The Legacy of Voltaire and the Demon in Democracy

April 28, 2022 Updated: April 28, 2022

Commentary

With regard to the present liberal contempt for populists fronts such as “Make America Great Again” or the “Canadian Freedom Convoy,” one can’t help reflecting on the revolutionary culture of 18th century France.

For readers who may have forgotten their high school history, or more recent graduates who were never taught any, the French revolutionary philosopher Francois-Marie Arouet was considered to have been an Enlightenment-era champion of “liberal” principles.

Arouet wrote under the pen name “Voltaire.” He was best known for his animosity toward the Christian Church. In a 1767 letter to Frederick II, King of Prussia, he wrote about Western Christianity, “Ours is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world.”

Écrasez L’infâme

Throughout the 18th century, Voltaire campaigned fiercely against Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition. He wrote hundreds of essays, poems, and dramas touting the supremacy of reason over the power of faith. He called for a benevolent intellectual despotism to replace the influence of the Catholic Church.

His rallying cry was “Écrasez l’infâme.” The French verb “écraser” means to crush or squash. “L’infâme” refers to persons considered to be infamous, ignoble, or vile. Such “rabble” and their religious “superstition” provoked Voltaire to outrage.

In the same letter to Frederick II, he wrote, “Your Majesty will do the human race an eternal service by extirpating this infamous superstition, I do not say among the rabble, who are not worthy of being enlightened and who are apt for every yoke; I say among honest people, among men who think, among those who wish to think.”

In other words, among people like Voltaire, who extended little mercy toward those who failed to comply with his “enlightened” opinions.

Voltaire admired liberal British philosophers such as Francis Bacon and John Locke, and professed to be in favor of free thought. But, he harbored a profound contempt for anyone who disagreed with him. “Those who can make you believe absurdities,” he wrote, “can make you commit atrocities.” His incitement to “crush” opposition inspired generations of violent Jacobins and Marxists who followed in his wake.

To this day, liberal heirs of Voltaire, like Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Joe Biden, brand their conservative opponents as “deplorables”—“dregs of society” who cling to their “Bibles and their guns.” Voltaire’s Canadian protégé Justin Trudeau instinctively tagged Canadian Freedom Convoy supporters as fascists and racists for resisting his government-mandated vaccinations.

Totalitarian Temptations in Liberal Democracy

Most reasonable observers of history would agree that, over the last hundred years, Voltaire’s zeitgeist has lived on in despotic dictatorships and communist regimes throughout the world.

More disturbing, however, has been the unpleasant discovery that contemporary Western liberals, considered to be devoted supporters of democracy, have displayed an extraordinary affinity for communist regimes in which Voltaire’s blueprint for ideological warfare continues to guide political and cultural behavior.

In their tireless war with religion and traditional culture, liberals are unwilling to compromise with anyone outside of their woke intellectual circles. They put forward an array of cloudy concepts such as “equity, diversity, inclusion,” sustainability, social justice, etc. and use them as an excuse to fortify increasingly hardline ideological positions.

Liberals lay claim to the virtues of “tolerance” and “moderation” while they ruthlessly enforce a libertine culture on unwilling citizens. They just can’t leave other people alone, especially those who hold religious convictions.

The Case of Ryszard Legutko

Polish scholar Ryszard Legutko lived as a dissident under Soviet-style communism for decades. He fought with the Polish anti-communist movement to abolish it. Having spent the latter decades of his life among European liberal-democrats, he has concluded that post-modern liberalism and communism have more in common than we might think.

Referencing a “totalitarian temptation” in liberal democracy, Legutko points out that liberalism and Marxism share the same historical roots in early modernity. Both philosophies contain similar views of history, society, religion, politics, culture, and human nature.

In his 2014 book “The Demon in Democracy,” Legutko explored the shared objectives between the two political systems. He explains how liberal democracy has, over time, moved toward the same goals as communism.

Both systems, said Legutko, lead the common man to believe he should be freed from the obligations of family, nation, faith, and tradition.

Neither communist man nor liberal-democratic man acknowledges anything of value outside themselves or their chosen political system. And both refuse to accept any criticism of their policy positions.

As a resident of the Soviet bloc, Legutko had always regarded the modern West to be the best of all possible worlds. Initially, he viewed pro-communist sympathies in Western societies as departures from the norm, “an accident rather than a fundamental defect,” he wrote. But, during his country’s post-communist period, he began to sense that those who had been anti-communists under the old regime were now considered a threat to liberal democracy.

Polish communists, said Legutko, destroyed archives containing evidence of their nefarious behavior in the Soviet era and “leaped forth to associate themselves with the new political and economic establishment.” Anti-communists, like Legutko, were treated with an exceptional degree of suspicion.

The new Polish political elite “embraced the communists with a show of impressive hospitality,” he wrote. They contended that former communists would become “loyal and enthusiastic players in the liberal-democratic game.” A similar disposition in the new Russian Federation eventually produced political leadership in the cast of Vladimir Putin.

Today, Legutko suggests we are replicating Jean Jacque Rousseau’s idea that an effective government should force individuals to be free by subjecting them to the “general will.” This leads to the obsessive hatred one hears in the language of identity politics. It destroys historical bonds among citizens, vulgarizes their cultural environment, and waters down their moral sensibilities.

Liberalism no longer gives people a sense of individual freedom. Despite earnest liberationist narratives and endless claims to various forms of rights, ordinary human beings suspect they’re being forced to perform in a play that has been written and directed by a hostile author. The drama isn’t grounded in reality, nor has it anything to do with their actual lives.

Conservatives have something to say and choices to propose. But they’re being forbidden to do so by powerful global agencies. Established intellectuals in liberal democracies and communist regimes use the same language. They’re never interested in the other side of a story. They’re convinced that conservatives, populists, and nationalists are wicked, so they refuse to contend with them.

Can the West Save Itself?

Progressive elites continue to set the tone in the West’s most prestigious institutions. Conservative thinkers and teachers, who are transparently critical of communism, continue to be regarded with contempt by their liberal counterparts, who Legutko describes as “anti-anticommunists.”

Changing the West’s stifling intellectual climate will take a lifetime of dedication and courage from the cohort of young conservative graduates who are breaking ranks with progressive academics. The tactics of “écrasez l’infâme” must be replaced by vigorous debate and open civic discourse.

Since 2016, the winds of change have picked up speed. Outside the confines of Ivy League universities and wealthy urban zip codes, ordinary people are refusing to be crushed.

The unforeseen election of Donald Trump, the UK Brexit movement, the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, popular support for the Canadian Freedom Convoy, the re-election of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and the enormous courage of freedom-loving Ukrainians, are all signs that common men and women are unwilling to surrender their rightful cultural inheritance.

Just this week, another unexpected development occurred. Elon Musk purchased Twitter. The billionaire businessman is promising to become a champion for free speech in America and the West.

If we can restore the liberty to form our own opinions and speak without fear of censure or persecution, perhaps we can dismantle the communication barriers that threaten the survival of our civilization.

As former President Donald J. Trump is fond of saying, “We’ll see what happens.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

William Brooks is a Canadian writer who contributes to The Epoch Times from Halifax, Nova Scotia. He serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of “The Civil Conversation” for Canada’s Civitas Society.