Friedrich Engels, The Peasant War in Germany

The Peasant War in Germany is not the first Engels I’ve read–I read his work on the family about 20 years ago and liked it well enough while having a sense of its limitations by current standards.  I have since developed something of a disrespect for Engels as the junior partner in the relationship with Marx, and an unfair one my reading of the The Peasant War tells me.  He never pretended to be Marx’s equal, but he was in no sense a slouch, and if he certainly wasn’t a tenth the dialectician that Marx was, he had very different contributions of his own to make, and not only as an editor.  Surely, these are not original observations, but to me this was news.  I’d always held what I (and many others) had felt was Engels’ reduction of Marx’s analysis of historical change to a rigid schema of historical change, inevitably proceeding in a predictable direction.  Marx did not think that way.

The introduction to my edition, however, makes the point that Engels, as a historian, was top-notch and deserves our attention.  I could not agree more.  I read The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte more or less 20 years ago, and in the intervening decades I’ve matured enormously as a reader, not only of Marx, but I will say that a lot of it went past me, which was fine by me because I always felt with Marx that, even though I would miss a lot, the things I would get would be of enormous value, and indeed they always were (and continue to be–I’m reading The Civil War in France right now).

Engels’ chief virtue in my mind had always been enormous clarity in his writing and thinking, which at its best, either as a direct collaborator as in The Communist Manifesto, or as an editor, brought out the best, so to speak, in Marx.  That clarity is fully in evidence in The Peasant War.

To the book itself: Engels wrote this in the aftermath of the failure of the German Revolution of 1848 to produce a radical outcome, not necessarily even a socialist one but a bourgeois republic, or parliamentary monarchy in which ministerial responsibility rested with elected officials.  Much of The Peasant War seems aimed at German revolutionaries, dejected, with Engels saying, “chins up, people!  We are not French, but we too have a radical, revolutionary past, were we only to examine it for ourselves!”

Engels subject, the social uprisings in Germany following the Reformation, are rarely discussed in your average history textbooks yet are, for my money, the single most important aspect of the period to understand if one wants to get a sense of the broader development of European and world history that followed.  That is to say, Luther gets it in his head to nail his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenburg, and then all Hell broke loose.  Luther posits a direct, personal relationship of the believer with God.  The clergy, a theologically and therefore institutionally necessary intermediary between the believer and God, no longer is necessary.  This, given the contours of that society, is as radical a proposition as one could get.  It had the equivalent effect of a starter’s pistol on the German peasantry.  You are equal, Luther implied, to all those who lord it over you, in your relationship with God, which is of course the most important thing there is.  Fairly quickly, German peasants rejected their earthly superiors’ superiority in the name of the Reformation.

The book is short–really, it’s a pamphlet.  That said, Engels’ legendary concision is in full display here.  He sketches quickly, but clearly and accurately, antecedents to the Peasant War in both the theological and social movements in the immediately preceding centuries.  Thumbnail sketches of the principals as well as a lengthier discussion of Thomas Muenzer, the most far-seeing–that is, the closest to nineteenth-century socialism–of the various leaders of the revolts–or, I should say, revolution, clarify the personalities without bogging down.  The pace is brisk but not superficial, the mark of a truly excellent writer.

It is important, I think, when dealing with socialism, to point out that while Marx and Engels looked to the future, they were by no means dreamers.  Quite the contrary, and though they emphasized this fact constantly their critics (who, I have to imagine, tend to give them a very cursory read, if that) rarely acknowledge it, they always looked backward to see the future.  Nothing comes out of nothing.  This is important to bear in mind if one wants to have an intellectual discussion of Marx and Marxism, but essential if one actually wants to work for a better, actually existing, society.


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