The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies

by Ryszard Legutko

New York: Encounter Books, 2018

In his book The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies published in 2016, Ryszard Legutko describes the disturbing similarities between liberal democratic and communist societies. In this, he is the latest scholar in a long line of great thinkers to delineate the shortcomings and pitfalls of liberal democratic societies, which emphasize ‘equality’ as their moral foundation—leading to profound problems.

As Legutko explains:

To a certain degree, equality invites despotism, because in order to make all the members of society equal, and then to maintain this equality for a long period of time, it is necessary to equip the controlling institutions with exceptional powers so they can stamp out any potential threat to equality in every sector of the society and any aspect of human life.

In other words, equality sounds like a wonderful concept on paper; but in practice it invites authoritarian rule. Human beings are inherently unequal in terms of their abilities and inclinations. This misplaced faith in equality is a faulty premise which imposes steep costs on all those intended to bask in its alleged benefits.

According to Legutko, the ideologues who zealously push the liberal democratic ideology typically believe they are superior to others. It is their benevolent duty to impose their will on their presumed subordinates, “the real people who are not yet fully aware of what is good for them and who should be firmly guided toward the final goal, despite their posed resistance”. The advocates of this ideology are typically people with a contempt for history and who believe that they can fundamentally change human nature and that they can “change reality for the better”.

Both communists and liberal progressives believe that “the world cannot be tolerated as it is and that it should be changed: that the old should be replaced with the new.” Typically, both communist and the liberal democratic ideologues believe that it is the government’s duty to enforce their ideological positions.

Like communism, modern-day liberalism is a “doctrine in which the primary agents were no longer individuals, but groups and the institutions of the democratic state”. Both ideologies believe in big government, which makes it inevitable that the state has to “take over more and more specific responsibilities, far beyond the normal operations of the state apparatus”. Legutko makes it known to his readers that “the conflict between the state and the individual should not exist, and in the event of such a conflict, the state has the moral duty to coerce the individual to obey.”

The state’s authoritarian ability to coerce individuals is present in both communist and liberal democratic societies. The author notes that “[l]iberal democracy is a powerful unifying mechanism, blurring differences between people and imposing uniformity of views, behavior, and language.” Legutko details the relationship between liberal democracy and the authoritarian urges latent in the pleasant-sounding ideas of unity and equality, always with distrust and an awareness of the inchoate potential disasters in an authoritarian government.

The presence of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America looms large in Legutko’s book. He quotes Tocqueville’s assessment of the unifying aspect of democracy and its effect on the psyche of the individuals living under it: “there is less independence of mind and less genuine freedom of thought.” He then elaborates on Tocqueville’s observation by offering one of his own: democracy encourages “the pressure to remove from one’s mind everything that a democratic society did not give a stamp of legitimacy”. The context in which this quotation appears is Legutko’s erudite description of the state of ‘public discourse’ in the West today. Legutko—who experienced the worst expressions of this pressure at Middlebury College a few years ago—is accurate in his explanation, both in terms of cause and effect.

Like totalitarian communism, liberal democracy removes all intermediary associations—such as churches, non-government organizations, and businesses—leaving nothing between the individual and the state. Intermediary bodies, which provide a diversity of associations which enables diversity of thoughts and opinions, are absent in a liberal democracy, just as they are in communist regimes. Thus, so is diversity of opinions.

Legutko elaborates on this:

Never before in human history did we see a similar phenomenon when millions of people, indistinguishable from each other, using the same patterns of thinking, politically homogeneous and oblivious to any other way of viewing the political world except according to the orthodox liberal-democratic vision, are not convinced of their own individual and group differences and proclaim the unchallenged superiority of pluralism, but also want to enforce the same simplistic and tediously predictable orthodoxy on the entire world as the ultimate embodiment of the idea of multiplicity.

In liberal democratic societies, there is nothing that distinguishes each person from his or her neighbor. Yet, sadly, each individual thinks of him or herself as unique. The only real mechanism for differentiation between our neighbors is the division of culturally based identities, or what has come to be known as “identity politics”. According to Legutko, these cultural and ethnic identities are the only classes and divisions that exist in a liberal democratic society. The only mechanism to enforce equitable treatment among these cultural distinctions is through government coercion.

These persecuted groups based on identity politics necessitate government protection because of the logical fallacy on which these groups are predicated. Legutko alerted his readers to their flawed rationale where they incorrectly assert that they are “a brave small group struggling dauntlessly against an overwhelming enemy”. And that enemy, in a typically predictable liberal fashion, is society.

Blaming society, Legutko goes on to explain, has a peculiar effect on people in both liberal democratic and communist regimes: “What is incidental is treated as a systemic problem, which really means that whatever happens is systemic and nothing is incidental to the system.” In other words, the problems we encounter in our personal lives are not specific incidents emanating from individuals but are instead byproducts of a corrupt society.

The liberal progressives and communists understand that as a persecuted minority group they are responsible for fixing these systemic societal problems. In attempting to fix society, individuals—both democratic and communist—see themselves as “self-proclaimed guardians of purity”; the burden of saving the world rests exclusively on their shoulders. If not for their fight, they think, freedom would wither and die.

Like his predecessor, Tocqueville, who ended his work on a rather pessimistic note, Legutko is not overly optimistic about the prospects of liberal democracy. His grim assessment is near identical to what Tocqueville believed: that “democracy was more a problem than a solution”.

He does, however, accept that the moral foundations of both communism and liberal democracy come from the same “not particularly good inclination of modern man”. He grimly asks if the eventual outcome of liberal democratic societies is that of communist societies, and whether this is “a basic truth about modern man … finally arrived at the accurate recognition of who he is”. This is something he pointed out earlier in the book, when he said: “Contrary to what most of us think, the prevailing opinions, theories, and convictions that we consider timeless and self-evident are neither timeless nor self-evident, but are the products of the . . . peculiar . . . specific phase of historical development.”

Essentially, the timeless truths and self-evident facts of life are incongruent with the liberal democratic system. The liberal democratic society believes in the progress of human nature, and believes that the present age is always superior to the previous age (which is where their contempt for history originates). The refusal of democratic societies to accept man’s nature as both fixed and flawed means that we are destined for our own destruction. Unfortunately, as modern man refuses to consult history or to acknowledge the truth about human nature, we are doomed to the same collapse as communist regimes. The only distinctions will be the nuances and subtleties of the two political systems.

What makes Legutko’s assessment both compelling and timely is the rising tide of socialism and radical liberalism in the West (particularly now, it seems, in the time of the COVID pandemic). In the U.S., the Democratic Party has been drifting further to the left. Many of the presidential candidates espouse socialist ideas, despite the fact that socialism failed in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. But history’s lessons are falling on deaf ears in the U.S.

It is, however, not alone in this drift towards the abyss of socialism. Throughout western Europe, propelled by the intelligentsia and liberal elite, left-wing politics are no longer confined to fringes of society. They are, in fact, emboldened by all of the ideas, tenets, and assumptions Legutko addressed in his book.

In the end, Legutko implicitly understands that man is destructive, flawed, and incapable of changing his nature. And in this book, which has been widely praised, he eloquently articulates his understanding that human beings, regardless of ideology, are incapable of escaping the inevitable conclusion of the human experience—which is that man’s own self-destructive tendencies will eventually precipitate his demise.