Alberto Toscano casts a critical eye over a new BBC history series on the Protestant movement
“Whosoever can, should smite, strangle and stab, secretly or publicly, and should remember that there is nothing more poisonous, pernicious, and devilish than a rebellious man.”
Martin Luther, the founder of Protestant Christianity, addressed these words to German princes in 1525 as they faced the greatest European mass insurrection before the French Revolution – the Peasants’ War.
Karl Marx called the Peasants’ War “the most radical event in German history”. It was spearheaded by the preacher Thomas Müntzer, who galvanised insurgents with a revolutionary theology that combined immediate egalitarian demands with an eloquent justification of violent resistance against illegitimate authority.
Müntzer was beheaded in 1525 after his peasant army’s bloody defeat at the Battle of Frankenhausen. Legend has it that on the scaffold he uttered the slogan that encapsulated his heretical communism – “omnia sint communia”, or “let everything be in common”.
The historian Tristram Hunt takes the political and theological duel between Luther and Müntzer as the starting point for his new BBC series, The Protestant Revolution. He sees it as a formative moment for Protestantism – and an emblem of the movement’s ambivalent legacy.
According to Hunt, Protestantism is a movement that still shapes our world, from family to finance, from art to war. To this end, Hunt traces a number of episodes that dramatically display the tension within Protestantism between social egalitarianism and deference to the ruling classes.
We thus begin with Luther’s deeply ambiguous relationship to authority – Luther lambasted the corruption of the pope, yet he also justified princely domination by promoting Saint Augustine’s doctrine of the City of God and the City of Man.
Hunt then proceeds through the “cynical Protestantism” of the Church of England, John Calvin’s theocratic experiment in Geneva, John Knox and the Scottish National Covenant of 1638, and Oliver Cromwell’s unsparing repression of the Levellers during the English Revolution.
Though inevitably compressed, this historical panorama reinforces Hunt’s distinction between a “left” and a “right” Protestantism. It is broadly effective at dramatising the opposition between the fetters of faith and the egalitarianism of a “priesthood of all believers”.
But the documentary’s underlying shortcomings and rather perfunctory aims become patent as Hunt moves into the Industrial Revolution.
He invokes Keir Hardie’s conviction that the labour movement was “essentially religious” to argue that popular campaigns for solidarity, equality and justice were really dependent on “Methodism, not Marxism”.
Hunt argues that Protestant politics moves in cycles, from the egalitarian protest of the powerless to conservative restoration and chauvinism. The first episode of the documentary thus ends with Hunt musing hopefully on the inevitable return of a progressive left wing Protestantism.
Though he begins by reminding us of the contingent development of the Protestant movement – for instance, referring to Luther as an “accidental revolutionary” – Hunt’s conclusions betray a profoundly idealist conception of how history works.
And though Hunt sets out from German soil, he never returns to consider the fate of Protestantism there. In the 19th century Protestantism encountered the formidable challenge of the Young Hegelian movement.
These philosophers forcefully disputed the legitimacy of a “Christian state” and assailed the Protestant focus on individuality – which they viewed as inseparable from the abstract individualism of an atomised commercial society.
Marx was strongly influenced by the Young Hegelians, but moved beyond their arguments. He approvingly quoted a Müntzer sermon that denounced the idea that “every creature should be transformed into property”.
But Marx also argued that religion and its critique should no longer take centre stage – and that Protestantism was no longer a living force in the context of 19th century class struggle.
It was on this basis that in 1850 Marx’s colleague Frederick Engels wrote the first great work of Marxist history – The Peasant War in Germany.
Engels returned to the scene of Luther and Müntzer’s great schism, but saw in it not the birth pangs of an inscrutable religious force, but an encounter between the social contradictions of an emerging capitalism and the potent ideologies that crystallised newly born class oppositions.
Müntzer, as the theologian of the revolution, gave voice to class grievances in the only vocabulary then available, using the egalitarian aspects of the gospels.
His adversaries, in contrast, mobilised different aspects of the same texts, namely the ones that legitimised princely authority.
Engels thus introduces us to what remain crucial elements of Marxist theory. There is the idea that socially immature periods demand that class politics is shown through a “religious screen”. There is also an attention to the mobilising function of religion.
But Engels also teaches us that it is concrete social struggles that force religious doctrines to split into progressive and reactionary tendencies, not vice versa. It is this fundamentally materialist lesson that Hunt has missed.
Alberto Toscano teaches sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Tristram Hunt’s The Protestant Revolution starts on Wednesday 12 September, 9pm, on BBC4.