A Response to Thomas


Dear Thomas,

Thank you for your heartfelt and thoughtful letter. It’s always good to hear from you!

I recall fondly your assistance in my research, as well as your excellent presentation to our class on Poland, explaining why the Justice and Law party (PiS) won the 2015 election overwhelmingly and what it might mean. Then and subsequently, we had many conversations about the party’s illiberal tendencies and worried about where Poland was headed. And as you point out, we were right to worry.

It will therefore surprise you that I regard Professor Ryszard Legutko’s visit to Middlebury an excellent pedagogical opportunity for interested students and colleagues, and that even before I knew he was speaking at Middlebury, I added one of his essays to my East European Politics syllabus. Allow me to explain.

The results of the 2015 Polish election came in the wake of a growing popular backlash against the EU and its institutions in countries from Hungary and Greece to Austria and Germany. The proponents of “illiberal democracy,” to use Hungary’s Viktor Orban’s slogan, are winning democratic elections. Since then, the backlash has only grown in intensity and geographical scope such that it now engulfs Britain and Italy. Some of the same illiberal afflictions have manifested themselves in the United States. Much like the Poles, Americans today are deeply divided about their politics. Lest there be any doubt about it, the EU, liberalism and liberal democracy are in crisis.

While surprised and puzzled by these developments, we can ill afford to ignore what the critics of EU and liberalism actually say. Legutko is one of the most articulate among them. He was a dissident and a liberal under communism and editor of Solidarity’s underground philosophy journal. He is a distinguished professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Krakow and author of a half dozen scholarly books on Plato, Socrates, liberty and most recently, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (English ed., 2016). The latter has attracted considerable attention, especially from conservative political theorists, who laud it as first rate.

Some months ago, while updating my fall syllabus, I had already decided to assign Legutko’s 2018 article, “Battle for Europe” for my East European Politics, the same class to which you made your excellent presentation. You will find it here. He identifies with the thesis that the EU and its elites “have been trying to construct a new European identity, turning European peoples into a post-historical, post-national, post-metaphysical, post-Christian, even post-religious society held together by a universalist ideology of ‘Europeism.’” Is he right? Students, informed by other readings, can debate the question.

My motivations in assigning this article were identical to (though entirely independent of) those of Professor Keegan Callanan (author of a recent important book on Montesquieu that defends liberalism) who invited Legutko to talk about his book: if we refuse to contend with the arguments of liberalism’s contemporary critics, what gives us the certainty that our own views and convictions are sound and valid? Simply denouncing them and burying our heads in the sand will not make them go away. It goes without saying that assigning an article or hosting a talk does not constitute an endorsement of the speaker’s views.

You are right, Thomas, that apart from his scholarly books and articles, Legutko is also engaged in the public sphere as an elected member of the European parliament, representing the PiS. That is why my department also organized a faculty panel (held before your letter’s arrival) on “Populism, Homophobia, and Illiberal Democracy.” The goal was to provide “context for the Legutko talk and to address some of the key concerns raised about his positions,” so that students could be informed and hold him accountable for his and his party’s views.

Political Science as a discipline distinguishes the study of politics from political action. If we and our students cannot engage with conservative views, we’ll have to shut down the department. Having experienced two decades of totalitarianism first hand, I know from experience that learning to contend with disagreeable arguments is at the heart of both education and of liberal democracy. You are obviously free to disagree.


Michael Kraus