Karl Kautsky

Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation

Chapter 1
Heretical Communism – Its General Character

I. The Papacy the Centre of the Attacks of Heretical Communism

NOTHING can be more erroneous than the widespread idea that communism is antagonistic to the existence of man-antagonistic indeed to human nature itself. This is not the case. Communism dates from the childhood of the race, and has been the social foundation of almost all nations, even to the present day.

The history of communism bristles with far greater difficulties than those encountered by the historian of other phases of national growth. But, obscure as the subject is, owing to the lack of trustworthy sources of enlightenment, we believe that such knowledge as we possess will be sufficient to enable us to give some insight into its character and tendencies. As some assistance to our scanty information, we propose to glance over all the better-known evidences we can gather of the progress of communism during the period of the Reformation, and to consider its political effects, even though so little is known of the course of its inner development that all statements with regard to it must rest on conjecture alone.

The great difficulties which confront us in our efforts to gain a more intimate knowledge of the growth of communism lie in the purely oral character of the teaching, and the secrecy with which heretical sects were forced to carry out their propaganda and organisation. Our information is derived, not from the literature of the communists themselves, but solely from that of their opponents. Their mysticism constitutes another difficulty, and there is yet a greater arising from the want of distinct outward differences between the various heretical sects. Their persecutors took no pains to form an unprejudiced estimate of them, or to give an unbiassed statement of their doctrines, or even to make any distinction between them. The designations by which single sects were known were chiefly nicknames invented by their opponents and indicating the most opposite tendencies. In the present day, it would be an exaggeration to assert that all “Nihilists” must necessarily be socialists, and even more untrue to declare that no socialists exist among the Nihilists. Similarly, it cannot be said that the Waldenses, Beghards, Lollards, &c., were wholly and entirely communists. Nevertheless, we must not jump to the conclusion that these sects had never shown any communistic tendencies, for that would be to “empty the bath of water and child.” Such tendencies are clearly enough evidenced, exhibiting no accidental, but rather a perfectly normal character – a character which repeatedly shows itself during the Middle Ages in all places where traces of communism became noticeable.

The most salient feature of the communism of the twelfth century is that antagonism to the Papal power, which lent to the movement an ever-increasing heretical character. It was almost imperative for those who had the interest of the poor at heart to rebel against the Papal Church, standing as it did in the front rank of the propertied classes of the Middle Ages. It was the wealthiest and the greatest among the exploiters, and held sway over the whole social life of the times, intellectually as well as economically.

Its dominance might be compared to that of La Haute Finance, or the Stock Exchange in the present century. In these days great banking institutions control social and political life, and in the Middle Ages the Papal hierarchy was, in a similar way, the mightiest of all the ruling powers, and, like the Stock Exchanges, decided the fate of Ministries – nay, even of Kings – founding and overturning kingdoms. The jurisdiction of the Papal power was quite as much disputed, however, as is that of La Haute Finance at the present time. Both have, in common, the faculty of exciting the enmity of all other ranks of society – not only of the exploited classes, but also of the exploiters. Both are compelled to relinquish much of their spoils to the greatest of all exploiters, and both view the treasures of the latter with eager, covetous eye. Nothing is more erroneous than the opinion that the obedience shown to the Papal power during the second half of the Middle Ages was either hearty or stupid. It was neither. It might rather be designated as a sullen submission, always resentful, and rebellious whenever chance offered. But so long as the foundations of a new order of society and government were non-existent, the Papacy was quite as impregnable as La Haute Finance has hitherto proved itself to be. Every conflict – nay, every far-reaching social catastrophe, every war, every pestilence, every famine, every rebellion, served then, as in the present day, only to increase the opulence of the spoiler of spoilers.

This condition of affairs was, on the whole, favourable to the propagation of communistic ideas, but highly unfavourable to the development of the special class-conflict carried on by the poor. To illustrate the comparison with La Haute Finance still further, we might say that the circumstances were similar to those existing during the ascendency of the French bourgeoisie (1830 to 1848). At that time, owing to its monetary power, and to a miserable electoral law, in conjunction with the political insignificance of the working classes, La Haute Finance held an almost unlimited sway by means of Parliament and King. It roused the opposition not only of farmers and wage-earners, but also that of the industrial capitalists and shopkeepers. The struggle against the common enemy united these classes, and to a great extent effaced the antagonism between them. It was, therefore, difficult for the proletariat to acquire a special class-feeling, and, in consequence, it usually remained under the leadership of the petty townsmen, or, rather, of the bourgeoisie. Another result was the lulling of the distrust felt by the bourgeoisie for the proletariat. They were formerly disposed to forget that their riches depended on the poverty of the latter, and, their pity being roused for the poor and outcast, they felt encouraged to make efforts for the abolition of poverty. Many of them even coquetted with socialism, the most widely-read authors of that time being socialists, among whom we need mention only Eugene Sue and Georges Sand.

Then followed the revolution of 1848. The kingdom of La Haute Finance was overthrown and deprived of its political privileges. Political power fell into the hands of industrial capitalists, petty bourgeois, small farmers, and labourers. The common enemy had scarcely been overcome, however, before the special interests and antagonisms of these classes became more or less prominent, or, at any rate, were brought vividly to their own consciousness. The most manifest and bitter opposition was that between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The revolution had shown the latter its power, and had, moreover, proved that socialism, far from being the dream of visionary literati which some imagined it to be, had, in fact, taken a strong hold of the most revolutionary class, and, ceasing to be a plaything, threatened to become a deadly weapon.

