on 19 December 2010
Unfortunately, I have only read this work in an earlier edition, published about 40 years ago. Hopefully, this new edition is broadly similar!
J.M. Roberts' "The Mythology of the Secret Societies" begins with a disclaimer: it's not really a history of the secret societies themselves, but rather a history of conspiracy theories about secret societies. The disclaimer sounds like false modesty, since the book *does* cover the history of secret societies, most notably the Freemasons. The Illuminati, the Carbonari and the revolutionary circle around Buonarotti are also mentioned.
But yes, the real point of the work is to trace the evolution of conspiracy thinking about these societies. Still today, conspiracy writers claim that "the Masons rule the world", or believe that the Illuminati are behind all wars, economic crises and political assassinations. (Actually, the real Illuminati was a group in Bavaria active during the 1770's and 1780's.)
What I found particularly interesting about this book - but not very surprising - is the political pedigree of these conspiracy theories. They hail from the French monarchist right, the aristocratic refugees fleeing the French revolution. The point of the conspiracy theories, then, was to defend the ancien regime. Today, however, these "throne and altar" conspiracy theories have been taken up by conservative-libertarian groups in the United States, New Age groups, and others who should logically oppose the French aristocrats (and frequently do). Something similar is the case with the American conspiracy theories of the late 1700's, originally connected with the Federalists and directed against the Jeffersonians, but later taken up by groups who oppose Hamilton and support Jefferson! (This issue, however, is not mentioned in Roberts' book, which concentrates on Europe.)
That a theory can wander from one end of the political spectrum to completely different ends, in itself requires further study...
"The Mythology of the Secret Societies" fills a gap, since many other books on conspiracy thinking don't dig deep enough, but concentrates on 20th century developments (for instance, Barkun's otherwise excellent "A culture of conspiracy"). Roberts has followed the trail of conspiracist thinking back to the French revolution and even earlier, thus giving us a necessary historical background.
on 16 March 2013
It's not uncommon for friendship groups to have "that guy", a person who stays up all night watching conspiracy theory videos on YouTube, bringing up the Illuminati and New World Order ever time a political matter is raised. A few years ago, I was "that guy". Then I took a step back and started analysing these theories which were causing me so much distress. I put down the pseudo-history books and stopped watching YouTube videos, instead picking up English translations of actual secret society documents and contemporary accounts, both in favour of these organisations and opposed to them. It didn't take me very long to fully grasp what I'd always assumed at the back of my mind anyway, that the paranoid conspiracy theories of YouTube and elsewhere come from decisively conservative, usually Christian, viewpoints. Furthermore, the more I read and calmly rationalised the situation, the more it became apparent that the charges labelled against these subversive secret societies just aren't really all that sinister. At least, if you're a left-wing republican (in the traditional sense of the word), who believes that religion should have absolutely no place within government, then you'll find little in the aims of the Illuminati, and other subversive secret societies, to object to. If, however, you are an ardent Catholic monarchist who supports fascism, like Nesta Webster (one of history's most influential conspiracy theorists, whom even Winston Churchill endorsed), then you'll quite understandably find much to be fearful about from what these organisations stood for.
This classic textbook by the acclaimed historian, J.M. Roberts, tackles these very issues. Rather than being a book about what the secret society members actually believed in, as the word "mythology" in the title might suggest (though it does deal with that too), it's focus is actually on the mythology that was built around these organisations, during the build up to the French Revolution right through to the Restoration. Roberts tackles fact and fiction, displaying how fear of the radical changes sweeping through Europe during this critical period, and a general anti-Enlightenment sentiment, lead to a paranoia over secret societies, the ramifications of which were still felt strongly in the European politics of the 20th century (the anti-Semitism of World War II, for instance, was fuelled largely by conspiracy theories). Roberts focuses mostly on the Freemasons, a secret society which was originally intent on staying out of politics, but which eventually became used as a vessel for genuinely subversive organisations such as the Illuminati, whom Roberts also deals with at length. Although the Illuminati didn't actually achieve any of their goals while they existed, their revolutionary principals and hierarchical and secretive structure were adopted by later political secret societies, in particular the Carbonari. Though these societies achieved little other than to scare the authorities and to lead contemporary conservative writers into wild speculation, the chain reaction they instigated can be traced right up to the First International and the eventual communist movement. One character we're introduced to in Roberts' history, for instance, is Philippe Buonarroti, a freemason and utopian revolutionary, whom the almost legendary Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin called "the greatest conspirator of his age". The extent to which the revolutionary European secret societies influenced the later communist movements is only touched on here, but this subject in itself would make for an equally interesting follow up book.
Be warned that `The Mythology of the Secret Societies' is not light reading. It is, in fact, a 40 year old academic textbook, not written with the lay reader in mind. Roberts assumes that his reader already has a good understanding of the French Revolution and European politics from this age, and (in the edition I read, at least) his many foreign language quotes (mostly French) are never translated into English. The writing style is dry, and the book is incredibly factual. However, anybody who has an interest in secret societies absolutely must stop watching the paranoid YouTube videos and pick up this academic level-headed assessment instead. Of course, anybody who does believe that the nefarious hand of the Illuminati are behind all of society's evils would never actually bother to read a long challenging text like this, and may even accuse the author of being in league (wittingly or otherwise) with the conspirators. Ironically, however, most of the people who believe in this kind of thing these days are actually vehemently anti-government and often even left-wing in their politics, the kinds of people who are naturally against the monarchy and against the power that the Catholic church wields in the world; but they don't realise that the Illuminati actually stood for the very things they now stand for.