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The Demon in Democracy

Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies

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Publication Details

Hardcover / 200 pages
ISBN: 9781594038631
PUBLISHED: 04/19/2016

The Demon in Democracy
Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies

Ryszard Legutko lived and suffered under communism for decades—and he fought with the Polish ant-communist movement to abolish it. Having lived for two decades under a liberal democracy, however, he has discovered that these two political systems have a lot more in common than one might think. They both stem from the same historical roots in early modernity, and accept similar presuppositions about history, society, religion, politics, culture, and human nature.

In The Demon in Democracy, Legutko explores the shared objectives between these two political systems, and explains how liberal democracy has over time lurched towards the same goals as communism, albeit without Soviet style brutality.

Both systems, says Legutko, reduce human nature to that of the common man, who is led to believe himself liberated from the obligations of the past. Both the communist man and the liberal democratic man refuse to admit that there exists anything of value outside the political systems to which they pledged their loyalty. And both systems refuse to undertake any critical examination of their ideological prejudices.

About the Author

Ryszard Legutko is a professor of philosophy at Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland, specializing in ancient philosophy and political theory.

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This book is about the similarities between communism and liberal democracy.

The idea that such similarities exist started germinating timidly in my mind back in the seventies of the last century, when for the first time I managed to get out of the communist Poland to travel to the so-called West. To my unpleasant surprise, I discovered that many of my friends who consciously classified themselves as devoted supporters of liberal democracy, of a multiparty system, human rights, pluralism and everything that every liberal democrat proudly listed as his acts of faith, displayed extraordinary meekness and empathy towards communism. I was unpleasantly surprised because it seemed to me that every liberal democrat’s natural and almost visceral response to communism should be that of forthright condemnation.

For a while I thought that this anti-anticommunism, which was characterized by the lenient stance towards communists and the hard one against anticommunists, stemmed from the fear of the Soviet power, or, to express it more graciously, from recognition that it was morally unthinkable to accept the possibility of a global military conflict as inevitable consequence of a confrontation with communism. I realized, however, that such considerations did not fully explain the raw anti-anticommunist rage I perceived and which exceeded most of negative political emotions known to me. A possible hypothesis came to my mind that both attitudes – the communist and the liberal-democratic – are linked by something more profound, some common principles and ideals.

Before long, however, this thought seemed to be so extravagant that I did not find enough inner strength or knowledge to explore it more deeply. What is more, at that time, from the perspective of someone like myself, a resident of the Soviet bloc, the West was the best of all possible worlds and comparing it with communism smacked of blasphemy. The writings of the authors – mostly left-wing, such as Herbert Marcuse – who made such comparisons elicited a strong antagonistic reflex and were perceived as an o to common sense and elementary decency. We treated the procommunist sympathies in Western societies as an accident rather than a fundamental defect.

I experienced the same budding thought for the second time in the period of the post-communist Poland, right at the very beginning of its existence in 1989. It was not just that anti-anticommunism was activated simultaneously with the rise of the new liberal democratic system, although to me and many of my friends, Poland seemed to be the last place on earth to harbour such ideas. It was not enough that anti-anticommunism emerged, but it was almost immediately recognized to be an important component of a new liberal-democratic orthodoxy that was taking its shape. Those who were anticommunists were a threat to liberal democracy; those who were anti-anticommunist achieved the status of someone who passed the most important and the most difficult entrance examination to the new political reality. These were the times when the communists were destroying the archives containing information of their activities and leaped forth to associate themselves with the new political and economic establishment from a much better position than the rest of us; and yet every negative word one uttered about them was not only stigmatized as villainy, but actually viewed as an attack on the best of the political systems to which we were humble newcomers.

The newly created Polish political elite embraced the communists with a show of impressive hospitality in part for tactical reasons (in order not to leave a large group of people outside the system), but also in no small part for ideological reasons: it was decided that following some slight touch-ups and finding themselves in new circumstances, the communists would become loyal and enthusiastic players in the liberal-democratic game. I quickly realized that this ideological assumption was true. Indeed, following some slight touch-ups and finding themselves in new circumstances, the former members of the Communist Party adapted themselves perfectly to liberal democracy, its mechanisms and the entire ideological interpretation that accompanied these mechanisms. Pretty soon, they even joined the ranks of the guardians of the new orthodoxy. The same newspapers which for decades, on their front pages, had exhorted the proletarians of the world to unite began, with an equal zeal, to call on all enlightened forces to defend liberal democracy against the forces of darkness, including the anticommunists.

