The fame of Aleister Crowley is principally derived from his reputation as a notorious occultist. It is this reputation that has made his name legendary in numerous counter-cultural and youth culture circles, ranging from contemporary enthusiasts for witchcraft of varying sorts to purveyors of certain shades of heavy metal music. Yet for all his status as a legendary figure, Crowley is not typically regarded as a political thinker. To the degree that his ideas are considered relevant to political thought at all, Crowley is frequently caricatured as a shallow nihilist or merely as a debauched libertine. Extremist political subcultures of varying stripes have attempted to claim him as one of their own. Whether they are neo-fascists, egocentric individualists, or nihilist pseudo-anarchists, many with an extremist political outlook have attempted to shock the broader bourgeois society by invoking the name of Aleister Crowley. This state of affairs regarding Crowley’s political outlook is unfortunate, because an examination of the man’s political ideas reveals him to be a far more profound and insightful thinker on such questions than what is typically recognized.
It is indeed understandable that divergent political factions would attempt to claim Crowley for themselves, given that his political thought is rather difficult to classify and cannot be reconciled with any established ideological paradigm. His ideas and pronouncements on political matters have to be understood within the wider context of his thought and worldview. Merely citing a quotation or opinion on some matter issued by Crowley here or there is to invite the risk of misrepresenting the wider body of his thought by assuming his association with some particular ideology or philosophical stance with which he did not identify. Crowley’s ideas have been particularly misrepresented in the United States, a nation that differs from most other industrialized countries and virtually all other nations of the Western world in that it possesses a large population of religious fundamentalists. The large Protestant evangelical subculture in the United States includes within itself a substantial number of people who continue to believe in the reality of the powers of witchcraft and in the existence of Satan as a literal personal being who acts as an evil supernatural force within the natural world. This subculture contains within itself an abundance of sensational literature and small-time demagogues claiming to have identified some form of evil occult force operating in the broader society through secretive organizations or through the manipulation of forms of popular culture such as film, the arts, television, rock n’ roll music, pornography, and the like.1 Within the literature and rhetoric of this subculture, the name of Aleister Crowley is often used almost as a synonym for evil and Satanic forces.
The obscurantism and ignorance demonstrated by these elements often produces an ironic result. Parallel to the religious subculture of those warning of imminent dangers posed by occult forces of the kind supposedly represented by the likes of Crowley is a corresponding youth culture built up around an occult mystique utilizing many of the same names and symbols that figure prominently in the shrill hysteria of the Christian fundamentalists. The reigning principle of social psychology operating here is one where the occult mystique is presented by the demagogues and sensationalists in the standard manner of the “forbidden fruit,” which defiantly rebellious, independently minded, or merely curious youth subsequently seek to consume. Hence, the proliferation of such youth culture phenomena as heavy metal rock bands with demonic names and song lyrics, and displaying occult symbols as a logo. That Crowley never identified himself as a Satanist and that his religion of Thelema is hardly a variation of Satanic thought (even if some self-styled contemporary Thelemites also fancy themselves as Satanists) is a fact that is often completely lost to these cultural undercurrents.2 Just as Crowley’s religious thought has been so badly misunderstood or misinterpreted, Crowley’s thought on political matters has suffered similar abuses.
