2017 marks the anniversaries of two revolutions that tore Europe apart. They both shredded existing structures of authority and unleashed mass fervour, ideological zeal, passion and popular agitation for greater self-rule. These revolts resulted in civil war, sectarian bloodshed, revolutionary violence and counter-revolutionary oppression.
The first was the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther, who inaugurated the West’s modern age when – according to myth – he hammered his 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31 1517. The second was the 1917 October Revolution, led by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, usually known as Lenin. As did Luther’s protest against Catholic dogma and church authority, Lenin’s revolution unleashed upheaval on a massive and often bloody scale.
Yet while Lenin is widely reviled as the founding father of modern totalitarianism, Luther is celebrated not as a fanatic and rebel but as the founding father of a new era that would come to be based on freedom of conscience and individual autonomy. What explains this historical discrepancy?
Perhaps what commends Luther to us today is his political moderation, a sharp contrast to Lenin’s unflinching radicalism. Luther was horrified by the Radical Reformers such as the Swiss pastor Huldrych Zwingli and German preacher Thomas Müntzer. Luther fulminated against the ordinary peasants who took his protest against the church as the signal for a wider social revolution against the oppression of princes and bishops in the Holy Roman Empire.
In fact, Luther applauded the brutal suppression of the peasants, citing Romans 13.1 as justification: “Let everyone obey the superior powers, for there is no authority except from God.” Lenin, by contrast, famously promised Russia’s downtrodden “bread, peace, land” and claimed that “a revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war”.
It is said that the communism unleashed by Lenin resulted in the deaths of scores of millions of people over the last century. Yet consider the violent mayhem of Europe’s wars of religion, all of which stemmed from Luther’s anti-Catholic protest. They stretched from the start of the Peasants’ War in 1524 to the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. It isn’t unreasonable to wonder how many deaths Luther and his revolution are responsible for.
As early as the 1520s, Luther was already demanding that the authorities “smite, slay and stab” those communist peasants who were inspired by his own example to overthrow existing property relations as well as the church – property evidently having more divine status in his eyes than the Pope.
Perhaps Luther is celebrated because his ideas succeeded. Perhaps the wars of religion, with all their hideous fanaticism, were worth it in the end; after all, they helped inaugurate a modern world founded on secular authority, religious pluralism, liberal toleration and individual freedom of conscience, in contrast to the superstitious fanaticism of the Middle Ages. Or is it merely the additional 400 years’ distance that does it? Will our successors in the remote future of November 2417 be as sanguine about the October Revolution as we are today about the Reformation?
Most people would rightly recoil from such a cold-blooded assessment, rejecting a conclusion that casually reduces millions of deaths to part of a process of historical experimentation and social improvement. Yet that is the outlook we take when we revile Lenin’s communism while celebrating Luther’s Reformation.
Perhaps a better response would be to rethink the way we account for historical change – to stop thinking of society as something stable and settled that’s only upended by bad, seductive ideas and fanatical schemers. Modernity was not, after all, Luther’s invention, nor communism Lenin’s. Both men (and their followers) were expressing and seeking to direct forces of change that no single individual could ever fully command.
And while today’s world is testimony to Luther’s bloody victory over the radical peasants of the 16th century, the grotesque absolutism of the Soviet years was testimony to Lenin’s failure. “I am, it seems, strongly guilty before the workers of Russia,” he wrote, in recognition of not having succeeded in halting Stalin from recreating Tsarist despotism.
As the radical reformers and peasants of the 1520s show, egalitarian revolts against hierarchy and oppression are as enduring and familiar as hierarchy and oppression themselves. Today, liberal democracy and the global order are in crisis; many of the severest challenges of modernity are posed by the workings of capitalist society itself, not by revolutionary ideologues. And as history also shows, sometimes, in the end, it is the revolutionaries who offer the solution.
Philip Cunliffe does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.