Wilhelm Weitling, the First German Communist

‘The founder of German Communism’ is how Engels describes Wilhelm Weitling (Engels 1975 [1843], p. 402).1  It is not a name that comes immediately to mind when considering the origins of modern communism, but he, a diligent student of the Bible, was an early comrade of Marx and Engels and deserving of greater recognition for his role in the movement.  He is usually known through his interactions with Marx and Engels, yet he was a communist before them, founder of the League of the Just (Bund der Gerechten) that Marx and Engels joined and turned into the Communist League and signatory to early statements by the executive of the First International.  My own interest lies in the intersection between Weitling’s communism and the Bible.  So I shall offer a vignette of his life, thought and action, drawing out those elements that were to feed into the full-fledged communist movement.

A fascinating figure, Weitling was a man with impeccable revolutionary credentials from a poor working-class background: a journeyman tailor, autodidact in touch with the assumptions and ways of working people, lifelong activist who found inspiration in the Bible for his early version of communism.2  Here is Weitling:

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 the 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.  (Weitling 1969 [1843], pp. 10. 119. 115-16)

Weitling stands between the tradition of Christian communism and the foundation of modern communism.  However, he is usually remembered for coming out the worse for wear after the protracted struggle with Marx in 1846-7.  The issue: a draft party programme for the League of the Just, an organisation Marx and Engels had only recently joined.  For over a decade, however, Weitling had already been one of the leaders of the League, which was really the first international communist organisation with branches in Germany, France, Switzerland, Hungary and Scandinavia (Taylor [1982, p. 187], puts the total membership at about 1,300).  He had been actively at work, writing, editing journals, fomenting revolution (including the abortive Paris uprising in 1839), escaping police and prison and living on the run.  The struggle with Marx took place after Weitling, disappointed with the poor reception of his ideas in London, turned up in Brussels in early 1846.  Marx himself had arrived from Paris, banished due to pressure on the French by the Prussian government.  The two went head-to-head: Weitling argued for a direct and violent overthrow of the state and the immediate establishment of communism based on the model of the first Christians in the New Testament.  To Marx all this was sentimental, backward-looking rubbish.  After all, argued Marx, what was needed first was the full development of capitalism and bourgeois democracy before communism could take root.  Weitling, the self-taught journeyman tailor, was no match for Marx’s fierce intellect and university training.  By June of 1847 the newly named Communist League endorsed Marx’s programme, although by now it was based in London, whither Marx had fled from the Brussels police.  A year later The Manifesto of the Communist Party was published (Marx and Engels 1976 [1848]; Marx and Engels 1974 [1848]), but by this time Weitling had immigrated to the USA.

As they part ways, let us follow Weitling rather than Marx — a path less trodden and covered with weeds and overgrowth.  In North America, after some years of activism, organisation of the Workingman’s League and the commune called Communia in Iowa that eventually failed, Weitling called it a day in 1855.  He married Dorothea Caroline Louise Toedt, a German immigrant like himself, settled in New York, fathered six children, resumed his work as a tailor and busied himself with inventions related to his trade, improvements to the sewing machine which came into general use, astronomy and the development of a universal language.  The obituary in the New York Times of 27 January, 1871, makes no effort to conceal his revolutionary and communist activities in Europe — he even returned to Paris to fight in the 1848 revolution, coming back to North America in 1849.  But I am interested in a passing comment, one that observes he was largely self-taught and an ‘active thinker’ (‘Wilhelm Weitling — An Inventor of Prominence — A Remarkable Career 1871’, p. 4).

