Paganism and Magical Thinking

In my day to day life (setting aside the world of the internet) I travel more in academic than pagan or occult circles and as such I am more likely to interact with, say, a Marxist professor than a druid. This has made me acutely aware of a challenge to the unification of Paganism and radical anti-capitalist politics that might be less pressing to those more fully engaged in the unification from the side of convincing and motivating other pagans. I more frequently face, and can anticipate resistance from, those fully identified with various brands of radical anti-capitalist politics from Marxism through to anarchism than from anyone associated with Paganism or occultism.

In such a crowd the challenge is not to convince anyone of the problem of capitalism, that work is well over, but rather to answer their confusion when attempting to establish solidarity between a pagan perspective and their own. Of course many of my more strictly activist friends don’t much care either way, their attitude is largely that you can believe what you want just so long as you fight for the right things, but the rather high theoretical level of debate that often occurs with those who are both professional academic and political companions raises some serious challenges. These challenges have often hovered in the back of my mind as I have written my previous posts, and many answers to them have been embedded in those posts though they have not always been overtly discussed as such.

I think the time has come, however, for me to attempt to directly address at least one type of criticism of Paganism and magical practices from the standpoint of radical theory and practice. This challenge takes the form of a criticism of pagans and occultists as stuck in a counterproductive idealogical illusion. At the simplest level it shows up as a criticism of us as trapped in “magical thinking” which distracts, limits, or misdirects our potential for real political action.

“Magical Thinking”

Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

For now I will not be concerned with the question of what actual type or mode of thought we could accurately call magical. Rather I will simply be relying upon various standard formulations of the idea of “magical thinking” as found in political theory, anthropology, and psychology in order to assess whether the application of this term to pagan anti-capitalism is fair. For this purpose we should note that “magical thinking” as I intend to use it is almost universally considered a bad thing, sometimes it is even considered the fatal illness that keeps people from coming to meaningful political consciousness. In a nonpolitical context I was recently talking with a pagan priest who was seeking psychological counseling for concerns unrelated to Paganism or the occult but who found it impossible to get his therapist to discuss anything other than a diagnosis and treatment of “magical thinking” based on nothing more than the fact that my friend was a pagan priest! Clearly this was a bad therapist, but the general attitude is not an anomaly especially in much of the radical anti-capitalist community.  

So, what is “magical thinking”? The most direct formulation of it is not very useful, as it is too question-begging to withstand the slightest criticism. This would understand “magical thinking” as you might expect, the belief in “false causes” such as spells and so on. I say that this formulation is not useful because it simply shifts the conversation to the question of whether or not magic is actually real and effective. Theoretically this is an interminable question and anyone with a grounding in philosophy of science should see it can’t at all be the start of a criticism but rather an endlessly postponed potential conclusion. Arguing with a Marxist over the reality of magic when they accuse you of “magical thinking” is not a productive endeavor. It is a criticism just as naive as it assumes the fault it claims to diagnose is. Plus, ultimately, it is purely a practical question of strategy no different in kind from “does peaceful protest or participation in mainstream politics work or is revolution necessary”. So I will put aside any question as to the reality or efficacy of magic and feel justified in doing so because I think this isn’t really the meaningful content of a criticism of “magical thinking”. 

Rather than focus on the practical and empirical questions associated with magic we can instead consider “magical thinking” as an epistemic criticism. In fact, engaging in “magical thinking” can be understood as being victim to a type of ideology in the Marxist sense in which the concrete relation between people and social classes is mystified. This would also associate it closely with the idea of religion as the “opium of the masses”. I would like to focus, then, on a few different approaches to understanding the ideological illusion known as “magical thinking” and then ask whether Paganism 1. necessarily falls prey to this ideological illusion or 2. tends towards this ideological illusion. 

Rather than engage with the frequently racist and culturally imperialist origins of the concept of “magical thinking” in anthropology, I shall instead focus on its appearance in radical political theory. My two main theoretical resources will be the work of Paulo Friere (and the influence of Erich Fromm upon it) as found in the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the discussion by Marx of ideology and religion as the opium of the masses.

Loving Death and Loving Life

Vanitas, Adriaen van Utrecht

Friere was a Brazilian philosopher and educator with a particular concern for the ways in which education disempowers or politically empowers disenfranchised members of a community. Through extensive work with the illiterate poor in Brazil he developed a distinction between two different types of eduction. The first, and most traditional method, he terms the “banking method of education” which sees the student as a passive and obedient receptacle into which the active and authoritarian teacher deposits information and skills. The second method, which he implemented with great success, was termed the problem-posing method. It is unnecessary to go into too many details about the philosophy of education here, though I encourage any of you to check out Friere’s excellent work, but the key point for us is the unification of the banking method of education with a certain perspective it engenders in its students that Friere frequently refers to as a “magical” view of the world.   

Whereas the banking method directly or indirectly reinforces men’s fatalistic perception of their situation, the problem-posing method presents this very situation to them as a problem. As the situation becomes the object of their cognition, the naive or magical perception which produced their fatalism gives way to perception which is able to perceive itself even as it perceives reality, and can thus be critically objective about that reality.

