The Socialist Roots of Occultism

Marx satan

Caution: This illustration is highly misleading. (Image by Ross Wolfe, The Charnel-House blog)

We’ve grown accustomed to exciting titles that announce “the occult roots” of anything from Nazism to electronic music. While there’s certainly a lot of attention-grabbing hyperbole in such claims, it is true that much of the vaguely deviant, oppositional, and radical segments of Western culture has a touch of the occult – for reasons we are starting to understand quite well (tag: cultic milieu, occulture, rejected/stigmatized knowledge).

But what about the roots of modern occultism itself? In the (educated) popular imagination, occultism is generally considered an atavistic phenomenon, an anomalous and anachronistic flowering of irrationalism belonging to a bygone age. Some scholarship has continued in this vein, whether we think of the brand of intellectual historians that get embarrassed by its rational and scientific deficiency, or left-leaning, progressive academics who, like Adorno, see only a reactionary tendency that must eventually lead to a mysticized political irrationalism of the kind erupting in Germany in the 1930s.

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Some notes on scientism

The word “scientism” gets tossed around a lot in critical public debates about science’s place in society. Usually it is used derogatorily to dismiss a trend in using science which the user of the word doesn’t like. Used in this way, it is a rhetorical label without much analytic content. But it may also be turned into a useful category for analyzing historical data.

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Positivism and the Religion of Humanity

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) formulated some very influential ideas, and some ideas that were plain weird. The “father of sociology” argued for a full science of society, and invented the progressivist “Law of Three Stages”.  By the 1840s Comte had founded the highly influential philosophy and ideology of Positivism. What next? He founded a Church and proclaimed himself High Priest.

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