Blavatsky a closet socialist?

Following dream inspiration I searched the word ‘generous’ on the digital Blavatsky Collected Writings… I found an article on social reform The Struggle for Existence which may, or may not, have been written by H.P. Blavatsky. It was published in Lucifer, Vol. IV, No. 20, April, 1889, pp. 104-111. Given the subject of this piece, one might wonder whether it was not written by Annie Besant instead. However the style seems to me closer to Blavatsky than to Besant.

It’s interesting, because it tells us about the evolution of humanity as explained in The Secret Doctrine (published 1888) and applied to the social situation of the times.

Grand, indeed, and magnificent has been the childhood of the white race in which material and intellectual progress have raced on madly side by side; witness the conquest of nearly the whole world’s surface by its spirit of enterprise and adventure, rejoicing as a giant in its physical prowess, the subjugation of the henchman steam, and ever fresh triumphs over the master electricity. But the child cannot be ever a child, and the race draws nigh to its manhood; the God awakes and the Struggle for Existence begins in grim earnest. (p. 148 Col. Wr. Volume XI)

If this is Madame Blavatsky talking, she gives us in a few words an explanation of her doctrine of ‘race’ saying:

Thus far the white race, as a race, or in other words, the average individual of the race, has developed the subtleties of his animal nature to their limit, and now comes in contact with the divine; and it is only by extending this area of interest and sympathy that the individual can expand into the divine to be at last one with universal love, the spirit of which is self-sacrifice. (p. 148, 149)

I’d love to quote the whole article, well written as it is. But this is a blog, and the article is after all accessible on my website. The main point she goes on with is that of human evolution. That is: of how the evolution of the individual is bound up with the evolution of humanity (Man with a capital M) as a whole. Blavatsky shares this as a vision of hope: each of us can live self-sacrifice and thereby help humanity as a whole become more generous.

But back to the story of human evolution. Blavatsky shares her vision of the future:

In the evolution of all human societies we find the factor of caste; in the childhood of the race, caste is regulated by birth, an heirloom from the past civilizations of older stocks. Gradually, however, the birth caste wanes before the rising money caste, and hence material possessions become the standard of worth in the individual, in that the race is then plunged most deeply in material interests and has reached its highest point of development on the material plane. But the zenith of the material is the nadir of the spiritual; the law of progress moves calmly onward with the wheel of time, and nature, who never leaps, develops a new standard of worth, the intellectual, which we see even now asserting itself in proportion to its adaptability to average comprehension and the material standard of the times, and pointing to the development of a new caste standard, to be in its turn superseded by the caste of true worth in which the spiritual development of the race will be completely established. This, however, will be the work of ages and for humanity as a whole cannot easily be quickened, for it is impossible to change the natural law of evolution which proceeds spirally in curves that never re-enter into themselves, but ever ascend to so-called higher planes. (p. 150, 151)

However, at certain times evolution foreshadows the future she says.

At certain periods, however, of these cycles, a forecast or antetype is offered of the consummation, whereby an example of humanity in its perfect state is dimly shadowed forth. Such a period the white race is now entering upon, and the earnest of perfect type humanity will be given by those, whether of the money or mind caste, who, realizing the goal of evolution and capable of destroying the illusion of time, by translating the future into the present, freely extend the benefits of their caste to the pariahs of the race, and approaching them in friendship, gain a practical knowledge of their wretchedness and endeavour to awaken the latent divinity that slumbers within. (p. 151)

This speaks as much to our times as it did to the end of the 19th century. There are indeed two claims for status in our world: knowledge and education and monetary success. Money being the stronger among most people, I think.

The rich should, so Blavatsky feels, take a look at the good of mankind as a whole: not just physically, but emotionally, mentally and spiritually. The betterment of the individual at the expense of others should not be stimulated. Instead (and here she starts sounding antiquated) …

the great sanitary improvements which the money caste enjoys, should be extended to all; public baths and recreation grounds, free concerts and lecturers provided; the museums and picture galleries thrown open at times when the worker can visit them; the formation of athletic and mutual improvement clubs among the poor encouraged. All of which reforms were easy of accomplishment if only a small portion of the enormous wealth of the country, now lying idle, were generously and self-sacrificingly expended. (p. 152)

Many of these things have become standard in the rich West. In fact, sanitation has become individual even for most of the poorest people in our rich world. We have football and soccer competitions. Basketball etc. All these institutions were only just starting to arise in Blavatsky’s time and clearly she saw them as ways of helping people rise above themselves.

