Philosophy | Outsider: Fascism and Colin Wilson
What links occult forces, ‘Angry Young Men’, a literary outsider, and authoritarian politics?
‘Meanwhile Iain Sinclair, master of the ambulant put-down, has been less restrained. Walking round a book market in his semi-autobiographical novel White Chappell Scarlet Tracings, he notices a haggler “beating down some tattered Colin Wilsons from 20p to 5p: unsuccessfully. Overpriced at nothing”.’ Phil Baker, The Life and Work of Colin Wilson.
Colin Wilson’s career started as a legend. He ended as an anecdote.
As a young man, Wilson set himself up with a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath and a seat in the British Library to write his first, eclectic book, The Outsider.
This magpie’s feast picked out all the sparkly elements in existentialism from Nietzsche to Van Gogh to TE Lawrence to Sartre. The British intellectual establishment applauded. The book was a hit for 1956.
But Wilson’s reputation was punctured when his second book was published; it had a poor reception, and Wilson was branded an intellectual pseud and imposter.
Fleeing the London literary and intellectual scene, Wilson became a law unto himself — the outsider’s outsider.
Wilson never regained a foothold in the respectable literary establishment. Instead, he churned out books on the paranormal, Jack the Ripper, UFOs, ghost and spirits, esoteric sex, serial killers, telepathy, and psychology.
All told, Wilson produced more than 150 books. By the time he was done, his reputation was as a hack writer and crank.
His books sold well, but not to the ‘right’ people.
His fall was complete — so far as official literature and philosophy were concerned.
I feel kinship with Wilson. On arriving in London, hoping to advance my shaky and ultimately doomed career in journalism, I slept for a few weeks in my car.
This was a little more protected than Hampstead Heath, though still cold.
It also offered fewer opportunities to urinate, since I was parked in the salubrious and mansion packed suburb of Richmond.
As with Wilson, I realised that if one is homeless one might as well sleep in the best districts.
I learned that indigence is not a universal path to literary notability — even the grubby glory that Wilson found. I would have been better communing with the spirits on the Heath than retreating to Richmond.
Wilson has probably exerted a greater influence on our society than many a Booker Prize winner. An autodidact from a working class background, his expulsion from the hallowed circle saved him from convention — and preserved a frank, uncomplicated thought style that made up for a lack of curiosity with a facility for non-linear connections between topics.
The association between Wilson’s thought and far-right ideas — particularly fascism — has often been made, and I believe the connection is justified.
It is not an overt connection. Wilson did not write as a fascist or rightist.
But, as we shall see, the topics he covered have an implicit connection to the authoritarian right — so much so that anyone who writes or thinks on these topics while believing them to be true will produce implicitly rightist, if not far-right or fascist thought.
Wilson said that he essentially wrote the same book 150 times using different historical, philosophical, artistic, and scientific material to elaborate his philosophy.
There is no ‘one’ book on Colin Wilson’s philosophy, but every book embodies it.
Wilson’s philosophy can be divided as follows:
I. Human beings have a hidden potential, Faculty X, which once fully realised will allow humans to greatly augment their powers, and possibly transcend death itself;
II. An aspect of Faculty X is manifested in the ‘peak experience’, a term Wilson borrowed from the psychologist Abraham Maslow. The peak experience is, in essence, the ego destruction that is associated with meditation, sex, and near-death experiences. A person can obtain a peak experience through intense concentration on an object or thought. When the person shifts their attention from concentration an ecstatic moment follows as the person returns from a state where their ego is temporarily suspended;
III. There have been people through history who have attained or understood Faculty X. These include extraordinary figures such as TE Lawrence and Van Gogh — as well as more marginal figures, such George Gurdjieff and Rasputin;
IV. Faculty X and its associated properties may be involved in many ‘unexplained’, occult, or mysterious events through history. These include UFO sightings, Jack the Ripper, and other elements connected to the supernatural. Phenomenon that are discarded as pseudo-science, such as telepathy and synchronicity, are manifestations of hidden human potential;
V. The existentialists and atheistic philosophers are depressing, and lack optimism in their materialist conception of man without God. There are grounds for optimism, and there is a possibility for human improvement — if only we have the will to find it. In this respect, Wilson echoes 19th Century optimism rather than 20th Century despair. The world can — will — get better. This salvation will be partly scientific. In this he resembles the 19th Century psychical researchers who thought that a scientific method would uncover evidence for the existence of an afterlife, and that communication with that afterlife would be possible.
