Ryszard Legutko’s keynote address on the ‘Totalitarian Tendencies in Contemporary Democracies’


The word ‘totalitarian’ seems blatantly inaccurate in the description of today’s Western civilization, and this conference clearly proves that. We would not be here if we lived in a totalitarian society. I vividly remember how aggressively and often brutally the communist government reacted to the dissenting initiatives, and it would be indecent to say that today’s dissenters are in the same situation. For this reason, the word ‘totalitarian’ would be inadequate to articulate our criticism of the modern world, but that is only one part of the story. Things are not as rosy as that. We see certain tendencies that are most disconcerting and bring to mind the developments in totalitarian societies. For this reason, perhaps the word ‘totalizing’ would be more acceptable. Yes, today’s Western world has exhibited unmistakable totalizing proclivities.

Let us point out some of the characteristics of a totalitarian society. The first of these would be a one-party system with no political opposition. A small correction: in some communist regimes, for instance, in my country, there were several parties, but only one, the communist, held the real power, whereas the rest had only an ornamental function. No opposition was allowed, and the entire nation was expected to support the leadership.

Do we have something like this today? Yes, we do, though in a diluted form. First of all, what disappeared from the Western world is a classical division between the Left and the Right, the party of change and the party of continuity. At least, since, symbolically speaking, 1968, Western politics have undergone a tremendous shift to the Left, and the conservative parties, with few exceptions, practically ceased to exist. If you look at the UK, the British Conservative Party is no longer conservative. Christian democracy as a political movement in Germany and Italy exists only by name. All these seemingly Right and Centre parties have adopted the Left agenda. Same-sex marriage law was introduced by the entire political spectrum: in Britain by the conservatives; in France by the socialists; in Germany by a coalition of the socialists and the erstwhile Christian democrats.

The differences between the government and the opposition are differences between many shades of the Left. The emergence of the so-called political mainstream based on the Left agenda resulted in something few predicted. I do not know who was the first to coin the expression – extreme centre – but the expression, sounding somewhat flippant, correctly captures the essence of the current situation. The predominant part of the centre is occupied by a coalition of forces that have launched a radical program of restructuring the entire society, and those that defend moderation, continuity, family, marriage, national tradition, Christian heritage, and common sense are pushed aside and called dangerous extremists, fascists, populists, far-right and, at best, loonies. All these allegedly dangerous groups are marginalized, stigmatized, bullied, and, whenever possible, closed within a cordon sanitaire.

In some places, and particularly in Europe, this extreme centre has captured the international pan-European institutions – I am talking about the EU – and has acquired the instruments to try to enforce their rule on some dissident member-states, such as Poland, Slovenia, or Hungary, regardless of the democratic legitimacy of their governments. This led to something that was compared to a new version of the Brezhnev doctrine. Brezhnev, let me remind you, was for many years the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, and he, among other things, authorized the invasion of Czechoslovakia when the newly elected government tried to deviate from Communist orthodoxy and follow a semi-independent course. The Brezhnev doctrine stated that the countries under Soviet domination had only limited sovereignty and were not free to pursue a non-communist policy. The same – toutes proportions gardées – is true today in the European Union with respect to weaker member states, particularly from Eastern Europe.

Let’s take another trait of totalitarianism – the omnipresence of politics. The communist politicization was indeed comprehensive in scope and painfully intrusive. No wonder for some, the oppressive nature of the system was unbearable, and they tried to find refuge in the areas that could be fairly safe from politics – private life being most obvious. Some tried to find it in art or intellectual activities, though it was more difficult because schools and education, in general, were considered a top priority for the communists to take control of. In my country, it was the Catholic Church that provided not only such a refuge, but also a spiritual inspiration and an alternative way to look at the world. You entered the church and found yourself in a different world – language, symbols, human destiny, human relations, human nature, music.

Today, we have a similar trend to subordinate everything to politics, with education at the forefront. Schools have become highly politicised, and political correctness has been imposed with shocking harshness. The campuses in the entire Western world are still in the avant-garde of political correctness and woke’ism. The concept of political correctness – let me add – goes back to communism, where it meant being in accordance with communist ideology. Truth did not matter because truth was said to be class-relative and class-conditioned. What mattered was to be faithful to the ruling ideological orthodoxy.

The private life – another place of refuge under the communist regime – no longer has this role. The change also started – symbolically speaking – in 1968, the moment the sexual revolution broke out. The feminists, with their “the personal is political” slogan, made the first step. Then the sexual revolution spilled all over the Western world. Starting as an emancipatory movement, it soon changed to its opposite. The most private aspect of our life was elevated into the centre of political conflict and became the vehicle of the revolution. The problems related to sex were henceforth presented – as always in politics – as the problems of power. Over the last few years, even toilets have become a territory subject to political control. This politicisation of the toilets started, if I am not mistaken, in the United States, which still takes pride in being the land of the free and the home of the brave. Sorry, but I could not resist this rather low piece of malice.

