Historical materialism sets out from the premise that the mainspring of historical development is, in the last analysis, the development of the productive forces - that is, humankind's power over nature.
What is historical materialism?
Historical materialism sets out from the premise that the mainspring of historical development is, in the last analysis, the development of the productive forces - that is, humankind's power over nature. From the very earliest period, men and women have had to struggle for survival, to obtain the bare necessities of life: food, clothing and shelter. The most fundamental difference that separates humans from all other animals is the way in which we do this: through the manufacture and utilization of tools. In Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Engels provides us with a brief outline of the basic principles of historical materialism:
|Order online! |
"The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men's brains, not in men's better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange." 
This is a more developed expression of ideas that were developed much earlier, in The German Ideology, where Marx wrote: "The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature.[...] Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life." 
The viability of any given socio-economic formation depends in the last analysis upon its ability to guarantee these things. This proposition is really so obvious that it does not admit contradiction. Upon this productive activity everything else depends. The mode of production and exchange has changed many times in the course of human history. With each such change there has been a revolution in social relations. Marx's clearest formulation of this is to be found in the 1859 Preface to his book A contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. In order that men and women may think and develop their intellect, write poetry or philosophy, invent religions or paint pictures, they must first produce sufficient food, build dwellings and put clothes on their backs and shoes on their feet.
In the famous dialogues of Plato we have the philosopher Socrates sitting all day in the Agora at Athens, stopping passers-by and asking them questions like: "What is the Good"? The question that occurs to us is the following: in order that Socrates should have the possibility of doing this, someone had to feed him, clothe him, put shoes on his feet and a roof over his head; who was that someone? The answer is: the slaves, whose labour produced most of the goods that the Athenians consumed. The basis of Athenian democracy, art, architecture, sculpture and philosophy was the labour of the slaves who lived a life of hard toil, had no rights whatsoever and were not even regarded as human beings.
A mechanical caricature
Very often attempts are made to discredit Marxism by resorting to a caricature of its method of historical analysis. There is nothing easier than erecting a straw man in order to knock it down again. The usual distortion is that Marx and Engels reduced everything to economics. This patent absurdity was answered many times by Marx and Engels, as in the following extract from Engels' letter to Bloch:
"According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimate determining element in history is the production and reproduction of life. More than this neither Marx nor myself have asserted. Hence, if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract and senseless phrase." 
Historical materialism has nothing in common with fatalism. Our fates are not predestined, either by the gods or by the development of the productive forces. Men and women are not merely puppets of blind "historical forces". But neither are they entirely free agents, able to shape their destiny irrespective of the existing conditions imposed by the level of economic development, science and technique, which, in the last analysis, determine whether a socio-economic system is viable or not. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx explains:
"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living [...]." 
Later Engels expressed the same idea in a different way: "Men make their own history, whatever its outcome may be, in that each person follows his own consciously desired end, and it is precisely the resultant of these many wills operating in different directions and of their manifold effects upon the outer world that constitutes history." 
As opposed to the utopian socialist ideas of the likes of Robert Owen, Saint-Simon and Fourier, Marxism is based upon a scientific vision of socialism. Marxism explains that the key to the development of every society is the development of the productive forces: labour power, industry, agriculture, technique and science. Each new social system - slavery, feudalism and capitalism - has served to take human society forward through its development of the productive forces.
The prolonged period of primitive communism, humankind's earliest phase of development, where classes, private property, and the state did not exist, gave way to class society as soon as people were able to produce a surplus above the needs of everyday survival. At this point, the division of society into classes became an economic feasibility. On the broad scales of history, the emergence of class society was a revolutionary phenomenon, in that it freed a privileged section of the population - a ruling class - from the direct burden of labour, permitting it the necessary time to develop art, science and culture. Class society, despite its ruthless exploitation and inequality, was the road that humankind needed to travel if it was to build up the necessary material prerequisites for a future classless society.
In a certain sense socialist society is a return to primitive communism but on a vastly higher productive level. Before one can envisage a classless society, all the hallmarks of class society, especially inequality and scarcity, would have to be abolished. It would be absurd to talk of the abolition of classes where inequality, scarcity and the struggle for existence prevailed. It would be a contradiction in terms. Socialism can only appear at a certain stage in the evolution of human society, at a certain level of development of the productive forces.
In contrast to the utopian socialists of the early 19th century, who regarded socialism as a moral issue, something which could have been introduced by enlightened people at any time in history, Marx and Engels saw it as rooted in the development of society. The precondition for such a classless society is the development of the forces of production by which superabundance becomes feasible. For Marx and Engels, this is the task of the socialist planned economy. For Marxism, the historic mission of capitalism - the highest stage of class society - was to provide the material basis worldwide for socialism and the abolition of classes. Socialism was not simply a good idea, but was the next stage for human society.
It is not feasible for society to jump straight from capitalism to a classless society. The material and cultural inheritance of capitalist society is far too inadequate for that. There is too much scarcity and inequality that cannot be immediately overcome. After the socialist revolution, there must be a transitional period that will prepare the necessary ground for superabundance and a classless society.
Marx called this first stage of the new society "the lowest stage of communism" as opposed to "the highest stage of communism", where the last residue of material inequality would disappear. In that sense, socialism and communism have been contrasted to the "lower" and "higher" stages of the new society. In describing the lower stage of communism Marx writes: "What we are dealing with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges." 
"Between capitalist and communist society," states Marx, "lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat." As all the greatest Marxist theoreticians explained, the task of the socialist revolution is to bring the working class to power by smashing the old capitalist state machine. The latter was the repressive organ designed to keep the working class in subjection. Marx explained that this capitalist state, together with its state bureaucracy, cannot serve the interests of the new power. It has to be done away with. However, the new state created by the working class would be different from all previous states in history, a "semi-state" - a state designed in such a way that it was destined to disappear.
However, for Marx - and this is a crucial point - this lower stage of communism from its very beginning would be on a higher level in terms of its economic development than the most developed and advanced capitalism. And why was this so important? Because without a massive development of the productive forces, scarcity would prevail and with it the struggle for existence. As Marx explained, such a state of affairs would pose the danger of degeneration: "This development of the productive forces is an absolutely necessary practical premise [of communism], because without it want is generalised, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive." 
The New Historical Project
These, in general outline, are the main propositions of the Marxist view of history. What has our Heinz have to say on the subject? With great ceremony comrade Dieterich announces to the End of Global Capitalism and the Dawn of The New Historical Project:
"We declare that the first life-cycle of modern society is coming to its end. For the past 200 years, from French Revolution (1789) to the present day, mankind has lived through the two known kinds of evolution: capitalism and historical socialism.
"Both methods found it impossible to solve the major problems of mankind. These include: poverty, hunger, exploitation, sexism, racism, the destruction of natural resources and the lack of a true democracy. Therefore our time is characterized by the end of the major social projects of the upper class and the historical working class, which have dominated our era. Emerging global society opens up to a new civilization: participative democracy, socialism of the 21st century." 
