What’s Wrong With Liberalism?

To many, liberalism seems the best; the only platform, in fact, that enables political leaders and social groups to cooperate and to introduce social change and political reform. At any rate, this is the situation in Eastern Europe; but I believe that to a considerable degree it is also the case in other countries of what we call the West. Liberalism is regarded not only as synonymous with a free society, but also as the destiny of the modern world; the basic binding force of civilization, and the only basis for a political language through which we can all communicate. When the East Europeans freed themselves from the Soviet hegemony, the first thing they were told, and many of them told themselves, was that they must follow the liberal pattern. What “the liberal pattern” meant was not clear. What was clear, however, was that any open rejection of this recommendation, even if only barely spoken, or a deliberate replacement of the word “liberal” by “non-liberal” or “illiberal” would provoke unpleasant consequences in international institutions and in international public opinion.

Liberalism is obviously a loose and rather obscure concept, covering several ideas, not always compatible with one another in different historical contexts. It extends 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. Shifting from a narrow understanding of liberalism to a large one and then back to a narrow one is, especially in polemics, a common practice among politicians, political commentators, and the public at large. This makes a coherent and exhaustive rendering of “liberalism” extremely difficult. This should not, however, be sufficient reason to abandon the search for a more or less unifying definition. Coherent and exhaustive renderings of socialism or conservatism are no less difficult; yet this has never prevented critics from formulating objections against socialism as such, or against conservatism as such.

Let me offer my own formula by way of definition. A liberal is someone who takes a rather thin view of man, society, morality, religion, history, and philosophy, believing this to be the safest approach to organizing human cooperation. He does not deny that thicker, non-procedural principles and norms are possible, but believes these to be particular preferences which possess validity only within particular groups and communities. For this reason, he refuses to attribute to such principles and norms any universal value and he protests whenever someone attempts to impose his profound beliefs, however true they may seem to him, on the entire social body. Liberals might have divergent opinions on economic freedoms and the role of government, but 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 opening the door to unjust discrimination.

Can one have non-liberal or even anti-liberal views today without becoming, at best, a laughing stock, or at worst, a dangerous supporter of authoritarianism? Is the thinness of basic assumptions indeed the only way to secure liberal ends? I, for one, think that the identification of liberalism and liberty, so characteristic of modern times, is largely unfounded. Liberalism is one of several systems whose aim is to establish a certain ordering of the world. Whether this ordering is good, or preferable to other orderings, or to what extent this ordering increases our freedom, are open questions, and no definite answer seems compelling.

In what will follow I will present five arguments against liberalism, of which some will be against the theory as such, while others will be against some of its claims.

First Argument

The first and most immediate reason for my lukewarm attitude toward liberalism is its modest position in the entirety of human experience. To put it simply: liberalism as a theory is not interesting. Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky were not liberals. One cannot think of any outstanding writer who could be qualified simply and solely as a liberal. What is most fascinating in the picture of man and the world, in the understanding of our relation to God, to nature, to one another, was all formulated outside the realm of liberal thought. The most intriguing thinkers whom we regard as belonging to the liberal tradition in the largest sense of the word — Kant, Ortega y Gasset, or Tocqueville are all interesting to the degree to which they transcend liberal orthodoxy.

A thought experiment will make this clear. Let us imagine a man educated exclusively in Aristotelianism, or Hegelianism, or phenomenology, or Thomism. Such a man could be accused of one-sidedness, but he certainly could, other conditions being fulfilled, achieve wisdom in the most basic meaning of the word. Then let us imagine someone who is educated only in the works of liberalism. Such a man could never attain wisdom because the works he studies leave out the most important problems that have preoccupied human beings from time immemorial. The liberal ignores those questions because he considers them either irrelevant, or — for reasons I will explain later — dangerous. My experience with liberals is that whenever I raise those questions in their company, I encounter two kinds of reaction: either reluctance to discuss those issues as secondary, or irritation which results from my interlocutor’s conviction that he has located this problem within his system long ago and finds no reason to revisit it.

The lack of weight which one feels whenever one reads liberal works is an obvious consequence of the thinness of liberal assumptions, from which one cannot derive any profound insights. It is not that the tree of literary art is always greener than the tree of political theory, and that no poet or writer of significance was a propounder of a particular theory. The root of the problem lies in the program of consistent reductionism which closes the liberal mind to the issues that men have always thought constitutive of the human condition. The dilemma is inescapable: either one makes bolder assumptions — and then one is bound to depart from strict liberalism — or one sticks to the original thinness, and then one falls into sterility.

Second Argument

What has been said so far can immediately be countered with the following reply. Liberalism does not address the fundamental metaphysical and anthropological — which is to say, human — problems because it has a far more modest objective. Liberalism’s purpose is merely to create a framework within which people can function as acting, thinking, and creating beings. Liberals want to construct a model of public order spacious enough to secure maximum freedom for everyone, including the Aristotelians, the Hegelians, the Thomists, as well as their opponents — in short, for anyone, regardless of the priority or the profundity of his problems.

This reply is well known, but I do not think much of it. What we find in the reply reveals another level of liberal problems and explains why liberals are so difficult to communicate with. This leads me to my second argument. Liberals always place themselves in a higher position than their interlocutors, and from that position they have an irresistible urge to dominate. What they usually say is something like this: We are not interested in deciding any particular issue; all we want to do is to create a system within which you will make your own decisions. By saying this they do two things which I find rather dubious. First, they always usurp for themselves — without asking anyone for permission and without any permission being granted — the role of the architectonic organizer of society; thus, they always want to dominate by performing the roles of the guardians of the whole of the social system and the judges of the procedural rules within the system. Second, they declare “neutrality” towards concrete solutions and decisions within the system, but such “neutrality” is impossible to maintain; one cannot be an organizer of everything while at the same time refraining from imposing substantively in specific cases.

