Monday, January 18, 2010

Echoes of a past life: From Marxism to Paganism

This is my favorite painting in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's Bastien-LePage's 1879 painting of "Joan of Arc." If you're not familiar with it, click on the image here to see it bigger. Better yet go see it live, it's huge. It shows a plain and humble peasant girl stopped in her tracks by the force of the vision of the angel who has revealed her destiny. This painting speaks to me: the look on Joan's face, far from joyful awe, is inward-looking; a combination of resignation, realization, fascination and a trancelike determination. The angels (and there seem to be three of them) behind her are indistinct; you have a sense that were she to turn and face them they would disappear. I love this painting because it conveys something about the mysterious way that spirit guides our lives: sometimes we are called to change course, grabbing up a sword and obeying an irrational compulsion to see some inner calling through to its conclusion. It's all happening inside Joan there, which is just like how the most intense spiritual experiences really are: inside you're on fire and open to infinity; outwardly you're barely present.

I'm not an activist now: I take my stand and argue for what I believe mostly in the sphere of ideas, trying to live my own life by my own moral standings but waving no colored banners out in the street. I've become very spiritual, but I'm no longer any kind of priest or teacher: I'm happy with my inner connection to God and the spirits. Surround me with the bliss of good music and a cute boyfriend and a warm cat and enough salary to pay my mortgage and health insurance and I'm okay, for now, not being at the hub of some spiritual community. Despite what I thought 13 years ago when I became an initate in Santeria, olo Obatala, I'm so incredibly happy just to have that sense of spiritual connection and balance, I didn't need to become super-santero, I just needed to find something for myself.

Now there is lots of injustice in the world and times are hard. I count my daily blessings for hanging on, and I know that one day I may wake up and find myself called in yet another direction. But I've been through that before. That's how life unfolds.

Right now I'm a left-wing, spiritual, music-fanatic blogger trying to weave a whole out of disparate strands to communicate something about life in the early 21st century. Tomorrow, who knows.

The following is an article I wrote for a Pagan publication in the early 1990s. "Circle Network News" was having a discussion of Wiccan paths and origins, and I wrote this, and apparently failed to send it in. Hey, yes, it's yet another quaint pseudonym. What is it with me and those? Anyway, this essay probably dates from 1992 or 1993. I've edited it a bit and reworked one section. I rarely called myself a Wiccan--and never would now--but at the time I used the word for the benefit of my intended audience. It fills in some of the details of times when, you might say, angels stood over my shoulder and filled me with resignation, realization, fascination and a trancelike determination to take up some new sword.


From Marxism to Paganism:
Wicca as Revolutionary Path
by Moonchild

Paganism means diverse things to us. Not only do we work different paths and different traditions, but the paths that have led us here have been equally diverse, leaving us with radically different visions of our place as a religion in the mundane world.

I think I belong to a strange generation. I am of that generation of people raised in the shadow of the social upheavals of the Sixties but neither of it nor of the social acquiescence of the Reagan years. My formative years were the decade of the Seventies, a strange time of transition and development, a time that now seems to me as ancient as the medieval era.

When I arrived at college in 1976 I expected to be swept into the tide of student activism that was the subject of my dreams and nightmares since my early childhood. But that tide had recedded. I found, instead, a handful of leftist sects prowling the halls of the Student Center loking for freshmen like me who didn't know the sixties were over. Despite the sneers of my fellow students, I signed right up.

It wasn't like the sixties, but it did offer me a way of looking at the world, and a wayof what looked like standing on the side of justice and progressive change. My mom had left the Catholic church when I was very young, and I hadn't been raised with religion. God was of the same order, to my mind, as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy; although at least the latter two gave me presents. But I had been raised with a kind of social consciousness; at the age of nine I was among the younger campaign workers for anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy in 1968. So seventies-style campus communism presented me with a worldview and a plan of action. I would be a professional revolutionary!

