From the September 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard
Why do some people think the world is run by a shadowy group called the Illuminati? Who were they?
Capitalism is a system where the means of production are owned by a minority class and are used to turn out goods for sale with a view to profit. As a result market forces come into operation. These ultimately determine what is produced, how it is produced and where it is produced. As they used to say of God: Man proposes, God disposes. Under capitalism, Man proposes, the Market disposes.
Faced with this situation, the socialist draws the conclusion that capitalism can only work in the way it does work, that is, as a system which puts profits before the needs of the working class, and that the most constructive thing to do is therefore to work to end it and replace it with a system of common ownership, democratic control and production for use.
But what about the non-socialist? At one time, many workers in Europe used to believe that it was possible to reform capitalism and make it work in the interest of the majority. That was the time of mass Labour and, in other countries, Communist parties. But as these failed to deliver - as socialists had always predicted they would - workers began to give up any hope of changing things collectively and on a national scale. Or, put another way, they gave up any belief in the efficacy of political action to tame market forces. This hasn't just affected the workers who merely voted for mass Labour and Communist parties but also those who were activists in them.
This is the sort of atmosphere - a feeling of helplessness in the face of uncontrollable forces – in which conspiracy theories can flourish. Not just conspiracy theories, but other attempts to give meaning to a situation where people feel they have no control over what happens to them such as religion, gambling and astrology.
These amount to attempts to make some sort of sense of a situation where people know they have no control over what happens to them and want to understand what's happening to them and why. The socialist understands that we are in the grip of uncontrollable impersonal economic forces, the Market, and knows that this grip can be broken only by establishing socialism and production for use not sale. Some non-socialists seek an explanation in the mysterious hand of God, the Stars, Fate or Luck. Other non-socialists can't accept the socialist view that our lives are controlled by the impersonal forces of the Market. They find it easier to think that these forces are personal; in other words, they personalise the Market and you have some shadowy group – financiers, Jews, the Illuminati – controlling the world and manipulating events.
This view and the socialist view are rival explanations of the same experienced happenings - economic slumps, financial crises, political revolutions, wars. In one sense perhaps the conspiracy theory is the easier to grasp: that some group of people are deliberately causing these events rather than their being the result of impersonal forces acting as if they were forces of nature. It is what in religion is called "anthropomorphism" – the attribution of human form to a natural force or thing – as, for instance, in the Ancient Greek, Roman and Norse gods, which everywhere preceded the more abstract concept of a single god. In other words, conspiracy theories are a more primitive explanation of current events than the socialist theory of impersonal economic and historical forces. Or, as the pre-WWl German Social Democratic leader, August Bebel, put it less generously, anti-semitism is the "socialism of the fool". It would have been better if he had said it was "the anti-capitalism of the fool" but his meaning is clear: anti-semitism attributes the problems of the worker - or farmer or small businessman - not to the capitalist system but to the machinations of a particular group of people, in this case the Jews.
On further reflection, however, attributing economic and historical events to a conspiracy doesn't seem so simple or so reasonable. The conspiracy theory needs to explain how the conspiratorial group bring about these events and how they can keep their existence secret. To control the whole world - plot economic crises, wars and revolutions, let alone spreading AIDS and causing global warming - would require hundreds of thousands of operatives and some of these must be expected to spill the beans at some point. The fact that none ever have - and that therefore there is no verifiable or even unverifiable evidence that the conspiracy exists - is a powerful refutation of it.
Most people have heard the theory that it is the Jews who control the world and manipulate events. Since the consequences of Nazism, to embrace this view is now bad form, though a glimpse at the internet will show it still exists. Nowadays, it is the 'Illuminati' who are often said to control things.
The Illuminati were a group that really did exist mainly in the German-speaking world for a short period in the late 18th century, but there is no evidence whatsoever that they continued to exist after that or that they still exist today. But who were they and why did some people distrust them so much?
