Nostalgie de la boue

Do Paganism and fascism share any DNA? There are far-right people, alt-right people, racists, and fascists to be found among Pagans, Heathens, and occultists, but is there anything in Pagan thought that predisposes Pagans to fascism?

In a previous article, With our thoughts we make the world, I looked at the metapolitical goals of Paganisms, and some of the  features of some Pagan groups that might be construed as leading to fascism (sacred kingship, claiming that you have a mandate from a deity, and folkish essentialism). I wrote:

If you are creating a new religious movement that is characterised by fear of difference, distrust of outsiders, the crushing of dissent, the insistence on only one right way to do things, then you will sow the seeds of perpetual conflict and division.

If you look at the two lists quoted in last week’s article, 14 characteristics of fascism,  you will see that they are very similar to what I wrote in the quote above. If you examine openly white-supremacist Heathen groups, you can probably find more fascist characteristics than the ones I identify here: but that’s because those groups have embraced fascism, not because Heathenry is inherently fascist.

So, to what extent is Paganism at risk of being fascist, or of sharing DNA with fascist ideas?

The statue of the King [Public Domain]. Photo by Diego Torres.

The statue of the King [Public Domain]. Photo by Diego Torres.

The will to power

Pagan organisations often lack democratic accountability, with unelected leaders and a lack of transparency. Usually, this is more due to lack of organisation, but some groups have a “chosen chief” who appears to have chosen himself, rather than being elected. I find this to be a questionable practice, and would no longer be comfortable with joining such an organisation. If leaders become unaccountable, irresponsible, or abusive, there needs to be a mechanism to remove them. This is hardly mass fascism, but it’s concerning, and roughly corresponds to items 13 and 14 on Mayer’s list. It also corresponds to elitism and disdain for the “weak” (item 10 on Eco’s list).

A more disturbing manifestation of the will to power is the autocratic behaviour of some Pagan leaders: high priestesses and high priests who insist that their word is law and that they are special manifestations of the Divine; people who want to bring back divine kingship; and those who will not allow their diktats to be questioned (item 5 on Eco’s list). Some of them justify their autocracy on the grounds that a deity mandated it.

Appeals to tradition

The most deeply conservative thing I can find in Pagan discourse is people who appeal to “tradition” to dismiss calls for change. The idea that tradition is fixed and unchanging, and that anything old and traditional is inherently better than what is happening now, is borderline fascist. (This is item 1 on Eco’s list.)

Traditions exist because someone once found a good way of doing something, and passed it on to others. Traditions exist to serve people; people are not bound to serve traditions.

 The people and the land

Another dangerous aspect of Pagan culture is the völkisch and essentialist idea that culture is transmitted genetically, and that specific nations are somehow inherently suited to their land. Granted, a particular culture develops to fit a particular place, and broadly speaking, people adapt to the climate of a particular area, but that doesn’t make them inherently or “racially” connected to that place. An earlier generation of Pagan writers was keen to romanticise a sense of British attachment to  Britain, and some of this discourse is fascistic in tone, as well as also being spouted by actual fascists. But it is doubtful that most of these writers were consciously fascist. Doreen Valiente joined the National Front for 18 months, which is deeply disturbing if she did it for any other reason than infiltration. Therefore it behooves us to examine her writing carefully through the lens of this information, to check for bias; but it doesn’t invalidate absolutely everything she wrote, because she had a career spanning a couple of decades, and distanced herself from right-wing views more than once.

Lack of critical thinking

Holistic and tradition-focused movements often lack critical thinking skills, eschew modernism, and express disdain for intellectuals (all of which are red flags on both Eco’s and Mayer’s lists).  It is hard to say how widespread this anti-intellectual streak is in Pagan discourse, but it certainly exists.

What can we do about it?

Keep on keeping on, and seeking to educate, raise awareness, make our movement more democratic, and root out fascist ideology wherever we encounter it.

10 thoughts on “Nostalgie de la boue

  1. One of the things I found most disturbing when I was doing my research into a basic overview of the origins and history of the modern pagan movement was how many times I would innocently follow a link to a new person or group and find Nazis. Or “and this guy inspired these Nazis”. Or “and this group modeled itself on Nazis”. Occasionally, “and this group was suppressed by the Nazis because it wasn’t in keeping with their version of the thing”. With every so often a giant pocket of depressing “and now I’m doing all the cross-connections on this bit of Nazi occultism”.

    And then the things that are superficially innocent stuff like “the mandated art was rurally themed images of the localised landscape, depicting harmony with nature and performance of craft by hand or fertility-oriented images of women”, with a Classical-style emphasis on perfection in physical forms for any nudes. No machinery. If battle or warfare is depicted, it must be heroic, romanticised, and victorious. Which, as a genre of artistic representation, is pretty much short some antlers and fairy wings for being mainstream pagan-style aesthetics.

