Though Poland as a nation has frequently suffered occupation and exploitation, Polish artists (Chopin) and thinkers (Pope John Paul II) have blessed the world with their works. Ryszard Legutko’s recent The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (New York: Encounter Books, c. 2016) adds another name to the list of writers dealing with the nature of the modern world. When communists controlled his country, Legato edited an underground philosophy journal espousing the principles of Solidarity—the movement that liberated the nation 30 years ago. “Solidarity,” he says, stood up in defense of human dignity (in its original and not the corrupted sense), access to culture, respect for the truth in science and for nobility in art, and a proper role given to Christian heritage and Christian religion. It seemed that suddenly those great ideas at the root of Western civilization—which this civilization had slowly begun to forget—were again brought to life and ignited as a fire in the minds of the members of a trade union” (#819). Sadly, following the collapse of the Iron Curtain these values quickly evaporated within the liberal-democracy that replaced communism in Poland and now dominates in much of Europe.
As a practicing philosopher Legutko has, for many years, pondered developments within this “liberal democracy” and has concluded it contains some of the same flaws that made communism so pernicious. Leftism, even under a “democratic” banner, is still collectivist and authoritarian. He makes clear that the “liberal-democracy” he critiques is not the classic system espoused by Thomas Jefferson or Winston Churchill but the modern system evident in both the social democracies supporting the European Parliament and America’s Democrat Party. After watching with amazement how easily former communists became champions of liberal-democracy, Legutko argues they both “proved to be all-unifying entities compelling their followers how to think, what to do, how to evaluate events, what to dream, and what language to use. They both had their orthodoxies and their models of an ideal citizen” (#152). The European Union (EU) increasingly dictates to rather than represents the people of the continent’s nations. “Even a preliminary contact with the EU institutions allows one to feel a stifling atmosphere typical of a political monopoly, to see the destruction of language turning into a new form of Newspeak, to observe the creation of a surreality, mostly ideological, that obfuscates the real world, to witness an uncompromising hostility against all dissidents, and to perceive many other things only too familiar to anyone who remembers the world governed by the Communist Party” (#174).
What the two systems share, most deeply, is a commitment to change the world through technology—to “modernize” everything, to bring into being both a new human being and a perfect world. The past provides neither things worth preserving nor guidance for the future inasmuch as it followed superstitious, medieval, old-fashioned notions. Neither cultural traditions nor churches nor traditional families nor written constitutions matter, for what’s imperative is the construction of a totally new, modern world. Rather than accepting the givenness of things as created, both communists and liberal-democrats endeavor to transform them; rather than dealing with reality they propose to construct it. “In both systems a cult of technology translates itself into acceptance of social engineering as a proper approach to reforming society, changing human behavior, and solving existing social problems” #233). “In one system [the U.S.S.R.] this meant reversing the current of Siberia’s rivers, in the other [the U.S.], a formation of alternative family models; invariably, however, it was the constant improvement of nature, which turns out to be barely a substrate to be molded into a desired form” (#240).
Legutko devotes a chapter to the shared communistic and liberal-democratic perspective on history—what astute thinkers such as C.S. Lewis condemned as “historicism.” This is the notion derived from Hegel that there is a predetermined, irresistible evolutionary force shaping human events. To swim with its progressive current is embrace and champion all things modern. To be on the “right side of history” is to be altogether wise and righteous. To oppose, to react against this course of events demonstrates stupidity and misanthropy. For communists, forcefully establishing an egalitarian socialism is the goal; for liberal-democrats, the same end must be attained through peaceful, electoral means. Both deeply believe they are the change-agents entrusted with perfecting both human nature and the world in general. “A comparison between the liberal-democratic concept of history and that of communism shows a commonality of argument as well was of images of the historical process” (#412), generally drawn from Marxist sources: 1) the triumphant march of freedom, vanquishing tyrannies of various sorts (monarchies; churches); 2) the liberation of various victim (class; race; gender) groups; and, 3) the ultimate, thoroughly scientific enlightenment of homo sapiens.
