This summer, I told you that J.D. Vance was the man to listen to if you wanted to understand what was happening in contemporary American politics. Now, please hear me when I say that Ryszard Legutko is another critically important voice for our time.
Legutko is a Polish philosopher and politician who was active in the anti-communist resistance. He is most recently the author of The Demon In Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations In Free Societies. In this post from September, I said that reading the book — which is clearly and punchily written — was like taking a red pill — meaning that it’s hard to see our own political culture the same way after reading Legutko. His provocative thesis is that liberal democracy, as a modern political philosophy, has a lot more in common with that other great modern political philosophy, communism, than we care to think. He speaks as a philosopher who grew up under communism, who fought it as a member of Solidarity, and who took part in the reconstruction of Poland as a liberal democracy. It has been said that the two famous inhuman dystopias of 20th century English literature — Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World — correspond, respectively, to Soviet communism and mass hedonistic technocracy. Reading Legutko, you understand the point very well.
In this post, I quote several passages from The Demon In Democracy. Among them, these paragraphs in which he explains how Poland cast off the bonds of communism only to find that liberal democracy imposed similar interdictions on free thought and debate:
Very quickly the world became hidden under a new ideological shell and the people became hostage to another version of the Newspeak but with similar ideological mystifications. 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 and condemn the unorthodox — all, of course, for the glory of the new system and the good of the new man. 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 the language to the entire social organism and all its cells.
If the old communists lived long enough to see the world of today, they would be devastated by the contrast between how little they themselves had managed to achieve in their antireligious war and how successful the liberal democrats have been. All the objectives the communists set for themselves, and which they pursued with savage brutality, were achieved by the liberal democrats who, almost without any effort and simply by allowing people to drift along with the flow of modernity, succeeded in converting churches into museums, restaurants, and public buildings, secularizing entire societies, making secularism the militant ideology, pushing religions to the sidelines, pressing the clergy into docility, and inspiring powerful mass culture with a strong antireligious bias in which a priest must be either a liberal challenging the Church of a disgusting villain.
After the US election, Prof. Legutko agreed to answer a few questions from me via e-mail. Here is our correspondence:
RD: What do you think of Donald Trump’s victory, especially in context of Brexit and the changing currents of Western politics?
RL: In hindsight, Trump’s victory seems logical as a continuation of a more general process that has been unveiling in the Western World: Hungary, Poland, Brexit, possible political reshufflings in Germany, France, Austria, etc. What this process, having many currents and facets, boils down to is difficult to say as it appears more negative than positive. More and more people say No, whereas it is not clear what exactly they are in favor of. What seems to be common in the developments in Europe and the US is a growing mistrust towards the political establishment that has been in power for a long time. People have a feeling that in many cases this is the same establishment despite the change of the governments.
This establishment is characterized by two things: first, both in the US and in Europe (and in Europe even more so) its representatives unabashedly declare that there is no alternative to their platform, that there is practically one set of ideas — their own — every decent person may subscribe to, and that they themselves are the sole distributors of political respectability; second, the leaders of this establishment are evidently of the mediocre quality, and have been such long enough for the voters to notice.
Because the ruling political elites believe themselves to steer the society in the only correct political course it should take, and to be the best quality products of the Western political culture, they try to present the current conflict as a revolt of the unenlightened, confused and manipulated masses against the enlightened elites. In Europe it sometimes looks like an attempt to build a new form of an aristocratic order, since a place in the hierarchy is allotted to individuals and groups not according to their actual education, or by the power of their minds, or by the strength of their arguments, but by a membership in this or that class. The new aristocrats are full of contempt for the riffraff, do not mince words to bully them, use foul language, break the rules of decency — and doing all this does not make them feel any less aristocratic.
It is, I think, this contrast between, on the one hand, arrogance with which the new aristocrats preach their orthodoxy, and on the other, a leaping-to-the-eye low quality of their leadership that ultimately pushed a lot of people in Europe and the US to look for alternatives in the world that for too long was presented to them as having no alternative.
