By Ryszard Legutko
Let me start by expressing my gratitude to The Catholic University of America for inviting me and giving me a floor to present my ideas. It has been, indeed, a very flattering invitation and I feel honoured to be here. I really am.
I have come here to talk about my recent book, or rather about the main thesis of the book which says that despite enormous differences, clear to everyone with elementary intelligence and knowledge, differences which in no way should be minimized, there is a considerable resemblance between communism and liberal democracy. This thesis meets immediately with two contradictory counterarguments. The first states that the thesis is simply nonsense: those differences are so great that no sane person can seriously think that a totalitarian regime responsible for the deaths of millions of people is even remotely similar to modern liberal democracy with its multi-party system and a thriving civil society. On the other hand – and this is the second counter-argument – calling political arrangements totalitarian, or fascist, or Stalinist, or authoritarian, or Orwellian, has become a cliché in today’s discourse and the reductio ad Hitlerum has been a standard rhetorical weapon used to excess by all and sundry. The thesis of the book may, therefore, seem to be both an outrageous absurdity and a political cliché.
And yet, unsurprisingly, I believe my book is neither. But before summarizing the book’s argument, let me describe the personal experience which made me arrive at the ideas that constitute the backbone of the book. Then I will try to explain how I arrived at the thesis and what it means. Afterwards I will present some arguments that support it, and finally, I will make some additional concluding comments.
For a person like myself living in a communist society but being born in a radically anti-communist family and becoming later consistently hostile to the communist system, it was obvious that Western liberal democracy was the opposite of what Ronald Reagan called the Evil Empire—a name we, the East European anti-communists, wholeheartedly welcomed. Western liberal democracy was thought to be the opposite of communism not only because it offered people freedom and dignity which we in the Eastern part of Europe were deprived of, but also because it was believed to be an outcome of a long civilizational and cultural process. The Western system we thought reflected – not literally, but not only symbolically either – the best what the West created, from Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Christian religion, to the spirit of scientific inquiry, technology and a culture of civility. In short, living in a communist country was for us like living outside the West; liberating oneself from communism was like re-joining the West, not only politically and economically, but also intellectually and spiritually. The West had its problems, to be sure—particularly its soft spot for communism—but we thought this was just a minor problem, soon to disappear.
But after the old regime collapsed I experienced several major disappointments which made me rethink and soon revise my enthusiasm for the theory and practice of liberal democracy. A brief period of joyful expectations ended, and then came critical reflection. The direct stimulus was a harrowing feeling that gripped me, a feeling that the mental world I was beginning to live in was not much different from what had surrounded me in the past. The expression “mental world” is, I admit, somewhat fuzzy, but I cannot find a better one. Perhaps it will become clear when I will tell you more about the disappointments which made me reject my initial position.
First, I discovered that the new system had, like the old one, a strong sense of the enemy. As soon as liberal democracy began to take root in my country, I noticed that the dualistic pattern I remembered from the old days continued to exist in the new conditions: good guys with good ideas against bad guys with bad ideas. The former were to be respected; the latter were not only to be criticized but condemned. I am not talking about many different local divisions and conflicts; I am talking about the dualism that was intended to tear apart the entire society or even, in a more sweeping version, the entire modern world. What astonished me was not that the house continued to be divided, but that many of the bad guys in liberal democracy were the same people, groups, organizations that had been bad in communism. Mostly these were conservatives, traditionalists, anti-communists, patriots (called nationalists), and in particularly Catholics and the Catholic Church. A lot of the new good guys were the old good guys, including the communist intelligentsia. The very same people who for decades had been calling for the workers of the world to unite against reactionaries were now calling for all the liberal democrats to unite, also against the very same reactionaries. There emerged a new and strong alliance – surprising, even shocking to many – of some of the former oppositionists and former communist intellectuals and politicians – who together immediately declared themselves to be the midwives of the new political system and its only legitimate guardians.
