Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Dec 21 15:26:37 MST 2000

(From Buhle-Buhle-Georgakas "Encyclopedia of the American Left")

SPIRITUALISM. The general term given to the widespread social and
theological movement of the mid-nineteenth century, spiritualism also
consolidated and expressed the utopian, pre-Marxist phase of U.S.
radicalism. An important factor in the breakup of the First International’s
U.S. section, it retained an influence within the native-born Left into the
early twentieth century.

Spiritualism had deep historical roots. Utopian socialism, or
communitarianism, by far the predominant form and ideology of U.S.
socialism until the 1870s, continued the Reformation’s dual pursuit of true
egalitarianism and untainted holiness. Many communitarian ideas (and a
number of leading activists, such as Robert Dale Owen) passed directly from
utopian experiments into the spiritualist movement, which sprang up with a
rash of seancelike spirit "appearances" in 1848-1850. Over the next decade,
more than a hundred periodicals devoted to spiritualism spread the word,
intellectuals (including an occasional congressman) declared their
adherence, and spiritualist congregations approached the overall size of a
respectable Protestant denomination. Contemporary reform movements such as
woman’s rights, abolitionism, temperance, and peace (and, more quietly,
free love) shared constituencies with spiritualism.

Very quickly, a particularly leftward trend within the movement pronounced
its version "philosophical spiritualism" (as differentiated from mere
seance-oriented "phenomenal spiritualism"). Andrew Jackson Davis
(1826-1910), perhaps the leading American devotee of Emanuel Swedenborg,
advocated in many of his volumes drastic reforms to restrain financial
manipulation and return democracy to the mass of citizens. "The Pantarch,"
Stephen Pearl Andrews (1812-1886), became the practicing metaphysical
theorist—and perhaps political ghostwriter—for Victoria Woodhull. Through
Woodhull and her paper, Woodhull and Cia fin is, spiritualism reached even
into the First International (Marx and his U.S. supporters scoffed at the
belief, but other European-based officials adopted a more tolerant view).
Woodhull, president of the American Spiritualist Association, served as
public symbol for the potential synthesis of the two doctrines. Other
spiritualist figures--journalistic spokespersons, practitioners, and poetry
or fiction writers, often the same individuals—continued to affirm the
centrality of radical reform or socialism to spiritualist expectations of a
New World ahead. As late as 1879, a less controversial president of the
American Spiritualist Association asserted, in the semiofficial Banner of
Light, that "if spiritualism has been under a cloud because of its
connection with freeloveism, it is destined to pass under a still darker
cloud—but that one has a golden lining. This cloud is called SOCIALISM";
furthermore, "spiritualism. will spring up unbidden in the very center of
the socialistic camp."

Philosophical spiritualism, in all, offered a philosophy or cosmology akin
to the untheoretical socialism of native-born Americans unable to act
comfortably within the immigrant-dominated Socialist Labor Party of the
later nineteenth century. Spiritualist newspapers from the 1850s to the
1880s argued for women’s equality, better treatment of blacks and Native
Americans, abolition of capital punishment, and the long-range enactment of
a cooperative order. At a deeper level yet, spiritualists suggested a
psychic ecology—the oneness of all matter, living and formerly living—in a
grand scheme. Universal consciousness would in this view eclipse class
society and racial or gender discrimination. In many subtle ways, such
spiritualist doctrines would find their way into the native-born ranks of
the Socialist Party, through elders active in movements since the 1840s and
through the indirect influence of familiar doctrines.

In general, the spreading faith in materialistic science (and the exposure
of numerous individual seance frauds) diminished the appeal of spiritualism
in the final decades of the century. In an odd way, however, resistance
against this public confidence in bourgeois society prompted a
radical-mystical turn of mind within reform-minded sections of the Yankee
middle classes in the 1880s-1890s. Andrew Jackson Davis’s writings were
widely reprinted in the Coming Nation, the most popular socialist paper of
the day. Bellamy Nationalists set out their actual cooperative colonizing
in league with radical Theosophists. Even in the ferociously orthodox
Socialist Labor Party, the leading lecturer on the "Bible question," Peter
E. Burrowes (who had sojourned through nearly a dozen religions, and at the
time of his death set about creating a chess game that would illustrate the
workings of the universe), proclaimed in his "Gospel of the Cosmos" a great
mystic vision of socialism as climax to mankind’s age-old spiritual yearning.

The Kautskyan scientific emphasis of Second International doctrine
militated against any formal association of the new Socialist Party with
the spiritualist heritage. Yet in the pages of a number of popular
publications—the Comrade, Horace Traubel’s the Conservator, and the
Socialist Spirit among others—variants of spiritualism found a new home. A
sprinkling of homespun, especially elderly women Yankee radicals continued
to argue their doctrines in Socialist Party ranks. In Iowa, for instance,
"New Thought" believers (mostly aged Yankee reformers) who published the
leading state Socialist newspaper claimed to make spiritual contact with
others of the same inclination. But spiritualism’s greatest impact was upon
socialist literature. Jack London, whose mother was a medium, wrote
spiritualist ("mind-travel") fiction, and other science-fiction authors,
including the highly popular George Allen England and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s
nephew, Julian Hawthorne, gave their cosmic adventures a
socialistic-spiritualist twist. The First World War, virtually destroying
the entire milieu for spiritualistic socialism, also produced a last
apotheosis of pronouncements of faith’s ultimate victory over the gore and
cruelty of battle. Anticipating his own death (it would occur in 1919),
Traubel—known as the "Socialist Walt Whitman"—depicted his spirit watching
over the transformation, and added words of praise and condemnation, in his
lyric "I’ll Hear It All from Somewhere."

The next radical generation’s disapproval of theistic beliefs largely
eradicated the memory of their importance and restricted spiritualistic
doctrine for decades into personal credos such as Upton Sinclair’s Mental
Radio (1930). Only in the later 1960s and after, with a return of
utopianism, feminist theology, and a nature-centered religiosity, did the
themes of spiritualism find sympathetic listeners around the Left. In the
hippie movement, for instance, a reverence for Native American wisdom
(epitomizing a nature religion) returned from nineteenth-century obscurity
into a phenomenon of mass culture. New Left campus and community activists
tended to ignore such developments, despite widespread admiration for the
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s religious commitments, but after the New
Left collapse the themes of spirituality grew still stronger. By the 1980s,
a sometimes radical Jungian feminism became a major topic of well-selling
religious studies. Scholarship and a wide popular following concerning the
archeological discoveries of goddess artifacts in vanished societies
developed in the 1980s. While closer to ecofeminism than to the formal
Left, the proliferating literature about matriarchal societies,
seminar-retreats, and "goddess tours" revived discussion of a possible
prehistoric age devoid of class and social strife. Recalling the enormously
popular Frau und der Sozialismus by August Bebel, this trend offered
promises of redemption of the global capitalist debauch evident at the end
of the twentieth century.


Buhle, Paul. Marxism in the United States: Remapping the History of the
American Left. London: Verso, 1991.
Eller, Cynthia. Living in the Lap of the Goddess. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.
Moore, R. Lawrence. In Search of White Crows. New York: Oxford University
Press, 1977.
Stern, Madeleine. The Pantarch: A Biography of Stephen Pearl Andrews.
Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.


Louis Proyect
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