Revolutionaries and radicals look bravely to the future, but are also often inspired by the past.
We look back to historical moments of revolt, to traditional ways of living or to long-lost ancient wisdom.
However, our inspiration from the past is of the same nature as our vision for the future, in that it remains fully subservient to our own inner value system.
We reject elements from an otherwise appreciated past which we would rather not include in our revolutionary future.
This is not complicated and yet it seems difficult for some in left-wing and anarchist circles to grasp.
Finding value in tradition and in past eras is sometimes dismissed out of hand as “reactionary”, “nostalgic” or “backward looking”. In Orwellian terms, it is regarded as loathsome “oldthink”.
There is a very intelligent discussion of this issue in a book about Guy Debord and the Situationists published in France a few years ago. (1)
Author Patrick Marcolini talks about the way in which elements of this influential revolutionary movement, such as its innovative détournement of images, have now been totally recuperated by the capitalist system.
He suggests that the Situationists’ mistake was to have relied on cultural references from within the very capitalist modernity they sought to oppose.
To paraphrase Debord’s own words, the Situationists could be said to have essentially followed the language of the spectacle and used its syntax. (2)
By embracing modernity and rejecting tradition, they effectively reinforced the contemporary capitalist narrative.
Marcolini writes: “If you want to oppose capitalism, it would be more coherent to defend that which resists capitalism, that which still lies outside of it, that which has not yet been caught up in its machineries”. (3)
This means that revolutionaries have to become “conservateurs”, says Marcolini – a term which has nothing to do with right-wing and capitalist “conservatism”.
“The task of the ontological conservateur is thus to defend community, in other words the autonomous forms of collective life and grassroots culture, and to reclaim the soil in which this can grow: the everyday activities and know-how which assure self-sufficiency and thus independence from all central power and all alienating technology”. (4)
Marcolini quotes Pier Paolo Pasolini in declaring that to connect with a past long buried under the dead weight of industrial capitalist civilization, we have to “seize from the traditionalists the monopoly of Tradition”. (5)
He goes on to explain that our aim is still revolution, however the revolution we must seek is “not the founding of something new, but the bringing into being and the rebuilding of something which has always been present”. (6)
A critique of modernity fuelled by an interest in aspects of the past is present in the thinking of all the writers featured on this website, not least, of course, Debord.
As Marcolini points out, in his later years Debord drifted further and further from the pro-modern positions which sometimes characterised the Situationist International and “came to criticise not only capitalism and the state, but modernity itself”. (7)
A critique of current society which does not challenge the whole reality of that society – a technocratic industrial capitalist reality – will always be built on sand.
If we are ever to successfully resist and bring down this ecocidal system, we will need to be inspired by thinking which has its roots outside that system, which existed before that system took hold of our lives and our minds.
We need to reclaim the past, reclaim traditional ways of thinking and living, in order to inform our collective future.
We look to the past to see what we have lost – what has been stolen from us by the modern capitalist world.
We look to the past not in order to slavishly imitate it or to attempt an impossible “return” to it, but so as to understand it, to appraise it, to take from it all that pleases, empowers and inspires us.
Everyone will approach this task differently, on the basis of their own tastes and preferences.
Let’s have a quick look at the various ways in which our relationship with tradition and past ways of living has been evoked by the thinkers featured on our site. Follow the links for the full references.
Ivan Aguéli, an anarchist, became a Sufi under the spiritual guidance of Sheikh Abder Rahman Elish El-Kebir and wrote an article about the doctrinal identity of Taoism and Islam in a review called La Gnose.
Miguel Amorós says the modern left condemned itself to political and social immaturity when it chose “science” and “progress” ahead of community and individual flowering.
Mikhail Bakunin was a romantic revolutionary, who believed in “natural traits” inherited from our shared human past, such as “the intensity of the instinct of revolt” which was “completely primordial”.
John Ball, the medieval rebel, looked back to an earlier egalitarian age and famously asked “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?”
Judi Bari insisted that basing a political belief system on “ancient native wisdom” was, in the context of today’s industrial society, “profoundly revolutionary, challenging the system to its core”.
Adolf Bastian regarded human thinking as being shaped by univeral Elementargedanken and particular Völkergedanken, consisting of folklore, myths and cultural beliefs.
Sharon Beder has explained how the capitalist system was forced to adopt greenwashing and fake environmentalism because it realised most people did not adhere to its modern industrial philosophy and still valued nature over money and “progress”.