One of the features of the 18th century was what in English is called the "Enlightenment". It is mainly associated with French thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau who used "reason" to try to dispel the superstitions of the Dark Ages as propagated in particular by the Catholic Church. The word "Illuminati" is the Latin word for the "Enlightened" and those who formed the secret society (masonic-type lodge) of this name in Bavaria in 1776 aimed to spread and implement the ideas of the Enlightenment in Germany and Austria.
The founder and chief of the Illuminati was Johann Adam Weishaupt, a professor of canon law at the University of Ingolstadt, a town to the north of Munich. No biography exists of him, but we do know that he was born in 1748 and that his father was a professor at the same university. What we know of the ideas and ceremonies of his organisation comes from the writings and correspondence of members who fell out with him and from his own writings justifying his actions after the group was banned by the King of Bavaria in 1786. These formed the basis of two books which were published in 1797, one in English, the other in French, and which argued that the French Revolution had been engineered by the Illuminati as part of their plan to overthrow all religion and all governments and establish a universal republic, or cosmopolis.
What they were accused of is well summed up in the full title of one of these books, by John Robison:"Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies, collected from Good Authorities, by John Robison, A. M., Professor of Natural Philosophy, and Secretary to the Royal Society of Edinburgh".
This book and the other, by Abbe Barruel, which in English was called Memories illustrating the History of the Jacobins, are both on the internet in full but there's a need to distinguish between what the Illuminati said they stood for and what they were accused of standing for.
What they said they stood for was the happiness of the whole human race, to be achieved by "enlightening" them by freeing them from "superstition" (i.e. supernatural religion and loyalty to dynastic rulers). This done, a world society of liberty and equality would come into being in which all men would be brothers and citizens of the world.
As to their methods, the form of organisation chosen was the hierarchical secret society and the tactic was to infiltrate and seek recruits from the freemasons. There were the usual oaths, ceremonies and degrees of membership that exist in freemasonry generally. Weishaupt called himself - and this must mean something - "Spartacus" after the leader of a slave revolt in Ancient Rome.
The aim seems to have been what they said it was, i.e. to dissipate "superstition", by winning over people of influence, rather than by them seizing power and trying to impose this on people.
However, the secret and hierarchical nature of their organisation did lay them open to the charge and that they wanted to become new rulers through conspiratorial methods.
There is of course nothing wrong with the stated aim of achieving a world society - a cosmopolis - in which people would be politically free and morally equal (i.e. of equal worth). Nor with terms such as "Brotherhood of Man" and "Citizen of the World". Socialists are in some ways the direct descendants of such ideas.
Barruel devoted Volume Three of his 5 volumes to the Illuminati and says that in it he is exposing "the conspiracy of the sophists of Impiety and Anarchy against all religion and allgovernment without exception not even republics, and against all civil society and all property whatsoever". Later, he summarised the views of the Illuminati as follows:
The Illuminati probably didn't do this in reality. Barruel was trying to frighten his readers into opposing the French Revolution which he regarded as an antichristian plot.
Robison's aim seems to have been to cleanse freemasonry from the taint of "illuminism" (though he was also a loyal supporter of the British monarchy and State against revolutionary France). He records what some former members told the King of Bavaria the Illuminati stood for:
Here again, the suspicion must be that this is something attributed to them in order to prejudice people against them. Robison and Barruel also questioned the motives of Weishaupt and the others, saying that the real aim was not the happiness of the human race but their own rule over them.
That the French Revolution was the result of a conspiracy organised by the Illuminati was the first conspiracy theory, and it should be noted whose interests it served. As we know, the French Revolution was an anti-feudal, bourgeois revolution and, as such and at the time, a progressive historical development. Those who sought to discredit it were supporters of feudal privilege and dynastic rule. In short, reactionaries trying to turn back the clock of history.
Of course the French Revolution was not a conspiracy, but the outcome of a class struggle, arising out of a clash of economic interests between the rising bourgeois of emergent capitalists and the privileged feudal aristocrats. The ideological reflection of this was the battle between the ideas of the Enlightenment and those of the Catholic Church.
