The Power of Magick: Why Materialists, Atheists and Marxists Need it

  Magick is the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the Will.

  ― Aleister Crowley, The Book of Thoth           


Throwing the baby out with the bathwater

In two articles I wrote in 2019, Facing the Music: Religion, Nationalism and Sports Have Enchanted the Working Class; Socialism Hasn’t  and Re-Enchanting Socialism: How Not to Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater  I argued that socialism, at least in Yankeedom, has denied the use value of the techniques that religion, sports and nationalism use to create altered states of consciousness. They do this because, in one way or another, they serve the powers that be. Typically, Marxists and atheists dismiss these techniques as simply smoke and mirrors, based on illusions. They can’t imagine using images, music, song, or dance to alter states of consciousness and to be used to inspire socialists. In addition, socialists and atheists do not pay much attention to the importance of holidays as a way to support an appreciation of our past as well as for grounding the present and the future on special occasions. Celebration of the holidays helps people to remember the big picture.

Not such strange bedfellows

I made the pitch that Marxists, and to a lesser extent anarchist, were missing the boat by not aligning with Neopagans. I argued that Neopagans had the following commonalities with Marxists:

  • They were this-worldly as opposed to other-worldly.
  • The material world was good, not a reform school or a way station.
  • Nature was self-regulating, rather than dependent upon a deity.
  • Society and nature were evolving.
  • Pagans were naturally anti-authoritarian.
  • Most pagan values were anti-capitalist.
  • Most neo-pagans are pro-science.

My claim

In this article I want to argue that magick is a technique used by neopagans for altering states of consciousness that can be used by materialists, atheists and Marxists to change moods when we feel fragmented, blue, anxious or depressed. Secondly, Marxists, atheists and anarchists have a cavalcade of female and male heroes to populate every month of the year which can be used on holidays to remind us that we stand on the shoulders of giants. I am changing the spelling from “magic” to “magick” for reasons I will explain shortly.


Holidays at their best don’t just remind people of the changing of the seasons or planting and harvesting in agriculture. The changing of the seasons can be linked to the planting, seeding and reaping of socialist projects throughout the year. One holiday where we can see the power of ritual for neo-pagans is on May Day, dancing round the Maypole. It’s important to understand that this corresponds with socialists’ May Day which draws thousands of revolutionaries together throughout the world. But May Day should be celebrations, time off from work, rather than using the day to protest or strike for one reason or another as some socialists have done. As I point out in my article Re-enchanting Socialism, socialists in Europe used to make costumes, sing and dance and perform plays on May Day. What does this do for socialists?  It reminds those of us who are socialists of the big picture, that workers of the world have one struggle and should unite. Why can’t socialists have at least quarterly seasonal celebrations just the way Catholics, Jewish or Muslims have their holy days?

As for materialists and atheists, we can easily name twelve scientists, one for each month to celebrate science. Darwin, Newton, Leibnitz, Einstein, you get the picture. A humanist group I once belonged to in San Jose developed something that became known as “Darwin Day”. It became a celebration that was even backed by the mayor of Menlo Park, who was a humanist. Richard Dawkins even came to speak one year. Atheists have a lot of work to do if we want to compete with religion over the sway of human beings. We need to use mythology for saturating the five senses systematically. Experiencing the world non rationally for an hour won’t kill you! The techniques that sports, religion and nationalists use to sweep people away are rooted in sympathetic magic. These same techniques can be used to combat the downside of sports, religion and nationalism to combat controlling people through mystification, distraction and fear. At the same time these techniques have come to be used to inspire hope, confidence and community to change the world, right here on earth!


The Magick I Discuss is Not For Fostering Perceptual Illusions

Let us begin by distancing ourselves from preconceived ideas about what magick is. The first misconception is of magick as a secular activity – like pulling rabbits out of a hat or making people levitate. These are optical illusions that are created by professionals who call themselves magicians. We have no quarrel with professionals who do this for a living, but this is not the kind of magick I am talking about. This involves taking advantage of habitual perceptual cues in the service of inducing people to see things that are not there. In fact, magickians of sacred experience changed the spelling of magic to “magick” to differentiate themselves from parlor or professional magic.

