Here Lindsay Porter traces how the original Order of the Illuminati, founded by Adam Weishaupt, a Bavarian university professor in 1776 became the symbolic bogeyman of America. With a grand membership of five of his law students, one of whom was soon expelled for being bone idle, this grouplet seems to have been the predecessor of many a student barroom revolutionary group. Weishaupt continued to insist on the strictest criteria for membership, and as such membership rose to the grand total of twelve. It was at this point that a Baron Knigge got involved, and he conceived the idea of a mass membership organisation. Mass that is amongst those who could afford to pay the fairly hefty admission fees. For like many revolutionaries who dream of setting the masses free, Weishaupt had no belief that the workers and peasants could do this for themselves, but rather needed an elite of intellectuals to do this for them. But then again it is doubtful if workers and peasants were the sort of people he wanted to set free, rather it was members of enlightened and liberal middle classes like himself.
Indeed despite Weishaupt and Knigge’s high flown rhetoric their actual programme of reform would have been unexceptional anywhere outside ultramontane Bavaria. However their invoking of Freemason style ritual was to generate many fabulous rumours.
The Illuminati were suppressed by the Bavarian government in 1786, but with the coming of the French revolution, reactionary forces in Europe need a scapegoat. The French reactionary Abbé Barruel came up with the original notion that the Illumnati were the force behind the Freemasons who were leading the revolution. Heaven forbid that it was caused by spontaneous disgust over the corrupt and oppressive ancien regime! Barruel’s thesis was taken up by a Scottish scientist John Robison who presented the thesis to a wider English speaking audience.
It was in the nascent United States where the Illuminati fears really took off, the American revolution had begun to develop in directions which were alarming to the propertied classes. Several of the states had adopted constitutions which came close to giving the vote to all white males, and many of the lower classes had been politicised by fighting in the Revolutionary army. Right wing Federalists, several of whom thought Washington should be lifetime Lord Protector if not King George the First of America, became fearful of the French revolution and in the first of America’s episodes of mass paranoia the Illuminati became a useful bogeyman.
The myth of the Illuminati was revived from time to time through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, merging into the rising tide of anti-Semitism. They were dragged up by the English writer Nesta Webster, whose works are still projected as real history.
Porter shows how the modern rise of the Illuminati myth in the US can be traced back to Robert Welch and the John Birch Society, with the idea of a secret power behind the communists. Again the idea that Russian revolution was sparked by genuine popular feeling against the old order and the war seems to be beyond these peoples’ comprehension. Welch becomes the grandfather of ever more convoluted conspiracy theories, such as those satirised in Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminus trilogy. Indeed these satires became embedded in various would-be serious conspiracy theories. These reach ever more surreal heights with the extraterrestrial conspiracies of the likes of William Cooper, reaching beyond all possible satire with the wild flights of David Icke and his grand reptilian conspiracy. Porter notes that of all the conspiracy theories Icke is most likely to be clinically paranoid, but what does that say about his audience and readership?
Another curiosity is that many current American right-wing conspiracy theorists have almost diametrically opposed beliefs to their Federalist forebears. The Federalists believed in a powerful central government, a Bank of America and protectionism, while many of today’s militia conspiracy theorists believe that the only lawful authority is the county sheriff and all other government is theft, just the sort of wild anarchic talk which would have infuriated John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, but would have delighted ultra democrats. – Peter Rogerson.