by Frater Mem-Aleph Rho-Xi
You’ll have to excuse me for opening with such a title: one can only get attention these days with hyperbole. The real thesis of this article is not that Thelema is necessarily fascist but that Thelema has the inherent potential to be interpreted in a fascist way. And this interpretation has its roots in Aleister Crowley, not in modern fascists.
I personally believe Thelema has the potential to flower into something much more mature but that potential would require delicate care in order to blossom, lest the wretched weed of fascism gain hold in our Garden. The seed of fascism in Thelema was planted by Crowley, yes; though we need not simply let this this particular weed grow.
This article is not meant as encouragement for fascists but more warning for antifascists. If you insist fascists simply are ignorant and you claim to base your position on “Crowley said”, you may not win the ideological battle if you truly look into it. Which is to say: Crowley said a lot of stuff that resembles fascist talking points. I cannot give a full run-down of everything he said, nor do I intend to engage in long debates as to the true definition or nature of Fascism. So my intention is to use Umberto Eco’s essay on fascism as a kind of tentative interpretive framework to allow for discussion.
Umberto Eco’s Fascist Checklist
In 1995 Umberto Eco wrote an essay “Ur-Fascism” which lists several characteristics of fascist movements. One of his most memorable quotations is:
“There was only one Nazism… but the fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change.”Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”
In this essay he lists 14 characteristics of fascist movements. I want to simply and briefly go through each item and see if there is anything Crowley said that resembles that particular characteristic. One would think that, if Thelema is inherently anti-fascist as I’ve seen some claim, that there would be no occurrences whatsoever of any of these 14 fascist characteristics. In fact we would expect to see quotations from Crowley in direct opposition to these ideals. I think we will find the truth is much less clean-cut than that…
1. The Cult of Tradition
“One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”
It is arguable how “traditionalist” Thelema is, but it is unquestionably framed as the heir to an ancient tradition. The idea is an ancient and perennial Tradition that is always true but occurs in degraded forms throughout history, or is hidden through lost languages like hieroglyphs.
Crowley certainly framed Thelema as the heir to this eternal tradition. “The Saints” Collect in the Gnostic Mass reflects this idea of the ancient wisdom passed down through generations. One could be forgiven for interpreting the line from The Book of the Law, “All words are sacred and all prophets true; save only that they understand a little,” that there is an ancient tradition but The Book of the Law is simply the latest clarification thereof. What is unambiguously true is that Thelema is syncretistic – Crowley explicitly says so at various times and sees it as a positive quality.
Umberto Eco writes:
“This new culture had to be syncretistic. Syncretism is not only, as the dictionary says, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice”; such a combination must tolerate contradictions. Each of the original messages contains a silver of wisdom, and whenever they seem to say different or incompatible things it is only because all are alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth.Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”
Thelema is very clearly a combination of Hermetic, Ancient Egyptian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Taoist, Qabalistic and other traditions. How is the above quote from Umberto Eco any different from when Crowley writes:
“We have therefore devised a Syncretic-Eclectic Method combining the essentials of all methods, rejecting all their trammels, to attack the Problem, through exact experiments and not by guesses… We are Syncretists, taking truth from all systems, ancient and modern; and Eclectics, ruthlessly discarding the inessential factors in any one system, however perfect.”Aleister Crowley, The Equinox I:2, “Editorial”
Umberto Eco also mentions that fascists tend to have “occult elements”. I do not think an argument needs to even be made that Thelema is occult in nature. Fascists tend to stray into the symbolism and beliefs of occultism, often because of the next quality…
2. The Rejection of Modernism
It is not uncommon to see people posting (jokingly or otherwise) that we should “Reject modernity, Return to tradition”. Sometimes the “U”s in this are made into “V”s (e.g. “RETVRN”) which is likely an attempt to ape the Ancient Roman style of lettering. Umberto Eco writes of this quality:
“The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”
Crowley was perhaps a bit more uniquely positioned than other thinkers at the time insofar as he has a Modernist streak and he also has an anti-Modernist streak. He certainly was fond of rationality and even encouraged his students to read the likes of Kant, Hume, Berkeley, Hegel, Keynes, as well as Eastern philosophers (e.g. in the instruction “Liber Os Abysmi vel Daath”). However, Crowley’s beliefs around rationality center mostly around the limits of reason and learning these philosophers, to Crowley, meant learning how they are ultimately inadequate.
