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Cliff Slaughter

Religion and Social Revolt

From Labour Review, Vol. 3 No. 3, May–June 1958, pp.  77–82.
Published here by kind permission of the author.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

For the understanding of some of the great problems of human history, the study of religion is a necessity. What is the relationship between the social divisions among men and their beliefs about the nature of things? How do ruling classes ensure long periods of acceptance of their rule by those they oppress? Why were the ‘Utopians’ wrong in thinking that it was sufficient only to work out a reasonable arrangement of social relations in order to proceed to its construction? It was out of the examination of questions like this in the German school of criticism of religion that Marx emerged to present for the first time a scientific view of society. ‘The criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism.’

Marx not only advanced beyond the biblical criticism of men like David Strauss and Bruno Bauer in Germany, the Rationalists in France, and the great Tom Paine, to the theory of historical materialism and the stress on the economic basis of society. He laid at the same time the foundation of a new approach to the study of religion. The Old Testament theory of creation was really turned on its head, and the first principle for understanding religion is that ‘man made God in his own image’. Feuerbach and others had realized that men projected on to a divine being all the virtues and powers of ‘the human essence’. But Feuerbach conceived of man as an abstract, universal Man, so that he gave no key to the understanding of changes in religion in different historical periods, or the precise forms of religious practice and belief, or the conditions under which religion would disappear. The same fault recurs with modern writers who try to explain religious belief and experience psychologically rather than from their social foundations.

It is of course no longer possible for serious scholars to write about religion as though it were unconnected with social reality. The two books [1] which it is the main function of this article to discuss could not have been written 150 years ago. Although Cohn is concerned with the Europe of the Middle Ages, and Worsley with those Pacific islands known as Melanesia in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their subject matter is very similar. Each book is a description and an analysis of the Utopian religious cults produced by underprivileged and rebellious classes at an early stage of their development.

Like the religious systems of all class societies, Christianity is a set of beliefs whose meaning can be turned in different and sometimes opposite social directions. Since it is not a rational or scientific theory of the world its parts may be rearranged and selected according to the needs and inclinations of the faithful. For the revolutionary workers under modern capitalism religion is, without any qualification, part of the armoury of reaction. But in previous epochs, before the objective conditions existed for an oppressed class fully to comprehend social reality and achieve its own liberation, the framework of all social doctrine, reactionary and progressive, remained religious. The two-sidedness of Christian development (on the one hand, it served to defend feudal and then capitalist reaction, on the other it served as an ideological cover and inspiration for revolt) is rooted in the very nature of universal religions. In Marx’s words, ‘Religious misery is at the same time the expression of real misery and the protest against that real misery’. [2]

The Mediaeval Sects

During the Middle Ages there was always a strong, living tradition of heresy in Christendom. Even St Augustine of the fifth century, founder of the basic Catholic social teaching which justified feudal oppression, was in his early days a supporter of the Manichean heresy, with, its principles of freedom, equality and community of goods. [3] His teaching was later directed against the very powerful sects which attempted to draw communistic conclusions from the New Testament. Right through to the Reformation in the sixteenth century these rebellious sects, which insisted on the literal application of Christ’s more radical injunctions, fought hard and often with great force against the established Church and the feudal ruling class of which the higher Catholic clergy were part. They opposed the dogma of the official theologians which, as Sean O’Casey once said, amounted to something like: ‘Keep quiet, and you can hear the angels singing!’ An idea which continually inspired these groups was the conviction that in a short time there would begin the kingdom of God on earth, the millennium, the earthly paradise. Cohn’s book is the first detailed and complete study of the role of this idea, which was a survival from Near-Eastern mysticism expressed most clearly in the Book of Revelation.

The heretical sects not only preached a form of communism, but also bitterly criticized the existing social order, with its privilege and oppression, as the negation of Christian ideals. Not least, the prelates and dignitaries of the Roman Church itself were an object of their attacks. From the nepotism and luxury of the Papal court to the everyday exploitation of serf labour on the estates of every national section of the Church (the Church was the largest landowner in every European country), the Holy Roman Church came to be seen as the very personification of evil – Antichrist. Criticism of the Church varied in intensity from one end of the social scale in the ‘Third Estate’ to the other. While the rich merchants, burghers and princes tended soon to make compromises, the peasants and the urban proletariat were the revolutionary core of the heretical movements. For example, it has been shown that the political and religious struggles in medieval Florence ran a course determined by the needs of particular classes. [4] First the big bourgeoisie opposed the Church as a restriction on its freedom, and incited an emotionally charged opposition among the lower strata, but once having achieved a modus vivendi it dropped its revolutionary ideas and tried to modify the highly emotional character of the religious life that had begun to grow among the people. It co-operated with the established power to arrest the progress of the small craftsmen and workers. Thus these religious struggles of the Middle Ages were not purely religious, but largely a reflection in religious ideas and religious organization of the social conflicts of feudalism in its latter phases.

