We Need a Marxist Account That Can Make Sense of Europe’s Reformation

The Reformation was a fundamental transformation in European society, blending religious disputes with political ideology and class conflict. Marx and Engels fully understood its importance for their view of history, and today’s Marxists should do the same.

Philip Melancthon, Martin Luther, Pomeranus, and Cruciger, the four great German Protestant theologians shown working on Luther's translation of the Bible. Engraving ca. 1860. (Photo12 / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In 1844, Karl Marx wrote: “In our own day we are approaching an era of revolution analogous to that of the sixteenth century.” Six years later, in 1850, Marx’s comrade Friedrich Engels would address the failures of the 1848 revolutions by writing a pamphlet about the peasant war in Germany — the high point of class struggle in the Reformation era. The movements for religious reform that convulsed Europe in the 1500s had an enormous influence over the thought of the founders of scientific socialism.

There appears to be something incongruous in the fixation. They were both members of a generation of socialists still reeling, with the rest of society, from the French Revolution. Those events had birthed the modern world, and its republican ideals and insurrectionary heroism continued to be an inspiration for socialists. Why reach back over three hundred years to the Reformation — a movement of bible scholars still bearing the mark of the medieval epoch?

The Criticism of Religion

Marx and Engels were of course concerned with German events and searching for national analogies and traditions. But their concentration on 1517 and 1524 has a greater relevance. For Marx, “the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism,” and criticism of religion begins in earnest with Martin Luther’s assault on Catholic theology.

The fifth centenary of the Reformation was met with less intellectual intensity. The world-historic tasks of criticism have been closed by the “end of history” and addled by the new vogue of academic dispute — the disassembly of historical study into niche specialisms and pluralistic “perspectives.” Against this backdrop, much inquiry has rebounded to an emphasis on the ideas of the Reformation, and those of its opponents.

The English publishers of The Saved and the Damned by Thomas Kaufmann threaten a work along these lines. The respected historian of theology, we are informed by the blurb, sidelines political and social explanations and “sees the most important drivers of what happened in religion itself.”

What emerges from the text is, thankfully, a more sophisticated and insightful examination of the German Reformation launched by Martin Luther in 1517, and its longer-term global consequences. Kaufmann provides us with much of what we need for a class and materialist interpretation of the Reformation, even if he shies away from drawing the necessary conclusions.

Progress and Decline in the Late Middle Ages

In popular accounts of the Reformation, especially those that emerged from the European Enlightenment, Luther’s ideas were the spark of ingenuity that launched the project of modernity. The Reformation was itself a foreshadowing of later ideas of rationalism, scientific inquiry, and secularism.

These conclusions are hugely overwrought, but they also examine historical developments from the wrong starting point — from the movement of ideas to their effects on the wider society. Kaufmann usefully begins his account of the period with an examination of the economic and social forces reshaping Christendom.

The Europe of the early 1500s was ordered into “estates,” class relations forged through hundreds of years of feudalism, but rapidly morphing with the rise of mercantilism and city life. The countryside was still dominated by landowning nobles and worked by peasants who formed the vast impoverished mass of society.

The rural economy was increasingly integrated with emerging towns, a bustling confusion of class elements, some of them quite new. Burgesses enjoyed a relative independence based on commercialism and the laws of quasi-independent cities. Powerful patrician families maintained order, sometimes clashing with artisanal layers.

All these class estates operated under princes, who governed the numerous territorial units under the Holy Roman Empire. New power centers were developing as the princes pulled against the Emperor. At a European level, state power was concentrating, and the development of protonationalism was increasingly in evidence.

Kaufmann stresses that this was a time of dynamism, with new trade routes opening and fortunes being made. But he also rightly depicts it as a time of growing conflict:

The gap between rich and poor widened constantly in the years around 1500. The first signs of overpopulation, increasing urbanisation, and rural hunger uprisings appeared.

In the German countryside too, violent peasant uprising broke out in 1502, 1513, 1514, and 1517. Spiking food prices were the trigger for movements, but anticlerical sentiment followed quickly behind.

