Ten years after the fall of the Bastille and a year after the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion, William Pitt the Younger drew the attention of the House of Commons to “the existence of secret societies totally unknown in the history of this or any other country,” calling it “the most desperate, wicked, and cruel conspiracy against our liberties, our constitution, and our peace, that is to be found in the history of this country.” Two decades later, Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar pointed to “l’un des instruments à la fois les plus actifs et les plus dangéreux dont se servent les révolutionnaires de tous les pays avec un succès qui aujourd’hui n’est plus contestable […] les sociétés secrètes, puissance véritable, et d’autant plus dangereuse qu’elle agit dans les ténèbres, qu’elle mine toutes les parties du corps social, et dépose partout les germes d’une gangrène morale qui ne tardera pas à se développer et à porter ses fruits.” And on the 1856 anniversary of the Bastille’s fall, Benjamin Disraeli told the House of Commons, “It is useless to deny, because it is impossible to conceal, that a grand part of Europe — the whole of Italy and France and a great portion of Germany, to say nothing of other countries — is covered with a network of these secret societies, just as the superficies of the earth are now being covered with railroads.” Even after deduction of a rhetorical surplus for political convenience these were strong statements made by some of the most influential men of their times. Clearly, in their eyes, secret societies were a core element of what they regarded as the centre of the world.
This is not a view one would easily share after reading certain post-World War II historians. It is true that some, such as Reinhart Koselleck and Maurice Agulhon, emphasized the role of Freemasonry — which despite much protest is still widely considered the secret society par excellence — in the dissemination of Enlightenment ideas, the building of a civil society, and the development of a modern sociability. But others, such as John Morris Roberts, whose book on ‘The Mythology of the Secret Societies’ discussed the organization’s most feared by Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar and Benjamin Disraeli, asserted that “though secret societies existed in large numbers in Western Europe between 1750 and 1830 and strove to influence events, their main importance was what people believed about them. This always mattered more than what they did and their numbers and practical effectiveness were in no way proportionate to the myth’s power.” John Morris Roberts did not hide that he regarded this mythology as “a view of politics shaped by nonsense,” and warned against “taking the recurrent irrational element in history too lightly.”
The historians of socialism, quite numerous after the war, were similarly cautious. Sure, the Carbonari and the Charbonnerie, which at the turn of the nineteenth-century had become firmly embedded in the Republican histories of Italy and France, now also got a place of honour in the history of revolutionary movements. Yet ever since the split in the International Workingmen’s Association in 1872, the appreciation of secret societies, which had played a prominent role in the conflict, was ideologically charged. In particular, research about Karl Marx’s Communist League, the International Brotherhood of Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin, and the origins of the Bolshevik Party was much affected. The argument of rationality, with its subtle moral overtones, was routinely deployed against secret societies, as in Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm’s analysis of the decline of ritual in the labour movement.
The differences of opinion between nineteenth-century statesmen and twentieth-century historians as well as among the historians themselves throw an interesting light on the development of civil society. Building on a tradition established by Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, Viscount de Tocqueville, modern theories of Western democracy stresses the importance of voluntary associations for the vitality of the social and political structures in which it is rooted. Among such associations, Freemasonry played a significant role, both in eighteenth-century Europe and in the young United States of America, thanks largely to its formula of a publicly known yet secret organization without any particular doctrine, offering, to those who could afford the dues, a free space in which fraternal tolerance allowed for meaningful and pleasant company. Its three-graded structure, taken from the guilds of masons and soon expanded in various more or less autonomous rites, suited the taste for progress through education as well as for knowledge not available to everybody.
In the course of the long nineteenth-century, this flourishing organizational model became compromised as a result of changing views of secrecy. The long trend towards openness of knowledge that had started in the sixteenth-century pushed on by the Reformation and the invention of printing accelerated and affected conceptions of rationality that were forged in religious conflicts, where Reason was more and more often invoked to settle the debate. The new polemical rationality inevitably affected the working of associations. Increasingly, in science as much as in the political process, it was considered irrational to operate outside the public arena, which itself continued to grow both in size and importance. Secrecy, which had been the norm in politics since the Middle Ages, became suspicious; and whereas most organizations had used to hide important elements of their activities as a matter of course, now limitations to openness demanded an explanation — a rational explanation, to be sure.
The Masonic lodges that had, according to some, virtually hatched civil society, now came under attack; and associations that would once have been called secret societies started to present themselves as clandestine organizations or liberation armies, arguing that their concealment was not a choice of their own, but a necessity imposed on them by a repressive external world, whose rationality should itself be put in doubt. The secret societies of Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar’s days gradually disappeared under that name. Those that remained were either pushed to the margins of civilized discourse, as in the case of many an esoteric association or turned into otherworldly enemies, as happened, for example, to the Freemasons in Catholic French or Nationalist German opinion. Even the many secret societies that used to dot both colonial and ethnographic maps were all but gone.
This process, in which the meaning and appreciation of secrecy were refashioned in a quintessentially modern way, has in turn thrown a veil over much of the nature and actions of the secret societies, which retrospectively became ever harder to understand. In order to see how this came about, we will briefly retrace, in what will mostly be a historiographical essay, how those societies from their terrifying origins came to be seen as a normal phenomenon and at the same time as an increasingly quaint and exotic type of association; how recent research has been qualifying much of that picture, and how reinserting them in a broader historical context might bring new insights.