Excerpt from The Demon in Democracy*
One can look at the affinities between communism and liberal democracy from both a narrower and a wider prospect. The narrower point of view may lead us to a sad conclusion that the modern Western world never really understood quite correctly the communist experience 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 the modern man, persistently revealing itself under different political circumstances. This is assuredly not the only disquieting inclination the 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 which were hailed and sincerely believed to be the greatest hopes of mankind. The story is thus not only about politics, but, indirectly, about the aspirations and dreams of the modern man.
The book argued that the modern man who was the inspiring force of the two political systems was a mediocrity, not by nature, but, so to speak, by design, and from the beginning was expected to be indifferent to great moral challenges and unaware of the danger of a moral fall. Such was, more or less, a picture which the early modern thinkers created – mostly in opposition to the classical and Christian views of human nature – and which, within a few centuries, managed to overcome virtually all of its competitors. Both regimes imagined man as a creature of common qualities whose commonness made him perceive the world through his own narrow vision and therefore naturally inclined to reduce art, ideas, education – contrary to the old view which had attributed to them an elevating power – to his own dimensions.
I cannot refrain from making a personal note. The Poles could see the communist man in his full splendour during the early stages of communism, when, after having arrived on the Soviet tanks, he was enforcing the construction of the new regime in the society that had been already decimated and terrorised by the German occupation. A homo novus, uneducated, vulgar, primitive, having nothing but contempt for tradition, for the Polish imponderables, for history, culture and for anything subtle, genteel, elegant, beautiful, and spiritual, he was carrying out the destruction of social classes – the landed gentry, the middle class, the peasantry, the aristocracy and even the working class whose interests he pretended to impersonate. He gave the Communist Party his will and his soul, and in return the party provided him with the formidable instruments of power as well as with what seemed to him the complete knowledge of the world. He did his job with a ruthlessness unmitigated by any inhibitions: Polish society underwent a profound and largely irreversible process of the destruction of culture (the latter word used in every possible sense). Life became boorish, social norms lost their force, and ugliness replaced beauty. One had an impression that the country fell into the hands of the barbarians. Later on, the communist man acquired some polishing – which did not touch his essence though – but the damage could not be undone. This spectacular manifestation of Soviet barbarism – for which the Polish language had a lot of colourful expressions – was not a local phenomenon, but occurred in all the countries that came under communist rule.
When the communist order stabilised and the Soviet-type thugs retired or were pushed aside, there came a new generation of the communists: no less vulgar than their predecessors but definitely not so brutal, presumably because of a fairly long period of peace, they expressed their desires in the communist newspeak which delineated the boundaries of their imagination and mental possibilities. The lack of cultivation did not prevent them from having mastered a remarkable dexterity in moving within the intricate mechanisms of the communist bureaucracy which was allotting privileges, benefits, property and power.
The second time when we encountered a wave of barbarism was immediately after the fall of communism. Naive people thought that after the disappearance of the old regime a substantial part of the social fabric that this regime had destroyed would be restored, that freely elected governments and a liberated society will make an attempt to do so, or at least, that the opening of the free space would boost – as it did during the first Solidarity period 1980–1981 – a human energy to noble goals which the old regime had debased. But whoever expected this, was disappointed. Instead we witnessed an invasion of another tribe of the new men, boisterous and savage. The areas of freedom which the crumbling of the old order created became almost immediately occupied by the people coming – as it seemed – out of nowhere, in such great numbers that their victory was practically a Blitzkrieg.
Their strikingly loutish manners and coarse language did not have its origin in communism, but, which many found astonishing, in the patterns, or rather anti-patterns that developed in Western liberal democracies. Of course the new order was different and had different mechanisms, but despite the differences it was directed against the social forms, types of conduct, norms and practices to which the old order had been also hostile. Life underwent further vulgarisation; the few practices and social norms that survived the previous invasion of the barbarians were subject to new attacks by the new forces of barbarism; the ugliness of communist Poland did not disappear, and beauty was as much a rarity as it had been before. The new barbarians could hardly be called Bolsheviks or Soviet thugs, but there was something in their attitude that led to seeking similarities with their predecessors.
