Wilhelm Weitling was an itinerant German tailor, noted for being “the founder of German communism” (Engels) and for being a fervent Christian (in the Anabaptist tradition) at the same time. Before they had a big bust-up, Marx described his book “Guarantees of Harmony and Freedom” (1842) as “the brilliant literary debut of German political literature”. It looks as though Marx, the great middle-class intellectual, with his university education, later became jealous of this self-educated proletarian upstart as he went out of his way to publicly ridicule and humiliate Weitling at every opportunity (i). Personal issues may have been at work too: Marx often looked unkempt while Weitling, a professional taylor after all, was always immaculately turned out; also Weitling was pretty pompous, regarding himself as being the only direct link between first century Christianity and current left-wing politics.
In his most widely read book “The Poor Sinner’s Gospel” (Das Evangelium eines armen Sünders) (ii)(iii), Weitling describes a communist Garden of Eden where all is just and fair and all men are brothers, or rather all people are siblings. The book also has chapters on contradictions in the bible, on Jesus’ lack of originality, on Jesus’ core teachings, on the contradictions between Paul and Jesus, and on the similarities between Christianity and communism.
He wrote his book to refute three ideas:- that communism was the antithesis of Christianity; that communism is a “denial of morality”; and that private property is the will of God. Indeed he saw the communism of his day as the historical continuation and the spiritual successor to the Acts of the Apostles (chapters 2 and 4). Jesus was the perfect example of of a fighter for freedom and justice, and the workers and the poor, acting in the spirit of New Testament Christianity, would change this corrupt world and set up a love-based Kingdom here on earth. This was just so much sentimental twaddle for Marx and he rejected Weitling’s (and Müntzer’s) utopian communism outright. Bear in mind that Weitling’s book was written before Marx’s Communist Manifesto and before any communist parties had come into existence. Weitling really helped pave the way for Marx and the fledgeling European communist movement of the mid nineteenth century. His critical approach to the scriptures -though commonplace today, and close to my own approach- must nevertheless have seemed very shocking at the time. He backs up everything he says about the interconnectedness of Christianity and Communism with lots of biblical references.
Weitling was the theoretician of egalitarian communism. He found inspiration in the Bible for his early version of Communism. “He stands between the tradition of Christian communism and the foundation of modern communism.” (iv) He saw the underclass or lumpenproletariat as playing a key role in the spontaneous communist revolution that was to come. Although living in extreme poverty all his life, working for 12 hours a day at his trade, constantly being arrested, imprisoned and deported from one country to another; he managed to set up a canteen for unemployed and striking workers, write 4 books, edit revolutionary journals, found newspapers and set up the League of the Just (Bund der Gerichten). This latter organisation was taken over by Marx and Engels who renamed it the Communist League. Weitling revived the Christian (Franciscan) idea of elective poverty as an implicit rejection of “possessive individualism”.
His favourite Bible verses were those sayings of Jesus where he tells the disciples not to lord it over others but to serve them; the comments on the inability to serve God and Mammon; and the command not to seek treasure on earth but in heaven, for where your treasure is there will your heart be also. He naturally looks to the image of early Christianity portrayed in Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35- the community of goods, the condition of entry being the sale of all one’s possessions, and sharing with the poor. His exemplars were Müntzer and van Leyden.
For Weitling the following steps needed to be taken to establish the communist Kingdom of God on earth:
- preach the gospel to the poor
- establish equality for all
- prioritise actions over faith
- see that all members have equal responsibilities and duties
- replace private property by a communal sharing of goods
- abolish inheritance
- abolish money
- abolish the family for the sake of freedom
- stage ‘love feasts’
He was also one of the signatories of early statements by the First International (International Working Men’s Association, 1864-1876)
“Christianity is the religion of freedom, moderation and enjoyment, not of oppression, extravagance and abstinence. Christ is the prophet of freedom.”
“The Christian has no right to punish the thief because as long as theft exists Christianity is not realised among us.”
“Take courage, disinherited sinners. A beautiful kingdom is prepared for you. Look at the sloping fields, the trees laden with fruit, the fair streets and buildings, the ships on the sea, rivers and lakes, the roads and the railways…. Look at all the cattle in the meadows, the shops, the birds in the air, the fish in the water, the plants in the high Alps and the precious minerals under the earth, all this by God and by right is our common property.”
(The core teachings of the bible) “can best be put into practice by the most perfect form of communism.”
“Now they (‘Pharisees’, capitalists, rulers etc) will read this book and say one can make whatever one likes of the bible. Too true, for they have made it a gospel of tyranny, oppression and deceit. What I wanted to make is a gospel of freedom, equality and the community of faith, hope and love, if that is not what it already was. If they were wrong, they were wrong out of self-interest. If I am wrong, it is for love of mankind.”
“All the people that today we call wicked, outcast, debauched, immoral, common, etc, were called in those days plain sinners. These publicans and sinners who were despised by all were the very people sought out by Jesus and he ate and drank with them.”
“The eternal truths of the teachings of Jesus were already taught before him.” (This statement is followed by quotations from Seneca, Homer, Antonius and the Old Testament.
”This is the revolutionary Jesus. He did not preach humility and renunciation to the poor above all things, he did not merely promise them pie in the sky. He knew that oppressors could not be convinced by words alone. He saw that it would come to war and gave warning of it. He wanted peace if possible and war when it was inevitable.”
“Jesus had a revolutionary purpose. He wanted to overthrow the Roman and the priestly authority and institute a community of goods, and even of joy and suffering. He would not have needed to hide his teaching in parables if it had been about a kingdom of heaven in the sky. The Pharisees who knew very well what he was up to, tried to catch him out by their questions and put him in an impossible position, but Jesus always beat them.”
“In Mark 10:18 we read “Why do you call me good? No-one is good but God alone.” I quote this remark to show that Jesus himself did not consider himself good and never intended to say he was God. We never find in the gospels that he claimed to be God. If we take Jesus to be a picture of what we call God, this is because as Christians we could not otherwise have any picture of God at all and we do not mean by this Jesus himself but his teaching. We must have some picture of God if we are to pray at all. Jesus is the best concept of divinity we could have because his teaching shows the way to greatest happiness. Jesus was as subject to all the passions and weaknesses as we are.”
(i) Wheen, F. “Karl Marx” Fourth Estate (1999)
(ii) Weitling, W. “The poor sinner’s Gospel” Sheed and Ward (1843)(1969)
(iii) full text at www.gospelofthomas.org/poorsinnersgospel.html
(iv) Boer, R. “Wilhelm Weitling. The first German Communist” Monthly Review 21.10.10.(http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/boer21 10 10.html)
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