Polish philosopher and politician Ryszard Legutko’s latest (2016) book, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies,
is written from a perspective of someone who, after having lived for many years under communism and then for more than two decades under a liberal democracy, has discovered that those two political systems have a lot in common, stem from the same historical roots in early modernity, and accept similar presuppositions about history, society, religion, politics, culture and human nature.
Legutko is not equating communism and modern liberal democracy, nor he is challenging the vast preferability of living under the latter system compared to the former. He is saying, however, that comparisons are not only not absurd; they are actually quite apt. He suggests that as disturbing as this discovery may be (especially for those who regard democracy as a Christian project), we ought to receive it thoughtfully and react accordingly.
Legutko notes that in addition to shared roots and presuppositions, communism and modern liberal democracy are both “modernization projects”–“regimes whose intent is to change reality for the better.”
Both regimes clearly distance themselves from the past. Both embrace the idea of progress with all of its consequences, being a natural offshoot of the belief in the power of techne. In both whatever happens is assessed with respect to its relation to the old or the new. Having the brand of the new is always preferable; being with the old is always suspect. The favorite expressions of condemnation always point to the old: “superstition,” “medieval,” “backward,” and “anachronistic”; the favorite adulatory term is, of course, “modern.” It goes without saying that everything—in both communism and liberal democracy—should be modern: thinking, family, school, literature, and philosophy. If a thing, a quality, an attitude, an idea is not modern, it should be modernized or will end up in the dustbin of history (an unforgettable expression having as much relevance for the communist ideology as for the liberal-democratic). This was a reason why the former communists, who for so many decades had been fighting for progress against the forces of backwardness, so quickly found allies in liberal democracy, where the struggle for progress animates practically every aspect of individual and collective activities, progress is largely in the same direction, and backwardness is represented by the same forces (p. 7).
Those identified as “backward forces,” writes Legutko, are usually wearing crosses:
[B]oth the communists and the Western liberal progressives shared an assumption that religion, unless itself radically modernized, was an impediment to modernization; both shared a similar vision of a better world to come in which there would be no religion at all, or, if it was to survive, it would be entirely subservient to the ideas and institutions of the new society. Neither the communists nor liberal progressives could ever imagine religion to be a carrier of wisdom and a valuable corrective fore that was necessary to challenge the dogmas of the grand plan of modernization. To accept its authority, if only partially, would have been as unthinkable to them as it would have been for Kant to argue that man, after having matured, should go back to the state of adolescence (p. 159).
Paradoxically, the weaker the church becomes, the more it becomes whipped and vilified in modern liberal democracy:
This notion that to be for freedom and modernity presumes being also anti-Christian has imprinted itself on the European mind and is as strong today as it was in the past. An anti-Christian rhetoric in the media and in politics and anti-Christian art, including paintings, installations, plays, novels, films, articles, and slogans, fills the public space today, making the Christian religion, its institutions, and its articles of faith objects of endlessly multiplying derisions and accusations. Homosexual activists see Christianity as the original source of homophobia and feminists as the foundation of patriarchy. Countless intellectuals accuse it of totalitarianism, reactionary sexual ethics, pedophilia, an Inquisition-like mentality, witch-hunts, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, intellectual infantilism, a morbid fascination with guilt, and numerous other sins. On the one hand, there is an ever-present feeling of satisfaction that Christianity has been in retreat for some time, being driven back by a victorious wave of secularization; on the other, it is invariably seen as an evil that miraculously resurrects itself and continues to cast its ominous shadow over Western civilization. The participation of Christians in public life—even as paltry as it is now—revives the usual suspicions and resuscitates the old anti-Christian stereotypes. The crusade against Christianity verges on the absurd: liberals continue to make new conquests and colonize more and more areas of human life, leaving practically no territory outside their control, and the more they grab, the louder they rant against Christianity, flogging it with new accusations, invectives, and blasphemies (p. 159-160).
