Monday, April 4, 2011

Possessed by the truth

During those decades of the 20th century when communist regimes in Russia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere seemed to be thriving, constituting sources of inspiration for Western leftists and prompting fear and loathing on the part of conservatives, communism was frequently compared with Islam.

For example, the French thinker Jules Monnerot made such a comparison in his Sociologie du communisme (1949).

A case can certainly be made that ideologies like Marxism-Leninism operate like religions, albeit without the supernatural dimension. In particular, there is a strong in-group/out-group dynamic and a sense that there is an essential truth at the heart of the ideology, the total acceptance of which is a prerequisite for being counted amongst the faithful.

But why single out Islam as a point of comparison - why not any religion? Basically because, like Marxism-Leninism, Islam has a detailed plan for a universal and supposedly egalitarian social order. Islam, writes Monnerot, "draws on resentments, and organizes and streamlines the impulses that set men against the societies in which they are born."

Just as, claims Monnerot, communists deployed an "historical myth" which was "apt to fanaticize men", so too did the Fatimids of Egypt and the Safavids of Persia.

For Monnerot, Stalin was like the Muslim "commander of the faithful". In communism, as in Islam, "the believer does not think of himself as a 'believer': he is in possession of the truth - or, better put, he takes the thing that possesses him for the truth. This truth inspires in him an active attachment that truth, in a scientific sense, doesn't inspire and never asks for."

Modernity is characterized by relatively autonomous spheres of activity and relatively autonomous institutions coexisting and creating a complex society in which there is space for individual privacy and freedom.

Communism, by contrast, is a "total social phenomenon" that breaks with the "autonomy of spheres of action" characteristic of modernity. And radical political Islam or Islamism may be characterized in a similar way.

Monnerot's mention of the "resentments" that Islam putatively draws on to feed subversive impulses recalls another (related) tradition of European social thought which associates populist radicalism with Jewish and Christian traditions. But that is another story ...


  1. I had never heard of Monnerot. He sounds very perceptive. Wikipedia hasn't yet caught up with him! What else did he write?

    Writing around the same time, Eric Voegelin (in his "New Science of Politics") contended that pretty much all modern movements, maybe from the Reformation or at least the Puritans on, suffer from the same closed salvationist mentality that Monnerot describes. This seems to me nonsense. Your own comment, Mark, seems quite right -- modern societies do create space for individual privacy and freedom.

  2. I am just catching up with Monnerot myself, Alan. Marginalized in his later years it seems, and involved with the extreme right in France. Still, his writings may be worth looking at. I'll do another post on him sometime if I find anything.

  3. I look forward to learning more. Was he French Catholic right-wing? Associated with Action Francaise? Or Raymond Aron right-wing?

    I see that I dismissed Voegelin's very sophisticated and indeed wise analysis of modern societies as nonsense. Stupid me! After looking again at NSP, I'll retract that.

  4. Alan, he had some dealings with Raymond Aron, I think, but later was involved with the Nouvelle Droite and with the Front National. He eventually fell out with the FN and Jean-Marie Le Pen.

  5. ... "he takes the thing that possesses him for the truth. This truth inspires in him an active attachment that truth, in a scientific sense, doesn't inspire and never asks for."

    That would seem to apply to any religion, and in fact any belief system (even US Republicans come to mind, but that's OK, it resembles the New Left too -- LOL). I am just as fond of my attachments, for instance ...

    Perhaps this man has managed to put his finger on the magic in magical thinking. A believer in anything doesn't think of herself as just believing, but knowing. By contrast, the scientist interested in truth is not concerned if a new truth makes the old one obsolete. That's just considered progress.

    Very interesting thinker.

  6. Having The Answer carries immense psychological benefit. Certainty yields inner peace. The whole mental and emotional apparatus becomes available for concentrated action. The faithful, whether political or religious, have overcome doubt. They have, in fact, a kind of freedom--if willing divorce from the chance to engage reality can be so called.

  7. GC, yes, this idea has widespread applications, but I think one can draw a distinction between the notion of being possessed by an all-encompassing truth (a religion or a certain kind of political ideology) and other, more modest or limited certainties - or 'attachments' as you put it.

  8. CONSVLTVS, I am reminded of something Jung said about his religious clients being more psychologically healthy than his non-religious ones. I think his meaning was that religion gave them that sense of security you describe.

    There is a phrase Louis Rougier used when he was trying to characterize what he valued in Western culture (and which he saw as being at risk): 'the anxiety of thought'.