Thenceforward the bourgeoisie resisted with all its energy not only each independent movement of the working class, but also everything that seemed to savour of socialism. In fact, their excited imagination pictured as a proof of socialism many a deed which was simply the expression of the most harmless philanthropy. Socialism was, in consequence, boycotted in bourgeois society, and its partisans were forced to decide between two alternatives. If they chose to remain loyal to their opinions, they were excluded from association with their compeers, and their names never more mentioned; if they wished to avoid such a fate, they were obliged, once for all, to renounce any ideas that so much as savoured of socialism. From that moment socialism in a political and literary sense was dead; dead, i.e., until the aspiring class had grown sufficiently strong to compel respect by its own might.

Similar, but naturally much more protracted, was the development of socialism in the Middle Ages, in which the Reformation played the rôle taken by the representatives of labour in the year 1848. But, slow as this growth was, it can be distinctly traced in Germany during the fifteenth and in the first part of the sixteenth centuries, when circumstances were, in many respects, much more favourable to communistic tendencies throughout society than in the former half of our own century.



II. The Antagonism between Rich and Poor in the Middle Ages

The distinctions between rich and poor, though more openly and aggressively displayed, were not nearly so great during the Middle Ages and Reformation period as they have become in the present capitalised state of society. Then, as now, these distinctions were chiefly found in towns; but, whereas modern towns count their millions of inhabitants, and the districts of the poor lie far removed from those of the wealthy, in the times of which we are treating a population of from 10,000 to 20,000 constituted a large city, and men were drawn more closely together. Moreover, life was carried on to a far greater extent in public – work as well as pleasure – and the joys and sorrows of one class remained no secret to the others. Political life and festal life went on chiefly in open places – in the markets and squares, in churches and halls. The marketplaces were the scenes of trade, but, when possible, the work of the handicrafts was pursued in the streets, or, at least, with open doors.

One feature of those times, however, stands out in marked contrast to our own. In these days the chief object which the capitalist sets before himself is the accumulation of wealth. Your modern capitalist can never have enough money. His great desire is to employ his whole income in amassing capital, expanding his business, undertaking fresh enterprises, or ruining his competitors. After acquiring his first million he strives for a second, for he fears being outstripped by some rival, and wishes to secure his possessions. The capitalist never employs his whole income for his personal consumption unless, indeed, he is a fool or a spendthrift, or unless his income is insufficient for his wants.

Moreover, the wealthiest millionaire can lead the simplest of lives without diminishing the respect in which he is held. Whatever luxury he may permit himself, he keeps out of sight of the general public – in ball-rooms, chambres-séparées, in hunting-boxes, card-rooms, &c. Consequently, the millionaire is indistinguishable from the mass of his fellow-citizens when he is in the street.

A very different state of things existed under the system of natural production and petty manufacture. The incomes of the rich and powerful, whether in natural products or money, could not be invested in shares or government bonds. The only use to which they could put their revenues was that of consumption, or – so far as they consisted in money – in the accumulation of valuable and imperishable things – precious metals and precious stones. The larger the incomes of temporal and spiritual princes and nobles, of patricians and merchants, the greater their luxury. Being by no means able to expend their wealth on themselves, they employed it in keeping up large establishments of servants, in the purchase of fine horses and dogs, in clothing themselves and their dependents in sumptuous apparel, in building lordly palaces and furnishing them as magnificently as possible. The craving for amassing treasure contributed only to the increase of luxury. The haughty lord of the Middle Ages did not, like the timorous Hindoo, bury his treasure in the ground; nor did he deem it necessary to shield it from the sight of thieves and tax-collectors, as do our modern capitalists. His wealth was the sign and source of his power, and he displayed it proudly and ostentatiously in the sight of all men; his garments, his equipages, his houses, glittering with gold and silver, with precious stones and pearls. That was indeed a golden age; and a golden age for art as well.

The misery of those times, however, made itself quite as conspicuous as the widespread opulence. The proletariat was only in the first stage of development; though it was powerful enough to spur deep-thinking and sensitive men to meditate upon the ways and means by which want could be banished from the world, it was not sufficiently strong to count as a danger to state and society.

Thus the primitive Christian doctrine which had found its chief supporters among a tatterdemalian proletariat, now fell on fertile soil; the doctrine that poverty is no crime, but rather a providential, God-given condition, demanding earnest consideration. According to the teaching of the gospel the poor man was a representative of Christ who had said “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me” (Matt. xxv. 40). In practice the proletarian did not benefit to any great extent by this precept, for “ the representative of Christ” was sometimes treated in a most unchristian manner. But society was still far from possessing those contrivances of the modern police system which are intended to sweep all social as well as other rubbish from the path of the rich, not for the purpose of preventing misery, but merely to hide it out of sight. During the Middle Ages the poor were not shut up in almshouses, workhouses, reformatories, and the like. Begging was an acknowledged right; every church service, and especially every church festival, united the greatest splendour and the most abject want under the same roof – the roof of the Church.

At that time, as at the present, society could be defined by the Platonic description, “the two nations.” In the decline of the Middle Ages however, the “two nations” of the rich and the poor still remained, at least, two neighbourly ones, understanding and knowing each other. In these latter days they have become such complete strangers, that when the “nation” of the wealthy desires to learn something about that of the proletarians a special expedition is required, as if it were a question of exploring the interior of Africa.

In the Middle Ages the rich had no need to study the proletariat in order to understand it. Unveiled misery met the observer everywhere, in glaring contrast with wanton and excessive luxury. It is not surprising, therefore, that this contrast, besides arousing the anger of the lower classes, should have excited the nobler spirits of the higher ranks against it and in favour of tendencies towards the re-establishment of equality.



III. The Influence of Christian Tradition

The transmission by tradition of ideas originating in earlier conditions of society has an important influence on the march of events. It often retards the progress of new social tendencies, by increasing the difficulty of arriving at an apprehension of their true nature and requirements. At the close of the Middle Ages, on the contrary, it favoured their development.