To make his case persuasive, Legutko suggests we imagine the differences between an old man and a youngster. By virtue of his experience, the old man fears change, knowing it often stems from immaturity and ignorance. The old man knows much about what has happened, including the tragedies and misfortunes resulting from well-intended, imprudent decisions. But the youngster thinks he and his companions rightly envision a better world and need only to act quickly to achieve it. “The old man is balanced in his reactions and assessments, looking for the appropriate courses of action in the world which, according to him, was founded on human error, ignorance, poor recognition of reality, and premature ventures; the youngster has an excitable nature, moving from desperation to euphoria, eagerly identifying numerous enemies whose destruction he volubly advocates, and equally happy to engage in collaborative activities with others because—he believes—the world is full of rational people. The old man says that, given the weaknesses of the human race, institutions and communities (families, schools, churches) should be protected because over the centuries they have proven themselves to be tools to tame human’s evil inclinations; the young man will argue that such institutions and communities need to be radically exposed to light, aired out, and transformed because they are fossils of past injustices. The old man is a loner who believes that only such an attitude as his can protect the integrity of the mind; the youngster eagerly joins the herd, enjoying the uproar, mobilization, and direct action” (#536).
Obviously the modern mind is that of a youngster, full of technical information and lofty aspirations, optimistically envisioning “the promise of a great transformation” that has enraptured so many intellectuals since the Renaissance. Such intellectuals envision themselves as leaders on the “cutting edge of history,” and they endlessly engage in “a favorite occupation of the youngster: to criticize what is in the name of what will be, but what a large part of humanity, less perceptive and less intelligent than himself, fails to see” (#565). A century ago, the U.S.S.R. served as a lodestar for “youngsters” such as John Reed, who sought therein the realization of their dreams. More recently, the “youngsters” took to the barricades in Paris in 1968 or marched in America’s streets in support of Ho Chi Min. The ‘60s revolutionaries chanted “a medley of anarchist slogans, a Marxist rhetoric class struggle and the overthrowing of capitalism, and a liberal language of rights, emancipation, and discrimination. Capitalism and the state were the main targets, but universities, schools, family, law, and social mores were attacked with equal vehemence” (#1580). One need only study carefully the rhetoric and policies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to note the empowerment of those ‘60s revolutionaries.
Indicating one adolescent aspect of the modern mind is the importance of entertainment—a point persuasively made three decades ago by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death. In earlier, more religious times, entertainment was understood to be a non-consequential activity designed to provide a brief break from the serious work assigned us. But, Legutko, says: “In today’s world entertainment is not just a pastime or a style, but a substance that permeates everything: schools and universities, upbringing of children, intellectual life, art, morality and religion” (#753). Modern entertainment resembles the divertissement so acutely diagnosed by Pascal at the beginning of the modern era: it’s an activity “that separates us from the seriousness of existence and fills this existence with false content” (#753). We don’t escape reality for a few hours—we immerse ourselves in an imaginary world. “By escaping the questions of ultimate meaning of our own lives, or of human life in general, our minds slowly get used to that fictitious reality, which we take for the real one, and are lured by its attractions” (#760).
Rivaling historicism in its importance for both communists and liberal-democrats is utopianism, generally flying the multicolored flag of social justice. “Utopia is thus not a political fantasy but a bold project bolder than others because it aims at a solution to all the basic problems of collective life that humanity has faced since it began to organize itself politically. Utopia is—I beg the reader’s pardon for such a vile-sounding phrase—the final solution” (#931). Beginning in the Renaissance, various utopians proposed political solutions to man’s ancient ills and aspirations, insisting “man can achieve greatness and be equal to God, because he has unlimited creative potential” (#931). The republic envisioned by America’s Founders was not utopian, but the egalitarian liberal-democracy promoted by 20th century progressives—from Richard Ely and Woodrow Wilson to John Rawls and Barach Obama—certainly is.
Counterintuitively, the “classical liberalism” that began with Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson celebrating individualism slowly became “a doctrine in which the primary agents were no longer individuals, but groups and the institutions of the democratic state. Instead of individuals striving for the enrichment of social capital with new ideas and aspirations, there emerged people voicing demands called rights and acting within the scope of organized groups.” Special interest groups working within a relentlessly-expanding state, orchestrated legislative enactments and judicial decisions, “demanding legal acceptance of their position and acquired privileges. In the final outcome the state in liberal democracy ceased to be an institution pursuing the common good, but became a hostage of groups that treated it solely as an instrument of change securing their interests” (#1205). Ironically, today’s liberals (most notably homosexuals and feminists) are hardly liberal, in as much as they strive to regulate virtually every aspect of life, including “language, gestures, and thoughts” (#1284). They’re just Leftists intent on imposing their agenda.