When eight years ago America elected as their president a completely unknown and inexperienced politician, and not exactly an exemplar of political virtue to boot, this choice was universally acclaimed as the triumph of political enlightenment, and the president was awarded the Nobel Prize in advance, before he could do anything (not that he did anything of value afterwards). The continuation of this politics by Hillary Clinton for another eight years would have elevated this establishment and their ideas to an even stronger position with all deplorable consequences.
For an outside observer like myself, America after the election appears to be divided but in a peculiar way. On the one side there is the Obama-Clinton America claiming to represent what is best in the modern politics, more or less united by a clear left-wing agenda whose aim is to continue the restructuring of the American society, family, schools, communities, morals. This America is in tune with what is considered to be a general tendency of the modern world, including Europe and non-European Western countries. But there seems to exist another America, deeply dissatisfied with the first one, angry and determined, but at the same time confused and chaotic, longing for action and energy, but unsure of itself, proud of their country’s lost greatness, but having no great leaders, full of hope but short of ideas, a strange mixture of groups and ideologies, with no clear identity or political agenda. This other America, if personified, would resemble somebody not very different from Donald Trump.
Trump won 52 percent of the Catholic vote, and over 80 percent of the white Evangelical Christian vote — this, despite the fact that he is in no way a serious Christian, and, on evidence of his words and deeds, is barely a Christian at all. Many Christians are understandably relieved that the state’s ongoing assault on the churches and on religious liberty in the name of sex-and-gender ideology, will probably be halted under the new president. From your perspective, should US Christians be hopeful about their prospects under a Trump presidency, or instead wary of being tempted by a false prophet?
Christians have been the largest persecuted religious group in the non-Western world, but sadly they have also been the largest victimized religious group in those Western countries that have contracted a disease of political correctness (which in practice means almost all of them). Some Western Christians, including the clergy, abandoned any thought of resistance and not only capitulated but joined the forces of the enemy and started disciplining their own flock. No wonder that many Christians pray for better times hoping that at last there will appear a party or a leader that could loosen the straitjacket of political correctness and blunt its anti-Christian edge. It was then to be expected that having a choice between Trump and Clinton, they would turn to the former. But is Trump such a leader?
Anti-Christian prejudices have taken an institutional and legal form of such magnitude that no president, no matter how much committed to the cause, can change it quickly. Today in America it is difficult even to articulate one’s opposition to political correctness because the public and private discourse has been profoundly corrupted by the left-wing ideology, and the American people have weaned themselves from any alternative language (and so have the Europeans). Any movement away from this discourse requires more awareness of the problem and more courage than Trump and his people seem to have. What Trump could and should do, and it will be a test of his intentions, are three things.
First, he should refrain from involving his administration in the anti-Christian actions, whether direct or indirect, thus breaking off with the practice of his predecessor. Second, he should nominate the right persons for the vacancies in the Supreme Court. Third, he should resist the temptation to cajole the politically correct establishment, as some Republicans have been doing, because not only will it be a bad signal, but also display naïvete: this establishment is never satisfied with anything but an unconditional surrender of its opponents.
Whether these decisions will be sufficient for American Christians to launch a counteroffensive and to reclaim the lost areas, I do not know. A lot will depend on what the Christians will do and how outspoken they will be in making their case public.
Trump is a politician of the nationalist Right, but he is not a conservative in any philosophical or cultural sense. Had the vote gone only a bit differently in some states, today we would be talking about the political demise of American conservatism. Instead, the Republican Party is going to be stronger in government than it has been in a very long time — but the party has been shaken to its core by Trump’s destruction of its establishment. Is it credible to say that Trump destroyed conservatism — or is it more accurate to say that the Republican Party, through its own follies, destroyed conservatism as we have known it, and opened the door for the nationalist Trump?
Conservatism has always been problematic in America, where the word itself has acquired more meanings, some of them quite bizarre, than in Europe. A quite common habit, to give an example, of mentioning libertarianism and conservatism in one breath, thereby suggesting that they are somehow essentially related, is proof enough that a conservative agenda is difficult for the Americans to swallow. If I am not mistaken, the Republican Party has long relinquished, with very few exceptions, any closer link with conservatism. If conservatism, whatever the precise definition, has something to do with a continuity of culture, Christian and Classical roots of this culture, classical metaphysics and anthropology, beauty and virtue, a sense of decorum, liberal education, family, republican paideia, and other related notions, these are not the elements that constitute an integral part of an ideal type of an Republican identity in today’s America. Whether it has been different before, I am not competent to judge, but certainly there was a time when the intellectual institutions somehow linked to the Republican Party debated these issues. The new generations of the neocons gave up on big ideas while the theocons, old or new, never managed to have a noticeable impact on the Republican mainstream.
