Karl Kautsky

Saint Francis of Assisi

Revisionist of Medieval Communism


From Cosmonaut, May 2019.
Translated by Rida Vaquas.
German original: Der heilige Franz von Assisi – ein Revisionist des mittelalterlichen Kommunismus, by Karl Kautsky, Die Neue Zeit, 22/35 (1904), pp. 260–267.
Copied with thanks from Cosmonaut Blog, July 2019.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
If you wish to reproduce this text, please contact Cosmonaut at cosmonautmagazine (at) gmail (dot) com.

Endeavors to abolish a kind of private property or even all private property are as old as propertylessness, poverty, and the phenomenon of the masses. To this extent, we can say that socialism stretches back far into our history. But the proletariat, the class of the dispossessed, was not always the same, and its differences correspond to the differences in the form of socialism they produced.

This is not a new idea, although it is still not recognized everywhere, and yet it is impossible to fully understand a movement such as the Franciscans, whom a historian has recently written about, without it. For this idea, it is very important to highlight the distinctive features of the different forms of the proletariat is very important because they assemble into two types and because it clearly shows how different the attitude of the papal church is to each of them.

The communism of primitive Christianity was sustained by a lumpenproletariat on a mass scale. Small enterprise in production still dominated, as far as it was engaged in by free men, collective production, the communism of the means of production, was not worth considering as the ideal of the proletariat. The communism that they strived for was one of enjoyment of goods. Yet the lumpenproletariat shuns work, enjoyment without labour is their ideal and so the ideal of primitive Christianity became a communism of enjoyment without labour. The role models of pious Christians became the lilies and the ravens, who did not spin or weave, who did not sow or reap and yet splendidly thrived.

Yet enjoyment without labour is not yet possible as the common destiny of humanity. Whoever wants to enjoy without labour can only do it off the back of another, whose labour they exploit.

In spite of its communism, the early church hence required the division of society into two classes, one labouring and one exploiting and, as it always goes, the exploiters thought themselves to be better than those they exploited. The latter, they were the sinful children of the world. The exploiters organized in the church elevated themselves above them as saints, as chosen by the Lord. Of course, the exploiters were initially without property and poor and were sustained by the efforts of the community. But the organization of begging and the beggars soon became the dominant force in the church. Begging itself soon reached such staggering excess that from the poverty of the individual religious emerged the wealth of the clergy.

Originally the early church stood in opposition to the dominant society and the state which rested upon inequality, oppression, and exploitation. The more the Church developed from early Christian communism into an institution of exploitation and domination, the more its hostility to the state and society dwindled and hence the easier it became to reconcile itself with the existing order, what Constantine brilliantly attained.

Meanwhile, the same causes result in the same effects time and time again. As often as the masses of lumpenproletariat swell, attempts arise to revive early Christian communism afresh. After some centuries, often even after only decades, the organizations created through this always become a new institution of exploitation and domination within the Church, insofar as they succeed. This is due to the logic of the predicament and is proven by the history of each monastic order.

The communism of the labouring proletariat is of a completely different kind to this lumpenproletarian communism. The labouring proletariat only emerges as a mass phenomenon with the mass production of capital. They recognize the necessity of labour very well. They feel it as a burden, yet they realize it is indispensable. They do not seek to get rid of it, they prefer to make it easier, firstly by the deployment of all members of society capable of work and then by the use of the tools of production that mass industry brings with it. The common duty of work, communism of production and the means of production, that is the necessary ideal of the labouring proletariat.

This ideal signifies the abolition of all exploitation and of all class differences. It is in irreconcilable opposition to all these differences and to society based on exploitation. The communism of the labouring proletariat will be constantly fought against by ruling classes to the bitterest end, even it appears meekly and timidly.

The first beginnings of a proletariat exploited in a capitalist manner – weavers – are found in the cities of North Italy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, where simultaneously a numerous lumpenproletariat roved around, starving and begging. In the Franciscan movement, both classes of the proletariat joined together. It therefore shows the character of both forms of communism: it wanted to renew primitive Christianity and yet it began to develop the sprouts. of a modern socialist movement. However, corresponding to the youth and weakness of the labouring proletariat at the time, they were very weak sprouts lacking vitality and were quickly overrun by lumpenproletarian tendencies. Due to the unification of both elements, the Franciscan movement is of enormous interest for the history of socialism. Its double-sided character also gave the papacy the opportunity to clearly put forward its own position towards both kinds of communism.