Their vulgarity was, so to speak, of the second order, as opposed to that which we had seen in the communist Poland and which had had something primordial about it. What happened in liberal democracy did not result from the absence of culture, and there was nothing primordial or natural about it; nor did it come from outside of the realm of civilisation. In that it differed from the vulgarity of the communists who, before they captured the power in Poland, had lived in environments practically unaffected by Polish culture. Having been long exposed to the Soviet influence they felt an intense instinctive antipathy towards the West as such, not knowing exactly what it was, and in particular for all forms of civilised conduct and of propriety, which they thought both decadent and perfidious. The new barbarians of liberal democracy, on the other hand, were the products of the West which at a certain stage of its history turned against its own culture; the respect for its achievements was gone, being replaced by contempt, and the rules of civility and propriety derided. To put it simply, the vulgarity of the communist system was pre-cultural while that of liberal democracy is post-cultural.
One may wonder why the new barbarians in Poland (and, I imagine, also in other former Soviet-block countries) appeared so rapidly and in such a great number. A major reason would be, perhaps, that what happened happened through mimicry. Hundreds of thousands of people started imitating, voraciously and almost piously, the behaviour, language and mental patterns of what they observed in the Western liberal democratic countries, and what they believed to be the essence of the modern society and the natural expressions of freedom. This alleged ambiance of modernity was so overwhelming that society meekly surrendered to the new tastes. The society did not have the will to oppose them, nor did it have a sufficient confidence that it should. The new barbarians easily took over public space and established its dictatorial rule. Twenty years after the fall of the communist regime, the chances of pushing them out are as slim as ever.
In both systems, man compensated his commonness with the image of a large, well- functioning system: communism in one case and liberal democracy in the other, which, through the pursuit of collective goals – such as equality for all, peace, prosperity, etc. – released him of a necessity to seek personal excellence and to aspire to the ideals that from the perspective of the political system might look redundant. A dream of greatness and a fear of downfall which the pursuit of greatness generated were thus transferred to the respective political system: the greatness of man was the greatness of the system, and his downfall was conceivable solely as caused by the forces hostile to the system. Hence, he did not feel his mediocrity and even if he did, he was not ashamed of it. The vulgarity he quite often indulged in was a tangible symptom of his sense of superiority as the only authority to set rules and standards, and this sense did not come from his own extraordinary qualities – those he obviously lacked – but from a powerful political and ideological mechanism that backed him up.
It is therefore hardly surprising that just as “communism” (or “socialism”) was the favourite word of the communist man, “democracy” has been such a word for the liberal-democratic man. The former liked to say that “but in communism”, “because in socialism”, and suchlike, and the “argument from communism” was always the most ultimate of all ultimate arguments and by definition irrefutable. The latter loves saying, always with due piety mixed with a touch of audacity, that “but in democracy”, “because in democracy”, and the “argument from democracy” refutes all others. The number and frequency of the words “communism” (or “socialism)” and “communist” (or “socialist”) in the ancien régime are equal to the number and frequency of the words “democracy” and “democratic” in the new regime. The eagerness to use these words as trumps was not thought by the users to be a symptom of intellectual and moral capitulation, but rather, and quite sincerely, a manifestation of independence, courage, assertiveness and autonomy. To a mediocre man, an organic assimilation with the system was the easiest way to develop a conviction of being exceptional.
The loyal communist citizen believed that everything he received from the state: guaranteed employment, a voucher for a car and a variety of benefits, albeit on a relatively low level when compared to the liberal-democratic countries, was something of a unique good which he imagined to be merely a symbol of the much greater goods the system offered: social justice, peace, the radiant future of humanity. This citizen was constantly reminded that under this poorly functioning, unpleasant and generally depressing communist reality some great things were being achieved. When somebody obtained, after waiting many years, a small apartment, it was hailed as a contribution to a grand project of building what the communist propaganda called the “second Poland”. A similar ideological trick was used in the case of censorship, military interventions in other countries, ideologisation of culture, or the repression against the enemies of the system: they were all presented as side effects – slightly unpleasant, but necessary – of a magnificent project for the achievement of which no price was too high to pay.
A typical liberal democratic citizen has an incomparably greater abundance of goods and services available, most of which he measures according to a certain hierarchy: those that are more useful are placed higher than those that are less useful. These useful things are believed to stand for something bigger and better, whereby the liberal-democratic utilitarianism, plain as it is, seems to acquire some kind of moral nobility by serving the lofty causes: liberty, freedom of choice and autonomy of the individual. Clothing is sold as a mark of a personal identity, a car as a symbol of freedom, hairdo as a tool for self-expression and brothels as a means of emancipation. So proclaim the advertisements, such is the language with which people refer to and often think of these goods. Limiting the availability of certain goods and services – even as heinous as pornography or any other demoralising rubbish – immediately causes a moral and political outcry: democracy is being threatened, the freedom of choice is violated and the human rights have been trampled upon. It has become a practice to defend what is vulgar, ugly and outrageous, and in the language that is vulgar, ugly and outrageous, because what is vulgar, ugly and outrageous more and more determines the aspirations of the democratic man. And he articulates those aspirations with increasing arrogance and with a diminishing sense of shame.