After the violent disturbances which took place during the general migrations of nations and the barbarism that followed it, and from the time of the Crusades, the peoples of occidental Christendom began to rise to a scale of civilisation which, in spite of its peculiar characteristics, accorded in many respects with the highest point attained by Attic and Roman society just before the decline. Literature, that treasury of thought bequeathed by this society to succeeding generations, harmonised fully with the needs of the newly rising classes at the close of the Middle Ages.

The revival of ancient literature and learning fostered to an extraordinary degree the self-consciousness and self-knowledge of these classes, and in consequence became a powerful motive force in social progress. Under such circumstances tradition, usually conservative in its influence, became a revolutionary factor.

It was natural that each class should appropriate to itself from the treasury of tradition whatever best accorded with its condition. Burgesses and princes appealed to the Roman law, because it appeared to them well adapted to the needs of simple production, trade, and the despotic power of the State. They rejoiced in pagan literature – a literature of the pleasures of life and even of wantonness.

Neither the Roman law nor classic literature could please the proletariat and its sympathisers; they found what they were seeking in another product of Roman society – the Gospels. The traditional communism of primitive Christianity was well suited to their own necessities. As the foundations of a higher order of communistic production were not yet laid, theirs could only be an equalising communism; which meant the division and distribution of the rich man’s superfluity among the poor who were destitute of the necessaries of life.

The communistic doctrines of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles did not create the analogous tendencies of the Middle Ages, but they favoured the growth and dissemination of the latter quite as much as the Roman law aided the development of absolutism and the bourgeoisie.

Hence the Christian and religious basis of the communistic tendencies. Conflicts were inevitable with the Church, the richest among the rich, which had indeed for a long time denounced the demands of the prevailing communism as a devilish heresy, and had sought by all kinds of sophistries to distort and obscure the communistic purport of primitive Christian writings.

If, however, the effort to establish a communistic order of society necessarily conduced to heresy, so, on the other hand, the struggle with the Church favoured the growth of communistic ideas. The time had not yet come when men could harbour the thought of dispensing with the Church. It is true that during the declining period of the Middle Ages there existed in the towns a culture far above that represented by the hierarchy. The newly rising classes – the princes with their courtiers, the merchants, the Roman jurists – were at that time far from being Christian-minded, and were, indeed, still less so the nearer to Rome they resided. The metropolis of Christendom was itself the headquarters of unbelief. Any new form of government or secular bureaucracy which could step into the place of the spiritual organisation had scarcely begun to be fashioned, and the Church as a supreme governing power remained indispensable for the ruling, i.e., for the unbelieving classes. The task of the revolutionary portions of society was not to destroy the Church, but to conquer it, and, by its means, to govern the community and advance their own interests, just as, in the present day, it is the work of the proletarians to conquer the state and make it subservient to their own ends.

The increase of unbelief among the upper lasses led them to concern themselves more than hitherto about the orthodoxy of the lower orders, and to use every means in their power to withhold from the latter every form of culture which could raise their views above the horizon of the Christian doctrines; no very difficult task certainly, for the social condition of the peasants, handicraftsmen, and proletarians was such that it was impossible for them to attain to a higher culture.

Nevertheless, the Papal Church gained very little by this circumstance; for it did not prevent the development of great popular movements against the money-making hierarchy. Its only effect was to enable the participants in these movements to appeal with greater weight to religious arguments in confirmation of the reasonableness of their efforts.

The literary productions of primitive Christianity offered an arsenal full of weapons to all those who, on any grounds whatsoever, might wish to confiscate the wealth of the Church; for it was fairly evident from these writings that Jesus and His disciples were poor, and that they required voluntary poverty in their followers; but the wealth of the Church belonged not to the priesthood, but to the community.

The return to primitive Christianity, the restoration of “the pure Word of God” which the Papal Church had falsified and interpreted in a sense opposed to the true one – these were the objects striven for by all parties and classes who were enemies to the papacy. It must be confessed that each of these parties construed the “pure Word of God” differently and in a manner consonant with its own interests. Only on one point were they unanimous – the despoliation of the Church. It is true that the various Protestant parties diverged from each other widely with regard to the question whether that “pure Word” demanded the reorganisation of the Church government or the introduction of the community of goods. As, however, according to the evidence of tradition, democratic organisation and community of goods had existed in primitive Christianity, any one who reverenced that form of Christianity must have had very large interests in the opposite state of things to enable him to find anything in the “pure Word of God” upholding different views. Hence every candid member of the propertied classes who took part in a heretical movement, and was in a position to raise himself mentally above the interests and prejudices of his particular faction, could with comparative ease be won over to democratic communism. This was especially the case so long as the Papal government was regarded by the wealthy classes opposing it as an over-powerful enemy, while at the same time communism seemed to be the harmless toy of eccentric idealists. Their partisanship of the communistic doctrine would, however, cease when they were confronted with the necessity of uniting all antagonistic elements in one phalanx. At first heretical communism showed itself to be dangerous only to the accumulation of wealth by the papacy, and hence easily acquired the tolerance of the upper classes, where these were heretically minded.

Taking all these circumstances into consideration, it is comprehensible that, at the period when heretical movements had as their object the overthrow of the Papal power, communistic tendencies were able to acquire a force and vogue out of all proportion to the strength, extent, and self-consciousness of the proletariat.

But directly they made any attempt to assail the whole existing order of society, instead of uniting their efforts with those of the wealthy classes against the papacy only, the collapse of heretical communistic movements was, as a rule, sudden and inevitable, apparently leaving no trace behind it.