This restless mind, full of plans, inventions, and ideas to improve the lot of the working class, also produced four books (Weitling 1845 [1838-9], 1955 [1842], 1969 [1843], 1967 [1845], 1846) — an astonishing achievement by an autodidact, given that he often worked 12 hours a day on his trade.  These texts are full of the history of modern society with its private property, money and class antagonisms, plans, constitutions and suggestions for organising communist society, blueprints for the revolutionary and communal efforts he would undertake.  But a key feature of these books, especially The Poor Sinner’s Gospel, is the invocation of biblical texts in order to criticise the corrupt priestcraft, abuse of power and exploitation of workers.  Already in his earlier Die Menschheit (from 1839-40), Weitling resorts to the Bible in the opening chapter (see also Knatz 1984, pp. 112-17).  His favourites are those sayings of Jesus where he tells the disciples not to lord it over others but serve, comments on the inability to serve God and Mammon and the command to seek not treasure on earth but in heaven, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.3  Indeed, he uses a text that would become a favourite of Marx: ‘where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal’ (Matthew 6: 19).  And of course he resorts to the image of early Christianity in the book of Acts 2:44-5 and 4:32-5 with its Gütergemeinschaft, the community of goods, the condition of entry being the sale of all one’s possessions and sharing with the poor.  So seriously, observes Weitling, was this condition taken that failure to do so had the divine penalty of death — as the story about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5: 1-11 makes clear.4  Apart from urging a return to original Christianity (as is the wont of all religious reformers), he listed among his exemplars Thomas Müntzer, peasant leader and theologian of the revolution, Jan van Leyden (or Beukelszoon), a leader in the anabaptist Münster Revolution (1534-5), and Hugues Felicité Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854), the radical priest.

All this was only a warm up for The Poor Sinner’s Gospel, written in Zurich in the first half of 1843.  The book had an immediate impact, although not from quarters that Weitling had expected.  Midway through printing, Weitling was arrested on the street by the authorities of Zurich, where he was based for a time, and charged with sedition, inciting to riot, public nuisance and blasphemy.  His defence that in a Reformed canton, one in which Zwingli had worked no less, the free interpretation of the Bible was the right of all, had no effect whatsoever (Weitling 1969 [1843], pp. 187-97).  Not a bad way to publicise the book, but the cost was high: Weitling served ten months in prison, suffered deep emotional turmoil5 and was then banished from Switzerland for five years.  Even though the authorities destroyed the plates of the book, a manuscript was preserved, printed and then later revised by Weitling himself.  These experiences brought Weitling to observe that one day the persecutions of the communists would come to an end in the same way that they had for the early Christians (and indeed witches).  But what did the conservative burghers of Zurich find so objectionable about the book?

Although the book shows all the marks of a self-taught man — especially with the regular polemic against philosophers and their craft6 but also with a vividness of writing for the common readers he knew so well — Weitling was no fool.  Despite his liking for Christian love (he would not be the first on the Left to fall for this idea) and morals, he presents a relatively sophisticated view of communism, one that includes the paradox of communists despite themselves, a plurality of communisms, a call for putting aside disputes over detail and the assertion of freedom of religion.  Weitling read the Bible carefully, often providing long lists of texts to back up his positions, and shows an awareness of critical issues relating to the text — issues that were novel then but are common parlance in biblical criticism now.  He was also able to identify a picture of a rebel Jesus that comes remarkably close to the image traced by liberation and political theologians in our own day, let alone the softer, mainstream image of a radical Jewish peasant by the likes of Jon Dominic Crossan (Crossan 1993, 1995).  Weitling finds a very human, earthy and earthly Jesus, born in the usual manner, one who was a ‘sinner’ and preferred the company of other ‘sinners’,7 who struggled against imperialism and oppression, both external (Roman) and internal (Jewish).  He also situates Jesus and the early followers within an oppressive social and economic context, very much in the way Engels, Kautsky and Luxemburg would do after him.

However, what interests me most is the way Weitling deals with contradiction.  For much of the book he uses contradictions and ambiguities — in terms of history, narrative, morality and doctrine — to undermine the platitudes of theologians.  His strategy is to seek Jesus’ core principles behind and around these contradictions, principles that he lays out in the key chapter of the book, one that comprises more than a quarter of the whole text (Weitling 1969 [1843], pp. 75-126)): the gospel is preached to the poor; it entails Christian freedom and equality; action and not faith alone is necessary for the kingdom of God; all have equal responsibilities and duties; the abolition of property and community of goods, of inheritance and of money; abolition of the family for the sake of freedom; the value of the love feast.  In sum, core teachings of the Bible ‘can best be put into practice by the most perfect form of communism’ (Weitling 1969 [1843], p. 17).  Should there be any doubt, Weitling supports each proposition with long lists of biblical quotations, often followed by brief expositions.  However, at some points Weitling explores a more dialectical approach to the ambivalences of the Bible, none more than with this concluding observation:

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.  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.  (Weitling 1969 [1843], p. 186)

Both options may resort to the text and find their positions validated; both too may find that they are wrong.  So Weitling shifts the focus to the motivation for such readings, although he does hold out the possibility that his reading has substantial basis in the texts he has painstakingly gathered.