Magick is not a Technique for Changing the World

Spells vs prayers

In these sections I will be relying on two books I have written about the nature of magick and how it differs from religion. One is called From Earth Spirits to Skygods and the other is Power in Eden. In terms of sacred experience, the root meaning of magick is to “shape or make vigorous”. This means magick is an active, irreverent activity in which groups of people take matters into their own hands. This can be contrasted to religion. In origin, religion means to “bind-back”, implying that something was lost that needs to be put back together. The unity that has been torn apart is the evolution of society into classes. All the “great religions” originate in class societies and mostly help to justify those class hierarchies.

The difference between magick and religion can also be understood by contrasting the difference between a spell and a prayer. A spell is like a recipe. If you mix the ingredients in the right order, the results are more or less guaranteed. In primitive forms of magick, there was little or no reliance on sacred presences, or even much in the way of specialists in sacred experience such as a shaman. A prayer on the other hand, involves a deity or high god who listens to the prayer. There is also a priest who intervenes to make sure everything is done correctly. A prayer is a plea for help. You ask God for something and then you hope that He will hear your prayer. The individual is passive. Magickians don’t ask for anything. We use our knowledge of social psychology and we change ourselves!

How tribal magick worked

The system of primitive and secondary magick was predominant in tribal societies and agricultural civilizations before the rise of the monotheistic religions between 1500-1000 BCE. In these societies, altered states of consciousness were achieved by casting a circle, “drawing down” the stellar gods into the circle, calling down specific sacred presences that are connected to the hunt or the harvest (in the case of agricultural states) into the circle. These gods and goddesses were known to be susceptible to certain incenses, music, stones, and herbs which have been called by historians of magic, “correspondences”. By “seducing” the gods with their favorite fragrances, food, gems and music it was thought to increase the chances of the tribe getting what it wanted. Where they went wrong was in thinking that: a) the gods and goddesses were real objective entities; and b) the magick they performed actually changed the world.

Why has magick hung on?

This kind of magick has been around all the way back to hunting and gathering societies of at least 100,000 years ago.  Even after the triumph of monotheism, magic hung on marginally in rural areas of society. During the Renaissance, during the Scientific Revolution, through the Enlightenment and to the end of the 19th century magic was alive among certain sectors of the upper classes. At the end of the 19th century, it blossomed because of dissatisfaction with both Christianity and the mechanization of science.

If this kind of magick did not really do what the people imagine it did because the gods and goddesses are not real and because magic did not really change the world, why has it stayed with us for thousands of years? Is it simply a matter of the clergy and the upper classes manipulating the workers and peasants into believing things that were not true to keep control over them, as the Enlightenment thought? Partly I agree that this is true. However, it does not account for the presence of magic:

  1. when there were no classes as in hunter-gatherers – or
  2. when it was alive among the witches in the 17th century, in spite of the opposition of the Church, scientists and merchants;
  3. when magic existed among the working-class artisans, middle and upper middle classes in the form of alchemy where no political control was involved.

Something else was going on, but what was it?


Magick is the art and science of altering states of consciousness at will through the use of imagination, the senses, the emotions through the arts. The techniques can be used for good or for bad purposes. The entire field of advertising is an industry in the use of black magick. Often the association with changing states of consciousness is that it is some kind of secular, recreational escape from reality. Of course, some of that is true, but my reasons for arguing for altered states of consciousness are dead serious. People alter their states of consciousness primarily for social and personal needs, not just for fun.

When hunter gatherers chase a man dressed as a reindeer around the circle making stabbing gestures, are they really creating some magic-at-a-distance which affects the reindeer in the surrounding tundra? Of course not. But what atheists and Marxists miss is that what tribespeople are doing as they dance, sing, drum, run and leap. They are changing their state of consciousness to build their confidence that they will act in a coordinated and effective way when they do go out on the hunt. So, what is changed in magick is the social psychology of their confidence levels.