(Paulo Friere Pedagogy of the Oppressed Chapter 2)

Using a distinction derived from Erich Fromm, Friere describes the banking method as necrophily, or the love of death, versus the biophily, or love of life, found in the problem posing method. A necrophily perspective is death loving to the extent that it embraces those things that characterize death and rejects those things that characterize life. Specifically, life is always growing and changing while those things that are dead are unchanging. Necrophily is primarily characterized, then, by a view of the world as stable and unchanging. Whether this applies to “laws of nature” or mathematical truths or economics or the laws of grammar the key effect of this “death loving” rejection of change is that it presents social and historical relations as fixed and only unrealistically resisted. Necrophilic education inspires one, then, to “wisely” and “practically” adjust oneself to the powers-that-be and learn how to get along while sticking to your place and accommodating your superiors. Biophily, on the other hand, recognizes that whatever is currently the case has come to be and both can and will inevitably change. What is more, it recognizes that each person has an active role to play in those changes. If one adjusts oneself to the current social formulation one is actively contributing to its maintenance and if one works to change it one is actively contributing to the continual growth and change of society. There is no passive option since inaction is an active choice contributing to the structure of the whole. 

We are rather familiar with a naive necrophilic perspective in the guise of those who not only cannot imagine a world without capitalism but actually think the idea of such a world is unrealistic and utopian. Such a perspective is naive because capitalism is far from the standard social formation throughout history and came about through various rather unexpected events, actions, and changes in history. Capitalism’s specific contemporary formations are a rather young thing and the dogmatic adherence to it as the only possible way of life is just as naive as assuming that any other current aspect of our situation is somehow historically prioritized or ordain and can’t or won’t change. Of one thing we can be certain, all will change eventually and frequently rather sooner than we suspect. This unquestionability of the present is connected to a key aspect of ideology in general, specifically ideology consists of a process of naturalization in which it is assumed that something is right and unchanging because it is presented as natural and universal (check out Judith Butler on the ideological naturalization of gender to see some excellent discussions of how this works).   

The necrophilic perspective is the one termed “magical” and is clearly conjoined with fatalism. The necrophilic mistake is to assume that the current formulation of reality is ordained and maintained by some ultimate force – for many it has been God though more recently it is just as likely to be Nature. Capitalism, one hears, derives from “human nature” which we don’t choose or form and which we cannot change. Communism, socialism, anarchism, etc. are all lovely ideas but they are fantasies because they do not accommodate themselves to the unchanging dictates of Nature (or God and so on). We see clearly here the fatalism to which Friere refers. 

The “magical” aspect of this worldview is related to the fatalism. It is magical to the extent that it takes social and economic facts to be symbols of deeper metaphysical truths or forces. One of the easiest examples of this shows up in the influence of Protestantism on the early formation of capitalism (and its remaining influence in contemporary American Prosperity Theology). As Max Weber made clear in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, early capitalism was fundamentally influenced by the reliance of some Protestant religious views on worldly success as a sign of having been chosen and saved by God. Success in business was a symbol of having been blessed by God and granted both grace and salvation. Worldly power and success are symbols of spiritual blessedness in the same way that being a member of the aristocracy was seen as a sign of having been chosen by God for power during the medieval period or membership in a given caste was representative of the Karmic state of the soul in Hinduism. This ideological equation of worldly status with otherworldly merit is clearly fatalistic and overlaps with one of the earliest understandings of “magical thinking” in terms of an associative thinking that sees symbolic meaning behind everyday objects and events. 

It is important to note that the symbolic view of the universe is not, in and of itself, the problem but rather the specific claims of what symbolizes what and the related assumption that this symbolic connection (for example of wealth with holiness) underwrites the justice of the economic situation and its stability. The view is “magical” in a negative sense because it assumes a magical force endorses the current social configuration and it would be wrong, or impossible, to change it. It should be clear that there are much more common and equally “superstitious” or “magical” views of wealth and “success” floating around which we might be more familiar with, for example the simple equation of wealth with merit so common in capitalistic thinking. The idea that hard work, intelligence, virtue, talent etc. has primarily resulted in the status of the wealthy “mystifies” a very real collection of concrete relations of historical dominance, violence, theft, and privilege all grounded in luck (including accidents of birth such as race, sex, family, social class, global location, community membership, inborn mental and bodily characteristics and so on). Such views, whether of the “god given” or “self-made” variety, both inspire a type of paralysis because they make clear that things are as they should, and must, be.      

Keeping in view the concrete matrix of forces and accidents that have given rise to the contemporary moment does not, however, foreclose at the same time reading this matrix in terms of symbols or as expressions of other levels of reality. A Marxist may remain at the level of the determining force of material economic factors but others, some pagans for instance, can accept the reality of this level while at the same time seeing it as an expression of a complex of forces at another level; for example a conflict amongst different gods or metaphysical principles. This doesn’t dismiss or foreclose the necessity of acting on the worldly level, rather the reverse. It hallows the profane with a sacred purpose in a way that is exceptionally foreign to religions focused on transcendental salvation in overt rejection of natural daily life. Within the domain of some universal all-powerful perfect monotheist creator God worldly welfare for others or for oneself tends to collapse into one of two categories; it is either a gift from God or to be dismissed in preference to God.  


Lin Zexu oversees the destruction of Opium in China

Our discussion has brought us into contact with a general criticism of religion for its penchant for “magical thinking” with hints that paganism may be able to avoid some key aspects of this criticism. Before we attempt to expand upon these hints, let us look at one of the most famous criticisms of religion from the stance of radical politics. 

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.


The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.


Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

(Marx, Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)

The idea of religion as an opium of the masses has two senses here and the most overt one is not the one most commonly discussed. The most common understanding of the opium of the masses is that it is used to pacify the masses and make them tractable. This is what Christianity did when it justified monarchy via the authority of the Divine Tyrant just as much as when it counseled the poor to tolerate their lot and patiently wait for heavenly reward or counseled the slave to obey the master. All world-hating religions, intentionally or not, serve to prop up the status quo by directing people away from worldly action and concerns.

The above sense of “opium” does not, however, seem to be Marx’s main target here. Indeed, his discussion of religion is more ambiguous than that. Instead, religion is a sigh of the suffering and a heart in a heartless world. As the image of the chain covered in flowers makes clear, religion is also a beautification of a rather ugly situation. Insofar as it brings some grace to a graceless world and some comfort to those in pain it is not to be despised, but to the extent that this grace and comfort keep people from changing the world in which they suffer it is indeed a malevolent force of seduction.

Many forms of paganism are decidedly this-worldly, as I have often enough stressed in my previous posts, and as such do not inspire transcendental dreams of escaping the world of nature and political/economic struggle. Indeed, this world of nature is frequently enough understood either as identical with the object of worship or a particularly important manifestation or expression of the gods. We see this as well in some pagan visions of the afterlife (though it is worth noting that nowhere is the history of pagan religions so diverse as in views of what happens after death – every position from the achievement of a paradise to entirely ceasing to exist can be found). In some traditions death represents an increased identification with nature, in others we find the idea that the dead join together to continue to fight for their community, family, values and concerns in this world – the revolution continues after death, only the strategies have changed. Sometimes life is to be preferred to death, as in the shade of Achilles’ haunting words to Odysseus: “…don’t try to reconcile me to my dying. I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead.” Whatever the fate of the dead, the focus is most often on this world, this life, and what we can and must do with it. 

When religion is opium it provides comfort, but it is comfort by way of reassurance, by way of promises. Most Paganism makes no promises, indeed we can even find highly nihilistic forms of paganism. Opiate religion counsels the slave to be a good slave and, later, the master shall suffer and the slave shall be king. Opiate religion counsels the servant that real riches are found Beyond, or that the ruler is ruler by divine right and so deserves the service of those who are inferior. Paganism, often enough, counsels not to trust the promises of the gods. Nothing is assured, each and every god faces challenges, opposition, potential downfall and even death. Yes, in most forms of Paganism even the gods might die. What is has come about through struggle, through the conflicts amongst gods and conflicts amongst people. What is can change and will change, whether the grand cosmic order or the specific contours of our life. The pagan world is one of conflicting forces, a conflict we might hope and strive to make more a dance than a brawl, but a shifting and growing one nonetheless. When I speak with my gods, though of course I cannot speak for any of you, they do not tell me “Have faith, all will be well,” they tell me “Struggle, and we will struggle with you.”

There are, then, several aspects of Paganism as generally conceived that resist any accusations of “magical thinking”. First, Paganisms tend to see reality as too complex and pluralistic a collection to suggest that things are the way they aught or must be. Second, Paganisms tend to rely upon a view of history as the story (whether the story of gods, nature, or humanity) of how the current world has been crafted piece by piece through work and struggle, cooperation and accident. Nature and humanity, together with the many divinities, have all played off of each other as a restless changing community that continues to craft itself. Third, Paganisms tend to imply that gods and people alike are subject to a fate or chance that is, at least in part and sometimes very largely, a mystery. Zeus is as confused by the inevitable fall of Troy as anyone, and Odin cannot avoid Ragnarok. But this fate, as mysterious, is not a divine dictate or ordained order. There is the necessary, but humanity and the gods rarely know what is necessary or why. Fourth, more often than not the Otherworld of Paganism is an aspect of this world and the struggles that take place there are often focused on this world. There is very rarely any implication that the Otherworld, however it is conceived, is the real focus of this life when the gods themselves are bent upon this world from their own abodes. Most often the Otherworld is a neighborhood just adjacent to our own and not another reality in any robust sense. Worldly concerns and struggles pour back and forth across these vague boundaries almost constantly.

None of this is to say that pagans or Paganism can’t fall into “magical thinking” in any of the ways it has been discussed here. It certainly can, and it has at various points in history. Indeed, Hinduism is arguably a pagan religion and its view of social caste and reincarnation has clearly at times acted as a primary example of “magical” opium. But, I would suggest, Paganism is clearly not equatable to “magical thinking” and its inherent tendency as manifest repeatedly throughout different pagan cultures and religions is in opposition to “magical thinking”. This is not the case, I would argue, with any transcendental religion insofar as true value in these is always to be located somewhere and somewhen else than here and now. It is also not the case with monotheistic religions insofar as omnipotence precludes the possibility of any real conflict, productive activity, or accident at the ultimate level of reality. The battles within a monotheistic myth cycle are always staged affairs aimed more at enforcing obedience than co-creating reality.

Finally, many types of Paganism offer something that a stark political materialism such as that commonly found in Marxist and anarchist thought can not. It offers a view of the struggle that goes beyond the purely humanist. Marx’ criticism of religion clearly has a humanist ring as he calls for man to become his own sun. For most Paganisms this can’t but ring false. We fight not only for ourselves, but also for and along side of the forces of nature. The world is neither a creation of human consciousness alone nor raw material for our productive capabilities, these views are the failed remnants of a Modernism much radical politics has failed to get beyond. In the maintenance of a thoroughly anthropomorphic and anthropocentric view of nature, it is largely the adherents of radical political theory who have fallen into a mystifying ideological illusion that ignores the real community in which we find ourselves engaged as companions to all the other aspects of nature. Far from diverting our political action, this instead strengthens and motivates it in a way that other forms of radical politics can often fail to do. There is, all things considered, plenty of “magical thinking” involved in the very technological triumphalism and scientism that many radical anticapitalist agendas believe can save us.   


Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to Paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem

His essay, “Nature’s Rights” is available in A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are

The Revolutionary Dead: Karl Marx (part 2)

This is the second part in a series devoted to the ancestors of revolution.  The first part of this installment on Karl Marx is here.

When many think of economics, they might mostly think of the stark social-science full of numbers and quantities, figures and charts describing how much a product is worth, how much it costs to make something, how many workers are required to run a business, or how much profit can be derived from something.

That’s certainly what economics looks like now, less a social science and more a statistical description of esoteric processes in which we find ourselves mere abstracted numbers.   But that’s hardly Marx’s economics.

As mentioned in my last essay, Marx noticed that none of the resistance movements to capitalism quite seemed to understand how the system worked.  Already, people were making charts and graphs, crunching numbers to maximise profit and minimise cost–in fact, factory owners pioneered most of what we now think of as ‘economics.’  But what precisely capitalism was, what it meant, and what it did to human society? None really understood this.

Capitalism created multiple levels of complication to activities which were, pre-capitalist, quite simple.  You grew food, used what you needed, and sold the excess.  Or you made clothes, or beer, or tools and sold them in the markets, deriving profit directly from your work.  But in capitalism, you didn’t sell your excess at all–you sold your labour.  And this affects a lot more than just the individual’s means of survival.

The Worker and the Egregor

When you make dinner for friends, you probably don’t think much about the concept of labor.  Certainly, making dinner is work; it takes a lot of effort to prepare a good meal for several people, particularly if you’re doing most–or all–of it from scratch.  Rinsing and chopping ingredients, mixing them together to the right balance, spicing, applying heat, serving, cleaning up afterwards: this requires effort, time, skill, work.  But you don’t usually consider the act of making a meal for your friends or family labor, even though you’re doing all that for others.

But if you’re doing all the same things in a restaurant, for pay, all those activities seem to transform into an entirely different category of experience that we usually call work or labour.  Cooking for pay changes the conditions of the effort in several ways, not least of which that it tends to become a little less fun.  It changes the very meaning of the food you cook; it’s not yours to give any longer, nor is the meal (except in very intimate, small restaurants) you’ve made identified with you any longer.  You’ve become alienated from it, and it has become a product.

Marx called this Estranged Labor, and it has some profound implications for the way we see not just what we do for work, but how we see ourselves.

The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.

–Karl Marx

The meaning that we derive from a meal made by a friend and one purchased at a restaurant is fundamentally different.  When a lover cooks you dinner, the food itself seems to contain their care for you–in fact, in an Animist view of the world, it does.  But when it’s been purchased, the meaning has transferred from the cook who made it to the restaurant itself which becomes, in occult terms, egregoric.  In the case of fast-food, the meal’s meaning contains nothing of the unnamed, faceless low-wage worker who made it but everything of the branding of that establishment.

This alienation from the person who cooked the food is actually quite uncomfortable for us, but marketers do plenty to make it more palatable.  Consider: a “Happy Meal” from McDonalds is happy only insofar as you’re told it is.  The poor person of color who cooked it for you may have been quite sad, actually, and it’s a bit sad when a child is fed low-quality food in the backseat of a car on their way home from child-care because their parents are too busy to cook for them because of capitalism.

Marx noticed that workers no longer experienced the work they performed as part of themselves, but rather an abstracted or objectified force.  Part of this was because people no longer derived profit from their work–you no longer made things for your own profit, you sold your time/labor to someone else who then profited from what you made.

The implications for Pagan thought should be quite obvious here.  Disenchantment is alienation from the magical world, yes, but it is also alienation from the places magic occurs, both the natural world and human interactions.  And more so, Capitalism has caused an alienation from our own bodies.  Says Silvia Federici, author of Caliban & The Witch:

“Capitalism was born from the separation of people from the land, and its first task was to make work independent of the seasons and to lengthen the workday beyond the limits of our endurance.  …what we have not always seen is what the separation from the land and nature has meant for our body, which has been pauperized and stripped of the powers that pre-capitalist populations attributed to it.” 

“In Praise of the Dancing Body” (A Beautiful Resistance–Everything We Already Are, page 84)

So, a materialist, anti-capitalist understanding of the world shows us what many Pagans already suspect: our alienation from our own bodies and the natural world is the source of our disenchantment.  And for Marx and those who recognise him, that alienation is caused by capitalism.

“Primitive” Accumulation and the Sorcery of Capital

Ever wonder why slaves were brought to North America to work the cotton fields? Your immediate answer is probably an understandable one: people are evil, greedy, and really awful.  But people are also good, generous, and really wonderful–discussions about ‘human nature’ never get us anywhere, as everything that a human does, from a Pagan perspective, is part of their nature and Nature itself.

The basic reason’s pretty obvious, though–slaves performed labour for their masters and were politically powerless to demand wages in return.  Their powerlessness came from the violence of their masters and the governments who supported slavery, as well as the social conditions which made it ‘okay’ for people to own other people.

