by Seán Gray
Revolutions and secret societies have long shared a connection. Whether through military action or fostering divergent thought, these organizations have played key roles in several revolutions around the world. This article aims to help you create truly interesting and compelling revolutionary groups—a valuable skill for any prospective worldbuilder to add to their arsenal. Whether it be out of idealism and a desire for non-violent resistance, purely pragmatic, or somewhere in-between, revolutionaries have long engaged in cloak and daggers. It’s time to peel back the curtain and find out why.
It is important to note that secret societies come in in a variety of different flavors. For some of these groups, secrecy is only a means to foster martial revolution. Many a revolt has been stifled in its crib by informers and police raids, after all. For more peaceful groups, secrecy serves a different—if equally important—purpose: protecting ideas and conversations repressed by (usually) the government. Revolution does not have to be achieved through military means, and not all clandestine groups adopt violence as a tool. Secret societies can act as a forum for illegal or repressed thought. Many cultural transformations began in underground organizations, which encouraged non-conformative beliefs.
Violent revolutionaries are not the only group who form secret societies. Throughout history heterodox thought has been persecuted. These illicit beliefs often thrive within secret organizations because they have been forced underground. In many cases secret societies are founded with the explicit purpose of fostering divergent thought. The Bavarian Illuminati is an example of one such society. Its founder, Adam Weishaupt, wanted to spread the values of the Enlightenment throughout conservative Bavaria. Though formed on the first of May, 1776, it was not until April of 1778 that the group would call themselves the Order of Illuminati. Initially limited to Weishaupt and his students, the organization would gradually begin to expand, partially by operating within the wide umbrella of German Freemasonry. These efforts would eventually stall, though the Order would continue to expand through individual recruiting. At the order’s zenith it is suspected to have possessed up to 2,500 members, though only 650 of them have been reliably verified. The order attracted many intellectuals and liberal politicians and included such notable luminaries as Ferdinand of Brunswick and Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe.
The Bavarian monarchy, influenced by the Catholic Church, had taken a repressive stance in regards to free speech. As such, various secret societies, including the Illuminati, would be outlawed in a string of edicts from 1784 to 1790. This would prove to be the end of the Bavarian Illuminati. While active it was a venue for intellectual discussion, and a gathering place for like-minded individuals who didn’t quite fit the monarchy’s expectations. Though not affecting change through military means, the group aided in the expansion of Enlightenment values, such as religious tolerance and individual liberty. In many ways they laid the groundwork for a cultural revolution.
The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was an excellent example of this practical paranoia in action. Founded in 1858, its members wished to win an Irish republic through violent means. Paranoid about the reach of Dublin Castle (the seat of the British administration in Ireland), the Brotherhood organized themselves in the fashion of a secret society. The group was divided up into several “circles.” The leader of each circle would choose nine lieutenants to operate beneath him. They would in turn choose their own nine sergeants who would then go on to choose nine subordinates of their own. The letters A, B, C and D were used to distinguish between each separate rank. Theoretically, this meant that each commander would only be aware of their hand-picked men. In practice this directive was often ignored by the various ranks who interacted freely. As a result an entire circle could be compromised if a member was arrested.
The Brotherhood would go on to play a key role in the Irish revolutionary period. The formation of the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) in 1913 to ensure Home Rule in Ireland provided the IRB a ready source of recruits.
The outbreak of World War I caused a split in the IVF with the vast majority of the movement remaining outside IRB control. Despite this, the IRB would begin plotting a rebellion, even going so far as to contact Germany to request weapons. This would prove to be their undoing since the British deciphered German codes during the course of the war. Their interception of the German ship carrying arms proved ruinous for the IRB. With little hope of victory and confusion rife amongst the ranks, the leadership agreed to launch the rebellion on schedule. On Easter Monday 1916, IRB aligned forces seized several buildings around Dublin. The Easter Rising had begun. However, after a week of fighting, the IRB surrendered. Outgunned and vastly outnumbered by British forces, the rebels had been crushed.
Though a military defeat, the Rising was a political triumph for the IRB. It turned the Irish public against the British administration and led to wide support for the idea of an Irish republic. Though the IRB had been decimated, from its remains a new organization would arise—the infamous Irish Republican Army.
So far we have looked at examples on either end of the secret society spectrum, but not all will fit neatly into one category or the other. The White Lotus Society of medieval China practiced a fusion between the idealism of the Illuminati and the pragmatism of the IRB. The Society had no love for the ruling Mongol Yuan dynasty. An unequal class system coupled with heavy taxation did much to create resentment among the peasantry of China. Kublai Khan’s death in 1294 only made the situation worse by ushering in regular governmental instability thanks to dynastic infighting. By the 1340s, unrest was growing and the White Lotus were actively cultivating it as part of the wider Red Turban revolutionary movement.