Walter Benjamin argued that the archaic societies of Urgeschichte [the distant past] featured a harmony between man and nature which had been destroyed by “progress” and was in need of reinstatement in the emancipated society of the future.
Georges Bernanos regarded the modern world as one in which all the most important human values had been lost, declaring that “the Civilization of the Machines is the civilization of quantity opposed to that of quality”.
Joseph Beuys warned that humans had lost the self-knowledge of our belonging to nature and said we “ought really to go back to the natural world”.
Hildegard von Bingen practised a form of medicine which “both reflects and expresses the premodern relationship of humans with the natural world”.
William Blake was deeply influenced by medieval art and culture, decrying a modern civilization in which “Human Thought is crush’d beneath the iron hand of Power”.
Ernst Bloch was likewise inspired by the Middle Ages, in particular the “old heretic movement” which formed part of an “underground history of revolution” taking in the likes of the Free Spirit movement, the Anabaptists, the Hussites and the Camisards.
Martin Buber, whom we have already mentioned, conducted “a cultural criticism of modernity in the name of premodern social, ethical, or religious values”.
Joseph Campbell devoted his life to the study of comparative mythology and concluded that the idea of a natural state of harmony formed an essential part of the universal thinking we inherited from our ancestors.
Fritjof Capra finds parallels to the latest discoveries of modern physics in the ancient spiritual wisdom of the Vedas, the I Ching, the Buddhist sutras, Sufism and the teachings of the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan.
Edward Carpenter declared that modern civilisation was “a kind of disease” which had destroyed the health of the “old community of life and enjoyment”.
Noam Chomsky has always stressed the existence of an innate human nature, including the desire for freedom and solidarity, which modern capitalist thinking seeks to deny and suppress.
Chuang Tzu warned, more than 2,000 years ago, that it was a terrible mistake to impose “civilization” on the innate nature of the world and of humankind.
Voltairine de Cleyre embraced the philosophical insight of the Middle Ages that “that to conceive a higher thing than oneself and live toward that is the only way of living worthily”.
Ananda Coomaraswamy combined his anarchism with a commitment to “the universal metaphysical tradition that has been the essential foundation of every past culture”.
Paul Cudenec has set out a radical organic philosophy which he explains is not of his own invention but simply the rediscovery of an age-old Ur-anarchism.
Guy Debord’s “romantic critique of modernity” was rooted in “a secret nostalgia for bygone times” which became increasingly evident in his work.
Hans Driesch’s biological theories rejected modern notions of organisms being like mere machines in favour of the old idea of there being a sense of vital purpose behind life.
Françoise d’Eaubonne traced the beginnings of patriarchy to the Neolithic era and called on women to lead “the resistance of the flesh against the virtual”.
Jacques Ellul threw into question the whole direction of modern progress and its technologies and called for us to so “go back and begin again from a new starting point”.
Alexis Escudero has exposed the way in which the liberal left has largely swallowed the lie that social progress is dependent on technological progress.
Frantz Fanon condemned the violence with which Western civilization had crushed “the ways of life and of thought of the native”.
Silvia Federici has traced the contemporary domination of women back to the beginnings of modern capitalist society in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Mohandas Gandhi was deeply opposed to Western industrialisation and urged India to return to the simple village life it had known for thousands of years.
Renaud Garcia has warned that the artificiality and abstraction of life under modern capitalism is dragging us further and further away from a real sense of being alive.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe rejected the mechanistic thinking of the modern age and identified an innate sense of purpose within living nature as a whole.
Emma Goldman wrote of her connection to the “spiritual heritage” of humankind, whose “eternal struggle” was rooted deep within her.
Kurt Goldstein judged that people’s natural sense of well-being had been dangerously undermined by the materialist and industrial modern world.
Otto Gross was enthused by the idea of a return to pre-Christian forms of spirituality and social organisation.
René Guénon saw capitalist modernity as a hideous affront to everything that was traditionally important to human beings, as being a “civilization without principles”.
Georg Hegel based his philosophy on traditional metaphysics and drew inspiration from the organic social structures of the Middle Ages.
Hermann Hesse declared “I don’t share a single one of the ideals of our age” and sought inspiration in Hinduism, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, the German Romantic tradition and medieval culture.
Friedrich Hölderlin used the ancient language of myth and religion to express his intuitive awareness of the whole, writing: “I grew up in the arms of the gods”.