At the end of every year, some socialists I know gather at a member’s house and sing the Internationale together. What does this do? It calls forth and reminds people that despite recent right-wing downturns, there is a great socialist tradition of success to uphold. The victories of the Paris Commune and the revolutions around the world are recited. But this gathering could be so much richer. Surely there are socialists in the profession of dance that have thought about what socialist dancing would be like. It could easily resemble the dances around the Maypole. These folks could also surround themselves with the portraits of the great socialists, the way the Catholic Church showcases all the patron saints around the church.

Let’s put it this way. Richard Wagner, despite his right-wing politics knew a great deal about altering states of consciousness. As a composer and theatrical director, he synthesized the poetic, the visual, the musical and dramatic arts into a single collective experience. He understood that separating and secularizing the arts limits the prospects for altering states of consciousness. He understood the power of a total art experience at the Bayreuth Festivals. Socialists should create our own version of the Bayreuth Festivals with our own twists.

On an individual level, I might be coming out of a sad state or an anxious state, but when I put on the music of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy or Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony, I get swooped away into something higher and deeper than my present troubles. Magick is simply the art and science of how to create particular altered states through the systematic use of music and the arts.

When I was going through a relationship break-up, I would force myself to drive an hour to the Stanford Rodin museum in Palo Alto to draw his sculptures for three hours. In the process of doing that I would be reminded of my identity as an artist, the fellow students and art teachers I had, and how my art teacher used to tell me I drew like Tiepolo. I would drink the same coffee I drank when I drew there to strengthen the altered state in other circumstances. The message was – I am larger and more than my relationships, as painful as they might be.

Guided imagery

In the last 50 years, hypnosis has introduced guided fantasies into its repertoire to help people relieve stress by using their imagination to go to another place, a peaceful place. Often this involves the use of CDs. The hypnotist would take you to a peaceful lake where you lay across a boat soaking in the sun as the boat slowly drifted down the river. You watch the cloud formations; you hear the birds calling out as you drift off to sleep.

This is all well and good, but what these hypnotists failed to do is give credit where credit is due. Hypnosis is a secularized version of magical techniques that have been known for centuries. Mesmer himself recognized this. When hypnotherapists light incense and burn candles, they are just helping the imagination wander and then focus. Magick is about the controlled and systematic use of imagination, that’s why some magickians put an “I” in front of the word magick and turn it into “imagick”.


The Catholic Church as closeted black magickians

The Protestants were right about Catholics being closeted magicians and here’s what I mean. When I was a boy my grandmother would go with my parents and I to Sunday morning Mass. Within about three blocks of the church, I could hear the organ slowly inviting us to come forth, inviting me to listen. When we finally arrived at the church my eyes would be drawn to the multi-colored stain-glassed windows. Once inside, my vision was intensified by the vividness of the vestments of the priest. As we moved toward the pews, the smell of incense seeped into my nostrils (“ah, I’ve been here before”).  As I settled into the pew, I ran my hands over the solid oak pews. The floor was made soft by thick, richly covered rugs. Then the choir began to sing something like Ava Maria. We were expected to move throughout the service – standing, sitting, kneeling – all designed to create altered states at different angles (kinesthetics). Three quarters of the way through the Mass, I went to receive holy communion which appealed to my taste. At the end of the service, as we left, the organ music rose again, but this time loud and uplifting (go forth).

The purpose of all this was to create a memorable experience, one that we would want to return to. Regardless of what the Catholic Church thinks it is doing, it is creating a magical altered state of consciousness in its parishes. Given the educational and religious history of the Catholic Church, its authoritarian politics, its murdering of witches and its child abuse, along with advertising, it can easily qualify as black magick.