Looking back over the last century, looking at the way people have attempted to help people grow beyond their background, we can see she was right: sports (when the coach is inspiring) can indeed help people transform their lives.

We no longer have a ‘leisurely class’ like they did at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. In our time the richest people have earned their money themselves, though in many cases still building on family fortune. In fact sociologists suggest that in our time there are the leisurely poor in contrast to the hard working rich. Of course that’s only based on official statistics: the outcasts of our time are those who fall outside the net of social security. The illegal immigrants who work their asses off for less than minimum wage cleaning our toilets, growing our crops etc.

Blavatsky does not suggest paying people who can’t support themselves. Nor does she suggest the government take over public baths and museums. In this I guess she advocates what might be called the American model: rich people voluntarily giving to charity to start or keep up libraries for instance.

How great would be the progress of the individual! Health would improve and taste develop; healthy surroundings would favour healthy thought, the sight of monuments of art and science would bring refinement and both engender self-respect. (p. 152)

She then goes on to explain the benefit of a right diet: not eating too much meat – in fact avoiding over eating totally. Of course she didn’t live to see the day when famous people would in fact give the example for undernourishment.

As one would expect, Blavatsky calls for education of women.

In closing she calls for something of which we have seen a start in the past century: international cooperation. The present economic crisis has in fact been unprecedented in the fact that even the government of the USA has seen the necessity of working together.

It would be long to trace, even roughly, the possibilities of international cooperation which, in its turn, would be extended to racial cooperation of which the potentialities almost surpass description and reach that consummation of which the Theosophical Society has planted the first openly conscious germ, in endeavouring to form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour; what the potentialities of this glorious humanity may be, none but the student of the Science of Life can dream, as he alone can sense the labours of the Eldest Brothers of the Race for their poorer brethren. (p. 156)

Whoever it was that wrote this, they signed off as ‘PHILANTHROPOS’

So, WAS Philanthropos a socialist? In the main I think not. They clearly saw the necessity for people working together, but did not envision the government playing a huge part in that cooperation. Self sacrifice is, after all, not something that can be organised.

9 thoughts on “Blavatsky a closet socialist?”

  1. There are a number of problems with this analysis. First off, as far as I can determine, among anthropologists and biologists the category of race has been pretty much rejected. We are a single species which happens to come in various shades of color. Considering the brutality that the “white” race has imposed on those less fortunate throughout history by imperialism and colonialism, it seems ludicrous to be singing the praises of any one color over another. She should have studied the history of China more thoroughly.
    And her understanding of evolution is faulty. Evolution in a biological sense is random and the result of mutation. It isn’t goal oriented.

  2. Obviously Blavatsky didn’t agree with scientists on that second point: she felt evolution IS goal oriented.

    As for race: I think the quote above shows quite clearly that she did not use the word in the sense that it is used today. She did not mean by it a group of genetically distinct organisms (which is roughly what scientists today would say), but would go in the direction of what today we would describe as sociological insight: groups act certain ways.

    The fact that she talks about averages here, makes that latter point quite clear, I think. Anyhow, one can hardly expect her in the 19th century to write in ways that would conform with the scientific terminology of the 21st century.

    You can however, expect me to take current day science into consideration. I should have linked to this article of mine:

    In it I explain how I feel Blavatsky’s way of talking about race would today be framed in sociological rather than biological terminology.

  3. As for singing the praises of the ‘white race’. I think she points out it’s accomplishments well enough. Those can’t be denied – even though it is clear that this does not deny the crimes of the same historic group of people (though many of the worst ones took place after Blavatsky’s time), nor does it deny the accomplishments of other groups of people.

    Again: please realise that Blavatsky wrote at the end of the 19th century and was limited by both the science of her time and it’s atmosphere. Within that context she fought for tolerance between religions and people. The object of brotherhood without regard for race, creed etc. was a clear attempt at working for better and more equal relations between people of different background globally.

    She sung the praises of both the Chinese and the Indian ‘race’ in her work elsewhere. In fact, she has been interpreted as too Eastern by many later esotericists (like Rudolf Steiner for instance).

  4. What a great article!!!

    Thanks for taking the time to write it. This is one of the finest examples I’ve seen of HPB’s writings handled in a meaningful, contemporary way.