Aldous Huxley deepened his anti-Western, anti-capitalist philosophy by exploring the “old” traditional philosophies cast aside by the empty modern world.
Karl Jaspers warned that the modern world had suffered from “a breach in historical tradition” and that abandoning the timeless perennial wisdom of our ancestors was “as if a man were deliberately to saw off the branch upon which he is sitting”.
Richard Jefferies lamented the harmful effect of machines, was an enthusiastic advocate of a ‘return to nature’ and wrote that “we must begin again like the Caveman”.
Derrick Jensen is greatly influenced by the cultures of the indigenous peoples of North America, including the belief that we are guided by “original instructions” and have a responsibility to live according to them.
Carl Jung studied humanity’s mythology and religion in search of the innate inherited archetypes which he identified as being part of the “world soul”.
Ynestra King says that “we live in a culture that is founded on the repudiation and domination of nature” and that industrial civilization reinforces the subjugation of women.
Leopold Kohr was intensely critical of mass industrial society, including the “coca-colonization” of European culture, and nursed a romantic passion for the Italian city-states of the Renaissance.
Peter Kropotkin looked back favourably on the Middle Ages as a society where popular customs had evolved to protect the collective interests of the community and where a city was “a natural growth in the full sense of the word”.
Satish Kumar has based his lifelong opposition to the industrial-capitalist system on the spiritual traditions of the Vedic tradition, declaring that “the culture of the industrial world has no soul”.
Bharatan Kumarappa was strongly opposed to industrial-capitalist imperialism and promoted the Gandhian alternative of villagism, rooted in ancient pre-capitalist ways of living.
Joseph Cornelius Kumarappa also proposed a village-based non-industrial future for India and famously expressed his anti-industrialism by turning up to a post-independence government meeting in a horse-drawn cart.
Gustav Landauer drew inspiration from medieval culture and has been described as representing “a left-wing form of the völkisch current in thought”.
Georges Lapierre writes that Western culture has “broken the primordial pact” by abandoning traditional rules for human existence that formed part of the structures of natural harmony.
Michael Löwy writes about anti-capitalism Romanticism and identifies “profound nostalgia for forms of the pre-capitalist past, for traditional rural communities or craftsmanship” as a key element in anarchist thinking.
Eugène Marais explored the ideas of social organisms and “rites of passage” in the natural world and wrote about the mythical tales of his African homeland.
Herbert Marcuse identified an intellectual regression in the modern world which was quite at odds with its claims to represent the peak of human achievement.
Peter Marshall is an anarchist who regards his philosophy as the continuation of the holistic thinking which animated, for instance, Taoism and the medieval alchemists.
Carolyn Merchant writes that 16th and 17th century mechanistic thought and the beginnings of industrial capitalism saw “a slow but unidirectional alienation from the immediate daily organic relationship that had formed the basis of human experience from earliest times”.
Henry Miller was an outspoken critic of the modern world and said that over the previous 400 years there had been “a constant and steady decline of man in art, in thought, in action”.
Constantin von Monakow was vehement in his dislike of the Machine Age and of the Americanization of European culture. He argued that the answer to humankind’s problems was not more technology and planning, but trust in our own deepest biological instincts.
William Morris was deeply inspired by the aesthetics and culture of the Middle Ages and declared: “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization”.
Thomas Müntzer’s revolutionary thinking was influenced by the heretical anti-authoritarian Christianity of the medieval Brethren of the Free Spirit.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr regrets that the mechanist and industrialist conception of the universe took the Western world totally away from “the holistic and organic interpretation of things”.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o chose to express himself in his native Gikuyu because “language as culture is the collective memory bank of a people’s experience in history”. He adds: “To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition”.
George Orwell opposed the “swindle of progress” and combined his natural allegiance to the libertarian left with a deep love for traditional ways and old England.
Paracelsus’s worldview represented a late and creative flowering of the old organic gnosis later forced underground by industrial capitalist newthink.
Kit Pedler regarded the trappings of modern existence, from cars to washing machines, as barriers between contemporary humans and our true identity as part of the natural whole.
Plotinus’s philosophy was very much an expression of the Old Gnosis, the perennial philosophy of cosmic unity, and evolved from his study of traditional Indian and Persian metaphysics at Alexandria.
Val Plumwood blamed the mechanistic modern philosophy founded by René Descartes in the early 17th century for creating “a great and unbridgeable division between the sphere of nature and the sphere of the mental”.