Here, Legutko notes the biggest paradox of all: Communists can only admire the success that modern liberal democracy has enjoyed in destroying the church.
If the old communists lived long enough to see the world of today, they would be devastated by the contrast between how little they themselves had managed to achieve in their antireligious war and how successful the liberal democrats have been. All the objectives the communists set for themselves, and which they pursued with savage brutality, were achieved by the liberal democrats who, almost without any effort and simply by allowing people to drift along with the flow of modernity, succeeded in converting churches into museums, restaurants, and public buildings, secularizing entire societies, making secularism the militant ideology, pushing religion to the sidelines, pressing the clergy into docility, and inspiring powerful mass culture with a strong antireligious bias in which a priest must be either a liberal challenging the Church or a disgusting villain. Is not—one may wonder—this nonreligious and antireligious reality of today’s Western world very close to the vision of the future without religion that the communists were so excited about, and which despite the millions of human lives sacrificed on the altar of progress, failed to materialize (p. 167-8)?
Legutko notes that Christians are prone to regard their lot under modern liberal democracy as a function of democracy veering off course from its pure Christian moorings. That, he says, is a dangerous misunderstanding that history will not support:
But this conciliatory attitude on the part of Christians is certainly wrong if it is motivated by the conviction that the current hostility to religion is a result of misunderstanding, social contingencies, unfortunate errors committed by the Christians, or some minor ailments of modern society. The truth is that all these phenomena, as well as other anti-Christian developments, are the genuine consequences of the spirit of modernity on which the liberal democratic system was founded. Modernity and anti-Christianity cannot be separated because they stem from the same root and since the beginning have been intertwined. There is nothing and has never been anything in this branch of the European tradition that would make it favorably disposed to Christianity. The waves of hostility appeared and disappeared, ranging from outward aggression to indifference mixed with contempt, but never did the tide turn into an open and sincere sympathy (p. 168).
Not only did we not learn much from the communist experience, Legutko attests; we still have not learned much about the inherent sinfulness of humanity and are still inclined to believe that certain systems are Christian-friendly, if only…
One can look at the affinities between communism and liberal democracy from both a narrow and a wider prospect. The narrower point of view may lead us to a sad conclusion that the modern Western world never really understood the communist experience quite correctly and if it did, it never took seriously the lessons that followed from it. When looked at more broadly, the examination of those affinities may give grounds for a conclusion more daring: namely, that the two regimes stem from the same root, or more precisely, from the same, not particularly good, inclination of modern man, persistently revealing itself under different political circumstances. This is assuredly not the only disquieting inclination that modern man has given in to, bearing in mind the bloody history of Europe and America in the last centuries. But the story of the relationship between communism and liberal democracy is of particular importance, as it is about the systems that were hailed and sincerely believed to be the greatest hopes of mankind. The story is thus not only about politics, but also, indirectly, about the aspirations and dreams of modern man.
He ends on a chilling note, with a warning for what “major obligations” like Christianity are likely to yet experience at the hands of modern liberal democracy:
It would not be, perhaps, inaccurate to say that the essence of the modern man’s dream has come true, or, more modestly, that this process is still in progress. He has managed to divest himself of the major obligations that made his life difficult and is apparently planning to get rid of those that still remain (180).
It’s enough to make one reflect seriously on how we engage with democracy as Christians. Many Christians become impatient with such discussions, sweeping the conversation away with phrases like “still the best system ever invented” and “much better than the alternatives.”
But Legutko is suggesting that this is not the important question. The important question is, Why are Christians more trusting of one “modernization project” than another, especially when these projects share the same root, the same presuppositions, the same exalted view of human reason, accomplishment, and purpose?
The conversation calls to mind those maps that we do where we color-code the countries that are hostile to Christianity. Do such maps accurately depict anti-Christian hostility, or do they show our own blindness and cultural bias toward the most hostile–and most stealthy, and thus most effective–opposition to Christianity in human history?