Both praised and critiqued by disciples of the growing Marxist philosophy during the 19th century, Weitling was characterized as a "utopian socialist" by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, although Engels also referred to Weitling as the "founder of German communism". He worked as a tailor, social activist and inventor in the United States.
Wilhelm Weitling was born in Magdeburg, Prussia, the son of Christiane Weitling and Guilliaume Terigeon, the latter a French soldier in Napoleon's army who died in Russia in 1812. His parents never married. A tailor's apprentice, Weitling began to travel as a journeyman tailor in 1830, when he joined the clothing firm of Höpfner & Walseck in Leipzig. There he first displayed his talent as an activist with a satirical poem published locally. In 1832, he went to Dresden, and later Vienna.
By 1834, he was in Paris, and began familiarizing himself with the work of Fourier, Owen and Cabet. This was during the time of the July Monarchy. Working twelve-hour days as a tailor, Weitling still found time to read works by David Strauss and Hughes Felicité Robert de Lamennais. After joining the League of the Just in 1837, Weitling joined Parisian workers in protests and street battles in 1839. Tristram Hunt called his doctrine "a highly emotional mix of Babouvist communism, chiliastic Christianity, and millenarian populism":
In conformity with the work of the Christian radical Felicité de Lamennais, Weitling urged installing communism by physical force with the help of a 40,000-strong army of ex-convicts. A prelapsarian community of goods, fellowship, and societal harmony would then ensue, directed by Weitling himself. While Marx and Engels struggled with the intricacies of industrial capitalism and modern modes of production, Weitling revived the apocalyptic politics of the sixteenth-century Münster Anabaptists and their gory attempts to usher in the Second Coming. Much to Marx and Engels's annoyance, Weitling's giddy blend of evangelism and protocommunism attracted thousands of dedicated disciples across the Continent.
In 1838, he published his first work, Die Menschheit, wie sie ist und wie sie sein sollte (The human race as it is, and as it should be), which was translated into Hungarian and other languages.
In 1841, after the abortive rebellion of the Blanquists, he went to Switzerland, visiting Geneva, Vevey and Langenthal in the Canton of Berne, and finally settling in Zurich in 1843. At all these places, he promoted the doctrines of communism with his preaching and publications. In 1842, he published Garantien der Harmonie und Freiheit (Guarantees of harmony and freedom) and was generally hailed as the first German witness to communism.
Weitling's work Das Evangelium eines armen Sünders (The poor sinner's gospel) came out in 1845, but by this time the attention of the Swiss authorities had been attracted. He was arrested and prosecuted for revolutionary agitation, including blasphemy on account of having published a text which depicted Jesus Christ as both a communist and the illegitimate child of Mary. Found guilty, he was given a six-month sentence.
Upon the outbreak of the revolutions of 1848 in Germany, Weitling returned to Germany, preaching his communism to little effect. When the revolutions failed in 1849, he returned to New York thus becoming one of the Forty-Eighters.
His book Guarantees of Harmony and Freedom was praised by Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach and Mikhail Bakunin, the latter of whom Weitling was to meet in Zürich in 1843. Karl Marx, in an article from 1844, referred to Weitling's work as the "vehement and brilliant literary debut of the German workers," Although John Spargo suggested that "what won from Marx this high-sounding praise was simply the fact that Weitling's appeals were addressed to the workers as a class.", Marx himself emphasized Weitling's theoretical and philosophical "brilliance," which compared favorably to the more "economically" inclined English workers and the more practical "politically" oriented French workers.
Weitling continued his activism on behalf of communism in the United States. In January 1850, he began the publication of a monthly journal, Die Republik der Arbeiter. By the end of the year, it had a circulation of 4,000. Toward the end of his life he turned from activism to technological and astronomical studies. For seven years, he was register at Castle Garden. He received nine patents for improvements to sewing machines, among which were double stitch, button hole and embroidery attachments. He received a patent for a dress-trimming crimper which he had worked on for 17 years, and on his death left several unfinished machines.
- Die Menschheit, wie sie ist und wie sie sein sollte (1838/39) German text online
- Guarantees of harmony and freedom (Garantien der Harmonie und Freiheit; 1842) German text online
- The poor sinner's gospel (Das Evangelium eines armen Sünders; 1845)
- Ein Nothruf an die Männer der Arbeit und der Sorge, Brief an die Landsleute (1847)
- Obituary in New York Times, January 27, 1871, Wednesday
- Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, 4th ed. (Oxford University Press US, 1996: ISBN 0-19-510326-2), p. 81.
- Tristram Hunt, Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels (Henry Holt and Co., 2009: ISBN 0-8050-8025-2), p. 132.
- Frederick Engels: Progress of Social Reform On the Continent, II Germany and Switzerland, The New Moral World No. 21, November 18, 1843
- Carl Wilhelm Schlegel (1917). "Weitling". Schlegel's German-American Families in the United States 2. New York: The American Historical Society. pp. 67–71.
- Hunt, Marx's General, pp. 131-32.
- Wilson, Edmund (2003). "Marx and Engels Take a Hand at Making History". To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History. New York Review of Books. p. 164.
- Frederick Engels: On The History of the Communist League, Nov 12-26, 1885 in Sozialdemokrat
- Antonio Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, VII, Rome, June 16, 1897.
- Morris Hillquit, History of Socialism in the United States (Funk & Wagnalls, 1906) pg. 163
- Leier, 106.
- Marx, "Crutical Marginal Notes on the Article "The King of Prussia and Social Reform," in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), p. 129.
- John Spargo, Karl Marx: His Life and Work (B. W. Huebsch, 1910), p. 89.
- Marx, "Crutical Marginal Notes," p. 129.
- Mark Leier, Bakunin: The Creative Passion. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006.
- Hans Mühlestein, "Marx and the Utopian Wilhelm Weitling," Science & Society, vol. 12, no. 1 (Winter 1948), pp. 113–129.
- Daniel Nagel: Von republikanischen Deutschen zu deutsch-amerikanischen Republikanern. Ein Beitrag zum Identitätswandel der deutschen Achtundvierziger in den Vereinigten Staaten 1850-1861, St. Ingbert 2012.
- Boris Nicolaievsky and Otto Maenchen-Helfer. Karl Marx: Man and Fighter. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1983.
- Wolf Schäfer. Die unvertraute Moderne. Historische Umrisse einer anderen Natur und Sozialgeschichte, Frankfurt, 1985, ISBN 3-596-27356-0
- Wilhelm Weitling at Marxist Internet Archive
- Die Menschheit online at Marxist Internet Archive
- Karl Josef Rivinius (1998). "Wilhelm Weitling". In Bautz, Traugott. Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German) 13. Herzberg: Bautz. cols. 699–705. ISBN 3-88309-072-7.
- Danish reference
- Wilhelm Weitling at Italian Literature links
- Guide to the Wilhelm Weitling papers held at the New York Public Library
- "Weitling, Wilhelm". New International Encyclopedia. 1905.
- "Weitling, Wilhelm Christian". Encyclopedia Americana. 1920.