelson for the translation.



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