The political system shaped by both communists’ and liberal-democrats’ historicist-utopianism becomes all-intrusive, ever intent on removing all vestiges of property or class distinctions. Leftist ideologies of the ’60s now dominate the liberal-democratic academic and media complex. And the Christian churches, sidelined by pernicious church-state separation decrees, have largely accommodated themselves to the deeply anti-Christian ways of modernity. Consequently, many churches have tailored their teachings to fit “the requirements of the liberal-democratic state and, consequently, to revise their doctrines substantially, sometimes beyond recognition” (#2885). Having successfully marched through our cultural institutions, triumphant liberals have “managed to silence and marginalize nearly all alternatives and all nonliteral view of political order” (#1536).
Reading Legutgo’s provocative and deeply-informative analysis of these realms both clarifies and challenges our understanding of the our world. I share my good friend John Wright’s strong endorsement of this work. It is, as John O’Sullivan says in his Introduction, a “culturally rich, philosophically sophisticated, and brilliantly argued book” that deserves our attention if we’re concerned about our civilization.
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Fortunately for the general reader, first-rate philosophers often write accessible essays, addressing both current issues and perennial truths. Thus Leszek Kolakowski, a Polish thinker rightly renowned for his magisterial, three-volume Main Currents of Marxism, published a score of short essays in Modernity on Endless Trial (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, c. 1990) that offer serious readers valuable insights into some main intellectual currents of the 20th century. Whenever an erstwhile Marxist casts a favorable glance as Christianity it makes sense for believers to consider his reasons.
One set of essays focus “On Modernity, Barbarity, and Intellectuals.” Strangely enough, a corps of intellectuals has orchestrated the barbarism that has emerged during the last three centuries—an era labeled “modernity.” Since Kolakowski cannot see how “postmodern” differs from “modern,” he discerns the loss of religion (and loss of taboos) as the primary current in modern (and postmodern) times, leading to “the sad spectacle of a godless world. It appears as if we suddenly woke up to perceive things which the humble, and not necessarily highly educated, priests have been seeing—and warning us about—for three centuries and which they have repeatedly denounced in their Sunday Sermons. They kept telling their flocks that a world that has forgotten God has forgotten the very distinction between good and evil and has made human life meaningless, sunk into nihilism” (pp. 7-8). A series of influential, secularizing skeptics prepared the way for the destructiveness of “Nietzsche’s noisy philosophical hammer” crafted to re-order the world (p. 8). The “intellectuals” responsible for this process were not the scholars—scientists or historians—who “attempt to remain true to the material found or discovered” (p. 36) apart from themselves. A barbarizing “intellectual” is someone who wishes not “simply to transmit truth, but to create it. He is not a guardian of the word, but a word manufacturer” (p. 36). Invariably, such intellectuals are seductive, spinning wondrous tales of utopian vistas.
To Nihilists such as Nietzsche, truth is illusory. Consequently, various cultures’ “truths” are equally “true” even if they are obviously contradictory! Such cultural relativism—declaring all cultures are equal, praising the Aztecs as well as the Benedictines—easily embraces an admiration for various forms of what was once judged barbarism. The sophisticated, scholarly “tolerance” so mandatory in elite universities and journals ends by granting “to others their right to be barbarians” (p. 22). What we are witnessing is the Enlightenment devouring itself! In Kolakowski’s judgment: “In its final form the Enlightenment turns against itself: humanism becomes a moral nihilism, doubt leads to epistemological nihilism, and the affirmation of the person undergoes a metamorphosis that transforms it into a totalitarian idea. The removal of the barriers erected by Christianity to protect itself against the Enlightenment, which was the fruit of its own development, brought the collapse of the barriers that protected the Enlightenment against its own degeneration, either into a deification of man and nature or into despair” (p. 30).