Marx called slavery and other forms of violent ‘wealth-creation’ (such as colonialism) “Primitive Accumulation.”  Primitive in this case does not mean what it means now, doesn’t mean savage or stupid or backwards.  Rather, it means “original” or “first,” as in primary.  Primitive Accumulation, then, was the process by which the powerful accumulated wealth, and this was always by force.

db_cyril_mann__british_1911-1980__dark_satanic_mills__19251Force is hard to maintain, though.  Slaves run away or kill their masters, colonies revolt against the colonists, and ultimately people forced to work don’t actually produce as much wealth as those who aren’t in chains or have guns pointed at their heads.

The wealth that was gathered during slavery and colonization (and a little further back–the Crusades) was certainly nice for those who had it; by themselves, however, piles of gold don’t produce more gold.  Also, there’s only so many lands to plunder before all the wealth that can be gotten from them is exhausted, and slaves can only be worked so hard until they die.

Marx noticed, though, that the rich who used their (ill-gotten) wealth to make more money gained more economic power.  Their wealth became Capital once it was invested to create factories, from which they earned more profits.

Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.

–Karl Marx

Marx saw not only that workers became alienated from their own work, but that Capital was the distillation or crystalisation of their labor, now in the hands of the rich.  The wealth derived from slavery was dead labor (truly–many, many slaves died in order to create that wealth), and that dead labor-as-wealth sucked more labour from workers who had (because of the destruction of the Commons) no other choice but to work for the Capitalists.

Capital, then, took on an almost necromantic power, increasing in proportion to how much more labor it could extract from workers.  The more Capital (dead labor) a person had, the more he could invest in factories to get more capital (dead labor) from workers.

Capitalism became a more efficient–and more profitable–method of becoming wealthy than slavery or colonial plunder, though the powerful often resorted to violent methods first in order to get Capital to start with.  It’s not much different from robbing people and then using their stolen money to start a business.

Against the Machine

In his writings, Marx uses quite a bit of esoteric, almost occult, language to describe the workings of Capital.  For a purely secular reader, his use of alchemical terms may seem mere metaphor, but for a Pagan or witch, one starts to see his true brilliance.

Capitalism seems to be a system not just of economics and political control, but also a system of magic.  Creating an egregoric (and alienated) conception of work, converting other peoples’ energy into Capital that can then convert other people’s energy ad infinitum.  It becomes almost Alchemical, as if Capital is the philosopher’s stone, changing the lead of dead-labor into gold.

We can see more of this magical understanding in The Communist Manifesto, where Marx & Engles speak to the social destruction caused by the capitalist class, the Bourgeoisie:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

–Marx&Engles, The Communist Manifesto

Capital becomes a magical engine transforming everything it touches.  It destroys social relations, it consumes natural resources, and it extracts our very work-essence (that is, the power of Manifestation) from the human body, leaving only death.  It is no wonder that all the environmental damage which now haunts our earth occurred since Capitalism, not before.

The question for us, the question Marx seems to ask, is what will we do about it?

Implementations of Marx’s ideas during the Russian revolution against the tyrannical and murderous aristocracy by men such as Lenin and Stalin caused even worse problems.  Both believed that Russia should industrialise first, go through a controlled-capitalist period before becoming Communist, and the result was something that looked precisely like Capitalism does, but with more direct violence rather than the hidden violence we face daily.  China, though Communist in name, is more accurately described as a State-Capitalist economy, and now produces most of the goods used to fuel the Western Capitalist world.

I’d argue Marx is not to blame for this.  But we also cannot take Marx by himself.  Subsequent Marxist thinkers, particularly Black and post-colonial theorists, have expanded heavily on his ideas.  Also, Marx needs a touch of the Paganism he inadvertently influenced.  Like any ancestor, his life and ideas haunt the present in ways he could never foresee, and it’s up to those who live to manifest the world he glimpsed.

The Revolutionary Dead: Karl Marx (part one)

This is the beginning of a series exploring the legacies, lives, and ideas of revolutionary ancestral figures.

Probably no theorist in the Western, Capitalist world has been more vilified than Karl Marx.

Like Emmanuel Goldstein in George Orwell’s 1984, “Marx” has become a container for hatred, for fear, the imaginal embodiment for the terrors of European wars, the discontented saboteur, the exhausted worker, the violent uprising.  But bleak totalitarianism, artless society, relentless drudgery–these are the legacies gifted us through the filters of time, fear, and the over-confidence of state propaganda, all constructions which evoke such emotional reaction that most people–even those who might otherwise agree with his ideas–do not know who he was.

That the ideas of one human inspired massive uprisings throughout the world, bloody revolutions (and a few bloodless ones) should be enough to pique our curiousity.  That the authorities of entire nation-states evoked his ideas as justifications for their actions (be it the USSR’s state murder in the name of Communism or the USA’s violent wars against Communism) is even more curious.  But that a Pagan anarchist druid who worships Welsh gods and hates Authority of all kinds carries around the dirt from Karl Marx’s grave?

That’s no curious matter at all.

Let me tell you ’bout Karl Marx, and why you should care about his ideas and maybe, like I do, name him among the Ancestors.

A World in Upheaval

Karl Marx lived from 1818 to 1883, square in the middle of the 19th century during some the greatest upheavals of the industrial period and the height of capitalist expansion. This was a time of extreme government censorship and state violence, Authority struggling to keep people from revolting during the great economic and social violence capitalism wrought in society.

The Enclosing of commonly-held land, which started in force in England during the 1700’s, had just become the norm also on the continent of Europe.  Enclosure forced commoners and the poor off the land their families had lived on for hundreds of years, severing their ancestral ties and exiling them from places they’d found sacred.

