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.

C.L.R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution

Get to a good library, get this book, and read it.

I was at a friend’s house and by my habit was looking at his bookshelf. I grabbed Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution as well as a copy of Nkrumah’s autobiography, and he told me to take them home, on the condition that I report back to him on the quality of the books: he had bought them but not yet read them, as many bookworms will do. C.L.R. James passes the test. The book is out of print, unfortumately, so get right and get a library card, which is my new modus vivendi as I’ve noted before.

Very briefly, the edition I read was originally published in 1977, the bulk of which was published as a fairly lengthy pamphlet in (according to the copyright) 1962, while Nkrumah was still in power, with additions from the period as he was, in James’ analysis, losing his footing. James’ dedication of the text, to Nkrumah, whom he called Francis, is quite beautiful:


in never-to-be forgotten memory. Like Cromwell and Lenin, he initiated the destruction of a régime in decay — a tremendous achievement; but like them, he failed to create the new society.

James is among other things one of a tiny few of true stylists of 20th century English prose. He is most famous for The Black Jacobins for perfectly good reasons–i.e., you won’t read a better book–but, truly, should be required reading for anyone trying to get their prose in shape, myself included. He’s also one of those examples of the colonially educated who mastered the language of the oppressor to a greater extent than any of the oppressors themselves. I can’t imagine too many writers today, again including myself, who would bother using the correctly-accented “régime” rather than the lazy man’s “regime,” much less know that there is actually a difference. James, of course knows that both history and language matter, and thus could not but acknowledge the history of the word as he wrote it.

James writes against an entire literature that posits decolonization as something that Europeans did. Put so, it’s, I hope, obvious how idiotic an idea that is. I’d note, however, that there is an analogous trend in US historiography that sees the end of slavery as the work of white people (witness California History Standard 10.3.4, which places the end of the slave trade in the unit on the industrial revolution) or the Civil Rights Act as Johnson’s achievment (witness Hillary Clinton’s campaign). James begins his text with a discussion of “the Myth,” capitalized. That is, the notion that there’s no way that Black people could actually make history for themselves. His book, in addition to an analysis of revolutionary process and a very convincing defense from a Marxist perspective of non-violence, is an illustration of the truth that Black people and indeed all people make their own history, even if as Marx famously noted in the Eighteenth Brumaire that

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

In any event, James amply demonstrates that is was the mass movement in Ghana that required the British to leave. Nkrumah’s role was to understand this and give it focus. James’ dedication above places Nkrumah on par with Cromwell (interesting choice, and certainly not one expected by this US-educated reader) and Lenin, and his book absolutely justifies that assessment. Truly, Ghana’s independence movement was in fact a revolution–not a term one finds in American textbooks in this context–and Nkrumah both a theoretician and practitioner of revolution on par with a Lenin.

I have to think that the broad denial of the term “revolution” to Ghana in our textbooks is part of a general tendency of the propertied classes to erase the idea of revolutionary change from the list of possible futures we face. The materials we as teachers get to work with, textbooks and such, subtly categorize “revolutions” into two categories: the good and the bad. The “good” ones are those of anglophonic whites: those of England such as it was and the United States. Reports of revolutionary violence are minimized in textbook treatments of these subjects or dismissed as aberrations. That both merely confirmed already-existing elites rather than replaced them exposes the agenda of the textbook writers: convince young people, the ones who might actually change things, that change is at minimum not desirable, more likely not actually possible. The “bad” revolutions are portrayed as inevitable descents into bloodbaths: we see the French and Russian examples at their worst. Students who because of their decent nature–that is to say, the very people who under capitalism are most likely to want to overthrow it–would gravitate toward thoroughgoing social revolutions are instead taught to revile the very notion of revolution, because they are taught to mistake revolutionary violence with revolution itself. Ghana’s counter-example gives lie to this.

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