Liberal Democracy vs. Liberal Democrats

obeyMy theme is the similarities between communism and liberal democracy. The idea that such similarities exist started germinating timidly in my mind back in the 1970s, when for the first time I managed to get out of communist Poland to travel to the so-called West.

To my unpleasant surprise, I discovered that many of my friends who classified themselves as devoted supporters of liberal democracy, of a multi-party system, human rights, pluralism and everything that every liberal democrat proudly listed as his acts of faith, displayed extraordinary meekness and empathy towards communism. I was unpleasantly surprised because it seemed to me that every liberal democrat’s natural and almost visceral response to communism should be one of forthright condemnation. A possible hypothesis came to my mind that both attitudes—the communist and the liberal-democratic—are linked by something more profound, some common principles and ideals.

At the time, however, this thought seemed to be so extravagant that I did not have the inner strength or knowledge to explore it more deeply. But I experienced the same budding thought for the second time in the period of post-communist Poland, right at the very beginning of its existence in 1989.

The new liberal-democratic system began to show symptoms which most political analysts ignored but which some, including myself, found most disturbing. When I talk about the system, I do not solely, or even mostly, mean an institutional structure, but everything which makes this structure function as it does: ideas, social practices, mores, people’s attitudes. Communism and liberal democracy proved to be the all-unifying entities compelling their followers in 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.

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Few people doubt today that communism is such an integrated political-ideological-intellectual as well as socio-linguistic unity. As for liberal democracy, the belief still lingers that it is a system of breathtaking diversity, consisting of communities, groups, unorthodox types of behaviour, eccentrics, individualists. But this belief has deviated from reality so much that the opposite view seems now closer to the truth. Liberal democracy is a powerful unifying mechanism, blurring differences between people and imposing uniformity of views, behaviour and language.

At the beginning of the 1990s I discovered something that was not particularly difficult to discover at the time; namely, that nascent liberal democracy significantly narrows the range of what is permissible. Incredible as it may seem, the final year of the decline of communism had more of the spirit of freedom than the period after the establishment of the new order. The widespread sense that many doors were opening, revealing many possibilities to pursue, soon evaporated, subdued by the new rhetoric of necessity that the liberal-democratic system brought with itself. It did not take me long to make another, more depressing discovery, namely that this unifying tendency was not limited to the post-communist world, and did not result from its peculiarities. One could see the adverse effects throughout Western civilisation.

My subsequent experience in the European Parliament only endorsed my diagnosis. While there, I saw up close something that escapes the attention of many distant observers. If the European Parliament is supposed to be the emanation of the spirit of today’s liberal democracy, then this spirit is certainly neither good nor beautiful. It has many bad and ugly features, some of which, unfortunately, it shares with the spirit of communism. Even a preliminary contact with 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 be a witness to an uncompromising hostility against dissidents, and to notice many other things only too familiar to anyone who remembers the world governed by the Communist Party.

Yet there would seem to be an irrefutable argument against such thoughts. How can one possibly compare the two systems, one of which was criminal, while the other, in spite of all the objections, gives people a lot of freedom and institutional protection? Surely, the difference between the people’s republic and the democratic republic of today is so vast that only an insane person would deny it?

In such a formulation the argument is, of course, irrefutable and no reasonable person would question it. But at the same time what it says should not be used for intellectual and moral blackmail. Whatever fundamental differences exist between the two systems, it is perfectly legitimate to ask why there are also some similarities, and why they are so profound and becoming more so. One cannot dismiss them with an argument that since the liberal-democratic system as such is clearly superior to communism, the existing similarities are absolved or explained away by the mere fact of this superiority. Since liberal democrats are so fond of warning against all sorts of abstract dangers that might undermine the liberal-democratic order—such as xenophobia, nationalism, intolerance or religious bigotry—one wonders why the same liberal democrats completely ignore those dangers that are easy to spot, namely, the increasing presence of developments similar to those that existed in communist societies.

One of the similarities between communism and liberal democracy is their perception of history. The concept of history in which communism was its culmination was not a mere succession of political regimes. History covered the entirety of human experience including human nature, human mind, social relations, law, institutions, and even science and art. The group that took responsibility for change was clearly, at the beginning, a partisan group, almost marginal in the existing political system, but which, in the process of approaching the final stage of history, grew in importance and finally became the only political actor capable of pulling together and transforming—whether gradually or radically, peacefully or by force—everyone and everything, and to elevate the human species to new, previously unknown levels. Something that in the past had been a segment, a party or a faction was granted the status of midwife and architect of the whole; at first, of one society: Russian, Polish and German; and in the long haul, of the whole of humanity.