The Book of the Law plainly says “reason is a lie.” Crowley is fond of saying things such as:
“Since truth is supra-rational, it is incommunicable in the language of reason.”Aleister Crowley, “Postcards to Probationers” from The Equinox
If one reads Crowley, one will repeatedly encounter this idea that spiritual truth is above reason. Thelema is not a system built on rationality, and the concept of True Will is repeatedly said to be beyond reason is some way or another. There is a kind of inherent irrationalism to True Will, and therefore to the entire system of Thelema which rests upon it, if True Will is “beyond” the capacity of reason to understand or govern.
Ultimately, the idea that society has corrupted our inherently pure humanity and that we must return to a better Tradition is found in Crowley’s writings in the form of rejection of Christianity and return to a kind of purer paganism. One example is found in Crowley’s description of the Gnostic Mass as “THE CANON OF THE MASS, according to the Gnostic Catholic Church, which represents the original and true pre-Christian Christianity” (emphasis added).
This is a clear example of the “return to tradition” and the consequent rejection of Enlightenment-era modernity as the foundation of our worldview. To reinforce this, Crowley wrote to WB Crow in 1944 that OTO was “to restore Christianity to its real status as a solar-phallic religion.” The entire idea behind OTO is that it is the preserver of an ancient tradition that has many symbolic forms but one underlying truth.
3. The Cult of Action for Action’s Sake
“Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”
This characteristic is seen very clearly in Crowley’s interpretations of The Book of the Law. Crowley unambiguously endorses this view when he writes:
“The adept will do better to rely upon The Book of the Law, which urgeth constantly to action. Even rash action is better than none, by that Light: let the magician then argue that his folly is part of that natural order which worketh all so well.”Aleister Crowley, “Liber DCXXXIII: De Thaumaturgia”
It is tied in with the previous characteristic of fascism which often involves rejection of Reason. For example, Crowley writes:
“There is no ‘reason’ why a Star should continue in its orbit. Let her rip! Every time the conscious acts, it interferes with the Subconscious, which is Hadit. It is the voice of Man, and not of a God. Any man who ‘listens to reason’ ceases to be a revolutionary.”Aleister Crowley, New Comment to the Book of the Law
The above-quotation specifically contains the quality that Umberto Eco mentions whereby listening to reason is not just bad, but emasculating and disempowering.
We can even see some connections between these ideas, such as the fact that “right action” is founded on listening to our inherited genetic wisdom rather than reason and thought:
“There is here a perception of the profound law which opposes thought to action. We act, when we act aright, upon the instructive wisdom inherited from the ages. Our ancestors survived because they were able to adapt themselves to their environment… The Ethics of Liber Legis are those of Evolution itself. We are only fools if we interfere.”Aleister Crowley, New Comment to The Book of the Law
The entirety of The Book of Lies could be said to be a large treatise on the inadequacy of reason and a general counsel toward action over thought. Even a sense of self-reflection, a sense of self or “I”, is considered a fault, like a blemish against the purity of action for action’s sake such as when Crowley writes in The Book of Lies, “Therefore is man only himself when lost to himself in The Charioting” or simply “Doubt inhibits action”.
4. Disagreement is Treason
One thing Crowley was consistently in favor of, at least when wrote about Thelema, was the freedom of thought and speech that is antithetical to the kind of collectivist authoritarianism of fascism. In practice, however, Crowley was especially demanding of his pupils and essentially wanted complete submission to him. This was also part of his ideal of how pupils treated him, they would act “like a cadaver” (perinde ac cadaver) which implies a complete submission of one’s will to the other, the Master.
“The pupil must obey his teacher, perinde ac cadaver.”Aleister Crowley, Confessions
“The Teacher should then seek gently and firmly to key up the pupil, little by little, until obedience follows command without reference to what that command may be; as Loyola wrote: ‘perinde ac cadaver.’ No one has understood the Magical Will better than Loyola; in his system the individual was forgotten. The will of the General was instantly echoed by every member of the Order; hence the Society of Jesus became the most formidable of the religious organizations of the world.”Aleister Crowley, Book Four: Magick
It is no wonder fascists might use Thelema to their own ends: Crowley’s fawning over the authoritarian structure of the Jesuits is just one example of many of him praising this type of government. There are also historical examples of Crowley not meeting disagreement well, including expelling many different people for an assortment of reasons (whether it is Norman Mudd or WT Smith or another).
In practice, in modern times, there is great conformity of thought in Thelema. Though diversity of thought is widely celebrated, it is not widely practiced: Thelemites will joke about how different they are from one another but ultimately all repeat the same kind of beliefs about Thelema. Disagreement is not met with violent execution but sometimes social exclusion, but it is simply a less aggressive version of the same principle.