Do What Thou Wilt
Perhaps no aspect of Crowley’s thinking has been more misunderstood than his famous pronouncement: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”3 Widely cited by critics and supposed admirers of Crowley alike as an incitement to anti-social egocentrism or as mere nihilism manifesting itself as a kind of adolescent-like rebellion, this passage is given such amateurish interpretations by those who completely ignore or misunderstand the concept of “the will” in Crowley’s outlook. For Crowley, the notion of “the will” is something of a synonym for the destiny of the individual which is built into the metaphysical fabric of the cosmos. Yet, Crowley was not a fatalist, and “the will” should not be confused with “fate” in the sense of some inevitable outcome pre-ordained by a providential or supernatural force. The will is something an individual must discover for himself through introspective, spiritual, or esoteric pursuits. The Crowleyan concept of “the will” is remarkably similar to the Nietzschean idea of “the will to power” in that it involves a form of self-overcoming and ascension to a form of existence that is greater than concern with mundane human pursuits or enslavement to base desires. This aspect of Crowley’s spirituality might also be compared to the meditative pursuits found in the Eastern traditions. To find one’s “true will” is to find one’s “calling.” An elitist, Crowley regarded the discovery of one’s “true will” as something only the special few were capable of achieving. Such people are those who shine brighter than the rest of humanity. Crowley used the analogy of a star to describe the individual human personality. For Crowley, all people are stars, but some stars shine much greater than others.4
One of Crowley’s most important works was The Book of the Law, which appeared in 1904. Crowley claimed that this work had been dictated to him orally during a stay in Egypt by a spiritual being called Aiwass, who became Crowley’s Holy Guardian Angel and who was the messenger of the ancient Greek god Horus and two other deities. The Book of the Law is supposedly the record of that dictation.5 The mind of a contemporary Western intellectual would no doubt be inclined to immediately dismiss such a claim as mere quackery or charlatanry. However, it must be recognized that the claims of Crowley regarding his having received supposed revelation from Horus differ in no significant way from those of similar claims found in many of the world’s great religious traditions or in forms of popular or contemporary religion possessing substantial numbers of adherents. The Islamic tradition maintains similar claims regarding the revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed. The evangelical Protestant tradition in which Crowley himself was raised likewise regards the Bible as having been revealed to its authors by means of divine inspiration. Crowley’s claim of having received special knowledge contained in The Book of the Law resembles as well Joseph Smith’s claim of having discovered the sacred text of the Book of Mormon. Lastly, Crowley’s supposed encounter with the being of Aiwass greatly resembles the practice of “trance channeling” common to some contemporary “New Age” religious practices. In other words, the spiritual claims of Crowley and his followers should not necessarily be dismissed as any less credible or fantastic than comparable spiritual beliefs held by persons and religious communities possessing greater numbers of adherents or higher levels of political or cultural respectability. Crowley’s religion of Thelema is properly regarded as a contemporary pagan, polytheistic counterpart to these rival religious systems.
The Political and Social Context of Crowley’s Thought
Aleister Crowley originated from the British upper-middle class. His father’s family owned a successful brewing business thereby making Aleister, born in 1875 and originally named Edward Alexander Crowley, a child of the classical British bourgeoisie of the late nineteenth century. His parents were converts to a fundamentalist brand of evangelical Protestantism, a faith which Aleister became skeptical of and rejected while still in his teens. His father died when he was only eleven, and while Crowley later referred to his late father as his friend and hero, it is known that his relationship with his mother became rather strained, though the source of the family conflict is not specifically known. As a university student, Crowley became a sexual adventurer, pursuing sexual relationships with prostitutes and other promiscuous young women he met in seedy locations, and began experimenting with homosexuality as well. That Crowley would devote his adult life to the pursuit of activities regarded as extreme taboos by the sectarian religious environment of his upbringing motivates one to consider the question of to what degree his early family and religious experiences influenced his later outlook. A Freudian might be inclined to regard Crowley’s fascination with sex, drugs, and the occult as stemming from a compulsion to differentiate his own identity from the sacred beliefs of a mother he apparently greatly disliked. Likewise, the ability of sectarian religious communities to provoke rebellion on the part of those initially indoctrinated into their tenants during their formative years is well-documented. One can only speculate as to the nature of the impact of such experiences on Crowley.6