These exiles fled into the towns and cities, looking for a way to survie.  In those urban centers, merchants and factory owners took advantage of the disorientation, desperation, and starvation of the newly-displaced by employing them (including children) for low wages, exploiting this new social order towards their own benefit.  This industrialised production sped up the breakdown in the social order, as it became increasingly impossible for the poor to produce anything of value in the Markets because industrialists did it for much cheaper.

Of course, there was backlash.

Just before Karl Marx was born, the followers of the ghostly (and quasi-mythical) King Ludd broke into factories in England to destroy the machines the rich used to destroy the livelihood of others. Framebreakers, Chartists, Levelers, Whitboys, Rebeccas, and many other forms of worker-revolts arose against this entirely new system, many of them similarly invoking divine or mystic champions.

On the continent arose other forms of sabotage; literally, throwing one’s sabots (wooden shoes) into the gears of machines in order to break them.  Large uprisings by other workers were put down by government troops, most notably the weaver’s revolts in Lyon, France (the ‘Canut Revolts‘).

A Sabot, the shoe workers would throw into machines to ‘Sabot’age them…

Everywhere, there was social upheaval, and everywhere, there was increasing government repression of the poor on behalf of a new class gaining power: the Bourgeoisie.

Lots of people knew something was wrong with this new economic and social order.  Besides the aforementioned revolts, many writers and theorists tried to find ways to unravel the nightmare of industrialism.  The Romantics (whom some credit as either the founders or poetic ancestors of Modern Paganism) attempted to resurrect the idea of Nature as a sacred, endless thing, positioning it against the social turmoil of the urban centers.  Utopian Socialists, on the other hand, accepted many of the premises of industrialisation but thought societies could be ordered more fairly through common ownership and more protections for the poor.

But what both groups of critics lacked was a clear understanding of precisely how the whole system worked.  Capitalism was new; there was no precedent, and it seemed to be a machine as inscrutable as the factory might have been to the rural peasant.   Fortunately, a man devoted his entire life to understanding it.

An Idea So Threatening…

Starting his adulthood as an academic, Karl Marx became radicalised when he was 19 through his association with a group called the Young Hegelians, devoted to discussing the ideas of the German philosopher, Hegel.

Hegel’s ideas (and the leftist interpretation of them by students) were considered dangerous to governments for a very good reason.  Hegel argued that civil society (that is, culture, community, and all the things we think of as human civilization) exists independent of the government.  At a time when rulers were trying increasingly authoritarian means to quell the unrest that Capitalism was causing, suggesting that the State wasn’t the cause of social good opened the way towards questioning the usefulness of rulers altogether.

 At a time when rulers were trying increasingly authoritarian means to quell the unrest that Capitalism was causing, suggesting that the State wasn’t the cause of social good opened the way towards questioning the usefulness of rulers altogether.

While universities now largely function as training-centers for mentally-skilled workers and advance (rather than challenge) capitalism and government, Marx went to university at a time when this was not yet the case. External pressure on academics was more pronounced precisely because of their potential threat to the powerful, and Marx found himself having to switch universities for his PhD–his ideas were too radical to be accepted by the government officials influencing the university.  Rather than change his ideas, though, Marx instead became a journalist for radical newspapers and eventually started his own.

Government officials repeatedly closed down the newspapers he wrote for, and his involvement in journalism and publishing eventually led to his expulsion from first Germany and then from France.  When he settled in Belgium, he was under state orders not to publish anything to do with the political situation in Europe (rulers wrote each other demanding this censorship), and so Marx began writing for an American newspaper popular with workers in New York City.

Everywhere he went, Karl Marx was seen as a threat to the powerful.  Few humans have ever achieved such notoriety before or since, and we should remember, this was because of the danger of his ideas which still haunt the powerful today.  The Spectre of Marx is powerful, inhabiting a space otherwise reserved for religious figures (Jesus, Mohammed) or slaughtering tyrants (Hitler, Stalin), yet Marx founded no religion, nor did he ever hold political power.  Even other ‘dangerous thinkers’ like Charles Darwin don’t compare, for Darwin was never exiled and only challenged religious views about our origins, not the entire political and economic orders which ruled the daily lives of billions.

The New Power in The Cities

As mentioned previously, all the societies touched by Capitalism were in various states of unrest.  Enclosure, the destruction of common-lands, and the increasing power of rich industrialists created refugees in every land.  Many of the new poor moved into towns and cities, some traveled across oceans to North America, Australia, and other colonized lands in search of what is now called, ironically, ‘opportunity.’

Silk-weavers fighting government troops during the Canut Revolts (1831)

As more people came to rely on cities for their survival, the people with wealth waiting for them gained increasing power.  These people were called the Bourgeoisie, city-dwellers (from bourg, as in Strasbourg) who, with their increasing wealth, influenced the decisions of mayors, aristocrats, and kings who relied on their support and tax-revenue.

The Bourgeoisie were a new economic class, defined not just by their position in the towns and cities, but also their particular interests.  These interests ran counter to the poor workers they exploited, but parallel to the clergy and the rulers.  For them, order was of paramount importance; it’s really difficult to run a factory when the workers go on strike, sabotage the machinery, steal, or can provide for themselves.