At least since John Locke, the liberals — declaring that all they are interested in is freedom of individuals and not the content of their choices — have made categorical judgments about what government should look like, how it should govern, how social life should be arranged, how families should be constructed, how our minds should work, and how we should relate to God. They had definitive answers — believed to follow from the principles underlying their framework — about which institutions are inferior and which superior, how children should be educated and what objectives schools and universities should have, what is the best structure of churches and families, what are acceptable relations between spouses, between parents and children, between teachers and pupils. The answers, “I don’t know” or “a decision is not possible within the accepted assumptions” are not something one often hears from liberals. In the system of liberty which they have constructed, everything is predictably known and accordingly regulated.

This openly declared focus on “procedural” issues rather than “substantive” issues is one of the greatest and most effective liberal mystifications, not to say sleights of hand. There are no non-substantive procedures. And once a radical change is made, whether in a school system, family life, the university, or the church, it does not make the slightest difference if the nature of the change was procedural or substantive. The liberals have legalized abortion, are in the process of legalizing homosexual marriages, are inclined to legalize euthanasia; they have changed or supported changes in family life, in religious discipline, in school curricula, in sexual conduct. None of these actions of support or inspiration were, strictly speaking, based on “substantive” claims; all were based on legalistic and formal arguments. But the practical effects in social and moral life were profound. Not only is liberalism not modest, its ambition to have a decisive voice is unquenchable: because it is the result of self-deception. The socialists, the conservatives, the monarchists are ambitious too, but they all know very well how far they want to penetrate the social fabric; and at least some of them are well aware that reality often resists, and that giving in to reality is sometimes a sound decision. The liberals, however, live in a world of self-delusion about their mildness and modesty, believing that even their most arrogant interference somehow does not touch moral or social “substance.”

The liberal framework is sometimes said to be limited only to the general structure of society, while leaving room for non-liberal communities, on the condition that they comply with the liberal principles of the whole. But such a promise, even if sincere, is incongruent with the nature of liberalism. Once it is assumed — as all the liberals do assume — that individuals are the basic agents, then communities, particularly non-liberal communities, lose any privileges that may stem from experience, custom, tradition, or human nature. There is no compelling argument that would make a liberal uncompromising with respect to the principles of the whole while tolerant with respect to the principles of particular groups or communities. All communities are understood as aggregates of individuals; and it is individuals, not communities, that are said to need liberal protections.

Consequently, non-liberal social structures and traditions — those that still exist — are merely tolerated “for the time being;” and they are under constant and minute supervision. When the time for toleration is over, when “the time being” comes to an end, a non-liberal social structure immediately becomes the object of attack. The most recurrent example is the liberals’ relation to the Roman Catholic Church, which is either formally tolerated in the name of the freedom that allows non-liberals to form non-liberal communities, or else formally attacked, also in the name of the freedom which the Church as a non-liberal institution is accused of lacking. But as everyone seriously interested in religion knows, the key to understanding the Church lies not in organizational questions but in substantive propositions about human nature, metaphysics, etc. Churches may be liberal or not; but the fact that they are liberal does not make them “by definition” better churches; it does not make them better adapted to the essential needs of human nature and more appropriate as responses to metaphysical problems. To acquiesce in the existence of the Catholic Church — regardless of its non-liberal organizational structure — as an irreducible expression of human experience, an experience from which one can learn or profit, is impossible for liberals. This would be for them a betrayal of liberal principles. Learning from others is something liberals never do.

Third Argument

One can hardly deny the moral impulse behind liberal thinking: to free men from bondage because bondage is humiliating. The primary reason one becomes a liberal is to create a situation in which men, to use Kant’s expression, are “freed from tutelage” and become sovereign agents themselves. But what would the world look like when men are in this blessed state? To this question, the liberals reply that it is precisely a world which corresponds to the liberal order. In other words, liberals — and this is my third argument — confuse two kinds of aspiration to freedom, or better, and to put it differently, two claims about freedom.

The first claim is that people are mature beings and their free actions should not be impeded by arbitrary will. The second claim is that what free people in fact want is a liberal order which best satisfies their need for freedom. These two claims are not necessarily identical, but liberals have no doubt about their equivalence. In the first case we have the belief that relying on people’s maturity benefits society as a whole since every human agent makes the best use of his capacities. In the second case, we have the belief that there is a single system which secures the maximum of freedom for everyone and that for all those who value freedom such a system must be the object of their aspiration. By identifying these two beliefs, liberals assume that whoever wants freedom must necessarily want liberalism, and whoever wants liberalism must necessarily want freedom. Armed with this assumption, liberals assess the progress of freedom by the yardstick of acceptance of their own system.

Liberals thus reconcile — in their minds as well as in their consciences — two tendencies which are essentially irreconcilable: acquiescence in the spontaneous development of social reality, and a desire to reshape society radically in accordance with a priori principles. Since those two things are not differentiated in their minds, the liberals believe that not only does the future of freedom depend on whether people accept the system they consider optimal, but also that the implementation of this system is in fact indistinguishable from the satisfaction of the deepest desires of sovereign individuals.

This, I think, explains an otherwise inexplicable paradox: that modern liberal discourse is not a language of freedom, but a language of necessity. Modernity, we are told, makes it imperative to embrace the liberal system and to reject whatever is not liberal. Whoever thinks otherwise should be placed in the dustbin of history. In no place is this imperative more palpable than in Eastern Europe. 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.