Given that there is this essential philosophical weakness within the modern Republican identity, Donald Trump does not look like an obvious person to change it by inspiring a resurgence of conservative thinking. I do not exclude however, unlikely as it seems today, that the new administration will need – solely for instrumental reasons – some big ideas to mobilize its electorate and to give them a sense of direction, and that a possible candidate to perform this function will be some kind of conservatism. Liberalism, libertarianism and saying ‘no’ to everything will certainly not serve the purpose. Nationalism looks good and played its role during two or three months of the campaign, but might be insufficient for the four (eight?) years that will follow.
Though the Republicans will soon have their hands firmly on the levers of political power, cultural institutions — especially academia and the news and entertainment media — are still thoroughly progressive. In The Demon in Democracy, you write that “it is hard to imagine freedom without classical philosophy and the heritage of antiquity, without Christianity and scholasticism [and] many other components of the entire Western civilization.” How can we hope to return to the roots of Western civilization when the culture-forming institutions are so hostile to it?
It is true that we live at a time of practically one orthodoxy which the majority of intellectuals and artists piously accept, and this orthodoxy — being some kind of liberal progressivism — has less and less connection with the foundations of Western civilization. This is perhaps more visible in Europe than in the US. In Europe, the very term “Europe” has been consistently applied to the European Union. Today the phrase “more Europe” does not mean “more classical education, more Latin and Greek, more knowledge about classical philosophy and scholasticism”, but it means giving more power to the European Commission. No wonder an increasing number of people when they hear about Europe associate it with the EU, and not with Plato, Thomas Aquinas or Johann Sebastian Bach.
It seems thus obvious that those who want to strengthen or, as is more often the case, reintroduce classical culture in the modern world will not find allies among the liberal elites. For a liberal it is natural to distance himself from the classical philosophy, from Christianity and scholasticism rather than to advocate their indispensability for the cultivation of the Western mind. After all, these philosophies – they would say — were created in a pre-modern non-democratic and non-liberal world by men who despised women, kept slaves and took seriously religious superstitions. But it is not only the liberal prejudices that are in the way. A break-up with the classical tradition is not a recent phenomenon, and we have been for too long exposed to the world from which this tradition was absent.
There is little chance that a change may be implemented through a democratic process. Considering that in every Western country education has been, for quite a long time, in a deep crisis and that no government has succeeded in overcoming this crisis, a mere idea of bringing back classical education into schools in which young people can hardly read and write in their own native language sounds somewhat surrealist. A rule that bad education drives out good education seems to prevail in democratic societies. And yet I cannot accept the conclusion that we are doomed to live in societies in which neo-barbarism is becoming a norm.
How can we reverse this process then? In countries where education is primarily the responsibility of the state, it is the governments that may — hypothetically at least — have some role to play by using the economic and political instruments to stimulate the desired changes in education. In the US – I suspect — the government’s role is substantially more reduced. So far however the European governments, including the conservative ones, have not made much progress in reversing the destructive trend.
The problem is a more fundamental one because it touches upon the controversy about what constitutes the Western civilization. The liberal progressives have managed to impose on our minds a notion that Christianity, classical metaphysics, etc., are no longer what defines our Western identity. A lot of conservatives – intellectuals and politicians – have readily acquiesced to this notion. Unless and until this changes and our position of what constitutes the West becomes an integral part of the conservative agenda and a subject of public debate, there is not much hope things can change. The election of Donald Trump has obviously as little to do with Scholasticism or Greek philosophy as it has with quantum mechanics, but nevertheless it may provide an occasion to reopen an old question about what makes the American identity and to reject a silly but popular answer that this identity is procedural rather than substantive. And this might be a first step to talk about the importance of the roots of the Western civilization.
