The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation

Jan 22, 2018

This article is from the January 5th, 2018 edition of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the paper of the revolutionary workers group of that name active in France.

On October 31st, 1517, the Catholic priest Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg, a university town on the banks of the River Elbe in Eastern Germany. Luther denounced indulgences, a symbol of the Church’s corruption, which allowed wealthy Christians to buy redemption from their sins by contributing money. The 95 theses, which were soon printed, would spread throughout all of Europe. When Luther received an order from the Pope to recant, he refused and broke with the Church. He was excommunicated in 1521.

This clash is considered to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which would go on to tear apart Christianity, the religion that had dominated Europe for a millennium. Luther’s speeches against the corruption of the priests, bishops, and the Pope would find a strong echo among the population, especially in the countryside. But his theses also spread throughout the cities to a mass of artisans and small traders. This newborn petty-bourgeoisie suffocated under the authority of aristocrats and wealthy merchants, and it resented the feudal and Church taxes that it was forced to pay. Two-thirds of German cities in the Holy Roman Empire rallied to the Reformation. Finally, many princes also joined it due to their hostility toward the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who then ruled over these provinces.

Protestantism and Capitalism

The Reformation already existed in embryo in the society of that time. Before 1517, several heretical movements had expressed similar ideas: the Cathars in several regions between the 10th and 14th centuries, the Lollards in England (1381-1417), the Hussites in Bohemia (in today’s Czech Republic) at the beginning of the 15th century. In this period, the political struggles and the material interests of social classes were expressed in religious terms.

The corruption of the Church reflected the greed of the rich families, at the same time that money relations were eroding the foundations of the medieval order. In the countryside, the nobles still reigned. But in the cities of Italy, the Rhine, and Northern Europe, a handicraft industry was developing, capital was becoming concentrated, and trade was progressing and searching for ways to protect itself. The bourgeoisie already played an indispensable role in the economy. The feudal lords themselves had begun a frantic quest for gold, with expeditions to Africa, the Indies, and the Americas, which were discovered in 1492. At the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, the great merchant families like the Borgias and the Medicis chose their sons as candidates for Pope in order to accumulate goods and to transmit them to their descendants.

At the same time, conditions were worsening for the poor. The Reformation resonated with all their hopes for change. Many among the poor were conscious of the role that the Catholic Church played in defending the social order. And where the Catholic Church had demanded good works from the rich, the Protestants insisted on the faith of believers and encouraged them to read and understand the Bible for themselves. They rejected the hierarchy of bishops, who were to the Church what the lords were to feudal society.

Luther wanted to reform the Church, but for all that, he did not defend the interests of the poor masses. He represented a young and conquering bourgeoisie, who wished to free themselves from the shackles of feudal society, a bourgeoisie ready to lean on the lower classes of the cities and countryside, but without mixing their interests with its own.

In 1524, a vast peasant revolt began in the German provinces under the leadership of the itinerant priest Thomas Münzer, a preacher of Christian equality on earth and the end of the feudal regime. The princes and Luther himself turned against the insurgent peasants. When they were defeated, Münzer was executed (see the accompanying passage from Engels).

The Success of the Reformation

Luther’s ideas spread across all of Europe and became the state religion in Sweden in 1529, and in Denmark in 1536. Under the reign of Henry VIII, England also broke with the Catholic Church at the beginning of the 1530s. A large portion of German-speaking countries rallied to the Reformation, as did Scotland and the Netherlands. The French theologian John Calvin broke with the Church around 1530, and he spent the rest of his life promoting the Protestant Reformation in Geneva and the rest of Europe. His theses met with success in France, which became the scene of the Wars of Religion from 1562 to 1598. However, in those places where the Reformed religion became the official religion, it lost its aspects of social confrontation at the same time. When it did so, it was imposed as the ideology and language of the bourgeoisie as it conquered political power.