Fourth Argument

Many liberals, particularly in recent decades, while never ceasing to preach the superiority of pluralism, have in fact been propagating a dualistic vision of the world: on the one hand, they see pluralism; on the other, what they consider pluralism’s antithesis, which they sometimes call monism. This dichotomy is believed to describe not only the modern world but the entirety of human history, past and future. For liberals, the claim that in the human drama there have always been two antagonists — pluralists and monists — has acquired the status of a dogma, more self-evident than the Ten Commandments. The monists are ayatollahs, Adolf Hitlers, Christian fundamentalists, Catholic integrists, Islamists, conservatives, and many more. Tertium non datur. Whoever does not belong to the camp of the pluralists, the camp of the liberals, will inevitably find himself sooner or later in the camp of their enemies.

Let us take a well-known but very bad essay by Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” where pluralism is exemplified by “negative liberty” and monism by “positive liberty.” In that essay Berlin argues that those who defend the notion of positive liberty are in fact propounding a theory that justifies political authoritarianism, perhaps even totalitarianism. If, for instance, someone maintains that the human soul consists of two parts — i.e., higher and lower, rational and non-rational — and that the former should control the latter, then he intentionally or unintentionally opens the possibility that a certain institution or group of people will claim the right to take power and, in the name of the higher part of the human soul, impose one ideological and political system on another group representing the lower part of the soul. As it is easy to see, Berlin employs here a slippery slope argument, perhaps the most often used argument in this context, which says that monistic philosophies all lead, sooner or later, to disastrous political consequences by sanctioning discrimination, domination, and other equally reprehensible practices.

The only problem with this argument is that to the group of “monists” belong all the greatest and the most important philosophers, from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, to Hegel and Husserl. The dualistic perspective of the pluralists leads to discrediting what is most valuable in philosophy itself, and surprisingly, this act of discrediting is done in the name of “freedom” and “plurality.” Once this dualistic perspective becomes accepted as legitimate, it must entail intellectual degradation similar to what we once had in Marxism, where the entirety of human thought was also divided between two currents: materialism (which was good) and idealism (which was bad). There is no point in studying the “bad” part — whether monism or idealism — unless one either subscribes to the well-known critique of it, or else defends the “bad” part by indicating that it has some elements of the “good” part (pluralism or materialism). Studying the “bad” part for reasons that have nothing to do with the dichotomy makes no sense.

This also explains the liberals’ tendency to make sweeping judgments, positive or negative, about everything in the past, present, and future. This tendency derives from the simple criterion which they so often apply, and which is essentially political. The liberals do not analyze whether this or that theory is true or false, whether this or that moral position is good or bad, but whether those positions are politically safe — that is, whether they are not too monistic and therefore too authoritarian. And because in the light of the slippery slope argument nothing (other than liberalism) is safe, and because all non-trivial propositions may be placed on the slippery slope, the liberals are moral busybodies, never ceasing to warn, reprimand, condemn, praise, or lament.

Fifth Argument

Obsessed with the specter of discrimination and enslavement looming within every social practice, philosophy, or moral norm, liberals fall prey to the rhetoric of emancipation and are helpless when faced with modern ideological mystifications, which are often created in bad faith and from evidently erroneous assumptions. During the last century, there have appeared many ideologies that proclaim their noble aim of opposing unjust historically-entrenched discrimination by the dominant Western white Christian male majority. There is practically no minority today that, making recourse to these ideologies, cannot make a convincing case that it is a victim of a particularly sinister form of discrimination.

Who is today a liberal, and who is not, is often difficult to say since emancipatory rhetoric has become so omnipresent. The true-breed liberals — for whom the idea of freedom is so dear — are extremely generous in co-opting new groups into the ever-expanding circle of freedom fighters. But their generosity is not always reciprocated. Such radical groups as homosexual activists or feminists do not have any profound sympathy with liberalism, but they use its tools to promote their own goals. In fact, they are egalitarians, and the idea of equality, not liberty, is their principal value. The problem is that the liberals cannot reject the claims of such groups because they are paralyzed by the rhetoric of liberation and by their own conviction that saying “no” to these groups would amount to the renunciation of the liberal creed.

Sometimes the desire to co-opt everyone may express itself in a vision of society which is infinitely spacious — a utopia of utopias, as Robert Nozick once called it — which could be compared to a department store where all possible goods are available, and where people are not forced to buy only those that are currently fashionable or recommended by some authoritative agency. In a department store, there is no ethical hierarchy that would tell producers what to produce and customers what to purchase. A society which is modeled on the department store is said to stock goods for hedonists and spiritualists, for Jews and Muslims, for illiterate pleasure-seekers and for refined intellectuals; there is pornography and the Bible, Plato and Stalin, communism and laissez-faire. No one is deprived of the opportunity to find what he is looking for. Muslims are not coerced to accept the Christian faith, homosexuals are not forced to marry the other sex, monks are not distracted from their search for the absolute, and usurers are not constantly reminded about the Sermon on the Mount. The diversity produced by these arrangements eliminates any need for the distasteful logic of political trade-offs.

The problems with this vision are two. The first is conceptual. Such a system is in fact egalitarian, not libertarian: a world of no discrimination is a world of perfect equality. It is an illusion to believe that the egalitarian logic of the whole will not influence what people think within each community. The entire system will either have to create a spontaneous acceptance of the assumption that all ethical creeds are essentially equal, or else a supreme authority will have to impose the rule of equality on all groups. In both cases we might talk of the emergence of a sort of multiculturalism, which — as some think — may be a good thing in itself, but this puts an end to a dream of real cultural diversity. Multiculturalism is always either a highly regulated system or a homogenizing ideology which conceals its homogeneity by selecting some fashionable minority “culture” — homosexuals, Africans, feminists — to which its adherents kowtow and make this kowtowing the criterion of “openness” to plurality.

