The Spark

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

Engels, Luther, and the Peasant War

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.

In 1843, Friedrich Engels published a series of articles entitled The Progress of Social Reform on the Continent, of which a selection can be read below, before going on to write The Peasant War in Germany (1850), which drew a parallel with the revolutions of 1848-49 in Europe:

“Soon after Luther had begun to proclaim church reform and to agitate the people against spiritual authority, the peasantry of Southern and Middle Germany rose in a general insurrection against their temporal lords. Luther always stated his object to be to return to original Christianity in doctrine and practice. The peasantry took exactly the same standing, and demanded, therefore, not only the ecclesiastical, but also the social practice of primitive Christianity. They conceived a state of villainy and servitude, such as they lived under, to be inconsistent with the doctrines of the Bible. They were oppressed by a set of haughty barons and earls, robbed and treated like their cattle every day. They had no law to protect them, and if they had, they found nobody to enforce it. … Therefore, they arose and began a war against their lords, which could only be a war of extermination. Thomas Münzer, a preacher, whom they placed at their head, issued a proclamation, full, of course, of the religious and superstitious nonsense of the age, but containing also among others, principles like these: That according to the Bible, no Christian is entitled to hold any property whatever exclusively for himself; that community of property is the only proper state for a society of Christians; that it is not allowed to any good Christian to have any authority or command over other Christians, nor to hold any office of government or hereditary power, but on the contrary, that, as all men are equal before God, so they ought to be on earth also. These doctrines were nothing but conclusions drawn from the Bible and from Luther’s own writings. But the Reformer … believed as firmly in the right divine of princes and landlords to trample upon the people, as he did in the Bible. Besides this, he wanted the protection of the aristocracy and the Protestant princes, and thus he wrote a tract against the rioters disclaiming not only every connection with them, but also exhorting the aristocracy to put them down with the utmost severity, as rebels against the laws of God. ‘Kill them like dogs!’ he exclaimed.

… If he began his career as a man of the people, [Luther] was now entirely in the service of their oppressors. The insurrection, after a most bloody civil war, was suppressed, and the peasants reduced to their former servitude.”