Interview with Ryszard Legutko

Professor Ryszard Legutko spoke at a public lecture via Zoom on May 30, 2020.

On May 28, 2020, the Buckley Program hosted a public lecture with Ryszard Legutko on the topic “The Specter of New Despotism: On Similarities between Communism and Liberal Democracy.” Ryszard Legutko is a professor of philosophy at Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and the author of The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. He has served as the Minister of Education, Secretary of State in the Chancellery of the late President Lech Kaczynski, and Deputy Speaker of the Senate and is active in the anti-communist movement in Poland. He is currently a Member of the European Parliament, Deputy Chairman of the Parliamentary Group of European Conservatives and Reformists, and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The transcript of this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mathis Bitton: First, I would like to ask about the relationship between your academic work in philosophy and your vision of contemporary politics. What are some of the central thinkers who have influenced your political engagement, and how can we use their thought to illuminate the problems we face?

Ryszard Legutko: I am, first and foremost, an aficionado of ancient philosophy, with a special emphasis on Plato and Aristotle. While I am always weary of making trans-temporal (and trans-national) comparisons, I do believe that ancient thought provides valuable insight, although it may be more theoretical than we would like it to be. Let me give you two examples. First, both Plato and Aristotle were immensely critical of democracy. While they recognise the obvious benefits of hearing everyone’s voice, they also criticised the “democratic man” for his almost obsessive concern for equality and freedom at all costs, in every situation. In alternative scenarios, they saw this obsession as a dangerous prelude to tyranny and/or anarchy. I think that we would benefit from understanding the cultural impacts of political regimes, and I certainly agree that we should temper the excesses of pure democracy—as we do, for instance, when we use representatives. At the heart of this analysis lies another point; namely, the idea that the best political regime has to be a mixed one. Today, we suffer from a tendency to make everything in our public and private lives liberal-democratic—in a way, this tendency reminds me of 20th-century communists who, used to impose their ideological grid upon every aspect of people’s lives. At times, we should look to alternative regimes, not to embrace them entirely, but to understand that liberal democracy is not the alpha and the omega of politics. Generally, I do think that people would be better served by people who have at least a minimal awareness, if not understanding, of political philosophy.

MB: You mentioned the tendency to make everything and anything liberal-democratic. To some, this takes the form of a methodical erasure of the public-private distinction, by which “courts” of public opinion substitute themselves in the place of, say, judges and more traditional institutions. Tied to this kind of analysis is a critique of the modern media ecosystem, which tends to encourage, if not galvanize this sort of phenomenon. I wonder what you think about this diagnosis.

RL: I think that your question has several components, which I’ll try to answer in turn. First, I agree that the media has turned the private lives of politicians into a public matter. People now read about the affairs and secrets of representatives, just as they read about the affairs and secrets of pop stars. To be clear, this phenomenon need not be a bad thing. Politics has always been—and ought to be—about people, and we certainly would not want to have radically unvirtuous people in charge. But I worry that this kind of personality-politics sometimes becomes a substitute for sound policy debate, which should remain the centre of our discussions. Another facet of your question, which I find to be an extremely important question, is that we have turned the question of private life into a political matter. Family, marriage, sex, everything has entered the political realm. To be sure, this is by no means a new phenomenon. Engels, as well as most second-generation Marxists at the end of the nineteenth century, considered that marriage was an inherently oppressive construction that the bourgeois had erected. Later on, successive feminist movements would insist upon the political nature of personal life, and now everything, including the kind of toilets we use, is politicized by all. I find this tendency extremely worrying. When I grew up under a communist regime, the private sphere was a way for us to escape the politics of the time. Family was a refuge away from the grip of bureaucracy, a haven away from party apparatchiks. I do not deny that culture has evident political ramifications, but I fear that, by departing from the classical liberal (and libertarian) idea that private life is exactly that, private, we are depriving people of the ability to access that refuge, this home where they alone rule over their own whereabouts.

MB: Thank you; I would like to turn to the impact of COVID-19 on world order. Certain commentators, like John Gray in this month’s New Statesman, argue that crises like the coronavirus expose the inherent weaknesses of what we may call the liberal world order. In times of crisis, people (re-)become more nationalistic, borders (re-)emerge, free trade finds itself suspended, and autarky (re-)appears to be a matter of fundamental importance. To paraphrase John Gray, I find it hard to believe that, after the crisis withdraws, nations will continue to accept a world where the vast majority of medical supplies are located in Germany for Europe, and in China for Asia—more generally, we might see rising concerns for national independence and self-sufficiency. What do you think about this analysis, and what kind of impact do you see the coronavirus having on world order?