    Keep up the good work!


  5. What I garner from the article is that it is written for those where caste is on the mind – naturally, India – and the good advice that I find in it is the suggestion that rich people show the rest of us their cooking skills so that we can imitate them. That when we view wealthy lives in movies or on television that rather than see them with servants serving at the table and preparing fabulous dishes, we see them struggling to provide their own meals with daily shopping, leftovers getting routinely discarded, chopping and steaming, etc., etc. as a wealthy person might see fit to do.

    And then in addition to watching them prepare every meal, we could also view their living environments without lavish decorations, but with refined and clean decor that would not be out of the realm of reason to reproduce in homes of less fortunate viewers.

    As daily cooking and modest homestyles are shown as preferred by people with money, the rest of us would learn to practice these same life habits. And with the struggle to produce for ourselves rather than to use servants also comes the struggle to find suitable artistic and literary forms of entertainment, so that rather the support of artists, lecturers, and learning in general becomes the preferred range of expense for the wealthy and by the payments to this type of person coming from the pockets of the rich, the less fortunate are invited to watch on tv or internet along with the people who have paid for it. Thereby, all progress more evenly.

    Since the writer of the article obviously needed some way to fill in for the Kshatria caste (which is kind of left out), she plugs them at the end for their purpose in keeping the rest of us safe from would be attackers. There is a high cost to the rest of us for security purposes and the police deserve acclaim for their position in making it all possible. Perhaps she is of the opinion that we can all pay for that (taxes), you know.

    What am I missing?

  6. Oh, and as far as paying the proverbial housekeeper (servant), don’t neglect to include them in this. Maybe this is how: Not everyone is tuned towards a position in intellectual studies or the arts. It can be embarrassing if you make a mistake or don’t attract enough of an audience. There are still jobs that are easier (even than the merchant’s job) and which we can fill such as housekeeper.

    She’s not my servant. I rarely tell her what to do. Rather I sometimes engage her in conversation, American lifestyle observances, or in just staying friendly and sociable. In fact, rather than viewing the housekeeper as a servant that can easily be replaced, she is viewed as someone who needs to become comfortable with her self, her future, her dreams and to widen her experience a bit.

    The housekeeper as well as all of the force who repair and update the home enjoy endearing gratitude. In my own case, they are notably of good character and are among my few friends. My son is best friends (constant weekend companions since 20 miles apart) with the son of our most revered homebuilder who can remodel from top to bottom, if asked. This contractor and his wife inspired us to feel at home in Christianity. With a large family of 6 children, we depend upon them for human contact and piqued family interest stories. The wife invites me to her church-ladies, women’s group and is a talented photographer (one among other “hats,” such as homeschooler). Two (or more) of her six children are highly gifted, and only one (or more) of my two is. Without them we would be very lonely due to lack of family in the area.

    I hope as Rosa gets more “at home” in America, she will “naturally” become more and more interested in different forms of work. I show her how I can regrout the tile, paint the woodwork, clean the car, and she perceives me as an adventurer “in the home” rather than as a dead weight on her shoulders.

  7. Hi Brenda,

    Nice to see you here. I like how you apply the issues in this post to your own life.

    However: Blavatsky was in England at the time, so the caste system wasn’t at play. However, at that time (and to a large extent still) the class system was quite strong in the UK. I think that’s what you picked up on.

  8. I don’t see how it matters where her physical body was. The material published in Lucifer was read in many countries. She still had a target audience and could even have meant to teach regarding life in India.

    I’m continuing to think over the article and find that the struggle for existence could exist in all of the castes:

    It would be fun to see the elite Merchants struggling to nourish their bodies.
    Artists and Intellectuals struggle to provide a message that is cross-class in nature.
    Military (or police) struggle to provide safety in lieu of the unlawful.
    and Householders would struggle too. Perhaps they would struggle to make application of learning – or would that be too broad of a category?

    But of course, the most novel of the several points is placed in the hands of people with wealth, our manufacturers, because they are asked to share “the struggle to feed ourselves.”

  9. Well yes – that comment about how ‘the struggle for life is always increasing’ (or something) is one that also occurs in the Mahatma Letters. It’s quite puzzling & I think a real key to understanding the real issues the Mahatmas felt were important. I’m not sure what they mean though…

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