Anarchism and Kabbalah

A Reflection On Walter Benjamin & Alejandro Jodorowsky, from Jesse Brent

Today, more often than not, people who have heard of Kabbalah associate the mystical branch of Judaism with celebrities like Madonna, Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher. Like other forms of mysticism, Kabbalah has been co-opted by capitalists and marketed as a new age fad for rich people (especially by the opportunistic charlatans of the Kabbalah Centre). However, this capitalist bastardization is a direct contradiction of the essential message of Kabbalah.

In Kabbale: Vie Mystique et Magie, a book about the history of Kabbalah in Morocco, Haïm Zafrani argues that Kabbalah is revolutionary because it treats the sacred text of the bible with “total liberty”, directly opposing orthodox readings of the bible. Moreover, Zafrani demonstrates the anti-aristocratic and egalitarian spirit of Kabbalah, quoting from the Zohar, the preeminent Kabbalistic text: “Take your money and distribute it to the poor and to the orphans.”

In fact, there is a strong affinity between the mysticism of Kabbalah and the revolutionary politics of anarchism, demonstrated in the works of the philosopher Walter Benjamin and director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History and Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain are startlingly relevant for our current moment and the conflict between fascism.

Walter Benjamin was a German Jewish philosopher who committed suicide in 1940 on the French-Spanish border, while attempting to escape from the Nazis. Theses was his last major work before killing himself, and it offers some of the best advice that has ever been written on confronting fascism. Benjamin writes, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve.” Rather than call for a return to the liberal norm, Benjamin recognized that any effective response to fascism must radically overthrow the edifices of bourgeois respectability on which fascism grows and flourishes.

In one of the most famous passages from Theses on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin uses a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus to write about what he calls the Angel of History, who “sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.” This catastrophe is “that which we call progress.” Benjamin thus fundamentally calls into question all of “Western civilization,” which the Nazis saw themselves as the inheritors and indeed the culmination of.

Benjamin is pointing out that the rise of fascism and the Holocaust is not an anomaly, but part of a long chain of oppression, as “progress,” a term that has always been used to justify capitalism, depends on exploitation, slavery, and colonialism. Directly preceding this passage, Benjamin quotes from his friend, Gerhard Scholem, a scholar of Kabbalah. In an article called “Walter Benjamin, the Kabbalah, and Secularism,” Kam Shapiro argues that through Scholem, Kabbalistic mysticism became a profound influence on Benjamin’s philosophy, both in terms of form and content. In fact, Kabbalah, surrealism, and anarchism were all significant influences on Benjamin’s philosophy. Despite being more often associated with Marxism, Benjamin expressed a great respect and admiration for anarchist philosophy. In an essay from 1929 called Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia, Benjamin writes, “Since Bakunin, Europe has lacked a radical concept of freedom.”

Other authors have pointed out how Benjamin’s ideas about theology, revolution, and class struggle are infused with anarchist thinking. In “Anarchist All the Way Down: Walter Benjamin’s Subversion of Authority in Text, Thought and Action,” James R. Martel writes,

“Benjamin is perhaps unique in that he covers all the bases, he engages in various dimensions of anarchism in such a way that they all correspond. These elements work together to give us a model for anarchism that is, to use his own words once again, “useless for the purposes of fascism.” This is a model that cannot be coopted because it engages only in failure, only in the certainty that human actors are radically on their own and must make their political and legal judgments accordingly.”

These three influences on Benjamin’s writing style and philosophy–Jewish mysticism, surrealism, and anarchism–converge in their rejection of Enlightenment values of so-called “rationality” and “progress.” Unlike fascists who exalted mythical ideas of national pride and culture, Benjamin used anarchist and Kabbalist ideas as a basis for rejecting “tradition” in favor of an avant-garde form of humanism. As Shapiro writes, “Benjamin not only contemplated the dissolution of cultural traditions but also undertook to reassemble their fragments in new configurations. He also suggested that modern subjects might learn to take part in collective acts of assembly, generating new habits and meanings. He explicitly set this task against the cultural restoration promised by the Nazis.”

Still from Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain

Surrealism, mysticism and anarchism also converge in the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean-French director of Jewish descent, who, in proper anarchist style, sparked a full-scale riot when his debut film, Fando y Lis premiered at the 1968 Acapulco film festival. Jodorowsky is an avowed anarchist, who is quoted by Ben Cobb in the book Anarchy and Alchemy, as saying, “The slogan of anarchy is ‘Neither God Nor Master.’ But I only apply this to the external world. In the depths of my spirit, I have made anarchy my ‘Internal God and Master.’” In his autobiographical film The Dance of Reality from 2013, Jodorowsky’s youngest son Adán plays a character called Anarchist.