Another set of essays deal with “the Dilemmas of the Christian Legacy,” for modernity’s secularizing process has significantly, if indirectly, shaped much of the Christian world “through a universalization of the sacred,” sanctifying worldly developments as “crystallizations of divine energy.” (p. 68). The “Christianity” rooted in process theology—as propounded by Teilhard de Chardin for example— envisions universal salvation and unending evolutionary progress. “In the hope of saving itself, it seems to be assuming the colors of its environment, but the result is that it loses its identity, which depends on just that distinction between the sacred and the profane, and on the conflict that can and often must exist between them” (p. 69). Kolakowski detects and dislikes what he finds in these circles—“the love of the amorphous, the desire for homogeneity, the illusion that there are no limits to the perfectibility of which human society is capable, immanentist eschatologies, and the instrumental attitude toward life” (p. 69). Losing their sense of the sacred, this-worldly philosophies and religions fail to provide any basis for culture. Indeed: “With the disappearance of the sacred, which imposed limits to the perfection that could be attained by the profane, arises one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization—the illusion that there are no limits to the changes that human life can undergo, that society is ‘in principle’ an endlessly flexible thing and that to deny this flexibility and this perfectibility is to deny man’s total autonomy and thus to deny man himself” (p. 72). A rejection of the sacred invites the denial of sin and evil.
Though not overtly Christian, Kolakowski himself rejected the atheistic Marxism of his early years and found Christianity the best hope for the world and become a cheerleader for, if not a devotee of the Faith. “There are reasons why we need Christianity,” he argues, “but not just any kind of Christianity. We do not need a Christianity that makes political revolution, that rushes to cooperate with so-called sexual liberation, that approves our concupiscence or praises our violence. There are enough forces in the world to do all these things without the aid of Christianity. We need a Christianity that will help us move beyond the immediate pressures of life, that gives us insight into the basic limits of the human condition and the capacity to accept them, a Christianity that teaches us the simple truth that there is not only a tomorrow but a day after tomorrow a well, and that the difference between success and failure is rarely distinguishable” (p. 85).
Given his critique of modernity, Kolakowski has little patience with the modernist (or liberal) Christianity that focuses on “social justice,” peace, and ephemeral earthly progress—the this-worldly political agenda so routinely proclaimed in some quarters. “Christianity is about moral evil, malum culpae, and moral evil inheres only in individuals, because only the individual is responsible” (p. 93). To even speak of “a ‘morally evil’ or ‘morally good’ social system makes no sense in the world of Christian belief” (p. 93). The vacuous “demythologization” project of modernists such as Rudolph Bultmann elicits Kolakowski’s erudite disdain, for it was merely a fitful gasp of the irrational skepticism launched centuries ago by William of Occam and the nominalists, then subtly advanced by David Hume and the 18th century empiricists. In truth, “there is no way for Christianity to ‘demythologize’ itself and save anything of its meaning. It is either-or: demythologized Christianity is not Christianity” (p. 105).
Demythologized Christianity contradicts itself. In this respect it’s simply another utopian political ideology. Having early advocated the Marxist version of utopia, Kolakowski easily detects the many currents of such blissful imagining—popularly expressed in John Lennon’s popular song “Imagine.” Consider the fantasies of folks who envision a world wherein fraternity is realized, where equality prevails in every realm. They “keep promising us that they are going to educate the human race to fraternity, whereupon the unfortunate passions that tear societies asunder—greed, aggressiveness, lust for power—will vanish” (p. 139). Inevitably they establish dictatorships designed to enforce the mirage of equality. Allegedly admirable goals—caring for the impoverished and weak—require the abolition of private property and a state controlled economy, the abolition of the free market. However noble the intentions, “the abolition of the market means a gulag society” (p. 167).
In the name of compassion, giving preferential treatment to various disadvantaged groups, societies easily “retreat into infantilism” (p. 173). Citizens become dependent, childlike welfare recipients. The State assumes more and more responsibility to care for everyone’s needs, and we “expect from the State ever more solutions not only to social questions but also to private problems and difficulties; it increasingly appears to us that if we are not perfectly happy, it is the State’s fault, as though it were the duty of the all-powerful State to make us happy” (p. 173). The State, of course, cannot possibly do this. Yet this blatantly utopian longing drove some of the most powerful mass movements of the 20th century, most of them Marxist to some degree. Marx, of course, didn’t envision the gulags that would result from the implementation of his socialistic ideas! But Lenin and Trotsky were, in fact, faithful to his precepts, installing a “dictatorship of the proletariat” that could not but violently pursue its agenda. Reducing ethics to “fables” and doing whatever necessary to advance his cause, Lenin simply implemented his Marxist principles.