Hostility to the Church was a consequence of its ideological and political position in the late medieval world. It declared the earthly system of estates to be Dei Gratia — divinely ordained. In addition to its ideological function as apologist for the class hierarchy and administrator of society’s tightly ritualized moral economy, the Church was a powerful economic and political organization in its own right.

To service its vast bureaucracy and growing stock of property, the Catholic Church increasingly issued indulgences and jubilees — purchased certificates that relieved punishment for sin. These practices mixed with the lax, self-serving, and hypocritical cultures of many local church organizations to inspire resentment from the lay estates. This anger would motivate reformers like Luther to challenge an increasingly grasping hierarchy.


Kaufmann follows a modern trend in Reformation history in playing down the extent of discontent with the Church. Early accounts of the era came from partisans of the cause and helped develop a mythology of Catholicism as somehow uniquely or pathologically corrupt. In a mood of balancing these excessive accounts, Kaufmann offers the following perspective:

It is by no means clear that ecclesiastical Christianity as a whole was in crisis, as some have claimed, pointing to popes of dubious morals or a few frivolous free thinkers among Italian humanists. On the contrary: people in general placed greater, and different, expectations on the church and its institutions than on all other contemporary forces of order in their lives.

However, these observations clash with the record of growing class struggles and anticlericalism Kaufmann describes. The reason for this incoherence may be the arbitrary separation Kaufmann draws between expressly religious movements and lay rebellions — an unhelpful distinction, if closely policed, since class struggle and religious dissent were all but inseparable. High expectations were indeed placed on the Church, but they were already widely frustrated by 1517.

When Luther, an Augustinian monk and lecturer in the peripheral university town of Wittenberg in Saxony, issued his criticisms of indulgences in 1517, he unconsciously tapped into this broiling class anger. The Church sought to bring him back in line, most famously at a disputation in the town of Worms where he bravely defended his ideas, though he was by then already excommunicated and faced the threat of being killed.

As Kaufmann notes: “With his criticism of indulgences, Luther had taken up the ‘grumbling’ of the common people.” His treatises criticizing the practice spread rapidly around the empire through the vector of the new printing industries. City dwellers seeking new understandings of a changing world welcomed the initial disputation and the enormous rounds of publication that followed.

The criticism of indulgences erupted into a revision of essential Church doctrines on worship, governance, preaching, and theology. At their heart was a return to the Bible and a view of grace as bestowed by God through the faith of the believer. The “works” of the Catholic Church, and obedience to its laws and officers, were sidelined in this theology — a clear threat to Rome’s authority.

These ideas spread with the many editions of sermons, pamphlets, and books that churned out of the printers’ workshops. Everywhere they took hold, Luther’s ideas tapped into long-standing grievances of class elements tired of supporting the Church through times of want.

It also encouraged a nascent nationalization, a feeling of the remoteness of Rome. Kaufmann is right to assert that it was the revolution of the printed word that both saved Luther’s Reformation from the suppression of so many past heresies, and helped to encourage vernacular, national literary cultures.

Social Contradictions

Several social classes attached themselves to versions of the Reformation project in these years. Luther’s early base was among his students and fellow members of the lower clerisy. His attitudes spread quickly to towns and some educational institutions where traditions of humanism were flourishing, and where the newer class elements were asserting their intellectual independence.

However, he might not have survived his protest against the Church had he not found a ready ally in Frederick III, the Saxon Elector. And the first military uprising inspired by the Reformation did not come from the urban or rural poor, but from the nobility.

The Knights’ Revolt of 1522–23 demonstrated the extreme contradictions of a society on the cusp of modernity. The knights were a section of the lower nobility losing their purchase in the social order, as the Holy Roman Emperor gave way to the emerging local power bases of the princes. A faction led by Franz von Sickingen and Ulrich of Hutten envisioned rule by an aristocratic democracy in a renewed and centralized empire, shorn of the influences of the Roman Church and with the princes humbled.

