A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Does May Day actually commemorate the birth of the Illuminati?

February 4, 1982

Dear Cecil:

Just exactly what event are the Russians and Red Chinese commemorating on May 1 each year? I have yet to find any birthday or important event relating to communism/socialism that occurred on May 1. Someone once told me, though, that May 1, 1776, was the birth date of a group called the Illuminati, which was alleged to be a clandestine group devoted to one-world government. Is it so? Please enlighten.

Cecil replies:

Better grab yourself a sandwich and a beer, Bobberino; this is going to take a while. The Illuminati play a leading role in what is without doubt the muthah conspiracy theory of all time, stretching back at least two centuries and probably as far as the Pleistocene epoch, to hear some tell it.

Adherents of the theory, who for the most part are right-wing fruitcakes, claim it explains every social upheaval from the French Revolution of 1789 through the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Illuminati are said to be the guiding force behind a vast international cabal involving the Masons, German and/or Jewish socialists, the Bolsheviks, and revolutionaries of every stripe, whose principal aim is either the establishment of a totalitarian one-world government, the destruction of Western civilization, or both. This ain't no foolin' around, apocalypse fans.

Let's start with the easy part. May Day, an international celebration of worker solidarity observed principally in socialist countries, traces its origins back to the eight-hour-day movement in the U.S., and specifically commemorates the 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago, of all places. (We learn this, incidentally, from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia.)

At an October 1884 convention in Chicago, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, later to be reorganized as the American Federation of Labor, declared May 1, 1886, to be the date from which "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's work," as opposed to the nine- or ten-hour days then prevalent.

Why May 1 is chosen is not clear. Among other things, it happened to be the date of the traditional May Day spring festival, celebrated in Europe (and parts of the U.S.) since medieval times. But other American labor groups had earlier suggested other days, such as the Fourth of July.

In any event, the federation, which at the time was neither very powerful nor very radical, had no particular plans for May 1, 1886. As the day drew nearer, though, radical labor organizations began to agitate for a general strike.

Sentiment for the strike was especially pronounced in Chicago, home of many leftist German immigrants and the leading center of the radical labor movement in the U.S. The strike and accompanying demonstrations in Chicago went off peacefully enough on May 1, but on May 4, at a workers' demonstration in Haymarket Square, someone threw a bomb into a crowd of policemen, killing seven. In the ensuing melee the cops killed two workers, and four radicals were later hanged for their roles on the basis of flimsy evidence.

The Haymarket affair cemented the importance of May Day in the radical calendar. In Paris in 1889 the Second International, a federation of socialist organizations, called for demonstrations of labor solidarity on May 1, 1890, and May Day has been observed one way or another ever since--although not, ironically, in the U.S.

Coincidentally--although some would say it's no coincidence--May 1 is also the date that a secret society called the Illuminati was founded in 1776 by a Bavarian university professor named Adam Weishaupt. Although the group's precise aims are a little murky, the Illuminati were apparently dedicated to the abolition of organized religion and the nation-state--in short, they were anarchists. Such ideas were not uncommon at the time; Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau had vaguely similar notions.

By and by it occurred to Weishaupt that he could multiply his influence by infiltrating existing lodges of Masons. The Masons, themselves a secret society, seem to have originated in England, and by Weishaupt's time were well established throughout Europe. Although they were decentralized and had no overriding political program, the Masons had attracted a fair number of freethinkers, who to some extent took advantage of the group's clandestine character to discuss Enlightenment ideas. Masons were suspected of being anticlerical, and had been condemned on several occasions by the Catholic Church.

Weishaupt's minions succeeded in gaining influential positions in many Masonic lodges in Germany, Austria, and elsewhere. Characteristically, though, only the top leaders of the Illuminati knew the full extent of the group's radical plans. Weishaupt, who claimed to have been inspired partly by the Jesuits, set up an elaborate hierarchy complete with secret signs, ceremonies, and codes in which members were gradually given additional knowledge as they rose in rank.