The second problem is practical. The effect of the increasing number of individual and group claims and the supportive toleration of those claims by liberals creates social and political chaos. The liberals try to bring some order to the situation, but in practice they encourage new groups to make ever more claims and thus to increase the chaos. 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. The result is a loss of a sense of proportion.

Once, “violence” was associated with torturing people; today it is spanking a child. Freedom of speech once meant the fight for the publication of Solzhenitsyn; today, the measure of free speech is pornography. The liberals seem to believe that the rules that secure freedom should be so inclusive that they cover both prohibition of torture and prohibition of spanking, the publication of Solzhenitsyn and the publication of pornography. They do not doubt that the moral principle is in each case the same. Most causes célèbres today have a similar element of absurdity.

But although the inclusive rules are more and more remote from reality, their application is becoming more and more specific. Those specific goals are provided by the emancipatory groups that the liberals, naturally as it were, took to be their allies. Thus, not only are we against racism, but against a specific form of racism which is said to exist in mathematics and its categorical conclusions; not only for toleration, but for that specific form of toleration that permits the students to violate the rules of grammar; not only for a fluid non-binary view of human sexuality but a particular regulation of toilets in public spaces. These are only samples of innumerable cases of the current politics of diversity in liberal societies. No wonder that the inclusiveness has turned into its opposite. The inclusive world the liberals and their allies organized has created far more limitations of freedom than the world they wanted to open for diversity.

Classical liberals, such as John Stuart Mill, believed that enlarging freedom by encouraging dissentience would result in an explosion of human creativity. Liberals today are less interested in creativity. They are on the one hand pedantic doctrinaires who never tire of constructing ever-more complex and ever-more dubious ideologies of inclusion; and on the other hand, they are ideological commissars who have acquired remarkable abilities to silence their critics and to enforce the way we speak and think. Never, since the demise of communism, have we had such an all-out assault on freedom.

[An earlier version of this essay appeared in Modern Age].


Ryszard Legutko, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy, is a member of the European Parliament. His scholarly focus includes ancient philosophy. He has published a massive study of Socrates and the Pre-Socratics (in Polish). His books in English include, Society as a Department Store: Critical Reflections on the Liberal State, The Demon in Democracy and more recently, The Cunning of Freedom.


The featured images shows, “La Liberté ou la Mort (Liberty or Death),” by Jean-Baptiste Regnault; painted in 1795.

The Necessity Of Opposition

Under communism, the political system in which I spent the first four decades of my life, there was no political opposition. This statement requires a short explanation. After WWII ended and Poland found herself under a de-facto Soviet occupation, there were anti-communist soldiers who continued their struggle for independence. During the entire communist period, occasional protests broke out against the regime’s economic policy, censorship, religious persecution etc. When the system became less brutal over time, there appeared small groups whom Western journalists called “the dissidents” and who protested against the regime and demanded its democratization. At one point, a powerful Solidarity Union emerged but soon was crushed by martial law imposed in 1983.

There was, of course, the Catholic Church, which in my country was and had been for a long time a place of refuge, a carrier of historical and cultural continuity, and a source of spiritual life for the believers and non-believers. But within the system, as the communist constitution constructed it, there was no place for the official opposition. This does not mean there was only one political party. Obviously, the communist party had a constitutionally inscribed “leading role.” But there were other parties, for instance, the Peasants’ Party, but they were not the opposition to the communists, rather their allies or, to be more precise, their satellites.

The communists had a justification for such a political construction. The argument was as follows. The communist revolution made a historical change. Poland was on the road to a system where there would be no exploitation, and everyone would receive everything according to his needs. The Communist Party leads the way to a better world. Who needs the opposition? Everyone who accepts communism and wants to work for a better communist world is welcome. The opposition to this process would be absurd and dangerous: absurd because the process, as Marx et al. had proved, is inevitable, and dangerous because it would mean turning us back to the world of exploitation, inequalities, injustice, colonialism, racism, imperialism, class struggle, etc.

Many people accepted this argument, not on its merits, but because challenging it was risky. One could lose one’s job, be imprisoned, or suffer other unpleasant consequences. When a larger group challenged this, as the Solidarity Union did, it became even riskier for the entire country because the communists always had the last word – the Soviet tanks.

Living in a society with no opposition was a peculiar experience. For one thing, it was extremely boring: a monotonous repetition of the same phrases and slogans, which did not serve communication, or if it did, it was in a limited way. The purpose of the political language was mostly ritualistic. The language was a major tool in performing collective rituals whose aim was to build cohesion in the society and close it, both politically and mentally, within one ideological framework.

Another feature of the system was an omnipresent sense of the enemy. The official ideology and its rituals were telling us that the nation is more and more united by and attracted to communist ideas. Still, at the same time, we had to be more and more aware of the enemies who wanted to destroy this harmony and plotted against our communist fatherland. I remember a teacher warning the high-school students before they went to a West-European country that they could become a possible object of the foreign intelligence agents. She advised them not to answer any questions regarding their school or families. And the teacher’s behavior was not considered extravagant.

One of the joys of being a dissident or joining a non-communist movement, such as the Solidarity Union, was that one could have access to a different language and talk to people who did not treat language as a repetitive ritual but as a tool of communication. Also, the problem of the enemies disappeared or rather was reversed. It was now the communists that were the enemies. Apart from them, the world did not look threatening.