The princes swiftly crushed the struggle for this hopeless, reactionary utopia, which looked back to a fading feudalism as much as forward to absolutism. The mood of revolt then passed to the peasants, the vast and anonymous population upon whose exploitation rested the entire edifice of society.

Serfdom — a feudal relation that tied peasants to the land and their class betters and afforded them few rights — persisted in the German social structure, and it was against this that the peasantry would fight. The program for which many agitated, The Twelve Articles of the Peasants, drew heavily from the Reformation critique of the Church, and applied its method of biblical exegesis to social conditions as well, asserting for instance that the nobility must “release us from serfdom as true Christians, unless it should be shown us from the Gospel that we are serfs.”

Hundreds of thousands of peasants would eventually join a series of risings in 1524–25 — the largest revolutionary movement in Europe before the French Revolution. They were joined by itinerant radical preachers like Thomas Müntzer, who went well beyond the ideas of figures like Luther to challenge the rulers of society.

But the peasant volunteers, poorly equipped and trained, were little match for the mercenary armies of the princes, and tens of thousands were killed in the crackdown. Luther called for the peasants to be butchered “just as when one must kill a mad dog.”

Class War Confusion

It is when examining the chaos of class warfare that Reformation doctrines ignited in the early 1520s that Kaufmann’s attempt to define lay political and religious rebellion as separate but connected phenomena becomes incoherent.

We have knights motivated to action by the pressures on their social class, peasants moved to open class war by the deprivations of the feudal economy, and town-dwelling intermediary classes seeking greater independence from a moribund and extractive central Church. While all of these groups may profess allegiance to anticlerical and evangelical ideas, the Reformation is at once more and less than a coincidence of class struggles. It continues regardless, and jostles with these other forces for space.

Accordingly, Kaufmann writes:

Sickingen’s life and acts do not indicate any strong influence of a piety after Reformation principles. He was primarily interested in restoring the former glory of his knightly estate, which had been ground between the prospering urban bourgeoisie and the expanding territorial states.

Meanwhile, in Luther’s opposition to the Peasants’ War, we are told, “The most important factor was probably that Luther considered the peasants to be wholly under the spell of his former student Thomas Müntzer and his apocalyptic theology.” Kauffman makes a telling suggestion that “Luther did not want to be co-opted” by the peasant revolt, which “was at bottom a struggle for social, economic and political interests.” While he sympathized with peasant grievances, those demands were not to be mixed up with the Reformation.

Luther’s hostility to Müntzer was for Kaufmann “motivated by core elements of his theology.” Müntzer took from the Bible a moral zeal, which he turned on the ruling order. Luther rejected what he regarded as “superhuman and coldly legalistic” readings, preferring to cultivate an acceptance that God’s standard can never be entirely achieved on Earth.

Kaufmann asserts that Luther was mistaken in his estimation — “begun by Luther and later continued, with a positive valuation, by Marxist historians” — of Müntzer’s influence. Thus, he insists that the Knights’ Revolt should be separated from the Reformation as an essentially class political event, while Luther’s opposition to the peasant revolt was a consequence of intellectual differences with a man whose influence he overestimated.

Kaufmann notes that “Luther condemned the biblical derivation of political and ethical claims which conflicted substantially with the social order,” but doesn’t draw out the obvious conclusion — Luther opposed the revolt to defend a Reformation in the image of the princely estate. This approach elides the centrality of class struggle to grand historical processes in favor of a multitude of private impulses and secondary considerations.


The suppression of these class struggles led to the triumph of the Reformation as envisaged by Luther — what became known as the “Magisterial Reformation.” If the Church was to be built anew, divorced from Rome (though this was a conclusion reached by Luther only over time), then what power would sustain it? He rejected the old Church hierarchy, not just because of the theology it espoused, but increasingly as an evil in itself.

