By Christopher Scott Thompson
A Beautiful Resistance
“Much of the European revolutionary tradition traces itself back to the 18th century, including the first stirrings of anarchist philosophy as we now know it. Much of the neopagan and occult tradition as we now know it traces back to the same era, and not at all coincidentally as author Erica Lagalisse demonstrates…” A review of Occult Features of Anarchism: With Attention to the Conspiracy of Kings and the Conspiracy of the Peoples.
I knew I wanted to review Occult Features of Anarchism for Gods and Radicals as soon as I read the title. I knew I would love the author’s way of thinking as soon as I saw the title page, a tribute to the gloriously verbose title pages of the 18th century – right down to the font.
Photo by Olesya Yemets
Much of the European revolutionary tradition traces its roots back to the 18th century, including the first stirrings of anarchist philosophy as we now know it. Much of the neopagan and occult tradition as we now know it traces back to the same era, and not at all coincidentally as author Erica Lagalisse demonstrates in this essay’s 114 densely-argued pages.
Along with the better-known Enlightenment of the rationalists and deists, there was another and stranger Enlightenment combining elements of occultism, pantheism, and radical politics. Working through clandestine secret societies such as the Illuminati and various Masonic splinter groups, the revolutionary occultists of this “Radical Enlightenment” were major players in the struggle against absolute monarchy and feudal social relations. In the process, they had a much larger role in the birth of anarchism and even Marxism than most of today’s radicals would ever dream. (For one startling example, see fig. 8 pg 54 – I don’t want to spoil the surprise!)
This hidden or “occult” legacy of revolutionary politics is now largely forgotten, disregarded by a radical culture that identifies itself as militantly atheist and rationalist. Yet its mark remains, and not always for the best.
Lagalisse, who describes her work as a critique of anarchism, approaches her topic from two directions. One is to demonstrate, with copious evidence, that the rigid atheism of most contemporary anarchism obscures a rich history of spiritual thought that once flourished in the circles that first articulated the tradition. (Just to give one example, several of the founders of the first International apparently belonged to radical Masonic lodges – including Bakunin himself.) The second is to demonstrate that the “secret society” mentality of the early revolutionary occult fraternities survives today in the use of impenetrable jargon and other gate-keeping behaviors that serve to keep anarchism the private domain of a few well-read gnostics rather than the mass movement it was meant to be.
Occult Features of Anarchism includes chapters on the hidden similarities between political ideology and religious cosmology, the underground occultism and political radicalism of the enlightenment, the mix of hermetic and pantheistic ideas in 18th and 19th century freemasonry, the revolutionary fraternities that worked and sometimes fought for these ideas, the influence of this tradition on the IWA or First International, the hidden connections between socialism and theosophy, the influence of hermetic philosophy on the Marxist dialectic, the origins of some of the deeply-ingrained assumptions about race, class, and gender in the anarchist movement, and the mythic implications and uses of the conspiracy theory.
The chapter on conspiracy theories also addresses the curious historical reversal by which the revolutionary brotherhood of the Illuminati was misremembered as a secret society devoted to maintaining the hidden power of an invisible elite. One of Lagalisse’s central arguments is that people outside of traditional radical circles may express a radical political and social critique through the medium of the conspiracy theory – using the conspiracy theory as a myth for articulating and personifying the forces responsible for oppression and injustice. As such, it would make sense for anarchists and other radicals to engage in dialogue with those who hold such beliefs rather than to reject them out of hand as “irrational.” Insisting that everyone we talk to must think the same way we do, read the same books we read, and express their radicalism as we express ours can be the equivalent of testing would-be initiates to see if they are worthy of admission into our own elite society – with the result that anarchism stays remarkably homogeneous.
As a direct challenge to today’s anarchists, Occult Features of Anarchism is in some ways the opposite of my own Pagan Anarchism. Lagalisse’s work calls anarchists to task for the self-limiting mentalities and behaviors that have narrowed the appeal and impact of our ideas by centering them in an intellectual tradition that still looks a lot like the world we are trying to change. As much as I love Kropotkin’s bread book, perhaps the albatross around the neck of the anarchist tradition… is the anarchist tradition.
Not many books are truly “essential reading,” but if you think of yourself as an anarchist you cannot afford to miss this. This is one critique we need to be talking about.