It was adventurous, in a way, to have Maoists chant "Icepick! Icepick!" at me, a Trot, as I passed them on the way to class. (For those of you not familiar with the Marxist pantheon, think of Stalin and Trotsky as the jealous children of the god Lenin -- an aspect of the triple god Marx-Engels-Lenin. When child-god Stalin had child-god Trotsky slain, the worshippers of Trotsky swore never to forgive him. When in turn the god Krushchev overturned the idols of god Stalin, the worshippers of god Mao attempted to restore the idols, and carried on an orthodox worship including the ritual sacrifice of Trotskyists. They used the sacre instrument that the agents of god Stalin used to spill the blood of demon Trotsky; an icepick! Got it?) It fell like real class struggle when I rose on Chicago's icy winter pre-dawn hours to sell leftist rags to steelworkers on their way in and our of the steel mills. And it was certainly thrilling to have dangerous car chases with neo-Nazis after brawling confrontations between sects of leftists and sects of rightists.

But it was all pretty irrelevant. The first thing I noticed was that as a growing-up person, some new things become important to me, biggest of all was my identity, and especialy my sexuality. When I realized I was gay and that that wasn't real compatible with the sect I belonged to, I shopped around for a new one, and after some false starts, settled into a group in which my gay and political identities could mesh.

I began to explore what it was like to live as a gay man in a heady time for gay men. It was the late '70s and the discos were full, and sex was plentiful, and AIDS was as yet unknown, and we were developing a synthesis of sexually and politically revolutionary theory and practice, and my friends and comrades were... still alive.

I moved to New York and became an actual professional revolutionary, earning my living art-directing for my leftist party. My salary was $500 a month plus all the subway slugs I wanted (which friends of the party clandestinely manufactured in the midwest. And I immersed myself in the gay political subculture.

Then several things happened. The group [the RSL--ish] I belonged to became heretical, casting aside dogmas like conquistadors smashing Aztec temples. Shortly before it dissolved it finally even cast out the triple god Marx-Engels-Lenin for the goddess Emma Goldman. Last time I saw one of my former comrades he was marching in some demonstration clad in a part-colored muumuu waving a plag pennant from a tall bamboo pole. The forced reexamination of ideas challenged my thinking, because above all it just seemed to me we weren't getting anywhere. In fact, we were being ignored.

The other event of great import was the arrival of AIDS. Talk about changes in lifestyle. Our world was shattered. I remember a coalition meeting in 1982. Probably fifty people, more men than women. Three quarters of the men in the room would be dead by the end of the decade. I think most gay men in the last few years have at least once been sure they were about to die. We lucky ones survive.

For me this profound challenge deeply demoralized me. Whie I offer heartfelt thanks and appreciation to the thousands of gay people politicized into action with such groups as ACT-UP [AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power--ish] and GMHC [Gay Men's Health Crisis--ish], for me AIDS represented a kind of crisis of faith. With all that negativity in the world, did I want to spend my time being all angry and frustrated? So I reorganized my priorities, and with a couple exceptions along the way, dropped out of politics in 1986 and learned to go about the process of living.

In "The White Goddess," Robert Graves has this to say about communism:
"Communism is a faith, not a religion: a pseudo-scientific theory adopted as a cause. It is simple, social equalitarianism, generous and unnationalistic in original intention, the exponents of which, however, have been forced, as the early Christians were, to postpone their hopes of an immediate millennium and adopt a pragmatic policy that will at least guarantee their own survival in a hostile world... [But the Communists' decisions] bear little relation to truth, wisdom or viture -- they are wholly authoritarian and merely concern the eventual fulfillment of Karl Marx's economic prophecies."

No longer concerned about prophecies and dogma I grew up a lot. I held down a real job. I travelled. I made friends. I got laid a lot. I endured the high and low drama of life. I tried not to freak out too much about the rising tide of AIDS in the gay community around me. The short version of the story of what I look back on as my spiritual awakening is that eventually, after watching so many people I knew and loved die I finally resolved to no longer dodge my own fate and I took an HIV test. To my utter shock and disbelief it was negative. I was going to live? What on earth did that mean?

