dimecres, 15 de març de 2017

Catalan Spiritism and the Paradoxes of Modernity

Barcelona, 1888.

Catalan Spiritism
and the Paradoxes of Modernity
[“Ghosts of Modernity: Spiritism And History in
Catalonia, Puerto Rico, and Cuba”.
American Historical Association, 129th Annual Meeting.
Nova York, 2-5 de gener del 2015]
Gerard Horta (Universitat de Barcelona)

The different manifestations of trance –through possession, mediumship and shamanism– encompass all times and societies. In mid nineteenth-century western Europe, the theoretical systematization of mediumship by the French pedagogue Hyppolite Rivail (known as Allan Kardec) took the name of spiritism. It asserted the feasibility of communication between the living and the spirits of the dead and, at the same time, it advocated for a deep transformation of the established order.

The contemporary blossoming of this socio-religious movement in the Catalan Countries took place from the 1860s until the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, when all the spiritists centers in Catalonia –more than a hundred- were closed and many activists were imprisoned and shot by the Spanish fascist state. The Catalan case has no parallel in Europe for several reasons: firstly, for its revolutionary content, such as the rebuttal of every dimension of the catholic-bourgeois social order and the close ties that part of the movement had with anarchism. Secondly, for the non-hierarchical articulation of new models of social relations in every aspect of collective life. And, finally, for the widespread participation of working-class women and, in general, the popular classes.

How is it possible, then, that a project for modernizing and rationalizing social relations was born from an –in principle- irrational bodily practice such as spiritist mediumship?


By means of certain techniques associated with ecstatic uses of the body, from 1860 to 1939 ample subaltern sectors of Catalan society handled a set of expressive resources originating in a need which could not wait, since it started in the body and it ended in the universe. Half-way between the body and the universe there was society, of which a transformation was needed in order to reach the correct destination, under the dizzying name of God or Revolution. What religion could have become that of the dispossessed, if it had not been that of possession -spiritism?

Spiritism was one of the most relevant socio-religious movements in western Europe during the second half of the nineteenth-century and the first decades of the twentieth-century. It played a crucial role in the processes of social modernization arising from the broad spectrum of freethinking, trade-unionism and the political left in Catalonia. As referenced elsewhere, its links with collectivist social projects, its links with the ocultist trends which thrived throughout the nineteenth-century, and the influence of the socio-cultural patterns of several medieval religious movements usually dismissed as heterodox, allow us to understand the meaning of the multiplicity of models of which Catalan spiritism appealed to and was nurtured from.1 The following pages present the results of later research, which further developed the theoretical framework and included the analysis of hundreds of archival primary sources from the Catalan-speaking Countries –spiritist, but also catholic, theosofic and anarchist.2

Seventy years ago, Marcel Mauss established that any bodily manifestation needs to be understood as a social manifestation through which the universe of processes involved in the ideal representation and material constitution of societies is mediated –frequently from conflict, either at individual or collective scale. The body becomes people’s primal tool, it expresses oral and intellectual symbols.3 Accordingly, one could say that there is no such thing as a “natural” bodily behaviour, because the physical body is determined by the social body.4 Under the forms of possession, mediumship and shamanism, trance has been a central object of study both for anthropology and history due to the fact that this practice encompasses the majority of human societies of all times.

In the case of Catalan spiritism, the potential for social emancipation was articulated around the body as well, which became a place for the incarnation of new social dynamics. This movement, which spanned from some years before the Sexenni Democràtic (1868-1874) up to the Civil War (1936-1939), should not be understood as a “perversion” of catholicism, the propagandist work of “mentally unstable people”, or the “agitation” activities of a “conspiratorial” society –which are the three main points of view that usually prevail outside the social sciences when dealing with heterodoxies to which a religious origin is attributed. It should rather be understood as a movement of rationalization, in line with the processes of modernization that were taking place in nineteenth-century industrialized societies (understanding modernization as secularization, politicization, subjectivization, economic and cultural homogeneization, etc.). In a context in which legal and formal equality and freedom of economic circulation were strongly demanded, all the abovementioned processes prepared and laid the foundation of the convulse expansion of capitalism.5