The class-character of these movements from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to the era of the Reformation was much more effectually concealed by the veil of religion, under whose guise they first made their appearance, than was the case with the other popular agitations of that period. This resulted from the circumstances already enumerated, viz., the lack of class-feeling among the poor, a proportionately greater interest in communistic strivings among the wealthy (merchants, nobles, and particularly the ecclesiastics), and the powerful literary influence of the communistic records of primitive Christianity.

Nevertheless, the spirit of the proletariat had already impressed itself upon communistic movements. The proletariat of the Middle Ages differed from the proletariat of Rome in the days of her degeneration, and also from that of modern times. Moreover, the communism which it upheld differed from that of primitive Christianity and from that of the nineteenth century. It constituted a transitional stage between the two.



IV. Communism in Articles of Consumption

Modern communism or collectivism is built upon the economic revolution which capitalism has brought about by doing away with production on a small scale. In the Middle Ages petty production still prevailed. In every industrial establishment division of labour (except that between husband and wife) had scarcely developed, and even in general affairs was in its infancy. The greater part of the population belonged to the peasantry, who nearly all supplied their own needs. In such a primitive stage society demands private, not a collective, property in the means of production. Modern socialism wishes to make the nationalisation of the means of production the basis of society, widely differing in this respect from the communism of the Middle Ages and from that of the Reformation period. In so far as the latter was not satisfied with simply denying the right to private property, and inscribing on its banner the equality of the “beggar’s wallet” and universal poverty, and in so far as it attained to the formation of a social programme and organisation, it founded these on a communism of the consumers, not of the producers; on communal housekeeping, not on communal labour. Whenever we find co-operative production among communistic sects of the Middle Ages, it is the effect, not the cause of housekeeping in common.

A good insight into the nature of this communism is offered to us in the description of the origin of the Beghard Houses in Bruges, given by a certain Damhouder, in the thirteenth century. “Thirty years ago,” he relates, “thirteen weavers lived here; unmarried laymen, who earnestly endeavoured to lead a life of piety and brotherhood. They hired from the Abbot Eckhuten a large and comfortable building with a piece of ground near the town wall, for a yearly rental of six pounds groschen (libris grossorum), and a certain amount of wax and pepper. It was not long before they began to carry on their trade, conducting their household in common, and paying its expenses out of the proceeds of the common labour (ex communibus laboribus simul convvivere coeperunt). They lived under no strict rule, nor were they bound by any vows, but all wore a brown costume, and formed themselves into a pious community of Christian freedom and brotherhood.” [1] They bore the name of “Weaving Friars”. Not until 1450 did the Beghards of Bruges give up their looms and join the Franciscan monks, and then only to protect themselves from persecution.

The organisation of the society, termed the “Fraternity of Life in Common”, is also characteristic. It was founded by Gerhard Groot van Deventer in the Netherlands in the fourteenth century. The members of the “Fraternity”, though closely bound together, formed a free society. No vow for life was required on admission, and the Friars were not strict concerning the rules as were the monks. The ordinary disposition of the Fraternity was as follows. About twenty Friars lived together in one house, having money and food in common. The novice had a year’s probation, during which he underwent very severe treatment. He was expected to relinquish his private property for the common use. Florentius (a friend and pupil of Gerhard) says in his address: “Woe to him who, living in the community, sought his own interests, or said that anything was his.” The duties of the Friars were equally divided. The various handicrafts necessary for the whole community were carried on by special persons. Among the laws of the Fraternity at Wesel, we find the regulations for the Friars as clothiers, barbers, bakers, cooks, gardeners, and cellarers, as well as teachers, secretaries, bookbinders, librarians, and readers. In spite of this division of labour, however, a certain interchange of duties was expected. The clerical and learned Friars undertook, as far as possible, every handicraft (the charge of the kitchen they were all obliged to take in turn), and the serving-men shared in all the work which was the province of the clergy; so that, in mutual assistance, the entire community always resembled a family of co-workers. Certain hours daily were fixed for writing, of which a specified number were devoted to the benefit of the poor.” [2]

This community bore the character of a monastic institution, and we shall yet see that even the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century could not completely avoid following in the same steps. In two essential points only did they differ from the monastery: first, in having no binding, life-long vow, and in remaining a free society out of which it was possible to withdraw; and, secondly, in their independence of all ecclesiastical control. In fact, they usually became directly hostile to the Papacy, and we find that their animosity increases as we approach the end of the Middle Ages.

It is obvious, however, that public communistic association inimical to the Papacy could be formed only in those places where people were successful in overthrowing the Papal domination. In localities in which the communists first declared war against the Pope, we can find no such associations.

The earliest public organisation of heretical, revolutionary communism is met with in the country which was the first to throw off the Papal yoke and to carry out victoriously a reformation of the Church, viz., in Bohemia. But we shall see that even this organisation was based upon the community in articles of consumption.

This heretical communism presents the greatest contrast to that of the monks, in that the latter were the most determined defenders of the Papacy, with which they stood or fell. Moreover the monks, having long ceased to be workers, had become exploiters, their communism consisting merely in the common consumption of booty. But the economic basis of heretical communism is the same as that of the monastery, viz., a community of the household; and this gave rise to a series of features common to both monastic and heretical communism, much as these were opposed in other points. The monk and the communist were in agreement in one point only – in their aversion to marriage.

This is a subject which merits closer examination.



V. Aversion to Marriage

Communism in the means of production, after which the modern social democrat strives, is quite compatible with separate family life. Not so, however, common property in the articles of consumption. The private household – the private family – has always a tendency to demand a recognition of private property. Where the right to private property has been abolished and separate family life has been permitted, communism of this particular kind has proved to be untenable.