Of course, the social elements opposed to Roman Catholic domination in each rising nation comprised a very unstable unity – from prosperous princes and merchants to starving peasants and unemployed vagrants. In every case these internal conflicts were quick to show through, both in the realm of ideas and in actual armed conflict. Two clear examples of this social conflict are the early fifteenth century Bohemian national movement, first great forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, and the Lutheran national revolt a hundred years later. In both cases the wealthier classes, having achieved an initial victory, turned with sword in one hand and Bible in the other to massacre the common people who wanted to advance from religious and limited political reform to social changes in the sphere of property and work. In broad summary, the ideas traced in such fascinating detail by Cohn, the ideas of the millennium and the Free Spirit, are the ideological expression of the extreme wing of this movement, reflecting the aspirations of the most oppressed and downtrodden social classes.

Particularly interesting to English readers, and to socialists, is an appendix to Cohn’s book dealing with a hitherto little-known sect, the Ranters, who flourished in England at the time of the Puritan revolution. The ideas of this sect, here presented in their own words for the first time since their dispersal by Cromwell’s government, are quite certainly in direct descent from the continental groups of centuries before. They also bear out the view summarized above, that millenarian ideas have their roots essentially in the lower strata of society, so that they become anathema to the victorious upper-middle classes. It was as necessary for Cromwell to crush the Ranters as to liquidate Lilburne’s Levellers and Winstanley’s Diggers. A few selections from their tracts will show their lack of appeal to a class so enamoured of compromise (with its ‘betters’, of course) as the British bourgeoisie. Coppe, their finest spokesman, addresses the propertied classes thus:

‘Mighty men! ... Those that have admired, adored, idolized, magnified, set you up, fought for you, ventured goods, and good name, limb and life for you, shall cease from you.’ ‘For this Honour, Nobility, Gentility, Propriety, Superfluity. &c. hath (without contradiction) been the Father of hellish horrid pride, arrogance, haughtiness, loftinesse, murder, malice, of all manner of wickednesse and impiety; yea the cause of all the blood that ever hath been shed. from the blood of the righteous Abell, to the blood of the last Levellers that were shot to death.’

No wonder that Fox, the Quaker, found the Ranters, ‘were very rude, and stirred up the rude people against us.’

‘Hear one word more (whom it hitteth it hitteth) give over thy base nasty, stinking, formall grace before meat, and after meat ... give over thy stinking family duties, and thy Gospel( Ordinances as thou callest them; for under them all lies snapping, snarling, biting, besides covetousnesse, horrid hypocrisie, envy, malice, evil surmising.’

‘Kings, Princes, Lords, great ones, must bow to the poorest Peasants; rich men must stoop to poor rogues, or else they’ll rue for it ...

‘Howl, howl, ye nobles, howl honourable, howl ye rich men for the miseries that are coming upon you.

‘For our parts, we that hear the Apostle preach, will also have all things common; neither will we call anything that we have our own.

‘Do you (if you please) till the plague of God rot and consume what you have.

‘We will not, wee’ll eat our bread together in singlenesse of heart, wee’ll break bread from house to house.’ [5]

Melanesian Heresies

The movements described by Worsley arise in a context which is at first sight very different. In the twentieth century capitalism is a world system which is already in the grip of deadly contradictions. How can one draw a parallel with social phenomena rooted in the first stirrings of capitalism in feudal Europe? This objection is not without foundation. In Europe, the heresies were directed against the dominant power of the epoch. They reflected the most powerful forces of change within the social system, and persisted and developed over hundreds of years – until the victory of national states and the break-up of European feudalism. The Cargo cults, and other Utopian religious revolts of colonial areas in this century, represent a more transitory phenomenon, whose significance, course of development and historical fate have been very different. The essential economic and political framework of the Melanesian peoples today is the decline of imperialism and the world socialist revolution, despite the fact that a hundred years ago the South Seas were whole millennia behind this stage of world historical development. It is in this context that the short-lived and ephemeral character of the Cargo cults to be understood. The medieval Christian heresies, on the other hand, reflected a slowly crumbling feudalism and the classes within it searching for an ideal expression for their misery and protest. The slowly maturing process of national unification, of the break-up of feudal property relations with the growth of trade, of the growth of capitalism within the feudal system: all this had its expression in the development of the anti-Catholic heresies. As has been indicated, the inner social conflicts of this process were reflected in religious belief.