To single out the Illuminati as Utopian plotters aiming to rule the world is to fight yesterday's battles on behalf of the aristocracy and the Catholic Church against those of the bourgeoisie and the philosophers of the Enlightenment. It is a reactionary position.
Modern-day conspiracy theorists have invented a link between the Illuminati and the Jews. Thus, one conspiracy website has said that the Illuminati were set up and financed by "the House of Rothschild". Another says that Weishaupt's father was a rabbi. Another that he was a converted Jew. Even the Spanish-language Wikipedia article on him says his ancestors were of Jewish origin. There is not a shred of evidence for any of this.
Conspiracy theorists can't offer an adequate explanation of what's going on it the world. If we are going to change the world successfully we are going to need to understand it properly. And the only way we can do this is on the basis of verified evidence and logical thinking. This is what socialists do (or at least try to do). Using this method, we can see no evidence of world events being organised by a conspiracy. In fact, we can see that the world is not organised at all. We can see everywhere the anarchy of capitalism and its effects.
Competition is built-in to capitalism. This brings into being the World Market which ultimately determines what happens. But it's an impersonal mechanism not a conspiracy. And it is the cause of wars, revolutions and other conflicts in that these are by-products of capitalist competition, not the machinations of some occult group. That's the socialist analysis.
So the enemy is not the Illuminati (or the Jews, the Jesuits or Aliens from Outer Space). It's not even the individual members of the capitalist class. It's the capitalist system. What needs to be done, to put things right, is to move on to another system, one based on the common ownership of the world's resources with production to meet people's needs, not for profit. On that basis, all the things that the conspiracy theorists attribute to their chosen group of conspirators will no longer exist.
From the Socialist Standard, January 2005.
The Plot Thickens
Conspiracies - The Illuminati
Sky Mix, Fri, 9.00pm, Dec 10 "They're all enslaving you. They call us cattle, but they're just scum". So goes one of Alex Jones' weekly Texas radio rants against that supersecret sect of the centuries, the Illuminati (Enlightened). Established in 1776 in Bavaria as a secular intellectual club but driven underground by the Church, this mysterious society has by now infiltrated into every government organisation including the media. Its aim is nothing less than the dumbing down of a helpless population and then global dictatorship. Apparently.
We follow the narrator Danny Wallace on a wild-goose chase round industrial estates, hoping to meet a real-life Illuminatus, who evidently bottles out of the encounter (or didn't exist in the first place), and sundry interviews with paranoid amateur journalists who say things like: "They are monitoring my every move. It's a wonder I'm still alive" (a wonder you're not locked up, more like).
Conspiracy theorists often gain plausibility by taking established fact and embellishing it, so that one can't tell where truth ends and fiction begins. There are undoubtedly shadowy societies of the super-rich which are well-documented. The Skull and Bones in America includes many senators, three past presidents, and both George Bush and John Kerry, while in Britain we have the Masonic Lodge. The Bilderberg Group is also given lavish treatment in the programme. But of course, they can't be very secret or we wouldn't know about them. The point is, say the neurotic campaigners, they're all just fronts for the Illuminati.
What's really interesting – more than the unlikely tales of mock human sacrifices under a giant stone owl – is why some people need to believe the world is really controlled by a secret society, when it is fairly obviously controlled by the not-very-secret capitalist class. Perhaps that's just too mundane an explanation, or too public, when what is required by conspiracy theorists is something akin to demonic global possession, something so unearthly and powerful that it is quite beyond our ability to exorcise it. Why do they need to believe in this absolute evil? Perhaps in order to cast themselves as holy crusaders.
There are conspiracies all the time, little ones. Big ones tend to spring leaks however, and few are likely to believe in one that has lasted 250 years without being 'outed'. The capitalist class is not a conspiracy, not because it is open and, more or less, above board, but because it is not united, as the Illuminati presumably are. The disunity of the capitalist class is their Achilles heel, a weakness workers could use. If you believe your enslavers have no weaknesses, you won't struggle against them. The crusaders against the Illuminati could do with some illumination on that point.