For this revolutionary firebrand there was no rupture between communism and Christianity, at least in the line he traced from the Bible to his own thought.  He was not of course the first to do so, for he follows in a long train that includes the various movements for simple communal living in the Middle Ages, such as the Beguines and Beghards of the Netherlands in the twelfth century, the Waldensians, who derive from the twelfth century and still exist today in Piedmont, or the Bohemian (Moravian) Brethren from the fifteenth century, heirs of John Hus, who stressed personal piety, a focus on the world to come through their worship and communal life, and who settled under the protection of Count Zinzendorf at Herrnhut (60 km east of Dresden) in 1721.  And he was also able to make use of the earlier works by Saint-Simon, Fourier, Cabet and Owen, which comprised a fledgling socialist literature.  But what is unique about Weitling is how closely he tied the tradition of Christian communism to a sustained criticism of capitalism and the need for a communist revolution, in contrast to Saint-Simon, Cabet and Owen, who felt that a peaceful transition was eminently possible and practicable.  Marx was to transform these criticisms and dismiss much of Weitling’s thought in the process,8 but not before Marx had praised Weitling’s ‘brilliant writings’ and observed that Guarantees of Harmony and Freedom was a ‘vehement and brilliant literary debut of the German workers’ (Marx 1975 [1844], p. 201; 1974 [1844], pp. 404 and 405).  Indeed, Weitling is a signatory to early circulars of the International.  Not only did Marx and Engels inherit the hard work of Weitling with the League of the Just, but the initial effort by Engels (Engels 1975 [1843]) to construct a history of Christian revolutionary activity before Marxism as well as the wholesale reconstruction of that history by Kautsky could not have happened without Weitling sowing the seeds (Kautsky 1947 [1895-7]-a, 1947 [1895-7]-b; Kautsky and Lafargue 1977 [1922]).  Nor indeed would the German communist movement have begun without Weitling.

1  For a detailed, if somewhat light and entertaining, biography, see Wittke (1950).  See also Haefelin (1986); Hüttner (1985); Knatz (1984).  In the rollcall of the figures who sought common ground between communism and Christianity, the name of Weitling is not at the top of the list.  It might include Thomas Müntzer and the Peasant revolution of 1525 (high on the list ever since Engels wrote of him [Engels 1978 (1850)] [Engels 1973 (1850)]), Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers in the seventeenth century, the guerrilla priest, Camilo Torres Restrepo, in the context of liberation theology (Boer 2007, pp. 105-27), or perhaps Anglo-Catholic Socialism (www.anglocatholicsocialism.org), the Society of Sacramental Christians (www.sacramentalsocialists.wordpress.com), the International League of Religious Socialists (www.ilrs.org), with over 200,000 members in 21 countries, or indeed the Christian Socialists of the UK (www.thecsm.org.uk [Link updated —Eds.]), although I must admit the sheen has worn off this last group since both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown became members.

2  Unfortunately, the collection by Knatz and Marsiske (2000) studiously avoids the biblical dimensions of Weitling’s activism, touching on it only in passing (pp. 50-1, 90, 96, 227-8).

3  In sequence: Matthew 20: 25-7; 6: 24; 6: 19 and 21.  See Weitling (1845 [1838-9]).

4  ‘Die Bedingung der Aufnahme in das Christenthum war der Verkauf der Güter des neu Aufzunehmenden und die Vertheilung derselben unter die Armen.  Die Uebertreter dieses Gesetzes wurden schwer gestraft, und wir finden in der Bibel auf einen solchen Fall selbst die Todesstrafe. Vgl. Apostelgeschichte 5, 1-11’ (Weitling 1845 [1838-9], p. 12).

5  See Wittke (1950, pp. 85-9), who, based on Weitling’s diaries, provides a haunting account of Weitling’s mental instability while in prison.