On things that are of higher quality and more demanding – those which are outside the scope of his sensitivity – he willingly imposes limits and restraints. He will argue that they are excessively elitist and anachronistic (vulgarity is never treated by him as an anachronism but always as a harbinger of a new and better world), politically incorrect, impractical, etc. It is easier in today’s school curricula to introduce online shopping than to teach Latin; the former seems appealing to both students and teachers by its irresistible usefulness, the latter will necessarily turn them off with its overt impracticality. It is easier to introduce classes on how to use condoms than to restore the mandatory reading of the Romantic dramas; the former is believed to bring schoolchildren right into the heart of contemporary problems, the latter will, as it is claimed, separate them from the real world and condemn them to an inhuman boredom.
Contrary to what many people think, the modern liberal-democratic world does not deviate much, in many important aspects, from the world that the communist man dreamed about and which, despite the enormous collective effort, he could not build within the communist institutions. There are differences, to be sure, but they are not so vast that they could be gratefully and unconditionally accepted by someone who has had the first-hand experience with both systems, and then moved from one to the other.
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 managed to divest himself of his major obligations that had made his life difficult and is apparently planning to get rid of those that still remain. This sad state of affairs, however, does not make him despair. He is troubled neither by raging ideology which paralyses his mind and keeps it in stultifying stereotypes, nor by the politicisation, nor by the sterility of culture and the triumph of vulgarity. Even if he can notice all these regrettable developments and be sometimes annoyed by them, even if sometimes a thought passes his mind that similar things had been happening in communism, he remains unperturbed and quickly convinces himself that replacing them with something else is impossible, and if it were possible, the results would be – for the reasons he does not bother to reflect upon – disastrous.
So the liberal democrats are quite right when they keep suggesting that the world has come to an end and if it should continue to exist in a satisfactory way, it must develop in the same vein. Of course, it is highly likely that some new rights will be invented to make everything yet more equal; that the feminist ideology and its spin-offs will prove to be even more absurd than before and people who so proudly worship their intellectual independence will once again surprise everyone by meekly adopting it all. We can imagine a literature which will be increasingly about nothing, a post-modernism that will be even more “post”, and a diversity rhetoric even more raucous and more masking the expanding uniformity. But all this will be yet another scene in the same final chapter of a long story which historically began in the early modern period, but which had its long Vorgeschichte. This chapter will include the fulfilment of what communism planned but what – to an immeasurable regret of communists – failed, namely, man’s integration with the regime and the regime with man.
Whether the future human history will add some new chapters, we cannot say, but such a scenario seems – upon the authority of common sense – likely. But the issue is not that new impulses, fashions, mood swings, major events and other unpredictable factors will always emerge to affect the course of history and people’s perception of it. The real change will come only when the current view of man will spend itself and will be considered inadequate. Only then will other stories develop or be revived – the former as a result of new experiences, the latter as a result of reactivating the long-dormant areas of collective memory – allowing a different look at the human fate and at the dreams through which the individuals and communities express their aspirations. This course of events, surely, cannot be ruled out, although today the mere fact of considering it provokes anger and mockery of those who lost the habit of even contemplating such playful peregrinations of the human mind and feel a superstitious fear of leaving secure territories of liberal-democratic orthodoxy.
But there exists yet another possibility. Perhaps the long story reaching dénouement in its last chapter that modernity divulged to us is not just one of many stories that can be replaced by another, but a basic truth about the modern man who, after many adventures, downfalls and ascents, exultations and tribulations, after following many chimeras and surrendering to many temptations, finally arrived at the accurate recognition of who he is. If this indeed were the case, then further fundamental changes in human history will no longer be possible, except the changes for the worse. Such an eventuality would be, for some, a comforting testimony that man finally learned how to live in a sustainable harmony with his nature, but for others it will be a final confirmation that his mediocrity is inveterate.
Translated by Teresa Adelson and the author
* From Ryszard Legutko’s recently published book entitled The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. New York: Encounter Books, 2016.