Ryszard Legutko’s Critique of Western Liberalism

For quite some time now, American intellectuals have taken a particular interest in Poland. During the Cold War, the Polish people’s resistance to communism was held up as an example of fidelity, and Pope John Paul II’s leadership of the Church was taken to be a quintessential example of the Polish spirit. The honeymoon is now over, however, for even in traditionally pro-Polish circles there is an increasing discomfort with Poland’s unabashed celebration of her national identity, tenacious defense of sovereignty, and reluctance to be properly assimilated into the European Union. Yet given the reality of twenty-first-century politics, we might raise the question of who should be learning what from whom. Those of us who feel at home and comfortable with the direction the twenty-first-century Western elite has taken may feel free to lecture the Poles about their need to embrace the liberal democratic order.

Those of us who deem mob harrassment of politically-incorrect speech and the war on family to be features rather than bugs might do well instead to listen to Poles like Ryszard Legutko—a professor of philosophy, official in the late President Lech Kaczynski’s administration, and former anti-Communist dissident. Many are familiar with Legutko through his indispensable book The Demon In Democracy, a work that is worthy of sustained attention. As a matter of fact, though, Legutko’s widely-known comparison of liberal and Marxist attitudes is simply a continuation of themes raised in earlier essays, such as “What’s Wrong With Liberalism?

As a philosopher dealing with a word that has become exceedingly ambiguous, Legutko takes pains to define terms, making clear that by liberalism he does not just mean the latest ambitions of the Clinton machine. Rather, there is a thread of continuity which runs “from radical free market capitalism to certain forms of the welfare state, from Ludwig von Mises to John Rawls, from Reaganomics to the European Union.” While proponents of classical liberalism, contemporary liberalism, and libertarianism

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might have divergent opinions on economic freedoms and the role of government […] they are united in their conviction that thinness of anthropological, moral, and metaphysical assumptions is the prerequisite for freedom and peace. Whoever would thicken such assumptions generates ideological conflicts and is believed to undermine the basis of peaceful cooperation and open the door to unjust discrimination.

In other words, liberal theory makes getting along its top priority, and so necessarily advocates setting off to the side the more difficult issues of man’s existence.

So far, so good. Who could object to getting along? Yet the quest for accomodation which lies at the heart of the liberal project brings us to Legutko’s five objections to liberalism—the first being that it makes life increasingly superficial. By excluding from serious consideration anything which might generate conflict, liberalism also excludes anything that might redeem or even enliven human existence.

Legutko’s second objection is directed at the “rather dubious” liberal claim to occupy a position of objectivity and neutrality; to prioritize getting along rather than the immortal soul or the pursuit of truth is, after all, a metaphysical decision, and the liberal deludes himself by pretending otherwise. When it comes to any given controversy, the reason “liberals are so difficult to communicate with,” Legutko remarks perceptively, is because without even realizing it “liberals always place themselves in a higher position than their interlocutors, and from that position they have an irresistible urge to dominate.”

From there, Legutko goes on to outline the argument that “the identification of liberalism and liberty, so characteristic of modern times, is largely unfounded,” an especially intriguing proposition for those who are profoundly dissatisfied with liberalism yet still cherish the Anglo-American spirit of liberty. Maybe the real, full-blooded liberties, which generations of Westerners have so tenaciously defended, have less to do with the theoretical constructs of Locke and Mill than we have been led to believe.

The fourth objection relates to the irritating and childish leftist tendency to reduce political discussion to a binary code, i.e., to lump the breathtakingly wide variety of non-liberal perspectives together in order to demonize them. To the contemporary liberal proponent of snowflake individualism, neither Kipling’s Britain nor Confucius’s China nor the antebellum South warrant serious intellectual engagement, not even for the purposes of criticism, because they can all be dismissed and demonized by ultimately boiling them down to the equivalent of Hitler—i.e., any attitude that supports modern pretensions to intelligence and sophistication.

Last but not least, according to Legutko the pluralism fundamental to liberalism is inherently unsustainable and incoherent, since by its nature it invites the very chaos its proponents would banish: “Liberals resemble a traffic specialist trying to find traffic rules that would enable an increasing number of cars to drive efficiently and without collision and who at the same time is an automobile manufacturer interested in selling as many cars as possible. This task is not feasible. The rules are more and more inclusive, but at the expense of being more and more remote from reality.”

