|Fun fact: Summers was also accused of sex crimes against a minor.|
When I think of Montague Summers—that erroneous ‘Catholic’ ‘witch hunter’—I invariably consider the worst of contemporary anti-communism. Summers reminds me of a certain figure which, though prominent during the Cold War, has become less prominent now that Islamic Fundamentalism has coopted the impressionable reactionary mind. This is to say, that Summers reminds me of a zealot whose mind is reaching for illusions in the dark. But illusions which may have had some corporeality to them at one point, if one reaches far enough back into the temporal ooze of history.
In his introduction to Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger’s The Malleus Maleficarum (or, ‘The Witch’s Hammer’), a fifteenth century text on witch-hunting, Summers writes the most fantastic unmaterialistic theory; in discussing the apparent activities of witches at Innsbruck, he builds an ideological bridge between the alleged Witch leaders and Bolshevik leaders (Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev). Though this theory is a bit hokey today, back in Summers’s lifetime, it was more original. This ideological bridge is expanded when Summers’s remark that “The [medieval] heretics were just as resolute and just as practical, that is to say, just as determined, to bring about the domination of their absolutism as any revolutionary [communist] today” (Loc.258-264). He elucidates this further by arguing “[The Witches’] object may be summed up as the abolition of monarchy, the abolition of private property, the abolition of order, [and] the total abolition of all religion” (Loc.264-270). Apparently, Summers uncovered a vast conspiracy, a ‘living Bolshevism’, if you will; such a lineage can only emanate from the infernal power of witches, as is evidenced by recruitment qualities, the diabolical plot against holy civilization, and as how “small cogs in a very small wheel… they [Witches/Proto-Bolsheviks; the young and poor] were. . . actively helping to spread the infection” (Loc.292). So with poor youth suspect (Loc.298), the only recourse which Summers’s had was to defend the Inquisitorial crusade—the closest thing to a state which the medieval period compelled—to reminding his readers that “It should be borne in mind too that frequent disturbances, conspiracies of anarchists, and nascent Bolshevism showed that the district was rotten to the core” (Loc.658-664), and so the witch-hunters prejudices’ was justified; otherwise, how was the Christian identity ever to prevail in setting the stage for the Second Coming?
The modern reader will take note of Summers’s collusion of Bolshevism and Witchcraft. As I remarked earlier, though this position is one which is laughed upon today, ridiculed as the hallmark of the historical revisionist and religious zealot, it, along with the fact that Summers was writing in 1928, just as the Bolsheviks were struggling for survival, makes Summer’s position intriguing. The fact that Summers bothers to connect the quasi-unknowable movements of witches to the violent yet ignorable class conflict in the Soviet Union, along with the rest of his collusion, makes for great abstract reading. But what makes this thought-provoking is not that Summers was correct—because he was not by any means— but that he was ‘on the right track’ for ‘all the wrong reasons’.
Essentially, what Summers was doing was performing a very crude sort of historical materialism; one accidentally performed, of course, since he is a theist, but one which was grasping at materialistic straws all the same. His vein attempt to try and connect a ‘nascent Bolshevism’ to the activity of Witches, has some base merit insofar as we understand capitalism to be a trans-historical phenomena—something which has elements of itself striated throughout recorded history.
Accomplished Marxist historian Jairus Banaji writes that “by late antiquity, both wage-labor and capital (the basic elements of the capitalist mode of production) were fully formed but that their conjunction was much less obvious” (“Workers Before Capitalism” 130; emphasis Banaji). Banaji’s argument is workers in pre-capitalist societies—that is, societies which lacked regularized commodity production—had complex labor contracts and philosophies; that labor could, and indeed was, sold both on the behalf of slaves and by the slaves themselves; and that laborers—both skilled and unskilled—could negotiate their labor contracts, form into associations (cabals or guilds, for instance) and advance their economic interests against that of the employer. In short, Banaji argues that no single specialization of labors predominates in any single epoch and that worker militancy runs far deeper than typically imagined.
Where Banaji and Summers collide, though, is when Banaji describes the behavior of the Circumcellions, a radical branch of the African based Donatist Church. “Optatus tells us” Banaji recalls, “that when the movement first emerged in the 330s, loan-agreements became null and void, no moneylenders had the freedom to recover their capital, and, when, they were traveling, employers were forced out of their vehicles and forced to run ‘like slaves’ behind their own employees [mancipia]” (125). Though we do not know the exact reasons why this radical branch enacted such actions, it does not take much effort to proffer a guess—they were angry at the injustices which their employers rent upon them and decided to take matters into their own hands. Hence, why so many contemporaries (such as St. Augustine), despised them; additionaly, that it may have even been an early form of liberation theology—that militant branch of faith which tries to combine social justice with religious fervor, likely didn’t help either.
Obviously, the Circumcellions would horrify Summers. Incidentally, they would also help prove her point of a nascent Bolshevism. Of course, the Donatists were not Witches, though they were a heretical sect according to Catholic orthodoxy (which in some circles would be considered just as much of an affront to God). Their policy of militant activism and anti-debt, anti-monetary enrichment certainly seems like the sort of policy which would send Summers into a catatonic spin if he knew of such a movement during his investigation into the Occult.
What Summers did was an ideological move. It was to take a well-known perceived threat from the past—Witchcraft—and locate vague enough enunciation from that threat in order to tether it to the present boogeyman (communism). Because Witchcraft encompassed all of sociality, but arguably, had its basis for conflict within class relations, this naturally pulsated outward to include gender, mental illness, and political and religious infighting alongside the socially trivial. Witchcraft was an umbrella term for a society heaving from war, famine, and disease while, at the same time, pushing ahead and gradually discovering new technologies and sciences which were dramatically changing daily life.
In effect, Witchcraft hid what wanted to be fought. Or, more accurately, witchcraft was the means by which a vast contradiction among the people attempted to resolve itself. The persons which Summers accused of being witches were likened to contemporary revolutionaries—along with the whole witches conspiracy—because those people persecuted for witchcraft during the middle ages correspond to the same class which support revolutionary anti-capitalism: magic, as absurd as it seems, was an important reality in our ancestors lives (while in many places in the so-called ‘developing world’ it remains an important reality); people would resort to magic when all else had failed—to illustrate, one would draft a ‘love potion’ when the object of desire was outside your social, religious, or political standing but you were desperate to have them nonetheless. Though both the owning and exploiting classes partook in witchcraft—real or imagined—the reality of why they partook in the first place remains the same: they wanted to shift reality to a register which benefited them, a register which was impossible during their epoch. For the poor this meant the Means of Subsistence (the ability for them to reproduce themselves without worry), while for the rich it meant the political and religious freedom to practice their lives as they wished (for the aristocracy and lords, remember, going against the royal grain was considered high treason). Magic was the closest most people got to a revolutionary program; a pseudo-program, certainly, and one which would always remain subservient to the actual program of worker militancy, but one easily recognized by the populace at large and encourage counter-cultural dreams.
Kramer, Heinrich, and James Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum. Ed. Montague Summers. Amazon, 2012. Kindle.
Banaji, Jairus. “Workers Before Capitalism.” Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation. Chicago: Haymarket, 2011. 103-130. Print.