So there we have it! For the last 200 years (at least) the human race has been languishing under the illusion that the only alternatives before it were capitalism or historical socialism. The latter, commonly known as Marxism, has failed, as we saw with the collapse of the USSR. Heinz is far too polite to actually say this in so many words, but that is clearly what he thinks. Therefore, it is high time to throw the old ideas of historical socialism into the nearest dustbin and embrace the entirely new and original ideas of 21st Century Socialism and the New Historical Project, which have sprung straight from the brain of Heinz Dieterich, as Minerva sprang from the head of Jupiter.
Dieterich begins rather well. After all, it is not very difficult to denounce the evils of capitalism, though it is rather more difficult to say how these evils can be remedied. He produces some useful statistics on inequality:
"Throughout the world products and services of all sorts are urgently needed, but in spite of this, in Western Europe, 35 million people are out of work; on a world scale the figure 820 millions, almost one third of people on productive age. And the global flow of capital, which is increasingly concentrated, does not create new jobs or material values; they are no longer aimed at profits, but only to generating interest. The volume of the flow of capital has increased ten times in the last six years. Now more than a trillion dollars changes hands every day on a world scale - only one percent of this quantity (10 billion a day) for transactions of world trade - 99 percent of monetary transactions are purely speculative." 
We are further informed that 600 million people have died of hunger since 1945, and that 44 million people in the European Union are living in poverty (14 percent of the population), that in the USA the corresponding figure is 10 percent for whites and 31 percent for blacks; also that the rich in the United States are getting richer every year, and that in the USA the income of the richest 20 percent has increased 62 percent in the last 10 years, while the income of the poorest 20 percent has fallen by 14 percent. All this is very true. The question is: what is to be done about it? Introduce socialism, obviously. On this we agree. But the question is then posed: what kind of socialism? And here the differences immediately begin to surface. From the very beginning he raises his banner high: the whole problem facing humanity for the last 10,000 years is unequal exchange:
"The triumphal march of exchange value through history dynamised 7,000 years ago by the change over from barter to trade, to advance later over hecatombs of victims of ‘progress' of civilisation, is drawing to a close. In the final stage, 200 years ago, modern capitalism has ceaselessly revolutionised the productive forces and social relations. But it did not stop there. It generated the anthropological correspondence which was required by its mode of production: the human being, functional to its interests as a producer of commodities and realiser of surplus value.
"The most precious gift of humanity, reason, is being stripped of all critical elements, to remain in a purely instrumental state. However criminal and amoral the end might be, instrumental reason is at its service, with the only function of bringing about the means: from the daily theft of the surplus value of the worker to the scientific killing of oppositionists in the subworld of the global village. The ethics of civic coexistence and solidarity have been replaced by the morality of the strongest, which justifies the agony of half the human race, in terms of its ‘incapacity' to compete in the modern Roman circus that is the world market." 
Dieterich refers to historical transformations as "projects", that is to say, he defines great historical changes in terms of ideology, thus standing history on its head. This is precisely the opposite of Marx's method of historical materialism. Historical materialism does not explain the evolution of human society in terms of the ideas in the heads of men and women, but rather explains the evolution of ideas in terms of objective process that take place in the productive forces and property relations that develop independently of human consciousness and volition. This was explained very clearly in a famous passage from one of the defining works of historical materialism, The Critique of Political Economy, where Marx explains the relation between the productive forces and the superstructure:
"In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production [...] The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence (which) determines their consciousness." 
Later on in the same work Marx writes: "In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic, or philosophic - in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out." 
This is just what Heinz Dieterich does not do. It is entirely false and unscientific to refer to an "historical project" for capitalism, feudalism and slave societies. In every case it was not the ideas, plans and projects of the ruling class that brought about a change in the society, but it was profound changes in society that at a certain stage found a confused and distorted expression in the minds of men and women.
A sentimental view of history
We have seen in the above quotation how Heinz can rant and rage with great effect about the evils of capitalism, how he can weep and complain about the lack of ethics and theft, but there is not a single atom of scientific analysis in this entire passage. Instead, we have a mixture of sentimental rhetoric and theoretical confusion. He begins by restating his unscientific view that divides the whole of human history into two periods: before and after the production of exchange value. Since the only socio-economic system that is based on the production of exchange values is capitalism, which, as comrade Dieterich himself points out, has only existed for the last 200 years, this is clearly wrong.
With his talk about "hecatombs of victims of ‘progress' of civilisation", comrade Dieterich wishes to arouse the righteous indignation of the reader, and might even succeed in so doing. But it is impossible to arrive at a rational understanding of human history from a purely sentimental and moralistic standpoint. There have certainly been hecatombs of victims of class society for the last 6,000 years and even longer. But are we supposed to deduce from this fact that there has not been progress for the whole of this period? Such a view would be in complete contradiction to Marxism. It is merely a repetition of the view held by Edward Gibbon in the 18th century that history is: "Little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind."
Unlike Dieterich, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was an excellent writer and a very good historian. However, Gibbon was writing at a time when historical materialism had not yet been developed. He was unaware of the real mainsprings of human history, and in particular did not appreciate the role of the economic factor. He was under the influence of the rationalist ideas of the French Enlightenment. It was therefore inevitable that Gibbon should approach history from an idealist and moralistic standpoint. One can still learn a great deal from the writings of Gibbon, but his approach to history was conditioned by the limitations of his time and therefore presents only one side of the picture.
From the fact that Dieterich places the word progress in inverted commas one can only deduce that he does not think that there has been any real progress in the last 6,000 years. Has there not been any advance from the wooden plough and the bronze chariot to computer science and stem cell research? Certain middle class intellectuals would answer this question in the negative. They wax lyrical about the "good old days" when men and women worked on the land every day of the year, engaged in subsistence agriculture and back breaking labour, living on little more than bread and beer, and sleeping in smoky huts without elementary hygiene. Then they return to their comfortable middle class flats, drink their gin and tonic and sleep soundly in air-conditioned bedrooms.
Marxists do not approach history from a sentimental or moralistic point of view. The whole of human history has been a long hard struggle of men and women to rise above an animal condition and become what they always were potentially: free human beings. The prior condition for this is to satisfy all human needs, in order that men and women will cease to be slaves to their own material requirements. This can only be achieved when industry, agriculture, science and technology reach a sufficient level of development to satisfy all our needs. Therefore, the development of the productive forces represents the key to all human progress, culture and civilization. Whoever does not understand this elementary truth will forever be condemned to a philistine approach to history.
Marxism finds in the development of the productive forces, building and producing machinery, factories, universities, schools, roads, railways and the development of science, technique and skills the key to the development of society and to the class struggle for the surplus produced by the labour of the working class. We live in a period when capitalism has shown that it can no longer develop society. That is the fundamental premise of socialist revolution.