The disappearance of the shelter that traditionally protected the private life has been an ominous development. Not only does it give the political institutions to intrude in something that is not their business – the personal bonds between people are not political in nature – but it destroys the bonds of trust. In some extreme cases, it encourages people to inform on others about what was said in private conversation. In the history of communism, a symbolic figure was a Russian teenager – Pavka Morozov – who denounced his father to the political police. He became a Soviet hero and a role model for the Soviet boys.

The current war against discrimination, sexism, hate speech and suchlike leads to parallel consequences. Several years ago, there was a case of a Harvard professor, the rector of the university, who in private conversation talked about women’s lack of success in such disciplines as mathematics and physics. He was denounced to the authorities, and though he profusely apologized, was sacked. The argument that this was a private conversation did not matter. The current changes in the law in such countries as Spain and Canada – both being at the forefront of progressivism – go in this direction. Denouncing one’s friends and family to the powers that be, for centuries considered a despicable act, has become a virtue.

But recently Scotland emerged as number one in this infamous competition, due to a new law which came into effect April 1st, this year. The law is intended to fight hate speech. What counts as hate speech is determined by the current ideological fads. How it might work let me mention one incident. A former Scottish prosecutor warned J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter books, who lives in Edinburgh, that her old posts on Twitter ‘most likely contravene the new law’ and advised her to ‘start deleting’. She replied that she will not be expunging anything: ‘If you genuinely imagine I’d delete posts calling a man a man, so as not to be prosecuted under this ludicrous law, stand by for the mother of all April Fools’ jokes.’

The law specifies a list of entries where one could make more harsh judgments. It is expressly permitted to voice ‘antipathy, dislike, ridicule or insult’ for religion, but certainly you cannot do it towards gender ideology. The law doesn’t just apply to social media posts or newspaper articles. It covers anything said anywhere – even in your own home. Children will in theory be able to report their parents. Scots can inform on each other anonymously, through an expanded network of ‘third-party reporting centres’. The list of centres includes a striking number of university campuses, as well as a Glasgow sex shop and a mushroom farm. To be frank, having been an academic my entire adult life, I am less surprised by a large number of university campuses than by the sex-shop being the centre of anonymous denunciation. However, I find a mushroom farm slightly baffling.

Similar laws exist or will be shortly introduced in other countries. In my own country, the left-liberal government announced such a law will come into effect within the next months. Also the European Commission has similar plans, which, then, will influence the legislation in all member states.

Speaking seriously, the law fighting hate speech is not only another step the erosion of freedom and another form of control of our private lives. It is also another assault on morality. We have been taught to believe that anonymous denunciations should be discouraged because there is something ignoble about it, something that degrades the denouncer – a mark of cowardice. In light of the new law, anonymous denunciations are encouraged and praised. The progressive demoralization leaves us defenceless against totalizing forces because it makes us their accomplices.

Politicisation was launched as a vehicle of revolution – to change the world. This is the promise of all totalitarian revolutions, but its effects have always been the opposite, and it is not easy to see why. Politicising marriage, family, love, eroticism, etc., means that we approach them from the perspective of power structure in which there are those who oppress and those who are oppressed. The aim of the law and government is, therefore, to empower the oppressed and to reduce the power of the oppressors. But, as in every revolution, this clashed with people’s deep convictions, and the revolutionary program without the massive institutional backup would have been rejected. It is neither natural nor obvious to accept that marriage is a political battle between a man and a woman, that there is no difference between a marriage and a so-called same-sex marriage, that girls have a right to abortion, that the parents should keep out of their minor children’s sexual life, that humanity is not divided between men and women, but between many genders, that the language we use has been inherently oppressive, that the government should take over the role of sex education from the parents, etc.

To make society consent to these outrageous ideas, governments must resort to two methods. The first is coercion and intimidation. One can see how the law has become stricter and more repressive over the last decades. Today, we may be punished for criticising abortion, and for trying to dissuade a woman from abortion, one can go to jail – in France, up to two years. Punishable – including the possibility of a jail sentence – is also to question gender and even to use a wrong pronoun under the pretext that it is “hate speech” – another sinister word that serves to intimidate and bully. Some of the basic principles of Roman law have been rejected – for instance, that you are innocent until proven guilty. In most Western countries, the law got rid of what once was a sacred principle – namely, the conscience clause. Very few countries have retained it in their legal system, though in practice, it has been severely restricted. In most of them, the doctor cannot refuse to do abortion or euthanasia; the magistrate cannot refuse to conduct the marriage ceremony of two homosexuals or lesbians; the pharmacist cannot refuse to sell abortion pills, etc.