Any event in human existence, any event of reality, “can be interpreted in terms of its religious meaning”.6 Following this assumption, it can be underlined that, in the spiritist process of rationalization, an attempt was made to combine its distinctive values as an integral conceptual system with its goals of individual and collective transformation. Spiritism stood for a project of modernity that went beyond capitalism and advocated social emancipation by ordering the world in every sphere of daily-life experience and postulating a holistic explanation that encompassed both the terrestrial and celestial order. The holistic and transformative tendency of Catalan spiritism is quite clear: the rationalization of behaviour they defended implied what Weber would describe as the substitution of the «inner submission to customs [...] for the planned adaptation to an objective situation of interests»,7 that is, the articulation between means, context and goals based on concrete particular models from which to give a certain meaning to life and to the world. A meaning which stemmed from the everyday-life needs of ample subaltern sectors of nineteenth-century Catalan society. The issue at stake, then, is to figure out how a strong movement for social change, particularly rooted in the Catalan working class to the point of becoming a truly popular power8 –a “blind tool” in the service of “revolutionary causes”, or “satanical” ones, according to the Catholic authorities of the nineteenth-century–9, was based on bodily practices –mediumship- that can be described as irrational.

In 1861, ecclesiastical civil servants in Barcelona burned 300 spiritist publications illegally smuggled into the country from France. From this auto-da-fé, the spiritist presence and popularity in Catalonia began to increase. The public circulation of spiritist newspapers and journals was prohibited until 1868, and after 1874 many closures, fines, trials and exiles followed, which makes Catalan spiritism the most harshly repressed in Europe. But the network built during the previous years encompassed an increasingly broader area, which included the translation and publication of spiritist books by the theoretical systematizer of spiritism, the socialist French pedagogue Hyppolite Rivail known as Allan Kardec (1804-1869), who was in turn the disciple of the pedagogue, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827). The publishing house Imprenta Espiritista, which was established in Barcelona by J.M. Fernández –who maintained correspondence with Kardec himself since 1858-, published what is likely to be the first Spanish translation of Kardec’s most famous book. The number of reprints of the book is a sign of its wide circulation among Catalan spiritists. The catholic Church’s self-confidence regarding its monopoly of the sacred began to stagger.

The celebration of the “First International Spiritist Congress” in Barcelona –at the Saló Eslava in Ronda de Sant Antoni- from September 8th to 13th 1888 projected the strength of Catalan spiritism on a global level. Catalan, Spanish, French, Belgian, Italian, Russian, Romanian, Cuban, Puerto-Rican, Peruvian, Mexican, Venezuelan, Argentinian and American delegations attended. The topics discussed literally comprised of the following: the acknowledgment of spiritism as a positive science –psychological and social- and at the same time as a “secular religion”; the vindication of gender equality and the emancipation of women; the promotion of secular education in order to transform society on the basis of charity, reason, justice and law; the need for a prison reform aiming at the social reintegration of prisoners; the complete rejection of war industry; the call for a social, political and cultural revolution that would originate in the inner self of the individual; the pressing need for cooperativism as a way of organizing production and reconciling the forces of capital and labor, following Jean-Baptiste Godin’s Familistère model in France (in the congress, J.F. Miran­da presented a project for a Universal Cooperative Association); the need for associationism and mutual-aid societies in order to promote the material and moral collective welfare; the worldwide abolition of slavery; the gradual elimination of political borders and the gradual disarmament of permanent armies by means of spoken word and the press; the secularization of cemeteries and the introduction of a unified and compulsory birth certificate; the introduction of civil marriage; the abolition of the death penalty and life imprisonment; the role of cosmopolitism as a guiding principle for social relations; and the promotion of universal communion and solidarity between all beings. The draft of the by-laws for an International Association for Arbitration and Peace aimed at preventing and solving the conflicts between different peoples through dialogue was presented in the congress. Spiritism was literally conceived as a secular, antiauthoritarian and egalitarian religion, aiming at fostering the superior ideal of collective good.10

