In 1844 we find Engels writing... a letter to the editor defending an "author of several Communist books" - Abbe Constant, who, under the name he later adopted - EIiphas Levi - would become the most renowned of French occultists.
Constant was a close friend of pioneer socialist-feminist Flora Tristan, whose Union Ouvriere (Workers' Union, 1842) was the first work to urge working men and women to form an international union to achieve their emancipation. One of the most fascinating personalities in early French socialism, Tristan was given a place of honor in The Holy Family, zealously defended by Marx from the stupid, sexist gibes of the various counter-revolutionary "Critical Critics" denounced throughout the book.
That Constant became a practicing occultist, and that he and Tristan were for several years closely associated with the mystical socialist and phrenologist Simon Ganneau, "messiah" of a revolutionary cult devoted to the worship of an androgynous divinity, reminds us that Paris in the 1830s and '40s was the scene of a remarkable reawakening of interest in things occult, and that the milieux of occultists and revolutionists were by no means separated by a Chinese wall. A new interest in alchemy was especially evident...
To what extent Marx and/or Engels encountered occultists or their literature is not known, and is certainly not a question that has interested any of their biographers. It cannot be said that the passing references to alchemy and the Philosophers' Stone in their writings indicate any familiarity with original hermetic sources. We do know, however, that they shared Hegel's high esteem for the sixteenth century German mystic and heretic Jacob Boehme, saluted by Marx in the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842 as "a great philosopher." ...
One of the things that may have attracted them to Boehme is the fact that he was very much a dialectical thinker. Dialectic abounds in the work of many mystical authors, not least in treatises on magic, alchemy and other "secret sciences" and it should astonish no one to discover that rebellious young students of Hegel had made surreptitious forays onto this uncharted terrain in their quest for knowledge.
This was certainly the case with one of Marx's close friends, a fellow Young Hegelian, Mikhail Bakunin, who often joined him for those all-night discussions at Proudhon's. As a young man the future author of God and the State is known to have studied the works of the French mystic, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, "The Unknown Philosopher" and "Lover of Secret things" as well as of the eccentric German romantic philosopher, Franz von Baader, author of a study of the mysterious eighteenth-century Portuguese-Jewish mage, Martinez de Pasqual, who is thought by some to have had a part in the formation of Haitian voodoo (he spent his last years on the island and died in Port-au-Prince in 1774), and whose Traite de la reintegration is one of the most influential occult writings of the last two centuries.
Mention of von Baader, whose romantic philosophy combined an odd Catholic mysticism and equally odd elements of a kind of magic-inspired utopianism that was all his own-interestingly, he was the first writer in German to use the word "proletariat"- highlights the fact that Boehme, Paracelsus, Meister Eckhart. Swedenborg, Saint-Martin and all manner of wayward and mystical thinkers contributed mightily to the centuries-old ferment that finally produced Romanticism, and that Romanticism in turn, especially in its most extreme and heterodox forms, left its indelible mark on the Left Hegelian/Feuerbachian milieu. Wasn't it under the sign of poetry, after all that Marx came to recognize himself as an enemy of the bourgeois order?
(from Franklin Rosemont, "Karl Marx and the Iroquois" - available at our old buddy Ben Watson's newest insane project.)