In 2006, The Secret introduced a new generation to the claim that thoughts are causative. Word quickly spread that a key inspiration behind the hit movie and book was a slender, obscure metaphysical guide from 1910: The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles.
The Secret’s fans flocked to Wattles’ book: An edition that I reissued at Penguin hit number one on the Bloomberg BusinessWeek bestseller list, and the work continues to sell in myriad editions today.
But many success-driven readers, new and old, fail to realize that Wattles, a radical Quaker and socialist activist, imbued his “get rich” guide with Marxist politics and metaphysics.
Rather than a narrowly conceived iteration of the prosperity gospel, The Science of Getting Rich is, in fact, a guidebook to personal utopia, where state and corporate dinosaurs are predicted to wither away, replaced by a cooperative system of personal wealth and beneficent anarchy.
By “thinking in a Certain Way,” the author taught, you can overthrow the old social order. Wattles wrote the following in his New Age urtext, with emphasis in the original:
You are to become a creator, not a competitor; you are going to get what you want, but in such a way that when you get it every other man will have more than he has now. I am aware that there are men who get a vast amount of money by proceeding in direct opposition to the statements in the paragraph above, and may add a word of explanation here. Men of the plutocratic type, who become very rich, do so sometimes purely by their extraordinary ability on the plane of competition.…Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, et al., have been the unconscious agents of the Supreme in the necessary work of systematizing and organizing productive industry; and in the end, their work will contribute immensely toward increased life for all. Their day is nearly over; they have organized production, and will soon be succeeded by the agents of the multitude, who will organize the machinery of distribution.
Wattles saw mind power, or New Thought, as a means to the kind of leisurely socialist utopia that enthralled readers of Edward Bellamy’s futuristic Victorian-age novel, Looking Backward. Writing in 1910 in his lesser-known A New Christ, Wattles envisioned a marriage of New Thought — America’s homegrown success philosophy — and Christian socialism:
As we approach socialism, the millions of families who are now propertyless will acquire their own beautiful homes, with gardens and the land upon which to raise their food; they will own horses and carriages, automobiles and pleasure yachts; their houses will contain libraries, musical instruments, paintings and statuary, all that a man may need for the soul-growth of himself and his, he shall own and use as he will.
It was as though Marx had imbibed the mother’s milk of American metaphysics. Within Wattles there existed a struggle to unite two mighty currents that were sweeping early 20th-century America: social radicalism and mind-power mysticism. Was it possible, as Wattles dreamed, that these movements could be united into one radical whole? Could there be a revolution by mental power?