Communism in articles of consumption, therefore, leads to a certain hostility to separate family life, and necessarily also to a certain dislike to individual marriage. This is particularly the case where the community is living in the midst of a society in which the right of inheritance has already been established. The practice of individual marriage inevitably prepared the way for a reversion to private family life, for the separate interests of a man and wife were in natural opposition to the general interests of the communistic circle.

This hostility was, indeed, necessary so long as the production of the community was too limited for communism to be founded on the practice of holding property in common, and its aim continued to be, as at first, not a universal co-operative association, but an all-embracing family.

This is no mere speculative conclusion. We find this aversion to family life and marriage in Plato, in the Essenes, in the cloister, and also in some communistic societies in the United States.

These examples not only prove that aversion to marriage is necessarily connected with this primitive communism, but also that the feeling can be expressed in very different ways; by the demand for celibacy on the one hand, and by the common possession of women on the other. The latter was required alike by Plato and by the Perfectionists of Oneida. Dislike to marriage by no means implies hostility to women. On the contrary, the emancipation of woman from separate households always has the tendency to raise her position in the community. This can be seen in Plato’s description of communism, and is still exemplified in the American communistic colonies.

The general bias of medieval communism on the marriage question is easily understood, as well as its uncertainty on the point. The consequences of its tenets drove its partisans to require either complete continence, or the possession of women in common; but their whole environment, their petty citizenship and small peasant households made separate families and separate marriages necessary. It is in the opinions held concerning the relation of the sexes that custom is an all-powerful factor; it is here, too, that new ideas have continually to encounter the greatest difficulties, for, in the sexual sphere, the extraordinary always appears to be disgusting and repulsive.

Medieval communists held very diverse opinions on marriage: one marked characteristic, however, distinguished them all, viz., a determined hostility to the matrimonial state.

This hostility appears among the oldest of medieval communistic sects – the Waldenses, which arose in the South of France in the second part of the twelfth century. They divided their adherents into two classes – the perfect (perfecti), and the novices (discipuli). For the first, communism and, perhaps, celibacy, also, was ordered; at all events, the latter state was deemed desirable. The novices (discipuli), on the contrary, were allowed to marry, and also to have worldly possessions. In return, it was the duty of the novices to support the perfecti, who were to consider themselves dead to the vanities of this world. This sort of communism reminds us of the platonic theory on the one hand, and of the Beggar monks on the other. In the Platonic republic, people were also divided into two classes – the ordinary people and the guardians. Communism and the avoidance of marriage were prescribed for the latter only. Like Plato, the Waldenses proclaimed the equality of the sexes, one of their heretical opinions being that women could preach as well as men; an opinion condemned by the Pope. Men and women went about together, giving umbrage to pious souls, who considered that, under such circumstances, celibacy was not synonymous with perpetual chastity. [3]

A similar account is given of the Apostolicans, a sect founded by Gerardo Segarelli at Alzano, near Parma, about 1260. They called each other brothers and sisters, after the manner of the early Christians. Living in strict poverty, they were not permitted to have either houses of their own, or provisions for the next morning, or anything that was comfortable or convenient. If hunger raged among them they begged for food from the first person they met, without specifying any article in particular, and ate without discrimination whatever any one gave them. If a wealthy man entered the community, he was obliged to renounce the possession of his property, resigning it for the common use of the Brotherhood. [4] Marriage was forbidden. “The Brothers who go into the world to preach repentance have power to take about with them a sister as an Apostle; not as a wife, but as a helper. They call their female friends, who were allowed to accompany them, their sisters in Christ, and firmly denied that they lived with them in a conjugal or improper manner, although they shared the same bed. [5]

Mosheim thinks (merely on the ground of probability, and unsupported by definite information) that this prohibition of marriage and possession of property referred only to the Apostles – i.e., to the “agitators,” and not to the common Brothers. If this be so, they would resemble the Waldenses very closely. Certain it is, however, that they declare communism to be an indispensable antecedent to perfection.

In the Netherlands and in Germany communistic sects were grouped together under the name of Beghards. This sect was at first, especially in the Netherlands, an association, or brotherhood, of unmarried craftsmen, living as we have seen, in common households. In the Beghard Houses celibacy was enforced.

While, however, all these sects comprehended, under the term “celibacy,” the restraint from every kind of sexual intercourse, the “brothers and sisters of the Free Spirit” (a sect which sprang up in France in the fifteenth century) found a bolder and plainer solution of the matrimonial problem. Next to communism they claimed full, unbridled liberty for mankind, their conception of celibacy being complete sexual freedom, although marriage was prohibited.



VI. The Mystic and the Ascetic

We must now deal with another characteristic which medieval communism has in common with monasticism, and explain wherein both of these differ from modern socialism. We refer to its inclination to mysticism and asceticism.

One of the radical reasons for the tendency towards mysticism was the ignorance of the great masses of the people. As production and trade developed, the ascendancy of social over individual life increased, social relations became more secluded and secret, and mankind was visited by terrible social evils. The people remained ignorant and helpless before these misfortunes, and the lower the rank of the people, the greater their ignorance and helplessness.

The ruling and rising classes, particularly the merchants and princes, found their level under the new conditions by means of the political wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome and the Roman law. It was difficult for the lower classes to acquire this knowledge; more difficult than in the present day, for at that time it was confined to its own languages, differing from the speech of the people – i.e., Latin and Greek.

This was not, however, the chief reason why knowledge did not penetrate into the lower classes. The fact was that the people refused to receive it, because they thought it would be prejudicial to their interests.

