If the liberal world order needed to market a highlight reel of its greatest achievements, Poland would arguably stand first through its post-1989 transformation. In the eyes of many American and Western European commentators and politicians, however, the election and policies of the conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) may bring this great ascendancy to a tragic close. Its government supposedly embarks on the “breaking of [its] constitution, in letter and spirit,” and barrels towards “Putin-like leadership.” As the Polish people rejected the heavy hand of Soviet domination, their faces turned to Western Europe as an alternative model of humane relations among peoples. For the Law & Justice Party that now governs and its supporters, the strong criticism from outside journalists and European Union institutions forces Poland again into submission by powerful neighbors.
Wise leadership may not be enough to bridge the chasm between Western European liberals and nationally minded conservatives in Poland (or, for that matter, in Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic—known collectively as the Visegrád Group). Much of this gulf is by the latter groups’ own making: in Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban’s courting of Russia, the PiS push for an extreme abortion ban in Poland, or the Slovakian prime minister’s comment that “Islam has no place” in his country.
Nor is Western Europe without fault. Since few journalists or commentators speak Central and Eastern European languages, they must rely heavily on English-speaking interlocutors in these countries—a recipe for producing a limited journalistic bubble. News coverage can rarely discern whether controversial government decisions are truly unprecedented or the repetition of long established, unhealthy political patterns. Similarly, Brussels can’t claim to be an impartial defender of the rule of law. Leniency toward illiberal state practices has taken place, whether in Poland’s previous government or many Balkan countries, and has been insufficiently attended to by the traditional liberal powers that be.
For those seeking to genuinely understand the intellectual vision of Eastern European conservative nationalism and its (soft) Euroscepticism, the recent work The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Ryszard Legutko offers much for consideration.
Legutko is a current member of the European Union Parliament for Law & Justice and a Catholic philosopher who edited the philosophy journal of the famed anti-Communist trade union Solidarity. Like many prophetic Eastern European thinkers of that time (whether John Paul II or Alexander Solzhenitsyn), his support for liberal democracy was qualified. He does not see Western Europe or the United States as the final cultural and political model that Poland must perfectly emulate. The Demon in Democracy launches an intellectual blitzkrieg against what Legutko sees as the corruption and distortion of “liberal democracy” by members of the Western political and cultural class.
“In Legutko’s reading, both liberal democracy and Communism are utopian projects, proclaiming themselves the final boundaries of humanity’s aspirations.”
At the heart of Legutko’s book is the provocative argument that contemporary liberal democracy and communism share alarming parallels. Of course, Legutko is not denouncing here the basic procedures of liberal democracy: “parliamentarism, a multiparty system, and the rule of law.” Rather by liberal democracy, he means the rough social and economically liberal consensus that has defined Western politics. For all their differences, think of a combined policy agenda if you put Tony Blair, Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, and Nicholas Sarkozy together in a room. This makes the liberal aims of personal “freedom and emancipation” the primary standards by which to direct a society, whether its legal system, market economy, educational system, or family life. Accordingly, the vocabulary of “freedom, discrimination, equality, human rights, [or] emancipation” act as the boundaries of political discourse; “no other language is used or even accepted.”
How could such a system compare to the Soviet Union? Does Legutko imagine an equality between the EU Commission and the Soviet Politburo? Legutko’s comparison is not an equivalence; he acknowledges liberal democracy lacks the brutality of Communism. Even if the final ends of liberal democracy are ultimately hollow, it is a regime with a record of prosperity and peace to be forever envied among totalitarian competitors. But this must not leave unsaid some uncomfortable facts about these two regime types, which Legutko defines as not simply political systems but expansive worldviews.
In Legutko’s reading, both liberal democracy and Communism are utopian projects, proclaiming themselves the final boundaries of humanity’s aspirations. As projects of modernization, they look with shared suspicion, or contempt, on older human loyalties—to religion, the nation, or the “traditional” biological family. In a common reductive focus on freedom and equality, both regimes assume “an anthropological minimalism” that robs both politics and society of richer transcendent horizons inherited from Europe’s classical and Christian heritage. Confident only they “know” where history ends, they entrust enormous authority to an avant-garde of technocrats and intellectuals with the appropriate opinions. And at times, this leadership class must overrule the citizens in whose they name they speak. Under Communism, Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian and Czech attempts at a heterodox “socialism with a human face.” For liberal democrats in Europe, popular rejection of the European Constitution only required repackaging in the Lisbon Treaty, bypassing a democratic mandate.
“The Demon in Democracy is mostly philosophical and will delight readers who enjoy Tocqueville and Burke and hold (like myself) a modest reactionary impulse toward modernity.”
