Herman de Tollenaere on Theosophical History and Politics

Herman de Tollenaere asked two central questions when he wrote The Politics of Divine Wisdom: Theosophy and labour, national, and women’s movements in Indonesia and South Asia, 1875-1947. A summary is published online on this Netherlands site. A summary still relevant for recent discussions, and a valuable source of information about the relationship between theosophists and political involvement. The politics of members was always separate outside of the Theosophical Society, but a study of the history of members and how ideas in Theosophy played in them are valuable.

The Politics of Divine Wisdom

“My two central questions are:

  1. What were the Theosophical Society’s relationships to three political movements: labour, national, and women’s movements?
  2. How did outsiders, linked to these movements’ fields of activity, agree, or clash, with the theosophists’ approach to them?”

Here are helpful excerpts from the link about the book:

Often, authors see theosophists’ occult views as politically irrelevant; this shows in the little attention political history pays to them. On the other hand, authors connect them to progressive political views. James Webb associated occultism with ‘Nationalisms, Socialisms.’ Daniel Bell linked ‘gnostic esotericism’ to ‘anarchism’ without explaining this. Authors both left and right in the political spectrum, opponents and supporters of theosophy, often took one of these two views. This book questions both. I limited the complex notion ‘nationalism’ to nationalism in a colonial rule situation. (…)

“The great majority of supporters belonged to more or less privileged strata like the nobility, business, and officers. Theosophy, promising an international élite, inter alia worked as ideological support for some sections of groups who felt they might lose privileges. (…)”

“In theory, theosophy was for everyone. However, attempts to reach workers or peasants were infrequent and unsuccessful.”

TS’ relationship to three tendencies in the labour movement: social democracy, communism and anarchism. From the beginning, the relationship was strained, as showed in Madame Blavatsky‘s anti-socialist declaration of intent in the first issue of her monthly The Theosophist in 1879. Marx and Engels referred quite often briefly, and not in a very complimentary way, to spiritualism. Engels once, in a 1890 private letter to Kautsky, referred, not in a positive sense, to the Theosophical Society. This set a pattern for later Marxists: reactions to viewpoints of theosophists mostly came only where these views were influential.

Opposition to revolution, as in the czar’s empire in 1905, to anarchism, to communism, was consistent in theosophists’ writings. The relationship with moderate social democrats was more complex. On the one hand, there were quite some links; on the other hand, a basic principle like universal suffrage was a problem with theosophists.”

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