What this philosophy represents is a hierarchical, optimistic, and occult approach to life that contains an implicit authoritarian politics.
His optimism tips the implicitly rightist ideas in his work towards fascism. Far-right ideas are not simply conservative in nature, but revolutionary conservative ideas. This not a glum defence of the old order.
And revolutionaries must be optimistic about the world to come, if not their chances of achieving that world.
Wilson’s interests in extreme crime, esoteric sex, and criminals as ‘super men’ or artists aligns with a typical far right fascination for the grotesque; it is not for nothing that the far right celebrates HP Lovecraft’s chthonic science fiction that depicts a chaotic, brutal, and hopeless world.
The far right is associated with order, but — as with all movements that radically reject a psychological element — the far right’s obsession with order and punishing criminals hides its own radically criminal and disordered element.
The brownshirts and Freikorps carried out violence in the name of order in Weimar and Nazi Germany. Far-rightist violence is obscene violence; it goes beyond the utilitarian violence sometimes needed to enforce the law and extends into the sadistic — violence as pleasure and violence as art.
Figures such as Jack the Ripper — about whom Wilson wrote extensively— can be seen in the far-rightist view as supermen, radically transcendent individualists who imposed their will, a very dark will indeed, on weaker people.
Modern mystics — often characterised as extraordinary men — like Gurdjieff and Aleister Crowley combined elements of paranormal thought with an elitist approach to attaining self-knowledge.
Their acolytes had to follow a strict hierarchy of steps towards full enlightenment. Their organisation as secret societies had kinship with the drinking clubs and Ariosophic societies that gave rise to Nazism.
A charismatic leader, surrounded by a subservient under class schooled in esoteric knowledge, can only exist as a counterpoint to leftist ideas about democracy, lack of hierarchy, and collective leadership.
The far right believes might makes right — everyone is a hypocrite, but liberals who claim to abhor the violence their power depends upon are particularly hypocritical. Far rightists pull away this hypocrisy to celebrate anyone or anything that can impose its will on others — even if that will is rapine and apparently chaotic.
But they simultaneously appreciate the value of social order — so overly entropic, chaotic elements must be suppressed.
A Freudian might think that far rightists are unaware of this faecal underbelly, but many are aware — and coyly revel in it.
Sex is also raised to a sacred level in far-rightist politics. It is not utilitarian — the far right abhors liberal sex education and permissive sexuality— but a spiritual experience, even if it must be directed towards producing more children for the community.
These themes overlaps with Wilson’s historical interests. He wrote on the possibility that Jesus visited England – an attempt to change a universalist religion into a particularist one, which is a particularly rightist concern.
The far right’s occult ancient history: Atlantis as Aryan homeland
This is where Atlantis becomes relevant. Atlantis holds a special place in paranormal thought as an ultra-advanced society that ceased to exist long-before the point that conventional archeology identifies as the starting point for human civilization. This trope has penetrated popular culture, particularly in the Indiana Jones series of films, television shows, and video games.
Atlantis, for the far right, provides the equivalent to the communist society to come for Marxists. In this account, Atlantis was ultra-advanced not only technologically but also in the paranormal sciences that have yet to be replicated in contemporary societies. The lost race that once inhabited Atlantis and was dispersed when an unnamed catastrophe overtook that society possessed psychic, telekinetic, and other supernatural powers.
This Atlantean race is associated — either through scattered genetic descent or spiritual relation — to the ‘Aryan’ races of today. Depending on the flavour of mythology one chooses, alien visitors from other planets are included in the mix.
Atlantis provides the explanation for why ‘Aryans’ exist as a master race, a race usually portrayed in far right thought as being in eternal battle with another blood-closed, hierarchical race — the Jews. The pseudo-science around Ancient Egypt, Mayan Civilisation, and so on provides not only fodder for popular entertainment, but also a parallel history and race theory for the far right.
I do not mean to say that every book, article, or media product that advances an alternative account to mainstream archeological discussion on topics such as the age of the Sphinx is far right, but rather the very occult nature of these studies predisposes this material to a far-right interpretation.
