Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: totalitarianism

The Inquisition – A Truly Modern Institution

The Inquisition was its own dominion of judgement, a state within a state, answerable to no one other than the Pope, the Crown and its own array of imposing bureaucratic regulations. As well as the inquisitors and those who staffed the tribunals of interrogation, a huge array of ‘familiars’, who were responsible for handling the bureaucratic work that oiled the machinery of terror. So many carefully considered regulations surrounded the application of torture, for example, that those who oversaw it constituted the first systematically organised bureaucracy of pain. The Inquisition even had its own miniature armies of protection and intimidation. The Inquisitor General Tomas de Torquemada never travelled anywhere without his own army of horsemen, especially after an inquisitor had been murdered in Saragossa Cathedral by a desperate group of ‘conversos’. Notoriously, virtually unlimited powers of torture were granted to extract ‘full’ confessions from those suspected of relapsing or, worse, those who were impenitent, active Judaisers. Thus the snooping state made its way into history: servants, family members, neighbours frightened and cajoled into becoming informers and spies. Even in monasteries and convents, monks and nuns would report on brothers and sisters whom they suspected of looking down when the Host was raised, stumbling over the Paternoster or Ave Maria and saying who knew what in the solitude of their cells. Yirimiyahu Yovel is right to see in this the germ of a modern malevolent modern institution rather than a medieval relic. It was indeed something fresh in its inhumanity.

Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews, p. 405

Support for Yovel and Schama is found in Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and in Foucault’s account of the prison. The Inquisition may have been one of the first modern institutions, but the hospital, the prison, the asylum, concentration camps and extermination centres were to quickly follow. The religious and the anti-religious joined together in a barbaric assault on humanity.

Modern doesn’t mean better.

And as Arendt and Foucault noticed, the sign of a truly modern institution is that it refuses to accept merely outward signs of conformity. It is not good enough that we seem to be fitting in – we must really fit in – and if not we must be remade or destroyed.

What is the connection between this modern desire to invade the inner private sphere of the mind and spirit and the growing conviction that no such sphere exists? It is almost as if the declining faith in metaphysics (not just Christian, but any deeper metaphysics) leaves us exposed to the most extreme outrages by those who seek control.

Materialism leaves us naked, ready to be herded hither and thither.

Perhaps the Inquisition was the first sign of our declining faith – no longer do we trust in the Holy Spirit and the judgement of Christ – we presume to act on their behalf.

Choosing Good

The power of choosing between good and evil is within the reach of all


The price of this choice can be terrible. In the totalitarian state choosing good may bring death; but the choice remains. The possibility of this choice is the foundation of human dignity; but the decent society is one where the temptation to choose evil is minimised.

Two Kinds of Collaboration

…a man has no significance in a totalitarian state. The only thing that matters is the inexorable movement of the state mechanism. A mechanism needs only cogs. Stalin used to call all of us cogs. One cog does not differ from another, and cogs can easily replace one another. You can pick one out and say ‘From this day you will be a genius cog’, and everyone else will consider it a genius. It does not matter at all whether it is or not. Anyone can become a genius on the orders of the leader.

Dimitri Shostakovich from Testimony (conversations with Solomon Volkov)

This statement is taken from a book which is still treated with suspicion by some – they think either that Volkov fabricated these exchanges or that Shostakovich himself was guilty of re-inventing his own past.

It has been interesting to read Ian MacDonald’s The New Shostakovich, a book which explores the process by which the composer, like so many others, was made to collaborate with a communist regime that he loathed. MacDonald argues, persuasively, that the horror, tragedy and vicious pettiness of communism is reflected in many aspects of his music – if you have the ears to listen.

This book also reminds us how many of us in the West were willing to suspend disbelief in the crimes of communism. The dream of a utopian, state-controlled future was enough to lead many intellectuals to simply disregard the uncomfortable truths that kept emerging Soviet Russia.

Shostakovich’s own collaboration can be understood. He had to try and protect himself, his family, his friends, and his music. He was threatened with death and he saw many of those he loved and respected led away to death. But how can we excuse the collaboration of Sartre, George Bernard Shaw and so many other Western intellectuals, who simply didn’t want to admit that they were wrong? Their own collaboration helped to perpetuate the largest system of mass murder in human history and their only excuse was that it might have been a little embarrassing to admit that they were wrong.

