on 16 February 2014
"The New Inquisitions" is a book attempting to explain 20th century totalitarianism (fascism and Communism) as an outgrowth of the medieval Inquisition. The author, Arthur Versluis, does pinpoint a number of very specific parallels between the Catholic Inquisition and the methods of modern police-states. Apart from the more obvious (secret evidence, the use of torture, etc), the main similarity is that inquisitions, medieval or modern, are directed against thought crimes. The crime to be exposed and punished isn't criticism of the regime or concrete acts of opposition, but wrong thought in the sense of having the wrong ideology (or the wrong version of the ruling ideology). In other words, the criminals are *heretics* and therefore, by definition, evil, beyond the pale and fit only for destruction - unless, of course, they repent of their wrong ideas and accept those of their torturers (usually by fingering other "heretics"). The author calls this type of authoritarian regime "ideocracy" and believes that it is a specifically Western phenomenon, the roots of which goes back to a literalist and "historicist" understanding of Christianity. When the Christian Church rejected the search for liberating mystical knowledge (gnosis), condemned the Gnostics as "heretics", and eventually acquired temporal power, ideocracy was born. The "heretic" became an enemy, both in this world and in relation to the next. Nothing similar has existed in Hindu or Buddhist civilizations, where some form of religious pluralism is the norm.
While the author does make a compelling case for ideocracy being a specific phenomenon different from other forms of authoritarianism, I don't think he has managed to establish a convincing lineage from the Inquisition to modern totalitarianism. The closest he comes is a number of writers on the far right who might have inspired modern fascism: Joseph de Maistre, Juan Donoso Cortés and Charles Maurras. But what about Communism? Here, Versluis comes up short. His purported link is George Sorel, but there is *zero* evidence that the Bolshevik leaders were influenced by Sorel's writings. Lenin seems to have mentioned Sorel exactly once in his collected works, referring to him as "that notorious muddle-head". The claim that Sorel influenced Lenin and the Russian revolution is an old anti-Communist canard, based on the notoriety of Sorel's article "Reflections on Violence" and his defence of the October revolution. Ironically, Versluis have found a statement by Mussolini in which *he* claims to be have been influenced by Sorel! There is another problem, too. I'm not sure whether Sorel really fits the bill as a budding inquisitorial totalitarian. Sorel was more of a radical millenarian. The two phenomena may be overlapping, but they are different, something Versluis seems to acknowledge(of course, he rejects both the Inquisition and the pursuit of the Millennium). Sorel did preach violence, but was he really a Grand Inquisitor hunting for "heretics"? Somehow, I doubt it. Sorel regarded revolutionary violence as chivalrous, ennobling both sides in the conflict. This is a weird notion, and a far cry from the Inquisition (or the Russian Civil War, for that matter - or even from classical millenarianism). Note also that Sorel's vision of socialism was syndicalist, not Leninist. Thus, the lineage from Inquisition to Communism has not been established.
But perhaps Versluis doesn't need to establish it. In the second half of the book, he puts forward a slightly different argument: ideocracy is really an archetypical phenomenon, which appears on the stage of human society on a disconcerting, semi-regular basis. Thus, the Romans (while generally pluralist in religious matters) persecuted the Christians, often with arguments strikingly similar to those later used by the Church to persecute heretics. Versluis also believes that the Neo-Conservatives around George W Bush have totalitarian tendencies of the ideocratic type. Interestingly, he doesn't attempt to connect the "Neo-Cons" to Trotskyism or Leo Strauss/Carl Schmitt, although he could have. This would have given him some kind of lineage, although perhaps a problematic one. Thus, Bush was presumably possessed by the inquisitorial archetype independently. But where does this ever-recurrent archetype come from?
Versluis strongly supports the esoteric current which sees salvation as other-worldly, to be reached by mystical contemplation and union with the Divine. As already mentioned, the author believes that Christianity at a relatively early point abandoned this perspective in favour of a literalist understanding of Scripture and (de facto) emphasis on this-worldly salvation. The author points out that the early Church Father Tertullian supported the (pagan) Roman Empire politically, thus perhaps laying the conceptual foundations for later imperial Christianity. Of course, heresy-hunting came even earlier, and can arguably be found already in the Bible. When this-worldly salvation and fear of heretics meet, the result is ideocracy. At least I think this is the author's point - the book isn't consistently well-argued through-out. The author implies at one point that monotheism might be the original culprit, but then seems to backtrack. What is clear is that the inquisitorial meme exists in both "right" and "left" versions. The rightist version is based on the dream of an organic, unified, hierarchic and above all purified "community" or state. The "leftist" version is, I suppose, based on the confluence of secularized millenarianism and inquisitorial heresy-hunting. Nazism seems to combine both versions! Versluis have some problems with the occult influences on Nazism, but I suppose he could have solved them by introducing a new category, which we may call "this-worldly occultism". The Nazi occultists, after all, craved temporal power (and human sacrifice).
The main heretical enemy, the one constantly lurking in the background, is the "Gnostic", the mystic who rejects all dreams of this-worldly salvation and progress, be they right or left. A large part of Versluis' book is a polemic against various 20th century writers who saw "occultism" and "Gnosticism" not just as the main enemy, but as the cause of...totalitarianism! Thus, the Marxist Theodor Adorno regarded occultism as responsible for Nazism, while conservative Eric Voegelin blamed Communism on Gnosticism. The author has little problem showing that many of these literati had almost literally no idea what they were talking about. Versluis also believes that something more sinister is going on, as the traditional victims of heresy-hunts (the Gnostics) are blamed for the evils of the 20th century, really a result of the ideocracy of their opponents!
The author also discusses conspiracy theory. The idea of an evil and sexually deviant conspiracy, hell bent on undermining our entire society, is common throughout Western history. It has been applied to Roman Christians, medieval heretics, Jews, 19th century Catholics and 20th century Satanic ritual abusers (who are largely imaginary, according to the author). He could have added homosexuals, Muslims and even Jehovah's Witnesses. The author makes the interesting observation that those who claim to fight evil conspiracies often mimic the supposed conspiracy they are opposing. Thus, Pat Robertson and other Christian Illuminati-phobes in the United States are organized in the Council for National Policy, a semi-secret and well-funded elite cabal which attempts to influence the top echelons of the administration, a group whose antics and very name mimics that of the supposedly Illuminati-controlled Council on Foreign Relations! In an extensive footnote, Versluis attacks the Swedish feminist group ROKS for their belief in Satanist-inspired ritual abuse. Unknown to the author, the *opponents* of ROKS sound just as conspiratorial (or even more so), claiming that Swedish psychoanalysis was controlled by a "secret cult" for decades! The author could also have mentioned the John Birch Society, an anti-Communist, minimal government group organized in the same authoritarian manner as the evil reds they are seeing behind every bramble bush.
It's obvious that the "paranoid style in politics" can easily be connected with the ideocratic archetype. Yet, I nevertheless want to register some dissent here. Does Versluis really believe that there are no secret cabals in the midsts of our democratic society? Or that none of them are sexually deviant? After all, he does seem to think that the conspiracist meme can *cause* real conspiracies to happen. Totalitarian conspiracies, perhaps? Finally, I noticed that Arthur Versluis himself isn't entirely purified from the demons he is fighting. When pressed to give the ultimate explanation for the new inquisitions and heretic-hunting, he resorts to "the metaphysics of evil": some humans have been possessed by cosmic evil to such a degree that they are, in effect, no longer human. But this idea, that some humans are really demons incarnate, is - of course - exactly the inquisitorial-conspiracist archetype which Versluis have devoted the entire book to expose...