At that time, it never occurred to me that the Western world may produce a society and a state of mind where the opposition as a permanent constituent of political and social life may disappear or become unwelcome. The assumption of my confidence in the vibrant state of the Western world was that its societies were pluralistic, that is, that the Left, the Right and the Center continued to be in a dynamic equilibrium, not only politically, but also culturally; that is, that they have grown out of and cherish different traditions, have different sensibilities, use a slightly different language and employ a different cultural idiom. But the assumption turned out false.

The danger of homogeneity has been looming over Europe and America for several centuries. The inherent tendencies of the Western world – egalitarianism, democratization, spectacular progress of technology, internationalization of the economy, the weakening of boundaries and measures – could not but lead to homogenization. All these processes had to undermine social diversity and were bound to make the societies more and more alike. This might be a paradox: the more accessible the world we live in, the more homogeneous it becomes. In other words, the larger it becomes, the smaller it is.

The problem of the opposition is a tricky one. On the one hand, the existence of opposition indicates that a large part of the society is represented, that it may influence its development, and that its voice contributes to a better grasp of the problems with which every society has to grapple. On the other hand, when the division between the government and the opposition is too big, it may not only destabilize the system but may prompt one of the conflicting sides to eliminate the other, not necessarily physically, but to marginalize them – intimidate, impose severe legal restrictions targeting them, and ostracize them, etc. – so that they practically disappear as a political and cultural opponent. This will generate the same results as a society without opposition – the destruction of language and an excessive sense of the enemy.

The communists, in their logic, were right in undertaking a crack-down on the Solidarity Union because there was no way these two sides could find some modus vivendi and modus operandi. The differences were too basic, and the objectives – sharply contradictory. Therefore, the communists found it necessary to present the Solidarity Union as an enemy and obliterate the language and symbols the Union used and equipped the Poles with.

How does this apply to a current situation? Suppose my diagnosis is correct and the Western world is sliding into deeper homogeneity, being reflected in the ideological proximity of the major political forces. In that case, it means we nowadays face a similar problem and should expect similar consequences. The political Left has dictated the agenda for the Western world: Socialists, Liberals, neo-Communists, Greens. The erstwhile conservative parties such as Christian Democrats have capitulated and have either incorporated the Left’s main points into their program or decided not to oppose and remain non-committal (which, in practical terms, is also a capitulation).

Today’s Left may differ from the Left of old in particular objectives and policies, but the frame of mind is similar: it aims at a radical restructuring of the society. Economic experiments of the old Left fizzled out, so there is no nationalization of industry and agriculture; no five-year plans are being considered. But the restructuring is equally radical: the Leftist governments, organizations, and movements have started waging war against a family based on the union of two sexes and in favor of multiple “gender” configurations; against the nation-state and in favor of what they call a multicultural society; against religion in the public square and in favor of radical secularization; against nationalisms and in favor of a united Europe; and in favor of a green world with zero-emission; in favor of ideological purity in art and education; against all forms of thoughtcrimes in history, literature, etc.

These and other items of this program meet with no opposition, that is, no legitimate opposition; those who question them are the dissidents, freaks, fascists, populists, and notorious troublemakers. This sweeping program of recycling our societies has been accepted by a tacit consensus of all major and not-so-major forces and institutions in the entire Western world. Why should there be any opposition, given that everybody who is somebody is in favor? The program leads to a better world without discrimination (who can object to this?), with harmonious coexistence of races, genders, and what-not (likewise), with a clean green environment (fantastic), with people’s minds freed from harmful stereotypes and prejudices (as above), with brotherly relations among groups (at last), etc. The opposition would only harm what looks like a beginning of a new promising stage in human history, superseding all previous ones in grandeur, justice, and human flourishing.

When the then president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, spoke in the European Parliament several years ago and told the MEPs, in rather delicate wording, how important the existence of the opposition was, the deputies felt offended and walked out of the hemicycle. Klaus’s words were considered offensive and foolish. In their opinion, modern European parliamentarianism represents a higher form: no longer a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog world, but consensual, dialogical cooperation of the people of goodwill. And this higher form is being jeopardized by irresponsible national firebrands who want to turn us back to an unpleasant world of partisanship and national egoisms.

Whoever, like myself, remembers the political system without opposition immediately recognizes the entire package, perhaps wrapped differently, with different details, but otherwise quite similar. The degree of linguistic rituals is so high that it almost becomes nauseating. When sometimes I have to spend too much time during the plenary in the Brussels or Strasbourg hemicycle, I feel I desperately need some detoxing to clean my speaking and thinking faculties of the EU gobbledygook.

The behavior of the MEPs confirms the second observation. The Left majority of Communists, Socialists, Liberals, Greens, and (former) Christian Democrats, an alliance that composes about seventy-five or eighty percent of the entire Parliament, looks at a minority with growing hostility. They do not treat these remaining twenty percent of their colleagues as opponents but as enemies that can be bullied, lied to, insulted, and kept in check by a cordon sanitaire. Their views are not legitimate views that can be debated, but absurd opinions that are, on the one hand, inconceivable, and on the other, odious and contemptible.

And the EU is just pars pro toto. In today’s Western world, the list of enemies increased and the number of possible crimes far surpassed those in the communist system. Today one can be accused of racism, sexism, eurocentrism, euroscepticism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, binarism, hate speech, logocentrism, patriarchy, phallocentrism, misogyny, ageism, speciesism, white supremacy, nationalism, illiberalism – and the list tends to grow. Some of the concepts – such as gender – have been particularly fecund in generating enemies: the more genders we have, the more enemies appear as each gender must have its own enemy.