From the perspective of historicism any opposition to this process was extremely harmful to humanity and inconceivably stupid. What the enemy of progress defended was by definition hopelessly parochial, limited to one class, decadent, anachronistic, historically outdated and degenerate, and sooner or later had to give way to something that was universal, necessary and inclusive of the whole of humanity. It was obvious to any open mind that history had to grant victory to communists and that all they had to do was wait. Communist artists and intellectuals produced countless treatises, novels, films and plays showing how the new times condemned the enemies of communism to the dustbin of history and how the armies of socialism marched to their final victory. The average citizen of a communist country had only to take a look at a newspaper or turn on the radio to be convinced of this implacable truth.

What did such language mean in practice? First of all, it was a signal that everything and everyone was involved in “building socialism” and that it was not possible to evade this task; the person who dodged the duty could reasonably be suspected of stupidity or bad intentions, and usually of both. Even relatively independent organisations—and these were few—had to submit, regularly, ​​various kinds of declarations to prove that they also were participating in the work according to the best of their abilities and that they certainly appreciated the value of the project. Sometimes this meant—especially in the beginning—a radical restructuring that would change everything in society. Such was the experience of the universities, schools and all organisations which, when restructured in accordance with the nature of the communist system, lost their heritage and acquired a new function and a new identity.

For all of us living in the “camp of socialist countries”, history was already determined. The reconstruction of the old bourgeois structures could not be expected because the eggs from which the omelette had been made had disappeared long ago. Rather, one had to look for a place in the new communist structures, alleviate and adapt them to the elementary requirements of reason. And even if capitalist-bourgeois elements were to appear from time to time as necessary concessions in order to save the country from disaster, they still had to have a socialist label.

Liberal democracy has never had an official concept of history that could be attributed to a particular author. It does not have its Marx, Lenin and Lukács. Nevertheless, from the very beginning, the liberals and the democrats made use of a typical historical pattern by which they were easily recognised and which often appeared not only in a variety of general opinions which they formulated but also, on a less abstract level, in popular beliefs and stereotypes professed to be a representation of liberal thinking in mass circulation. According to this view, the history of the world—in the case of liberalism—was the history of the struggle for freedom against its enemies who were different at various stages of history but who ​​perpetually fought against the idea of freedom itself and—in the case of democracy—a history of continuing struggle for people’s power against all forces that kept the same people in subservience for centuries. Both of these political currents, liberal and democratic, had therefore one enemy, which was a widely understood tyranny, but which, in the long history of humanity, assumed a variety of additional, distinctive costumes. Every now and then it was a monarchy, often the Church, and at other times oligarchy.

Over the past two hundred years or so the concepts of communism, liberalism and democracy have evolved under the pressure of reality, political struggles for power, and the search for new, efficient ideological instruments to mobilise public opinion. It seems beyond doubt however that the first two views—that history has a unilateral pattern and that a better world is shaped by conscious human activity—are still very much present in the modern political mind.

Of course, few talk of the laws of history today, mainly because this quasi-scientific language lost its appeal in an age when the concept of science changed. Nevertheless, both the communists and the liberal democrats have always upheld, and continue to uphold, the view that history is on their side. Whoever thought that the collapse of the Soviet system should have done away with the belief in the inevitability of socialism was disappointed. This belief is as strong as ever and the past practices of socialism—whether Soviet or Western—are well appreciated, not because they were beneficial in themselves, but because they are still believed to have represented the correct direction of social change. One can observe a similar mindset among the liberal democrats, who are also deeply convinced that they represent both the inherent dynamics of social development and a natural tendency in human aspirations.

Both the communists and liberal democrats, while praising what is inevitable and objectively necessary in history, praise at the same time the free activities of parties, associations, community groups and organisations, in which, as they believe, what is inevitable and objectively necessary reveals itself. Both speak fondly of people at large and of large social movements, while at the same time—like Kant who, while predicting the final triumph of humanity, praised the enlightened absolutism of the Prussian king—they have no qualms in destroying social spontaneity in order to accelerate social reconstruction.

Admittedly, for the liberal democrats, the combination of the two threads is intellectually more awkward than for the socialists. The very idea of ​​liberal democracy should presuppose freedom of action, which means every man and every group or party should be free to pursue what they want. And yet the letter, the spirit and the practice of liberal-democratic doctrine are far more restrictive: so long as society pursues the path of modernisation, it must follow the liberal-democratic path, whereby the programs of action and targets other than liberal-democratic lose their legitimacy. The need for building a liberal-democratic society thus implies the withdrawal of the guarantee of freedom for those whose actions and interests are said to be hostile to what the liberal democrats conceive as the cause of freedom.