Second, what I found disturbing in the liberal democratic society was that the political language we used was not that of freedom, but that of necessity. One would have thought that after the fall of the regime, freedom would be the first principle to embrace, primarily freedom to think, to build institutions, to create, to discover, to search for the truth. But this was not the case. From day one we were made to accept that there already exists a blueprint for a good liberal democratic society, tried and generally agreed upon, which should be implemented. No more inventions, no more eccentricities: one has to follow the path that others have already passed and showed us the direction. I remember a debate among my colleagues about which direction our university should go once the communist yoke was shaken off, and the answer was almost unanimous: we should not try to discover America, but be like any other university from Vancouver, Canada to Auckland, New Zealand. The new system has its imperatives to which we have to give our assent, not only as regards university but also in law, in education, in morality, in family life, in entertainment. We were told: now that you are free, you must do this, this, and this. The internal contradiction within this language – “because you are free, you must…” – went almost unnoticed.
Third, I also was surprised and then shocked by the degree of social engineering that from the start the new system set in motion. And again, the language was most revealing. One could not help seeing an analogy between what was said right after the World War II when the communists seized power in Poland coming on the Soviet tanks, and what was said in Poland when the liberal democratic system was being installed. Each time the architects of the new order as well as the intelligentsia that supported it talked of “a new man,” “a new Pole” that had to be moulded because the vast majority were, as it was then called, “men belonging to the past” who no longer fit the new situation and the new challenges. The new times – it was said both then and now – needed new thinking, and new thinking required getting rid of old thinking. The modern mind had to be reshaped, educated (or re-educated), corrected, raised, and even recycled to be able to work in the new order that was being built. What was particularly astonishing in this attitude at the birth of a liberal democratic society in Poland was that it was the “man belonging to the past”, not “the new man” that should have been given credit for abolishing the old regime, and for this reason he should have been given a rightful place in liberated Poland instead of being humiliated and made an object of derision and then recycling. The Solidarity movement in 1980-1981 that shook the communist empire in Eastern Europe was composed of “men belonging to the past” – workers, priests, patriots, church-goers, respectable men and women strongly attached to tradition and national culture. About ten years later all of them were thought of as living anachronisms either to be mentally reformed or thrown into the dustbin of history.
These three—and several other experiences—I found disconcerting the more so that I knew they were not limited to my country or to the former Soviet colonies but were characteristic of the entire Western world. And since what was going on reminded me of what I had been exposed to during the communist rule, I, after a period of hard thinking, became ready to consider a hitherto hard-to-believe possibility that the two systems – communism and liberal democracy – might have something in common. And this was how I wrote an essay, and then a book. When the essay was published, it met with extreme reactions – some called it eye-opening, others dismissed it as ravings of a mad mind.
The book’s thesis is simple, but it has rather complex arguments to support it. If I were to give a shortest possible summary of the argument, I would say as follows.
What makes communism and liberal democracy akin, or consonant with each other is that in each case the political system is so predominant that it permeates the entire social fabric, all institutions, norms and human minds. Just as communism provided the ultimate frame of reference for everything that was happening in a communist society, so does liberal democracy provide such a frame of reference for everything that is happening in a liberal democratic society.
To put it differently, it was in the nature of the old regime that everything had to be communist and be called communist. There was not a family, but a communist family, not education, but a communist education, not society, but a communist society, not morality, but a communist morality, not art, but a communist art. Much later in the new conditions, I was somewhat dismayed to discover that also a liberal democratic society it is expected that everything should reflect the liberal democratic logic: family should become liberalized and democratized, so should schools, morals, social norms. It is even assumed that religion and churches will become more liberal and more democratic, both in their practice and in doctrines; even God has come to resemble a liberal democrat, just as in communism God, though he did not exist, was nevertheless a good communist. In communism, the adjective “communist” was a trump word: whatever was communist was superior to anything non-communist. I noticed that also in modern democracy “democratic” has become a trump word, just as “non-democratic” became one of strong condemnation.