Over 2,000 years ago the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote in his Metaphysics: "For philosophy arose only when the necessities and the physical and mental comforts of life had been provided for."  Human culture and civilization begins when a surplus is produced sufficient to free at least a section of society from the need to labour. Aristotle also points out that mathematics and astronomy originated in Egypt because the priests did not have to work. However, the development of the productive forces still remained at a relatively low level. The surplus produced by the labour of the peasants was not sufficient to free everybody from what the Bible describes as the curse of work. That is why, throughout history, culture has always been monopolised by a privileged minority. The narrow base of social production did not permit anything else. That is why socialism was materially impossible in the past. It is true that even 2,000 years ago there were people who advocated communist ideas, but since the material basis for socialism was absent, their ideas necessarily had a utopian and fantastic character.
Engels points out that in any society where art, science and government are in the hands of a minority, that minority will use and abuse its position in its own interest. And this must be the situation as long as the development of the productive forces remains on a low level. However, for the last 6,000 years there has been an almost continuous development of the productive forces, although this was achieved by the most brutal means of exploitation and oppression of the majority. It is possible to be indignant about slavery, a monstrous and inhuman system. But it must be recognised that all of our culture, science and civilisation comes from ancient Greece and Rome, and was based on the labour of the slaves. In the same way, capitalism came onto the stage of history dripping blood from every pore. Nevertheless, in pursuit of profit, the capitalists developed the means of production, and therefore unconsciously laid the bases for a new and qualitatively superior stage of human development: socialism.
Heinz Dieterich also rants and rages about the way in which capitalism exploits the workers, who he describes as "the human being, functional to its interests as a producer of commodities and realiser of surplus value". "The most precious gift of humanity, reason, is being stripped of all critical elements, to remain in a purely instrumental state." This is "criminal" and "amoral", he informs us. Moreover, the capitalist is nothing more than a common thief who perpetrates a "daily theft of the surplus value of the worker". Here comrade Dieterich's moral indignation knows no bounds. But once again, his analysis is defective. His "most precious gift, reason", has been stripped of its critical elements to the extent that he confuses Marx with Proudhon.
It was Proudhon, the precursor of anarchism, who stated that "property is theft", an argument that Marx completely rejected. Such a statement may serve a useful purpose as an agitational slogan, but it is entirely empty of scientific content. Marx answered Proudhon at great length in one of his earliest works, The Poverty of Philosophy. Either comrade Dieterich has never read this, or else he considers that along with 99 percent of Marx's work, this has been superseded by the theories of 21st Century Socialism. But before we consider these remarkable new theories in greater detail, it is necessary briefly to explain the ideas of Marxism that are supposed to have been rendered redundant by the revelatory new theories of Peters and Dieterich.
On ‘historical projects'
The conception of history of Dieterich and Peters has nothing in common with the standpoint of historical materialism. In a completely unscientific manner they divide the whole of history into two compartments: the early phase when there was allegedly "exchange of equivalents" (through barter) and the rest of history, commencing about 12,000 years ago, when there was "unequal exchange". We will deal with the economic theories of Dieterich and Peters in the next two chapters.
For the present, we confine ourselves to the following observation: the appropriation of the surplus created by the labouring population has existed for the last 10-12,000 years. But the way in which the surplus has been appropriated, by what class and on the basis of what property relations has changed many times. This is not at all a secondary question as Dieterich and Peters imagine. The laws of motion of capitalism are not the same as those of slave society or feudalism. The discovery of these laws can only be made through a careful scientific analysis of the concrete features of each system.
In The German Ideology, Marx outlines four stages of human society and modes of production (excluding the initial stage of primitive tribal communism): the Asiatic mode of production, slavery, feudalism and capitalism. Was the transition from primitive tribal communism to class society brought about by a conscious decision of the chiefs and their war-bands in the Neolithic period? Was there some kind of Stone Age Heinz Dieterich who persuaded our ancestors to cease hunting harmless mammoths and cave-bears and become vegetarians? It is sufficient to pose the question concretely to realize its absurdly idealist and preposterous character.
We are rather inclined to look for a materialist explanation, based upon climatic changes that changed the pattern of migration of the herds of wild animals and caused a scarcity of game, forcing people to rely increasingly on wild crops that they gradually learned to cultivate. The raising of crops compelled them to adopt a settled existence, creating the first permanent settlements, from which arose the first towns and cities. This was the basis of what Gordon Childe has called the Neolithic Revolution - probably the most important revolution in the whole of human history.
Is it possible to argue that slavery was the result of the "historical project" of the Roman ruling class? Not at all, the Roman state was formed as the result of a long series of wars, first with neighbouring Latin tribes and later, more decisively, in the wars with Carthage, a more advanced civilization. The slave economy arose out of the concrete circumstances of the times. These wars, like all other wars of the period, ended in the capture of a vast number of slaves, which swelled the army of slaves working in the mines and big estates on Roman territory.
To cite just one example, when Tiberius Gracchus raided Sardinia, he took as many as 80,000 captives, to be sold in the slave market at Rome, where the expression "as cheap as a Sardinian" became a proverb. This steady flow of cheap slaves played a fundamental role in stimulating the slave economy. Slave labour has a central contradiction: the productivity of an individual slave is very low, for obvious reasons, and can only be profitably employed on a massive scale. Since slaves do not reproduce in sufficient numbers, a constant renewal of slave labour can only be achieved through war or other violent means. From this point on, the wars waged by Rome often assumed the character of large-scale slave hunts. War was a necessary element in the Roman slave economy.
The spread of slave labour not only destroyed the class of free peasants. It also degraded the value of free labour in general, reducing the free proletarians to the same level of misery as the slaves. On the other hand, a new class of Roman capitalists arose purely on the basis of money and the slave economy - the "knights" or equites - who tended to elbow aside the old patrician nobility and jostled with them for political power. All these developments created severe class antagonisms within the Roman Republic, leading to the most ferocious class war.
Maybe feudalism was implanted in Europe as a result of the "historical project" of Attila the Hun? No, sad to say, the barbarian tribes that swept across Europe as a result of the collapse of the Roman Empire were not guided by any historical project, unless burning cities, plunder and rape constituted such a project. It is true that by their actions they hastened the disintegration of a socio-economic system that was already in a state of advanced decay. The slave economy had long since exhausted itself, to the extent that the Roman landowners had "freed" their slaves in most cases and converted them into coloni, bound to the land. This was the embryo of serfdom and the feudal system that was later perfected by the barbarians who erected an agricultural society on the ruins of the Roman Empire. But none of this came about as a result of a conscious plan.
Is it possible to speak of a project for capitalism in the period of the decline of feudalism in Europe, from the second half of the 14th century? Did the bourgeoisie in the period of its ascent possess a historical project? Well, the Dutch and English bourgeoisie in the 16th and 17th century had what might be described as such a project. What did this project consist of? It was based on religion and basically raised the prospect of the creation of God's kingdom on earth. This "project" was highly successful in inspiring the broad masses to fight against the old feudal society and its ideology, which, in the given conditions, assumed a religious disguise. The Roman Catholic Church constituted a powerful bulwark against change and was one of the most important supports of the feudal order. One of the first tasks of the nascent bourgeoisie was therefore to criticize and expose the Church. Luther, Calvin and the other advocates of Protestantism achieved this.