But Worsley’s Melanesians make their heresies in a new world, a world full of contradictory and uneven social phenomena, the result of the indiscriminate and plundering expansion of a dynamic and then quickly decadent economic system, modern capitalism. Over a hundred years ago the consequences of the expansion capitalism were described by Marx and Engels.

Conservation of the old modes of production was ... the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. [6]

The dispossessed medieval peasant and worker experienced only the first rumblings of this transformation. In the period of imperialism, with capitalist relations rapidly and unevenly imposed in the most primitive social conditions, the consequent social disintegration is swift and thorough. New wants are introduced, new forms of exploitation are introduced, people’s destinies become subject to the vagaries, no longer only of nature, but of the world market in raw materials and manufactured goods, and the struggle for world domination by the imperialist powers.

In many colonial or semi-colonial areas which were technologically backward and characterized by small-scale subsistence economies based on primitive cultivation, the fate of the ‘Christianity’ brought by the missionaries has been the same as that of the Roman Church in medieval Europe. People disorientated by economic and political disasters which had the force of natural calamities and yet were not of their own making at all, found in the Book of Revelation and the declamations of the Old Testament prophets a message which is at the same time a consolation for earthly misery and a unifying idea for a movement of protest against the oppressor. Worsley reminds us in this connexion of ‘the Jesuit who was strongly opposed to making the Bible directly available to Chinese peasants because of the conclusions they drew from reading it: “from any point of the exegetical compass, a Chinaman can find his way up to the great rice problem.” [7] Worsley brings together all the published data on revolt in the Melanesian area, where the social structure was very different in scale from the medieval towns or the nascent nationalities. Any village of more than 200 inhabitants was exceptionally large, and would occur only in very fertile conditions. Yet from among these peoples was thrown up a succession of prophets and’ agitators who brought from the colonialists accusations almost identical with those used against the medieval heretics. For example, Apolosi, a Fijian prophet, was accused by a Government spokesman of ‘intrigue, sedition, and lechery and debauchery on a heroic scale, ranging from drunken orgies to rape and incest’. [8]

Two essential factors explain the similarity between the millenarian movements of Melanesia and of medieval Europe. In the first place, there were background circumstances of masses of people being thrown into social insecurity through the dissolution of social bonds by the ‘external’ forces of the market, even though this was at two very different levels of economic development. Secondly, the search for ideological expressions of the frustrations and aspirations growing out of this social dislocation could work only through the ‘thought-material’ ready to hand. This relative autonomy and continuity of systems of thought always qualifies the reflection of social reality in men’s minds. As Engels long ago pointed out [9], the expressions of social thought inevitably took religious form in the period between the Roman Empire and the rise of modern industry, because of the complete domination of intellectual life by the Church, and the latter’s role in maintaining a semblance of political organization in Europe after the collapse of Rome. Similarly in Melanesia the only semblance of education brought by the Europeans was mission education, Christian dogma, the ideology of reaction and not of the progressive tendencies in capitalist society, i.e., those of natural science and scientific socialism. The discovery of their true interests was thus a tortuous path for these victims of imperialism; they had to go through the experience of the ‘thick end’ of imperialism in its most decadent phase, and in addition their path to interpreting this experience had first to go through the distorted and backward ideology which was brought by the whites, an ideology long out of date.

The Coming of the ‘Cargo’

Thus in the early phase of their revolt the Melanesians threw up millenarian prophets, who called on the local people to prepare for the anticipated inauguration of God’s rule on earth, or the coming of the ‘Cargo’. Many of their activities and beliefs appear on a superficial view to be irrational. They destroyed crops and stopped working. At various times they built piers or air-strips to receive the ‘Cargo’ from the ancestors. But once we understand the indigenous religion, the impact of European rule and the confinement of education to the missions, then such behaviour is seen to have a perfectly sound logic of its own.