All this led me to formulate a thesis that both systems have an inexorable tendency to politicization, that is, that both systems tend to impose their structures, procedures, principles, presuppositions on every aspect of society, on people’s lives, thoughts, actions. And not only do those systems impose their own structures, procedures, principles, presuppositions, but they believe this imposition to be beneficial, necessary, desired by people, and also being in accordance with the general current of the civilization.
The communist politicization was indeed comprehensive in scope and painfully intrusive. No wonder that for some it was unbearable. Therefore, those people who defied it looked for areas not yet touched by politics in which they could find refuge from political aggression: these areas could be private life, art, intellectual activities, religion. But in reality, finding refuge turned out to be most difficult: the communist authorities were, of course, aware of these escapist strategies and did their best to annex those areas and incorporate them under their political dominion.
Family and private life seemed to be the obvious fortresses within which one could find peace and security from the ubiquity of official ideology and propaganda. There were other fortresses – historical memory, or individual memory preserved in narratives shared among friends. Likewise, art and beauty – people were seeking asylum from the ugliness and stifling tedium of the ideology in classical poetry, or music, or the works of the masters, and were escaping from the reverberating vulgarity of the communist newspeak by memorizing old poems or reading classical literature, or going church with its liturgy, the word of the Gospels, mystery and spirituality. The existence of the Catholic Church in my country was a reality of paramount importance for saving the soul of the nation.
But the communists, as I said, were aware of these strategies and did everything they could to conquer those territories. It was particularly true in the early stages of their reign when the new ideology had a deafening volume and stultifying intensity. The attack on the private life and the family life was then particularly strong. The communists were in the world’s avant-garde of change – the first to have divorces easily obtainable and accessible; the first to introduce abortion on demand; the first to empower the young against the old, students against teachers, children against parents. But later the communist party let it go and its grip on politics was loosening. After the period of the tyranny of the so-called socialist realism, art became freer; the humanities, at the beginning being entirely in the service of the system, later gained some independence; language, from the beginning being under a special surveillance and having deteriorated into a newspeak, later considerably emancipated itself from the chains of ideology.
The communists’ method for exercising control over these realities – family, private life, art, morals, language – was to introduce and then to enforce a criterion, in fact, the criterion, of correctness. Since everything was political and because politics was regulated by ideology, it was obvious that everything had to be compatible with the basic principles of this ideology, and no dissonant notes were allowed. There were no innocuous remarks or acts because everything was clearly congruent or clearly incongruent with the ideology. As the communist system was falling apart, this criterion of correctness was replaced by that of non-contradiction. Words and deeds – it was assumed – must not be in contradiction with the communist ideology. This marked an important change, as initially, the criterion was stronger – congruence is a more demanding criterion that non-contradiction. Congruence with doctrine was called correctness, and correctness replaced truth, beauty, elegance, style. Every time and in each case – whether it was a private experience, or a thought, or a speech, or a poem, or a philosophical statement – this congruence had to be evident, clear, easy to perceive to all. This meant that everybody, in whatever he did or said, had to make an effort to show this congruence, to prove it – by a phrase, a gesture, a symbol – in order to pre-empt all possible doubts and accusations. And precisely because people were obliged to prove their correctness, many saw in it an opportunity to trace and then to hunt down those who were too lazy, or too reckless, or too naïve to make their correctness manifest, or, horribile dictu, deliberately ignored it.
