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Fight the Power

Positive Thinking is for Corporatist Chumps. Except When It’s Not.

“The time for thinkers has come; and the time for revolutions, ecclesiastic and social, must come.” — Mary Baker Eddy, 1875

Critics of positive thinking, or New Thought, often dismiss mental metaphysics as a milquetoast philosophy that uses “happy thoughts” as a lame substitute for social action.

But New Thought grew up hand-in-hand with a tradition of radical political dissent. New Thought’s ethos of self-empowerment appealed to figures from feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Science of Getting Rich author Wallace D. Wattles, who ran for office several times on the Socialist Party ticket.

New Thought’s premise that we can simultaneously remake society and ourselves appears most strikingly in the career of a figure rarely associated with metaphysics: black-nationalist pioneer Marcus Garvey.

Garvey is best remembered as a political insurgent. Born in Jamaica in 1887, he sojourned to America in 1916 to spread his vision of a pan-African superpower, which would unite black people around the world and take its place among modern empires.

For a time, the radical leader came closer than many would have imagined, attracting tens of thousands of cheering followers to rallies and parades in the U.S., England, and the Caribbean, and assembling history’s first international black political organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).

But it is impossible to fully understand Garvey’s philosophy of black empowerment without recognizing the New Thought ideas and methods that ran through it. Most mainstream historians and journalists never grasped the nature of Garvey’s references to “scientific” religion, his use of proverbs like “as man thinketh,” or his urging followers, “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery” and “mind is your only ruler.

Garvey began his mission to bring a sense of self-determination to members of the African diaspora when he travelled as a journalist through Central America in his early twenties. The young Garvey was appalled to witness the second-class status of black laborers completing the Panama Canal.

“Where was the black man’s country?” he wondered. Garvey sought answers in Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery. Washington’s philosophy of self-sufficiency hit Garvey with the force of a religious conversion.

Garvey merged Washington’s influence with his own search into the new metaphysics. This resulted in a bevy of New Thought-oriented slogans and ideas in UNIA’s newspapers and pamphlets, such as the need for a “universal business consciousness.” Garvey’s Negro Factories Corporation advertised shares of stock by declaring: “Enthusiasm Is One of the Big Keys to Success.” The front page of Garvey’s Blackman newspaper announced: “Let us Give off Success and It Will Come,” adding the perennial New Thought maxim: “As Man Thinks So Is He.”

Garvey extolled the work French mind-power theorist Emile Coué who popularized the mantra, “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” His Negro World newspaper echoed the Frenchman’s affirmation in an editorial headline: “Every Day in Every Way We See Drawing Nearer and Nearer the Coming of the Dawn for Black Men.” The paper editorialized that Marcus Garvey’s teachings provided the same “uplifting psychic influence” as Coué’s.

Sensing Garvey’s spiritual appeal, an FBI report in 1920 observed of his movement that “among the followers it is like a religion,” its leader “looked upon as a black Moses.”

One of the only books that Garvey publicly recommended was Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook, a collection of life lessons by Hubbard, a social-reform journalist and motivational hero within New Thought circles. Garvey’s favorite poet was Ella Wheeler Wilcox, the poet laureate of mental metaphysics and a student of New Thought pioneer Emma Curtis Hopkins. Garvey used Wilcox’s lines to conclude a 1915 UNIA rally:

Live for something, — Have a purpose

And that purpose keep in view

Drifting like an helmless vessel

Thou cans’t ne’er to self be true.

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Photo taken by author at Occupy Wall Street

Why didn’t Garvey just come out and proclaim his New Thought sympathies? A degree of secrecy and confidentiality characterized almost all of his affairs, including those of the mind. Garvey’s suspicions of the established political order — which took every opportunity to subject him to legal harassment — led the activist to closely, and sometimes excessively, guard the sources of his ideas.

But in a speech he delivered in January 1928 in Kingston, Jamaica, Garvey articulated his spiritual approach more clearly than any other time. “Get you[rself], as the white man has done, a scientific understanding of God and religion,” he told listeners, continuing:

What marks the great deal of difference between the Negro and the White man is that the Negro does not understand God and His religion. God places you here in the world on your responsibility as men and women to take out of the world and to make out of the world what you want in keeping with the laws of the spirit. God has laid down two codes that man cannot afford to disobey: The code of Nature and the code of the Spirit. The code of Nature when you violate it makes you angry, makes you unhappy, makes you miserable, makes you sick, makes you die prematurely…Every sickness and every disease, I repeat, is a direct violation of the code of God in Nature.

Contemporary readers of Garvey could easily miss, or simply wonder at, his references to religion and science — but the signposts abounded in Garvey’s day. Both New Thought and Christian Science rested on the premise that religion was, above all, a lawful phenomenon guaranteed to produce certain results.

Garvey’s spiritual “science” also had roots — occult roots — in his Caribbean boyhood. In the West Indies, the term science was slang for mystical practices.

To Garvey’s supporters, his speeches and articles conveyed a distinctive marriage of politics and metaphysics. The spiritual and social visionary couched his ideas in language to which every aspiring person, black or white, could instantly relate.

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Mitch Horowitz is the PEN Award-winning winning author of Occult America and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life, where he writes further about New Thought’s radical roots.

Originally published at on September 29, 2015.

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"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China

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