Reformism or Revolution: Author's preface

The publication of the present work requires some explanation. Many friends have asked me why I was taking so much time replying to a man whose books are read by a limited public, mainly in the Latin American universities, and are mostly only available in Spanish. I replied that I had been persuaded by the persistent requests of my friends in Cuba and Venezuela, who, after some years, were fed up of the theoretical pretensions of Heinz Dieterich and wanted me to answer him.

Reformism or Revolution
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For some years Heinz Dieterich has been waging a noisy campaign, claiming that he has "invented" the idea of Socialism in the 21st Century. This has had some effect on certain circles of the Left in Venezuela and some other countries. As we know, there is an important debate taking place in Venezuela on the nature of socialism, inspired by Hugo Chávez's declarations in favour of socialism.

This is enormously important, not only for Venezuela but for the whole international workers' movement. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is a ferment of discussion on the Left on a world scale. The ignominious failure of Stalinism and the unprecedented ideological counteroffensive of the bourgeoisie against socialism have led some to conclude that the "old" ideas of Marxism (scientific socialism) are no longer valid, and that it is necessary to invent something entirely new and original. This is just what Dieterich claims to have done.

During the referendum campaign on constitutional reform in December 2007 the name of Heinz Dieterich suddenly began to acquire greater prominence. He opposed the reform and publicly defended General Baduel, the former Defence Minister who went over to the opposition and campaigned for a "no" vote in the referendum. Later, Dieterich said he supported a "yes" vote "as a lesser evil".

How does it come about that a man who has cultivated the image of a loyal supporter of Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution should behave in such a way? It came as a shock to many on the Left who had accepted uncritically the audacious claims of Professor Dieterich. But, having carefully read his articles and books for many months, it was not at all surprising to me.

The fact that in a decisive moment Heinz Dieterich took a position that was clearly against the further advance of the Revolution towards socialism is no accident. It is the logical and inescapable conclusion from all his theories and from his peculiar version of "21st Century Socialism" - a kind of "socialism" that is not socialism at all, as we shall see.

From Anti-Dühring to Anti-Dieterich

In preparing my reply I decided to re-read Engels' famous book Anti-Dühring, in which he answers the arguments of a man who, more than a century ago, claimed to have developed a new and original theory of socialism that would render the ideas of Marx (and everybody else) obsolete. I found that the similarity between Dühring and Dieterich to be astonishingly similar, not only in their ideas but even in their way of expressing them.

The first words of its preface are: "The following work is by no means the fruit of any ‘inner urge'. On the contrary." Like Engels, I had no wish to write the present book. I agreed reluctantly because I regarded it as an unwelcome distraction from other important work. I thought, rather naively as it turns out, that I could deal with this very quickly. But I was wrong. The more I penetrated into this thick jungle of convoluted prose and even more convoluted ideas, the more it became clear to me that a short reply was impossible. The more I wrote the more I kept thinking of the words of Engels in the Preface to Anti-Dühring:

"Nevertheless it was a year before I could make up my mind to neglect other work and get my teeth into this sour apple. It was the kind of apple that, once bitten into, had to be completely devoured; and it was not only very sour, but also very large. The new socialist theory was presented as the ultimate practical fruit of a new philosophical system. It was therefore necessary to examine it in the context of this system, and in doing so to examine the system itself; it was necessary to follow Herr Dühring into that vast territory in which he dealt with all things under the sun and with some others as well." [1]

The writings of Heinz Dieterich are an even bigger and sourer apple than the one old Engels had to bite on. Like Herr Dühring, Heinz Dieterich writes on many subjects and, since he constantly mixes everything up, I was obliged to follow him through all these twists and turns. He seems to be incapable of writing about political economy without dragging in the history of philosophy, or the perspectives for the Bolivian Revolution without speculating on the nature of the universe.

The present book is therefore intended to do two things: to answer the ideas of Heinz Dieterich and also to explain as clearly as possible the classical ideas of Marxism, which in every respect contradict them. I am conscious of the fact that this does not make reading the book very easy. There are some very long quotations - some from comrade Dieterich and others from Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.

If this book is therefore rather long, the reader must console him or herself with the thought that the universe about which comrade Dieterich strolls with such enviable ease is a lot bigger. We can hope that some day maybe someone will explain to Heinz Dieterich that "brevity is the soul of wit". But until that day arrives, we have no alternative but to answer him point-by-point, page-by-page, galaxy-by-galaxy, and millennium-by-millennium.