Into the self-sufficient and comparatively static island economy there is projected a group of whites who live much better than any native and yet never do a scrap of work. They simply wait for the Cargo to arrive by sea or air at regular intervals. These whites draw the natives into commercial relations which often threaten economic insecurity for the latter, yet the whites remain rich, able to manipulate the situation, and still without working. Already the Melanesians possessed religions which concentrated on material rewards and exchanges, and they often used magical techniques to supplement the efficiency of their real techniques. In face of the idle prosperity of the whites, what else could they conclude but that some superior spiritual or magical power was in the hands of the Europeans? One could not expect an isolated and uneducated people to appreciate the historical process which in fact brought manufactured goods and new foods to the European settlers, traders and administrators!

A very common conclusion from this situation was that the education given by the missionaries was deliberately incomplete, that there were certain books of the Bible which the whites kept to themselves so that with this exclusive magic they could monopolize the good things of life. The building of air-bases and the tremendous material paraphernalia brought by Australian and United States forces during the second world war encouraged this type of belief. During the war and just after it many elaborate Cargo cults were born. The crises of world imperialism were refracted through relatively isolated and primitive societies, and specific features of western capitalism were grafted on to particular types of primitive economy. These peculiar combinations of social systems were reflected in the realm of ideas, leading to distorted and exotic religious notions.

Yet while the Cargo cults lived in a world very different from medieval Europe, they experienced a particular phase of imperialist decline which produced remarkable similarities to the religious phenomena of medieval European revolt. Very quickly the larger scale processes sweep aside temporary, isolated, accidental relationships and ideas, and consciousness broadens to embrace the wider reality. As in medieval Europe, the Utopian religious cults are not the only form of social revolt. Worsley shows how they gradually lose ground to strikes and political actions of a very ‘modern’ kind (including petitions to the United Nations!). [10] Recent news of the sugar workers’ strike in Fiji, supported by sections of the Australian working class, expresses the change of scope and significance of class struggles in this part of the world.

In Europe, the movements of revolt which included at various times the idea of the millennium were not to be emancipated from their religious trappings, despite the splendid dimensions reached by the Bohemian rising of the Taborites (who resisted the armed might of European feudalism for decades), by Wat Tyler’s Peasant Revolt, and by the German Peasant War of the sixteenth century, led by a genius of agitation arid organization, Thomas Münzer. In every national war political victories were won by the upper classes against the Roman Church, for it was the bourgeoisie, and not the peasantry or the urban poor, which at this stage of history was destined to succeed the feudal form of production and government. Until the development of modern industry, with conditions which make it possible for the first time in history for an oppressed class to achieve its own liberation, the lower classes of Europe were to meet this type of experience. The completion of the bourgeois revolution in France and in England saw the new ruling class turn on the common people who had supported its victories over absolutism. In Germany the bourgeoisie preferred the Kaiser and the Junkers to the dangers inherent in the extension of democracy to the working class. Fascism was the eventual outcome. In the conditions of crushing defeats for the first independent movements of peasants and workers in medieval times, the heretical cults turned to quietist mystical doctrines, and the pursuit of the millennium became removed to the spiritual sphere.

Worsley describes a very speedy transition in Melanesia from religious revolt to political opposition, with rational ends and means. The actual succession of phases in each particular area is different, according to the possibilities of open struggle, or the flux of defeat and partial advance; but the general tendency is always present. With the emergence of effective political opposition what remains of the mystical cults is no longer of political significance, and they soon constitute only an isolated and esoteric system of consolatory rites and dogma. Such was the fate of millenarian ideas in Europe too, but the future historian is likely to see the parallel as a very limited one. He will see the colonial peoples of our day drawn into a world social revolution in the space of decades. He will see, in the workers and peasants of this century, including those of the ‘backward’ countries, the force behind the next great stride forward in human history. The native bourgeoisie which emerges in areas like Melanesia does so in a very different context from the bourgeoisie which conquered in Europe. It is compromised by its ties with foreign capital, by the fact that it is rooted in the outer rings of Western imperialism rather than in the basic processes of its own society. It is destined to play only a very brief political and economic role. If a class is to take the reins of history on behalf of the nation it must be careful to be born at just the right time.