Long-shot Utopias

The hardest strokes of heaven fall in history upon those who imagine that they can control things in a sovereign manner, as though they were kings of the earth, playing Providence not only for themselves but for the far future – reaching out into the far future with the wrong kind of far-sightedness, and gambling on a lot of risky calculations in which there must never be a single mistake. And it is a defect in such enthusiasts that they seem unwilling to leave anything to Providence, unwilling even to leave the future flexible, as one must do; and they forget that in any case, for all we know, our successors may decide to switch ideals and look for a different utopia before any of our long shots have reached their objective, or any of our long-range projects have had fulfilment. It is agreeable to all the processes of history, therefore, that each of us should rather do the good that is straight under our noses. Those people work more wisely who seek to achieve good in their own small corner of the world and then leave the leaven to leaven the whole lump, that those who are ever thinking that life is vain unless one can act though the central government, carry legislation, achieve political power and do big things.

From Herbert Butterfield’s Christianity and History

I came across the wonderful book in a second-hand book store in Sheffield – it is a real forgotten treasure: a great history Professor reflecting upon the relationship of history to faith and moral action.

I love this passage partly because it describes so well one of those tempting traps all dreamers can fall into. We think we know what should be done, we think we know what the future should be like, we think we should be the one to push the buttons. But this is all vain: the truths we’ve grasped are only partial, whatever we want others may not want, and there are no buttons – life is far too complex to be directed by anyone – least of all us.

These points seem true regardless of our faith or any lack of faith. However Butterfield also describes how faith in Providence – God working his purposes out over time – can help us manage our anxiety and our passion for moral change. A combination of utopian dreaming and atheism is particularly dangerous because you can have no faith that change will happen right, unless it is you who are in charge of that change (for there is no guiding Providence at work). More frighteningly still, you are free to breach all moral principles in pursuit of your dream, because nothing matters except the dream.

The Centre of Totalitarianism

Just as the stability of the totalitarian regime depends on sealing off the fictitious world of the movement from the outside world, so the experiment of total domination in the concentration camps depends upon sealing off the latter against the world of all others, the world of the living in general, even against the outside world of a country under totalitarian rule. This isolation explains the peculiar unreality and lack of credibility that characterise all reports from the concentration camps and constitute one of the main difficulties for the true understanding of totalitarian domination, which stands or falls with the existence of these concentration and extermination camps; for, unlikely as it may sound, these camps are the true central institution of totalitarian organisational power.

Hannah Arendt from The Origins of Totalitarianism

Many people are rightly nervous of any attempt to compare Hitler’s death camps with any other institution  in world history. After writing the The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt herself was criticised for comparing the death camps with Stalin’s gulags.

But Arendt’s analysis of the unreality of the camps – the way in which they were sealed off from public view and made to seem ‘impossible’ to many – even in Germany itself – should make us question this prohibition on comparison. Finding some point of comparison does not lessen the evil of the death camps, instead it is a way to make sure we do to forget that evil. To seal the camps of as unique and unrepeatable evil is a failure: a failure to remember, a failure to connect, a failure to honour the dead and a failure to arm ourselves against such evils in the future.

We should be able to see that institutions that hide people away, segregate them from ordinary life and create utter dependence are dangerous and very likely to tip into evil.

Educational Totalitarianism

Article 26 of the Declaration of Human Rights

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. 

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. 

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

This all makes good sense to me – but it is not how our actual education system works.

Each time that someone tries to fix the final purpose of education then they are engaged in a kind of totalitarian determination to fix the purpose of human life. They are wilfully trying to limit the ends of others by their own definition of what it is that human beings should learn, think and do. 

Good education implies freedom – faith in the unfolding of human potential. It does not require politicians to tell us what we should learn, how we should learn nor the purpose of our learning.

When the latest edict from the Department of Education tells us what the state intends to teach our children this week we should laugh at the absurdity of it all.

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