5. Fear of Difference
“The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”
One thing Crowley was good about was that, despite his nationalistic streak of patriotism for the British at times (or Scottish or Irish at others), it was not a particularly defining feature of his interpretation of Thelema. At various times he disparages just about every nationality in various ways, including his own. However, he does even associate his ideas with Hitler’s in Magick Without Tears, with the qualification that there is no collectivism inherent about the elite:
“The Book announces a new dichotomy in human society; there is the master and there is the slave; the noble and the serf; the ‘lone wolf’ and the herd.) (Nietzsche may be regarded as one of our prophets; to a much less extent, de Gobineau.) Hitler’s ‘Herrenvolk’ is a not too dissimilar idea; but there is no volk about it; and if there were, it would certainly not be the routine-loving, uniformed-obsessed, law-abiding, refuge-seeking German; the Briton, especially the Celt, a natural anarchist, is much nearer the mark. Britons will never get together about anything unless and until each one of them feels himself directly threatened.”Aleister Crowley, Magick Without Tears
It is often to distinguish Crowley’s serious from his sarcastic remarks but it appears “there is no volk about it” implies he views these “Masters” as individuals rather than members of a particular race. A similar view can be found strewn throughout his writings, such as his idea in “Postcards to Probationers” that society progresses by Geniuses but that they are not dependent on any particular theology or morality (and therefore also presumably where they were born). Crowley even wrote in his diaries:
“I propose that a man, adhering to Thelema, shall become a ‘man without a country’ abiding by the laws of, but regarding himself as a stranger visiting, any country where he may be.”Aleister Crowley, Magical Diaries of Aleister Crowley: Tunisia, (July 30, 1923)
Insofar as Crowley was not married to nationalism or borders of any particular kind, the fascistic “threat of intruders” does not appear often in Crowley’s writings. The closest would be his mistrust of average people and therefore there is a kind of anti-populism. Crowley is known for having stated:
“The average voter is a moron. He believes what he reads in newspapers, feeds his imagination and lulls his repressions on the cinema, and hopes to break away from his slavery by football pools, cross-word prizes, or spotting the winner of the 3:30. He is ignorant as no illiterate peasant is ignorant: he has no power of independent thought. He is the prey of panic. But he has the vote. The men in power can only govern by stampeding him into wars, playing on his fears and prejudices until he acquiesces in repressive legislation against his obvious interests, playing on his vanity until he is totally blind to his own misery and serfdom.”Aleister Crowley, “The Scientific Solution to the Problem of Government”
It is hard to argue with his prescient thoughts, as we write this in the midst of the US Supreme Court striking down Roe v Wade and in the midst of endless, intractable wars. In fact, it is not that uncommon of a sentiment. Winston Churchill is famous for having said:
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”Winston Churchill
That being said, I do not think this 5th quality of fascist movements has much to latch onto within Crowley’s writings.
6. Appeal to Social Frustration
“One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”
Thelema does not appear to appeal to a frustrated middle class suffering from economic crisis or political humiliation. I believe, historically speaking, Thelema is diametrically opposite of this: it has appealed to those who are comfortable in their middle class, who feel no economic or political pressure, and are – in other words – very privileged. It is often only within the context of material security that one has the mental bandwidth to even consider studying arcane and esoteric things such as occultism or Thelema. Since Thelema as a “movement” is still insignificantly small, it is astronomically rare for someone to naturally come across Thelema in a coherent form without essentially actively seeking it out.
For this particular item, Thelema is not fascist but I would not say it is anti-fascist either. The complacency of a petit bourgeois middle class, content with the space they’ve carved out within an exploitative system, is often the fuel that leads to the inevitable fire of a populist, potentially fascist uprising that is discontent with that system. This can be seen, for example, in Trump’s 2016 win over Hillary Clinton who symbolically represented the peak of centrist neoliberalism. In other words, Thelema has historically occupied the space that the liberal currently does in America, the “white moderate” of Martin Luther King Jr’s letters, in contrast to the right-wing who are overtly theocratic fascists. But one feeds the other, as we have seen.
7. The Obsession with a Plot
“Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged.”Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”
I would not argue there is an obsession with an international plot in Thelema, or one that is even similar to this idea. Crowley certainly endorsed some anti-Semitic ideas at times but does not at any point seem to have the typical right-wing conspiratorial view that “Jews control the world”.
That being said, Thelemites are prone to magical thinking (finding connections between things that aren’t there). There has been much made lately about “conspirituality”, which combines typical conspiracies about the world with spirituality. The reason is there is a huge amount of overlap between these groups of people, including at the very least a mistrust of the consensus reality that is shared in society. Conspiracy theorists and Thelemites both believe that they are privy to an esoteric truth that is masked to the average person because of their ignorance.
