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The New Luther? Marx and the Reformation as Revolution

Towards the close to what is arguably Karl Marx’s most well-known treatment of religion appears the following sentence:

Germany’s revolutionary past is theoretical, it is the Reformation.  As the revolution then began in the brain of the monk, so now it begins in the brain of the philosopher . . . But if Protestantism was not the true solution it was at least the true setting of the problem.  (Marx 1844 [1975]-a: 182; 1844 [1974]: 385)1

The monk in question, in whose brain those revolutionary thoughts first stirred, is of course Martin Luther.  Luther?  Why would Luther interest Marx?  Let me begin my answer with a brief exegesis of the quoted text, which yields the following three points: the Reformation was revolutionary to some degree (theoretical); it constitutes the first of two revolutionary phases in German history, the second of which begins with a (contemporary) philosopher; that first revolution was in some respects incomplete, which is why the second is now required, although in the text Marx phrases the third statement in a way that recognises the abiding effect of the Reformation — as the true setting of a problem.  Boiled down, we are left with two issues, namely two phases of revolution and the nature of the Reformation as that first stage.  In this sense, Marx’s text has provided me with the major foci of the discussion that follows.

However, before I come to grips with those two matters, a few words setting the context are in order.  The surprising reference to Luther appears in Marx’s most famous statement concerning religion, the ‘Introduction’ to his critique of Hegel’s philosophy of law.  Published in his early twenties, it was intended to preface a full treatment of that philosophy, based on the notebooks written in Kreuznach the year before (1843).2  Only the introduction appeared, but it is a brilliantly succinct text.  In its first pages appear Marx’s statements concerning religion as the illusory sun, spiritual aroma, heart of a heartless world, soul of a soulless condition and, of course, as the highly ambivalent opium of the people — as both medicine (Marx used it) and drug, widespread panacea and curse.  Since I have written on these matters elsewhere, I do not wish to repeat that argument here (it would take us too far from our topic), save to point out that Marx distinguishes between two phases of revolutionary criticism and that he is irrepressibly enthusiastic about the second phase.  The first is the criticism of religion — which he also calls the criticism of religion and of heaven — which is vitally important, the ‘premise of all criticism [die Voraussetzung aller Kritik] (Marx 1844 [1975]-a: 175; 1844 [1974]: 378).3  That criticism has characterised German revolutionary thought until now.  But from when?  From the time of Luther.  The second revolutionary phase begins now, suggests Marx, once we have learnt to move past or overcome this first phase.

The New Luther?

Now let us return to the quotation with which I began and ask who the unnamed ‘philosopher’ might be.  It may be Ludwig Feuerbach, who is so important for Marx at this time in his life and especially in this piece.  Marx’s admiration knows no end: for instance, on 3 October 1843 and 11 August 1844, Marx wrote couple of letters to Feuerbach (Marx 1843 [1975]-b, 1843 [1973], 1844 [1975]-c, 1844 [1973]).4  They clearly show that Marx admired Feuerbach immensely, stating that he had read his work in great detail, that the comrades in Paris listen to lectures on Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (Feuerbach 1986 [1841], 1989 [1841]),5 that he has many female admirers, inviting Feuerbach to contribute to the first issue of the new journal Deutch-Französische Jahrbücher, which Marx was planning to edit out of Paris, and opining that Feuerbach’s thought is the great step forward for socialist thought.  As Marx puts it, ‘I am glad to have an opportunity of assuring you of the great respect and — if I may use the word — love, which I feel for you’.6

So does the new stage begin with Feuerbach, whom Marx proclaimed had provided ‘a philosophical basis for socialism’?7  Or is it perhaps Marx himself who begins the new phase?  Does he see himself as the new Luther?  The ‘philosopher’ remains unnamed, while the ‘monk’ is eventually named.  It may be Feuerbach, for he is responsible for the breakthrough — that religion and the gods are projections of the best in human beings.8  If it seems at times that the new Luther may well be Feuerbach, it is certainly not Hegel, unless he marks the end of the first phase of revolutionary criticism.  Rather than decide one way or another — Feuerbach or Marx? — I prefer to keep the ambiguity of the text.  Marx displays both the excitement of Feuerbach’s move and his own sense that he is going beyond that discovery.  If there was one thing from which Marx did not suffer, it was lack of confidence in the importance of his ideas.  So the new Luther is ready to take up a new phase of revolution.

