Frederick Engels
The Peasant War in Germany

Abstract from Chapter Six: The Peasant War in Thuringia, Alsace and Austria



The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time.

What he ought to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement.

Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma.

What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination.

In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost. We have seen examples of this in recent times. We need only be reminded of the position taken in the last French provisional government by the representatives of the proletariat, though they represented only a very low level of proletarian development. Whoever can still look forward to official positions after having become familiar with the experiences of the February government — not to speak of our own noble German provisional governments and imperial regencies — is either foolish beyond measure, or at best pays only lip service to the extreme revolutionary party.

Muenzer's position at the head of the "eternal council" of Muehlhausen was indeed much more precarious than that of any modern revolutionary regent. Not only the movement of his time, but the whole century, was not ripe for the realisation of the ideas for which he himself had only begun to grope. The class which he represented not only was not developed enough and incapable of subduing and transforming the whole of society, but it was just beginning to come into existence. The social transformation that he pictured in his fantasy was so little grounded in the then existing economic conditions that the latter were a preparation for a social system diametrically opposed to that of which he dreamt.

Nevertheless, he was bound to his preachings of Christian equality and evangelical community of possessions. He was at least compelled to make an attempt at their realisation. Community of all possessions, universal and equal labour duty, and the abolition of an authority were proclaimed.

In reality, Muehlhausen remained a republican imperial city with a somewhat democratic constitution, with a senate elected by universal suffrage and under the control of a forum, and with the hastily improvised feeding of the poor. The social change, which so horrified the Protestant middle-class contemporaries, in reality never went beyond a feeble and unconscious attempt prematurely to establish the bourgeois society of a later period.

Muenzer, himself, seems to have realised the wide abyss between his theories and surrounding realities. This abyss must have been felt the more keenly, the more distorted the views of this genius of necessity appeared, reflected in the heads of the mass of his followers. He threw himself into widening and organisms the movement with a zeal rare even for him. He wrote letters and sent out emissaries in all directions. His letters and sermons breathed a revolutionary fanaticism which was amazing in comparison with his former writings. Gone completely was the naive youthful humour of Muenzer's revolutionary pamphlets. The quiet instructive language of the thinker, which had been so characteristic of him, appeared no more.

Muenzer was now entirely a prophet of the revolution. Incessantly he fanned the flame of hatred against the ruling classes. He spurred the wildest passions, using forceful terms of expression the like of which religious and nationalist delirium had put into the mouths of the Old Testament prophets. The style up to which he worked himself reveals the level of education of that public which he was to affect.

Written: Summer of 1850
Original text: The Peasant War in Thuringia, Alsace and Austria

Abstract by: Historical Materialism (Marx, Engels, Lenin); p. 114 - 115
Transcription/Markup: Zodiac / Brian Baggins
Online Version: Marx/Engels Selected Works ( 1999