The links between Nazism, the paranormal, and alternative histories has been well documented in Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism (1985). These views were only one contending stream within Nazism, and a particular interest for Himmler.
Hitler told his secret police chief to lay off his more extravagant paranormal interests.
After the Third Reich fell, Savitri Devi — a French-Greek convert to Hinduism — developed the occult aspect of Nazism in the post-war period by filtering it through Hinduism.
Her new religion had Hitler become an avatar of vishnu — a god of destruction called forth to end an age of corruption. This adaptation of Nazism in religion included many paranormal tropes and concerns.
The pull of UFOs in neo-Nazi thought was developed the Chilean diplomat Miguel Serrano, who outlined the theory of ‘esoteric Hiterlism’ — a theory that included Antarctica as the location for a secret Nazi base from whence UFOs emerged to scrutanise the world.
The parallel between Antarctica as home to a secret Nazi base and Atlantis as a lost civilization is important here. Atlantis was the lost utopia that according to legend sunk into the sea, and Nazi Germany the lost utopia that vanished into the Antarctic fastness. Thus, the far right’s pseudo ancient and modern histories match each other.
Jason Reza Jorjani is a contemporary thinker who has spoken at events associated with the alt-right. He has sketched out a paranormal connection to Atlantis— a link that extends to the ‘Aryans’ of Iran and the Zoroastrian religion. Jorjani hints that Atlantis was a civilization of extraordinary power, and that this power contained paranormal elements.
In this, he continues the paranormal tradition that links the far right to the Ariosophists of 19th and 20th Century Germany, the Volkish movement, esoteric Hitlerism, and the paranormal more generally.
Similarly, Wilson’s interest in the paranormal and occult cannot help but bring his thought into the same dark realm as the far right.
Angry Young Men and Bitter Old Men
We do not choose our generation, our generation chooses us. The Beat writers Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac often expressed their resentment at being lumped together despite their disparate ages, politics, interests, and styles. Nonetheless, we — the outsiders — recognise a common quality to those writers.
And so it is with Colin Wilson’s generation, the Angry Young Men. Wilson claimed that the name was a press invention that greatly exaggerated his association with the other ‘Angries’; but even if this is so, it does not change the common concerns present in this group.
The Angry Young Men included Kingsley Amis, Bill Hopkins, Edward Bond, Kenneth Tynan, and Harold Pinter. What unified this group sociologically was their lower middle class to upper working class backgrounds. These were men who had ‘made good’ at grammar school, perhaps becoming the first member of their family to attend university.
They had just arrived in the middle class, but did not yet fully belong. They had the education, the books, and superficial command of middle class patois, but somewhere in the ever-smokey North or Midlands lay their shameful, grubby origins. Their intelligence moved them up the social scale, and in doing so they became alienated from the life world of their parents and childhood friends while not being fully accepted to the middle class world.
In keeping with this position, the angry young art dealt with social class embarrassment whether in the work place (Amis’s provincial university satire Lucky Jim) or marriage (Room at the Top). Embarrassment, anger, and social deception all play an important role in these works — with the nice middle class girl our angry protagonist marries proving an incomprehensible burden rather than the idealised, ego-boosting match she appeared to be on the couple’s wedding day.
As with converts to a new religion or political party, the Angries often proved to be the most joylessly conformist to what they perceived to be middle class mores. The phenomenon is similar to those in the colonial world who tried to be ‘more English than the English’ — even if they never visited the Motherland.
After a period of rebellion (not, note well, revolution) where many Angries backed the Labour Party, blew raspberries at the Establishment, and the class system, there was a gradual settling into bitterness.
The Angries simultaneously loathed the system for not fully accepting them, and adored it for elevating them over their peers — as such, the Angries were destined to become rigidly conformist to what they imagined to be core middle class values.
What were these values? Hierarchy, order, patriotism, ‘not making a fuss’, diffidence, snobbery, informal race distinctions, cricket — and so on. This would not surprise Marxists, who always identify the lower middle classes and upper middle classes as those social elements most ripe for authoritarian, rightist thought.
Accordingly, it is not surprising that as the Angries aged they identified with the rightist conservative thought. John Braine, for example, produced a pamphlet called Goodbye to the Left that was published by the ultra-rightist Monday Club.