Initiating a magickal psychology

In the time period about 1990 I, met a woman named Sophia who identified as a witch and who knew a great deal about something called the Tree of Life, also called the Qabalah, a Jewish mystical symbol system. She had started her own school on the western mystery traditions. I had been interested in western magic for about ten years, but I never saw a way to apply it in any practical, psychological way.  She knew how to “work the Tree” and she taught it to me and others. There are many ways to interpret the tree, its spheres and pathways (see the diagram below). As a Marxist and atheist, I had no interest in thinking that the gods or planets on the tree, its spheres and pathways, were real or that I could influence the planets through these magical activities. However, I was fortunate enough, thanks to Sophia, to discover the works of Israel Regardie, a trained Reichian therapist, who gave psychological interpretations for working on the tree. He helped me to translate magickal work into psychological work on myself

 Spheres on the Tree

The Tree has ten spheres and twenty-two paths, as you can see on the diagram. One interpretation of the spheres is that they are planets. Each of the planets was the home of a god or a goddess. Each god and goddess had positive and negative characteristics. What was very helpful to me was to learn in more depth what the gods and goddesses were like. More importantly, the idea was that all the gods and goddesses were inside of everyone, a kind of collective unconscious. By reading about the pros and cons of each god and goddess, I was learning about the gods that were very strong in me and those that were very weak and needed work. It was very powerful to see all my psychological strengths and weaknesses mapped across the Tree as if they were parts of my body. All this was appealing to my imagination as well as it did to others, I’m sure.

Pathways as mythology

As most of you know, the Greeks didn’t just present their populace with gods and goddesses to believe in. They had a mythology which was a history of the interactions of the gods and goddesses. The twenty-two paths on the Tree of Life is the story of the interactions between the gods and goddesses on the Tree. So, when you work a path, you are told a mythological story about the gods’ and goddess’ interaction on that path just like the stories in Greek mythology. The twenty-two paths and the mythological stories are like 22 archetypal situations that the gods and goddesses get themselves into. This provides a structure for the archetypal situations human beings find themselves in. For as has been said “As above so below”. “Above” refers to the gods and goddesses, “below” refers to human stories.

The three pillars on the Tree

There are three pillars on the Tree, representing the three methods for altering states of consciousness. The left-hand pillar is the path of structure covering Saturn, Mars and Mercury. The right-hand path is the pillar of dynamics – Uranus, Jupiter and Venus. The middle-path is the pillar of balance: Neptune, Pluto, the Sun, the Moon and the Earth.

The left-hand path is the path of celestial, high magic practiced by upper-middle class magicians of the Renaissance like Ficino and Giordano Bruno, Robert Fludd, John Dee and many others including the followers of the Golden Dawn at the end of the 19th century. The right-hand path is the “earth magic” path”, most associated with wiccans, which reached some working-class women. This has been called “kitchen magic” by Starhawk. Both the left and the right-hand paths are methods of altering states of consciousness through the saturation of the senses, the imagination and the emotions. The middle path is a mystical, not a magical path. Its way is to empty the senses, imagination and the emotions. This is the path of meditation, fasting and sensory deprivation. Mystics like Saint Teresa or Jakob Böhme are examples in the West, as are yogis of the East.

Casting a magickal circle

You begin by stepping into a magickal circle of your own construction. You can mark it up with letters and symbols which you could create with thick cloth that can be taped down on the floor. I actually used permanent magic markers directly on our garage floor which we transformed into an art and writing studio for me. The magical circle contains the four elements, the four seasons and all the planets that surround the circle. The actual magickal operation involves the saturation of the senses with the music, incense, colored lights, candles, herbs, metals and dance that corresponds to the goddess upon whom you are calling. The intention is to lose yourself in the mythological stories which go with the gods and goddesses you invoke. The purpose is to build up a sensual memory for each goddess and god. You use them to build up strength to bring forward the goddess or god within yourself in dealing with the life problems which correspond to their domain.  This is done through the use of the arts – journal writing, written self-affirmation and art-work – drawing, sculpting and mask-making.