The other method is indoctrination. Since the horrendous claims of today’s progressives so much clash with common sense, elementary experience, and basic knowledge, it is necessary to restructure the human mind thoroughly, starting as early as possible, probably from nursery school. Everything in education, from the early stage until the university, should be imbued with the political message – from toys to handbooks, from mass culture to high culture. Otherwise – it is feared, and the fear is justified – people will overwhelmingly reject the indoctrination. Like under the communist regime, language is of primary importance, and the language particularly strictly controlled and enforced. It becomes increasingly difficult to publish a book or an article in a language that does not comply with the rules of political correctness.

So, the repressive law and political indoctrination – through their omnipresence – are expected to create a new political reality in which the people with the new identities will internalize the achievements of the ideological revolution.

The particularly mischievous aspect of it is that it is not only the governments – central and local – that join the revolution. The institutions that should be free from politics have declared access to the ideological crusade. I am not talking only about schools and universities. For some reason, academics and artists have grown a strong attachment to those revolutions that symbolize progress and modernization, even though, perhaps, particularly because they often use despotic measures and enforce totalizing practices.

I am talking, among others, about corporations. When forty-odd years ago, people of my generation read Friedrich Hayek and other European and American free-marketeers, we accepted their message that one of the proofs of the superiority of capitalism over communism was that capitalism was essentially apolitical and non-ideological. The free market, we were told, is interested in profit, innovation, and rational calculation, not in human souls and certainly not in political fantasies, usually too costly and hopelessly unprofitable in terms of money. It has taken several decades for us to find out how untrue this claim was.

The biggest corporations have eagerly jumped on the political bandwagon and have been relentlessly pursuing ideological policies both towards their own employees and towards customers. All this seems somewhat puzzling. For instance, why would such a company as Ikea want to be plus catholique que le Pape in terms of political correctness. This certainly does not increase the profits because it puts off a lot of the more conservative clientele. There are two explanations – complementary, not mutually exclusive. The first is that the ideological formatting of the Western elites has already gone beyond the safety line and, as a result of its continuous conquests, managed to subdue even those who, like businessmen, should be essentially immune against it. The second explanation is that the corporations fear less the losses that might be incurred by alienating the conservative customers than the attacks from the radical Left. And since it is in the nature of the businessmen that they want to be on good terms with the powers that be, it is clear who they think rules today’s world, who they should fear, and who they can afford to neglect.

The same – again, toutes proportions gardées – goes for religious institutions, primarily churches, including a large part of the Catholic Church. This is a most upsetting development. From the very beginning, Christianity declared its refusal to accommodate the historical tides, social pressure, ideological fashions, revolutions, and all kinds of vanity fairs. Christianity was to be an independent judge, an absolute frame of reference, even if the world turned its back on it or made it an object of derision. But this has changed in our times and changed dramatically. We have been observing a continuous tendency to the aggiornamento, a desire to adapt the Church’s dogmas, theology and practice to the current of time, to cave in or even kowtow to the modern idols. The current Pope’s pontificate and the new teaching of the West European episcopates are a case in point. The situation in Protestant churches is even worse.

This is exactly the opposite of what the Catholic Church in my country was doing under the communist regime. The Church, the bishops, and ordinary priests did not give in, at least not in doctrinal matters. And because they did not, those who opposed the communist regime – believers and unbelievers alike – knew very well that communism could be challenged from an alternative perspective, firmly rooted in human nature, in rich institutional and philosophical tradition, and in the idea of transcendence, all these untouched by communist ideology and saving us from falling into its traps. This awareness not only saved their souls but also their minds and their moral orientation.

We should remember that totalitarian ideologies have always been anti-religious and particularly anti-Christian: they always wanted to annex and colonize the entirety of the human experience and the human person. Christianity, with its notion of transcendence, was considered – and quite correctly – to be in the way of this colonization. The fact that a large part of today’s Christianity is eager to join the colonizers rather than oppose them is singularly depressing.