Crowley’s thought on political and social matters resembles greatly that of a number of thinkers who emerged in the first half of the twentieth century as critics of the modern industrial era and its cultural impact. The industrial civilization of modernity had brought with it an exponential population growth, a greatly expanded middle class, an increasingly commercialized society, and a dramatic increase in urbanization. Political ideologies like liberalism, democracy, and socialism became increasingly influential and began to shape the nature of modern statecraft. The principal cultural impact of these developments was the uprooting or dislocation of many aspects of traditional society and the growth of a new kind of mass society comprised of workers, consumers, professionals, technicians, businessmen, journalists, and politicians. These dramatic changes were alarming to their critics for a variety of reasons. Conservatives of different types saw such social developments as undermining traditional forms of authority and social cohesion, and thereby generating anomie, crime, hedonism, impiety and the like due to the decline of the fixed social norms associated with more traditional social institutions. These criticisms were, of course, not unlike those of contemporary social conservatives. However, another criticism of modernity advanced by such thinkers is one that is now less well known and would likely be considered quaint, archaic, or even viciously retrograde by the modern liberal mind. Some were also concerned with the impact of the growth of mass society, commercialization, urbanization, and egalitarian political values on high culture and on the natural elites. Of course, one of the earliest and most profound critics of modernity of this kind was Nietzsche. Subsequent thinkers of this type included a number of individuals whose own thought was often markedly different from one another. Such intellectuals included Auberon Herbert, H.L. Mencken, Hilaire Belloc, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Vifredo Pareto, Julius Evola, Ernst Junger, Rene Guenon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Aldous Huxley, and Bertrand De Jouvenal. Also representative of this kind of thinking were a number of French writers and intellectuals associated with a tendency that has been called “anarchisme de droite,” or “anarchism of the right.” Among these were Édouard Drumont, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Paul Léautaud, Louis Pauwels, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline.7
Different though their specific outlooks may have been, a common thread in the thinking of these critics of modernity was their rejection of the belief in innate human equality inherent in the rising ideological forces of the era. The advent of mass democracy, universal suffrage, and parliamentary politics was regarded by these thinkers as the replacement of statesmanship with mob rule. The trend towards universal education was seen not as a means of uplifting the ignorant masses but as a process of lowering those of superior ability and intelligence to the level of the mediocre. The commercialization of culture and society and the corresponding growth of the mass media were seen as diminishing the significance and prominence of traditional forms of high culture in favor of the lowbrow manifestations of popular culture that now dominate contemporary societies. Yet another concern advanced by this strand of thought was related to the effect of mass democracy, mass society, and egalitarian values on individual liberty. Contemporary liberals habitually assume that liberty and democracy are synonymous with one another, or at least share a complementary role. More cogent or perceptive thinkers have understood the inherent tension between egalitarianism and liberty. The modern democratic state, for instance, ultimately places the fate of the individual’s well-being in the hands of the shifting whims of popular opinion and equally shifting coalitions of fickle and narrowly-focused special interest groups. Efforts to eradicate inequality have led to the phenomenal growth of the state and the ever escalating intrusion of the state into areas of society where political interference was previously regarded as taboo. These earlier proponents of aristocratic individualism were often quite prophetic in their diagnosis of the predictable political consequences of radically egalitarian ideologies. It is to this strand of now somewhat obscure thought regarding political and social questions that Aleister Crowley himself belongs.
Crowley’s Aristocratic Radicalism
Though of bourgeoisie origins, Crowley regarded the commercial values of capitalism to be incompatible with genuine elitism. Like others who shared a similar critique of modernity, Crowley regarded the elevation of the business class to the status of the ruling class as a form of social degeneration. Like Nietzsche and Junger, he championed the decline of bourgeoisie society and hoped for its replacement with a new kind of nobility. Crowley obviously differed from Christian traditionalists who objected to modernity mostly because of its success at undermining the authority of the Church. Indeed, Crowley predictably admired previous anticlerical tendencies such as Freemasonry and even declared the Illuminati founder Adam Weishaupt to be one of the saints of Thelema. Yet Crowley’s outlook was hardly compatible with the egalitarian ideals of modernity that grew out of the French Revolution. No less than Julius Evola, for instance, recognized many of Crowley’s ideas as compatible with his own religion of Tradition.8
Some of Crowley’s views resembled those of the Social Darwinists. Few statements of Crowley summarize the nature of his aristocratic radicalism with more clarity that these:
“It is the evolutionary and natural view . . . Nature’s way is to weed out the weak. This is the most merciful way too. At present all the strong are being damaged, and their progress being hindered by the dead weight of the weak limbs and the missing limbs, the diseased limbs and the atrophied limbs. The Christians to the lions.9
“And when the trouble begins, we aristocrats of freedom, from the castle to the cottage, the tower or the tenement, shall have the slave mob against us.”10
“We are not for the poor and sad: the lords of the earth are our kinsfolk. Beauty and strength, leaping laughter, and delicious languor, force and fire are of us . . . we have nothing to do with the outcast and unfit. For they feel not. Compassion is the vice of kings; stamp down the wretched and the weak: this is the law of the strong; this is our law and the joy of the world.”11