The most consistent support for the millenarian sects from the eleventh century onwards came from the lowest-paid and most insecure workers and vagrants of the early industrial centres and towns. In Melanesia a people whose traditional economy was precarious but adequate were decimated, exploited and dragged into the economic and political maelstrom of modern imperialism, experiencing all its irrationalisms, from rapid price fluctuations to ‘total war’. In both situations men found in the apocalyptic teachings a form for their frustrations and aspirations. In each case the biblical material was re-worked into a form determined by the particular cultural level and material circumstances of the people concerned, so that where the Melanesians had Cargo cults the depressed Europeans looked to a ‘Land of Cockayne’. But the essential content of all the millenarian cults is the same, despite the cultural differences. They are the actions and beliefs of a class which is confronted with tasks beyond its scope either to conceive scientifically or to solve practically. Thus the bourgeoisie, and not the peasantry or the urban poor, was to overthrow feudalism; in Melanesia, not the local community, but only the new links between local communities forged by new economic forces, could produce the necessary unity for the anti-imperialist struggle in its first stages.

Marxism as a Method of Anthropological Research

It will be clear that these books provide a mass of new and very important material. At the same time, Cohn and Worsley differ in the interpretation of their subject-matter. Worsley writes as an avowed Marxist, and he shows the indispensability of Marxist method in the analysis of changing social phenomena. Only the relation of a people to its material environment through the economic system can begin to explain religious beliefs. Only the understanding of the developing contradictions in that economic structure can illuminate the real roots of the spread and decline of fantastic ideas apparently removed from reality. In this sense, Worsley has produced a model of Marxist work in the social sciences. For the active socialist this book is very important from this very point of view, the point of view of method. It is necessary to grasp not only the limited and fundamentally reactionary role of religion in social history, but also to tackle the question of relations between ideas and social movements, for this is almost universally oversimplified or taken for granted by socialists.

Cohn goes out of his way to disavow any sympathy with Marxism. In fact he ventures the opinion that Marxism itself is the modern manifestation of the mystical pursuit of the millennium. His basic theoretical quarrel seems to be that Marxism neglects the psychological dimension in social behaviour, and that in phenomena like religion this leads to a failure to understand the fundamental patterns.

Certainly Cohn makes some very interesting suggestions about ‘paranoid’ patterns in the imagery of the heresies, but he never shows in what way these interesting parallels are explanations of the movements under discussion. In fact his own material points clearly to the correctness of a Marxist, social-historical explanation. It stands out from every chapter of his book that the millenarian idea springs up always from the same type of social milieu, that it is historically limited, and that it meets eventually with a fate determined by its social and political roots rather than by its psychological attributes. To say that the pattern of the beliefs is paranoid is to explain nothing; that there is an analogy with the imagery and obsession of paranoia may be true, but what is this supposed to show? The historian’s task is to demonstrate the origin and course of development of such forms in specific social strata and to explain why those strata embraced those forms at one stage, rejecting them at another. In such a task the elaboration of formal analogies in the pattern of emotions is of little use.

Cohn’s own description of the basic conditions for chiliasm (belief in the millennium) could not be bettered. For example:

Journeymen and unskilled workers, peasants without land or with too little land to support them, beggars and vagabonds, the unemployed and those threatened with unemployment, the many who for one reason or another could find no assured and recognized place – such people, living in a state of chronic frustration and anxiety, formed the most impulsive and unstable elements in medieval society ... And the way they attempted to deal with their common plight was to form a salvationist group under the leadership of some man whom they regarded as extraordinarily holy.

Moreover the mission which most attracted these masses from the neediest strata of the population was – naturally enough – a mission which was intended to culminate in a total transformation of society. In the eschatological [11] fantasies which they had inherited from the distant past, the forgotten world of early Christianity, these people found a social myth most perfectly adapted to their creeds ...

This was the process which, after its first occurrence in the area between the Somme and the Rhine, was to recur in later centuries in southern and central Germany and, still later, in Holland and Westphalia. In each case it occurred under similar circumstances – when population was increasing, industrialization was getting under way, traditional social bonds were being weakened or shattered and the gap between rich and poor was becoming a chasm. [12]

The first crusades appealed to many of the poor as a semi-practical, semi-holy solution of this kind. A popular epic describes the crusading army of the poor under ‘King Tafur’, who spurs on his troops to the attack with the words: ‘Where are the poor folk who want property? Let them come with me! ... For today with God’s help I shall win enough to load many a mule.’

