I am going to keep trying to keep this series from the Atlantic going, in spite of the fact that I have erred in keep the chapters in the same sequence as the magazine presented them. I will keep the chapters named in the same sequence as the magazine, even though they are chronologically out of sequence. The subject matter is still interesting, even though it is out of step with the previous and following chapters. This one is Chapter 3 after 1 and 1 and 4 have already gone before:
T Y R A N N Y, O L I G A R C H Y, DEMOCRACY—these were all familiar to Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago. But the illiberal one-party state, now found all over the world—think of China, Venezuela, Zimbabwe—was rst developed by Lenin, in Russia, starting in 1917. In the political-science textbooks of the future, the Soviet Union's founder will surely be remem bered not for his Marxist beliefs, but as the inventor of this enduring form of political organization. It is the model that many of the world's budding autocrats use today.
Unlike Marxism, the Leninist one-party state is not a philosophy. It is a mechanism for holding power. It works because it clearly defines who gets to be the elite—the political elite, the cultural elite, the financial elite. In monarchies such as pre revolutionary France and Russia, the right to rule was granted to the aristocracy, which defined itself by rigid codes of breeding and etiquette. In modern Western democracies, the right to rule is granted, at least in theory, by diff erent forms of competition: campaigning and voting, meritocratic tests that determine access to higher education and the civil service, free markets. Old fashioned social hierarchies are usually part of the mix, but in modern Britain, America, Germany, France, and until recently Poland, we have assumed that competition is the most just and efficient way to distribute power. The best run businesses should make the most money. The most appealing and competent politicians should rule. The contests between them should take place on an even playing eld, to ensure a fair outcome.
Lenin's one-party state was based on di fferent values. It overthrew the aristocratic order. But it did not put a competitive model in place. The Bolshevik one-party state was not merely undemocratic; it was also anticompetitive and anti meritocratic. Places in universities, civil-service jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable. Instead, they went to the most loyal. People advanced because they were willing to conform to the rules of party membership. Though those rules were di fferent at di fferent times, they were consistent in certain ways. They usually excluded the former ruling elite and their children, as well as suspicious ethnic groups. They favored the children of the working class. Above all, they favored people who loudly professed belief in the creed, who attended party meetings, who participated in public displays of enthusiasm. Unlike an ordinary oligarchy, the one-party state allows for upward mobility: True believers can advance. As Hannah Arendt wrote back in the 1940s, the worst kind of one-party state "invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.
Lenin's one-party system also reflected his disdain for the idea of a neutral state, of apolitical civil servants and an objective media. He wrote that freedom of the press "is a deception." He mocked freedom of assembly as a "hollow phrase." As for parliamentary democracy itself, that was no more than "a machine for the suppression of the working class." In the Bolshevik imagination, the press could be free, and public institutions could be fair, only once they were controlled by the working class—via the party.
This mockery of the competitive institutions of "bourgeois democracy" and capitalism has long had a right-wing version, too. Hitler's Germany is the example usually given. But there are many others. Apartheid South Africa was a de facto one-party state that corrupted its press and its judiciary to eliminate blacks from political life and promote the inter ests of Afrikaners, white South Africans descended mainly from Dutch settlers, who were not succeeding in the capitalist economy created by the British empire
In Europe, two such illiberal parties are now in power: Law and Justice, in Poland, and Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party, in Hungary. Others, in Austria and Italy, are part of government coalitions or enjoy wide support. These parties tolerate the existence of political opponents. But they use every means possible, legal and illegal, to reduce their opponents' ability to function and to curtail competition in politics and economics. They dislike foreign investment and criticize privatization, unless it is designed to benefit their supporters. They undermine meritocracy. Like Donald Trump, they mock the notions of neutrality and professionalism, whether in journalists or civil servants. They discourage businesses from advertising in "opposition"—by which they mean illegitimate—media.
Notably, one of the Law and Justice government's rst acts, in early 2016, was to change the civil-service law, making it easier to re professionals and hire party hacks. The Polish foreign service also dropped its requirement that diplomats know two foreign languages, a bar that was too high for favored candidates to meet. The government red heads of Polish state companies. Previously, the people in these roles had had at least some government or business experience. Now these jobs are largely filled by Law and Justice Party members, as well as their friends and relatives. Typical is Janina Goss, an old friend of Kaczyński's from whom the former prime minister once borrowed a large sum of money, apparently to pay for a medical treatment for his mother. Goss, an avid maker of jams and preserves, is now on the board of directors of Polska Grupa Energetyczna, the largest power company in Poland, an employer of 40,000 people.
You can call this sort of thing by many names: nepotism, state capture. But if you so choose, you can also describe it in positive terms: It represents the end of the hateful notions of meritocracy and competition, principles that, by definition, never benifeted the less successful. A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented. But if that isn't your primary interest, then what's wrong with it?
If you believe, as my old friends now believe, that Poland will be better o if it is ruled by people who deserve to rule—because they loudly proclaim a certain kind of patriotism, because they are loyal to the party leader, or because they are, echoing the words of Kaczyński himself, a "better sort of Pole"—then a one-party state is actually more fair than a competitive democracy. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing eld if only one of them has the moral right to form the government? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore deserving of wealth?
This impulse is reinforced, in Poland as well as in Hungary and many other formerly Communist countries, by the widespread feeling that the rules of competition are flawed because the reforms of the 1990s were unfair. Specifically, they allowed too many former Communists to recycle their political power into economic power.
But this argument, which felt so important a quarter century ago, seems thin and superficial now. Since at least 2005, Poland has been led solely by presidents and prime ministers whose political biographies began in the anti-Communist Solidarity movement. And there is no powerful exCommunist business monopoly in Poland either— at least not at the national level, where plenty of people have made money without special political connections. Poignantly, the most prominent former Communist in Polish politics right now is Stanisław Piotrowicz, a Law and Justice member of parliament who is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a great enemy of judicial independence.
Nevertheless, this argument about the continuing inuence of Communism retains an appeal for the right-wing political intellectuals of my generation. For some of them, it seems to explain their personal failures, or just their bad luck. Not everybody who was a dissident in the 1970s got to become the prime minister, or a best-selling writer, or a respected public intellectual, after 1989. And for many this is a source of burning resentment. If you are someone who believes that you deserve to rule, then your motivation to attack the elite, pack the courts, and warp the press to achieve your ambitions is strong. Resentment, envy, and above all the belief that the "system" is unfair— these are important sentiments among the intellectuals of the Polish right.
This is not to say that the illiberal state lacks a genuine appeal. But it is also good for some of its proponents personally— so much so that picking apart personal and political motives is extremely difficult. That's what I learned from the story of Jacek Kurski, the director of Polish state television and the chief ideologist of the Polish illiberal state. He started out in the same place, at the same time, as his brother, Jarosław Kurski, who edits the largest and most inuential liberal Polish newspaper. They are two sides of the same coin.
Frisbeetarianism is the belief that when you die, your soul goes up on the roof and gets stuck.
- George Carlin