I realized I had an obligation to those I had lost: I had been given a spiritual challenge to explore the implications of my own apparent survival. I had been calling myself a Pagan out of a kind of obnoxiousness for years. Feeling that Christianity was not something I had any interest in explorating, this small miracle nonetheless demanded spiritual exploration so I turned naturally to Paganism, which I soon realized was not some dead thing out of the past. I learned all about the different kinds of Paganism, about Wicca and faeries and feminists and eclectics and English traditionalists, and well, soon I found a new community and a new home. I realized I didn't have to set aside the principles that had made me a political radical: they were still there inside me even if my outward focus was changed completely.

Pagan spirituality affirms for me life and love, not just as spiritual guideposts, but as tools for the transformation of our interaction with the world itself.

I look at Paganism not just as a spiritual practice or esoteric interest, but as a deeply compelling call to readjust my own life in alignment with the Goddess, a call to challenge and afirm commitments. Wicca becomes the magical way to make that transformation happen. And as a spiritual community, we change ourselves in that beautiful dance, beginning to change the face of society as a whole, promising a future of meaningful life, justice and healing here in the arms of the Great Mother.


  1. Ian, I'm supposed to be abstaining from the internet, but I've been cheating occasionally. There's things I have to do online. This is a fine piece of writing. I'm also pleased that you were able to make some kind of sensible transition out of our little seventies subculture of sectarian leftism. A lot of Marxists claimed that pre industrial rebels were forced to use the language of religion because the language of class struggle had not yet been invented. I would argue that we were forced to use the language of Marxism because we had not discovered the language of spirituality. Unlike yourself, I went though almost 15 drunken years of abject misery because I lacked a language for my heart's desire. I wouldn't wish those years on anyone and they have continued to darken my thoughts to this day. It was a real pleasure to read this post.

  2. Thanks Jon!

    "I would argue that we were forced to use the language of Marxism because we had not discovered the language of spirituality."

    Nicely put.

    Is it the wisdom of middle age? I realize that a half dozen of my friends are in program and all happier than I have ever seen them; it turns out you're not the only one of my friends into ukes; and that almost everybody I know right now is a musician.

  3. Just wandering by, but I felt I had to respond. If I piss you off, no worries, as I'm not likely to wander by this way again.

    First off, tehre's a reason why so many people are hostile to Marxism. Marxists, especially during the Stalinist era, were in the same philosophical camp as Nazis, merely with a substitute of class for ethnic hatred to justify their criminal intentions and actions. Marxists may have talked up a good storm about equality and social justice, but when it came to practice they were no better than the other radical factions of the 20th century - and in many ways a great deal worse.

    There likewise has been something of a linkage between paganism and Marxism. I've never met a pagan that had bad things to say about socialism in general or Marxism in particular, despite the fact that most of the original pagans lived in feudal autocracies. I've also noted that the Wiccans I've known have had nothing but contempt for Christians - again, usually with more of a Leftist rather than druidic justification, as there is really no continuity between the Christian/pagan conflicts of the past and the present pagan groups of today. For these and other reasons, it's always aroused my suspicions.

    So why bother writing?

    Well, it's because I understand the idea of being victimized, and wanting to stand up for yourself, and needing some identity with a group of others to make that stand meaningful. And paganism isn't Marxism - there isn't any apocalyptic war to the death in paganism, or a justification for hatred of others based on arbitrary criteria (although again I must say, that hasn't stopped many pagans from being at least as hateful as the people they criticize). There's no Stalinism in paganism, no call for a "dictatorship" of anyone or anything.

    So I'm glad you've found something to believe in on this earth that's made you feel living is more worthwhile, and that helps to open your mind about the world around you. If you can accept congratulations and good wishes from a Reagan Republican and a Catholic, you have them.

  4. Thanks, Dr. Cruel, for your thoughtful comment. Obviously I disagree about a couple of your own conclusions but your main point is, I think, perceptive. For what it's worth my own big "I hate Christians" phase is long over.

    Happy wandering.