Book review: Totalitarian Temptations

In the 1970s, Ryszard Legutko began to travel for the first time outside Communist Poland and was unpleasantly surprised by the “anti-anticommunism” of his friends and contacts in the West, who combined a lenient attitude to communists and a harsh approach to anti-communists.

Later, in the ex-communist countries, after the move to democracy in 1989, a deliberately forgetful attitude was taken towards the recent communist past. In the new democratic systems set up in Eastern Europe at that time, one might have expected a very searching examination of the crimes and injustices of the recently collapsed regimes. Instead, Professor Leguto states, ex-communists quickly joined the new establishment in these countries, scrutiny of the recent communist past became deeply unwelcome and anti-communists were often seen as a threat to liberal democracy.

Later, he argues, no post-communist government, even the worst, was condemned by the European Union, while the current anti-communist governments of Poland and Hungary have “sparked fury of enormous intensity” (p. 141).

These developments prompted the author, a Polish professor of philosophy at the Jagellonian University in Krakow , MEP and former Government Minister with the Law and Justice Party, to reflect in this book (The Demon in Democracy. Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, Encounter Books, New York and London, 2016) on the similarities between communism and liberal democracy or, at least, the type of secularist, “liberal-democratic” system that has developed in Europe in recent decades – similarities that he was at first very surprised to acknowledge.

In thought-provoking chapters on History, Utopia, Politics, Ideology and Religion, the author explores the shared objectives between these two political systems and the defective concept of the human person in both and argues that secularist liberal democracy has over time moved towards the same goals as communism, though without Soviet-style brutality.

Forms of Utopia

He makes this argument in a nuanced way, by acknowledging, for example, that this book would not have been published in Communist Poland. Nevertheless, his argument is that communism and secularist liberal-democracy are both forms of Utopia, which aim to destroy injustice, tyranny and poverty for ever and to solve definitively “all the basic problems of collective life” (p. 47). Both sides, he maintains, also have a dislike, sometimes bordering on hatred, towards the same enemies: the Church and religion, the nation, classical metaphysics, moral conservatism and the family.

He reflects on the increasing reach of “liberal-democracy”, like Marxism before it, into every area of life – including marriage and the family and education, a move which he sees as being propelled by the concept of equality that came to prominence during the social revolution of the 1960s.

The State in liberal democracy, he argues, has ceased to be an institution pursuing the common good and has become instead a hostage of groups “that treated it solely as an instrument of change securing their interests” (p. 61).

Professor Legutko refers to the mediocre vision of man on offer today and makes interesting comments, in this context, on entertainment: “The modern sense of entertainment increasingly resembles what Pascal long ago called divertissement: that is, an activity … that separates us from the seriousness of existence and fills this existence with false content” (p. 36). The author links this phenomenon to the “anthropological minimalism” of democratic man, in which, for example, entertaining oneself takes on an exaggerated importance (p. 38).

The author offers a highly critical analysis of the EU, which he knows well in his role as an MEP, and maintains that the EU reflects the order and spirit of liberal democracy in its most “degenerate” version. This is because, he argues, unelected EU officials and even elected MEPs are not accountable to national electorates in any meaningful way.

European institutions, he suggests, are supposed to represent “European society”, as distinct from national societies, which, theoretically, seems quite understandable. The problem is that the EU institutions exist whereas European society does not:  “Such a society will – we are told – come into existence some time in the future, but this belief is a part of the EU creed, for which evidence is, to say the least, shaky. But once we accept the basic premise that the existing institutions may act for, and in the name of, the society that is believed to emerge in the future, we give them extraordinary powers far exceeding those that are granted within the framework of an ordinary society” (p. 69). He maintains that reform will have to start from the nation-states themselves rather than from the EU as such.

Breathing with both lungs

St John Paul II liked to say that Europe needed to breathe with both its lungs – Western Latin and Eastern Orthodox – but one might apply the metaphor to Western and Eastern Europe more generally. We in Western Europe need to be better informed on what is happening in the East.

Reporting of Eastern Europe today in Ireland is dominated by EU or Western media critiques of the nationalist positions of various Governments from that region but detailed, in-depth press exploration of the experience and outlook of people of faith is lacking – as it was in the 1970s too, before the election of Pope John Paul II. Alternative perspectives, such as this essay by Professor Legutko, are thus of great interest for the light that they shed on current developments and debates in their region and indeed throughout Europe. Christians across Europe can and do legitimately differ about the European Union and its future and some would place greater hope than the author in the possibility of revitalizing it from within, even if concern about its democratic deficit has arguably become more widespread.

This illuminating analysis is a valuable contribution to discussion at a time of great anxiety throughout Europe about emerging forms of  “soft totalitarianism”. One can point in Ireland to the extraordinary pressure applied here to pass the  “same-sex marriage” referendum in 2015 and the current efforts to shut down debate on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. While Prof Legutko’s book is stronger on analysis than on solutions for the future, or ideas on how, for example, Christians in different countries might cooperate with each other, his scholarly essay is well worth reading by anyone concerned about, and wishing to understand better, the huge challenges we currently face across the European Continent.

Tim O’Sullivan has degrees in arts and social policy and completed a doctorate on the subsidiarity principle. He is a regular contributor to Position Papers.