RL: In all honesty, I am not sure. In theory, I would certainly admit that these conclusions seem to follow from your descriptive premises. But real-life politics is by no means rational, and we have seen people respond in the most unexpected—and absurd—ways to past crises and supposed turning points. I certainly think that this is how people should react to our present challenges. Will they? That’s an altogether different question. As you said, people tend to realize that the nation-state provides them with a more secure source of safety and certainty than, say, trans-national institutions. Logically, a period like ours would this results in a re-assertion of sense of a certain sense of national belonging. But this need not happen. Take the [European Union (EU)] as an example. First, the debates between anti-EU and pro-EU political forces are so polarized that I can totally see a world in which nobody changes his mind. Second, supporters of internationalism will simply say, as they have in the past, that what we actually need is more European federalism, not less. They will claim the EU did not fail because of its inherent flaws, but because it did not have enough influence over national policies. And, since the debate is polarised, their analysis will clash with the one you put forward, and nothing will change. Opponents will see the coronavirus as yet another example of the E.U.’s shortcomings, and proponents will see it as yet another reason to give away national sovereignty and reinforce federal institutions. As for the electorate, while I do think that anti-EU sentiments may continue to rise, I do not know whether the pressure put on national representatives will be enough to change concrete policy alignments. My general attitude vis-à-vis predictions is that things are likely to remain pretty much the same. Consider the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Everything, we were told, was going to change radically; diplomatic re-alignments were going to be fundamentally altered, economic and cultural politics would be re-shaped, and so on. Almost none of that happened; as with most other crises, things by and large stagnated. I’m afraid our present case is no exception.

MB: I understand that you want to remain cautious with your predictions, but I wanted to ask one more descriptive question: do you think that anti-EU sentiment will remain on the rise, or do you consider Europe’s nationalistic resurgence as a temporary phenomenon?

RL: I certainly think that popular resentment will continue to rise, as will anti-EU parties. But I also want to insist on the fact that sentiments need not have any actual impact on election results, let alone policymaking. First, apart from cases like Austria or Hungary, decisively anti-EU parties remain marginal in most political landscapes. They are frequently new parties with no established grassroots support, influential media support, or experience. Even if people begin to share their diagnosis, and even their solutions, they may well be afraid of the parties themselves and prefer to vote for more traditional, known options—with which they share fewer policy-prescriptions. Because these political forces are not yet legitimate, or seen as such, their gradual emergence will take time—independently from what popular sentiments are. Further, as we have seen with the case of Greece and others, even when Euro-sceptic parties do get to power, the influence of established institutions is such that profound changes are unlikely to occur, at least in the short term. European bureaucrats and institutions are fully conscious of the threats they now face, and they are determined to use their established influence to delay and oppose the rise of opposing political forces.

MB: Thank you for your analysis. I would like to end with a final question about coalitions and unlikely political alliances. You famously defend the thesis that, beyond appearances, mainstream right- and left-wing liberal parties share almost everything. I wonder if you think that, in like manner, we will see a rise in unexpected alliances between conservative and far-left euro-sceptic parties, which would put aside their differences on economic and social policy to work on common projects in the European parliament? I am thinking, in particular, on movements like the Front de Gauche and the Rassemblement National in France, which may be vicious historical enemies, but share an analogous opposition to European institutions.

RL: I do not think that such alliances will be possible, at least not all across Europe. In certain isolated countries, where the context makes unlikely partnerships more likely, perhaps—I’m afraid I am not particularly familiar with the situation in France. However, I remain certain that, in the vast majority of Europe, the left will never ally itself with conservatives. First, in most European countries, there is not even a Euro-sceptic left—or, if there is, it represents an infinitesimal proportion of voters. Second, political parties have tenacious histories; in your example, French parties have always done everything they could to avoid the rise of Madame Le Pen, and even those who might share her views are unlikely to come out with a public alliance. After all, if mainstream conservative parties do not even manage to be conservative, we should not expect leftist parties to be any better. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I believe that our efforts should be focused on rebuilding a true conservative movement in Europe. As I have just observed, most conservative parties have renounced their ideals, becoming indistinguishable from their center-left counterparts. Rather than engaging in complex alliances with the other side, we should take care of our own movement, re-affirm conservative principles, and form a real right-wing coalition. After all, the importance of the nation-state, although crucial, is but an item on a broader political agenda that should encompass foreign policy, economic affairs, and cultural matters. On these issues, only a real, coherent conservative movement will be able to deliver consistent answers. So, I see the scenario you proposed as a possibility, albeit an unlikely one.

MB: Thank you so much for your time and contributions. It’s been a pleasure to have you at the Buckley Program.

RL: My pleasure; great talking to you. Thanks to the Buckley Program.