The Bavarian Illuminati was founded on May 1st 1776 (the year of the American Revolution, which somewhat undermines the theory of their role in it particularly as there were only about five of them at that stage). The group, originally called the Order of Perfectiblists, was created by Adam Weishaupt, a professor of law at Ingolstadt University in Bavaria. Little is widely known about the group (and much nonsense is written about it) but a little research can turn up a lot.
For the early influences on Weishaupt see his node. He formed the society with four friends (some of whom may have been part of an earlier group he formed at college). Their political agenda seems to have been to abolish monarchy, religion, private property and the nation state and replace them with a global network of rational utopian communities based on freedom, equality and libertarian socialism. This first group also seem to have been somewhat bohemian rejecting social norms and promoting free sex. They also seem to have shared esoteric beliefs of a Gnostic inclination.
Ironically the group came to believe the best way to achieve this goal was to create an international super state that would impose these changes, educate the masses and finally abolish itself. Such a state would be produced with the aid of powerful political supporters, or the revolutionary overthrow of old regimes. In many ways this was like an esoteric form of authoritarian Communism. The key notion was that people were ‘perfectible’ and when so could live in an anarchist utopia. Until that time they needed guidance by an elite of the ‘perfect’.
The Bavarian Illuminati really took off when Weishaupt was contacted by a representative of a German Masonic Templar lodge who would help the Illuminati spread across Europe using Freemasonry as a front. It was also greatly expanded by new recruits following the disintegration of a large Order of Scottish Rite Freemasonry in 1782. It was at this stage that the group began to become ‘officially’ known as the Illuminati. Whether these Neo-Templar Masons shared the ambitious agenda of the original Perfectiblists is unknown, but Weishaupt remained firmly in control of the ‘association’, as he called it, until its suppression in 1785.
The name ‘Illuminati’ had a pedigree before Weishaupt. It was first used by Prussian Freemasons, and quasi-masons, loyal to Frederick the Great. The agenda of this group seems to have been the more common one of the proliferation of Enlightenment thought and the creation of modern ‘liberal democratic’ states, under the protection of absolute monarchs (or powerful heads of state). They served the interests of the rising middle classes, and Prussia in particular. It has been alleged that the Templar Masons were allied to this group, but while there was overlap there was also rivalry and the agenda of the latter appears different.
Before this the term Illumines was being used in southern France to describe a collection of politically committed neo-Gnostics (including a new Cathar church), Martinists and self professed Rosicrucians, nominally aligned within the local Catholic Church. This grouping was more concerned with spiritual than political matters (at least up till the French Revolution), but maintained an ideology based on the sovereignty of the individual (as a potential god) and the creation of a just society that would promote political and social equality. They were joined in this by the mysterious political mystic Kolmer who had greatly influenced Weishaupt (see node on Adam Weishaupt).
The exact relation of all these groups remains unknown (and also the role of other secretive players, such as the Jesuits and Rose Croix Masonry) but no doubt various conspiratorial games were a foot. As for grass roots membership, a considerable amount of confusion and eclectic mixing seemed to be occurring within these groups, partly due to the secrecy of their superiors.
The structure of the Illuminati was numerically pyramidal and based on a combination of the Masonic degree system and Ismaili/Assassin grades:
Illuminatus Dirigens (Scotch Knight)
Illuminatus Major (Scotch Novice)
The first project of the Bavarian Illuminati was to overthrow the Hapsburg Dynasty, unfortunately by this time they had been infiltrated by Jesuit agents who blew the operation. Shortly after the Bavarian State banned the group and it broke up in 1785.
Legend has it the group survived, but there is no hard evidence of this. Von Knigge (codename Philo), an ex Templar Mason and confident of Weishaupt, created a ‘secret union’ in Amsterdam following the banning of the Illuminati. This became an essentially democratic reformist organisation allied to the Prussian Masons. Though it said to have played a significant support role in the Masonic conspiracy associated with the French Revolution. Closely linked to this conspiracy was the ex Illuminatus Bode (codename Amelius, perhaps indicating a more cautious approach) who seems to have carried on Weishaupt’s agenda (his own ideas being otherwise similar to those of Fourier), however he is not associated with any known group and appears to have only operated on the fringes of Freemasonry. He was more well known for propagating the story that the Knights Templar had been Gnostic anarchists and the NeoTemplars were imposters and agents of the Jesuits! Other small secret societies were believed to have been created by ex Illuminati at various times. Any one of the above have been described as the ‘continuation of the Bavarian Illuminati’.
Some secret groups were later formed calling themselves the ‘New Bavarian Illuminati’, or similar pretentious titles, but few if any had anything in common with the original group.
In modern paranoid myth the Illuminati are the ‘secret elite’ within ‘liberal democratic’ states, plotting global domination and an international super state. In some sense this might be metaphorically true, if we identify the Illuminati as those allied to the early Prussian masons who were eventually victorious (particular given the role of Masons in both the French and American post-revolutionary establishment).
However the real story of the Illuminati demonstrates that conspiracies are rarely global, are always confused and chaotic and very hard to pull off! More larger scale social forces are often behind political change. And given the radical nature of later ‘Illuminati’ (some ‘offshoots’ were even more anarchic than Weishaupt) it is well to remember the advice of Robert Anton Wilson who says all this is should only be regarded as a conspiracy if you enjoy living in a reality tunnel in which you are an underdog or victim!