A Revolutionary Reformation?

However, I am more interested in what it is about the Reformation that may be regarded as revolutionary.  In a series of wonderful Hegelian sentences, Marx lays out Luther’s achievement: the transition from an external to an internal religious expression.

Luther, we grant, overcame the bondage of piety by replacing it by the bondage 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.  (Marx 1844 [1975]-a: 182; 1844 [1974]: 386)9

Against all forms of outer religiosity — piety, authority, priests and the body — Luther pressed for the internalisation of religious commitment, one characterised by conviction, faith, laity, the heart and the inner man.  This internalisation or, as I prefer, privatisation becomes the huge step forward, and for Marx the first stage in radical revolutionary criticism.  It is a breakthrough only because Luther did not retreat into the inner sanctum as in some monastery; instead, he overcame such an otherworldly retreat by — paradoxically — universalising that inwardness so that it was available for all.  And yet, this compliment for Luther is rather backhanded.  The first and last sentences in the quotation from Marx bring the barb out all too clearly: Luther might have freed people from external religious forms but only by bringing about a whole new level of enslavement — that of conviction and the heart.10

The anticipation of Max Weber is quite remarkable (Weber 1992 [1904-5]).11  Marx points out elsewhere that the retreat to the inner self has a long history within Christianity, especially in the monastic cloister where one must turn inward.  It is not for nothing, he points out, that blinding was a common punishment during Christendom:

This punishment was current in the thoroughly Christian empire of Byzantium and came to full flower in the vigorous youthful period of the Christian-Germanic states of England and France.  Cutting man off from the perceptible outer world, throwing him back into his abstract inner nature in order to correct him — blinding — is a necessary consequence of the Christian doctrine according to which the consummation of this cutting off, the pure isolation of man in his spiritualistic “ego” is good itself.  (Marx and Engels 1845 [1975]: 178; 1845 [1974])12

If this is the pre-Reformation way in which the ego was ‘encouraged’ in its pursuit of spiritual knowledge, then the breakthrough by Luther and the Reformers was to overturn this inward focus by universalising it and thereby making it public.

Internal and External Revolution

If Luther’s revolution falls short, what can the ‘philosopher’, the second Luther, achieve?  I focus on two key issues: First, Marx says that the struggle is now internal: since laymen have become priests, the struggle for emancipation is internal, against the priest inside.  Secondly, the struggle is external and therefore what Luther was missing was a material, class basis for the Reformation; that Marx finds for the new revolution in the proletariat.

Marx is not usually associated with the idea of an internal, personal revolution, but here we do find him making precisely that argument: since the new bondage is of the heart, since Luther has successfully internalised religious conviction, we now need emancipation of our hearts.  Of course, this idea can run off into bourgeois cant about changing attitudes, the sacrosanct individual and so on.  Yet it can also be taken in a very different and highly productive direction.  If the tension between layman and priest, between outer religiosity and inner conviction is now one that is internal, then the struggle for liberation becomes an internal affair.  Each of us carries that contradiction and struggle within us.  But then, how might that struggle be resolved?  One part of me would suggest that it never will be, at least if it remains at the level of personal emancipation; another part wants to ask, as Marx would do later, what the social and economic conditions are that generated this internal tension and turmoil in the first place.  Revolution then becomes one of simultaneously transforming those conditions and the internal struggle.

Marx himself comes around to the external conditions for revolution, now as a criticism of Luther.  What was missing with Luther and the Reformation, he argues, was a mass, popular basis for revolution — a feature of German approaches to revolution in general.  Luther’s revolution remained a matter of faith and knowledge; there was no popular heart for the theologian/philosopher’s head.  Marx will go on to locate it in his own time in the proletariat, and we find those well-known phrases concerning the need for philosophy to ‘grip’ the masses, the proletarian class in radical chains that needs abolition of its status as a class.

Yet the charge against Luther is not quite fair.  It is all very well to have the luxury of sitting in the midst of a society that did experience the Protestant shake-up.  Outside of that context, in Italy to be precise, Gramsci would see the situation a little differently.  Ensconced in his bleak prison-cell, Gramsci expressed in his neat hand the longing that the Reformation had happened in Italy too.  Why?  The Reformation grasped the whole of society with one large pitchfork and tossed it up into the wind so that when it came down everything had changed, from bottom to top.  More specifically, it gripped the masses, to use Marx’s own phrase.  Or, as Gramsci put it: ‘In Italy there has never been an intellectual and moral reform involving the popular masses’ (Gramsci 1996: 243-4). 13  Gramsci goes on to argue that a communist revolution needs to permeate to the deepest roots of society, just like the Reformation.