John Cowper Powys bathed in “that spiritual legacy of pantheistic feelings which runs like an underground river”. He added: “This great tradition of natural religion is very old. Probably in its origin it was associated with the Orphic and Eleusinian Mysteries”.
Ranchor Prime writes that industrial capitalism “has spelled the ruin of traditional lifestyles” and suggests we rediscover “the Hindu ideal of a simple life of dependence upon nature’s goodness”.
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan warned that the “primaeval unity” was broken in the modern world and “we seem to be alienated from nature, leading sceptical, artificial and self-centred lives”.
Herbert Read despaired of living in “this foul industrial epoch”, writing: “We have lost touch with things, lost the physical experience that comes from a direct contact with the organic processes of nature”.
Rudolf Rocker said socialism had drifted into a “gradual assimilation to the modes of thought of capitalist society” and the modern proletarian was “socially uprooted… a component of a great mass of shipwrecked beings”.
Theodore Roszak wrote about an ancient and yet revolutionary way of thinking he called Old Gnosis. The resurrection of “this supposedly defunct tradition” could be seen as “an urgent project of the times”, he suggested.
John Ruskin expressed heart-felt despair at the industrial destruction of England’s traditional way of life and contrasted the natural forms of medieval Gothic architecture with the rigid sterility of the Machine Age.
Henry Salt was an ethical socialist who spoke out against the increasing artificiality of modern life. His “progressive but harmonious life-creed” was too old-fashioned for the modern industrial left.
Friedrich Schelling developed a metaphysics based on the Old Gnosis of the organic unity of the living universe. This Naturphilosophie is, of course, entirely incompatible with the industrial capitalist mindset.
E.F Schumacher contrasted the one-dimensionality of modern thought with the “three-dimensional structure” of traditional wisdom, calling for a return to ancient and universal ways of thinking.
Frithjof Schuon wrote that the symbols, sacred art and rites of traditional religions were just “a means of expressing all the truths known directly by the eye of the Intellect, the spiritual organ which is called in Moslem esoterism the ‘eye of the heart'”.
Jaime Semprun opposed the modern industrial world and sought revolutionary inspiration from “a past which was still filled with a future that we can imagine could have been, which could still be”.
Vandana Shiva finds strength in the Hindu tradition and explains that “there is not one environmental movement in India that is not informed by the ecological roots of Vedic culture”.
Charlene Spretnak places herself within a philosophical tradition which “includes the Romantic movement, the Arts and Crafts movement, the cosmological and spiritual quests in schools of painting, the counter-modern Modernists, Gandhi’s Constructive Program, and the counterculture”.
Starhawk challenges the assumptions of industrial capitalist society and calls for a new frame to our thinking, derived from the worldview of indigenous cultures.
Rabindranath Tagore wrote: “India’s best ideas have come where man was in communion with trees and rivers and lakes, away from the crowds”.
Leo Tolstoy distrusted the modern myth of “progress” and repeatedly warned that the Russian people should stay on the land, and avoid the industrial civilization of the West.
Ferdinand Tönnies contrasted Gemeinschaft (traditional community) with Gesellschaft (modern society) and regarded our transition from one to the other since the Middle Ages as representing social and cultural decline.
Alan Watts was greatly influenced by the traditional philosophies of the East, particularly Taoism, with its holistic overview and insistence on the organic cohesion of nature.
Max Wertheimer argued that Nazism had only been able to flourish because the modern industrial world had badly impeded people’s capacity for clear and logical thinking.
Gerrard Winstanley’s writings are strongly marked by a heretic and pantheistic form of Christianity, inherited from the revolutionary spirituality of the medieval Free Spirit movement.
John Zerzan traces the roots of contemporary alienation back to the beginnings of agriculture and domestication, writing of “our fall from a simplicity and fullness of life directly experienced”.
1. Patrick Marcolini, Le mouvement situationniste: une histoire intellectuelle (Paris: L’Echappée, 2012).
2. Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), p. 38.
3. Marcolini, p. 328.
5. Pier Paolo Pasolini, ‘Une force du passé’, in Via Nuove No 42, October 18 1962, cit. Marcolini, p. 328.
6. Martin Buber, Utopie et socialisme, trad. P. Corset et F. Giraud (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1977), p. 84, cit. Marcolini p. 330.
7. Marcolini, p. 301.