You have written that “liberalism is more about struggle with non-liberal adversaries than deliberation with them.” Now even some on the left admit that its embrace of political correctness, multiculturalism, and so-called “diversity,” is partly responsible for Trump’s victory. How do Brexit and Trump change the terms of the political conversation, especially now that it has been shown that there is no such thing as “the right side of history”?
Liberalism, despite its boastful declarations to the contrary, is not and has never been about diversity, multiplicity or pluralism. It is about homogeneity and unanimity. Liberalism wants everyone and everything to be liberal, and does not tolerate anyone or anything that is not liberal. This is the reason why the liberals have such a strong sense of the enemy. Whoever disagrees with them is not just an opponent who may hold different views but a potential or actual fascist, a Hitlerite, a xenophobe, a nationalist, or – as they often say in the EU – a populist. Such a miserable person deserves to be condemned, derided, humiliated and abused.
The Brexit vote could have been looked at as an exercise in diversity and, as such, dear to every pluralist, or empirical evidence that the EU in its present form failed to accommodate diversity. But the reaction of the European elites was different and predictable – threats and condemnations. Before Brexit the EU reacted in a similar way to the non-liberals winning elections in Hungary and then in Poland, the winners being immediately classified as fascists and the elections as not quite legitimate. The liberal mindset is such that accepts only those elections and choices in which the correct party wins.
I am afraid there will be a similar reaction to Donald Trump and his administration. As long as the liberals set the tone of the public debate, they will continue to bully both those who, they say, were wrongly elected and those who wrongly voted. This will not stop until it becomes clear beyond any doubt that the changes in Europe and in the US are not temporary and ephemeral and that there is a viable alternative which will not disappear with the next swing of the democratic pendulum. But this alternative, as I said before, is still in the process of formation and we are not sure what will be the final result.
There will be elections in several key European nations next year — Germany and France, in particular. What effect do you expect Trump’s victory to have on European voters? How do you, as a Pole, view Trump’s fondness for Vladimir Putin?
From a European perspective, Clinton’s victory would have meant a tremendous boost to the EU bureaucracy, its ideology and its “more Europe” strategy. The forces of the self-proclaimed Enlightenment would have gone ecstatic and, consequently, would have made the world even more unbearable not only for conservatives. The results of the elections must have shaken the EU elites, and from that point of view Trump’s victory was beneficial for those Europeans like myself who fear the federalization of the European Union and its growing ideological monopoly. There is more to happen in Europe in the coming years so the hope is that the EU hubris will suffer further blows and that the EU itself will become more self-restrained and more responsive to the aspirations of European peoples.
Trump’s foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis Russia, is still to be formulated and so far is a subject of speculation. The fact that he made some warm remarks about Putin during the campaign does not make me happy. Unfortunately, it is not only Trump that seems to have some sympathy for Putin. Let us not forget that it was Obama who had reset the American relations with Russia and thus indirectly facilitated the Russian aggressive actions. Hillary Clinton would have probably not changed Obama’s course. The days of America’s defying Russian imperialism seem to be over, no matter who becomes the US President.
The situation in Europe is no different. France, Italy, and Germany have been traditionally pro-Russian and their response to Russian imperialism was not as strong as one could expect. Should Putin attack the Baltic States — which are, let us remember, the NATO members — NATO will certainly not react militarily, and such signals have been already sent. So, all in all, the East Europeans do not feel secure, and the Western Europeans do not care. Russia is becoming stronger and more determined to regain its former political influence while the Western alliance on both sides of the Atlantic have neither the will nor the instruments to stop her. This is the reason why the new Polish government has launched a program of strengthening the defense system, which includes, among others, the US military presence on the Polish territory. If Trump endorses and then agrees to increase this presence, the Poles will – I am sure – forgive him those rather foolish and, let us hope, accidental remarks about Putin he made in the heat of the campaign.
Again, Prof. Ryszard Legutko develops these themes in his powerful new book The Demon In Democracy. Highly recommended. It is rare to find a book of political philosophy that is so sharply written, so accessible to the general reader, so relevant to its time, and so prophetic.