The Society was not created specifically to drive the Mongols from China, however. The White Lotus was a messianic Buddhist organization which had been outlawed for their beliefs. When their leader was captured and executed in 1351, the White Lotus Society openly revolted. Peasants across the empire rose with them. Soon the Yuan hold on China began to collapse and in 1368 a new emperor had risen: Emperor Hongwu of the Ming dynasty. Born Zhu Yuanzhang, a peasant, he had risen high in the Red Turbans before becoming ruler of all of China. During his thirty-year rule as emperor, Hongwu would go on to reform much of the state’s institutions. Hongwu was keenly aware of the role the White Lotus society had played in the Mongol downfall and his own subsequent success. To prevent a similar fate befalling himself, he would ban all secret societies despite the fact groups like theirs were a staple of Chinese society. Not even his erstwhile allies, the White Lotus, were spared, and they were swiftly stomped out.
Creating Secret Societies
Now that we’ve looked at a few historical examples of this unique relationship, it’s time to apply it to your worlds and factions! Drawing on real world history is an excellent way to provide a solid foundation to your own worldbuilding efforts, but how can we make secret societies our own?
The most important step to consider is the core ideal(s) of the group. What are their goals? Is it spiritual in nature, entirely pragmatic, or something in-between? Can they realistically achieve those goals, or is it pie in the sky dreaming? This motive will inform the organization’s name, methods, and ultimate fate, so it is important to figure it out early.
Let us say that our organization is a mix of ideological and practical. The land of Labar is dominated by an oppressive regime that silences dissenting viewpoints and enacts heavy taxation to fund its military. Formed from a mixture of disaffected intellectuals and desperate working class folk, our secret society is constantly balancing its inherent beliefs with a matter-of-fact approach. Unable to militarily achieve their aims, the society has turned to educating the largely poor & illiterate populace. If a military revolution cannot be achieved, a cultural one will have to suffice for now.
To this end, the group named themselves the Order of the Open Book. Members of the Order operate all over the country in illicit underground schools. They conduct classes in barns and kitchens while always keeping an eye out for the local constabulary. Forbidden books are rescued and spread through the Order’s various branches to ensure no knowledge is lost. Flyers decrying the government are quietly printed and distributed. Those who speak out against the state are shuffled between safehouses and given a platform on which to speak. The Order has fully committed to a battle of hearts and minds in their efforts to free the people of Labar from their oppressors.
This approach has gained them a great deal of popular support. Combined with a relatively decentralized leadership, this development has allowed the Order to survive despite governmental hostility. Though Labar has yet to be freed, the possibility of a popular revolt—or change from within by individuals elected to office who were educated by the Order—grows by the day….Once the core belief is laid out, it becomes remarkably easy to construct the rest. Revolutionary organizations are inherently driven by a desire to change the world around them. Knowing why they strive for a better future—and what their “better future” looks like—will give you the seeds needed to turn your revolutions into compelling events.
It is important to note that secret societies rarely last long. Sometimes their enemies simply dismantle them. Even success inevitably leads to the society’s dissolution. Victory eliminates the need for secrecy, and so they step out from the shadows. Considering what they fight for, who they fight against, and how they fight will provide a great jumping off point to determine whether a secret society is ultimately successful or if they are doomed to fall apart.
The Order of the Open Book is just one example of how to apply revolutionary secret societies to your own works. Revolutionaries and secret societies have long been friends—now it’s your turn to investigate this deep relationship in your own works. Further research on this topic can be nothing but beneficial—this article offers only a meager selection compared to the wealth of information available to the prospective worldbuilder. Readers looking deeper into this topic are advised to remember that revolutions can have messy legacies that carry on to the present day. Check out Revolution as a Violent Act by Cassidy M. Hammersmith in the free Revolutions issue for one example of how bad things can get.
Clandestine organizations give worldbuilders a fascinating tool to offer insight into the upheavals in their worlds. Secret societies are not isolated from society, as they often strive to affect change from within it. Be it through military force, cultural teachings, or a fusion of the two, they will inevitably leave their mark. They can change the world—for the better or for the worse. Will your secret societies launch a bloody revolt, foster dissident thought, fight for equality, or seek some other change?
It’s up to you to decide.
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Aan de Wiel, Jérôme, Ireland’s War and the Easter Rising in A European Context, Atlas of the Irish Revolution, Cork University Press, 201, pg. 231
Ed Josef Wäges and Reinhard Markner, tr Jeva Singh-Anand, The Secret School of Wisdom, Lewis Masonic 2015, pg. 15–16
René le Forestier, Les Illuminés de Bavière et la franc-maçonnerie allemande, Paris, 1914, Book 4 Chapter 2, pg. 389–615
Messenger Charles, The Ming Overthrow of Mongol Rule in China 1351-88, Quercus, 2008, pg. 47-52
McGee, Owen, The Irish Republican Brotherhood, Atlas of the Irish Revolution, Cork University Press, 2017, pg. 128
O’Leary, John, Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism, Downey & Co, Ltd, London, 1896 (Vol. I & II), pg. 84
White, Gerry, ‘They Have Rights Who Dare Maintain Them’: The Irish Volunteers, 1913-15, Atlas of the Irish Revolution, Cork University Press, 2017, pg. 168-172