Francis was born in Assisi, a small city in Umbria in 1182, as the son of a silk merchant, and had the opportunity to come into contact with the cloth weavers of Lombardy, who had already founded communist brotherhoods at the time. This confirmed anew the important role that weavers played in communist movements of the Reformation period up until the Anabaptists, which I drew attention to in Forerunners of Socialism.

In around 1207, Francis began to preach communism. He renounced his worldly possessions and assembled young men around him who would live in voluntary poverty, but not without labour, according to the early Christian ideal. They would help the workers in their labour and therefore share their meals and their lodgings. They could not accept money in any circumstance. They were only permitted to beg if they could not do anything else to earn a living.

Labour played a great role in the beginning of the Franciscans. It is said of one of the first young men of St. Francis, Blessed Giles of Assisi:

“‘He resolved to always live by the labour of his own hands and he fulfilled this purpose.’ Hence he went to the forest and carried wood on his shoulders, he sold it and therefore acquired what was necessary to him, that did not mean money but rather food. He helped cut grapes, carried them to the wine press and helped to tread on them. He broke nuts and earned half of the crop according to convention, which he distributed amongst the poor. He sifted flour in a cloister and earned seven loaves for it, he earned even more loaves because he carried water and helped with the baking. For good loaves, he also swept the kitchen.”

The Franciscan movement rapidly grew in its spread and influence over the proletarian classes in Northern Italy and soon caught the attention of the papacy. At the time, the church was the owner of the greatest riches and hence was the strongest exploiter of Christian peoples. Naturally, all communist movements of this period were primarily directed against the papal church and between them mortal enmity had to unfold. But the church already knew that one can become the ruler of a people’s movement much more easily by corrupting it with apparent concessions than by seeking to suppress it violently. Only when the former was not successful did it walk the second path, at least in the era of its intelligence. Francis of Assisi made it easier for the papacy to walk the first path. He belonged to the naive ideologues who think that deep-rooted social contradictions could be talked away by convincing the opponent. In 1210 he came before Pope Innocent III and prided himself on making an impression on him.

His organization was recognized and received permission to preach. This was totally unlike the heretical communists such as the Waldensians and the Apostolic Brethren who lived in open war with the Church. Francis, the Jaurès of the thirteenth century, hoped to be able to peacefully use the organization of the ruling classes, at the time the church, in order to imperceptibly undermine and abolish this class. Yet as a result, his communist organization was incorporated into the organization of domination and exploitation. His communism became a new pillar of papal domination and exploitation: that was his achievement. It was communism that changed as a result of this assimilation, not the papacy.

The communism of the labouring proletariat was too incompatible with all exploitation. In contrast, the communism of the lumpenproletariat, who lived by not by labour but by begging, could assimilate itself very well into clerical exploitation, which itself emerged from it. As soon as the papacy achieved influence amongst the Franciscans, it made every effort to get them to give up labour, to restrict themselves to begging without labour, which was sponsored through manifold privileges and made profitable. The papacy strived to make the Franciscans complicit in the church’s exploitation and make them into its defenders. The workshy elements in the order were promoted by the papacy and brought to its leadership, which simultaneously invoked vast greed in it. Organized mendicancy became ever more profitable, popes and cardinals saw to it that the Franciscans acquired property. Of course, the rules of the order forbade all property to them, not only individual but also collective, yet they did not forbid the use of the church’s property. So the order thrived under the papal sun of mercy, it soon lived in palaces and celebrated lavish meals and yet it became ever more estranged from its original purpose. A far cry from weakening or abolishing the wealth and the power of the church, the Franciscans became the most eager advocates of the papacy, the power of which they expanded as a result of the influence they exercised amongst the lower classes of the people. They became for the papacy of the Reformation era the same as what liberal officials of the English trade unions and the ministerialist socialists in France became for the bourgeoisie in our own era: powerful pillars of the existing order which mutate the proletariat from being a revolutionary force into a conservative element.