Yet for all of his championing of the superior man over the mediocrities, the strong over the weak, and the special few against the inconsequential many, Crowley was not a proponent of tyranny or injustice. He opposed the totalitarian ideologies of Communism, Fascism, and National Socialism which arose during his lifetime.12 Like many anti-modernist or anti-egalitarian thinkers of the time, including even the classical liberal Ludwig von Mises13 and the anarchist Peter Kropotkin14, Crowley engaged in a brief flirtatious fascination with Mussolini when the fascisti first emerged as a political force, but soon came to reconsider such sympathies. Indeed, Crowley had established a Thelemite commune in Sicily in 1920 which was subsequently closed by the Mussolini government three years later with Crowley himself being expelled from Italy.15
Like many intellectuals who were concerned with the effects of modernity and a commercialized society on high culture, Crowley understood that the growth of human culture had historically been intertwined with the growth of a leisure class. In traditional societies, it had been the aristocracy that comprised the leisure class and therefore devoted much of its energy to cultural pursuits. Like comparable thinkers of the era, Crowley understood that the decline of traditional aristocracies in favor of a society comprised of businessmen and laborers devoted to the pursuit of mere profit or sustenance conflicted with the maintenance of a culture-producing leisure class. Therefore, Crowley became attracted to systems of economic thought that offered a third way beyond egalitarian socialism and the commercial values of capitalism. A number of ideologies of this kind emerged during Crowley’s era from both the Left and the Right. These included Guild Socialism, Syndicalism, Catholic Distributism, Social Credit, and the worker-soldier state promoted by Ernst Junger and the National-Bolshevik Ernst Niekisch. Crowley himself outlined a similar scheme for his ideal Thelemic state. Like the proponents of Guild Socialism and Syndicalism, Crowley favored a parliamentary system with representation based on profession and occupation rather than geography.16 Crowley described his proposed system in these terms:
Before the face of the Areopagus stands an independent Parliament of the Guilds. Within the Order, irrespective of Grade, the members of each craft, trade, science, or profession form themselves into a Guild, making their own laws, and prosecute their own good, in all matters pertaining to their labor and means of livelihood. Each Guild chooses the man most eminent in it to represent it before the Areopagus of the Eighth Degree; and all disputes between the various Guild are argued before that Body, which will decide according to the grand principles of the Order. Its decisions pass for ratification to the Sanctuary of the Gnosis, and thence to the Throne.17
The esoteric terminology in the above statement aside, the pagan occultist Crowley was essentially advocating the same system of economic governance as the Catholic traditionalists G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.
Regarding the structure of the state itself, like most proponents of aristocratic individualism, Crowley was a monarchist. He believed that the duties of government itself should be conducted by a non-elected Senate. The Senate would be chosen by an Electoral College appointed by the King. Crowley’s idea of the Electoral College was a conceptually interesting institution that was essentially a kind of political monastery. Members of the Electoral College would commit themselves to a vow of poverty, and be selected from the ranks of volunteers who had previously exhibited excellence in fields of scholarship, the arts, or athletics.18 One might guess that a man such as Crowley who engaged in so many pursuits that were in defiance of the social or even legal norms of his time would not favor a form of political government prone to arbitrary or intrusive interference in individual lives. Regarding matters of law, Crowley was for the most part a libertarian. He succinctly described this outlook in the Book of the Law:
Man has the right to live by his own law— to live in the way that he wills to do: to work as he will: to play as he will: to rest as he will: to die when and how he will. Man has the right to eat what he will: to drink what he will: to dwell where he will: to move as he will on the face of the earth. Man has the right to think what he will: to speak what he will: to write what he will: to draw, paint, carve, etch, mould, build as he will: to dress as he will. Man has the right to love as he will:…”take your fill and will of love as ye will, when, where, and with whom ye will.” Man has the right to kill those who would thwart these rights.19
While Crowley was clearly not an anarchist or a libertarian in the sense of a modern bourgeois liberal, the above statement is in its essence as much a libertarian-anarchistic creed as any ever issued. For Crowley, the chief aim of politics was to afford every individual the opportunity for the discovery and realization of their “True Will” tempered with cautious recognition that only the superior few will succeed in such pursuits. One might be tempted to compare the ideal Thelemic state of Aleister Crowley with Max Stirner’s idealized “Union of Egoists” or, obviously, Nietzsche’s hope for the ascension of an ubermensch.
The political thought of Aleister Crowley retains its relevance to the present era in the same manner that the thought of his contemporaries who shared similar or overlapping views and critiques of modernity remains relevant. The ongoing process of decay of Western cultural and political institutions becomes increasingly evident with each subsequent generation. The currently reigning ideology in Western society is a synthesis of mass democracy, economism, and an increasingly nihilistic and absurdist form of radical egalitarianism. The political tyranny and cultural destructiveness inherent in such an ideological framework will continue to become ever more obvious to greater numbers of people. Two great questions will emerge from this crisis: “What went wrong?” and “What might an alternative be?” Aleister Crowley is yet another thinker from the past who saw the crisis in advance and who might be considered as yet another possible source of inspiration and guidance in the future.
Originally published in Crowley: Thoughts & Perspectives, Volume Two, a compilation of essays on Aleister Crowley, published by ARKTOS.