For Luther, and later for the Calvinist and Anglican wings of the Reformation, the vacuum of authority was to be filled by the magisterium — the earthly, lay powers of the territorial state. In Germany, this meant the princes, the social class whose ascendancy had been confirmed in thwarting the challenges from the knights and then the peasants.

Crucially, the magisterium had to be a political and not a distinctly religious entity. Because the Protestants rejected the magisterium of the Catholic Church, they facilitated the power and moral authority of the state, as Kaufmann observes:

By burning the codex of cannon law, Luther had rejected the idea of a separate clerical division of law: his central distinction between law and Gospel was conducive to the development of an autonomous secular law, free of religious obligations.

In the aftermath of the suppression, this magisterium spread out across German territory. The Augsburg Confession, an attempt to standardize the Protestant faith, and a military alliance of Protestant princes, the Schmalkaldic League, fought for their interests within the empire.

By 1555, their intransigence had forced the Peace of Augsburg, which granted the princes the right to establish the religion of their choice within their own territory. This was an important development in history, representing the relocation of ideological power from universal church to territorial state. It paved the way to later and even more indicative developments, such as the unification of the church and state through Anglicanism, and eventually the Peace of Westphalia, which closed the Thirty Years’ War of religion in the first half of the seventeenth century and inaugurated the era of sovereign statehood.

As Kaufmann argues:

After a decade of eruptive turmoil, the Augsburg diet had definitively made the Reformation and its survival into an inescapable political issue. The evangelical theologians knew it, and agreed. For God maintains the world and His church through the military estate of the secular authorities no less than through the influence of the status ecclesiasticus and the labouring estate of the peasants.

A New Orthodoxy

The point is not that the new territories of the Reformation were developing while Catholic Christianity stagnated. As Kaufmann makes clear, the rupture also created modern Catholicism:

The process of consolidation that was forced on the Roman church from the 1550s on by the powerful heresy of the Reformation gradually enabled it to start on a path of globalisation and become a world church.

The Roman hierarchy also aped the new statism: “The Holy See had a standing army, collected taxes, and was building a network of diplomatic representation,” not to mention “increasing administrative centralisation.”

During this transition, ordinary people did indeed have to decide anew who was saved and who was damned — theological disputes really mattered. But these ideological conflicts were consequences of rapidly changing class relations, exemplified by the transformations of state power. They were not, in the first instance, the cause of these transformations. That much is made clear by the long premonitory period of pre-Reformation heresy, and the forces of decentralization and nationalization, which were already placing the old Christendom under pressure.

For Luther, in the end — and despite his protestations against the challenge of the peasants to the established order — religion and politics proved entirely compatible. Earthly rulers could be defied, he believed, so long as the emerging order of Protestant princes was to be its replacement.

Kaufmann, the reader feels, grants too much leeway to Luther’s inconsistent worldview. Like so many popular figures whose ideology expresses a transcendence of social hierarchy, he really sought its protection and extension. The triumph of the princes and the magisterium was not a consequence of his theology, but the material basis for it.

These political changes were increasingly reflected in Reformation thought. Fighting to set the limits of a new orthodoxy against Catholic humanists and outgrowths of radical reform, Luther published On the Bondage of the Will in 1525. It portrayed a mysterious God who punishes, and who guides — but does not enjoin humanity to its own salvation. This re-mystification of an unknowable God expressed the contradictions of the Magisterial Reformation.

Kaufmann is elegant in expressing the context of this turn in Luther’s thought, and the changing role of the man himself:

This treatise of Luther’s, which divided its readers into two camps from the moment it was published, marks a turning point in Luther’s biography and in the history of the Reformation. The Luther of this treatise . . . was no longer the incomparable hero of Worms, the admired preacher, the immensely successful literary consoler; he was an agitated, overtaxed theologian beset by conflicts, unable to master the spirits he had conjured. His influence was beginning to decline.

Survival of the Magisterium

Now squeezed between the old Catholic imperial authorities and the emergent magisterium, the radical reformation was forced underground. As elsewhere in the text, Kaufmann unwittingly makes the Marxist case in describing the relationship between the compatibility of religious ideologies and the survival of given sects and movements.