There is yet another symptom of today’s liberal democracy that bears resemblance to what was happening under communism. Like communism, it considers itself to be an ultimate system. You cannot go beyond liberal democracy, just like you cannot go beyond communism. The only thing one can do is to make liberal democracy more liberal democratic. In other words, the more liberal democratic the world becomes, the better it is: people have more freedom, more equality, more empowerment, more rights, etc. The liberal democrats, therefore, believe that the development of liberal democracy means a march of progress in human affairs, just like the communists perceived the development of communism to be a march of progress, albeit differently interpreted. As Stalin famously or rather infamously said: “Life became better, life became happier.”

Stalin made his remark during the worst political terror. How would he reconcile the terror with the statement about life becoming better and happier? Easily. He said: with the growth of communism, the class struggle intensifies. To translate it into more mundane terms, the closer we are to the communist paradise, the more formidable the enemies and the more fiercely we must fight them.

Again, without pushing the analogy too far, we can observe a similar way of thinking today. One would expect that since the liberal democratic society has so much improved our existence and blessed us with all those rights and liberties, we would live peaceful and stable lives. Not so. Liberal democracy has engendered a strong sense of the enemy. I would venture a thesis that the types of enemies and thoughtcrimes in liberal democracy outnumber those in the communist regime. Mind you, I am talking about the number of enemies, not about the punishments that might befall them. Let us mention the most popular thoughtcrimes: misogyny, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, eurocentrism, phallocentrism, logocentrism, ageism, binarism, populism, antisemitism, nationalism, xenophobia, hate speech, Euroscepticism, white supremacy, misgendering. The list is not exhaustive because new ones continue to be invented.

Contrary to the image that the liberal democrats propagate, the system with such a strong sense of enemy and with so many thoughtcrimes is most unpleasant. The increasing number of thoughtcrimes requires increasing thought police to track down the crimes and the wrongdoers. The result is censorship and – which is even more pernicious – self-censorship. Today there are so many incriminating words one can say, knowingly or not; such relentless pressure to apologize for imaginary wrongdoings, and the apologies need not be accepted; so many official and self-proclaimed functionaries of political correctness that are on the lookout for the crime that it is better to self-police rather than be policed by others.

To show how today’s totalizing minds work, let me describe my own case. I wrote it in a piece published by First Things and will summarize it now. A couple of years ago, I was invited to Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, to give a talk about my book The Demon in Democracy. I knew it was a dangerous place. Two years before, Charles Murray, who appeared at Middlebury College to give a lecture about his book, was shouted down by aggressive ideological zealots, while another professor accompanying him, Allison Stanger, was physically attacked and suffered injury. Some of the students responsible for this act of violence were reprimanded, others mildly punished, and none was expelled.

This was the first serious symptom of the disease. In totalitarian societies, the fanatical groups of youngsters play an important role in representing the spontaneity of anger against injustice – this happened in Bolshevik Russia, Mao’s China, and elsewhere. In my own country, in the early years of communism, it often happened that the communist students shouted down “bourgeois” professors, accusing them of spreading harmful reactionary views and being hostile to the advent of progress. This practice proved quite effective in intimidating the teachers.

These protests are, of course, by no means spontaneous but are steered by the elders. One of the instigators of the protest was a professor of gender studies in Eastern Europe; he was quoted saying, „through my colleagues in Poland I became aware of what else [Legutko] had said, and what his views were, and it turned out that the ‘demon’ in democracy that he is referring to is tolerance”. It seems there is an international network, and it is difficult to escape their inquisitorial eye. This is another trait of the totalitarian phenomenon.

Another symptom is that political coercion and power turn a non-political institution such as a university into a political battlefield. A few days before my arrival, a group of students and professors started circulating a petition with the intention to organize a protest, in which I was called all possible bad names – a homophobe (“f*cking homophobe” on FB), a racist, a misogynist, a sexist, a bigot. The protesters wanted to express their anger outside the building by staging a “protest dance and by wearing offensive T-shirts to “shock my conscience”.

Predictably, the university authorities capitulated as they had done in the past after the Charles Murray incident. The cowardly capitulation is another symptom of totalitarianism, not just a capitulation, but a capitulation of the legitimate authority that has the instruments of power and clear rules, but they know that there is something more powerful than the institutions and the rules. They know that the real power is in the hands of the fanatics, their protectors, national and international networks. The invisible unspecified, unsaid but intensely felt threat.

One could see it in the statement of the Provost and the President of the university. They decided to cancel my lecture because the college could not respond effectively to the “security and safety risks at either the lecture or the counter event”. This statement provides us in an insight into the minds of those who capitulated. The Provost and the Vice-President clearly assumed that there were two academically legitimate “events”, complementing each other: the first being a lecture by an author of a theoretical treatise on the ills of modern society, the other – a protest dance, hurling of invectives at the invited guest, and a show of offensive T-shirts. The intellectual content of the first was placed on the same level as the offensive gestures of the other. Talking about arguments was on par with heckling and caterwauling.