Also, they were predominantly Protestant.  The Catholic Church was slow to embrace Capitalism, was still against usury, extracted tithes, stood philosophically against many of the interests of the Bourgeoisie.  Also, Catholicism still represented an old order where the sacred (including, to some degree, Nature) was more important than the secular, where the rhythm of life was the church bell and the feast day, not the factory bell and daily work.

In fact, one of the banes of Capitalist production for centuries was the plethora of saints days and other observances, during which even the least devout stayed home from work, choosing religion (or just revelry) over industriousness. This can be seen quite well in the diverging development of the United States (founded by Protestants, many of them Puritans) and France (Catholic for centuries): French workers take many more days from work for holy days (even if they’re atheists) than American workers who only have a handful of holidays.

The Bourgeoisie needed orderly, secular societies with strong laws to punish theft, strikes, and sabotage.  They needed strong governments who could create ‘peaceful’ societies but would not interfere with their hunger for profit.  They embraced Liberalism in most places (remember, if you’re American: Liberalism isn’t leftist) and particularly Secularism, since public displays of religion (be it a Catholic feast-day or Pagan celebrations like Beltane, Halloween, or Carnival) distracted their workers and stopped the factories.

If you’re drawing parallels between the Bourgeoisie of the 18th and 19th centuries to what we call ‘middle-class’ or ‘yuppie’ society today, you’re on the right track.  The same interests prevail amongst the (predominantly white) gentrifiers in cities like San Francisco, Portland, and New York City: strong laws against theft and homelessness and petty-crimes, demands for strong property protections, and an ‘enlightened’ Secular/Liberalism which opposes public displays of ecstatic fervor are all essential Bourgeois traits.

The Bourgeoisie never went away.

Revealing the Human Cost of Capital

Marx correctly identified the Bourgeoisie as an epic force in modern history, and sought to eradicate their influences on Utopian Socialism and other liberatory ideas.  Even in the radicalism of Anarchists like Proudhon, Marx saw the taint of Bourgeois ethics, particularly a peculiar sort of self-deception.

Consider the ‘urban professional’ of today, working at a tech company.  Though their wealth and values directly affect the lower classes they displace, though their organic and free-range foods are produced by immigrants working in near-slave (and sometimes full-slave) conditions, they might consider themselves free, ‘progressive,’ enlightened, and even caring.  That is, they create an ideal about themselves, and live in a world of idealism, completely ignoring the physical (that is, material) conditions which bring about their world.

When people think of Materialism, they might think of consumerism or an obsession with the physical.  Likewise, Materialism is often presented as a complete disavowal of the spiritual, mental, emotional, or social elements of the world.

Marx’s Materialism, however, is not that at all.

Anti-capitalism_colorRather, it’s a revelation of the true physical conditions of Capitalist society, the poverty, the physical suffering, and a great light shone on the machinery which runs the entire system.  By creating idealistic notions of themselves, the Bourgeoisie are able to deny their physical exploitation of workers, just as slave-owners were able to convince themselves that they were really nice and enlightened people.

Materialism exposes the raw, violent, and very physical manifestations of Bourgeois society, and argues that, rather than selling the poor a dream of social progress, equality, and better lives, the poor should be shown the truth: that their lives are made physically miserable by working for other people’s wealth.

Like the Democrats in the United States and the Labor Party in Britain, Utopian Socialists had argued that a better world would come if there were just more education, more idealism, and more focus on rights and equality.  In that way, they were not much different from the Bourgeoisie (in fact, many were beneficiaries of Capitalism themselves, as is the case now).  Marx saw through these ideas immediately, and helped create a new political movement which demanded both a return to the logic of The Commons as well as a refusal to deny the material–that is, the embodied–existence of the poor.

Marx’s insistence that, beyond the ideological and cultural conceptions of existence our physical conditions must be acknowledged, echoes heavily in many Pagan and witch traditions today.  If the witch is her body as much as the body is the witch, then Marx’s Materialism lives on in traditions such as Reclaiming, Feri, and even to some degree Wicca.  That is, the insistence of the primacy of embodied experience (be that in nature, in sex, or in everyday life), regardless of whether a person believes in gods & spirits, is essentially Materialist.

I’ll write more about the influence of his ideas in part two of this series, as well as an introduction to Marxist understanding of Capitalism and other ways Marx influenced Modern Paganism, as well as how Paganism is essential to reforging Marx’s ideas into something that can create the world we know is possible.

Rhyd Wildermuth often lives in a city by the Salish Sea in occupied Duwamish territory. He’s a bard, theorist, anarchist, and writer, the editor of A Beautiful Resistance and co-founder of Gods&Radicals, author of Your Face Is a Forest and a columnist for The Wild Hunt. He growls when he’s thinking, laughs when he’s happy, cries when he’s sad, and does all those things when he’s in love. He worships Welsh gods, drinks a lot of tea, and dreams of forests, revolution, and men.
His words can be found at and can be supported on Patreon


Industrialisation and Radicalism in Preston

Preston: Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution

The city of Preston in Lancashire holds claim to being the birthplace of the industrial revolution. In 1769 Richard Arkwright invented the water frame in his three storey house on Stoneygate. According to a local rumour his neighbours mistook the noise of the machine for the devil’s bagpipes and imagined Arkwright and his accomplice, Kay, dancing a jig. This formed an eerie prelude to the rise of the ‘dark Satanic mills’ that came to dominate Preston and its people and made England ‘the workshop of the world’.