Language has become loaded with these expressions, which are no longer qualified as invectives but have acquired the status of descriptive concepts. No wonder that the language of political exorcism has gained such popularity. One can insult at will in the belief that one describes. “The right-wing nationalist government in Warsaw, known for its homophobic and populist policies fueled primarily by the Catholic bigots, has launched another offensive of hate speech with clear racist undertones against the European values of openness, diversity, and the rule of law.” Perhaps the sentence is slightly exaggerated, but this is roughly what one usually finds in all major media in the Western world, from FAZ to NYT, from CNN to Deutsche Welle. The maxim audiatur et altera pars has been abandoned: there is no altera pars, so there is no point in giving it a hearing. Needless to say, the Poland they depict is not a real Poland.

This monotonous and deafening drumbeating spills over the entire society and penetrates all layers of social life. Among other things, it unleashed verbal and not only verbal aggression against the dissenters, which over the last decade has got out of control. And since the mainstream groups believe themselves to represent the enlightened world in its entirely, the dissidents are, by the same token, an inferior kind of people with inferior minds, and therefore, no foul word is too abusive to give them what they deserve. The fact that those inferior creatures can win elections or receive an important position or award seems not only unacceptable; it is a blasphemy that triggers an impetuous reaction of radical rejection and puts a protester in a state of frenzy. A massive hysteria and furious verbal aggression against president Trump were perhaps the most visible example of this. But such aggression can be directed against a university professor, an athlete, an actor, a priest, if their dissenting voices are heard.

No country is a better place to observe this than Poland. One of the few conservative governments in the Western world found itself outside the mainstream even before the party that composed it succeeded in winning the election. The Polish opposition to this government is, as they called themselves, “total,” which also expresses itself in the language it uses: escalation of insults, threats, wild accusations, physical attacks, all foul words one can think of shouted out loud in the face of those who are believed to be despicable puppets of Jarosław Kaczyński, that dangerous psychopathic despot – as they say – not really different from Hitler cum Stalin. No opposition in my country behaved like this before, not even when the neo-communists won the elections and ruled Poland for one parliamentary term. Whence this wild fury?

The answer is simple. One can easily imagine what goes on in the minds of the enemies of the conservative government. They believe they represent the world at large, and in a way, they do. They represent the real majority – the European Union, Hollywood, the Council of Europe, rock stars, international and national courts, TV celebrities, the United Nations, Ikea, Microsoft, Amazon, Angela Merkel, the new American administration, universities, media, governments, top models, parliaments. It is difficult to find any institution, corporation, or organization in the world that would not support them directly or indirectly. The “total” opposition knows they can do and say anything, and they would get away with it. When one looks at the Polish government from this perspective, it no longer presents itself as a legitimate government having a democratic legitimacy, trying to reform the system that had been inefficient, but as a villainous usurper, cancer on the healthy body of European politics. This is the government that, by its sheer existence, is a slap in the face of the European civilization. It had no right to come into being, and it has no right to exist. Insulting it and subverting it is a service to humanity.

The Polish government and its supporters are not powerful despots. They more resemble a David defending himself against an aggressive Goliath. But the problem is more general, and a reaction to Poland is just a symptom. The crucial question that one has to ask oneself today is whether this Goliath can be stopped and some kind of plurality returns, particularly whether Western conservatism will revive to the degree that it can prevent the Left’s march to a brave new world.


Ryszard Legutko is a philosopher and member of the European Parliament. He is the author of the well-known works, the Demon in Democracy and The Cunning of Freedom, as well as, Society as a Department Store: Critical Reflections on the Liberal State.


The featured image shows David and Goliath, in the Maciejowski Bible, or the Shah Abbas Bible, ca. 13th century.

Liberalism And Totalitarianism. A Conversation with Ryszard Legutko

Harrison Koehli from MindMatters talks with Ryzard Legutko about his work, life under communism, editing samizdat, the recent controversy with his university’s “office of safety and equality,” and the time he got sued for calling some students “spoiled brats.”

This is insightful and riveting discussion.


The featured image shows, “The Genius Of France Extirpating Despotism, Tyranny, and Oppression frokm the Face of the Earth,” an engraving by Isaac Cruikshank, published 1792.

Breaking The Monopoly Of The Mainstream: An Interview With Ryszard Legutko

It is a high honor indeed to publish the first English version of this interview with Professor Ryszard Legutko, which he gave to the Polish newspaper, Dziennik Polski, on Friday, July 30, 2021. Professor Legutko, of course, needs no introduction, being the author of the well-known works, the Demon in Democracy and The Cunning of Freedom. The journalists interviewing Professor Legutko are Wojciech Mucha and Marcin Mamon.


Dziennik Polski (DP): In your appeal to the Rector of the Jagiellonian University, you write about the “academic ethos.” How do you define it? Does setting up an office that has as its banner the equal treatment of all students undermine this ethos?

Ryszard Legutko (RL): We’ve had a problem with the academic community for as long as I can remember, that is, since the beginning of my work at the Jagiellonian University. We used to explain to ourselves that it was the fault of communism, people’s fear of the Party, because you can’t play games with the regime. Academics were not the bravest of professional groups. When the regime became a thing of the past and Poland became free, we thought that the ethos would be rebuilt. But it didn’t happen. This ethos is based on trust, application of the rules of impartiality, objectivity, fair-play. If the ethos is strong enough, then no additional regulations are needed. I imagined that since the communist system collapsed, a “live and let live” approach would prevail.

Ryszard Legutko. Photo Credit: Alicja Dybowska.

DP: Are you saying, they don’t let you live?