Bill Hopkins, a more obscure member of the Angry generation, was lauded by the British National Party’s Cultural Officer, Jonathan Bowden, in a speech currently available on YouTube. That a far rightist praises an author does not show the author is on the far right, but evidently his work was attractive enough to a far rightist for it to be recommended in a cultural program.
These views contrast with those born to the middle and upper classes, who are often more comfortable in rejecting the values that surround them in their class environment. Jeremy Corbyn and Jessica Mitford are two examples of the leftist current in middle and upper middle class — a current that enjoys considerable influence in the media and society; so much so that it sometimes appears to be hegemonic, if only to the rightists who spend too much time on the Guardian website.
The inverted snob would distain a naively patriotic Angry — a double blow.
The Angries were rejected by members of the very class they sought to enter for not being sufficiently working class when a large part of their life had been dedicated to shedding any working class elements — from accent to unconscious social manners — that could betray them at any moment.
It’s similar to making a great effort to dress up for a party because you know that the host generally does so — only to arrive and find everyone in casual clothing, although no one had told you.
Wilson was condemned for his naivety, and his brashness in praising himself. He believed his thought was world changing, and said so. In this — and the criticism he received — one detects a certain frankness perhaps connected to his social origins.
Candour and frankness are antithetical to British middle and upper class values — everything must be expressed indirectly, especially through irony.
This may well be the fault of classical education, and Plato’s idea that a gentleman will tell the truth through irony.
In being straightforward, Wilson was being true to his social origins but ‘vulgar’; it is no surprise that he finds a more open reception in the United States where directness is considered the norm, if not a virtue.
The catty, middle class attack on Wilson is evident in the quote that heads this page; it is an attack from the left, the strangely bitchy upper middle class British left.
But his forthrightness also indicated an affection for hierarchy and order. He was emulating the Nietzschean overman in his frankness and self-proclaimed genius. This is, in turn, another connection to the far right.
In general, though, Wilson fitted in with his generation’s conservatism.
The generational voice of petty bourgeois authoritarian conservatism.
I have affection for Wilson as an author who has an innocent wonder. What I have written here is not — I hope — an indictment of Wilson’s thought, but is rather intended to illuminate the implicit connection between a certain thought life and far-rightist politics.
Reading Wilson will not ‘turn you fascist’, anymore than reading a Dashiell Hammett novel will turn you communist because that author was in a communist party.
Wilson was a sharp observer of his own life world and psychological process. The ‘peak experience’ may not lead to a utopian world or a superhuman race, but it is still a valuable observation – a simple technique that can ease mental distress.
He is also a fine tonic against the beige, scientistic, and liberal consensus that is all the more oppressive for dominating our thought life while simultaneously pretending that it represents the oppressed when it is, in fact, very powerful — if not the dominant thought in our socieities.
The hegemony is ever pompous and self-satisfied whereas Wilson was cheerful, frank, and straightforward. He had the courage to say he believed what he produced had world historical importance, while his detractors smugly assume their place in history is assured.
Of course, straight talking and frankness are rightist virtues, and anyone who has ever watched a Clint Eastwood film knows this. This is why the rightist is a rebel, not a revolutionary.
He speaks his mind, says what he sees, but does not believe it will change — although his words will ruffle the system. The revolutionary equivocates, misleads for the greater good to come, for the revolution that does not ruffle the system but destroys it.
As far as UFOs, big foot, esoteric sex, the ‘real’ Jack the Ripper, telepathy and the paranormal menagerie go the jury seems to be in permanent recess — but sometimes it’s a great relief to open the doors of perception, self-induce psychedelia, and see where synchronicity takes you.
But it always helps to maintain a safety rail so we remember that we may be risking an intrusion into dangerous and dark territory. We must remember to come back down to Earth, otherwise we may be possessed by the forces of radical evil represented by far-right politics.
Edmund Griffiths (2014) Towards a Science of Belief Systems
Nicolas Goodrich-Clarke (1985) The Occult Roots of Nazism
Phil Baker (Feb, 2017) ‘Overpriced at Nothing: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson’
Ken MacLeod (Dec, 2013) ‘Strange Life’