Now let me say a few words about liberal democracy. If what I said about the omnipresence of liberal and democratic principles in today’s western societies is true, it would be natural to ask how strong are possible fortresses within which some of us could try to hide, being put off by the new tides of liberal-democratic political offensives. How strong, for example, is the private sphere and a family life against liberal democratic political crusades? Are our private lives more secure now than they were, say, twenty or thirty years ago? To what extent are our thoughts imbued with the liberal and democratic ideas when we think of family, or try to organize our own family life, or give advice to our friends on family matters? Are we more inclined or less inclined than before to speak of family, using such political words as “power”, “empowerment”, “equality”, “rights”, “gender”? Is law more involved or less involved in regulating family relations? Or take sex which is, one would think, the most private intimate of all private intimate matters. Has sex become over past decades more or less a matter taken up and regulated by governments, legislatures, courts, and all sorts of agencies? Or let us take other possible fortresses or places of refuge – art, religion, language, history, memory – are they providing, today, more protection against liberal-democratic politics or less? Is language free from political intervention or is it more and more politically controlled? Can one easily publish a book or an article that does not accord with the regulations of the politically acceptable jargon? Are the restrictions more severe or less severe than those in the past? Are our universities the monuments of academic liberty and openness, ruled by Cardinal Newman’s gentlemen, or have they been moving away from these standards? Is the language taught in schools a language of English and American literature or is it the language more and more resembling the gobbledygook of current political ideologies?
There are at least three possible relations between liberal democratic orthodoxy and those places of refuge. The first is that of neutrality. The liberal democratic system simply ignores what sort of ideas are being pursued and upheld: they may be monarchic, or aristocratic, or anarchist, or communist, or conservative, or nihilist. This possibility seems to me rather hypothetical than real. I seriously doubt whether a liberal democratic system can be neutral with regards to many such fortresses. Democracy contains an inherent mechanism of politicization because it involves in the political process more people than any other system. There is nothing in the nature of democracy that could prevent the demos from imposing a stamp of politics on the private matters to make them subservient to their current political pieties. With liberalism, it is even more obvious. Liberalism has always had two features which make it resistant to neutrality, also in the matters which were traditionally regarded as non-political. First, its concept of human nature is that of a private person, as contrasted with the political man, to use an Aristotelian concept. Secondly, liberalism is essentially political – its declarations to the contrary notwithstanding – because its aim is to impose its order on the entirety of human arrangements; it always positions itself above other types of arrangements because it considers itself to be more spacious, larger and all-encompassing, a meta-system, a system of the second order, best suited to organize life for others. It is also intensely political because it is built on and takes its force from a dichotomy – freedom versus authority, liberty versus despotism, individual rights versus the government’s prerogatives. This paradoxical combination, a liberal man as a private person concerned with individual pursuits – money, property, career, private pleasures – and the inherently political nature of the system, could not but break the ramparts surrounding the private realm and impregnate it with political content. It is then my contention that liberalism, from John Locke onwards, was the major vehicle that brought private matters to the public square and made it highly political. This, I think, explains why liberal democracy is unlikely to tolerate non-liberal and non-democratic enclaves.
The second possible relation is that of non-contradiction. This means that the liberal democrats ignore those non-liberal and non-democratic enclaves as long as those enclaves do not explicitly contradict the principles of liberal democracy. This is a rather obscure statement because we do not really know what does and what does not contradict the liberal democratic principles. A typical liberal democrat, if asked, would reply that we cannot tolerate fascist ideas, but as the word fascist long ago lost any concrete meaning, this does not move us far. If asked again whether we should also be ban communist ideas, the same liberal democrat will hesitate and will probably evade a clear answer. There are more and more Protean concepts denoting things that are believed to be incompatible with liberal democracy – nationalism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism. One cannot resist a feeling, indeed, something more than a feeling, that what is not permitted has been growing in recent decades, what is permitted seems to be decreasing. Toutes proportions gardes, one could paraphrase a well-known statement known from the history of communism: the class struggle intensifies with the development of the communist society. Today we would say: the closer we are to the ideal of liberal democracy, the more menacing are the dangers it has to stand up against and the fiercer are the battles to fight.