If Legutko sees liberal democracy as fundamentally flawed, this naturally raises the question of alternatives. Legutko contends that “it is conservatism, and conservatism alone, that stands for freedom and human experience against necessity and ideology.” As with liberalism, conservatism is a disputed term, so Legutko helpfully elaborates its meaning, which has less to do with any particular agenda of tax cuts or military spending than with piety. Indeed, in his view it means very nearly the opposite of what a spokesman for the American conservative establishment might say it means.

There are two main strains of conservatism, explains Legutko, one of which could be identified with the eternity-minded Plato, and the other with the down-to-earth Edmund Burke. As it happens, Platonic and Burkean conservatism alike eventually lead to “the contemporary conservative vocation,”

which is to reclaim or re-create a certain type of attitude that is otherwise without support in our time. This is the attitude of one who sees the world as open to human initiative while tempered by experience, practical intelligence, and a sense of propriety. There are no grand plans or projects that one “must” obey; rather, one should follow one’s own knowledge, moral upbringing, and communal loyalty. We are not responsible for the earth, universal emancipation, universal equality, international human rights, a new world order, a new sexual order, or any of the rest.

No, we are responsible for our families, our friends, and our communities, small and large. Our basic virtue should be that of sôphrosunê—temperance—and the vice we should absolutely avoid is hubris. No progressive ideology, no moralistic crusade, can take our responsibility from us by dictating how to organize our lives and set our priorities.

For the benefit of those uncomfortable with political philosophy that is not explicitly grounded in Church teaching, it is worth observing that Legutko is extremely conscious of his Catholic heritage, having devoted an entire chapter of The Demon In Democracy to the clash between Communism and certain heroic figures of the Polish Church, such as Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski. Moreover, we might think of Legutko’s conservative politics as a way to love our neighbors—not the whole human race, or Rousseau’s romanticized noble savage, but our actual neighbors. So unlike the “social justice” movement, classical conservatism as Legutko describes it is not a surrogate faith based in ideological abstractions. It is, rather, the translation into political terms of Christ’s second commandment.

In any event, for better or worse such a brand of conservatism today “has no respectability and is fiercely opposed by ideologies of emancipation and equality,” even in the nations of eastern and central Europe. Conservatism struggles to get a hearing, contends Legutko, because the instant Communism collapsed, Harvard guru Jeffrey Sachs and other financier-carpetbaggers swooped into the former Warsaw Pact nations to fill the vacuum and set the agenda for the post-Cold War era. For the skeptical-minded, Polish or American, it comes as no surprise that such supposedly philanthropic activities have proven strikingly lucrative for Sachs and his peers.

For Legutko, though, the main objection is not that con men lined their bank accounts at the Polish public’s expense, but that they stifled Polish cultural and political renewal:

Almost immediately after the fall of the old communist regime—whose ideologues also believed in the inexorable laws of history—the peoples of Eastern Europe were told that in order to become free societies they would have to conform to one political model. In order to be free, they had to submit to liberal tutelage. There was to be no nonsense about experimenting, trial and error, drawing lessons from one’s own historical experience or traditions. Schools, universities, the media, families—all had to become liberal. And this did not mean making creative use of one’s freedom, one’s intelligence, and one’s experience, but following a blueprint that was said to be obligatory today and even more obligatory tomorrow.

This is the context that we should keep in mind whenever we consider relations between America and Poland. On the American side, there is increasing worry that Poland will head in the “wrong” direction—i.e., away from a Western elite that has enshrined into law abortion, gay “marriage,” transgenderism, and God only knows what next. From the point of view of the Polish patriot, on the other hand, there is a longstanding experience of foreign powers attempting to remake Poland in their image, with the help of collaborators and useful idiots within Poland herself. Hence the real meaning of Poland’s involvement in the Visegrad Group, a small cluster of relatively conservative central and eastern European nations committed, among other things, to promoting and preserving Christian identity and national sovereignty within the European Union. Yet even in the Polish leadership—conservative Catholic or no—there is a dreadful inferiority complex, a heedless desire to “catch up” with the rest of the West. “Memory is, in our situation,” Legutko admonishes them, “the best weapon against the idols of an ideological age.” Such advice is appropriate not only to his countrymen, but to us as well.

(Photo credit: Katarzyna Czerwinska / Wikimedia)


  • Jerry D. Salyer

    Jerry D. Salyer holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautics from Miami University and a Master of Arts from the Great Books Program of St. John’s College, Annapolis. A veteran of the US Navy, Mr. Salyer now works as an educator and as a freelance writer.

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