Strange Bedfellows


Many of us may think that politics and the occult are an unlikely couple, but the truth is that the two have had a long and remarkably influential relationship involving some of the key turning points in western history. It is true that for some, the notion of an occult politics may not be entirely alien. Yet most accounts of the connection between these two seemingly radically different pursuits tend to focus on the dark side of occult politics, i.e., the links, real or imaginary, between occultism and far-right, fascist politics, specifically Hitler and the Nazis.

While it is true that some forms of far-right political philosophy have had some links to occultism, most of the stories about the dark forces and "black brotherhoods" who were behind the rise of National Socialism are merely that, stories, fun to read and highly exciting, but in reality based more on fantasy and conjecture than on any hard facts.

Yet having said this, what I found in researching my book is that, in the last few centuries, there have been real links between occult thought and more conservative forms of politics, but that this coupling isn’t the whole story. There has also been what we can call a "progressive" occult politics, although to be sure, its presence and influence have received less attention than the more sensational tales of mystical Nazis using magic powers to conquer the world.

While I enjoyed reading, say, The Morning of the Magicians and The Spear of Destiny — to name just two contributions to the by-now large "occult Nazis" genre — the problem with these and other sensational accounts is that they provide a false, if nonetheless entertaining, picture of history, that is repeated as "fact" by individuals wishing to link occultism to some of the most heinous crimes on record. One of the things I hope to do in Politics and the Occult is provide a somewhat more sober view of this problematic issue.

I first became interested in the fascinating, complex, and often bewildering relationship between politics and the occult through reading a remarkable book, The Occult Establishment, published in 1976 and written by the too-little known cultural historian James Webb. Webb, who committed suicide in 1980, was a contributor to the venerable Man, Myth and Magic magazine of the 1970s, a weekly "encyclopaedia of the supernatural" that we forty-to-fifty-somethings cut our occult teeth on. He was also the author of a controversial biography of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, The Harmonious Circle (1980).

In The Occult Establishment Webb argued that the "occult revival" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — which gave us Theosophy, Anthroposophy, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and other less well known occult movements — was in many ways a reaction to the rise of modernity. We today, living in a post-modern (or post-post modern — it's hard to keep up) world may find it difficult to appreciate the effect much of what we take for granted had on people who were encountering it for the first time. As I write in the book, “the move to cities, the loss of contact with nature, the disintegration of the family, the loosening of the organic ties that had previously bonded individuals into a community: these were the elements of a strange new world,” a world, as I say, we are all very familiar with.

The arrival of the modern world was so threatening that it gave rise to two famous, but radically different attempts to describe it. For Karl Marx, in the modern world “all that is solid melts into air,” while for the sociologist Max Weber, modernity was an “iron cage,” whose inhabitants suffer “a polar night of icy darkness.”

Webb is generally sceptical of occult claims, and while I believe that an interest in the occult and esoteric can be motivated by something more than an "escape from modernity," his analysis does in many ways strike home. And one of the ironies I discovered while writing this book is that, although ideological enemies, the radical extremes of left and right often meet in their shared detestation of modernity. Both believe that the modern world, the one we wake up to everyday, is a dark desolate place, whether its the Kali Yuga or late-capitalism that’s responsible for it.

Yet while left and right may both shake their respective fingers at modernity, they do have some very different ways of tackling it, and Webb’s aim in his book was to show how occult ideas fuelled a great deal of the radical right’s attempt to "revolt against the modern world," — the title of a book by the Italian fascist esotericist, Julius Evola, one of the central occult politicians of the radical right.

In the last decade or so, Evola’s books have enjoyed a revival, many of them being translated into English for the first time, and he is rightly criticized by anti-occult writers like Umberto Eco for his support of the notorious anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a work Hitler drew on as evidence of a Jewish plot to — what else? –conquer the world.

While Eco and others are right to make clear Evola’s Nazi fellow-travelling (regardless of which he was a brilliant esoteric thinker), they tend to overlook the more progressive occult politics that gets a much needed airing in my book. People like the French cabbalist Eliphas Levi, who was a fiery socialist polemicist; Annie Besant, Fabian socialist, suffragette, head of the Theosophical Society and champion of Indian independence; Victoria Woodhull, medium, spiritualist, free love devotee, women’s right advocate, and the first woman to run for US president; Rudolf Steiner, whose plan for reconstructing Europe after WWI was a bestseller; Emanuel Swedenborg, whose vision of a multi-faith spirituality included a form of Christian sacred sexuality; Edward Carpenter, early pioneer of higher consciousness, gay rights proponent, anti-vivisectionist and advocate of dress reform; A.R. Orage, most known as the brilliant disciple of Gurdjieff, but also a fervent believer in a variety of social reforms: these and many others, in many different ways, managed to combine their belief in different occult or esoteric philosophies with varying forms of "progressive," left-of-centre political ideas. Now that I think of it, perhaps the most historically influential "progressive" occultists were the mysterious Rosicrucians, whose vision of a radically reformed Germany in the early 1600s paralleled the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation. But then there was Freemasonry, Mesmerism and the French Revolution…

To be sure, some occult politicians do not fit neatly into either side; for example, the Russia painter and mystic Nicholas Roerich, who led two expeditions into Mongolia in search of — or in order to establish — the spiritual state of Shambhala. He was an anti-Bolshevik financed by the American government, yet at one point he informed his Soviet hosts that he was on a mission from the Mahatmas “to unite Buddhism with Communism to create a great Oriental Federation…” Or take the case of C.G. Jung, who, as "Agent 488," helped the Allies assess the psyches of Nazi leaders, but who was himself a critic of egalitarianism, an admirer of Spain’s Generalissimo Franco, and who thought it possible that Hitler may have been the “chaotic precondition for the birth of a new world.” (Given that there are quite a few "chaotic preconditions" available right now, Jung may have been premature in his prognosis…)

There are several other examples of left, right, or completely other occult politics in the book, but perhaps I shouldn’t spoil your pleasure in discovering them for yourself.