In chapter iv Cohn explicitly states the relationship between the class hatred born of the development of inequality in wealth and the search for millenarian solutions. [13] Some of the twelfth-century proverbs of the poor leave no doubt as to the strength of class feeling:

‘I would like to strangle the nobles and the clergy, every one of them ... Good working men make the wheaten bread but they will never chew it; no, all they get is the siftings from the corn, and from good wine they get nothing but dregs and from good cloth nothing but the chaff.’

Again, Cohn asks why the focus of the millenarian cults shifts suddenly from France to Germany, and has to give social and economic reasons. No matter what ‘paranoid patterns’ may be discerned, it is surely not without interest that they become the characteristic social expression of people placed in specific circumstances. The emergence of a strong central authority to unify France, together with her decline in population and in the importance of her cloth industry in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, saw the end of such movements there and their powerful upsurge in Germany, with its political fragmentation, a decline of the imperial power, and the expansion of population and of the cloth industry! [14]

The Flagellant movement, for all its appeal to the psycho-analyst, shows similar variations according to the social and economic background. In Italy it remained predominantly respectable and orthodox, but it cut through Germany like a searing flame, taking on almost revolutionary proportions. Always the cloth areas, commercial centres and industrial communities like those of the miners were the centres of the cult of the millennium and the Free Spirit (e.g., Thuringia, Bohemia and Champagne).

So much for the origins of the movement; but on the question of its historical destiny Cohn is such a good historian that despite his prejudices against Marxism he lays bare the fundamental factors. Even though his concern is to trace the course of a system of ideas through the medieval period, he shows the necessity of appreciating the class interests behind the growth, differentiation, development and decline of the millenarian cults in the period when they were thrown into the more general process of the rise of the bourgeoisie, a class whose first step to power was of necessity to curb the might of the Roman Church and establish national order and unity. The Protestant Reformation and the European religious wars were the climax of this stage of history. In these ‘religious’ struggles the millenarian was the ideological expression of the worker and peasant allies of the bourgeoisie and the princes. As Cohn says of the Hussite national revolution of the fifteenth century: ‘It was this harassed proletariat that formed the extreme, revolutionary wing of the Taborite movement.’ [15] The feeling of the ruling classes towards this Bohemian revolution is typical of the hatred of all rulers for the oppressed; all established classes can visualize no social order but their own, and rebels or reformers are seen as the forces of chaos and anarchy. One chronicler said of the Taborites:

The Bohemians now became so strong and mighty, and so arrogant, that they were feared on all sides and all honest folk were terrified lest the roguery and disorder should spread to other peoples and turn against all who were decent and law-abiding, and against the rich. For it was the very thing for the poor who did not want to work, yet were insolent and pleasure-loving ... So the Bohemians had many secret supporters amongst the rough folk ... . used to argue with the priests, saying that everyone should share his property with everyone else. This would have pleased many worthless fellows and could very well have come to pass. [16]

Such rebels were of course soon rejected by the leadership of the national revolutions. Luther, having gained the support of the knights and the peasants to overthrow the Church in Germany, very soon changed his tune when Münzer’s peasants began to exert their own armed power against the established authority. Seven years after inciting the nation to revolt, Luther had this to say to the nobility ‘against the murderous and plundering peasant hordes’ ... [17]

They must be knocked to pieces, strangled and stabbed, covertly and overtly, by everyone who can, just as one must kill a mad dog! Therefore, dear sirs, help here, save there, stab, knock, strangle them everyone who can, and should you lose your life, bless you, no better death can you ever attain.

The wise man says: cibum, onus et virgam asino (food, pack and lash for the ass). The peasants must have nothing but chaff. They do not hearken to the Word, and are foolish, so they must hearken to the rod and the gun, and that serves them right. We must pray for them that they obey. Where they do not there should not be mercy. Let the guns roar among them, or else they will make things a thousand times worse. [18]

By now the peasants had become really dangerous, despite Cohn’s insistence that Münzer was a mystic rather than a revolutionary; he himself says:

The peasants who everywhere took the initiative in the insurrection, so far from being driven on by sheer misery and desperation, belonged to a rising and self-confident class .... impatient of the obstacles which stood in the way of advance. It is therefore not surprising that in their efforts to remove these obstacles the peasants showed themselves not at all chiliastically minded but, on the contrary, politically minded in the sense that they thought in terms of real situations and realizable possibilities. [19]

Münzer’s ideological campaigning on mystical lines nevertheless helped to steel and strengthen the peasants. Take his letter to the Count of Mansfeld: ‘Say, you wretched, shabby bag of worms, who made you a prince over the people whom God has purchased with his precious blood? [20]

* * * *

Norman Cohn and Peter Worsley have produced books which are invaluable not only to specialists but to all those who need a clear and objective view of the reality of social development in order to take part in today’s class struggles.