In essence the Reformation represents an ideological struggle between the bourgeoisie and the old feudal order. But this class content was not at all evident at the time and it is quite wrong to suppose that the bourgeoisie had a conscious plan to seize power and replace feudalism with capitalism. They really believed that they were fighting for fundamental religious principles, for the immortal souls of men and women, for the right of every individual to worship as they chose without the interference of priests and bishops. We must distinguish carefully between the real class interests that lie behind the great revolutionary battles of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe and the ideological forms through which these struggles were reflected in the minds of men and women at the time.
What is the central doctrinal difference between Protestantism and Catholicism? It is the difference between salvation through faith and salvation through works. The Church of Rome taught that even the greatest sinner could get his time in purgatory reduced through the purchase of papal indulgences. This was a highly convenient doctrine, especially for the wealthy feudal lords who, after a lifetime of debauchery, could obtain salvation by leaving his wealth and land to the Church. It was even more convenient for the Church, which greatly enriched itself thereby.
The Catholic religion was rooted firmly in the feudal mode of production, based on landed property and serfdom. The labour of the serfs provided the feudal lords with their wealth and privileges. The landowner had no need to reinvest in new machinery and modern technology for the same reason that the Roman slave owners did not need to invest in labour-saving devices. Like the slaves, the serfs were forced to provide free labour service, working on the lord's land for so many days a year. The only use the landowner had for the wealth extracted from the serfs was in magnificent displays of luxury, jewels, expensive dress and the like. He could also afford a certain amount of generosity, holding feasts and giving alms to the poor. When he died, he could also bequeath large sums to the Church to say prayers for his soul for generations or to dedicate a church or cathedral. It is no accident that the later Middle Ages in Europe is marked by an explosion of church-building on the most lavish scale.
The bourgeoisie in the period of its revolutionary ascent (in contrast to today) despised all outward shows of ostentation, including (and above all) the ostentation of the Church. The Scripture says: "For where two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them." (Matthew 18:20.) The Greek word ekklesia, from which the word ecclesiastic is derived, did not mean a building at all but a gathering. Therefore, for the Protestants the construction of huge cathedrals was not just a sinful waste of money, but an act of blasphemy. Just compare the lifestyle and morality of the feudal aristocracy with that of the nascent bourgeoisie in the phase of what Marx calls the Primitive Accumulation. The average bourgeois lived frugally, saving every penny for the purpose of accumulation. The burghers and their families wore simple black clothes. In Calvinist Holland after the victory of the first bourgeois revolution, all displays of luxury were prohibited. This austerity can be clearly seen in the paintings of the period.
To the church's doctrine of salvation by works, the bourgeoisie advanced the slogan of salvation by faith. This meant that anyone who believed in Jesus Christ could expect to be saved. This was much cheaper than the alternative, and far more efficient. My faith does not cost me a penny, whereas charity and other "good works" can make a serious hole in my pocket. The Protestants objected to the clergy, insisting that every Christian could have direct access to God through the Revealed Word - that is, the Bible. This was a very revolutionary idea for its time. It struck a blow against the whole edifice of the Church - and therefore of the entire feudal order.
Since the Bible contains many revolutionary ideas, denunciations of the rich and so on, the Church did not allow ordinary men and women to have direct access to it. Only the priest was allowed to explain its contents to the people, and to erect an insurmountable barrier between the Bible and the people, it was only available in Latin. Those who attempted to translate it into the vernacular were imprisoned or burnt at the stake (William Tyndall who translated the Bible into English was executed in the 16th century). When Martin Luther gave the Bible to the German people in their own language, he lit the fuse that ignited the Reformation and the Peasants War.
The English Revolution
Not satisfied with the (entirely false) assertion that socialism is not possible unless and until everybody accepts his New Historical Project, Dieterich now wants to inflict this wretched idea on all the revolutions of the past. Thus, if we accept that the revolutionary "must possess a plan" for "a new mode of production and a new superstructure" in order to succeed, it follows that Oliver Cromwell must have had just such a finished plan before he took power. In other words, he must have had his own 17th century equivalent of the NHP, and Cromwell, like Jesus Christ, must have been a moderate social reformer - just like Heinz Dieterich.
In 17th century England, the bourgeoisie carried out a revolution that overthrew the king and cut off his head. Kings had been killed many times before, but this was the first occasion when a king was put on trial, sentenced and executed in the name of the people. What was the "project" of Oliver Cromwell? Was it the establishment of capitalism in England? No, this idea never entered the head of this small landowner from East Anglia. He was fighting for the right of all men to worship as they wished, free from the interference of the bishops.
Oliver Cromwell had no plan either for the superstructure or the economy. If he did, he must have kept it very secret, for there is no mention of such a plan anywhere in his voluminous correspondence and speeches. Anybody who has the slightest knowledge of Cromwell will know that his main motivation was of a religious character. We know that the struggle over religion in the 16th and 17th century were merely the outward expression of deeper class conflicts, and that the inner historical significance of these struggles could only be the rise to power of the bourgeoisie and new (capitalist) relations of production. But to attribute to the leaders of these struggles a prior knowledge of this is sheer nonsense.
One can say that objectively, Cromwell was laying the basis for the rule of the bourgeoisie in England. But in order to do this, in order to clear all the feudal-monarchical rubbish out of the way, he was first obliged to sweep aside the cowardly bourgeoisie, dissolve its parliament and base himself on the petty bourgeoisie, the small farmers of East Anglia (of which he was one), and the plebeian and semi-proletarian masses of town and country. He aroused the fighting spirit of the masses, not by producing plans for the superstructure and economy, but by appealing to the Bible, the Saints and the Kingdom of God on Earth. His soldiers did not go into battle singing the praises of the New Historical Project, but with religious hymns.
This evangelistic spirit, which was soon filled with a revolutionary (and even sometimes a communistic) content, was what inspired the masses to fight with tremendous courage and enthusiasm against the Hosts of Beelzebub. But once in power, Cromwell could not go beyond the bounds established by history and the objective limits of the productive forces of the epoch. He was compelled to turn against the Left Wing, suppressing the Levellers by force, and to pursue a policy that favoured the bourgeoisie and the reinforcement of capitalist property relations in England. In the end, Cromwell dismissed parliament and ruled as dictator until his death, when the English bourgeoisie, fearful that the Revolution had gone too far and might pose a threat to property, restored the Stuarts to the throne. Once again, the rule of the bourgeoisie was established, not according to any pre-ordained plan or "project", but as a result of the objective conditions of production and the class relations that arose from them. The end result bore no relation whatsoever to the subjective intentions (the "projects") of Cromwell and his comrades.