Thus the adoption of the historical preference of liberal democracy makes the resulting conclusion analogous to that which the communists drew from the belief in the historical privilege of their system: everything that exists in society must become liberal-democratic over time and be imbued with the spirit of the system. As once in socialism/communism, where everything had do be socialist/communist and all major designations had to be preceded by the adjective “socialist” or “communist” (“socialist” was preferable because it sounded less Soviet) so now everything should be liberal, democratic or liberal-democratic, and this labelling gives the recipient credibility and respectability. Conversely, a refusal to use such a designation or, which is even worse, an explicit rejection of it, condemns one to moral degradation, merciless criticism and, ultimately, historical annihilation.

Countries emerging from communism provided striking evidence in this regard. Belief in the “normalcy” of liberal democracy, or, in other words, the view that this system delineates the only accepted course and method of organising collective life, is particularly strong, a corollary of it being that in the line of development the United States and Western Europe are at the forefront while we, the East Europeans, are in the back; the optimal process should progress in the manner that the countries in the back catch up with those at the forefront, repeating their experience, implementing their solutions and struggling with the same challenges. Not surprisingly, there immediately emerged a group of self-proclaimed eloquent accoucheurs of the new system, who from the position of the enlightened few, took upon themselves the duty of indicating the direction of change and infusing a new liberal-democratic awareness into anachronistic minds. They were, one would be tempted to say, the Kantian Prussian kings of liberal democracy, fortunately devoid of a comparable power, but undoubtedly seeing themselves as having a similar role as the pioneers of the enlightened future.

In their view—which today is also consciously or unconsciously professed by millions—the political system should permeate every section of public and private life, analogously to the view of the erstwhile accoucheurs of the communist system. Not only should the state and the economy be liberal, democratic or liberal-democratic, but the entire society as well, including ethics and mores, family, churches, schools, universities, community organisations, culture and even human sentiments and aspirations. Whoever and whatever does not conform, does not deserve to exist. The people, structures, thoughts that exist outside the liberal-democratic pattern are deemed outdated, backward-looking, useless, but at the same time extremely dangerous as preserving the remnants of old authoritarianisms. Some may still be tolerated for a while, but as anyone with a minimum of intelligence is believed to know, sooner or later they will end up in the dustbin of history. Their continued existence will most likely threaten the liberal-democratic progress and therefore they should be treated with the harshness they deserve.

Once one sends one’s opponents to the dustbin of history, any debate with them becomes superfluous. Why waste time arguing with someone whom the march of history has condemned to oblivion? The liberal democrats love and worship such words as debate and deliberation, but they use them mostly for ornamental purposes. Why should anyone seriously debate with an opponent who represents what is historically indefensible and moribund? Debating with non-liberal-democrats is like debating with alchemists or geocentrists—they are to be condemned and laughed at, not debated.

When the liberal democrats use the words debate and deliberation, they have in mind a political ritual within the liberal-democratic orthodoxy. Again, an analogy with communism immediately comes to mind. The opponents of communism, such as those who believed free markets to be superior to the planned economy, were at best enemies to be crushed, or a laughing stock to be humiliated: how else could any reasonable man react to such anachronistic, dangerous ravings of a deluded mind?

After all, in a liberal democracy everyone knows, and only a fool or a fanatic can deny, that sooner or later a family will have to liberalise or democratise, which means that their parental authority has to crumble, the children will liberate themselves from parental tutelage, and family relationships will become more negotiational and less authoritarian. These are the inevitable consequence of civilisational and political development, giving people more and more opportunities for independence; moreover, these processes are essentially good and beneficial because they enhance equality and freedom in the world.

Thus there is no legitimate reason to defend the traditional family—the very name evokes the smell of mothballs—and whoever does it condemns himself to a losing position and in addition perpetrates a lot of harm by delaying the process of change. The traditional family was, after all, part of the old despotism: with its demise the despotic system loses its base. The liberalisation and democratisation of the family are therefore to be supported—wholeheartedly and energetically—mainly by legislation which will give children more power, for example, allowing increasingly younger girls to have abortions without parental consent, or providing children with legal instruments to pursue their claims against their parents, or depriving parents of their rights and transferring those rights to the government and the courts. Sometimes, to be sure, all of that can lead to excessive measures perpetrated by the state, the law and public opinion, but the general tendency is good and there is no turning back from it.

Similarly, in a liberal democracy everyone knows, and only a fool or a fanatic can deny, that schools have to become more and more liberal and democratic—for similar reasons as the family—and, again, this inevitable process requires that the state, the law and public opinion act severely against all stragglers—those who are trying to put a stick in the spokes of progress, dreamers who imagine that in the twenty-first century we can return to the school as it existed in the nineteenth century, pests who want to build an old-time museum in a world rushing forward. And so on, and so forth. Similar reasoning can be applied to churches, communities, associations.