Regularizing the ritual

Each of the spheres has a set of correspondences, including a day of the week, specific stones, metals, animals, herbs and music. In performing magical rituals, I bring down the planets from the sky metaphorically into my magical circle so that I can work on my psychological problems. I would work the Tree as a psychological “tune-up” every week or two.  If I wanted to work on a particular psychological problem, I would metaphorically evoke the planet under which the department of the problem falls. If I wanted a “tune-up” through the mythological stories, I would work each of the 22 paths. What I used to do is work one path every two weeks so it would take me 44 weeks to go through all the paths. Both the work in the planets and the paths took me about 90 minutes and I worked them once a week (not that different from therapy, but in my opinion, much more imaginative and creative).

Psychological explanations of magickal work

  • Opening up access to the unconscious – the gods and goddesses within – including emotions, senses, imagination, dreams and fantasies.
  • Objectifying my relationship between conscious and unconscious in a concrete form (writing poetry, stories, drawing, mask-making and sculpture) representing the problem I am are working on.
  • Dialoging between the god, goddess and path and my individual psychology.
  • Putting the results of the dialogue into action with an effort that strives to overcome the problem in real life.
  • Integrating and internalizing the results of that action into my psychology, hopefully building confidence.

Steps in the Magical procedure

  • Identify the problem you want to work on and write it in a sentence in your magical notebook
  • Identify your strengths and problems in order to strategize how to solve the problem.
  • Set up an “atmosphere” for the goddess or god in whose province the problem resides, including the appropriate candles, colored lights, mythological drawing, appropriate metal, appropriate stone, appropriate animals (perhaps small sculpture) appropriate robe, herbs, music and movement (dance, gestures).
  • Review a story about the path or sphere – there are books for this including The Shining Paths by Dolores Ashcroft- Nowicki.
  • Take a guided visualization journey with a CD. The book Magical States of Consciousness by Denning and Phillips is good for this.
  • Review the relationship between the strengths and weaknesses of the gods and goddesses and your own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Objectify the problem and solution in some kind of concrete form using poetry, music, drawings, masks and sculpture.
  • Write a self-affirmation which goes with how you’d like to be which is drawn from the mythological story. Write the self-affirmation 5 minutes every day for twenty-one days.
  • Identify what action steps need to be taken each week to deal with the problem.
  • Record your reaction to the journey in your magical journal.
  • Bring the ritual to closure through food, drink and dance and put away all atmospheric props.

I’ve given you an example of how an individual could create an altered state of consciousness. There are neo-pagan groups all over the country that do versions of these rituals, either with the Tree or Life or some other symbolic system and they do it collectively. See Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler for examples of this. Some of these folks are political anarchists. Marxian socialists badly need to incorporate something like these rituals for our social and psychological health, especially in these dark times. Otherwise, we will be left behind – as we have been for two centuries by religion, nationalism and sports.


Some of you Marxists, especially in the United States might think these rituals are ludicrous on an individual level, let alone performing them in groups. Are you going to lead the workers in these rituals? “Over my dead body” you might say. Well, your dead body just may be trampled to death for masses of people are interested in magick. With any luck, the workers are going to lead you. Most of humanity is thrilled by this pageantry if it is organized well. The fact that the Catholic Church is still drawing working-class people in despite its anti-working-class history, its murderous persecution throughout history and its record of child abuse. We must learn from the Catholics, just like the Catholics learned from the pagans.

Many materialists and Marxists may be afraid of the reification of imagery and the danger of believing these rituals literally change reality instead of only our psychological states. Sorry, but the answer to reification is not some ascetic denial as the protestants tried to do. The answer is to have rituals, song, music and dance that are not superstitious. A magickal practice that we have, not a practice that has us.


If materialists, atheists and Marxists expect to first compete with religion, nationalism and sports, we must learn to create our own mythologies, rituals, music, dance, song, pilgrimages and holidays. We need to be theatrical stage managers where we suspend judgment temporarily just as we do in the movies or at plays for the purpose of having a deep, moving or cathartic experience.

If this has any appeal, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Pagan traditions have a rich historical system to draw from that easily competes with the Catholic Church. All these techniques are in the service of altering states of consciousness through magick to create focused and inspired states of consciousness which invites atheists and materialists to be even better scientists and invites socialists to be even better at creating a socialist heaven on earth.

Image from Townsquare Media

About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

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