Now it is very good that Heinz is able to write on many different subjects. But from a scientific writer we are entitled to expect a rigorous approach to the subjects he deals with. Otherwise we will not regard him as a scientist but only a pretentious windbag. Let us see whether our Heinz is as knowledgeable as he pretends to be. Since he loves lists, let us now list just a few of his blunders. Among the innumerable subjects on which he writes is the English Revolution of the 17th century. In an article in Rebelión entitled Does a revolutionary situation exist in Latin America? (18/04/07) we read the following pearls of wisdom: "Cromwell replaces the three dominant institutions of the old regime, the monarchy, the Vatican and the aristocracy, with the parliament, the protestant national church and the developmental (desarrollista) market economy."
In a single sentence we find at least one fundamental error in every line and sometimes more:
Oliver Cromwell, placing himself at the head of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie and semi-proletarian masses, overthrew the monarchy and settled the matter very neatly by separating Charles' head from his body. But it is entirely incorrect to say that the Vatican, that is the Roman Catholic Church, was one of the "three dominant institutions of the old régime". The Vatican had been effectively removed from England before Cromwell was born and played little if any role in the English Revolution. Charles was married to a French woman who was Catholic, but she was obliged to perform her religious rights in private, since the celebration of Roman Catholic rites in England was prohibited by law, which is a very strange position for one of the "three dominant institutions of the old régime" to find itself in.
Charles the First was not a Catholic but a Protestant, and in fact was the head of the "the national protestant church", which, according to our friend, was only established by his overthrow. In fact, the national protestant church (the Church of England) was established by Henry the Eighth who broke with Rome in the previous century. Like Henry, Charles the First held the title of Fidi Defensor (Defender of the Faith). Which faith did this title refer to? Not Roman Catholicism, but Protestantism (Anglicanism).
Although the establishment of the Anglican Church (long before Cromwell or the English Revolution) led to a complete break with the Vatican, which had to work in underground conditions in England (except for the brief reign of Queen Mary) and was obliged to resort to conspiracies and attempts to assassinate the English monarch, the ritual of the Church did not change substantially. The main difference was that the national (Protestant) church recognized the English monarch as its head, not the Pope of Rome. Charles the First, as titular head of the English Protestant Church, appointed the bishops, who held considerable power. Cromwell did not found the established church. He was not even a member of it. He belonged to the more radical Protestant Church of the Independents - so called precisely because they were independent of the established national church.
The Puritans, who were divided into a multiplicity of Churches and sects, which were the forerunners of the clubs in the French Revolution and of modern political parties, had many differences, but they were all united on one thing: total opposition to the established national church, which they correctly saw as an instrument in the hands of the reactionary monarchy. The appointment of bishops and the obligation to pay money to the established (Protestant) church, as well as its lavish rituals, were anathema to them. Oliver Cromwell therefore did not establish the national church but abolished it. This is precisely the opposite of what Dieterich writes. What Cromwell actually established was the freedom of individuals to worship in any way they desired.
The struggle between the bourgeoisie and the old regime in England began as a struggle between King and Parliament. But the wealthy merchants who dominated the parliament in London had no desire to abolish the monarchy, and they were constantly attempting to reach a compromise with the king and establish a constitutional monarchy in which the power would be divided between the bourgeoisie and the aristocratic representatives of the old order. Even in the 17th century, the bourgeoisie was playing a counter-revolutionary role in its own revolution. The bourgeoisie in parliament waged war against the king half-heartedly and in the beginning they lost every battle and it looked as if the king would win. Only when Cromwell and other more radical leaders of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie came to the fore and seized control of the movement did the revolutionary camp begin to win battle after battle.
We see the same phenomenon in the early stages of every revolution. The moderate wing first rises to the top and strives to restrain the masses, keep the revolution within the limits acceptable to the ruling class and arrive at a compromise. This is precisely the position of Heinz Dieterich today. We have no doubt whatever that if our friend had been alive in 17th century England he would have been a supporter, not of Oliver Cromwell, and still less the communist trend represented by the Levellers and Diggers, but of the moderate Presbyterians in parliament who tried to do a deal with the king.
Oliver Cromwell finally used the revolutionary army to dissolve parliament, and he ruled as dictator from then until he died. It is therefore simply not true that Cromwell "substituted the monarchy for parliament," as Dieterich asserts. Rather, he substituted both the monarchy and parliament with himself. Only after Cromwell died did the cowardly English bourgeois dare to re-establish the parliament he had abolished and invite the late king's son, Charles Stuart, to return from French exile and rule together with the bourgeoisie. Even that arrangement did not last long. Charles II was succeeded by James, who really was a Catholic and foolishly tried to turn the clock back. The bourgeoisie was forced to drive the Stuarts from the throne and invite the Dutchman, William of Orange, to become the Protestant king of England in a coup d'état that they comically baptised "The Glorious Revolution". That was in 1688, when Cromwell was long dead. This is the real origin of the English constitutional monarchy, a compromise between the monarchy and the bourgeoisie of which the "constitutional expert" Dieterich seems to be completely ignorant.
The real reason why Heinz Dieterich drags in Oliver Cromwell by the hair is not exactly a scientific quest for historical truth (there is, as we have seen, not an atom of historical truth in his entire analysis of the English Revolution). The real motive is to smuggle in the unscientific and anti-Marxist notion of the "historical project." Cromwell did not invent the market economy, to which Dieterich refers. It already existed and had existed in England for at least two centuries, in an embryonic form. Undoubtedly, the victory of Cromwell over the forces of feudal-aristocratic reaction gave a powerful impulse to the further development of these capitalist tendencies.
The brilliant military victories of Cromwell and his generals, especially over Holland, established the unquestioned superiority of English sea power. This in turn prepared the way for the rapid development of overseas trade and the conquest of colonies. The victory of the Puritans in the Civil War reinforced capitalist agriculture in England and an enlightened educational policy assisted the development of science and research. But all this was not the result of a preconceived plan by Cromwell or anybody else. It was the logical result of a particular historical concatenation of circumstances.
What conclusions can we draw from the above?
1) Heinz Dieterich knows nothing about the English Revolution.
2) Nevertheless Heinz Dieterich writes about the English Revolution.
3) Therefore, it is not necessary to know about something in order to write about it.
4) The proof of the above proposition is to be found in all the other writings of Heinz Dieterich.
The French Revolution
Matters are no better when we go on to examine the French bourgeois Revolution of 1789-93. It is true that the Revolution was prepared by an intense ideological struggle. The finest representatives of the rising French bourgeoisie clashed with the ideas, morality and philosophy of the decadent feudal-absolutist regime. The ideas of the philosophes and encyclopaedists, materialists like D'Alembert, Holbach, Diderot, and radical freethinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau represent one of the high points of the history of philosophy. The criticism of existing ideas and values found its reflection in literature, notably in the plays of Beaumarchais. Surely here we can speak of a bourgeois historical project? This question was answered long ago by Engels in Anti-Dühring:
"The great men, who in France prepared men's minds for the coming revolution, were themselves extreme revolutionists. They recognized no external authority of any kind whatever. Religion, natural science, society, political institutions - everything was subjected to the most unsparing criticism; everything must justify its existence before the judgment-seat of reason or give up existence. Reason became the sole measure of everything. It was the time when, as Hegel says, the world stood upon its head; first in the sense that the human head, and the principles arrived at by its thought, claimed to be the basis of all human action and association; but by and by, also, in the wider sense that the reality which was in contradiction to these principles had, in fact, to be turned upside down. Every form of society and government then existing, every old traditional notion was flung into the lumber room as irrational; the world had hitherto allowed itself to be led solely by prejudices; everything in the past deserved only pity and contempt. Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on nature and the inalienable rights of man.