In this way, unfortunately I do believe Thelemites are at risk of falling prey to this particular point of Eco’s list due to the similarity of non-rational thinking and pattern-finding that appears to exist in common between esoteric spirituality and conspiracy theories.
There is also the “positive” conspiracy theory that the world is governed by the Secret Chiefs. In a way, this is the same idea of a nefarious group controlling world events but it is ultimately positive, insofar as Crowley generally has faith they are here to evolve humanity and help certain individuals attain spiritual mastery. This does not lead to a feeling of being “besieged” in the same way as an international anti-Semitic conspiracy, for example, but the way of thinking is nearly identical. Those into the field of conspirituality are surely aware of the tendencies of many of its proponents to stray into far-right xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and other bigoted worldviews.
8. The Enemy is both Strong and Weak
“By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”
This item depends on the previous ones, insofar as once you’ve established boundaries for nationalism and decided who is in-group and out-group, fearing the conspiracy of the out-group to ruin your in-group, you necessarily start propagandizing the out-group as “the enemy”. The common tactics involve logically contradictory positions but this is constantly seen in far-right talking points. For example, “immigrants are effete, weak, stupid, and insect-infested” but simultaneously they are also “taking all of our jobs and our women”. I do not find much basis for this point within Thelema because the “enemy” is not clear in that theology. One can be cute and say the enemy is Choronzon or something like that, but that is not what we’re talking about as we are speaking about human beings and their political tendencies to lapse into fascism.
9. Praise of War and Struggle
“For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare.”Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”
This idea that life is war is found throughout Thelema. In fact, Crowley uses almost identical language about a century before Eco wrote this list:
“The price of existence is eternal warfare.”Aleister Crowley, The Book of Lies
Many Thelemites enjoy pretending the third chapter of The Book of the Law does not exist, but it opens with the line:
“Now let it be first understood that I am a god of War and of Vengeance.”The Book of the Law III:3
Umberto Eco goes on to say:
“This, however, brings about an Armageddon complex. Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world. But such a “final solution” implies a further era of peace, a Golden Age, which contradicts the principle of permanent war.”Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”
There is no such specific mythology around a final battle in Thelema, although there is a mythology around Aeons that fits this loosely. Currently we are in the Aeon of Horus, characterized by widespread war, and we will eventually evolve into the Aeon of Ma’at (or “Ma” or “Thmaist” or “Themis”, judging by Crowley’s commentaries, showing his syncretism at work once more). The Aeon of War paves the way for the Aeon of Justice and Balance. Crowley writes about this:
“Strength will prepare the Reign of Justice. We should begin already, as I deem, to regard this Justice as the Ideal whose Way we should make ready, by virtue of our Force and Fire.”Aleister Crowley, New Comment to The Book of the Law
10. Contempt for the weak.
“Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak.”Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”
An uncomfortable truth about Aleister Crowley’s political proclivities is he was fairly consistently anti-democratic (because of his aforementioned distrust of average people) and fairly consistently aristocratic and elitist. There is clear preference of strength over weakness. The Book of the Law is pretty plain on this point:
“Let my servants be few & secret: they shall rule the many & the known.
We have nothing with the outcast and the unfit: let them die in their misery. For they feel not. Compassion is the vice of kings: stamp down the wretched & the weak: this is the law of the strong: this is our law and the joy of the world….The Book of the Law
This is apparent in other Holy Books as well such as Liber Tzaddi:
“Only if ye are sorrowful, or weary, or angry, or discomforted; then ye may know that ye have lost the golden thread, the thread wherewith I guide you to the heart of the groves of Eleusis. My disciples are proud and beautiful; they are strong and swift; they rule their way like mighty conquerors. The weak, the timid, the imperfect, the cowardly, the poor, the tearful— these are mine enemies, and I am come to destroy them. This also is compassion: an end to the sickness of earth. A rooting-out of the weeds: a watering of the flowers.Liber Tzaddi vel Hamus Hermeticus, a Holy Book of Thelema
The typical philosophical dodge performed by modern Thelemites is that this only refers to internal struggles, the weakness inside of ourselves, and so on. This has no textual basis in anything Crowley wrote – if anything, he insisted that the battles must be fought externally as well:
“We have to fight for Freedom against oppressors, religious, social, or industrial; and we are utterly opposed to compromise. Every fight is to be a fight to the finish… Let every man bear arms, swift to resent oppression, generous and ardent to draw sword in any cause, if justice or freedom summon him!”Aleister Crowley, The New Comment to The Book of the Law
Further, the two orders Crowley left behind – OTO and A.’.A.’. – are both strictly authoritarian and hierarchical in nature. They are inherently elitist in many ways, A.’.A.’. especially. If that is how he believed things should be run, surely one might see the connection between fascists taking him at his word and interpreting Thelema through a fascist lens.
