Occult Features of Anarchism: With Attention to the Conspriacy of Kings and the Conspiracy of the Peoples
by Erica Lagalisse
I mostly keep this blog and website focused on me speculative fiction. However, I wouldn’t expect to find Occult Features of Anarchism sold at Fogcon, my local progressive genre fiction convention, so maybe it’s a match? Then again I shouldn’t be surprised, as this thin volume is about myth and mystery, not only of 19th century anarchists but Marxists, esoterics and utopians of all kinds, and the secretive societies than spanned them.
“Occult Features of Anarchism:” well this sounds like a lot of fun. An Emma Goldman séance. A witch coven with circle A’s instead of pentagrams. This book is fun and fascinating, but not what I expected. It’s a feminist study of the roots of modern anarchism in all-male esoteric societies from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. On this basis, she warns us against the posh liberal contempt for the appeal of conspiracy theories to the masses, and ends the volume with an even-handed if not objective discussion of the concept of historical conspiracy.
Modern anarchism has never been purely atheist except in name, and instead develops based on overlapping syncretic pagan cosmologies that behold the immanence of the divine.
As the late middle-ages gave way to the Renaissance, a burgeoning merchant class, perhaps the remnants of occult orders of knighthood, and others slowly began a challenge to the existing order. They formed secret societies such as the Freemasons, devoted to inquiry and personal development. In place of dogma, Catholic or Protestant, they modeled their open-minded pursuit of esoteric wisdom on the recovered occult texts from Hellenic Egypt attributed to Hermes Trismegatus. Thus they were “Hermetic” schools of the occult.
The Hermetic texts influenced key figures in both science and magic, which were not distinct from each other in that era. As noted above, they were strictly male and privileged. They used that privilege to get away with stuff that got women and peasants burned at the stake in the Late Middle Ages and the Reformation.
Against the old order of religion and feudalism, covertly maintained by the Conspiracy of Kings, these men erected the Conspiracy of the Peoples, offering a new order of reason and industry Yet competing visions arose of a future beyond the Church and the nobility. The now notorious Illuminati, founded in Bavaria in 1776, had a more communist vision, while the mainstream of the Masons embraced not only skilled professionals for whom they took their name, but also emerging super-capitalists.
These days when we imagine the rich and poor conflict we face today as eternal, it’s hard to imagine a common origin for these forces. We forgot how much power both Church hierarchies and the hereditary monarchies founded by military dictators wielded for so long. Until World War One most of Europe was monarchy. In the Spanish Civil War, a military dictator backed by the Catholic Church crushed anarchists, communists, and liberals alike to establish a monarchy.
Thus today we can hardly imagine the Masons helping to organize workers:
… the incipient IWA’s [International Workingman’s Association’s] organizing power was so weak that if not for the organizing efforts of the socialist Freemasons, the official founding meeting of the IWA on September 28, 1864 would never have come to pass.
Imagine how shocked I was to discover that Proudhon and Bakunin were Freemasons at points in their lives! And to further illustrate the influence of Hermetic mysticism, Lagalisse provides examples of the spiritualism lurking behind facades of strident atheism.
Even [young] Bakunin, while he rejected the personal God of his Russian Orthodox childhood, put forward a pantheistic revolutionism. In a letter to his sister (1836) … “If religion and an inner lifeappear in us, then we become conscious of our strength, for we feel that God is within us, that same God who creates a new world, a world of absolute freedom and absolute love”
Now, I started my anarchist journey with the anarchist founding fathers, available in my township library, and acknowledge our great debt to them. Yet the main narrative doesn’t go much further than them, though mention the connections of some anarchist fellow travelers in the late nineteenth century to theosophy and the occult. However, I’m very curious about how this Occult influence manifested in subsequent decades, when masses of workers, labor leaders, and of course assassins joined the movement that those writer-philosophers spearheaded. Though male dominance of classical is self-evident, I need to be convinced and shown how Hermetic mysticism affected the worldviews of Emma Goldman, Spanish partisans, and of course, the second wave of anarchism starting in the 1980s.
Even without this material, which I hope to see in a subsequent volume from the same author, I got a strong sense of the challenge facing anarcha-feminism in transforming a movement whose roots, however invisible, stretch into such masculinist origins. At the drop off point, I wanted more analysis of race. To my knowledge, the anarchist founding fathers opposed slavery and were not openly anti-Black. Yet the new order of Europe, which Occult Features of Anarchism traces our origins to, expanded Black African slavery to an unthinkable scale, and Enlightenment thinkers, whom I presume were linked to the Hermetic underground, rationalized it.
The main narrative is followed by essays not directly related. The first deals with the mystical aspects of the cultural appropriation debate, appropriate as it relates to the presumption of atheism is radical culture and spirituality in diverse cultures. Lagalisse’s view mirrors my own:
When entire cosmologies are reified as “proper” only to specific preordained [cultural] identities, we are effectively saying they are false to the extent that they do not apply across the cosmos whatsoever … Appropriating indiginous spirirual forms without the intended context is entirely in line with the logic of capitalist colonisalism, but so is marking off and containing everything considered sacred as property (as thus nothing more).
Yet this point would have more punch if grounded in an discussion of white male dominance of early anarchism.
I don’t want to emphasize these gaps as this thin volume is intended as a beginning, with massive footnotes leading to further inquiry. Though dense as a neutron star, this is a quite readable place to being a journey into anarchist magic.
I wrote this review for a local grassroots publication (it did not end up included) early last fall, and since then conspiracy theories and the reaction to them have exploded in the news: Q Anon insurrectionists, nanobots in vaccines, Antifa under the bed. In turn, the Left is accused of being deluded about the Kennedy assassinations, Contra cocaine smuggling (oh wait, that was true), 9-11 as a neocon plot, and Russian election meddling (oh wait, that’s also documented). As Lagalisse is clear, the blanket dismissal of “conspiracies” is also deceptive with an agenda.
Thus I reckon this book to be even more valuable. Clear balanced thinking is wanting on all sides.