"We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal Right found its realization in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and that the government of reason, the Contrat Social of Rousseau, came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic. The great thinkers of the 18th century could, no more than their predecessors, go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch." 
Isn't this quite clear? Engels, the materialist, explains that the "historical project" of the French bourgeoisie was only an illusion - just as the ideas of the English bourgeoisie in the 17th century had been an illusion. In fact, every historical period has its illusions - the fantastic ideas that represent the distorted reflection in men's brains of real social relations. Marx and Engels in one of the earliest works of scientific socialism, The German Ideology, already explained this:
"Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historians have not yet won even this trivial insight. They take every epoch at its word and believe that everything it says and imagines about itself.
"This historical method which reigned in Germany, and especially the reason why, must be understood from its connection with the illusion of ideologists in general, e.g. the illusions of the jurist, politicians (of the practical statesmen among them, too), from the dogmatic dreaming and distortions of these fellows; this is explained perfectly easily from their practical position in life, their job, and the division of labour." 
Over 150 years later, it is clear that some German ideologists have still not managed to free themselves from the idealist outlook that Marx and Engels ridiculed in these lines. All the fine talk about a "historical project" reduces itself to this.
Socialism and capitalism
It is entirely wrong to say that capitalism was brought about as the result of a conscious plan or project of the bourgeois. Unlike socialism, capitalism can and does arise spontaneously out of the development of the productive forces. As a system of production, capitalism does not require the conscious intervention of men and women. The market functions in the same way as an anthill or any other self-organizing community of the animal world, that is to say, blindly and automatically. The fact that this takes place in an anarchic, convulsive and chaotic manner, that it is endlessly wasteful and inefficient and creates the most monstrous human suffering, is irrelevant to this consideration. Capitalism works and has been working - without the need of any human control or planning - for about two hundred years. In order to bring such a system into being, no special insight or understanding is called for. This fact has a bearing on the fundamental difference between the bourgeois and socialist revolution.
Socialism is different from capitalism because, unlike the latter, it requires the conscious control and administration of the productive process by the working class itself. It does not and cannot function without the conscious intervention of men and women. The socialist revolution is qualitatively different to the bourgeois revolution because it can only be brought about by the conscious movement of the working class. Socialism is democratic or it is nothing.
Right from the beginning, in the transitional period between capitalism and socialism, the running of industry, society and the state must be firmly in the hands of the working people. There must be the highest degree of participation of the masses in administration and control. Only in this way is it possible to prevent the rise of bureaucracy and create the material conditions for the movement in the direction of socialism: a higher form of society characterized by the total absence of exploitation, oppression and coercion, and therefore by the gradual extinction and disappearance of that monstrous relic of barbarism, the state.
Here is also another difference. In order to conquer power, the bourgeoisie had to mobilize the masses against the old order. This would have been unthinkable on the basis of the declared aim of establishing the necessary conditions for the rule of Rent, Interest and Profit. Instead, the bourgeoisie put itself forward as the representative of the whole of suffering humanity. In the case of 17th century England it was supposed to be fighting for the establishment of god's kingdom on earth. In 18th century France it advertised itself as the representative of the rule of Reason.
Undoubtedly, many of those who fought under these banners sincerely believed them to be true. Men and women do not fight against all the odds, risking everything, without that special motivation born of a burning conviction of the rightness of their cause. The declared aims in each case turned out to be pure illusion. The real content of the English and French revolutions was bourgeois and, in the given historical epoch, could have been nothing else. And since the capitalist system functions in the manner we have already described, it did not make much difference whether people understood how it worked or not. On this subject, Trotsky wrote:
"It is utterly impossible to seek the causes for the recurrences of capitalist society in the subjective consciousness - in the intentions or plans - of its members. The objective recurrences of capitalism were formulated before science began to think about them seriously. To this day the preponderant majority of men know nothing about the laws that govern capitalist economy. The whole strength of Marx's method was in his approach to economic phenomena, not from the subjective point of view of certain persons, but from the objective point of view of society as a whole, just as an experimental natural scientist approaches a beehive or an ant-hill.
"For economic science the decisive significance is what and how people do, not what they themselves think about their actions. At the base of society is not religion and morality, but nature and labour. Marx's method is materialistic, because it proceeds from existence to consciousness, not the other way around. Marx's method is dialectic, because it regards both nature and society as they evolve, and evolution itself as the constant struggle of conflicting forces." 
A project for socialism?
Even so, it is incorrect to speak of project for socialism. This implies a scheme or plan for the future socialist society. That was not the method of Marx and Engels but of the utopian socialists of the beginning of the 19th century - Saint Simon, Fourier, Robert Owen and Weitling. They all had a historical project - that is, a fully worked out plan for the future socialist society. Marx and Engels did not have such a plan, and this is one of the main criticisms that Dieterich levels against the founders of scientific socialism. This shows that Dieterich is very much in the tradition of 19th century utopian socialism and not at all in the tradition of scientific socialism.
The working out of blueprints for the socialist society of the future formed no part of the materialist method of Marx and Engels, who were quite content to allow future generations to work out the details for themselves. But this does not at all signify that they left no idea about what socialism would look like. On the contrary, Marx and Engels already traced the general lines in works like The Critique of the Gotha Programme, Capital, The Civil War in France, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and other writings. Lenin later developed these ideas in his writings on the state, especially State and Revolution.
Unlike the utopian socialists, Marx and Engels did not invent schemes ("historical projects") for the future society, but attempted to derive their ideas about socialism from the real historical conditions and the real movement of the working class. There are elements of the future socialist society already present in capitalism, just as the elements of capitalism were already coming into existence in the later stages of feudalism. Workers' power and socialism are not invented by utopians or in the study of university professors or in Internet chat rooms but arise from the class struggle and the concrete historical experience of the proletariat.
Let us give one important example of Marx's materialist method. In his earlier writings, including The Communist Manifesto, the question of the state is not really developed, and the question of the concrete forms of a workers' state ("the dictatorship of the proletariat") is not dealt with at all. Marx did not invent a project for an ideal workers' state, but derived his theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat from the actual experience of the workers of Paris in 1871. The Paris Commune was the concrete basis upon which Marx developed his theory of a workers' state in the transition from capitalism to socialism.
In the introduction to the Second German edition, Marx and Engels write that they felt they could not alter the text of The Manifesto, partly because it was already an historic document, but also because in general lines, its message had been validated by history. However, one important modification was necessary in the light of the experience of the Paris Commune, "where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this programme has in some details been antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes."