Overall: There is a lot of meat here for fascists to latch onto should they choose, and I think many Thelemites acknowledge this, at least in the back of their heads. Since there is no textual basis for treating these lines as being purely an internal psychodrama, I do not think this is a tenable standpoint, at least for those who consider themselves antifascist. They must realize this theme of contempt for the weak has its basis in Crowley’s own writings, in the central Holy Book of Thelema (which, if you believe in divine revelation, means God is telling you this), and the historical organizations
11. Everybody is Educated to Become a Hero
“In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm.”Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”
It would be hard to deny that Thelema inculcates this idea of everyone being a hero at every step of the way. The central Holy Book of Thelema basically opens with these words:
“Every man and every woman is a star.”The Book of the Law I:3
Everyone is literally considered at the center of their own universe. This idea is repeated ad nauseum by Crowley. In fact, he instructs:
“Find yourself to be the centre of your own Universe.”Aleister Crowley, “Duty”
The very idea of True Will is a kind of “everyone is the hero of their own story”-type theology, in a way. We can see how this would be obviously empowering for many people but it nonetheless could also play into this 11th theme of Eco’s list.
12. Machismo and Weaponry
“Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”
One might think it would be ridiculous to find this in Thelema but modern Thelemites have found a way. There are certainly some Thelemites now who even advocate traditional marriage, and essentially traditional Judeo-Christian values. Fortunately most of this has zero basis in Crowley’s writings. However, his misogynistic comments are well-known, including saying that women have no soul. Again, it is often difficult to distinguish between sarcasm and seriousness, but he nonetheless unambiguously wrote misogynistic things and did not treat many women very well in his own lifetime. There is therefore a historical precedent for this.
One could also be forgiven for thinking The Book of the Law counsels a kind of toxic masculinity of being aggressive, strong, and dominating. Even simply the lines previously quoted in this article demonstrate this in good measure.
13. Selective Populism
“For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter.”Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”
There is certainly an idea of the Universal Will in some of Crowley’s writings, but there is a repeated distinction that each individual has their own unique Will that is not subsumed into a greater whole. This also is one item where, according to Crowley’s writings one would not expect to find selective populism at all.
“All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”
This one is difficult to find in Crowley’s writings about Thelema. If anything they are deliberately obscure and opaque, extreme in the obscurity of their references. However, it has been noted that modern Thelemites often routinely employ similar thought-terminating clichés in service of “limit[ing] the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.” To limit debate, and thinking, in other words. The fact is this impoverished vocabulary, a diminished interest in debate and complexity, can be found in modern Thelemites frequently. It is, in many ways, not particularly stunning that a thing many people approach as a religion is not approached with highly rationalistic or critical lenses.
Overall, the goal of this article was not to convince you that Thelema is inherently fascist or all Thelemites are fascists. We should see that there is, first of all, some basis for people interpreting Thelema through a fascist lens due to Crowley’s own words mirroring Eco’s 14 fascist principles. This is not simply ignorance of Crowley’s writings or misconstruing of his words. The seeds of fascism were planted in his writings. Of course, there are other writings and ideas that contradict these more fascist-sounding ones, but to ignore one side in favor of the other would be the same cherry-picking that fascists are often accused of. Those dedicated to an antifascist Thelema must grapple with these issues. Personally, I wish them well in their antifascist crusade but fear for our future.
Lately there has been a surge of nominally antifascist Thelemites online, perhaps because of the global rise of the far-right, or some other phenomenon. Lately, there have been tendencies to become a bit of a “boy who cried fascist” (as in the boy who cried wolf). So many things are called fascist without reason or justification. This undermines antifascism.
Hopefully this article can shine light on certain aspects of Thelema that really are fascist rather than simply throwing the label around. Rather than analyzing hidden messages or dogwhistles in twitter posts, if people are truly interested in fighting the real fascism, the kind that has political power to be violent and end people’s rights, consider whether callouts are doing much. Real fascism seizes power in the face of complacent onlookers; it will not stop for “gotchas” or being “canceled”. Real power doesn’t come from posts or labels, it comes from organizing and exerting influence.
Love is the law, love under will.
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