A Demon-Haunted Europe: Democracy’s Totalitarian Impulse
AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH RYSZARD LEGUTKO
Ryszard Legutko is a professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. He is also a member of the European Parliament, a Polish politician, and an author. He has written one of the most consequential works on political philosophy to be published in recent years, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. In this profound and vital book, Legutko argues that liberal democracies — specifically in Europe — have much in common with communism. He traces the twin developments of liberalism and democracy and shows how, at their precise intersection, the totalitarian impulse rises. With grave implications for freedom in the West, and for traditional institutions like the Catholic Church, Legutko sounds a warning: either recognize the danger and defeat it, or be destroyed by it.
NOR: Professor Legutko, you have written a significant book with particular appeal for the people and institutions of the West. Following your thesis, the seed of slavery seems to be sewn into the fabric of liberal democracy. What implications does this have with respect to our understanding of freedom? Is our understanding of freedom undergoing a paradigmatic shift such that we will demand greater freedoms (e.g., determining our gender identity) and end up with less (e.g., enforcement of “gender identity” rights and language limiting the speech of dissenters)?
Legutko: I am not sure we demand greater freedom today. On the contrary, I think freedom has ceased to be a highly valued commodity. What is happening is that some groups demand certain privileges, often called “rights,” and other groups seem favorable to these demands because they see in them a vehicle for constructing a new society compatible with their outrageous ideologies. When we see, for example, privileges granted to homosexuals, including the right to marry and adopt children — rather unusual privileges, to be sure — we mistake it for the growth of freedom in general. But this is an erroneous conclusion.
Take gender. It is a strange concept, and rather absurd, because not only does it undermine the obvious biological differences on which the existence of the human race has depended from time immemorial, but it makes this strange concept an instrument to reconstruct the entire human culture, including the humanities, art, law, philosophy, even natural sciences and mathematics. Its aim is to restructure society and the human mind — to make a mental, political, social, and cultural revolution — not to enlarge our freedom. One can compare it to Marxism and its theory of class struggle, which some people in the past believed serves the cause of freedom while in fact it is a tool for a revolution, not only in social relations but also in the humanities, art, law, philosophy, natural sciences, and mathematics. (For instance, multi-valued logic was said to be correlated to the growth of imperialism, and the general theory of relativity allegedly contradicted the dialectics of nature.)
In the case of both Marxism and gender, we have an attempt to make a deep restructuring of society. Revolutions hardly ever enlarge our freedom, though the revolutionaries often include “freedom” among their slogans. In the early stages of a revolution, people are lured by such slogans — and, indeed, some kind of freedom is given to them following the breakdown of the existing rules and the ensuing chaos. But soon the revolutionaries tighten their grip on society and impose the new rules that are stricter and more humiliating than before. The world before the gender revolution certainly had more freedom than it has now. Laws were less intrusive, the humanities more open and diversified, philosophy less dogmatic, human relations less legalistic. Likewise, as a result of granting privileges to homosexuals, we have experienced significant encroachments on the freedom of speech and many other liberties, and, consequently, on liberty in general.
NOR: For Catholics in the West, totalitarian temptations in free societies have particularly alarming manifestations and consequences. You write, however, that “it is the people themselves who have eventually come to accept, often on a pre-intellectual level, that eliminating the institutions incompatible with liberal-democratic principles constitutes a wise and necessary step.” How is this danger different from the communist regime under which you lived? And is there an internal danger to the Catholic Church from those people, including Catholics, who view the Church as an institution incompatible with liberal-democratic principles?
Legutko: The Catholic Church, at least in my country, despite occasional accommodating gestures toward the communist regime, usually of a tactical nature, believed itself to be and was perceived by the communists as being an alien body that was structurally and philosophically in opposition to communism. There were, of course, some individual priests who either became informers or were duped by communist ideology and claimed that Christianity and communism were allies. This thinking, by the way, was quite widespread among the leftist intelligentsia in non-communist Europe. Most of the great Protestant and Catholic theologians of the 20th century were, at certain moments in their lives, close to this belief, including Karl Barth, Emmanuel Mounier, Jacques Maritain, Paul Tillich, and many others. The Catholic Church, however, remained largely distant from and, for a long time, hostile to communism.
At a certain moment, the official attitude of the Church softened and became less outspoken. This is not to say that the Church wanted to sanctify communism. Far from it. John Paul II’s role in abolishing communism was paramount. What the Church did, however, was to try to make itself more in tune with the modern times, and being more in tune meant accepting some aspects of Marxist and related left-wing ideologies that, incidentally, had been teaching for many years that everything must join the current of history, or perish.
This conflict between progressives who want the Church to keep pace with the march of time (whatever this might mean) and conservatives who opt for continuity with or preservation of the unchangeable core of the doctrine has been going on for a long time. The progressives have usually been victorious because a lot of people believe that, whether we want it or not, we have to adapt ourselves to the modern world, and this directive applies to every person and every institution, including the Church. The opposite directive — that the modern world should adapt itself to what we think is right — has less support today, and it’s easy to see why.
Since the modern world means, for many people, liberal democracy, and since liberal democracy is deemed to be the supreme political arrangement (as communism and socialism were thought to be several decades ago), it is natural that those people want the Church to adapt itself to democratic and liberal standards and practices. Despite obvious differences between communism and liberal democracy, both pose a mortal danger to the Church. In the case of liberal democracy, the risk is even greater. It implies not only that the Church should kowtow to earthly power, but that earthly power is the teacher and the Church a learner. This presupposes an even greater concession than that which the Church previously made toward Marxism. Then it was said that socialism and Christianity may converge or may have a common objective or are somehow similar in their moral message. Today, the towering position of liberal democracy makes a lot of people — including quite a number of Catholics — accept a view that the Church should subordinate itself.
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