Politics of the Occult

Gary Lachman. The Politics of the Occult: the Left, the Right and the Radically Unseen. Quest Books, 2008.

Following in the footsteps of James Webb, author of The Flight from Reason and The Occult Establishment, Gary Lachman traces the connections between occultism and politics from the days of the Rosicrusians onwards.

For much of this period, "occult" movements embraced radical or progressive causes, dreaming of various utopias, and laying, usually half baked, plans for their achievement. Some of the topics discussed here will be reasonably well known, others are much more obscure. For example to today the Moravians are a fairly standard nonconformist denomination, my old father's boss in the 1950s and 1960s was a member. Once they practised communal living, there was a Moravian settlement at Fairfield near Manchester. Lachman reveals they once had some very strange spiritual practices indeed, which I won't go into as some of you might just have eaten before reading this. Lachman also examines the sexual politics of Swedenborg, a topic airbrushed out of history by his followers.

Mixtures of "left" and "right" radical traditions persisted in these esoteric milieus, for example there are the connections between Nickels Roerich, the mystical explorer who went in search of Shambhala and dreamed at one point of creating a joint Soviet-Shambhalan power block, and Henry Wallace, who was FDR Vice President in his third term, and who later stood as a Progressive candidate for the US presidency in 1948. Roerich's dream was rather impractical for two reasons, one was that the Soviets weren't interested, the second was that Shambhala alias Agarthi (under numerous different spellings) didn't exist.

Right up until the first world war, occultist movements had been as much 'progressive' as 'reactionary', but in the following years, the revolt against modernity led many into reactionary directions. Here Lachman pinpoints the role of groups such as the Synergists and the Traditionalists who rejected democracy, liberty and equality pretty much lock, stock and barrel and ended up in bed with Hitler. Lachman particularly concentrates here on the roles of Carl Jung, Mirciea Eliade and Julius Evola. Jung gets a cautious acquittal but the other two are clearly guilty of deep involvement with fascism. Eliade hid his radical-right past in his later years as an American academic and 'historian of religions', but his private views do not seem to have changed, while Evola remained an unashamed Nazi.

Today there are all sorts of radical 'restorationist' movements in the world, and in many ways jihadist 'Islam' is the true successor to the European radical right, and I put 'Islam' in scare quotes, because as much, if not more, of this movement's ideology and philosophy come from European as from traditional Islamic sources. This, like synarchism or those who dreamed of Shambhala, looks towards the creation of a hyper-totalitarian state which will abolish the contradictions of modernity.

This is a fascinating and important book, though not a perfect one, one gets the feeling that too much is being squashed into too few pages, and it lacks the research in primary sources one might wish for, and there are some source notes to less than reliable sources. It is perhaps best seen as a map for future explorers to take. Nevertheless it is a book, which had he lived, our colleague Roger Sandell would have much appreciated. -- Peter Rogerson. (Originally published on-line, February 2009)

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