Dan Katz read Q by Luther Blissett alongside Frederick Engels’ The Peasant Wars in Germany
Thomas Munzer: “The masters are to blame that the poor man becomes their enemy.”
It’s time to take down that copy of Engels’ Peasant Wars that you always intended to read, but never got round to. And here’s a nice way to do it – reading Engels alongside the novel, Q.
Engels’ book, written in 1850, shortly after the defeat of the German revolutionary movement of 1848-9, looks for parallels with the peasant and plebeian rebellion of the early 16th century. Engels is concerned to note how the middle strata, faced with a serious revolutionary upsurge, can come to side with the most reactionary wing in a society.
For a few years after 1517 Martin Luther set “the entire German people in motion”. Against the Catholic church he wrote, “why do we not turn on… those popes, cardinals and bishops, and the entire swarm of Roman Sodom with arms in hand, and wash our hands in their blood?” The peasants saw the opportunity to rid themselves of oppressors, but the better-off simply wanted to “break the power of the clergy… and to enrich themselves on the confiscation of church property.”
However Luther’s “revolutionary ardour was short-lived” and he became an advocate of “peaceful progress”, and a representative of the middle classes. Later, faced with widespread revolt, Luther sided with property and viciously attacked the insurgent peasant movement: “they must be knocked to pieces, strangled, and stabbed, overtly and covertly, by everyone who can, just as one must kill a mad dog.”
Thomas Munzer became the most sophisticated revolutionary leader. Munzer denounced Luther and, “repudiated the Bible… as infallible revelation… The real living revelation, he said, was reason… Faith is nothing but reason come alive in man.” At the start of the 16th century peasant and plebeian town movements had begun to demand the distribution of church estates to the people and a united German monarchy (to replace the fractured patchwork of states). Munzer went further, demanding the confiscation of church estates and conversion into commonly-owned property and an united republic.
Munzer formed a religious-revolutionary network whose agitators linked with radical sects amid widespread discontent. The movement burst into a general uprising across southern Germany in March and April 1525. Munzer himself took part in Muhlhausen, where the patrician council was overthrown and an elected “eternal council” came to power. Engels commented: “The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government at a time when society is not yet ripe for the domination of the class he represents… what he can do contradicts all his previous actions and principles… what he ought to do can not be done.”
The rebels were defeated. Munzer was put on the rack and then executed. He was, perhaps, 28 years old.
Nevertheless the revolutionary tradition that had been created was harder to kill off. And that tradition of struggle is the theme of the book, Q.
Q’s authors are a leftist Italian collective of four who, for a while, at the end of the 1990s, took the name of Luther Blissett.
Blissett is a former Watford footballer who moved for a year to Italy and endured a year of loss of form and racism while playing for Milan. The group explained, “We needed the name of a person who’d been stupidly underestimated and misunderstood… We wanted to make a point about avenging the pariahs and the humble of history.”
For a while it was rumoured that “Luther Blissett” was in fact the pen-name of Umberto Eco. The group denied it, saying, “We’ve never met the old wanker”!
Their book, Q, traces the life of a revolutionary who fought alongside Munzer but survived to fight in series of bloodily defeated battles, across Europe, over the next decades. But the church can’t catch him, and can’t kill him. His mysterious adversary, Q, is a spy for the Catholic hierarchy. Their paths cross, murderously, but the hero’s life and struggle is symbol for the revolutionary tradition, maintained against the odds; Q’s increasing uncertainty about his life’s work of betrayal and deceit in the pay of a rich and bloated church is the flip side of the metaphor.
History and espionage mix as the finale is played out in northern Italy…