Freemasons, Fraternities and cults

Mark Lause lause at
Tue Jul 2 07:32:26 MDT 2002

Chris, their purpose in 19th century America was largely mutual aid, ie.,
insurance.  Unraveling them is a bit like trying to understand the
Protestant Reformation...or the history of radical organizations...but they
didn't all start out being about essentially the same kind of businessman's
glad handing.  The Odd Fellows developed originally in England, essentially
as freemasons without the tint of irreligion that freemasonry had acquired;
it spread most quickly over here in areas where there was the most
antimasonic sentiment (starting in upstate New York).  The Elks were a
fraternal order of theatre people to start with.  If you encounter a Grange
out in rural America, you're dealing with a genuine fossil of the
cooperationists' movements of the 1870s.

The Grange...the Patrons of Husbandry...(which still survives) was really
odd when it started because it admitted women to full membership, made them
officers, etc., but excluded blacks.  Racial exclusion was one of the things
that led to the Missouri break from the Grange, the Industrial Brotherhood,
which also sought to organize the working class.  It was very big for a
while, then merged into what became the mass organization of the Knights of
Labor.  As the Grange and the Knights backed away from overt criticisms of
the capitalist system, a "Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union" superceded
them in the west and the south.

Although Marxists have tended to downplay these things, we should
acknowledge that these things represented a genuine mass response to the
fact that there existed no real mechanism for mass insurance for ordinary
middle and working class people, their founding represent a good example of
the creativity of the people.  Moreover, the reason that the mass radical
insurgencies of the 1870s through the 1890s (Greenbackers and Populists)
WERE massive is because they grew from these kinds of nonpolitical mass
organizations whose memberships adopted social and cultural values at odds
with those of the capitalist system...such things have to have some
implications for our understanding of the relationship of radical politics
in general to the civil culture at other times.

Finally, looking at how these things develop, shows us not that Marx's
insights were correct but HOW they were correct.  Not to put too fine a
point on its, but capitalism is a system that tends to coopt anything it can
put to its purposes, including the products of radical anticapitalism.
While capitalism itself can assimilate innovations (cultural and social as
well as technical) it can commericalize and make profitable, it's time for
producing innovations itself is rather long past.


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