Jodorowsky’s third film The Holy Mountain, which premiered at Cannes in 1973, is an astonishing masterpiece that features many direct references to Kabbalah, as well as other forms of mysticism, such as tarot and alchemy. In an interview with Ilan Stevens, Jodorowsky says that he was initiated by Kabblah experts after first studying tarot and learning about the 19th century French occultist Eliphas Levi, who practiced both tarot and Kabbalah.

Like Benjamin, Jodorowsky used mysticism and surrealism to comment on fascism, which he saw as inextricably linked to the history of colonization. In one classic scene from Holy Mountain, the “Great Toad and Chameleon Circus” performs “The Conquest of Mexico.” One of the circus ringleaders wears a bow tie and top hat with a swastika on it. The performance takes place on an elaborate model of Aztec pyramids with horned lizards dressed in bright Aztec clothing. They are bombarded by giant toads, dressed in silver armor and brown robes like Spanish conquistadors and monks. The invasion turns into a bloodbath, as huge streams of blood flow down the pyramids, which are eventually blown into pieces. The scene begins with the sound of pan flutes and transitions, as the toad conquistadors invade, into a Nazi marching song.

Jodorowsky connects fascism not only to colonialism, but to modern capitalism, organized religion, and state power. The title of The Holy Mountain refers to a mythical mountain, to which the most powerful people from each planet set off to in order to find the secret of eternal life. One of the mountains Jodorowsky references when he introduces the Holy Mountain is the “Kabbalistic mountain of San Juan de la Cruz,” a reference to Ascent of Mount Carmel, the spiritual treatise by Saint John of the Cross, a Christian Kabbalist from a converso (descendants of Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity) family. Among the planetary representatives is Axon (Richard Rutowsky), the chief of police of Neptune, who castrates his followers, collecting their testicles in a collection of 1000 jars. After castrating one boy, he hands him “the holy book” and tells him to “learn to believe in me.” Axon’s scene culminates in his police force attacking student protesters, with colored scarves and birds flying out of bullet wounds.

Jodorowsky represents the brutal inhumanity of capitalist logic through the character of Lut (Luis Lomelí), an architect from Pluto. Lut remarks, “A man doesn’t need a home, all he needs is a shelter. If we can sell him on the idea of a shelter, we can make millions. A worker will come here only to sleep; he won’t need electricity or water. He won’t have to cook; we’ll condition him to eat at the factory.” Jodorowsky also connects capitalism to authoritarian state power through Berg (Nicky Nichols), financial adviser to the president on the planet Uranus. Berg reports to the president: “to save the country’s economy, we must eliminate four million citizens in the next five years.”

Ultimately, Jodorowsky presents an anarchistic message in opposition to fascism. Jodorowsky’s own character, The Alchemist, who has organized the journey to the Holy Mountain, reveals this message to The Thief (played by Horacio Salinas), a character who accompanies the more powerful characters on their journey to the Holy Mountain. Earlier in the film, The Alchemist tells The Thief about these powerful characters: “They are thieves like you, but on another level.” As the film concludes, Jodorowsky tells The Thief to leave behind the quest for eternal life and instead return with the two characters who have devotedly followed him on the journey, a prostitute (Ana de Sade) and an ape: “Forget the summits, reach eternity through love. Return to your country. I leave you my tower and my alchemical rooms. This is your family and your people. Change the world.” Rather than turning his shit into gold (as the Alchemist teaches the Thief how to do earlier in the movie) or seeking eternal life, Jodorowsky is telling The Thief and viewers of The Holy Mountain to change the brutality, oppression, and coldheartedness of the capitalist, statist world that surrounds them–which he connects to both the legacy of colonialism and the ever-present danger of fascism.

In the era of Trump, Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History and Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain are quite relevant for their powerful reflections on the destructive force of fascism and its connection to colonialism and capitalism. Unlike the Kabbalah peddled by the phony capitalists of the Kabbalah Centre, Kabbalah, as it is represented by Benjamin and Jodorowsky, provides a mystical view of the universe that directly opposes orthodoxy, inequality, and injustice. This makes Kabbalah a natural companion to anarchism and opponent to capitalism and fascism.

Jesse Brent

Jesse Brent is a writer and radio/podcast producer, who lives in Brooklyn. He is currently working on a master’s thesis on cultural hybridity and liberatory politics in contemporary Moroccan music.

There’s more about Walter Benjamin and anarchism in A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred.