In the first few pages of this important book, Ryszard Legutko describes the oddity whereby former communists adapted far more easily and successfully than former dissidents and anti-communists to the new liberal-democratic regimes established in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Others have noticed this phenomenon too, but they have usually attributed it to such reasons as that the former communists had greater administrative experience, or that the rules of “transition” protected their power temporarily, or that having privatised state enterprises into their own hands, they brought more resources to playing the game of politics in media and government.

These practical factors were certainly important. But they did not explain why there was so little moral resistance to the continuing dominance of the old nomenklaturas in post-communist democracies. Quite the contrary. Lightly re-baptised as social or liberal democrats, they dominated debate and formed governments. In Western Europe, public and private institutions, including European Union bodies, seemed to find former communists more congenial than former dissidents as partners in politics and business. On the rare occasions when resistance did erupt, it was usually in response to official efforts to expose still influential communist networks, notably in intelligence agencies, or to restore state property to its original and rightful owners. It was almost as if anti- communist democrats were seen as a greater threat to the new liberal-democratic regime than those who had been its open enemies only yesterday. In addition to their practical advantages, therefore, the former communists enjoyed a mysterious ideological edge.

Professor Legutko is both a prominent Polish and European statesman and a distinguished philosopher who, in addition to more conventional credentials, was once the editor of Solidarity’s underground philosophy journal – a position that would have delighted G. K. Chesterton as well as demonstrating the professor’s devotion to truth and freedom. So he is ideally equipped to analyse the mystery of this ideological edge. He finds it in an unexpected place, namely in the structure and practices of the dominant political philosophy of the modern West: liberal democracy. This is a startling discovery. It surprised Legutko himself, and he is at pains to point out that even with all the flaws he identifies, liberal democracy is manifestly superior humanly and politically to all forms of totalitarianism.

That said, he is able to demonstrate that liberal democracy, as it has developed in recent decades, shares a number of alarming features with communism. Both are utopian and look forward to “an end of history” where their systems will prevail as a permanent status quo. Both are historicist and insist that history is inevitably moving in their directions. Both therefore require that all social institutions – family, churches, private associations – must conform to liberal-democratic rules in their internal functioning. Since that is not so at present, both are devoted to social engineering to bring about this transformation. And since such engineering is naturally resisted, albeit slowly and in a confused way, both are engaged in a never-ending struggle against enemies of society (superstition, tradition, the past, intolerance, racism, xenophobia, bigotry, etc., etc.). In short, like Marxism before it, liberal democracy is becoming an all-encompassing ideology which behind a veil of tolerance brooks little or no disagreement.

That must strike a newcomer to the argument as absurd. But in chapter after chapter – on history, politics, religion, education, ideology – the author lays out strong evidence that this transformation is taking place. And transformation is the correct term. The regime described here by Legutko is not liberal democracy as it was understood by, say, Winston Churchill or Franklin Delano Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. That was essentially majoritarian democracy resting on constitutional liberal guarantees of free speech, free association, free media and other liberties needed to ensure that debate was real and elections fair. Legutko hyphenates “liberal-democratic” as an adjective in the book; maybe he should do the same with the noun “liberal-democracy” to distinguish it from the liberal democracy of the 19th and 20th centuries.

One of the most crucial differences between these two regimes is openness. Liberal democracy is a set of rules designed to ensure that government rests on the consent of the governed. Except within the broadest limits, it does not inherently dictate what policies should emerge from government or what social arrangements should be tolerated or prohibited. It is open to a wide range of policy outcomes and willing to accept a genuine diversity of social arrangements, including traditional ones. Here the people rule both as voters and as citizens making free choices. Liberal-democracy, however, has policies and prohibitions built into its ideological structure. It is not really open to institutions and policies that run counter to its “liberationist” instincts. It increasingly restricts their freedom of manoeuvre on anything from parental rights to national sovereignty. It is even hostile to some fundamental values of liberalism such as free speech. Accordingly it sometimes comes up against the wishes of the voters expressed in elections and referenda.

That is where the second crucial difference between liberal democracy and liberal- democracy enters the equation. In the former the wishes of the majority, albeit qualified by negative constitutional restraints, ultimately determine law and policy. In the latter policy is determined both by electoral majorities in accountable bodies and by a range of non-accountable institutions such as courts that make laws rather than interpret them, trans-national institutions such as the EU, UN treaty-monitoring bodies, and domestic bureaucracies with wide regulatory powers under delegated legislation. Increasingly, power has drained from elected bodies to courts and other non-accountable institutions, the former have lost confidence, and the latter have become bolder, not merely restraining the majority but also dictating law and policy. The imperfect balance that has always existed within liberal democracy between democracy and liberalism has tipped heavily in favour of liberalism. Liberal-democracy is the result.

Paradoxically it is both less liberal and less democratic than liberal democracy. The range of acceptable political expression and the ability of voters to choose between different policies have both been greatly narrowed. In return the voters have become increasingly alienated and inclined to rebel against the new structures of power. As all these outcomes become clearer, there will be a major debate in the Western democracies on the legitimacy of their governing institutions. When that debate happens – and it is already in train – this culturally rich, philosophically sophisticated and brilliantly argued book will be an essential guide to understanding where we went wrong and how we can go right.

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