The college authorities not only seem to have accepted force as something legitimate in the college life, but have some sympathy for it. Here is what we find in the next paragraph of the letter. “We recognize that students worked hard and transparently to plan a non-disruptive event that would remain within the bounds of our protest policy. We also recognize that students, staff, and faculty planning to attend and critically engage with Ryszard Legutko’s lecture lost the opportunity to do so.”

The protesters were thus praised for “working hard” to plan “a non-disruptive event”. Translated into a normal language, this means that the students were commended for not behaving like full-fledged hooligans, which clearly presupposed that in order not to behave like a full-fledged hooligan in Middlebury, one had to “work hard.”

The Provost and the Vice-President also expressed their regret that since the lecture did not take place, the students and professors could not “critically engage” with what I had to say. Again, in practical terms, it meant that the Provost and the Vice-President were sorry that a homophobe, a racist, a sexist, and a bigot was not taken to task in public by the enraged protesters. What the Provost and the Vice-President were not sorry about is that it was, first and foremost, an intellectual event that they canceled and that the students lost an opportunity to learn something. The lecture, after all, is an intellectual event, and that is what the Provost and the Vice-President missed. When a guest speaker is invited to campus, it is always because those who invite him believe that he has something interesting to say and that the students and faculty would somehow benefit by listening to him. This intellectual aspect is completely absent in the letter, and I must say I find its absence shocking. The Provost and the Vice-President, so eager to cozy up to the protesters, never bothered to apologize or at least to say a word to those who wanted to attend the lecture out of intellectual curiosity and were prevented by both the ideological hooligans and by the administration.

But this is not the end of the problem. Another trait of totalitarianism we see in the destruction of the language.

“Our intention for the protest was to create an affirming, nonviolent space for marginalized people (particularly those impacted by Ryszard Legutko’s hateful rhetoric) to celebrate themselves and each other. … We planned to create a non-disruptive, respectful counter-space to create a place of healing and inclusivity in the face of prejudice.”

It does not require great intelligence to see that the quoted passage is gibberish, composed entirely of cliché words and expressions that today’s political language is full of. Whoever uses this language – “respectful counter-space”, “celebrating themselves and each other”, “a place of healing and inclusivity” – condemns himself to intellectual impotence, with no possibility to make any coherent descriptive statement about facts. But this is only one part of the story.

There is a method in this gibberish. This is a mendacious language, the language that lies, and it reverses the meanings of the basic concepts. “Marginalized people” are not really people who are marginalized, but, on the contrary, people who managed to impose on the college their agenda and who can get away with anything, including physically assaulting their professors. These are the very same people who are close to liquidating the basic principles of university life and who are creating this havoc with full impunity. “Respectful and non-disruptive counter-space” means subjecting a lecturer to insults and humiliations. “Inclusivity” is simply the systemic censuring of people and ideas.

The students’ organization responded with making stricter political demands. “Any organization or academic department that invites a speaker to campus will be required to fill out a due diligence form created by the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in coordination with the SGA Institutional Diversity Committee. These questions should be created to determine whether a speaker’s beliefs align with Middlebury’s community standards, removing the burden of researching speakers from the student body.”

As a result of the growing power of such offices, we will see the growing corruption of language. Diversity, equity and inclusion have long ceased to mean what they always meant, but their opposite. They are now associated with rigidity, dogmatism, conformity, intimidation, control, arbitrariness, censorship. In Orwell’s world – it will be recalled – war was peace, freedom slavery and ignorance strength. At Middlebury, diversity is monopoly, equity bias, inclusion censorship.

Two practical conclusions:

1. We should not use their language, their language – hate speech, diversity, etc. – is inherently mendacious;

2. We should not treat the other side as the proponents of the project that was well-meant but somehow got wrong; no, the project was, from the very beginning, animated by a totalizing potential.

Published May 7, 2024 

Written by Ryszard Legutko for his keynote address on the ‘Totalitarian Tendencies in Contemporary Democracies’ at the International Solidarity Forum 2024 in New York City.

Ryszard Legutko is a Polish philosopher and politician. He is a professor of philosophy at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. He is the author of several books, inluding The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. In 2005 he was elected to a seat in the Polish Senate (representing the Law and Justice Party), where he became Deputy Speaker. In 2007 he was Poland’s Education Minister, and from 2007-2009 Secretary of State in the Chancellory of President Lech Kaczyński. He is currently a member of the European Parliament sitting on the Culture and Education Committee and Co-chairman of the Conservatives and Reformists parliamentary group.

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