The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies
by ryszard legutko
encounter, 200 pages, $23.99

In The Old Regime and the Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville described the French Revolution as a religious movement:

The ideal the French Revolution set before it was not merely a change in the French social system but nothing short of a regeneration of the whole human race. It created an atmosphere of missionary fervor and, indeed, assumed all the aspects of a religious revival—much to the consternation of contemporary observers. It would perhaps be truer to say that it developed into a species of religion.

Ryszard Legutko has now expanded this idea into a book, but he corrects and improves upon Tocqueville in one critical respect. Tocqueville suggested that if the Revolution had “developed into a species of religion,” still it was “a singularly imperfect one, since it was without a God, without a ritual or promise of a future life.” Legutko shows how very wrong this is. The Revolution’s descendants not only possess a theology and eschatology, but a central sacrament and an accompanying liturgy. Indeed, they compulsively, helplessly re-enact that liturgy, with mounting anxiety, while priding themselves on their freedom from all superstition.

Born in 1949, Legutko is a Polish philosopher and member of the European Parliament who was a dissident under communism and a high minister in the new Polish liberal-democratic state. Uniquely positioned as he is to understand both communism and liberalism, it is not surprising that his immediate frame for the book is a running comparison between the two systems. Twin children of the Enlightenment, raised in the same nursery of the Revolution, communism and liberalism have the same inner logic, the same intellectual structure, and the same dynamics over time—such is Legutko’s main thesis. Both embody the secularized soteriology of the Enlightenment, the narrative of Progress. The liberal and communist polities are both perpetually poised in the now and not-yet, between the emergence from the dim night of unreason and the final triumph. Meanwhile, however, the forces of irrationality, hatred, discrimination, and reaction are still strong—in the Vendée, among the kulaks of the Bible Belt who cling bitterly to their guns and their God, and even in the universities.

Communism and liberalism feature an odd and distinctive combination of historical determinism and radical Pelagianism. The eschaton of radical freedom for all is inevitable, the forces of History will sweep toward their ultimate victory—and therefore it is essential that every good citizen accept liberalism (communism) in his heart and promote it publicly, eagerly detecting and shaming bias (class interest) and intolerance (oppression). It also follows from Legutko’s view that liberal orders like the EU recreate the pathologies of communism, albeit with a human mask. The nations of Eastern Europe that, having rejected communism, ran pell-mell in the direction of EU-style liberalism betrayed each other and themselves. The forces behind the first Solidarity movement, on Legutko’s telling, were not at all uniformly liberal. The Church, or critical parts of it, was one of the few institutions to resist the Communist party. But when the new Polish regime became a liberal regime, it fell under a new shadow, with the same essential form as the old.

The stock distinction between the Enlightenment’s twins—communism is violently coercive while liberalism allows freedom of thought—is glib. Illiberal citizens, trapped without exit papers, suffer a narrowing sphere of permitted action and speech, shrinking prospects, and increasing pressure from regulators, employers, and acquaintances, and even from friends and family. Liberal society celebrates toleration, diversity, and free inquiry, but in practice it features a spreading social, cultural, and ideological conformism. Legutko is at his best when explaining, in the manner of Jon Elster, the subtle causal mechanisms that underpin this relentless drive for conformism, which constantly works to extinguish the illiberal.

Part of the picture is the familiar Tocquevillian claim that liberal egalitarianism generates pervasive suspicion and distrust of competing associations and institutions, which come to be perceived as breeding grounds of special privilege. Here, too, Legutko improves upon his predecessor by pinpointing the deep source of liberal hostility to orthodox religion in particular: Salvation is a good that is unequally distributed and thus amounts to the ultimate illegitimate privilege. More central to Legutko’s vision, however, is a different point: the essential loneliness of the liberal citizen, which becomes a powerful engine of conformism. Because liberalism tends to dissolve intermediate institutions and traditional groupings—family, community, church—liberal man craves belonging and membership. Under communism, citizens knew “they had to sever, if only verbally, all links with tradition, and to fill the empty space in their souls with the content of the socialist creed.” So too under liberalism: “The void ha[s] to be filled by a new identity.” Individuals forge this new identity by inventing and participating in ecstatic political rituals that aspire to combine perfect equality with perfect freedom. Especially prominent are politicized “language rituals,” also a characteristic of life under communism; “the more participants, the noisier the political rites, the more impressive seemed to be the performance of the entire political system.”

As for intellectuals under liberalism—those evidence-based freethinkers of the quiet car, raised, selected, and trained to avoid superstition and prejudice (except for their own unconscious biases, which they ruefully confess but devoutly hope one day to overcome)—they either adopt the new liberal identity or are cowed into an outer conformism. This is due not just to fear of social reprisals and shaming, but also to self-deception and the lack of any other comprehensive view that would give them the self-confidence to think and speak against liberalism. The intellectual “in his heart . . . believes (or is not strong enough to shun the belief) that there must be something fundamentally right in all this deluge of nonsense, and he persuades himself that deprecating it would be more wrong than keeping silent.”