Arkwright House
Arkwright House

Industrialisation led to a massive increase in Preston’s populace. Between 1801 and 1851 it grew from 11,887 to 69,361. The mechanisation of spinning and hand-loom weaving forced people from their rural cottages where they practiced their trades into towns to seek employment in the mills.

Over forty mills were built with terraces to house the workers, which were hopelessly over-crowded. Slums grew up in backyards. Huge pools of waste accumulated due to the inadequacy of foul ditches, the most notorious being known as ‘Brown Friargate’. Cholera and smallpox were rife. Between 1880 and 1900, the town had the highest infant mortality rate in the country.

Class Conflict: Luddites and Chartists

Due to squalid living conditions, unreasonable hours and poor pay Lancashire became renowned for its social divides and class conflicts. In 1779 a mob marched from Blackrod gathering people from Chorley (3-4,000 in total!) to attack one of Arkwright’s earliest mills at Birkacre. After smashing the spinning frames, carding and roving engines and wheels they burnt them and razed the building to the ground.

In 1811 the Luddite movement emerged in opposition to the mechanisation of spinning and weaving. Invoking the legendary General Ludd its proponents burnt factories and smashed machines. Luddite revolts swept across Lancashire in 1813. Whilst I have found references to a Luddite presence and unrest in Preston I haven’t come across any examples of attacks on mills here yet.

Preston’s first major rebellion was the Spinners’ Strike of 1836. Shortly afterward it became a centre of the Chartist movement. This aimed to bring about social reform by winning the vote for working men. One of the main Chartist leaders in Preston was Richard Marsden, a hand-loom weaver from Bamber Bridge.

In 1838 Marsden arranged a massive demonstration of several thousand people including trade unions with four bands and forty banners sporting slogans such as ‘Better to die by the sword than perish with hunger’, ‘Britons strike home. We know our rights and will maintain them’, ‘Who would be free, must himself strike the first blow’.

Marsden affirmed the people’s right to use not only moral but physical force. Fergus O’Connor, who he invited to speak at the demonstration, also stated though he wished moral force would ‘effect every change’ in its failure ‘physical force would come to its aid like an electric shock.’ When the Charter was rejected by the House of Commons in 1839, the following strike (ironically named the ‘Sacred Month’) only lasted three days. The Chartists’ hope and lightning-like enthusiasm fizzled out.

The movement revived in 1842 in the wake of the economic depression. The next rejection of the Charter resulted in the notorious Plug Plot Riots. Mobs stormed across Lancashire pulling the plugs from steam engines and turning workers out of the mills. On Black Saturday (13th August 1842) an angry crowd gathered in Lune Street. As cotton lord Samuel Horrocks read the Riot Act, they pelted him with stones and an order was given to the police to open fire.

'Preston attack on the Military: two rioters shot', Illustrated London News, 13th August, 1842
‘Preston attack on the Military: two rioters shot’, Illustrated London News, 13th August, 1842

Twenty shots were fired. Four rioters were killed and three badly wounded. The mills re-opened on Monday. North Lancashire Chartism perished in 1848. But this did not end the strikes.

The Great Lock-Out

Because Preston’s cotton lords paid the lowest wages in the country, the town became the fulcrum of the struggle for better rates of pay. This led to the Great Lock-Out of 1853-54. Masters decided to close their factories over a cold and bitter winter rather than give in to the workers’ demands.

To staff the factories ‘knobstick’ workers; emaciated inhabitants of the workhouses of Ireland were shipped to Lancashire. Many were intercepted by the strikers, fed and sent back before they reached their destination. Getting them past the picket lines also proved to be an onerous task.

At this point Karl Marx famously proclaimed ‘The eyes of the working classes are now opened: they begin to cry “Our St Petersburg is at Preston”.’ However, Preston failed to become Britain’s revolutionary capital. When union funds ran out, on May Day 1854 the workers agreed to return.

Whilst these radical movements were initially unsuccessful they paved the way to fairer working hours and acceptance of the vote for working men under the Reform Act of 1867. Drawing on their legacy, the Preston-born suffragette, Edith Rigby, played a leading role in the establishment of equal voting rights for women in 1928.

In 1992 ‘The Preston Martyrs’ Memorial’: a brutalist sculpture by George Young was finally built to commemorate the death of the rioters on Lune Street. Its plaque reads: Never without sacrifice have gains been made towards justice and democracy.

Preston Matryrs' Memorial
The Preston Matryrs’ Memorial

The City Deal and Protest

Although the mills are gone, industrialisation has not gone away. The implementation of the Preston, South Ribble and Lancashire City Deal involves the expansion of ‘Enterprise Zones’ belonging to BAE at Warton and Samlesbury, establishing ‘Development Centres’ for more businesses and building more houses and roads to create more jobs to grow the economy.

The growth of the economy is based upon fuel. Caudrilla are pushing to open a number of new fracking sites across Lancashire. The fates of Preston New Road and Roseacre will be decided between the 23rd and 26th of June. This decision will be crucial for whether fracking will be allowed to go ahead in other places in the county and across the UK. Protests have been planned outside the County Hall by Lancashire Frack Off and supporting groups.

Preston will again become a centre of conflict between those who wish to exploit the land and its people for the benefit of a few rich investors and shareholders and those willing to stand against them.

The Frack Stops Here 2 Poster


J. E. King Richard Marsden and the Preston Chartists, 1837-1848 (1981)
Jim Heyes A History of Chorley (1994)
David Hunt A History of Preston (1992)
Yarrow Valley History Trail Leaflet

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