There is no doubting the catholic origins of a relevant portion of the spiritist movement, due to the overwhelming control exerted by the Church over people’s lives during the first half of the nineteenth-century. But migration from the countryside to the city during the second half of the century, and the ensuing gradual loss of control of the faithful by the Church, reinforced the possibility of this transfer from rural catholicism towards urban spiritism. In the context of the freedom of worship achieved after the 1868 September Revolution, the associations usually categorized as “politico-cultural” blended with those categorized as “religious” (spiritism, freemasonry, and later theosophy). Among the first spiritist propagandists we find well-educated free-thinkers (few of them from the upper classes, but with the material means for translating and publishing the initial publications). It is not out of place to acknowledge the cultural influence of quackerism because of the shared projects of social reform and emancipation of women, and because in both cases the assemblies became a means and a space of revelation, free from any ritual hierarchization. In the participatory assemblies people established communication with the spirits of the dead, shouted, cried, fell in prostration, and experienced the “inner conversion” of those for whom faith alone could fully explain their own experience, without any mediation by the catholic bureaucracy. Here the struggle between the “sacred conviction” and the “sacred law” which Max Weber applies to the processes of modernization took place.

Catalan spiritists defended a direct, autonomous and non-transferrable experience of transcendence. Here we can glimpse the mark of the gnostic trends of the first centuries of the Christian era. Conceptually, spiritists would be nothing more than an updated reverberation of their core ideas: criticism of the dualism between spirit and matter, and criticism of social injustice and ignorance as a means for oppressing society.

The analysis of thousands of pages from many nineteenth-century and twentieth-century archival sources on Catalan spiritists –too extensive to be cited here– shows how, in the heyday of positivism, they accepted the scientific experimental method in order to empirically demonstrate the feasibility of the contact between the living and the dead. This was the origin of the metapsychical and parapsychological practices, and led them to present themselves, first and foremost, as an “integral and progressive science”. They asserted the the infinity of the inhabited worlds, the eternal existence of the spirit, and mediumistic communication as the proof of the survival of the human soul beyond physical death. At the same time, they reinterpreted the Bible and other orthodox Christian sources in order to prove their doctrines and thoughts. In fact, spiritists presented themselves as “the contemporary form of the revelation”: if their homeland was the universe (whereas for anarchists it was the world), emancipation had to take place on a universal level, and not only at a social level, as anarchists defended from the 1870 Working-Class Congress of Barcelona onwards). Spiritists invited everyone to study and research at their centers so that they could conclude that their claims were correct. Considering the high rate of illiteracy among the working class population, this implied learning to read and write, and also formulating thoughts and arguments regarding their own problems, thus acquiring the tools for collectively expressing on a deeper level the process of raising of awareness alternative to the dominant classes -in political, economic and cultural terms- and the Catholic Church -in religious terms. A network of associations was developed by means of the creation of hundreds of spiritist societies –each one with a library–, mutual-aid societies, free medical «hypnotic and hydromagnetic» centers, coeducational and secular schools, newspapers, journals, and other publications in which the working class expressed their voice, and cooperative associations (in Rubí, there is a cooperative asssociation that remains in operation to this day which was originally founded –in 1904- and run by the Catalan spiritist center La Veu de l’Ànima (The Soul’s Voice), established in 1904).

The historiographical silence about spiritism has gone hand in hand with an oversimplification of the reasons that explain its spread throughout Europe and the United States of America. The following reasons have been asserted: first, it offered an explanation of telepathic phenomena; second, it “demonstrated” the existence of life beyond death; third, it soothed the pain of hardship; fourth, it satiated the human need for salvation; and fifth, it channeled the morbid curiosity towards the unknown through the sessions with a medium. Although these are five crucial reasons, an account of spiritism as a system is still lacking. Other key reasons must be mentioned: the importance of the healthcare of the popular classes -that could not afford to pay the orthodox physicians- through mediumistic intervention or free-of-charge hydromagnetic, hypnotic, or homeopathic centers; the desire to know the future that many people felt, stubbornly determined to contact spirits that would answer their questions through the medium; the demand by subaltern classes of behavioural models, practical guides for spheres of existence which pose problems and needs; the fact that the life of women was under total control of priests, and the fact that the femenine raising of awareness on the need to break free from this control was parallel to their participation in the spiritist movement, in which women participated on equal grounds with men; the fact that a population marginalized from the tools of “high culture” -such as reading and writing, in the nineteenth century- could fulfill its need for knowledge and learn to read and to write by joining spiritist centers; the fact that, while the workers were learning to read and to write, at the same time they decided to do so in order to express their place in the world from their own cultural models, thus affirming themselves as a conscious reality that rejected society as it was in order to trigger new social dynamics and transform the state of things; or, finally, the personal and ludic satisfaction obtained through the spiritist social life at the centers, which included reciting poems, commenting and discussing texts, organizing conferences,  celebrating parties, dancing and singing songs.

