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Engels, supported  by  the factual  material  collected  by the  democrat,  Zimmermann, wrote
this splendid account of the German Peasant War. First, he gives a picture of the economic
situation and of the class composition of Germany of that time. Then he shows how out of
this soil spring the various opposition groups with their programmes, and gives a colourful
characterisation  of  Luther  and  Muenzer.  The  third  chapter  contains  a  brief  history  of  the
peasant uprisings in the German Empire from 1476 to 1517, that is, to the beginning of the
Reformation. In the fourth chapter we have the history of the uprising of the nobility under
the leadership of Franz von Sickingen and Ulrich von Hutten. The fifth and sixth chapters
contain a narrative of the events of the Peasant War as such, with a detailed explanation of
the main causes of the peasants’ defeat. In the seventh and last chapters the significance of
the Peasant War and its consequences in German history are explained.
Permeating  the  whole  of  Engels’  work  is  the  idea  of  the  necessity  of  a  merciless
struggle against the feudal masters, the landlords. Only a radical abolition of all traces of
feudal domination, he said, could create the most favourable conditions for the success of a
proletarian revolution. In this respect Engels was in full harmony with Marx, who wrote to
him later (August 16, 1856), “Everything in Germany will depend upon whether it will be
possible  to  support  the  proletarian  revolution  by  something  like  a  second  edition  of  the
Peasant War. Only then will everything proceed well.”
Quite different  was  the conception  of  Lassalle,  who overestimated  the  significance of
the  uprising  of  the  nobility,  idealized  Franz  von  Sickingen  and  Ulrich  von  Hutten,  and
treated the revolutionary movement of the lower plebeian strata too contemptuously. In his
opinion,  the  Peasant  War,  notwithstanding  its  revolutionary  appearance,  was  in  reality  a
reactionary  movement.  “You  all  know,”  he  said  to  the  Berlin  workers,  “that  the  peasants
killed the nobles and burned their castles, or, according to the prevailing habit, made them
run  the  gauntlet.  However,  notwithstanding  this  revolutionary  appearance,  the  movement
was, in substance and principle, reactionary.”
The  Russian  revolutionary  populists,  especially  the  adherents  of  Bakunin,  often
identified Lassalle’s view of the peasants with the views of Marx and Engels. In this they
followed Bakunin’s lead, who wrote the following:
“Everybody  knows  that  Lassalle  repeatedly  expressed  the  idea  that  the  defeat  of  the
peasant uprising in the Fourteenth Century and the strengthening and rapid growth of the
bureaucratic state in Germany that followed it were a veritable triumph for the revolution.”
According  to  Bakunin,  the  German  communists  viewed  all  peasants  as  elements  of
reaction. “The fact is,” he added, “that the Marxists cannot think otherwise; worshippers of
state  power  at  any  price,  they  are  bound  to  curse  every  people’s  revolution,  especially  a
The Peasant War in Germany
– 96 –

peasant  revolution,  which  is  anarchic  by  its  very  nature,  and  which  proceeds  directly  to
annihilate the state.”
When Bakunin wrote these lines, there was already in existence the second edition of
Engels’ work on the Peasant War, with a new preface (1870), in which the inconsistency of
Liebknecht and other contemporary German social-democrats on the agrarian question was
criticised.  In  1875,  the  third  edition  appeared,  with  an  addendum  which  emphasised  still
more  the  sharp  difference  between  the  views  of  Marx  and  Engels  on  the  one  hand,  and
Lassalle on the other.
It  must  be  noted  that  in  the  last  years  of  his  life,  Engels  devoted  much  labour  to  the
study of the Peasant War, and was about to recast his old work.
In 1882 be wrote a special addition to his Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, devoted to
the  history  of  the  German  peasantry.  On  December  31,  1884,  he  wrote  to  Sorge:  “I  am
subjecting my Peasant War to radical reconstruction. It is going to become a cornerstone of
German history. It is a great piece of work. All the preliminary work is almost ready.”
The  work  of  preparing  the  second  and  third  volumes  of  Capital  for  publication,
prevented him from carrying out his plan. In July, 1893, he wrote to Mehring, “If I succeed
in reconstructing anew the historic introduction to my Peasant War, which I hope will be
possible  during  this  winter,  I  will  give  there  an  exposition  of  my  views”  [concerning  the
conditions  of  the  breaking  up  of  Germany  and  the  causes  of  the  defeat  of  the  German
bourgeois revolution of the Sixteenth Century].
When  Kautsky  was  writing  his  book  on  the  forerunners  of  modern  socialism  –  it
appeared in parts – Engels wrote to him on May 21, 1895: “Of your book, I can tell you
that the further it proceeds, the better it becomes. Compared with the original plan, Plato
and early Christianity are not sufficiently worked out. The mediaeval sects are much better,
and the later ones, more so. Best of all are the Taborites, Muenzer, and the Anabaptists. I
have  learned  much  from  your  book.  For  my  recasting  of  the  Peasant  War,  it  is  an
indispensable preliminary work.
“In my judgment, there are only two considerable faults:
“(1)  A  very  insufficient  insight  into  the  development  and  the  role  of
those  elements  entirely  outside  of  the  feudal  hierarchy,  which  are
déclassé, occupying almost the place of pariahs; elements that form the
lowest  stratum  of  the  population  of  every  medieval  city,  without  rights
and outside the rural community, the feudal dependence, the guild bonds.
This  is  difficult,  but  it  is  the  chief foundation,  since  gradually,  with  the
decomposition  of  feudal  relations,  out  of  this  stratum  develops  the
predecessor of the proletariat which, in 1789, in the faubourgs of Paris,
made the revolution. You speak of the proletarians, but this expression is
The Peasant War in Germany
– 97 –

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