Ryszard Lugutko is not all that well known in Anglophone circles but he is a huge name in Poland. In the 1980s he was a young academic in Cracow writing books and articles about political theory for the underground publishers.
In the post-Communist era he has served as the Minister of Education, Secretary of State in the Chancellery of the late President Lech Kaczynski and Deputy Speaker of the Polish Senate. He is currently a member of the European Parliament and Deputy Chairman of the Parliamentary Group of European Conservatives and Reformists. He is also a professor of philosophy at Poland’s most prestigious university—the Jagiellonian—founded in 1364 by Casimir the Great and the alma mater of St John Paul II. Legutko’s English publications include: Society as a Department Store: Critical Reflections on the Liberal State (2002) and The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (2016).
This most recent work addresses a theme close to the heart of many Poles of the heroic Solidarity generation, namely, why is it that Communists found it so easy to transform themselves into Liberal Democrats while retaining their hostility to the Catholic Church and the Catholic family as social institutions?
For those too young to remember, in the watershed year of 1989 the Communists and leaders of the anti-Communist opposition did a deal. Certain government positions were transferred to the anti-Communists and free elections followed, but there were to be no retributions, no punishment for the Communist thugs and criminals, nothing like a Nuremburg trial for the former Communist high officials.
In 1989 this was thought to be the most prudent course of action. No one wanted a Soviet invasion of Poland and its accompanying brutality. However the end result is that today, to quote a Polish priest friend, “people who had their teeth kicked out by Communists in the 1980s are now driving taxis to make a living, while the same Communists are retired on state pensions”.
Legutko’s latest book offers an explanation for this tragic state of affairs as well as a penetrating analysis of the folly of Christian elites who pursue policies of assimilation with the zeitgeist of Liberal Democracy.
While Legutko acknowledges that Liberal Democracy is not as bad as Communism, and indeed for as long as the practitioners of Liberal Democracy were predominately of a Judeo-Christian mind-set, it was vastly superior to Communism, he nonetheless argues that both Communism and Liberal Democracy currently share the same hostility to Christianity and the same propensity for totalitarian behavior.
First, the Communist and Liberal Democratic ideologies share a perception of history as developing according to a linear pattern. For the Communists the dynamic of human history is the class struggle, for the Liberal Democrats the dynamic is a social struggle between the team of freedom and the team of authority. Since the Church plays for the team of authority, it always finds itself on the wrong side of Liberal Democratic ideology.
Secondly, Communists and Liberal Democrats agree that the future utopian order requires the preliminary agency of enlightened freedom fighters, for example, the work of partisan journalists and intellectuals. Often the only opposition to both groups is found within the small milieu of Catholic scholars.
Thirdly, Communists and Liberal Democrats agree that in their new world order people will be liberated from all forms of superstition and ignorance. Since Christianity requires faith in revelation it is deemed to be the greatest purveyor of superstition and ignorance and thus the institution most in need of social marginalization.
There is, moreover, an attitude common to Communists and Liberal Democrats that the political system should permeate every section of public and private life. Not only should the economy be liberal, but the Church and the family, schools and universities, and indeed, culture itself should be democratic. No distinctions are to be made between ballet and rap dancing, opera and hip hop, tabloid journalism and meticulous scholarship, happy families and unhappy families, casual hook-ups and life-long relationships. All forms of aristocratic culture (that is, cultures built upon an acknowledgement of different grades of excellence and authority) need to be eradicated. To assist this the entertainment industry encourages what Legutko (following Pascal) calls divertissement—activity that separates people from the seriousness of existence and fills this existence with cheap and shallow content.
As Legutko expresses the principle: ‘for the ideologues of liberal democracy it is necessary to intervene deeply into the social substance—where the roots of status and recognition reside—either through direct political action or indirectly by changing the laws, making appropriate judicial decisions, and adjusting morality and social mores drastically to guarantee equality’. Hence, ‘literature, art, education, family, liturgy, the Bible, traditions, ideas, entertainment and even children’s toys’ are all areas of private life which have been deemed to require state intervention for the sake of a common democratic cultural order. Most often it is the Education Departments of governments which set up bureaucracies to police these fields.
Legutko argues that the Liberal-Democratic man has politicized his privacy, his marriage, his family relations, his communal life and language and in these efforts he resembles his communist comrade. But his greatest success, which goes beyond anything achieved by the Old Left Communists, is to politicize the realm of sex itself. The English sociologist Anthony Giddens has called this ‘the democratization of intimacy’.
While the old style Marxists had only “class” as an ideological leverage, the ideological trend of contemporary Liberal-Democratic ideologues is “class, race and gender”.
Legutko also observes that those contaminated by ideology develop a deep suspicion towards ideas. They want to dismiss intellectual judgements as the epiphenomena of class interest (Marx) or weakness of the body (Nietzsche) or an unresolved Oedipus complex (Freud).
The universities were traditionally havens of aristocratic culture but they have become so thoroughly democratized they now resemble businesses. As Legutko notes, ‘the functioning of the university itself has become so heavily controlled by procedures, rules and regulations that all deviations from the routine are strictly controlled’.
Legutko concludes that the European Union has become ‘the guardian of all diseases of the supranational Liberal Democracy while itself being the most vivid illustration of these diseases’. Whereas the early Liberal intellectuals—Grotius and Kant for example—merely desired a social order without war, the generation of ‘68 intellectuals who created the Union of Maastricht want to create a European demos and a new European man.
Legutko accuses the European Union of “Christophobia”. He concludes that the vulgarity of the Communist system was pre-cultural while that of Liberal Democracy is post-cultural.
The scary thing about this analysis is that the only institution potentially strong enough to stand in the way of a new age of barbarism is the Catholic Church. Yet here Legutko observes a parallel between today’s clerical leaders who want to accommodate the Church to the culture of Liberal Democracy and those Catholic leaders in the 1950s and 60s who thought they could defend the Church by making concessions to the Communists.
The historical record shows that the Poles defeated the Communists, not by making concessions, but by resisting the Communists in both thought and practice, and ultimately, in producing a scholar-saint of exceptional moral and intellectual authority who led a whole generation.
Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies is highly recommended reading for all aspiring scholar-saints.
Related on CWR: Is Liberal Democracy Closer to Communism or Catholicism? (Feb 3, 2017) by Jerry Salyer