RL: I was defending the Jagiellonian University when I had an unpleasant experience at one of the American institutions when a student group and professors there, fighting – of course – for openness and pluralism, had my lecture cancelled. Later, in an article published in America, I wrote that such a thing would not have happened at my Almae Matris. But even then, it wasn’t entirely true, because several speakers, whose views were questionable, had already been denied entry.

DP: In your letter to the rector of the Jagiellonian University, Professor Jacek Popiel, you criticized the Office that is supposed to deal with equal treatment of the whole community of undergraduate and doctoral students at the University. What is it that you don’t like?

RL: Yes, I was very concerned. One of the things that has changed in universities is certainly the corruption of language. There are supposedly warm, friendly words, but they actually turn out to be sinister. When we hear about the “Equality Office,” it is clear that it is about tracking down dissidents. Pluralism? It’s nothing more than maintaining a monopoly of power. In all the places I know, all such structures work the same way. For example, at the American university I visited, it was demanded that any candidate for a guest lecture be approved by two “equality” bodies: one student and one faculty.

DP: These are global trends. We assume, they won’t change.

RL: Polish academics love authority figures, so I refer you to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of July 22nd and the article, entitled, “The University as a Risk Zone.” According to it, universities are becoming a place where all kinds of unorthodox ideas are tracked down. The danger does not come from politicians. It’s the professors and students themselves who do it — even though no one is forcing them. No one forced the Jagiellonian University to ape bad practices and introduce structures that work the same everywhere and are a disaster. Mimicry is a terrible affliction of our universities.

DP: Professor Popiel, the Rector of the Jagiellonian University, claims that you and Barbara Nowak, the school superintendent of Małopolska region, do not realize the importance of the problems in Polish education. According to him, we are facing increasing discrimination based on gender, religious or political identity. As he said in the pages of our newspaper: “However, we can’t compare the reality of 20 years ago to today; the consciousness of three or two decades ago to the sensitivity and needs of the younger generation.” Or maybe you just don’t see these changes, you don’t know that we have to move with the spirit of the times?

RL: Indeed, something has changed, but for the worse. The mania to track discrimination with tools to invent discrimination in every sphere – this is one of the problems. Genderism was created several decades ago. Before that, it did not exist. For the past decade or so, it has become the ideological orthodoxy of the entire Western world: the media, corporations, international institutions, governments, and, of course, universities. It is utterly improbable that a single theory, and one of dubious quality, has gained such reach and power. It generates social engineering, changes culture, and revolutionizes social structures. And yet it is only a novelty. Universities should keep distant from such things, treating them with the skepticism typical of a scientific attitude.

DP: Are you implying that the Jagiellonian University is no longer skeptical?

RL: Universities were the first to start incorporating new trends, instead of discussing their pros and cons. I would say that they do it with fanaticism. With this attitude, it is clear that “discriminations” will always be tracked down, identified, and then condemned. There are even countries, like Canada, where the wrong use of a pronoun is punishable by imprisonment. And the threat of ostracism or losing one’s job is virtually everywhere. The Jagiellonian University, in its passion for imitation, has already created a complete set of instruments to follow the same practices. Now we have to wait for the sad results.

DP: Poland is trying to catch up with this revolutionary progress. But we don’t want to believe that this is already a common thing, that the steamroller will level everything…. So where to look for normality?

RL: Certainly not in this formula of a university “with a risk zone,” to use the title of the aforementioned article. There are various centers and lecturers who have preserved the academic ethos, but it must be admitted that there are not many of them. The Left with its strategy of constant social engineering is currently on the prowl, also thanks to international institutions.

DP: This wave is overtaking the scholars themselves, and it is hard not to see them becoming part of it. Not many dissenting voices are heard. They say about you – he’s eccentric.

RL: There are very disturbing cases at our universities – suffice it to mention Professor Ewa Budzyńska from Katowice. Could anyone of us have thought 10 years ago that a Polish professor would be repressed for saying that the family is based on a union between a man and a woman? And this is exactly what is happening. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong, but have you heard about any protest of any faculty council or university senate concerning said issue? Rectors of Polish universities have several times criticized Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski’s homilies for wrong words about genderism, but not once have they defended Professor Budzyńska, or condemned the students’ aggression against members of the Constitutional Court.

DP: In Poland, however, someone will at least write a letter. Open letter or otherwise…

RL: We have to act, because the situation is getting more and more dangerous. My former Faculty Council wrote that I do not fit into the “university consensus.” What kind of word is that anyway? Consensus at a university? Who saw that coming! That’s a straight path to conformity. It’s amazing that in this day and age, when everyone talks about pluralism and diversity, so many ideologies are embraced by consensus – not just genderism, but in other aspects as well: immigration, climate, energy, education, so-called women’s rights. And since there is a consensus, there is no reason to discuss and argue. But those who do not fit into the consensus should be condemned and maybe even punished.

DP: Douglas Murray, in his book, The Madness of Crowds, wrote that with the end of grand narratives – religion, nation, philosophy – people are looking for, and plunging into, new battles, such as, gender, race or identity. Could it be that we are about to wake up in a world with no fixed rules, because everything will be questionable with multiple narratives?

RL: In my opinion, we are not dealing with a multiplicity of narratives, but with a mono-ideology, analogous to the communist times; only that, on the other hand, there is a great arbitrariness in it. During the communist era there was also talk about the “only right ideology;” but let us remember that everything could change depending on who was in power: on Monday Gomułka was the great Secretary of the Polish Socialist Party, and a few days later, he was the greatest pest of the system. Today it is similar – the new ideology is revolutionary but it is also progressive; so it breaks its own rules in the name of progress.

DP: It’s true. Hilary Clinton in the 1990s supported her husband’s “Defense of Marriage Act” to prevent gay marriage. Today she is in the forefront of the fight for so-called LGBT rights.