The most vivid example is to be found in the case of the Anabaptists. The movement, having provided the cadres for Müntzer’s influence in the Peasants’ War, was subject to official prohibition on pain of death. As Kaufmann notes: “Eighty percent of all Anabaptist martyrs died in the late 1520s and early 1530s” — that is, during the ensuing crackdown.

Under severe pressure, Anabaptist tradition bifurcated. Some became apocalyptic cultists, like those who took over the city of Münster in 1534–35, establishing a brief new order melding demagoguery and primitive communism, which collapsed under siege.

Others formed pacifist communities detached from the ruling order, and flourished. This was the case with the Mennonites — the forebears of today’s Amish — who spread across Europe:

With time, the Mennonites . . . were tolerated and even appreciated by secular authorities. After all, they lived a practical Christianity, kept away from war and violence, and were often economically successful thanks to their industry and modest expectations.

Of course, both tendencies represented the cruel fate of the radical reformation. Both apocalypticism and pacifist nonengagement with secular authority expressed the same limitations of popular and democratizing religious currents in a society caught between the orthodoxies and the power of the princes. The peasant and early urban economies could not sustain an egalitarian social order, and no class force existed as yet that could fight to make such a new world sustainable.

The dissipation of radical traditions, and their retreat from confrontation with authorities, reflected the growing power of the magisterium, and the fact that the revolutionary moment had passed. It would be generations before nonconforming religion returned to the center of European events — though it would do so explosively in the course of the English Revolution.

The orthodox reformers, meanwhile, became very conscious of the long traditions of European heresy with which they shared a remarkable common ground. From Lollardy in England to Waldensians in Switzerland and Hussites in Bohemia, reformers could claim local tradition and in some cases made common cause with old believers in biblical Christianity, whose ancestors had been resisting Catholic persecution for hundreds of years.

Yet as far as they were concerned, this was now the end of Church history. Christ’s authority was being restored by Luther and the noblemen.

Marx’s Magisterium

On the significance of the leader of the Magisterial Reformation, Marx wrote:

Luther, we grant, overcame bondage out of devotion by replacing it by bondage out of conviction. He shattered faith in authority because he restored the authority of faith. He turned priests into laymen because he turned laymen into priests. He freed man from outer religiosity because he made religiosity the inner man. He freed the body from chains because he enchained the heart.

The epoch-making movement from “outer religiosity” to “inner man” had a social character. It was necessarily bound up with the end of mediation by a universal Church, and its steady replacement by secular authorities, bound to lower orders by a new cult of personal faith.

The rise of the laity and the steady erosion of the social position of clerics in European history increasingly meant new social roles. As Kaufmann notes: “Participation made religious subjects of the people who had previously been mere objects of sacramental pastoring.”

This is the deeper historical meaning of the Magisterial Reformation and the early stirrings of the sovereign political state. Beyond these morphing social and state forms lay the nation-state, citizenship, and the “new man” of modernity — but it would take more mature bourgeois revolutions to achieve these forms.

The inner revolution, meanwhile, proved permanent. The textual-critical character of the Reformation, which necessitated the spread of reading with the various catechisms of the new churches, meant promoting not only vernacular language and national identity, but also skepticism. Secularizing and even atheistic tendencies began to emerge from humanist scholarship and reforming faith, particularly from the 1600s onward.

Marx probably had in mind this longer revolution in philosophy when he contended that “the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.” He was conscious, too, that he was the inheritor of this chain from humanism to Reformation, thence to creeds that dissolved God in nature — like Unitarianism, Deism, and arguably the idealism of the last great Christian philosopher, Georg W. F. Hegel, so much an influence on the young Marx.

Schisms continued to promote new vectors for democratic expression. The Lutheran Pietist movement, for example, “offered women and members of the lower estates opportunities for expression which they would never have had outside protected religious spaces,” as Kaufmann observes.