It was with anguish that Francis saw this transformation that he had in no way intended. He could not have recognized at the time that things have their natural logic, even today some people cannot grasp it. Over and over again he appealed to the brothers to return to poverty and labour. In his testament he declared:

“I worked with my hands and still wish to work and I firmly wish that all my brothers give themselves to honest work ... Let the brothers beware that they by no means receive churches or poor dwellings or anything which is built for them unless it is in harmony with that holy poverty which we have promised in the Rule, and let them always be guests there as pilgrims and strangers. And I firmly command all of the brothers through obedience that, wherever they are, they should not be so bold as to seek any letter from the Roman Curia either personally or through an intermediary, neither for a church or for some other place or under the guise of preaching or even for the persecution of their bodies.”

Yet everything was futile because Francis did not dare to take the decisive step of breaking obedience to the pope. Hence Francis was canonised two years after his death (1228), canonised because he, even against his will, had betrayed the proletarian cause through his alliance with the ruling authorities. Of course, the original tendencies of the order could not be completely blotted out for long. The strict, proletarian tendency sustained itself for a long time, mainly nourished by the Tertiaries, one of the order’s organizations of lay brothers attached to it. These were mostly labouring proletarians, who emphasised again and again the communist and oppositional character and invoked the wrath of the “more lenient” exploiting tendency, whose “leniency” and “tolerance” primarily came to light in their generosity in relation to the rule of the order, the undermining of which they executed calmly. In contrast, they were the most savage opponents of the stricter tendency, whose advocates they cleared away by fire, sword and the burial of living bodies. The strengthening of the Reformation movement finally ended all attempts to reawaken communist tendencies in the arms of the Franciscan order, as it clearly pointed out to all energetic communist elements that the fall of the papacy was the indispensable precondition of every further development in society and showed the absurdity of all endeavors to reform society through peaceful means with the cooperation of the papal church.

It can be clearly seen that the Franciscan movement is an important link in the chain of communist movements and Dr. Glaser should be recognized for the fluent investigation of sources by which he has illuminated its history.

Unfortunately, he is a student of Brentano’s and as such is obligated to remain blind towards class antagonisms. As he cannot go deeper, he must stay at the surface. As he cannot separate different communist tendencies according to the character of the classes from which they emerge, he cannot grasp their emergence from the real lives of their time and hence he must situate them as simple efforts to realize traditional pious hopes.

The master himself does likewise in the review of Glaser’s book, published in the first issue of the new series of Archiv für soziale Gesetzgebung und Statistik that is now known by the title Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik. Brentano provides a “genealogy of attacks on property” there. In a truly professorial manner, he explains particular communist tendencies not by forms of property and forms of production of their time but rather by the propagation and interpretation of traditional ideas by a teacher, whose students try to realize these teachings. Hence he thinks, alongside Glaser, the entirety of the communist calamity was fundamentally caused by the Old Testament, in which there is only one who owns: Jehovah. This is where Brentano’s family tree of socialism ends. Where the Old Testament’s conception of property comes from remains a mystery. However, once it has been given, it plants itself ineradicably from one mind to another until it gets to Marx. This is where Brentano’s history of socialism meets with Eugen Dühring’s, who uncovered Marxism as a plagiarisation of the Jewish jubilee.

The French utopians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries form one of the mediating links between Marx and Christian communism. At the time, these people gave up being truly Catholic in their thinking yet there remained:

“the old conception of communism as being the only state corresponding with natural law, but the justification of property as a necessity since the Fall of Man declined ... Consequently there were most vehement theoretical attacks on property and attempts to theoretically justify communism. ... Characteristically, everyone, from whom these arguments originated, had either been clergy or had undergone a theological education and had fallen away from Christianity. So there was Abbé Morreln, Abbe Mabeln, the priest Meslier.”