RL: Yes, because ideology is advancing. Once there was talk of civil unions as an insurmountable limit of freedom; today it is already an obligation to demand same-sex marriage and adoption of children; and whoever does not do it discriminates and is a dangerous homophobe. Not only has discrimination been multiplied in this way, but also the number of sins, thoughtcrimes and enemies. Paradoxically, there are many more of them today than during the communist era. Today the Left is in power, and the Left has always specialized in tracking down enemies and thoughtcrimes – so now it has gone wild. The more it fights for tolerance, the greater the range of enemies, and the more difficult it is to say something without risking condemnation.

DP: Why is this so?

RL: Modern man is becoming dumber and dumber, because ideology has detached him from European culture, which he does not know and does not understand. When I talk to European politicians, supposedly educated people, I see that the world before 1968 does not exist for them. They live only in today’s idiom and contemporary patterns. A man, as he was described by classical philosophy, great literature, and Christianity, does not exist for them either. That is why they are so arrogant – because they try everything on this primitive creation, created by their primitive ideology. That is why they think that it is possible to interfere in everything, to deconstruct and construct everything – the family, human sensitivity, national identity, history, etc. They have no respect for human beings, for the output of human thought and experience. In this they also resemble the communists who despised culture and created new ones by political means.

DP: You are talking about elites. Let us give you an example. Dziennik Polski was successfully published on paper 20 years ago, and today probably 80 percent of our readers choose the digital version on their smartphones. It is easy to imagine, that in a flood of other content, an interview with you or an earlier one with the rector of the Jagiellonian University are less digestible than a gallery of pictures you can scroll through with your finger. The same is true of the entire conservative formula and, more broadly, of in-depth content in general. The professor himself says that we are getting dumber, so why bother with elites.

RL: We are becoming dumber because we have lost the ability to learn from others and from the past. We know everything and can only make pronouncements. It is best not to read Polish Nobel Laurate Henryk Sienkiewicz’s In Desert and Wilderness because it’s a wrong book, drenched in the sin of racism. His Trilogy? Also wrong, because it is nationalistic, xenophobic, sexist, etc. Under communism, literature, art, and history were used to justify current views. The same is true today. Besides, it is symptomatic that former communists feel perfectly comfortable in today’s world and have smoothly entered the so-called mainstream, where they feel among their own people. And let’s not forget that education is constantly changing in the West, because ideological subjects enter schools. Not yet in Poland, but this is what the biggest international institutions demand, with the approval of some of our compatriots and politicians.

DP: Today’s young people are not particularly concerned about the past or the future. All that matters to them is the present because it seems most attractive. Why should they waste their time reading? The Left says openly that school cannot be “history, religion and damned soldiers.”

RL: That’s much better than the Left’s “gender, LGBT, abortion and safe sex” educational agenda. As far as young people are concerned, of course, there are new challenges. It’s important to remember that ultimately everything, or a great deal, depends on the teacher and the parents. If there is a good teacher and he puts in the effort, if the parents do let go of their laziness and convenience to mold their children, then maybe this monster won’t turn out to be so threatening. Attitudes must be changed. We must not accept the dogma that we are governed by some historical necessity, that the world is developing inexorably toward universal stupidity, and so my children must also be stupid. Rather, we should adopt an attitude of a kind of serfdom toward the world, and reject the attitude of a slave. We may not have influence on the world, but we do have influence on our immediate environment. And we should take advantage of that, regardless of what various “wise men” tell us.

DP: What is to be done?

RL: Shto diełat (laughs). I don’t have a detailed agenda. I have never liked adjusting to reality. Maybe this is not a very good tactic from the perspective of a politician, but I have also never managed a newspaper company like you do – which affects people’s lives in a way – where adaptation is often necessary. I’ll use the analogy again. I remember a time when everyone thought that communism was self-assured and not because there were Russian tanks, but it was said that this system was characterized by historical necessity. Let us reject such thinking today, even if we are sometimes overcome by despair. Can one be a conservative while reading on a smartphone and not on paper? Obviously, a smartphone cannot dictate to me who I am and who my loved ones should be.

DP: And the conservative counterrevolution that offers hope for ordering the world is nowhere in sight….

RL: Conservative parties are still successful, though not in many places. In England, the formations are theoretically conservative, but not really in practice. That’s why so many people in the West look at Poland and Hungary with hope. It is possible that the right will be strengthened in Western Europe by the entry of conservatives into government. Maybe eastern Europe will also hold on. Politically it is extremely important to break the current monopoly of the mainstream, which has taken over the EU and most of its institutions. Can it be done? If I thought it couldn’t be done, I would withdraw from politics.

DP: But, at the same time, as you yourself said, in our reality: “the Polish-Polish war makes everything more difficult.” How to end such a war and realize community goals? Is it at all possible?

RL: For the time being there is no such possibility, which I say with great sadness. The European Union fuels this war and will not rest until it liquidates all dissident governments and movements. That is why it is so important to balance the forces in Europe and introduce guarantees of pluralism. Perhaps this would calm the dispute in Poland. But the dispute that is taking place in Poland has a long and unfortunate tradition. For several centuries, sovereignty-independence forces have clashed with forces seeking the protection of a stronger protector. Unfortunately, it often ended in victory for the latter. If they were to win this time again, we will lose our sovereignty again and we will dream of Independence, as so many times in the past. The words of Jan Kochanowski, the Polish Renaissance poet, that a Pole “is stupid before the loss and stupid after the loss” will be confirmed.


The featured image shows, “The Destruction of Pharaoh’s Army,” by Philip James de Loutherbourg, painted in 1792.