Eventually, though, some of the Illuminati quarreled, and disgruntled ex-members went to the authorities with lurid stories. In 1785, the alarmed Elector of Bavaria ordered both the Illuminati and the Masons suppressed. Numerous incriminating papers were confiscated and later published throughout Europe, creating a widespread panic that secret societies were plotting the violent overthrow of all civilization. This probably would have died down eventually, except for one thing: on July 14, 1789, the Bastille fell to a Paris mob, and the French Revolution began.

We now take leave of Reality, and enter the twilight world of Total Paranoia. Not much is known about what happened to the Illuminati after 1785. Some of them went underground, and several may have been involved in various plots over the following few years. Whatever the truth of the matter, rightists began churning out an immense volume of books and pamphlets blaming the Illuminati for . . . well, just about everything.

The most famous of these was a five-volume worked published in 1797-99 by Augustin de Barruel, a French cleric. A synthesis of nearly every plot theory that had appeared up to that time, Barruel's book traced the alleged conspiracy from the Manichean heresy of the third century AD down through the Knights Templars in the Middle Ages and finally to the Masons and the Illuminati, who (he said) were ultimately successful in fomenting the French Revolution.

Barruel's book was the foundation of a vast legend about the Illuminati and their allies, lackeys, and dupes that has continued, with considerable elaboration, down to the present day. Well into the 20th century Barruel was still being quoted by other conspiracy writers.

What is striking, though, is not just the longevity of the theory, but the extent to which it was wholeheartedly believed. Even so prominent a figure as the English statesman Disraeli accepted unquestioningly the notion that secret societies were behind everything.

Perhaps the most prominent of the conspiracy theorists writing in English was Nesta Webster. Her books, such as World Revolution: The Plot Against Civilization and Secret Societies and Subversive Movements, were immensely popular--the latter, first published in 1924, went into an eighth edition in 1964.

It is difficult in a short space to do justice to the all-encompassing grandeur of Ms. Webster's version of the Theory, but basically she felt that all the revolutionary events of 1789 through 1917 were the work of "illuminized freemasons," many of them German, who were allied with a group of apostate Jews who, among other things, controlled international finance. Lenin, she wrote, was "the agent of the great German-Jewish company that hopes to rule the world." Zionism and the efforts to liberate Ireland were also part of the plot.

Finally, she noted in World Revolution, "Was it again a mere coincidence that in July 1889 an International Socialist Congress in Paris decided that May 1, which was the day on which Weishaupt founded the Illuminati [her italics], should be chosen for an annual International Labour demonstration . . . ?"

And so it goes. You hear less about the Illuminati today, probably because the whole thing is so cornball, and let's face it, after 200 years even the best conspiracy theory starts to get a little old. I note here in my copy of None Dare Call It Conspiracy (1972), a crackpot classic that pins the one-world plot on the Council on Foreign Relations, that the Illuminati rate only a couple paragraphs.

The tendency of late seems to be to play the whole Illuminati business for laughs. Several years ago a couple wise guys named Robert Shea (a onetime Playboy editor) and Robert Anton Wilson wrote an off-the-wall conspiracy satire called Illuminatus!, which among other things disclosed that the Illuminati had reached the New York Times.

Now and then, Shea claimed, the word "fnord" will pop up in a news story. You can't consciously see it, he says, "but it's placed throughout the paper, and you notice it only subconsciously. Every time you see a "fnord' you feel fear, so that by the time you have finished reading the paper you're in a state of chronic, low-grade emergency paranoia. Keeping people in that state is one of the main things the Illuminati do."

So much for the comic relief. What influence, if any, the Illuminati really had on the French Revolution or anything else is impossible to say, naturally, but you could make the case that some features of Illuminati organization, notably the use of front groups and the concept of a revolutionary elite, were an inspiration to later radicals. Undoubtedly their chief impact, however, was the climate of paranoia they engendered. For a fuller discussion of the whole business, see The Mythology of the Secret Societies, by J.M. Roberts (1972).

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