Development of knowledge is as little independent as the development of art. That knowledge thrives is due not merely to definite previous conditions which scientific investigation first renders possible, but also to certain wants which urge on scientific research. Not every community and social class feels the need for deeper investigation into the real connection between things in nature and society, even if the necessary previous conditions are present. A class or community which is in process of decline, or hopelessly trodden down by others, will always oppose itself to the knowledge of truth. It will not use its intelligence to define clearly that which is, but will try to discover arguments by means of which it can pacify, console, and – deceive itself; and this is quite apart from the necessity of deluding its opponents as to its strength and capabilities. In the society of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance, the future did not belong to the poor and oppressed, but to the rich and powerful, to the nobles and capitalists. The latter classes had every reason to promote learning, which favoured the possessors of power in proportion to their comprehension of the truth. Even where learning was quite free and independent of them, it promoted their power.

The time was yet far distant when the visible future was to belong to communism to the proletariat. The more the poor and oppressed thought they understood what was the truth, the more wretched must they have deemed it. Only a miracle could completely overthrow the big lords, and bring prosperity and freedom to the famishing classes. But they longed for that miracle from the very bottom of their hearts, and were forced to believe in it, if they would not despair. They began to detest the newly dawning culture, which did their tormentors such good service, quite as much as they hated the beliefs of the Papal Church which they were attacking. They turned away from the miserable and comfortless reality, and sought to lose themselves in brooding meditation, in order to derive some consolation and assurance. Against the arguments of science and truth, they set the voice from within – “God’s voice,” “Revelation,” “Interior light” – expressions which mean, in reality, the voice of their longing and their wants. This inner voice resounds the louder and more triumphantly the more the contemplator secludes himself from mankind, keeps at a distance all disturbances, and fires his fancy by the various methods of ecstasy, and especially by hunger and prayer. Thus these enthusiasts arrived at a belief in miracles which finally developed into a faith as firm as a rock: so firm, indeed, that they became able to communicate it to others whom the same wants and the same longings made only too ready to receive it.

A characteristic example of this mode of thinking is presented to us in Thomas Münzer’s writings, particularly in his explanation of the second chapter of Daniel, which treats of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (the image of iron and gold with feet of common clay, which a stone shattered) – a highly profitable dream for revolutionary interpretation.

This is what Münzer says about the dream which the king’s astrologers could not explain: “They were godless hypocrites and flatterers, who only spoke what their rulers wished to hear, like the theologians of our own times, who. sacrifice their convictions for the sake of the loaves and fishes. These learned men were led astray by the notion that they could separate good from evil without the advent of the Holy Spirit. But the Gospel comes down from God into the heart. St. Paul, therefore, repeats the testimony of Moses and Isaiah (Rom. x.), and speaks of the inner ‘Word’, to be heard in the lowest depths of the soul through the Revelation of God; and whosoever does not become conscious of, and sensitive to, it through the living witness of God (Rom, viii.), has no well-founded knowledge of God, though he may have devoured a hundred thousand Bibles.”

“An elect who wishes to know whether a vision or dream comes from God, or from nature, or the devil, must also with his heart and soul and mind take leave of all the temporal comforts of his flesh.”

In the most extravagant and millenarian fashion, Münzer pictured to himself the new society of the future as a paradise on earth. “Yes,” he cries, “the advent of belief must touch us all, and be held fast in order that we, fleshly, earthly men may become gods through the incarnation of Christ, and therefore with Him be children of God, taught and sanctified by Himself. Yes, indeed, far rather be wholly and entirely transformed in Him in order that the earthly life may be changed into the heavenly.” [6] This is a small specimen of Apocalyptic mysticism. In contrast to modern communism, asceticism was also a distinguishing feature of this period.

Production was not sufficiently developed to provide means for a refined enjoyment of life by the masses of the people. He, therefore, who desired equality among mankind, could see evils not only in luxury, but also in art and science, which, as a matter of fact, were often enough the handmaids of luxury. Communists, as a rule, went further than this. In the face of the vast amount of misery in the world, it seemed to them that not only were arrogance and frivolity sins, but that even the most harmless pleasures were sins also. Melancthon was very indignant over this mode of viewing things, and relates, in his History of Thomas Münzer, that the latter taught: that “one must attain to a right and Christian godliness in the following manner: Firstly, open vices must be abandoned, such as adultery, murder, blasphemy, &c. At the same time, the body must be mortified and subdued by fasting, bad clothing, speaking but little, looking morose, leaving the beard untrimmed. Such childish discipline as this he called mortification of the flesh and the cross as described in the Gospels. His whole preaching was based upon this.” This gloomy Puritanism brought the communists into opposition, not merely with the ruling, but frequently also with the labouring classes of the day, who were still strong in their ancient love of life, and full of cheerful good-humour. In many places communists were hated by the peasants and workmen as hypocrites. It was when the progress of the Reformation led to the oppression and ill-treatment of the latter classes, and when the restoration of princely absolutism made their resistance appear hopeless, that the spirit of Puritanism began to take root among the peasants and petty traders. But this was after the rise of capitalist production, which made saving the favourite virtue of the small employers because it promised them the quickest advancement into the ranks of the great profit-winners.

Puritanism, however, differed in essential points from the asceticism of Christendom in the first centuries. The character of Christian asceticism in its beginning was chiefly determined by the ragged proletariat whose prominent peculiarities (moralists might call them vices) were idleness, dirt, and stupidity. Primitive Christian asceticism was nothing but a system of more refined methods to bring these peculiarities to the apex of perfection. It was the same with the Indian (Brahmin and Buddhist) asceticism, which developed under similar conditions.

