Book Reviews

Occult Features of Anarchism

An anthropologist examines secret societies, revolutionary movements, and esoteric ideas.


Erica Lagalisse's Occult Features of Anarchism is a history of secret societies and revolutionary movements, but it isn't one of those paranoid screeds in which every insurrection is allegedly masterminded by the Illuminati. This is a largely level-headed book by an anthropologist who sympathizes with the left herself. Her chief interest is in the ways mysticism influenced ideologies that we today associate with secular rationalism, and she makes a strong case that anarchism and socialism have longstanding links to hermetic ideas.

Along the way, Lagalisse notes how clandestine groups devoted to revolution mimicked, and sometimes overlapped with, secret societies devoted to esotericism—and how conspiracy theories helped spread the very ideas that the theories attributed to a cabal. When conservative 19th century governments circulated "fearful accounts of the Illuminati," she explains, it "had the ironic effect of inspiring others."

Conspiracy theories are not Lagalisse's chief focus, but she addresses them at the beginning and the end of the book. Her interest in the subject, she explains, began a little more than a decade ago, when she was an activist supporting Mexico's Zapatista rebels. Several of her comrades were drawn to conspiracy tales, and in one case the story in question was anti-Semitic.

Lagalisse helped talk the man out of the anti-Semitism—and talked herself into exploring the world that she'd stumbled into. She was an anthropologist, after all, and thus understood that even a false story can express "something of the everyday truth lived by its purveyor."