The third possibility is that of congruence. We tolerate only those ideas that are congruent with liberal-democratic orthodoxy. This by no means – it is argued – implies limitation of liberties because liberal democracy is the freest, most open, most pluralistic, most tolerant system, and enforcing this orthodoxy we, in fact, enforce freedom, openness, pluralism, tolerance, equality. This argument sounds rather suspicious, but it is something I often hear in a slightly more camouflaged form in the European Union. The gist of this argument is semantic, not empirical – if liberalism means being in favour of freedom, and if democracy means being in favour of the power of the people – then imposing liberal democracy means by definition making the world freer and the people more empowered. The possibility that liberal democracy may curtail freedom and be against people is ruled out on the level of the definition. To speak more philosophically, this proposition is true as an analytical proposition: you define liberalism as a theory and a movement upholding freedom, just as the proposition “every bachelor is an unmarried man” is true analytically because bachelor is defined as an unmarried man. As an empirical proposition, however, describing the actual policies or political agendas of parties, governments, and organizations, it need not be true; in fact, it is often false. By analogy, nationalism defined as a movement upholding the interest of a nation upholds the interest of the nation on the level of definition; in practice, however, this or that nationalist group may do a great disservice to the nation. Or aristocracy defined as a rule of the best and the virtuous is, on the level of the definition, a system in which the best and the virtuous rule, but in reality, this or that elite claiming to be an aristocracy may be a gang of thugs.
Now the question is: where are we now in western societies as regards those possibilities. I will not venture to make a statement about the United States, but in Europe, and particularly in the European Union, we are somewhere between the second and third option, the third appearing to be stronger every day. If so, the main thesis of my book seems, unfortunately, to have another corroboration.
Once we agree that what makes communism and liberal democracy similar is an unusually high degree of politicization, we are faced with two possibilities. The first possibility is that the communists were right in their belief that a political system should dominate our lives and permeate the entire social fabric, but they made an error – a costly one, to be sure – indicating communism to perform this role. In other words, there is nothing wrong with the omnipresence of politics as long as the political system is good. Since communism was not good, the pervasiveness of communist politics was not good either. The second possibility is that the communists were wrong on both counts. Not only the system was bad, but politicization as such is also bad whatever the system. If we choose the first possibility, the thesis of my book crumbles. We can then say that there is nothing wrong with these similarities because they are merely formal, not substantive. The forms may be similar – omnipresence of ideology and politics – but the substance is in each system different: democratic politics is good and communist politics was bad.
If we choose the second possibility and say that the invasion of politics into every nook and cranny is bad, regardless of the nature of the political system, then we are in a position to raise a serious objection against liberal democracy accusing it of totalizing ambitions. This, in turn, opens a serious theoretical and institutional problem, namely, how to curb these ambitions and what instruments the liberal democratic system has – if any at all – to do the job. The problem is indeed a fundamental one. Liberal democracy is a system which seems to meet all the criteria of a good order (the criteria which, needless to say, the communist system failed to meet): plurality of political parties, a constitutional freedom of the press, a constitutional liberty to form associations, separation of powers, parliament, elections, and yet all these seem to produce adverse results. It has proved unable to engender any form of self-restraint. Therefore, it may very well be that the problem is not structural and does not have a structural solution, but lies deeper in those parts of human experience that are far more resistant to human action.
It seems that what joins communism and liberal democracy intellectually on a deeper, more philosophical level are certain general assumptions, rarely questioned, to which most of us have accepted as self-evident, but which are far from obvious. In fact, they are a major part of the problem.
- Communism and liberal democracy have been the greatest political dreams of modern history. No other political projects have been so universally hailed as the ultimate realizations of people’s aspirations. The human race – it was believed – could not go any further in political evolution than communism in one case, and liberal democracy in the other. What united the minds of the adherents of both systems was the logical and historical absence of any alternative form of political arrangements now or in the future. And with the disappearance of all alternatives, there are no good reasons why the systems cannot be extended everywhere and why this ever deeper and ever wider extension should not be claimed to beneficial and sensible. In other words, the dedicated communists and the dedicated liberal democrats suffer from the same error, the error of big dreamers, which one might call a misplacement of perfection. The real perfection lies elsewhere, not in politics, and certainly not in political arrangements.