The proletarians of mediaeval times were, in a great measure, workmen, and could not permit themselves the luxury of such self-abnegation; they did not live on the liberality, i.e., the gains, of others as did the anchorites, but on their own exertions; they were, therefore, obliged to bestir themselves in order to provide for their wants in the world, if they would not starve. Neither stupidity nor idleness was compatible with their existence; they were not degraded enough, and, moreover, stood too near a thriving and well-to-do peasantry and tradespeople to be able to reconcile themselves to dirt. Neither stupidity, idleness, nor dirt offered any attractions to those who were superior enough to be capable of adopting communistic ideas. All accounts unite in asserting that the members of the communistic sects of mediaeval and Reformation times were distinguished above their fellows by diligence, respectability, and sobriety. By reason of these qualities they even received ready employment as workmen in some places.

One well-authenticated proof of this is offered by the Anabaptists, in Moravia, where they had succeeded in establishing themselves in various localities, and founding a few colonies of peace-loving folk, who were as communistic as the surroundings in which they lived permitted. Gindely, who by no means sympathises with them, says:–

“Among the various parties, Anabaptists were sporadic in Bohemia, but existed in great masses and in very many communes in Moravia. They had immigrated into the latter country before 1530 and had rapidly increased into more than seventy communities. The State persecuted them with more or less zeal, but they maintained themselves in spite of this, thanks to the protection of a few noble families, who had good grounds for what they did.

“Such was the position in which Maximilian found them in Moravia, though they had previously been frequently and in vain proscribed. Following his father’s custom, he made a proposal to the Diet, in 1567, to expel this people within a short time. And now a new and entirely unexpected departure from old tradition took place on the part of the nobles. In union with the knights (the prelates and towns did not take part in this petition) they begged the emperor to allow the Anabaptists to remain in their own homes. Not because the people were still unconvicted heretics, nor because any one had an interest in their conversion; no, it was set on foot on far more practical grounds, namely, that the Anabaptists were even more profitable subjects than the Jews, and could not be banished without great material injuries. Catholics, Utraquists, as well as Bohemian Brethren, bowed before the weight of their own argument. The Anabaptists were, in fact, everywhere extremely industrious, thrifty, and temperate, and, moreover, by far the cleverest workmen in Moravia.” [7]

We hear of the same thing in the primitive communistic colonies of America where Nordhoff found many instances of communistic industry and sobriety, and his testimony has been corroborated by Professor Ely, Mr. E.B. Smalley, and others. There is nothing more absurd than the idea that work is not carried on systematically in communistic associations; experience has long proved the contrary.



VII. Internationalism and the Revolutionary Spirit

In one point early Christian, medieval, and modern communism are in accord, i.e., in their internationalism, in which they are quite distinct from Platonism, the latter being merely local. Platonism was instituted for a few municipalities and their adjacent territories. Ever since the Christian era, on the contrary, every communist has worked for the good of mankind in general, or at all events for the universal national sphere of civilisation in which he happened to live. The local limitation of Plato’s communism is in accord with the peculiar conditions of peasant and petty trade methods of production.

Capitalists and the proletarians overcome local limitations. The merchant does not live for his local customers alone, but principally to carry on business between home and foreign markets. The more intimate and easy this traffic, the greater his prosperity. Hence the merchant is international, or, to express it better, interlocal. Wherever he can make a profit, he is at home.

The interlocalism of the merchant has its source in his commerce with foreign countries; and his position in the foreign market depends on the power of the State to which he belongs (whether it be an ancient city or a modern nation). A strong governmental power is necessary to his prosperity, and, above all, a strong military power. Hence he is always a patriot either at home or abroad, and particularly in the latter case. We see that he has been, ever since mediaeval days, on the side of princely power and Chauvinism in every place where the conditions are favourable to absolutism.

The interlocal feeling of the proletarian arises from other causes. He possesses nothing to chain him to the soil; his home offers him nothing but oppression and a short purse, and these he can find anywhere. The smallest prospect of bettering his lot in some other place is sufficient to make him pluck up stakes and journey thither. Governmental power is the strongest protector of those who ill-treat and despoil him. From the fall of the Roman Republic to the first decade of our century, the proletarian had no hope of overcoming the government, or of making it useful to him, or of influencing it the least in his favour. The State has been the proletarian’s greatest enemy. Not much wonder, then, that he has found it easy to draw the conclusions natural to this state of things. The special characteristics of all sects of communists, from the early Christians down to our own century, has been not only indifference but undisguised aversion to the government, to participation in politics, and the defence of the country. Anarchism is a posthumous child of these conditions of society. This aversion could only be subdued in times of revolution, when it seemed as if the power of the State were tumbling to pieces, thus putting the proletariat in a position to secure that power for itself. In the time of reaction, however, a disgust for all politics would again set in with even greater force. We shall see that such was the case among the Bohemian Brethren after the downfall of Tabor, among the Anabaptists after the Peasant War, and among the Mennonites after the suppression of the Münster rising.

But, since the time of the early Christians, the communists have always, and under all circumstances, laid stress on the duties of international and interlocal solidarity.

In foreign lands the merchant steps forward as a competitor – as the opponent of the native born. He founds his aspirations not on their good-will, but on the power of his country to protect him. The proletarian on foreign soil shows himself as a struggler against the same spoliation as that from which he suffered at home. He cannot count upon the protection of his government, but he can very often rely on that of the proletarians in the regions into which he has wandered, and by whose side he is fighting a common enemy.

It must be admitted that where the proletarian looks upon himself rather as a seller of his labour-powers than as a combatant, he is more inclined to regard his proletarian associates as rivals than as brothers-in-arms, and, in such a case, the disposition towards international solidarity is overcome without much difficulty.