Marx's conception of workers' power (the dictatorship of the proletariat) was not a utopian project but a practical programme for workers' power, for a workers' democracy, which Marx did not suck out of his thumb but derived from the actual historical experience of the French working class. It was not Marx, or any other socialist theoretician, who invented the "dictatorship of the proletariat" but the ordinary working men and women of Paris. This method was what Trotsky had in mind when he wrote:
"Science does not reach its goal in the hermetically sealed study of the scholar, but in flesh-and-blood society. All the interests and passions that rend society asunder, exert their influence on the development of science - especially of political economy, the science of wealth and poverty. The struggle of workers against capitalists forced the theoreticians of the bourgeoisie to turn their backs upon a scientific analysis of the system of exploitation and to busy themselves with a bare description of economic facts, a study of the economic past and, what is immeasurably worse, a downright falsification of things as they are for the purpose of justifying the capitalist regime. The economic doctrine which is nowadays taught in official institutions of learning and preached in the bourgeois press offers no dearth of important factual material, yet it is utterly incapable of encompassing the economic process as a whole and discovering its laws and perspectives, nor has it any desire to do so. Official political economy is dead. Real knowledge of capitalist society can be obtained only through Marx's Capital." 
Incidentally, the kind of workers' state that Marx had in mind had nothing to do with the monstrous totalitarian and bureaucratic regimes that Dieterich, to his shame, still describes as "really existing socialism". Marx used the term "dictatorship of the proletariat" at a time when the word dictatorship did not yet carry the kind of connotations that it does today, after the nightmare totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, Franco and Stalin, Pinochet and Videla. He based his idea on the Roman Republic, when in time of war, special powers were granted to the "dictator" for a period of one year.
The state is always an instrument of domination of one class over another, and a workers' state is no exception to the rule. The purpose of a workers' state is to overcome the resistance of the old ruling class, the former property owners who will never surrender their power, wealth and privileges without a fight. But there is a big difference between a workers' state and all other states that have existed in the past: they were states representing the interests of a small minority over the big majority of society. Therefore, the state was always a bureaucratic monster, absorbing a huge proportion of the wealth created by the working class on standing armies, the police, the judiciary, prisons, secret police, etc. On the contrary, a workers' state will be a state representing the big majority against a small minority. This will give it an entirely different character.
The Paris Commune was, in fact, a model of proletarian democracy: "In a rough sketch of national organization, which the Commune had no time to develop, it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet, and that in the rural districts the standing army was to be replaced by a national militia, with an extremely short term of service. The rural communities of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents. The few but important functions which would still remain for a central government were not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally misstated, but were to be discharged by Communal and thereafter responsible agents." 
Who invented the soviets?
If Marx and Engels did not invent the idea of a workers' state, neither did Lenin invent the soviets. The creation of the soviets in the course of the 1905 Revolution in Russia is yet another marvellous example of the creative genius of ordinary working people, once they enter the arena of struggle. Nowhere does the idea of soviets feature in the writings of the great Marxist thinkers prior to 1905. They were not foreseen in the pages of The Communist Manifesto, and they were not the creation of any political party. They were the spontaneous creations of the workers in struggle, the product of the initiative and creative genius of the working class.
In the first place the soviets represented committees of struggle, assemblies of delegates drawn from the factories. In tsarist Russia there was no opportunity for the creation of a mass reformist labour movement with a privileged labour aristocracy and an ossified bureaucracy at its head. There was a vacuum, which was filled by the soviets. These embryonic organs of workers' power began life as extended strike committees. The soviets themselves first arose in the heat of the all-Russian October general strike. In the absence of well-established mass trade unions, the striking workers moved to elect delegates who began to come together in improvised strike committees, which were generalized to include all sections of the class.
Here again, we see how the working class, through struggle, establishes the organizational forms that it needs to bring about the socialist transformation of society. Lenin immediately grasped the significance of the soviets, as did Trotsky, who was elected chairman of the most important of them - the St. Petersburg Soviet. The Bolsheviks in St. Petersburg, unlike Lenin, did not understand the soviets. They did not act like Marxists but like formalists and bureaucrats. They turned up at the first meeting of the Soviet and read out a declaration that the Soviet must either join the Party or else dissolve. The astonished delegates just shrugged their shoulders and passed on to the next point on the agenda.
Marxists always base themselves on the real movement of the working class. In Venezuela the movement in the direction of workers' control came from below. It is too early to speak of soviets in Venezuela yet, but the elements of soviets exist in the form of the workers' committees and "cogestión". The reformists and bureaucrats are doing their best to prevent the movement for workers' control from developing. They all have their "projects" of one kind or another (none of which challenges capitalism), but they insist that there are no conditions for workers' control in Venezuela, that the workers are "too backward" (because they do not understand the New Historical Project) and so on and so forth.
It is really a scandal that people who call themselves socialists (and even communists) should complain about the alleged backwardness of the workers and peasants of Venezuela. Throughout the whole revolutionary process, the masses have shown a very high level of revolutionary consciousness and maturity. At every stage they have been the real motor force of the revolution. They have saved it at every critical moment when it was in danger. Yet to this day middle class snobs dare to speak of the "backwardness" of the masses, their allegedly low political level, immaturity, etc.
In reality it is the reformists who lack revolutionary consciousness and are dragging the movement back. Hiding behind fancy language and all kinds of utopian-reformist schemes, plans and "historical projects", their only role is to confuse and disorient the intellectuals and students who take them seriously. But the real movement of the workers and peasants will leave them far behind. Like the workers in the St. Petersburg Soviet, they will simply shrug their shoulders and pass on to the next point on the agenda.
Marxism and religion
The second part of the book Socialism of the XXI Century is devoted to the question of Chávez and Christianity and to the history of Christianity. Some Marxists have criticized Chávez for his frequent references to Jesus Christ as the first socialist. Our friend Heinz naturally has something to say on this subject (he has something to say about everything). He even dedicates his first chapter to it. As usual, he wishes to "help" the President by clarifying some of his ideas. And as usual, instead of clarifying, he piles confusion upon confusion.
Hugo Chávez stands at the head of an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, and is himself a believer. He has always distinguished carefully between the reactionary Church hierarchy, the servant of the oligarchy, and the rank and file priests and the millions of workers and peasants who are religious. That is absolutely correct and any Marxist would do the same thing. Despite their religious beliefs, the workers and peasants are revolutionary, just as the first Christians were. In his weekly television programme Aló Presidente (27th March 2005) Chávez said:
"I am a socialist of the new era, of the 21st century, and we are saying that the world should revise the Christian-socialist thesis. If Christ lived here, he would be a socialist, and Simon Bolivar would go straight to socialism."
In an interview with Time magazine (Sunday, September 24, 2006), he said: "When I was released from prison [in 1994] and began my political life, I naively took as a reference point Tony Blair's proposal for a ‘third way' between capitalism and socialism - capitalism with a human face. Not anymore. After seeing the failure of Washington-backed capitalist reforms in Latin America, I no longer think a third way is possible. Capitalism is the way of the devil and exploitation, of the kind of misery and inequality that destroys social values. If you really look at things through the eyes of Jesus Christ - who I think was the first socialist - only socialism can really create a genuine society."