- Since both systems are considered ultimate and having no alternative, there is no room for a compromise with their critics. The critics are not just critics, but enemies. One does not seriously enter into a debate with a non-liberal or with a non-democrat, as a communist did not seriously enter into a debate with a non-communist. But the consequence of this is the emergence of something like a united front. We had the united fronts in communism built around the communist party. We have something like it today. This is particularly true of the EU ruled by the same permanent majority which is political (grand coalition), teleological (common goal to be achieved – an ever closer union), and ideological (composed of all leftist ideologies that are around today). This, in turn, undermines or makes irrelevant the classical division between the Left and the Right, which has been replaced by the mainstream politics, the modern equivalent of the leading role of the Party. This mainstream politics has monopolized the political scene and has formed a ruling orthodoxy, thus making a mechanism of a democratic pendulum obsolete and redundant, sometimes even harmful. Whoever does not belong to the mainstream is either a fool or a fascist. For that reason, the EU does not like dissenters. But this is not only the EU. In most West European countries, we also have a de facto mainstream politics, dominated by the political Left as the political Right has lost the war of ideas and capitulated.
- Both systems were considered to be the great experiments in modernization which one group identified with communism, the other with liberal democracy. Both were against the old in favour of the new. Both take their legitimacy from overcoming and surpassing the past. The past is something to be looked at with suspicion mixed with contempt. If the old-new dichotomy is sufficiently deeply embedded in people’s minds, they are apt to apply it not only to technology and machines, but also to their own social and cultural environment, to social structures, morality, education, thinking, art. Everything has to be modernized, and modernisation allows a deep intrusion into the existing social arrangements, into people’s way of thinking. It is therefore tempting to create not only new type of society, but also a new type of human being and new types of human relations. The communists and the liberal democrats, like all enthusiastic modernizers, are hubristic, feeling nothing but disdain for barriers, limits, natural restraints, taboos, historically grounded norms. The communists tried to reverse the current of the Siberian rivers; the liberal democrats redefine marriage and family.
- Both stem from a similar anthropology that reduces human beings to simple characteristics – creatures who are rather flat with no metaphysical dimension. In both systems anthropology is egalitarian. Equality is believed to be a natural condition, not only equality of people, but also equality of human consciousness, or human soul, where there is no longer a distinction between the higher and the lower parts. This is a philosophy of a common man as contrasted with a philosophy of a noble man which one can find in Aristotle or in Ortega y Gasset. Commonness means that no higher aspirations are inscribed into human nature; if such aspirations characterize some people, it is a matter of contingency, not a necessary criterion of humanity. The problem of commonness thus understood is that it leads to conformity and uniformity. Tocqueville was one of the first in modern times to have noticed it: see his description of the democratic man. Commonness in turn usually generates narrowness of the perspective. And the narrowness of the perspective entails self-satisfaction which precludes taking any other external factor into account and consulting any other tribunal but one’s own. Communism and liberal democracy, in other words, were the systems of the common man. This does not contradict the hubristic propensities of the two systems. The common man may be as hubristic as a tyrant especially when he believes that he lives in the best of political systems and that this system, not anything else, is the highest authority of what is right and what is wrong.
The final question – what is to be done, and how to change the system which seems to have all the instruments for self-improvement but which makes all of them inefficient – was not addressed in the book because I do not think it is an interesting question for a historian of philosophy like myself. It is far more interesting for a politician like myself. As a historian of philosophy, I can say, very generally, that if one is dissatisfied with what I called the liberal democratic mental world, should start by challenging the four assumptions just described. To make a political change is much more difficult. I cannot talk about it now because my time is up. Anyway, this is a different subject for a different occasion when I may be more voluble. And on this note of suspense, I rest my case.