Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen

Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen

Gary Lachman
Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 2008. Paperback, $19.95, xxiv + 276 pages.

Most books presuming to deal with politics and the occult have been marred by a conspiratorial premise ("the Illuminati are secretly running the world!") and a cavalier attitude toward fact checking. Indeed, conspiracy peddler Texe Marrs once filled a thirty-five-dollar, six hundred-page book with photos of politicians giving "V for victory" signs, "OK" signs, and just about every other hand gesture under the sun and interpreting these as secret Illuminatist and Satanic signals.

Luckily, Gary Lachman's latest book takes a saner and more even-handed approach to the considerable overlap between matters political and occult. This is not surprising, as Lachman has emerged over the past twenty years as one of our most readable and reliable writers on spiritual and esoteric systems and personalities.

The task that Lachman sets for himself in Politics and the Occult is straightforward enough: Beginning with the Rosicrucian uproar at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Lachman provides a historical survey of the political impact in the West of occult and esoteric ideas over the last four hundred years. He nimbly leads the reader through controversies surrounding British and European secret societies, the French Revolution, curious erotic mystical sects like the Moravian Brotherhood, and more recent occult figures such as Nicholas Roerich, Papus, R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, and Julius Evola. The book ends with a meditation on the parallels between the present Christian Right in the United States and manifestations of a spiritually tinged fascism that Lachman discusses in earlier chapters.

For the bulk of Politics and the Occult, Lachman is content to provide an anecdotal chronology of colorful characters in a generally nonjudgmental manner, simply letting the facts speak for themselves. It is only in the final chapters, as the people under consideration begin to brush up against twentieth-century "isms," particularly fascism, that Lachman seems obliged to render judgments, albeit judgments circumscribed by considerable ambivalence.

For instance, what are we to make of the sympathy of Mircea Eliade, the distinguished scholar of comparative religion, for the mystical-fascist-nationalist Legion of the Holy Archangel Michael during his young adulthood in Romania? Or Eliade's ongoing correspondence with Julius Evola, the brilliant Italian Traditionalist who synthesized a kind of esoteric fascism that inspired youthful extreme rightists to engage in a nihilistic terror spree during the 1970s in Italy? Do these instances of Eliade's hidden past totally undercut the value of his considerable later scholarship in shamanism, cross-cultural studies, and religious myth? Lachman considers such questions at some length and provides enough thoughtful analysis for the reader to grasp the difficulty of a single clear-cut answer.

In considering the contemporary Christian Right, Lachman steps most fully off the fence and voices his concerns that their theocratic yearnings, if put into practice, would usher in an era of totalitarianism reminiscent of earlier fascist regimes. Given a choice between the modern world with all its flaws (materialism, consumerism, celebrity worship, and all the rest) and the flight from modernity (whether quasi-fascist Traditionalist or Christian Rightist), Lachman ultimately sides with a modern world that allows at least enough freedom to voice one's opposition to its faults.

For the reader who has only a vague sense of the history of the Western occult traditions' interaction with the political arena, Politics and the Occult should serve as a salutary overview. In a genre loaded down with garbage, Lachman's book is a breath of fresh air.

However, I feel compelled to note that if your reading of esoteric history has already encompassed books by James Webb (The Occult Underground, The Occult Establishment, and The Harmonious Circle) and Joscelyn Godwin (Arktos and The Theosophical Enlightenment), as well as Mark Sedgwick's thorough study of the Traditionalists (Against the Modern World), you may find little new in Politics and the Occult. Lachman draws heavily on these sources, and while he serves up a highly readable distillation, no new ground is broken (to wildly mix metaphors).

Moreover, more than once Lachman cites, as sources, books that can most charitably be described as "speculative." The works of Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince purveying "alternative history"—such as The Templar Revelation, The Stargate Conspiracy, and The Sion Revelation, the last of which Lachman cites several times—may be both engaging and exciting (as well as best-sellers), but their presence as footnoted sources does not breed confidence in the thoroughness of Lachman's research. Similarly, the citation of Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh's Temple and the Lodge for anything having to do with the Knights Templar and Scotland is problematic. (See Robert L. D. Cooper's The Rosslyn Hoax? for a valuable debunking of most such claims about Scottish Templars.)

Luckily, such speculative sources are few in Lachman's book, and for the most part, their use is confined to minor matters. Pop histories such as Politics and the Occult fulfill an important role in disseminating information to intelligent readers who don't have the time or resources to thoroughly read across a given field. Lachman has a gift for taking on complex subjects and personalities (Rudolf Steiner and Emanuel Swedenborg, for example) and making them accessible. I just hope that the pressure of making a living in the literary marketplace doesn't cause him to surrender to what the Traditionalist René Guénon called the "reign of quantity."

Politics and the Occult is a good book. Here's hoping that Lachman's next one is even better.

Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney was the publisher and editor-in-chief of Gnosis magazine (1985-99) and is coauthor (with Richard Smoley) of Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (Quest, 2006). His forthcoming book, The Masonic Enigma, will be published by HarperOne.