Marco Pasi (Translated by Ariel Godwin). Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics. Acumen Publishing, 2014
Books about Crowley have proliferated in recent years, so that it is quite a while since I was able to count them on my fingers. The reason, I think, is that the two biggest problems faced by a would-be biographer are, firstly, that little may actually known about the subject’s life, as with Shakespeare; or, like Lewis Carroll, the life is well-documented but rather dull. Aleister Crowley’s life, by contrast, is both interesting and known about in detail, and so makes an ideal topic.
Though his main interests were magick and religion, Crowley did more than dabble in politics. When still young, he was involved in the Carlist movement, that is, supporters of the claim of Don Carlos, the Duke of Madrid, to the throne of Spain, who planned an armed revolt; Crowley stated that in preparation he learned to use weapons and studied strategy; unfortunately, the operation did not come off, and he gave no details of his involvement.
The most curious thing is that his views apparently altered wildly and repeatedly. In 1899, he published An Appeal to the American Republic, which argued that there was a “kinship between the British and American nations”, whilst France, Russia and Germany were to be “viewed with suspicion and mistrust.” Yet only a year or so later he penned Carmen Saeculare, in which he presented himself as an Irish exile (he was not), and predicted that “London will be razed to the ground and the Anglo-Saxon race will vanish from the face of the earth.”
In the first few months of the First World War he wrote some patriotic pieces for the English Review, but then sailed for New York. Here, he became associated with George Sylvester Viereck, a German-American whom he had previously met in England. Viereck had founded two pro-German papers, The Fatherland, a weekly, and The International, a literary monthly. Claiming once again to be Irish, Crowley began to write political articles for The Fatherland. Later, he was engaged to edit The International, though in addition to poems and short stories he included a series ‘The Revival of Magick’ and other material on occult subjects, which were probably of interest to few of its readers.
It is conceivable that he did all this because he needed the money, but after the war he claimed that his Germanophile propaganda was deliberately written in an exaggerated way, and that his real intention had been to discredit the German cause by making it seem ridiculous. It has also been suggested that he was working as a spy for the British Secret Service, but there is no direct evidence for this It is curious though, that no attempt was made to prosecute him when he returned to England.
Hermann Rauschning was an early member of the Nazi party, who became disillusioned with it, and left in 1934, then emigrated to France, where in 1939 he issued Hitler Speaks, an account of conversations with the Fuehrer. Unfortunately, subsequently historians have concluded that in fact he only met Hitler once, so that the book is largely a work of fiction. It happens that, according to Rauschning, he regularly used such words as ‘initiate’, ‘magic’, ‘occult’, and ‘esoteric’. During the Second World War, Crowley made a number of marginal annotations in his copy, in which he compared Hitler’s (supposed) doctrines to his own. Next to the line “Enjoy life and enrich yourselves” he referred to a passage from The Book of the Law (the work that he believed had been dictated to him by his Holy Guardian Angel): “Ye shall wear rich jewels: ye shall exceed the nations of the earth in splendour and pride.” On “Do anything you like”, he wrote that here Hitler “interpreted AL wrongly”; it is difficult to suppose that he really believed that Hitler had studied his own writings – more likely all this was meant as a joke.
Apart from that, the political connections are vaguer. J. F. C. Fuller wrote an admiring book about Crowley, The Star in the West, broke away from him, rose to become a Major-General in the First World War, wrote about military strategy, became an admirer of fascism, was received in audience by Mussolini, and became one of only two Englishman to be invited to attend Hitler’s fiftieth birthday celebrations.
Tom Driberg joined the Communist Party in his teens, became a journalist, was recruited by MI5 to report on the communists, and eventually became a Labour cabinet minister, quite an achievement at the time, since it was well known that he was homosexual. In the midst of this he became a thelemic disciple, making a note in which he did “solemnly pledge myself to the Great Work”, which after Crowley’s death he took pains to retrieve and destroy. Another friend was Walter Duranty, for many years the Moscow correspondent of the New York Times, an admirer of Stalin who may have influenced the United States’ decision, in 1933, to recognized the Soviet Union diplomatically; but, although correspondence between the two men survives, there is noting to indicate that he became a disciple. Crowley’s relations with the Portuguese poet and political thinker Fernando Pessoa – who assisted him in a practical joke in which he faked his suicide – and the Italian traditionalist Julius Evola, who never actually met him, are tangled and were only brief incidents in his life.
Pasi rightly omits the story of how, in 1940, Crowley collaborated with MI6 in a ritual in Ashdown Forest to prevent the Nazis invading, since, although told by more than one author, it is complete fiction, though evidently inspired by the probably true story of how a coven in the New Forest did the same. He seems to be unaware of Crowley’s The Gospel According to Saint George Bernard Shaw, and though this is mainly concerned with religion, it does contain a critique of Shaw’s socialism. Finally, there are one or two flaws in the index: alphabetically, Victoria does not come after Viereck. - Gareth J. Medway