The standard Mennonite approach to Marxism has been to take note of the special interest that Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), later also Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), and Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), paid to the Anabaptists, but to point out that this was based on a misreading of the historical data. (Communism and Mennonites). Abraham Friesen sought to show in his dissertation and subsequent writings that these writers' image of the Anabaptists was based on Wilhelm Zimmermann's history (1843) of the Peasants' Wars, a romantic reading back into 1525 of ideas that were in the air before the European revolutions of 1848. Further, the Engels-Kautsky interpretation depended on including under Anabaptism persons such as Thomas Müntzer who were not part of Evangelical Anabaptism, and it de-emphasized Müntzer's religious motives in favor of political ones.
But subsequent Anabaptist research by Goertz, Stayer, and others that began to take social history and social theory more seriously (historiography), has produced a new synthesis of Anabaptism as a more diverse movement with different persons and streams offering alternative solutions to a common concern for society. This also includes a renewed examination of the chiliast (apocalyptic) strain in Anabaptism, lessening the conventional sharp distinction between Dutch Anabaptists and the Münster Anabaptists. Political change in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s—the atmosphere of perestroika—and the anniversary celebrations of Luther (1983) and Müntzer (1988-89) have prompted Marxist shifts in historiography to the point where the religious motivations of Müntzer are again seen as central. Hence there may be fruitful dialogue between Mennonite scholars and Marxists in the future.
Mennonites have shown little interest in the study of Marxism. There are no major philosophical critiques. Mennonite writings in theology have focused on articulating differences over against main-line Protestantism and have generally ignored Marxist writings. Miranda's Marx and the Bible occasioned some serious reflection since it showed a shalom justice theme pervading the Old Testament, and emphasized the radical nature of the biblical thrust, but the references to Marx were seen as incidental. Even in the more recent examination of liberation theologies, Anabaptist thinkers have tended to warn against a readiness to commit violence which they see implied in some of that literature, tending to set a purist 16th century Evangelical Anabaptist ethic against it. The use of Marxist means of analysis as well as the assumption of a socialist vision for society by liberation theologians have not been points of dialogue.
In a more indirect and subtle way, the Marxist impact on scholarship also affected Mennonite scholars. This is beginning to include the use of social history methods in writing religious history, more so when writing modern Mennonite history than in Anabaptist research, but the impact goes further. Mennonites as a small, interesting sect, quantifiable and measurable, prompted many sociologists to make them a subject for research and the subsequent social theorizing. Mennonites have developed an extensive and competent network of sociologists who draw on the theories of the competing schools, once again sensing an affinity for the more critical sociological schools inspired or challenged by Marxism, than for the status quo orientation of structural functionalism, for example. Given the fundamental impact of Marxism on the rise of the social sciences and in causing the latter to take a position vis-a-vis Marxism as a political ideology, this beneficial impact of Marxism on Mennonite and other academics is an acknowledged fact. That is not to say, however, that Marxism and Mennonites (or other Christians for that matter) are compatible, even with Western or Critical Marxists, as long as the latter continue to reject divine transcendence.
Several Mennonites, encouraged also by Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section, participated actively in Christian-Marxist dialogue efforts. The most experienced was no doubt Paul Peachey, through his involvement in the Christian Peace Conference, Christians Associated for Relations with Eastern Europe, and, later through the Institute for Peace and Understanding as co-host for seminars between Marxists (including Soviets) and Christian scholars. Numerous others developed individual contacts and friendships, while MCC encouraged a student and service program in Eastern Europe (following 1976) that included dialogue with Marxists as a goal. Only one conference to reflect on these experiences as Anabaptist/ Mennonites had been held (1979) by the late 1980s, scarcely enough to clarify even the diversity of learnings that conference participants reported on.
Mennonite Quarterly Review 55 (July 1981): special issue on Anabaptism and Marxism.
Journal of Mennonite Studies 1 (1983): special issue on Mennonite studies in North America, especially pp. 33-63, 79-105.
Jay, Martin. Marxism and Totality. Los Angeles: UCLA Press, 1984.
Unpublished papers from the Mennonite Peace Theology Colloquium. Winnipeg, June 1988 on liberation theology.
Friesen, Abraham. Reformation and Utopia: The Marxist Interpretation of the Reformation and Its Antecedents. Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1974.
Miranda, Jose Porfirio. Marx and the Bible. Translation by John Eagleson. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1974.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 543-544. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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