When Cohn suggests that modern revolutionary socialism is in the same line of development as the Utopian cults of medieval Christendom he has a small grain of the truth. Looking for formal resemblances and analogies often proves informative, giving clues to deeper connexions. But the history of ideas has a dynamic and a form not determined in the realm of ideas alone. The affinity between medieval mystic Utopianism and Marxist theory is not of the type suggested by Cohn. It holds true only in the sense that both types of idea represent the consciousness of an oppressed class faced with the need to struggle. Naturally enough, continuity of this struggle over centuries has meant the retention of certain formal resemblances and images among the people. But in essentials the pursuit of the millennium, the search for an illusory paradise, is the opposite of Marxism. The former represents ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world’. [21] In the circumstances of its birth and development, it was bound to fail, to lose its connexion with social reality and become the object of mystical, socially isolated cults. By the twentieth century the conditions for the overthrow of private property and class oppression had matured in the growth of technology and science, and in the creation, by capitalism itself, of a working class capable of organization and the recognition of its real interests. Marxism is the scientific expression of the interests of the working class in the period of its assault on capitalism and its victory over property. Christian Utopianism was the hopeless expression of a class doomed to be used by others in the destruction of one system, only to fall victim to a new type of exploitation. But here is ‘the negation of the negation’. The bourgeoisie of Europe came to power on the backs of workers and peasants who were often inspired by the Christian millennium. Once entrenched, the bourgeoisie turned against the people who made its victory possible. But its own interests have driven the bourgeoisie to create an industrial system with a new type of working class, the first in history to be able to achieve scientific understanding of its interests and aims, and, on the basis of this understanding, to advance to socialism on the foundations laid by its exploiters.



1. Peter Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound. A study of Cargo Cults in Melanesia (MacGibbon and Kee, 1957); Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (Seeker and Warburg. 1957).

2. Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction (1844). Quoted in Christopher Caudwell, Further Studies in a Dying Culture (1949), p. 75, and in K. Marx and F. Engels, On Religion (1957), p. 42.

3. Manicheism, widely accepted from the third to the fifth centuries, replaced Mithraism. It was founded by Mani, a Persian who lived in the third century, and was composed of elements of Christianity, of other religions and of pagan beliefs. The essential feature of the system is its dualism, whose principal elements are light and darkness, God and Satan, the soul and the body. Satan was represented as co-eternal with God, and man as created by Satan in his image, but containing particles of light. A conflict is in progress for the possession of mankind between the demons and the angels of light. When all the particles of captive light and the souls of the just have been set free the end of the world will come in a general conflagration. Manicheism spread eastward to China and westward to Europe, where it was especially strong in Bulgaria and southern France.

4. For a very fine summary of these class struggles see F. Antal, Florentine Painting and its Social Background (1947).

5. Cohn. op. cit., pp. 360ff.

6. Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1955 edition).p.58.

7. Worsley, op. cit., p. 246.

8. Ibid., p. 29.

9. Engels, The Peasant War in Germany (1956). p. 55.

10. Worsley, op. cit., p. 197n.

11. Eschatology is the doctrine of death, judgment, heaven and hell.

12. Cohn. op. cit., pp. 29–30.

13. Ibid., p. 87.

14. Ibid., pp. 98, 111.

15. Ibid., p. 222.

16. Ibid., p. 235.

17. This was the title of a pamphlet against the peasant movement published by Luther in May 1525, at the height of the Peasant War.

18. Engels, op. cit., p. 66.

19. Cohn, op. cit., p. 264. What could be closer to the process from cult to politics among Worsley’s Melanesians?

20. Ibid., p. 269.

21. Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction. Quoted Caudwell, op. cit., p. 75; Marx and Engels, On Religion, p. 42.

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