As a result, liberal democracy has become an all-permeating system. There is none, or in any case there cannot be, any segment of reality that would be arguably and acceptably non-liberal-democratic. Whatever happens in school must follow the same pattern as in politics, in politics the same pattern as in art, and in art the same pattern as in the economy: the same problems, the same mechanisms, the same type of thinking, the same language and the same habits. Just as in real socialism so in real democracy it is difficult to find some non-doctrinal slice of the world, a non-doctrinal image, narrative, tone or thought.

In a way, liberal democracy presents a more insidious ideological mystification than communism. Under communism it was clear that communism was to prevail in every cell of social life, and that the Communist Party was empowered with the instruments of brutal coercion and propaganda to get the job done. Under liberal democracy such official guardians of constitutional doctrine do not exist, which, paradoxically, makes the overarching nature of the system less tangible, but at the same time more profound and difficult to reverse. It is the people themselves who have eventually come to accept, often on a pre-intellectual level, that eliminating the institutions incompatible with liberal-democratic principles constitutes a wise and necessary step.

Forty years ago, when the period of liberal-democratic monopoly was fast approaching, Daniel Bell, one of the then popular social writers, set forth the thesis that a modern society is characterised by the disjunction of three realms—social, economic and political. They develop—so he claimed—at different rates, have different dynamics and purposes and are subject to different mechanisms and influences. This image of structural diversity that Bell saw coming was attractive, or rather would have been attractive if true. But the opposite happened. No disjunction occurred. Rather, everything came to be joined under the liberal-democratic formula: the economy, politics and society, and—as it turns out—culture.

Ryszard Legutko is a philosopher and politician, Member of the European Parliament, professor of philosophy at Cracow University, and a former Polish Minister of Education. His book on the post-communist evolution of liberal democracy will be published later this year by Encounter Books, New York.


2 thoughts on “Liberal Democracy vs. Liberal Democrats

  • denandsel@optusnet.com.au says:

    Thank you Ryszard for a well reasoned, very thought provoking article.
    My [late] father-in-law, Otto, escaped from the communists [in Latvia] to bring his family here, although he originally wanted to go to the U.S. Otto was an engineer and very intelligent and I liked him immensely. Our only intellectual disagreements occurred when discussing the differences between socialism and communism [as outlined in your article]. Otto, to my mind, had the naïve belief that ‘socialism’ could be established by ‘democratic’ means and that it did not have to inevitably result in the totalitarianism of communism from which he was lucky to escape with his life, let alone his family.
    My son-in-law, Tom, is Polish, and he came with his father and family to Australia for ‘opportunity’ much later and their journey was not as dramatic as was Otto’s. Again despite living under communism Tom is sympathetic to socialist causes even if not to communism. I could/can not convince either of them that to the communists/collectivists/socialists etc. democracy is really only a means of rationalising/legitimising their desire to be able control citizens, especially productive/wealth creating citizens. Democracy has not and cannot ever create wealth. Only freedom allows that, but again it does NOT create it. Only democratic countries have even a semblance of freedom. Australia, USA, UK Canada etc. might be relatively free now but as outlined in your article our freedom might be temporary and is slowly disappearing. The ‘boiling frog’ myth seems applicable.
    The single biggest weakness of capitalism/freedom is that despite the wealth, prosperity and happiness that it allows/has enabled nobody has ever properly defined what it is so that it can be defended. My [simplistic] definition is that capitalism is a system of governance where individuals are allowed to own property [including intellectual property] and that where ever possible all interactions between people should be conducted on a voluntary basis.


  • mvgalak@bigpond.com says:

    As a former “refusenik” , who got out of the USSR after two years of the conflict with the Soviet State, my perception of the liberal democratic Australia , as well as other Western societies , differs from the Authors’ perception. This difference, not at all fundamental, lies in the realm of human consequences of totalitarianism, rather in their respective ideology and a structure. Totalitarian state inflicts fear, it inflicts anxiety – unrelentless, unmanageable, ever pervasive anxiety of being imprisoned, punished, being made destitute and helpless because of a total lack of the protection by law. This anxiety becomes a societal parameter, which, if unchecked, could develop into a national characteristic and spread to become a group personality damage. In turn, this damage could become a part of the national lore, behavioural matrix and result in an alienation from other societies, which are not so afflicted. Therefore, as an addition to a degree of freedom, property rights and the resulting prosperity of a liberal democracy, the lower group anxiety levels and resulting healthier society are important to be recognised.

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