Quote note (#190)
“Antagonism between the feudal system and the capitalist system” was at the origin of the Reformation. In other words: “capitalism, being constituted on commercial bases, tries to dominate the labour market; a ﬂedgling proletariat no longer disposes, or can dispose, of the tools of its labour; between them, something that already resembles a class war.”
The social and psychological consequences were particularly acute in “areas where the population was rapidly increasing . . . [and] the areas of rapid social change.” The “growing importance of capital, of the market and of competition rendered insecure, isolated and full of anxiety” not only the existence of the proletarized working masses, but also that of the marginal strata of the intelligentsia who found themselves as if thrown into a hostile, incomprehensible world, governed by impersonal forces beyond their control. It is not surprising that the declassed intellectuals should have “constituted the avant-garde of the Reform.” Contrary to an interpretation that is as widespread as it is arbitrary, the Reformation was an anticapitalist movement.
For the entrepreneurs, the practice of indulgences had transformed relations with the church into a reassuring kind of bookkeeping exercise: “If you can buy paradise, then God must tolerate and encourage wealth and not be hostile to proﬁt.” In criticizing this attitude, the Protestant preachers laid the foundations “for a new critique of capitalism as the work of the Devil, a critique that went deep, because the accusation was against capitalism itself and not the abuses indicated by Catholicism.” It brought the mercatores before the court of the Holy Scripture and condemned them as men who had surrendered to mammon, corrupting Christianity with their lust for wealth and proﬁt.
The most appropriate response would have been to revive the original evangelical message and violently expel the mercatores from the temple. Luther did not go so far. Being a radical pessimist, he thought that the corruption of Christianity would never be eradicated manu militari and that the only solution was for the faithful to avoid being infected by the spirit of proﬁt and to continue to work “obediently in the pre-ordered social conditions.”
This solution failed to satisfy the peasants, besieged by hunger, the plague, taxes, and usury; and the artisans, who had fallen under the control of capital and were forced to work for greedy, insensitive masters. Luther’s devastating critique of the Church and of capitalism had raised much higher hopes among this internal proletariat for “an autumn of the middle ages.” Predictably, they began to look for a solution elsewhere.
They found what they were seeking in Thomas Müntzer, “the revolution theologian” — Ernst Bloch’s deﬁnition — “[who] fanned hatred against the ruling classes, he stimulated the wildest passions, and used only the forceful language that the religious and nationalist delirium had put into mouths of the Old Testament prophet.” He liked to present himself as a paraclete, whose soteriological mission was to “combat the enemies of faith” in order to overturn an overturned world and free the oppressed and the exploited from the rule of priests, the powerful, and the rich. His revolutionary agenda “demanded the immediate establishment of the kingdom of God on Earth, of the prophesied millennium, by restoring the church to its original status and abolishing all the institutions that conﬂicted with the purportedly early Christian but in fact very novel church. By the kingdom of God Müntzer meant a society with no class differences, no private property and no state authority independent of, and foreign to, the members of society.”
Understandably, Müntzer’s vision of the imminent advent of a communist millennium aroused people treated “like society’s beasts of burden.” Peasants, miners, and artisans rushed to listen to Müntzer and Pfeifer, his assistant. The content of their speeches was always the same: those in command had no right to exercise power; power should pass into the hands of the chosen community; the priests had betrayed the evangelical message and therefore should be expelled from Christianity; the rich would never save their souls because they had surrendered to mammon; everything had to be shared; the very distinction between meum and tuum was contrary to God’s will.
[For references, see original (Chapter 32), which proceeds to Puritanism, the English Civil War, and the Cromwellian suppression of English Communism]