There are many puzzles about contemporary liberalism: its inconsistencies and hypocrisies, its vehement commitments that seem out of step with liberalism’s own professed principles. Just as, in the succession of scientific theories, anomalies come to light and mount up until a paradigm-shifting crisis occurs, so too the anomalies of liberalism as it actually operates have become glaring. Here are a few.

Why do Western liberal academics and EU technocrats object so stridently to the mild illiberalism of the Fidesz parliamentary party in Hungary, while saying little or nothing about Saudi Arabia and other monarchical or authoritarian nations, nominal allies of the West, who routinely control, punish, and dominate women, gays, and religious dissenters? Why are the EU technocrats, whose forte is supposed to be competence, so very bumbling, making policy mistake after policy mistake? How is it possible that while the sitting president of the United States squarely opposed same-sex marriage just a few years ago, the liberal intellectuals who supported him passionately also condemn any opposition to same-sex marriage as bigotry, rooted in cultural backwardness? Why was the triumph of same-sex marriage followed so rapidly by the opening of a new regulatory and juridical frontier, the recognition of transgender identity?

Legutko helps us understand these oddities. We have to start by understanding that liberalism has a sacramental character. “The liberal-democratic mind, just as the mind of any true communist, feels an inner compulsion to manifest its pious loyalty to the doctrine. Public life is full of mandatory rituals in which every politician, artist, writer, celebrity, teacher or any public figure is willing to participate, all to prove that their liberal-democratic creed springs spontaneously from the depths of their hearts.” The basic liturgy of liberalism is the Festival of Reason, which in 1793 placed a Goddess of Reason (who may or may not have been a prostitute conscripted for the occasion, in one of the mocking double entendres of Providence) on the holy altar in the Church of Our Lady in Paris. The more the Enlightenment rejects the sacramental, the more compulsively it re-enacts its founding Festival, the dawning of rationality.

Light is defined by contrast, however, so the Festival requires that the children of light spy out and crush the forces of darkness, who appear in ever-changing guises, before the celebration can be renewed. The essential components of the Festival are twofold: the irreversibility of Progress and the victory over the Enemy, the forces of reaction. Taken in combination, these commitments give liberalism its restless and aggressive dynamism, and help to make sense of the anomalies. Fidesz in Hungary is more threatening than the Saudi monarchy, even though the latter is far less liberal, because Fidesz represents a retrogression—a deliberate rejection of liberalism by a nation that was previously a member in good standing of the liberal order. The Hungarians, and for that matter the Poles, are apostates, unlike the benighted Saudis, who are simple heretics. What is absolutely essential is that the clock of Progress should never be turned back. The problem is not just that it might become a precedent and encourage reactionaries on other fronts. The deeper issue is that it would deny the fundamental eschatology of liberalism, in which the movement of History may only go in one direction. It follows that Brexit must be delayed or defeated at all costs, through litigation or the action of an unelected House of Lords if necessary, and that the Trump administration must be cast as a temporary anomaly, brought to power by voters whose minds were clouded by racism and economic pain. (It is therefore impossible to acknowledge that such voters might have legitimate cultural grievances or even philosophical objections to liberalism.)

The puzzle of the EU technocrats, on this account, is no puzzle at all. They are so error-prone, even from a technocratic point of view, at least in part because they are actually engaged in a non-technocratic enterprise that is pervasively ideological, in the same way that Soviet science was ideological. Their prime directive is to protect and expand the domain of liberalism, whether or not that makes for technical efficiency.

Liberalism needs an enemy to maintain its sacramental dynamism. It can never rest in calm waters, basking in the day of victory; it is essential that at any given moment there should be a new battle to be fought. The good liberal should always be able to say, “We have made progress, but there is still much to do.” This is why the triumph of same-sex marriage actually happened too suddenly and too completely. Something else was needed to animate liberalism, and transgenderism has quickly filled the gap, defining new forces of reaction and thus enabling new iterations and celebrations of the Festival. And if endorsement and approval of self-described “gender identity” becomes a widely shared legal and social norm, a new frontier will be opened, and some new issue will move to the top of the public agenda, something that now seems utterly outlandish and is guaranteed to provoke fresh opposition from the cruel forces of reaction—polygamy, perhaps, or mandatory vegetarianism.

Man is a sacramental animal who cannot deny his own nature. Legutko offers us a striking illustration of this truth. If ritual is rejected in theory, it will be aped in reality as a kind of compulsion. Obergefell v. Hodges was the decision that announced a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, founded on a constitutional right to “define and express [one’s] identity.” The Chief Justice, in dissent, complained about the majority’s “entirely gratuitous” aspersions against supporters of traditional marriage: “It is one thing for the majority to conclude that the Constitution protects a right to same-sex marriage; it is something else to portray everyone who does not share the majority’s ‘better informed understanding’ as bigoted.” In this, the Chief Justice betrayed a deep misunderstanding about what sort of activity he was participating in. He thought that he was participating in a legal decision. In fact, he was participating in a ritual drama—as the villain. The celebration of common-law liberal heroism, and its overcoming of the bigotry of the ages, requires the very aspersions that the Chief Justice thought gratuitous. They were an essential moment in the liturgy of liberalism.

Adrian Vermeule is Ralph S. Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School and author of Law’s Abnegation: From Law’s Empire to the Administrative State.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.