1 Victor, Jeffrey S. Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend. Open Court Publishing Company, 1993.
2 Rabinovitch, Shelley; Lewis, James. The Encyclopedia of Modern Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism. Citadel Press, 2004, pp. 267-270
3 Crowley, Liber Legis (“The Book of the Law”). Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1976, 2: 25.
4 Bolton, Kerry. Aleister Crowley as Political Theorist, Part I. Counter-Currents. Counter-Currents Publishing, September 2, 2010.
5 Crowley, Aleister. The Equinox of the Gods. New Falcon Publications, 1991.
6 Sutin, Laurence. Do What Thou Wilt: A Llife of Aleister Crowley. Macmillan, 2000; Kaczynksi, Richard. Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley (Second Edition). Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2010.
7 Ollivier-Mellio, Anne. H.L. Mencken: Anarchist of the Right? Attack the System, November 24, 2009.
8 Bolton, Kerry. Aleister Crowley as Political Theorist, Part I. Counter-Currents. Counter-Currents Publishing, September 2, 2010.
9 Crowley, Aleister. The Law Is For All. Arizona: Falcon Press, 1985, p. 175.
10 Ibid., p. 192.
11 Liber Legis 2: 17–21.
12 Aleister Crowley on Politics. The Arcane Archives (accessed April 5, 2011).
13 Mises, Ludwig von. Liberalism. 1927. Said Mises: “It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history. But though its policy has brought salvation for the moment, it is not of the kind which could promise continued success. Fascism was an emergency makeshift. To view it as something more would be a fatal error.”
14 Anduril, Victor. Anarchic Philosophy. Attack the System (accessed April 5, 2011).
Said Kropotkin of Mussolini: “I am delighted by his boldness.”
15 Bolton, Kerry. Aleister Crowley as Political Theorist, Part II. Counter-Currents. Counter-Currents Publishing, September 3, 2010.
17 Crowley, Aleister. Liber CXCIV, “O.T.O. An Intimation with Reference to the Constitution of the Order,” paragraph 21, The Equinox, vol. III, no. 1, 1919.
18 Bolton, Kerry. Aleister Crowley as Political Theorist, Part II. Counter-Currents. Counter-Currents Publishing, September 3, 2010.
19 Crowley, Aleister. Duty (accessed April 5, 2011).
The Political Writings of Aleister Crowley
“An Account of A.’.A.’.” In Gems from the Equinox. St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn, 1974, pp. 31-41. (All subsequent references to this work shall appear as Gems.
“An Appeal to the American Republic.” In The Works of Aleister Crowley. Des Plaines, IL: Yogi, n.d., pp. 136-40.
Atlantis: The Lost Continent. Malton, ON, Canada: Dove, n.d.
The Book of the Law. York Beach, ME: Weiser, 1976.
“Concerning the Law of Thelema.” In The Equinox, Vol. III, No. 1, New York: Weiser, 1974, pp. 225-38.
The Confessions. London: Arkana–Penguin, 1989.
The Heart of the Master. Montreal, PQ: 93 Pub., 1973.
“An Intimation with Reference to the Constitution of the Order.” In The Equinox, Vol. III, No. 1, pp. 239-46.
“Khabs Am Pekht.” In Gems, pp. 99-110.
The Law Is for All. Phoenix, AZ: Falcon, 1983.
“The Law of Liberty.” In The Equinox, Vol. III, No. 1, pp. 45-52.
Liber Aleph: The Book of Wisdom or Folly. York Beach, ME: Weiser, 1991.
Liber Oz. Published as a single card in 1942.
“Liber Porta Lucis.” In Gems, pp. 651-55.
“Liber Trigrammaton.” In The Law Is for All, pp. 339-44.
“Liber Tzaddi vel Hamus Hermeticus.” In Gems, pp. 657-62.
The Magical Record of the Beast 666. Montreal, PQ: 93 Pub., 1972.
Magick in Theory and Practice. Secaucus, NJ: Castle, 1991.
Magick without Tears. Tempe, AZ: Falcon, 1973.
“The Message of the Master Therion.” In The Equinox, Vol. III, No.1, pp. 39-43.
“An Open Letter to Those Who May Wish to Join the Order.” In The Equinox, Vol. III, No. 1, pp. 207-24.
The Scientific Solution of the Problem of Government. Ordo Templi Orientis, 1936.
The Secret Rituals of the O.T.O. Publication information not available.
“Thien Tao.” Konx Om Pax. Des Plaines, IL: Yogi, n.d., pp. 53-67.
Categories: Religion and Philosophy