The myriad of reasons that, in the Catalan case, justifies its practice by the subaltern classes relies in its formation as an integral system alternative to the nineteenth-century bourgeois and catholic society. Spiritism represents the irrevocable emergence of a parallel society, the society of the dispossessed, advocating the old igualitarian ideal which lost so many battles during the nineteenth-century due to State repression. The spiritist experience was a cooperative one: men, women and children gathered together to talk and share thoughts that were not dead, but alive, and which found expression in what were for them material and tangible realities, regardless of whether the scientific character of mediumistic practices was confirmed or not.

1. Gerard Horta (2001) De la mística a les barricades. Barcelona: Proa.
2. Idem (2004) Cos i revolució. L’espiritisme català o les paradoxes de la modernitat. Barcelona: Edicions de 1984. I diverses publicacions posteriors, del 2003 al 2014.
3. Marcel Mauss (1950) Sociologie et Anthropologie. Paris: PUF.
4. Mary Douglas (1970) Natural Symbols. London: Barrie & Rockcliff.
5. Max Weber (1921) Wirtshaft und Gesellschaft. Tubingen: Mohr.
6. Anthony Giddens (1971) Capitalism and Modern Social Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
7. Weber, op. cit.
8. Michel Maffesoli (1988) Le Temps des Tribus. Paris: Méridiens.
9. Boletín Oficial Eclesiástico del Obispado de Barcelona (1863-1899).
10. PRIMER CONGRESO INTERNACIONAL ES­PIRITISTA, Setiembre 1888 Barcelona. Primer Congreso Internacional Espiritista. Represen­taciones, adhesiones, sesiones públicas, se­siones privadas, conclusiones, documentos. Reseña completa. Barcelona: Imprenta de Da­niel Cortezo y Ca Editores, 1888.


Post Scriptum: [Reprodueixo una de les pàgines de Cos i revolució:] “Els nuclis temàtics de les discussions dels espiritistes al setembre del 1888 abracen l’assumpció de l’espiritisme com a ciència positiva, psicològica i social, i com a `religió laica´, la reivindicació de la igualtat entre gèneres i l’alliberament de la dona, l’advocació per l’ensenyament laic a fi de transformar la societat des de la caritat, la raó, la justícia i el dret, la necessitat de la reforma penitenciària cara a la integració social dels presos, el rebuig frontal de la indústria militar, la crida a una revolució social, política i cultural que ha de partir de l’interior de l’individu, al cooperativisme com a manera d’organitzar la producció econòmica i d’agermanar el capital amb el treball, seguint el model del Familisteri de Jean Godin a França (J.F. Miranda presenta un projecte d’Associació Cooperativa Universal), i a l’associacionisme i les societats de socors per afavorir el benestar material i moral col·lectius, a l’abolició completa de l’esclavatge al conjunt del planeta, la supressió gradual de les fronteres polítiques i el desarmament gradual dels exèrcits permanents mitjançant la utilització de la paraula i la premsa, la secularització dels cementiris i l’establiment d’un registre civil de naixement únic i obligatori, el matrimoni civil, la prohibició de la pena de mort i les cadenes perpètues, el cosmopolitisme com a principi que regeixi les relacions socials, la comunió universal i la solidaritat entre els éssers, i s’hi presenta i tot un projecte d’estatuts per crear l’Associació Internacional per l’Arbitratge i la Pau per prevenir i resoldre els conflictes entre els pobles mitjançant el diàleg.

Es concep l’espiritisme en qualitat de religió laica, antiautoritària, igualitarista i socialitzadora de l’ideal superior de bé col·lectiu.”

Bé, doncs a través de la recerca de molts anys vaig mirar de comprendre i explicar en quin marc de relacions socials tingué lloc aquest procés als Països Catalans, des dels anys cinquanta del segle XIX fins a la Postguerra Civil als anys quaranta del segle XX.