Sunday, January 14, 2024

Andrew Drummond - The Dreadful History and Judgement of God on Thomas Müntzer

Thomas Müntzer is one of the great, near forgotten heroes of the radical tradition. Karl Marx said that the German Peasant War, the struggle that Müntzer was to play a leading role in and give his life to, was "the most radical fact of German history". But today, as we approach the 500th anniversary of the start of that great rebellion, and indeed, the half millenium since the death of Müntzer himself, few on the left will know much about this figure.

So it is very welcome that Andrew Drummond has written this detailed account of Müntzer's life and ideas. That said, Drummond mostly focuses on his subject's ideas, for there are gaping holes in our knowledge of Müntzer's life. Indeed such is the paucity of material that we do not even know the name of his child. But we do know a good amount, and Drummond skillfully places what we know into an account of the great changes shaking Germany in the early 16th century. It was, most famously, a time of religious turmoil. Martin Luther, who was to be a great inspiration, then a great enemy of Müntzer, had helped turn religious discontent into mass uproar at the dominant church - the German Reformation. But, as Drummond emphasises, the Reformation itself had roots in wider social and economic changes that were driving revolt. The peasantry was being squeezed from all sides and their response was shaped by the prism of religious ideas.

Suffering under the entire weight of the feudal burden, it was primarily the peasant or disenfranchised lower-class town-dweller who participated in religious heretical movements or in rude and untrammelled riot. None of this was new. All the countries of Europe had been affected at one time or another... Without exception, the expression of this discontent and rebellion was a religious one. Social analysis and class politics were several hundred years into the future. Religious  disagreement, frequently termed ‘heresy’, was almost the only way in which unrest could manifest itself.

As Drummond points out rebellion from those at the bottom of society was not new. The difference was that because the Reformation was already challenging the dominant ideas of society, those who articulated its ideas found themselves becoming ideological leaders for an emerging movement. How they reacted to this position was crucial. Luther, horrified by the radicalism and self organisation of the peasants, quickly turned his back on the movement, preaching that Christians should obey their betters. Müntzer, who developed his own ideas in the cauldron of radical debates and gone far beyond his former ally, takes his ideas into wider, revolutionary, realms.

Drummond shows how Müntzer's radicalism emerges out of his own intense engagement with scripture, but also out of the milleau he finds himself in. Arriving into the town of Zwickau where he is appointed a minister ("by men who later had cause to regret it") Müntzer finds himself in a place where "three sections of society were in conflict: the burghers coveted municipal power, the patrician and rich families wished to retain and increase their monopoly of power and wealth, and the lower artisans and craftspeople – often relegated to lower positions by the influx of the new wealth of the mining magnates – strove for a general improvement in their condition." Crucially, a new emerging class of producers, somewhere between workers and self-employed middle class producers found themselves willing engagers with Müntzer's radicalism.

How Müntzer's ideas developed, and what they were, forms the core to Drummond's book. A key section looks at Müntzer's 1521 Prague Manifesto, a document which was never published, but in which the author laid out his ideas. As Drummond explains this is a document where "Müntzer made it quite clear that the degradation of the Papal Church had led to a global crisis of Apocalyptic proportions, in which only the Elect could change the course of history." Revolution then was on the agenda for Müntzer, if not in open rebellion, at least in the sense of individuals transforming their historical circumstances. 

Unlike some on the radical left, Drummond is careful to warn us of historical traps. When Münzter writes in his Manifesto words that resonate today:

God will pour his insurmountable anger over such proud, wooden men, who are impervious to all good, Titus 1:7, for they deny the basic healing of faith . . . Yes, they are not insignificant, they are greatly damned villains who have existed in all the world since the beginning, here to plague the poor people who are thus so benighted.

Drummon is careful to point out that poor does not mean economically desperate. Rather he meant spiritually poor. A great strength of Drummond's book is that while written from a revolutionary and socialist point of view, it doesn't fall into the trap of extrapolating later politics backwards. But that said Drummond makes it clear that Müntzer was penning revolutionary arguments, even if he could not yet explicitly make this clear:

Finally, the practical conclusion to be drawn from all this – although one which Müntzer himself did not expressly assert – was that the Elect must strip all power from the centralised religious apparatus (the chamber pot in the coal shed), from its academic support (the hen-coop full of chicken shit) and from the Papal court (the brothel with its courtesans). Against all this would be posed the common people, the members of the Elect and the heretofore ignorant masses, a combined force with its own ultimate justification for its social and political aspirations.

The outbreak of the Peasant War gives Müntzer his moment. In August 1524, as rebellion breaks out, Müntzer arrives in the town of Mühlhausen to find the place in uproar. Drummond says "He had arrived, after all, with the doctrinal weapons to destroy the godless opposition. He came ready to educate and to organise the people, free from the immediate gaze of any feudal authority. There was to be no further attempt to hold a dialogue with such tyrants, no rapprochement with Wittenberg."

Wittenberg, of course, was Luther's base, and Luther was busily backtracking on anything that tied him too close to the emerging rebellion. In contrast, Müntzer throws himself in. As the storm grows Müntzer becomes closer and closer to his subject - the rebellious, discontented, and deprived masses. They feature more and more in his writing, and he engages closer with them in an organisational sense.

This was the road to revolution and to Müntzer becoming a revolutionary leader. A leader, but not the leader. Indeed at the final battle at Frankenhausen that was to lead to Müntzer's capture and death, he was only one of many people - but it is clear that he was the theoretical, ideological leader of the movement. His enemies, indeed the enemies of the revolution knew this, and his capture and torture were designed to produce documents that the victors could use to destroy the movement itself.

Today if we remember anything of Müntzer, it is for his phrase "omnia sunt communia" (all things are to be held in common). Its a slogan beloved of many contemporary revolutionaries. But Drummond shows how this was not actually something that Müntzer likely said, more a product of counter-revolutionaries who wanted to discredit the whole Peasant War as a communist plot. Disppointingly but importantly; "Any temptation to build grand theories on it out of context should be avoided."

Yet the fact that such an interpretation could be put on Müntzer was precisely because the desire for such a change did exist within the movement itself, and Drummond shows the close links between Reformation and revolution through the documents produced by the peasantry. Müntzer's radicalism drew and expanded upon the revolutionary ideas of, at least some, sections of the peasantry and oppressed classes. 

Drummond's book finishes by telling us more about the long life of Müntzer through his influence on the anabaptists and the later Communist movement. These are important sections but for me Munzter's real importance lies in the inspiration he gave to ordinary people and consequently the fear he placed in the minds of those who opposed him. Drummond gives one example, steming from an official report into the ideas of a radical anabaptist heretic, whom, the official alleges, wanted to see the common man, "stand up against their magistrates and clear them away, and finally end up simply overthrowing the whole structure, and in its place arouse a Müntzerish army without magistrates."

Müntzer haunted the powerful and wealthy. Andrew Drummond's fantastic account of his life, ideas and fate is a brilliant reaffirmation of the importance of Müntzer for contemporary times. Told with a firm grasp of the archival material, fresh new translations of Müntzer's ideas and a wry sense of humour, this is a book for the 500th anniversary that everyone should read.

Related Reviews

Vuillard - The War of the Poor
Engels - The Peasant War in Germany
Roper - Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet
Kautsky - Communism in Central Europe in the time of the Reformation
Bax - The Peasants War in Germany

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