This, however, does not apply to communists: they are in the first line of combatants against exploitation and oppression, and, in every place, they encounter the same opponents, and suffer from the same persecution. This it is which welds them together. From the days of early Christendom there has always been one special peculiarity among communists, viz., that they form one all-embracing family, that the foreign comrade is just as much a brother as the native born; and that, in whatever part of the world he may happen to be, if he finds comrades he is at home. Thanks to this peculiarity and to the lack of possessions, it was easy for their leaders, their agitators, to go from place to place. Poor they always were, for the man of property who joined them was obliged to distribute his means among the needy. The protagonists of the sect were constantly travelling, sometimes displaying a power of locomotion and covering an extent of ground in their journeys which would be quite respectable even in these days of railways. Thus, for example, the Waldenses of Bohemia were by this means able to keep up a constant communication with those of Southern France.

For this reason, communists became of the greatest importance in the conjoint revolutionary movements of the lower classes of their time. The greatest check to their progress was the local narrow-mindedness of the peasantry and petty citizens, which did them enormous injury in the face of their well-organised enemies. Wherever this narrow-mindedness was conquered and revolutionary risings in isolated localities were brought into communication with each other, it was essentially the work of the communist wandering preachers, and it was mainly due to their centralising influence that the peasant insurrection of 1381 in England and the Taborite movement in Bohemia were so successful. During the great Peasant War in Germany, in 1525, they were active in a similar way, but German particularism was too strong for them; apart from the fact that this rebellion was in a great measure thwarted by the want of cohesion among the peasantry.

Here we must notice another important characteristic of heretical communism, the last which we desire to deal with in this connection – a characteristic which distinguishes it from early Christian communism, and makes it analogous with that of modern times: its revolutionary spirit.

The people of the Middle Ages, the exploited classes, i.e., the peasantry, petty traders, and proletariats, were different from the population of declining Rome. Capable of carrying arms and boorishly insolent, they had no comprehension of the teaching which commands men that “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also;” which interdicts the taking of the law into one’s hands by “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” and “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword;” which advocates uncomplaining sorrow and suffering as a Christian duty. As soon as the populace in general could read the Bible for themselves (the Roman Catholic priesthood understood well why they wished to make the knowledge of this book their own privilege), they did not draw from the New Testament its lessons of humility and self-denial, but those of hatred to the rich. The favourite portion of the New Testament to the heretics of the lower classes was the Apocalypse, that revolutionary and blood-curdling imagination of an early Christian brain, in which the Apostle exultingly predicts the downfall of existing society amidst deeds of horror compared with which everything hitherto exhibited in acts and threats by the most debased anarchism appears mild. In addition to the Apocalypse, they zealously studied the Old Testament, which is full of examples of peasant democracy, and teaches not only hatred of tyrants, but also active and restless opposition to them, as well as to the rich and powerful. The adherents of the communistic sects were, in general, too weak to entertain, in times of peace, the thought that they could overthrow existing society by their own power, in order to set up communism in its place. If they were not servile and submissive like the baser proletariat of declining Rome, they were still a universally peace-loving folk up to the time of the Reformation, and such evidence as we have unanimously bears out the fact that love of peace and patience were as much their characteristics as were industry and sobriety.

But when insurrectionary times came, when peasant and trader rose around them, then revolutionary enthusiasm seized the communist also. It then appeared to them, or at least to a portion of them (for they were often divided over this question), that the time had come when God would show strength in weakness, and when no miracle seemed impossible. They threw themselves into the revolutionary movement to make it serve the purposes of communism, and having once cast in their lot with the rest, no compromise with the existing powers was possible. They soon obtained the upper hand over the vacillating and procrastinating factions, easily became leaders of movements (like the Taborites among the Hussites, Münzer and his adherents among the rebels of the Thüringian Peasant War), and gave even these a communistic colouring, thus lending to communism the appearance of a strength which in reality it did not possess. As a result, a combination of all the propertied classes rose against it, furious with rage, and completely shattered it.

It is this spirit of revolt in the communistic agitation of the lower classes which, in spite of many resemblances, most clearly distinguishes it from the communism of the early Christians, and bears the most important testimony to its kinship with modern proletarian-communistic movements.

Early Christian communism was unpolitical and passive. Proletarian communism, on the contrary, ever since the Middle Ages, has necessarily been political and rebellious when circumstances were favourable. Like the social democracy of the present day, its aim has been the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the most efficacious means of bringing about a communistic society.




1. See Mosheim, De Beghardis et Beguinabu commentarius, p.177, Leipzig 1790.

2. Unman, Reformatoren vor der Reformation, vol.ii, pp.79-102, Hamburg 1842.

3. Hoc quoque probosum in eis videbatur, quod viri et mulieres simul ambulabant in via et plerumque simil manebant in una domo et de eis diceretur quod quandoque simul in lectulis accubabant. (Chron. Urspug ad ann., 1212. See in Gieseler, Kirchengeschichte, vol.ii., book 11, p.325.)

4. Mosheim, Versuch einer unparteiischen unt gründlicher Ketzergeschichte, Helmstadt, 1746, p.224.

5. Mosheim, op. cit., p.226, also p.321. The same thing is related of the Waldenses, and of the holy men during the first few centuries of Christendom. “Disdaining an ignominious flight, the virgins of the warm climate of Africa encountered the enemy in the closest engagement; they permitted priests and deacons to share their bed, and gloried amidst the flames of their unsullied purity. But insulted nature sometimes vindicated her rights, and this new species of martyrdom only served to introduce new scandal into the Church.” (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, p.381.)

6. Aussgestrückte emplössung des falschen Glaubens der ungetrewen Welt, Mühlhausen 1524.

7. A. Gindely, Geschichle der böhmischen Brüder, Prag 1857, vol.ii., p.19.


Last updated on 23.12.2003