6  ‘”Avoid the quarrelsome debates which are falsely called knowledge”, says Paul.  But as he wrote this he must have forgotten that he was quite accomplished in this art himself. . .  The bible is as full of such ambiguities as the writings of many modern philosophers’ (Weitling 1969 [1843], p. 64).

7  ‘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’ (Weitling 1969 [1843], p. 131).

8  See, for example: ‘Then Weitling took the floor and proceeded to prove that Jesus Christ was the first communist and his successor none other than the well-known Wilhelm Weitling’ (Marx 1983 [1929], p. 296; 1973 [1929], p. 229).


Boer, Roland.  2007.  Rescuing the Bible.  Oxford: Blackwell.

Crossan, John Dominic.  1993.  The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant.  San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

———.  1995.  Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.  San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Engels, Frederick. 1975 [1843].  ‘Progress of Social Reform on the Continent’.  In Marx and Engels Collected Works.  Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———.  1978 [1850].  The Peasant War in Germany.  In Marx and Engels Collected Works.  Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Engels, Friedrich.  1973 [1850].  Der deutsche Bauernkrieg.  In Marx Engels Werke. Berlin: Dietz.

Haefelin, Jürg.  1986.  Wilhelm Weitling. Biographie und Theorie. Der Zürcher Kommunistenprozess von 1843.  Bern: Lang.

Hüttner, Martin.  1985.  Wilhelm Weitling als Frühsozialist. Essay.  Frankfurt am Main: Haag und Herchen.

Kautsky, Karl.  1947 [1895-7]-a.  Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus I: Kommunistische Bewegung im Mittelalter.  Berlin: J.H.W. Dietz.

———. 1947 [1895-7]-b.  Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus II: Der Kommunismus in der Deutschen Reformation.  Berlin: J.H.W. Dietz.

Kautsky, Karl, and Paul Lafargue.  1977 [1922].  Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus.  Stuttgart: J.H.W. Dietz.

Knatz, Lothar.  1984.  Utopie und Wissenschaft im frühen deutschen Sozialismus: Theoriebildung und Wissenschaftsbegriff bei Wilhelm Weitling.  Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Knatz, Lothar, and Hans-Arthur Marsiske, eds.  2000.  Wilhelm Weitling: Ein deutcher Arbeiterkommunist.  Hamburg: Ergebnisse.

Marx, Karl.  1973 [1929].  Marx an Engels 22./23.  März 1853.  In Marx Engels Werke.  Berlin: Dietz.

———.  1974 [1844].  Kritische Randglossen zu dem Artikel „Der König von Preußen und die Sozialreform. Von einem Preußen”.  In Marx Engels Werke.  Berlin: Dietz.

———.  1975 [1844].  Critical Marginal Notes on the Article “The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By A Prussian”.  In Marx and Engels Collected Works.  Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———.  1983 [1929].  Marx to Engels in Manchester, London, 22-23 March 1853.  In Marx and Engels Collected Works.  Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels.  1976 [1848].  The Manifesto of the Communist Party.  In Marx and Engels Collected Works.  Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels.  1974 [1848].  Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei.  In Marx Engels Werke.  Berlin: Dietz Verlag.

Taylor, Keith.  1982.  The Political Ideas of the Utopian Socialists.  London: Frank Cass.

Weitling, Wilhelm.  1845 [1838-9].  Die Menschheit. Wie Sie ist und wie sie sein sollte. Bern.

———.  1846.  Ein Nothruf an die Männer der Arbeit und der Sorge, Brief an die Landsleute. Berne.

———.  1955 [1842].  Garantien der Harmonie und Freiheit. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.

———.  1967 [1845].  Das Evangelium eines armen Sünders.  Leipzig: Reclam.

———.  1969 [1843].  The Poor Sinner’s Gospel.  Translated by D. Livingstone.  London: Sheed & Ward.

Wilhelm Weitling — An Inventor of Prominence — A Remarkable Career.  1871.  The New York Times, Wednesday, January 27, 1871, 4.

Wittke, Karl Frederick.  1950.  The Utopian Communist: A Biography of Wilhelm Weitling, Nineteenth-Century Reformer.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Roland Boer is Research Professor in Theology at the University of Newcastle, Australia.  Visit his blog Stalin’s Moustache: <stalinsmoustache.wordpress.com>.

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