The Demon in Democracy is mostly philosophical and will delight readers who enjoy Tocqueville and Burke and hold (like myself) a modest reactionary impulse toward modernity. But Legutko provides plenty of specific arguments capturing the resentments that many Eastern Europeans harness. The ideology of liberal democracy straightjacketed countries newly emerged from communism. They pursued a lavish “conformity” to Western models as opposed to a “creativity” that honored each country’s own traditions and experiences. Contemporary liberal democracy “has created its own orthodoxy,” robbing voters of “a wide range of competing political programs.” Today’s European Union leaders have abandoned the modest goals of peace and cooperation espoused by the institution’s original founders, replacing it with the goal of a “federal super-state” that undermines national sovereignty and creates a democratic deficit. The refusal to recognize the “Christian roots of Europe” in the proposed European Constitution’s preamble only exemplified a broader aggressive secularism in liberal democracy; in Legutko’s eyes, this desire to expel religion or religiously informed argument from public life makes a mockery of modern Europe’s claims of “pluralism” and “tolerance.”
Despite its frequently polemical simplicity, The Demon in Democracy names important truths. Historians like Tony Judt, Phillip Ther, and Konrad Jarausch have amply shown that the post-Communist transition to free-market liberal democracy was much more painful than enthusiasts of globalization care to admit. A vast majority of Hungarians (72 percent) believe their country was better off under Communism than today. As Henry Foy explains in The American Interest, Poland’s PiS found victory, like the Trump and Brexit campaigns, in struggling communities left undescribed in impressive growth statistics. Legutko is likewise correct that policymakers, whether they share these sentiments personally or not, must accept the unique loyalty of Europeans to their nation-state as a given. Smart integration will work from this assumption instead of denying it or denouncing it through the various adjectives of “parochial,” “racist,” “xenophobic,” “outdated,” and so forth.
Furthermore, as currently practiced, liberal democracy has indeed created a stifling centrist consensus under the guise of “pragmatism.” Both European “social democracy” and “Christian democracy” have increasingly lost any of their distinctive worldview. In this vacuum of disenchantment, populist parties draw voters who, in the words of Business Insider’s Josh Barro, are sick of “no-choice politics.” Can Legutko be entirely wrong about the direction of cultural liberalism in Western Europe? When the French government bans an anti-abortion television campaign that celebrates bringing children with Down syndrome to term? Or when the Netherlands allows for euthanasia for patients with mental health issues? What about when the German Ethics Council calls for the end of the criminalization of incest between siblings?
That said, Legutko’s critique of Brussels and Western capitals epitomizing the liberal model can be extremely one-sided. For one, he—and similar critics in Poland and Hungary—conveniently sets aside how much his country has benefited both from freedom of movement and extensive structural and investment funds, policies often denounced by Eurosceptics in wealthier member states as infringements on their sovereignty. Few major European leaders fully subscribe to the ideological form of liberal democracy described by Legutko. Consider only Angela Merkel, who has highlighted the Christian heritage of Germany and boldly criticized both multiculturalism and the formation of “parallel societies” in certain expressions of Islam. European Union institutions may not look kindly on the social conservatism of several member states, but it is strange to claim their sovereignty has been infringed on cultural issues. Poland maintains strict anti-abortion laws. Most Eastern European and Balkan states do not recognize same-sex marriage, and many maintain a privileged status for Eastern Orthodox churches. A French-style Laïcité by fiat has not been imposed.
Ultimately, Legutko’s attack fails to recognize that the great threat today is not unwanted, intense integration—there is no appetite for ambitious federalist schemes anywhere in the bloc. Rather, the greatest danger is a rapid disintegration thanks to populism, economic crises, and external threats that could threaten the existence of the European Union—and with it the solidarity that has (however imperfectly and incompletely) lifted its Eastern members. Well-rehearsed polemics about Brussels and its democratic deficit or bureaucratic malaise that offer no specific reform agenda fail to meet the challenges of the hour. Several writers on the European Union have tried to reconcile the imperatives of both continental cooperation and participatory democracy through individual nation-states. This reflection is where Legutko would best devote himself.
The past few years have shown that policymakers can now longer take the stability of Eastern Europe for granted. European and Atlanticist writers and policymakers can engage in cheap moralism through dramatic showdowns with the region’s more conservative leaders that ironically actually empower them. Instead, they should instead attempt to constructively deliberate with these governments. If this is truly beyond reach, then they must engage with the voters and intellectuals who supported this nationalist ascendency and evidently find liberalism (as currently practiced) profoundly wanting.
Those who truly wish to save the European project can only choose the latter. And to do so, they can start by reading The Demon in Democracy.
Image: Pilsen’s Main Square, Czech Republic. (Guillaume Delebarre, Flickr, Creative Commons)
David Jimenez is an English Teaching Assistant in Romania for the Fulbright Program, where he teaches courses in English and American Studies at Ovidius University of Constanta for the academic year 2016–2017. He is a 2016 graduate of Bowdoin College, where he completed his BA in history. His WordPress blog, “‘Polar Bear in the Balkans,” features his writing on both travel and ideas.