The fierce defence of the communists who were absorbed into the new system and the violent attacks on those whose opinion of their co-optation was far from enthusiastic, led many to believe that this was indeed the logic of the new times. The communists who transformed themselves into the liberal democrats were considered trustworthy partners in the task of creating a new system, and an alliance with them was called an epoch-making contract, comparable in Polish history to the founding of the Republic in the history of the United States. Hence, the otherwise incomprehensible reaction of rage against the men of little faith, like myself, who questioned the moral and political credibility of the newly co-opted partners. The rage still continues. It is symptomatic that in the history of the post-communist societies the greatest political and journalistic hatchet jobs were against those who had doubts about granting the communists, first, immunity, and then privileges.

The new system began to show the symptoms which most political analysts ignored and which some, including myself, found most disturbing. When I talk about the system, I do not solely, or even mostly mean an institutional structure, but everything which makes this structure function as it does: ideas, social practices, mores, people’s attitudes. Communism and liberal democracy proved to be the all-unifying entities compelling their followers how to think, what to do, how to evaluate events, what to dream and what language to use. They both had their orthodoxies and their models of an ideal citizen.

Few people doubt today that communism is such an integrated political-ideological-intellectual as well as socio-linguistic unity. Living in that system meant that one had to obey the minute directives of the ruling party to the extent that one was expected to become indistinguishable in words, thoughts and deeds, from millions of fellow citizens – Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, communist Albania and North Korea being the closest approximations to the ideal. As for liberal democracy, the belief still lingers that it is a system of breath-taking diversity, consisting of communities, groups, unorthodox types of behaviour, eccentrics, individualists. But this belief has deviated from reality so much that the opposite view seems now closer to the truth. Liberal democracy is a powerful unifying mechanism, blurring differences between people and imposing uniformity of views, behaviour and language.

At the beginning of the nineties I discovered something that was not particularly difficult to discover at the time; namely, that the nascent liberal democracy significantly narrows the area of what is permissible. Incredible as it may see, the final year of the decline of communism had more of the spirit of freedom than the period after the establishment of the new order which immediately put a stop to what many had felt strongly at that time and what despite its elusiveness is known to everybody who had an experience of freedom – a sense of having many doors open and many possibilities to pursue. Soon this sense evaporated, subdued by the new rhetoric of necessity that the liberal democratic system brought with itself. It did not take me long to make another discovery, and more depressing one, namely that this unifying tendency was not limited to the post-communist world, and did not result from its peculiarities. The adverse effects one could see throughout the western civilization. My subsequent experience of working in the European Parliament only endorsed my diagnosis.

While there, I saw up close what – from the distance – escapes the attention of many observers. If the European Parliament is supposed to be the emanation of the spirit of today’s liberal democracy, then this spirit is certainly neither good nor beautiful: it has many features – both bad and ugly – some of which, unfortunately, it shares with the spirit of communism. 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 a surreality, mostly ideological, that obfuscates the real world, to be a witness of 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.

Interestingly this association with communism can be quite often heard in private conversations conducted in the EP corridors even among the loyal EU devotees. While annoyed with this system, they still do not challenge its fundamental rightness, probably hanging to the belief that its disagreeable qualities are superficial and will hopefully disappear with time. And they do not ask themselves, at least not openly, whether by any chance what annoys them is not the core of the system and consequently whether all these bad things half-jokingly referred to as Soviet-like will not intensify rather than disappear.

Similar thoughts are being disqualified by a seemingly irrefutable argument. How can one possibly compare the two systems, one of which was criminal, while the other, in spite of all the objections, gives people a lot of freedom and institutional protection? Surely, the difference between the people’s republic and the democratic republic of today is so vast that only an insane person would deny it. In today’s Poland, not communist any more, we have different political parties, the censorship office no longer exists and the economic freedom, despite various limitations, is much more advanced than during the communist rule. The East Europeans travel without restrictions; they became part of the European Union and NATO and encounter no difficulties when establishing associations and organizations. The advantages of the modern democratic over the People’s Republic are so obvious that only a person of bad faith could fail to see them. To give a personal argument for the superiority of one system over the other: in the People’s Republic of Poland the author of this book would have had neither a chance to write officially what he wrote in the democratic Poland, nor to serve the public offices which he held after the fall of the former regime.

This argument in such a formulation is, of course, irrefutable and no reasonable person would question it. But at the same time what it says should not be used in the function of an intellectual and moral blackmail. Whatever fundamental differences exist between the two system, it is perfectly legitimate to ask why there are also some similarities, and why they are so profound and becoming more so. One cannot dismiss them with an argument that since the liberal democratic system as such is clearly superior to communism, the existing similarities are absolved or explained away by the mere fact of this superiority. Since the liberal-democrats are so fond of warning against all sorts dangers that might undermine the liberal-democratic order, even if these danger are only suspected and felt rather than actually perceived, such as xenophobia, nationalism, intolerance, or bigotry, one wonders why the same liberal-democrats completely ignore those dangers that are easy to spot, namely, the increasing presence of the developments similar to those that existed in the communist societies? Why so few sound the alarm, even if the alarm is a bit premature, while such an alarm is sounded in the case of thousands of other dangers that are intractable even to the most trained eye?

