Friday, March 9, 2018

"The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies"

The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, by Ryszard Legutko.
Encounter Books (April 19, 2016). 200 pgs.

Ryszard Legutko lived and suffered under communism for decades—and he fought with the Polish ant-communist movement to abolish it. Having lived for two decades under a liberal democracy, however, he has discovered that these two political systems have a lot more in common than one might think. They both stem from the same historical roots in early modernity, and accept similar presuppositions about history, society, religion, politics, culture, and human nature. In The Demon in Democracy, Legutko explores the shared objectives between these two political systems, and explains how liberal democracy has over time lurched towards the same goals as communism, albeit without Soviet style brutality. Both systems, says Legutko, reduce human nature to that of the common man, who is led to believe himself liberated from the obligations of the past. Both the communist man and the liberal democratic man refuse to admit that there exists anything of value outside the political systems to which they pledged their loyalty. And both systems refuse to undertake any critical examination of their ideological prejudices.

Ryszard Legutko is a professor of philosophy at Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland, specializing in ancient philosophy and political theory. His most recent book is on the philosophy of Socrates. 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 Senate and is active in the anti-communist movement in Poland. He is currently a Member of the European Parliament, Deputy Chairman of the Parliamentary Group of European Conservatives and Reformists, and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Reviews & Discussion

  • What a Dissident Notices, a Quarter-Century after Communism, by Carl Eric Scott. National Review "Legutko is one of the first of our conservative philosophic thinkers to really take down us into a nuts and bolts exploration of how contemporary democracy could develop into a new form of totalitarianism, and in some ways already has."
  • You Can't Say That!, by Matthew B. Crawford. Weekly Standard 08/11/17:
    Legutko’s book will appeal to people who can point to no overt political oppression, but who feel that the standards of acceptable discourse increasingly require them to lie, and to accept the humiliation of doing so. Like other dissident writers from the Soviet sphere, Legutko provides a historical parallel to our own time that helps us parse that feeling and discern its logic.
  • Liberal Democracy’s Challenge to Freedom: A Conversation with Ryszard Legutko (Audio)
  • Liturgy of Liberalism, by Adrian Vermeule First Things January 2017.
  • How Democracies Perish, by S. Adam Seagrave. Claremont Review of Books October 19, 2017:
    ... These three critiques of Ryszard Legutko’s account—neglecting the truth of natural rights and human equality, largely ignoring the American case, and mishandling the issue of race—are closely connected. Indeed, if there is a way to resist the “totalitarian temptations in free societies,” it lies precisely in resurrecting the true idea of natural rights and equality, as embodied first in the American Founding, and then applied by Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and others to the issue of slavery before the Civil War. In America, as Tocqueville observed, there is a model for appreciating the truth of certain liberal democratic principles without jettisoning religion and falling prey to all of the harmful “isms” Legutko so eloquently refutes.

    My suspicion is that Legutko would, if more thoroughly acquainted with the American context, and especially African-American history, be sympathetic to this criticism. As it stands, his book is an illuminating window into the contemporary situation in Europe and provides a fruitful point of comparison to America’s current situation. The Demon in Democracy is both a visit from the ghost of liberal-democratic future, and a reminder of the crucial importance of the spirit of our own liberal-democratic past.

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