Escaping from Soviet rule in Poland during the 1970s, Ryszard Legutko landed in the liberalized sphere of NATO-defended Europe only to have a startling and somewhat horrifying discovery: many proponents of the political system he had just been received by—liberal democracy—were sympathetic, if not outright favorable, to the cripplingly despotic communist system best characterized by the Soviet regime. It was not, he admits in his introduction to The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, something that necessarily occurred to him immediately. But even within the first few years of his freedom, he had recognized tendencies among his Western colleagues to defend aspects of the system that he had risked his livelihood escaping from.
The Demon in Democracy is not an autobiography. Legutko spends only brief segments of the introduction explaining his personal history with both the communism of the Soviet bloc and the liberal democracies of the West. His personal thoughts serve to underline and make relevant the study in these systems as the book unfolds. It does not take a specific side on the issue of the assumed conflict between these systems—a conflict known to modern minds as the Cold War, albeit in modern days characterized in a rudimentary fashion. Instead, Demon serves as an indictment of modernity, which represents the abandonment of reasonable principles and the traditions of the old world. Both the communism of the Soviet sphere and the liberal democracy of Western world are progeny of the modernist metaphysic, he argues, having taken alternate courses of development but having been built on the same foundation.
Legutko begins his analysis with an explication of how these two competing modes of politics were initially formulated, and how they view history. All secularized societies place heavy importance on the role of history, for it is from the study of it that the norms and roles of these societies are legitimized. As Legutko points out, liberal democracy lacks any unifying and codified body of theory, which means it has no singular historian from which it draws its critique of the traditional values of the old world. Communism, by contrast, broke into the mainstream in the form of Marxism, a largely cohesive ideology that drew very specific conclusions about economics and politics from very specific assumptions it had made about human nature and the teleology (or the lack of it) of the universe. Legutko emphasizes that both ideologies operated from materialistic premises—in Marxism’s case, overtly so, while in liberalism’s case, transcendent reality and the moral implications those entail were rendered irrelevant. Instead, a narrative of social progress supplanted the need for anything greater than materialism; man’s development away from the so-called oppressive structures of the old world toward either the communist or liberal ideal utopia embodied that progress. Only in their proposed solutions do they disagree: communism called for violent revolution to overthrow the class system, while liberalism’s answer was merely an embrace of the free market. Both claimed that in achieving their ends, tyranny would cease to exist and either the communist utopia would reign supreme for the rest of time, or conversely, the end of history would be achieved and the free exchange of ideas and goods would lead to a flourishing of humanity until the end of the world.
As it turned out, communism never actually achieved any of the ends it proposed, and the end of history—at least in terms of the West’s struggle against the global terror of communism—seemed upon us almost thirty years ago. No successful communist system has ever been put into practice, and liberalism’s hegemony over prevailing ideological systems among developed countries seems to imply that we’re already living in its utopic ideal. Except that all the things it was supposed to fix remain broken.
Legutko discusses the similarities between these utopic ideals in the second chapter, paying careful attention to the ‘democracy’ part of the liberal democratic system that he criticizes. He emphasizes that the sort of free market idolized by the liberals of the eighteenth and nineteenth century necessitated a democratic system of government. An atomized economy, functioning on an atomized understanding of morality in the wake of a disenfranchised religious body, requires an atomized form of political consensus. The old world’s method of using politics only as one aspect of the entire society was insufficient for the individualized man free of the moral restraints instilled by religious authority and a teleological metaphysic. If man has no moral obligation to act according to his reason and his will, and if he has no measure for his action according to those ends, then only in the market and the political realm will his impact be felt. The resulting forms of economic theory, which distill the relationships among fellows to the mechanical exchanges of wealth for services or goods, naturally followed, as did the need for all men to be political units.
Throughout the book, Legutko uses the philosophical framework of liberalism in order to string together how a privatized religion, politicized social life, atomized economic processes, and delegitimized family relationships are each necessary in order for such a regime to function. Legutko, having left a regime in which each of these were essentially fulfilled, albeit through violence rather than mere subversion, naturally finds little solace in the proposed ideal world that liberal democratic voices champion. While liberal democrats won’t be found gleefully pouring molten lead down the throats of priests quite like the Bolsheviks did, their general disdain for religion nonetheless manifests itself in the prioritization of secular values in the public sphere. This is why both the classical liberals, who supplant the role of the church with the presence of the government in establishing moral behavior, can find common ground with the modern liberals who actively defend atheism and routinely attack the Christian ethos on primetime talk shows, in universities, and in political discourse.
The Demon in Democracy functions largely as a criticism of liberal democracy, implicating its foundational ethics and metaphysics in both its unsustainability and its leniency in pursuing the eradication of totalitarian communism—even when the latter was, supposedly, among its mission statements in the twentieth century. Legutko spends more time dissecting the contradictions in liberalism, and how those contradictions are even necessary for liberalism to function, than he does in attacking communism. The reason for this is quite simple: communism has already run its course and failed several times over. It is not an ideological enemy worth spending significant time fighting anymore; there are already libraries of material having been written on the failings of communism in both the political, social, cultural, and historical fields—The Black Book of Communism, The Gulag Archipelago, and of course, The God that Failed each rank among some of the best of their genre. Demon is not, nor does it try to be, such a comprehensive or exhaustive study.
Critiques of liberalism, however, are only now increasing in number and in scope. The last twenty years have seen a surge of works—both academic and those accessible to laymen—that place liberalism squarely in the defendant’s seat in the ongoing trial of who murdered western civilization. Additionally, the myth that modern “liberals”, those on the left whose ideologies are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from Marxist-Leninism, are entirely unrelated to the so-called “classical liberals” of the nineteenth century, is finding itself deconstructed under the analyses of thinkers such as Legutko. While their end results may seem irreconcilable in their differences, the fact that they both start from the same philosophical assumptions about man, the world, and his place in it, mean that their political systems will inevitably come to resemble one another. What these critiques all share is that classical liberalism is a tenable position only for so long as the classical values of the traditional worldview it supplanted remain active forces in the culture—something, ironically, classical liberalism itself tries to stamp out, as noted in chapters four and five of Legutko’s book.
This leads to the conclusion that it is, in fact, in spite of liberal democracy—not because of it—that the United States has managed to remain comparatively free compared to its kin on the European continent. The European Union, with its wholesale embrace of liberal democracy, resembles more and more the tyrannical socialist regimes that it was once formed to resist by the year. In part, this may be due to economic necessity, but even this economic necessity was born from its own actions and the premises of the worldview from which it operates.
In any case, as a crash course on liberalism’s failures, Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy is certainly worth the read. It’s pretty short, coming in at 182 pages, divided up into five chapters and leisurely readable in easily a couple of days. For those that are interested in leaving behind the oppressive leftist framework of interest groups and materialism, Legutko offers up more ammunition for the fight, and from a more respectable source than the “Alt-Right” e-celebs who have been hard at work lately churning out low-hanging fruit at sixth grade reading levels. While hardly a challenging read, Legutko’s nuanced understanding of both liberalism and communism, as well as the insight he brings to contrasting these against the traditional values of the old world, establish his book as a great introduction to the modern traditionalist movement. Highly recommended.