The simplest answer would be that there is some interplay between liberal democracy and communism. The book explains this interplay in detail. At the onset, I will point to one obvious platform linking both regimes. Both communism and liberal democracy are regimes whose intent is to change reality for the better. They are – to use the current jargon – modernisation projects. Both are nourished by the belief that the world cannot be tolerated as it is and that it should be changed, that the old should be replaced with the new. Both systems are strongly and – so to speak – impatiently intruding in social fabric and both justify their intrusion with the argument that such interference leads to the improvement of the state of affairs by having them “modernised”.

This last word has a very peculiar connotation, initially stemming from technology since technology is and has always been about a constant improvement. The language of modernization, by referring, if only associatively, to technology compels us to see the world as an object of engineering and innovative activity, almost like a machine to be improved by new devices and perfected by new inventions. The world “technology” comes, of course, from the Greek techne which, as the ancient said, had such a powerful potential that could make men equal to gods. It was Prometheus that made a gift of techne to the human race, the gift which enabled people to survive and then to improve their conditions of living and to make life better. This wonderful gift had however another side to it: the ancients warned that techne, precisely because of its miraculous, almost divine creative potential could draw man into the sin of hubris.

Modernity made Prometheus a hero, and his gift was thought to be the best thing that ever happened to mankind because it was believed to be a vehicle of infinite progress carrying the human genius to unimaginable achievements. The meaning of modernization in today’s world goes far beyond technology in standard terms, but the faith in it largely draws its strength from the unprecedented technological successes which man has achieved so far and with which he can yet surprise the world in the future.

The concept of modernization also brings with it the idea of breaking from the old and initiating the new. Although the word itself, through its imperfective form assumes a graduated process (constant modernizing, not having something modernized once and for all), but in its deeper layer it refers to Modernity, a completely new era that was born when its makers decided to reject everything that preceded it and to start anew. The creators of modernity – Machiavelli, Hobbes and Bacon – saw themselves as pioneers of the new, who boldly turned their backs on the past. Towards that past, on the one hand, they felt contempt of the kind one feels towards something both foolish and harmful, and on the other hand, sympathy mixed with condescension one may feel towards something which had once, perhaps, some nobility and charm, but which disappeared never to return. Even if some of the modernizers took advantage of the old – and many did – they, like Descartes, did so without admitting it, and did all they could to obliterate any traces of inspiration. Modernitas thus inevitably involves conscious detachment, crossing the border, crossing the Rubicon, severing the umbilical cord, growing up and leaving adolescence behind, and doing other similar things denoted by the dozens of other more or less platitudinous metaphors.

“Modernization” also implies experiencing something refreshing and invigorating in human relations and in social and political arrangements: greater freedom, openness and lightness of existence. Although in the modernized world technology is becoming more advanced and institutions more complex, the modern human life returns to what is simple and elementary. People cast off unnecessary corsets, masks, postures, and costumes. They are once again young, optimistic, straightforward and liberated like the unforgettable Youngbloods family from Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke. The feeling of guilt, metaphysical or religious, disappears together with irrational moral and psychological barriers that were built on this feeling. Old obligations fade, and modern man acts more and more on his own account with a proud sense of individual independence and sovereignty. But at the same time – which may seem paradoxical but is not – considering himself detached from any obligations he increasingly cultivates the belief that his affirming individual independence and sovereignty is a step on the road to a better world for the entire human race. Thus by considering himself as being separate, he exults in the belief – hidden deep in his heart – that he is a participant, together with millions of others like himself, in a march towards the future.

When we look at communism and liberal democracy from that point of view, we can see that they are both fuelled by the idea of modernization. In both systems there is a cult of technology which translates itself into acceptance of social engineering as a proper approach to reforming society, changing human behaviour and solving existing social problems. This engineering may have a different scope and dynamics in each case, but in either the society and the world at large are regarded as undergoing a continuous process of construction and reconstruction. In one system it meant reversing the current of the Siberian Rivers; in the other – a formation of alternative family models; invariably however it was the constant improvement of nature which turns out to be barely a substrate to be moulded into a desired form. Although today’s ideology of environmentalism fashioned idolatrous reverence for the earth and its fauna and flora, it did not change the enthusiasm for treating human nature and society in a dangerously technological manner.

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