These effects were most pronounced where Reformed theology failed to fully integrate with the post-Reformation social hierarchy:

For the most part, the Protestant confessional cultures stabilised the localised political order; yet in the Reformed tradition, among the French republicans and the radical Puritans in the British Isles, the confessional forces also unfolded potentials for political defiance.

Clearly these religious and philosophical influences, as well as the changing social roles of the new religious and state subjects, prepared the way for the Puritan and Jacobin bringers of the modern order.

For Marx and Engels, the worldly and revolutionary consequences of the Reformation were not in question. The relegation of 1517 and its long aftermath to the realms of “Church history” and later the history of religion, as a subspecies of historical development, would never have occurred to them.

Toward a Better Historical Materialism

It seems that to Kaufmann, a “Marxist” interpretation is one that exalts the “left-wing” of any historical phenomenon. For this misunderstanding, he cannot be entirely blamed. In the twentieth century, different factions of the socialist movement, and state governments claiming the identity of socialism, used readings of history to award legitimacy to their project. Kaufmann addresses one famous case — the East German championing of Müntzer as both a national and socialistic forebear.

Though the impetus to use history in this way died with these protagonists, there is now a tendency to adopt historical actors as avatars for the comfort of modern sensibilities. It’s not uncommon for historically minded leftists to champion a favorite faction of the Spanish Civil War, English Revolution, or 1960s New Left against the tide of historical developments.

This approach venerates islands of heroic failure while ignoring a sea of historic personalities, mass movements, and powerful institutions as enemy territory. This practice may be a symptom of political melancholia, and a view of history as unending and hopeless injustice — what Matt Karp has called “History as End.”

Marxism only justifies its claim to a scientific understanding of history if it addresses the great events of civilizational development — the “mainstream” of history. The question is, can the class and material view explain not just the peasant revolt or the most fringe Anabaptist heretic, but Luther and his Magisterial Reformation?

This task begins before the Reformation, with a recognition of the feudal economy (or at least the increasingly pronounced expression of its contradictions), and the relative vitality of newer systems of commerce and urban development, which would eventually lay the basis for the emergence of capitalism proper. It takes seriously also the development of protonational drives in the period before the Reformation, as the old Europe is tested both by local poles and by the external pressures of the Ottoman Empire.

It should recognize older heresies with a marked resemblance to the ideas of the Reformation, and the class struggles these occasionally inspired. The extremely uneven character of European development saw numerous pockets of social life where conditions for rebellion matured. Cults arose, failed to spread, and were repressed on a local basis.

These revolts must not be seen as having been isolated to religious or political spheres, but as naturally belonging to both. This view is bolstered by the repeated emergence of class struggles in the German countryside in the years and decades before 1517.

The Marxist approach then must take seriously the endurance of the Magisterial Reformation, and its inheritors in the various new church and state regimes across Europe — established through new local institutions and trans-state treaties and agreements, which pointed to a new order. The early explosions of class struggle of the radical reformation were doomed by the underdeveloped economic base of society and dealt with this imminent weakness either by suicidal apocalypticism, or by a passive and detached relation to emergent state power.

Marxism makes an audacious claim to this history of the Reformation. To paraphrase Marx, it searches not for the secret of the Protestant in his religion, but for the secret of his religion in the real Protestant. Only the examination of the ways in which people reproduce their lives, enter social relations to that end, and by so doing create their whole society, can ideology in all its conflictual manifestations be understood. The claim of historical materialism is that it can successfully interpret ideas, while the interpretation of ideas on their own terms cannot.

All the materials required for such an argument can be found in Kaufmann’s history. It is exemplary scholarship, marshaling an impressive range of sources, providing sound judgement on numerous controversies, and bringing the author’s specialized knowledge of theology to bear. That it can concur with the materialist case so broadly, and yet treat that tradition as anachronistic, is evidence that adherents need to renew the case, focusing on how the Reformation proper, and not only its radical fringe, achieved its contribution to modern civilization.