    The more I dig into movement history, the more I become convinced that the modern pagan movement is a sibling to fascism. (It is a large family, also including among the siblings and close cousins: science fiction fandom, back-to-nature survivalists, Waldorf education, UFO cultists, hippies, the New Age movement, organic gardeners (most closely related to Waldorf education and homeopathy!), etc….)

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    • When examining our movement’s roots in 19th Century European occultism, it’s important to do so in the context of history. Our progenitors were, to a man and woman, all white and relatively privileged Europeans who came of age in late Victorian and Edwardian times, in the seats of colonial empires built on racial and ethnic slavery. They were raised and educated in societies where racism and anti-semitism were almost universally accepted as social and scientific truths. Eugenics and “racial hygeine” were mainstream and very respectable thought systems in the states until the horrors of WW II. Some occult leaders and movements were of course more actively steeped in racial nationalist movements than others, but it is very hard to envision how modern Paganism’s roots would have grown untouched by this problem.

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  2. I’ve been thinking a lot about this list and wondering about the parallels with witchcraft, the psychological phenomenon known as “magical thinking”, and the risks or pitfalls that might be inherent to a lot of witchcraft practices to the building of dangerous or skewed worldviews that could contribute to fascism or sexist/racist/colonial/capitalist thinking. Thought-provoking. Thank you for this.

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    • This is an interesting idea. As modern Pagans, we generally accept the reality of magic, divination, deities, spirits and all manner of “supernatural” phenomena (though many of us would characterize them as supremely natural.)

      At the same time, I see very little rejection of scientific rationalism or technology among modern Pagans. As one example, I have yet to come across a Pagan anti-vaxxer, HIV denialist or anti-evolution creationist. There are a few dogged climate change deniers, but they seem to hail from the ultra-conservative racialist branches of Paganism. I find conspiracy theorists and theories interesting, so I love to be the fly on the wall in their conversations. We have some of the most prolific theorists at my home away from home nudist camp in Indiana, strangely enough…I have found the bulk of them to be either non-religious or conservative Christians (albeit heterodox and new-agey ones). Most of them are convinced that modern witches and pagans are Satanic to the core and they key villains in their magical thinking-driven theories.

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  3. Modern Pagan religion certainly has elements of its belief systems and cultures which can be used to support a fascist narrative. Whether those factors tend to coalesce together to create operative fascist systems is another question. I don’t see that happening because we are the most individualistic, contrary, ornery and skeptical (if not cynical) people on the planet. While we’ve always had no shortage of coven and community leaders with dictatorial aspirations, those aspirations invariably are dashed against our individualism.

    Cults of personality gained some purchase in the 1960s-80s, but that was only because prospective Pagans had virtually no competing sources of information and no independent routes to initiation or practice. Even the tenure of the self-proclaimed “King of all Witches” was stormy and short lived. These days, authoritarian coven leaders can play the game only with newbie initiates, and I think even they are a lot more streetwise than when I fell for that bit a dozen or so years ago. Likewise with local and national self-appointed “councils”. Two attempts in the past several years to resurrect the “American Council of Witches” were blown away in shit storms of ridicule. I’m proud to say I was one of the lead invokers of that storm! 🙂

    I just don’t see today’s Pagans falling in line behind some strongman figure. Honestly I don’t see anyone in the Pagan world with enough guile or force of character to even make a decent run at dictatorship. People with those skills by and large are not going to waste their time with a tiny minority religion and movement. They’re going to go leverage millions of evangelical Christian votes…oh wait, that’s been done!

    I do see a risk that some of the more recent emphasis on scholarship and theology and reconstruction of tradition will lead to rigid orthodoxy and fundamentalism, but I suspect Pagans will simply react as we always have: schism and vote with our feet.

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    • I wasn’t thinking that Pagans would form a fascist movement, or even join one in droves… more that some are likely to join such a movement, and some already have, in part because of certain tropes in Pagan and Heathen thought.

      However, when measuring the Pagan revival against Eco’s and Mayer’s lists of fascist characteristics, they don’t seem to have all that much in common, at least not these days – but given the outcome of Kiya’s research, mentioned above, we should examine some of these ideas with great caution. Any and all mention of “the soul of a race” seems deeply suspect to me, for instance.

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    • Thank you! Yes, I think it should be carved on every religious building, etc.

      I have always thought that traditions were there to serve people and not the other way around, but I’m not alone in this view: no less than Yeshua ha Notsri said something similar: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”.

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