This demonstration of evidence is characteristic of Brentano. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the educational institutions of Romance countries were almost completely in the hands of theologians, and there were few educated people who had not “undergone a theological education”. Voltaire and Diderot were students of Jesuits. The socialist Abbés can be set against the bourgeois economists, Abbés Baudeau, Rannal and Morellet as well as the Abbot Galliani, and the liberal politicians Abbé Sienes and the Bishop Tallerand – to only call some names which immediately come to my mind. There was no tendency in seventeenth and eighteenth century France that would not have been represented by some Abbés.

On the other hand, it is in no way true that all French communists of this period were theologians. Vairasse, for example, was a soldier, Fontenelle had a legal education, Restif de la Bretonne got through his youth as a typesetter.

One sees from the evidence – the only thing from which Brentano argues – that nothing is left of the connection between French communism in the period of the Enlightenment and early Christian communism.

Brentano’s genealogy does less violence to the apparent facts of medieval communism. Its representatives did actually refer to the Bible. But it is completely wrong to see the causes of a party in a party’s arguments. The causes have produced the party and increased their numbers. The human intellect was always a means to serve the needs of mankind. It is limitless in its discoveries to satisfy these needs. The foundations for all social and hence political strivings are to be ultimately sought in this with the social conditions changing the needs, insofar as they are of a social nature, and not in the arguments made to serve them. Whoever, instead of researching the relationship between the needs, aims and the arguments of a social movement, restricts themselves to investigating the formal connections of the arguments and aims of this movement and similar arguments and aims of earlier movements will always remain in the dark about the real driving forces of history.

This limitation of Brentano’s and his students is no accident, it is necessarily grounded in their bourgeois perspective. Only the communist movements appear to them as purely ideological, they recognize very well the connections between the tendencies of the papacy and the economic requirements of nascent capitalism. But the bourgeois way of thinking is the only one that they grasp, it seems to them as normal, as coming from the natural needs of mankind. The contradiction between the proletarian and bourgeois social outlook appears to Brentano as the “contradiction between the natural position of humanity towards worldly goods and the renunciation that is demanded”; “the instincts of human nature are stronger than the legacy of Saint Francis triumph over the demands of asceticism” – by which asceticism means the abolition of property, not the requirement for chastity, which neither Glaser nor Brentano bring into view and, even in the struggle between the strict and the lenient, “the demands of asceticism” of the triumphant tendency in the Franciscans do not come into view. “The instincts of human nature” are not even sexual desires but the desire for property.

The fact that the teachings of the Church adapted themselves to the needs of nascent capital is further described as “the great convergence of church teachings with life”.

The needs of capital are therefore for Brentano the needs of life, of nature, of reality. The needs of the proletariat appear to captives of bourgeois thought as only the needs of the anti-natural, the reveries of an ideology estranged from the world. Class contradictions viewed in this way are happily transformed into a conflict between reality and ideal, the natural and unnatural. The communist endeavors of the Middle Ages, therefore, failed not because of the weaknesses and immaturity of the labouring proletariat but because they could not be reconciled with the demands of life. Hence the impracticability of communism in the Middle Ages changes from being a result of the historically determined relations then into something which holds unconditionally true for all periods, an essentially necessary phenomenon. One sees yet again how closely tied the opposition to the materialist conception of history is with bourgeois thought.

Alongside this, it is also remarkable the extent to which Brentano and even more of his students are sympathetic to the tactics of the papacy to make the communists harmless: to elevate them into the ranks of the privileged and hence detach them from the proletariat and corrupt them. Our Munich Professor knows well that these are the same tactics from England that he and his people have been fruitless trying in Germany for the last thirty years in order to embourgeoise Social Democracy. This tactic, which certain gullible souls in our own ranks occasionally boastfully highlight as an example of the great labour sympathies of these gentlemen, is, in fact, more dangerous to the emancipation efforts the proletariat than all oppression.

The victory march of Social Democracy can no longer be hindered by violent oppression, but rather only by the corruptive privileging of its individual ranks. However, this is only for a while. Class antagonisms break out again and again. They are the great lever that ruin all the tricks of our opponents and launch the driving forces of social development time and time again.

Last updated on 13 September 2019