In the present book I have attempted to examine the extravagant claims of comrade Dieterich in order to determine to what point they are valid. Is it really true that he has discovered an entirely new and original concept of socialism? If this were true, it would have very serious implications for socialists everywhere. We would have to re-examine all the basic ideas of Marxism and create an entirely new set of ideas and principles.

As the author of this work, I have a duty to make clear to the reader from what standpoint I am approaching this task. I write as a lifelong defender of Marxism. I consider that the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky to be as correct and relevant as ever - indeed they are more relevant and necessary now than at any other time. Naturally, if somebody can convince me that they have a body of ideas that is superior to Marxism and makes Marxism obsolete, I am quite prepared to change my opinions.

However, for almost 50 years I have made a careful study not only of all the works of the great Marxist writers of the past but also many of their critics. Having listened to many arguments of people who claimed to provide an alternative, I have yet to hear of anything that could be remotely compared to the depth and richness of Marxism. I have yet to find any body of ideas that comes remotely close to displacing Marxism as a scientific tool for understanding the world in which we live.

The enormous superiority of the method of Marxism can be seen in The Communist Manifesto, the founding document of scientific socialism. Written in 1848 by two young revolutionaries, this text is the most modern book one could read today. In fact, it is more relevant today than when it was written. Here we have a perfect description and analysis of the world, not as it was then, but as it is now. How many other books written over 150 years ago can make such a claim? This is a decisive answer to all those who argue that the ideas of Marxism are "old" ideas without relevance to the world we live in!

New ideas?

As to the "new and original" ideas of the 21st Century I will say only this: that to this day, despite all the noise and fuss, among all the vast literary production of the Dieterichs of this world, I have yet to read a single solitary genuinely new idea. What I have found is many old and antiquated notions that have been fished out of the dustbin of history - unscientific and utopian ideas that were long ago answered by Marx, Engels and Lenin, ideas that belong to the prehistory of the workers' movement. These old and tired ideas of pre-Marxian, utopian socialism have been dusted down and presented as 21st Century Socialism. And there are even some simple souls who take this seriously.

All this chattering about "entirely new and original ideas" seems superficially attractive - after all, who would not prefer a nice new car or computer in place of last year's model? But in reality the analogy is false and contradicts our most basic experience. To be new is not necessarily a good thing in all cases, nor is something necessarily bad because it is old. A new car or computer that does not work is worse than an old one that does work. The wheel is a very ancient invention, but it still works rather well after thousands of years. What would we say of a man who demands of us that we abandon the wheel (because it is old) and look for an entirely new kind of wheel - a wheel of the 21st century? What kind of wheel would that be - a square one, perhaps, or a triangular one? Whatever shape it may be, we are convinced that it will not carry us one step further.

For our part, we do not believe there is any need to reinvent socialism, just as we do not need to reinvent the wheel. Of course, it will be necessary to introduce this or that modification, but what is really remarkable is how few adjustments we have to make to the ideas that were worked out by Marx and Engels in the 19th century and developed and enriched by Lenin and Trotsky in the 20th century. We may make this or that change, but in all the fundamentals the basic ideas retain all their vigour and actuality. It is, of course, very good to debate the ideas of socialism and we will participate in this debate with the greatest enthusiasm. What is not so good is that Heinz Dieterich and others claim the right to a monopoly of the interpretation of 21st Century Socialism. What is even worse, as we shall see, is that this interpretation of "socialism" turns out to be exactly the same as - capitalism.

Heinz Dieterich appears on the international stage as a friend of the Bolivarian Revolution. That is to his credit. The Bolivarian revolution needs all the friends it can get. God knows it has enemies enough! But there are friends and friends. The unfortunate Job in the Bible had cause to regret the consolation offered to him by his friends in his moments of greatest need. And we have no doubt that the revolutionaries of Venezuela will have even greater cause to regret it if they accept as good coin the advice given to them so generously by their friends like Heinz Dieterich. Friendship of this sort reminds us of the old saying:

God preserve us from our friends.
We will sort out our enemies ourselves

London, 11th May 2008


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[1] Engels, Anti-Dühring, Preface to 1878 Edition, pp. 9-10, Laurence and Wishart, London 1943.