However much the Reformation may have betrayed its initial impetus (but then it would not be the first movement to do so), Gramsci’s observation places a question mark against Marx’s assertion that he is the first to discover a truly mass basis.  Let me push this a little further: it may be that Marx is rediscovering the secret of the Reformation, namely, its mass appeal.  Where does this leave Marx’s ambiguity over ‘the philosopher’ as the second Luther, the philosopher who may achieve what the monk could not?  It means that his own effort is more truly an Aufhebung than he would care to admit.  The theological baggage of earlier revolutions has not so much been dumped on the side of the road as it has been tipped out, sorted and repacked before continuing the journey.  His last sentence of this rich text is more telling than he perhaps thought: ‘When all the inner requisites are fulfilled the day of German resurrection will be proclaimed by the ringing of the Gallic cock‘ (Marx 1844 [1975]-a: 187; 1844 [1974]: 391).14  Not a bad benediction.  But this connection with Luther cuts both ways: it may point out the sublation of theology within Marx’s thought, but it also shows that the Reformation may have been a little more revolutionary than he might have thought.


1  Marx 1844 (1975)-a: 182; 1844 (1974): 385.  See also: ‘Shortly before and during the period of the Reformation there developed amongst the Germans a type of literature whose very name is striking — grobian literature.  In our own day we are approaching an era of revolution analogous to that of the sixteenth century’ (Marx 1847 [1976]: 312; 1847 [1972]: 331).

2  The full study did not eventuate and the notebook version of the critique of Hegel was published only in 1927 (Marx 1843 [1975]-a, 1843 [1974]-b).

3  Marx 1844 (1975)-a: 175; 1844 (1974): 378.

4  Marx 1843 (1975)-b, 1843 (1973), 1844 (1975)-c, 1844 (1973).

5  Feuerbach 1986 (1841), 1989 (1841).

6  Marx 1844 (1975)-c: 354; 1844 (1973): 425.  Many years later (in 1867) Marx wrote to Engels, saying that he had come across a copy of The Holy Family at Ludwig Kugelmann’s place, where he found a better collection of both his and Engels’s works than they had themselves.  Marx writes, ‘I was pleasantly surprised to find that we have no need to be ashamed of the piece, although the Feuerbach cult now makes a most comical impression on me’ (Marx 1867 [1987]: 360; 1867 [1973]: 290).

7  Marx 1844 (1975)-c: 354; 1844 (1973): 425.

8  Indeed, in a piece originally attributed to Marx (1843 [1974]), we find a citation of a lengthy piece of Christological speculation from Luther in order to support Feuerbach, the anti-theologian, over against David Strauss and his Das Leben Jesu (1835), the speculative theologian, and thereby against all pious and credulous Christians.  However, this essay is now not attributed to Marx.  It appears in the older Marx-Engels Werke (MEW) but not in the later MarxEngels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) or in the English Collected Works (see the preface to the first volume in MECW, p. xxiii).  Indeed, Feuerbach is the most likely author.  For the evidence and explanation of Riazanov’s original mis-attribution, see Sass (1967).

9  Marx 1844 (1975)-a: 182; 1844 (1974): 386.  In The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Marx 1844 [1975]-b: 290-1; 1844 [1990]: 530-1), Marx makes a similar point: Luther internalises faith, the priesthood and external religiosity.  Here, however, he uses an analogy with political economy, in which Adam Smith is the one who shows that private property is an internal reality rather an external condition.

10  Michel Foucault (1979) would take this point of internalised control much further in his Discipline and Punish.

11  Weber 1992 (1904-5).

12  Marx and Engels 1845 (1975): 178; 1845 (1974).

13 Gramsci 1996: 243-4.  So also: ‘The Lutheran Reformation and Calvinism created a popular culture, and only in later periods did they create a higher culture; the Italian reformers were sterile in terms of great historical achievements’ (Gramsci 1996: 142; 1994: vol. 1, 365; Boer 2007: 258-73).

14  Marx 1844 (1975)-a: 187; 1844 (1974): 391.



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

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