More recently Chávez advised the heads of the Catholic Church to read the works of Marx and Lenin as well as the Bible. We do not know whether they have taken his advice but as dialectical materialists, Marxists do not believe in the existence of either hell or heaven. There is only one world and we must fight to make it fit for men and women to live in. Our aim is to fight for the socialist transformation of society on a national and international scale. We wholeheartedly welcome the participation of every progressive person, no matter what his or her beliefs in the struggle. Therefore, we welcome the opportunity of the dialogue between Marxists and Christians.
It is clear to any thinking person that the capitalist system is a monstrously oppressive and inhuman system that means untold misery, disease, oppression and death for millions of people in the world. It is surely the duty of any humane person to support the fight against such a system. However, in order to fight effectively, it is necessary to work out a serious programme, policy and perspective that can guarantee success. We believe that only Marxism (scientific socialism) provides such a perspective. Marxists invite men and women to fight to transform their lives and to create a genuinely human society, which would permit the human race to lift itself up to its true stature. We believe that humans have only one life, and should dedicate themselves to making this life beautiful and self-fulfilling. We are fighting for a paradise on this Earth, because we do not think there is any other.
In December 2006 I was invited to participate in the Pan-American Conference of Occupied factories, held in the occupied Cipla plant in Joinville, Brazil. On the platform, side by side with class fighters, revolutionary youth and representatives of the landless peasant movement the MST, was a bishop. He gave a very revolutionary speech, supporting the workers' movement and damning the exploiters to the fires of hell.
In Latin America there are many honest priests who live alongside the workers and peasants and who have placed themselves on the class standpoint of the masses, courageously speaking out against exploitation and oppression. It is absolutely correct and necessary for Marxists to extend a hand of friendship to these honest people and where possible to involve them in the revolutionary movement. Without a scrupulous attitude to this question we would never succeed in winning over the masses to socialism.
Christianity began as a revolutionary movement of the poor and oppressed in the period of decline of the Roman Empire. 2000 years ago the early Christians organised a mass movement of the poorest and most downtrodden sections of society. It is not an accident that the Romans accused the Christians of being a movement of slaves and women. The early Christians were communists, as is quite clear from the Acts of the Apostles. Christ himself moved among the poor and dispossessed and frequently attacked the rich. It is not an accident that his first act on entering Jerusalem was to drive the moneychangers out of the Temple. He also said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. There are many such expressions in the Bible.
The communism of the early Christians is shown by the fact that in their communities all wealth was held in common. Anyone who wished to join had first to give up all his or her worldly goods. Of course, this communism had a somewhat naïve and primitive character. This is no reflection on the men and women of that time, who were very courageous people who were not afraid to sacrifice their lives in the struggle against the monstrous Roman slave state. But the real achievement of communism (that is, a classless society) was impossible at that time because the material conditions for it were absent.
Christianity and communism
Modern archaeological research and particularly the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed completely the theses of Karl Kautsky in his brilliant book The Foundations of Christianity. Kautsky explained a hundred years ago that the early Christians were members of a radical Jewish sect, the Essenes, who espoused communist ideas and practiced a community of goods until the Romans destroyed them. The Church Fathers were outspoken in their denunciations of private property and advocated the sharing out of all wealth.
In the 3rd century John Chrysostom, bishop of Byzantium, advocated communism. But gradually the tops of the church became detached from the masses and increasingly fell under the influence of alien classes. They were inclined to seek a deal with the authorities, especially when the ruling class realised that it was impossible to suppress the new religion by force and that it was necessary to disarm it by incorporating the tops into the state.
Later, when the Christian church was taken over by the state under the emperor Constantine, the original revolutionary and communist message of Christianity was expunged from the historical record and the Scriptures were purged to suit the interests of the Roman state. In a similar way the genuine ideas of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party were twisted and misrepresented by the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia after the death of Lenin in 1924. The emperor Constantine ordered the bishops to agree on an orthodox version of the Bible and, when they took too long about it, surrounded the building where they were gathered with his soldiers and stopped all food and drink from entering. They soon came to a satisfactory conclusion!
The long and bloody wars against heretical movements in the later Roman Empire were the way in which the genuine heritage of early Christianity was destroyed by fire and sword. Today we only know the opinions of the "heretics" through the writings of the Church - their bitter enemies. It is rather like trying to understand the ideas of Hugo Chávez by reading the documents of the US State Department. But it is clear that sects like the Donatists in North Africa defended communist ideas until they were exterminated by the Roman state with the enthusiastic support of the Church hierarchy.
From this time onwards, the Christian Church became the faithful servant of the state and the ruling class. The bishops, who became rich and powerful, served the interests of the emperors and later the feudal monarchs and landlords. But there was still a problem. Despite the systematic attempts to purge the Bible of all its revolutionary content, many passages still remained that had a clearly subversive character. This problem was solved by the fact that the Bible was in Latin, a language that nobody understood outside a very small number of priests and scholars. The translation of the Bible by a handful of brave men (many of whom paid for it with their lives) played an important role in the revolutionary movements of the later Middle Ages. Those who were rebelling against the feudal system in the period of its decay looked for inspiration in the writings of speeches of John Wycliffe (in England), Jan Huss (in Bohemia) and Martin Luther (in Germany).
The ruling ideas of every epoch are the ideas of the ruling class. But there are always other ideas that contradict the former and reflect the ideas and aspirations of the revolutionary classes in society. In the Middle Ages and even later, the Church had a stranglehold on the intellectual life of society, and therefore any revolutionary movement had first of all to settle accounts with the existing religion. This they did by attacking the Church hierarchy and exposing its corruption, while defending the original revolutionary message of the early Christians. The Religious Wars of the 16th and 17th centuries were really class wars that were fought under the banner of religion. The Hussites of Bohemia and the Anabaptists of Germany expressed communist ideas, as did the Levellers and Diggers during the English Revolution of 1640-49. In every case they took as their starting point the communism of the early Christians and the Bible.
Marx and Engels for the first time gave communism a scientific character. They explained that the real emancipation of the masses depends on the level of development of the productive forces (industry, agriculture, science and technology), which will create the necessary conditions for a general reduction of the working day and access to culture for all, as the only way of transforming the way people think and behave towards each other. The material conditions at the time of early Christianity were not sufficiently advanced to permit such a development, and therefore the communism of the early Christians remained on a primitive level - the level of consumption (the sharing out of food, clothes, etc.) and not real communism which is based on the collective ownership of the means of production.
However, the revolutionary traditions of early Christianity bear absolutely no relation to the present situation. Ever since the 4th century AD, when the Christian movement was hijacked by the state and turned into an instrument of the oppressors, the Christian Church has been on the side of the rich and powerful and against the poor. Today the main churches are extremely wealthy institutions, closely linked to big business. The Vatican owns a big bank and possesses enormous wealth and power, the Church of England is the biggest landowner in Britain, and so on. Politically, the churches have systematically backed reaction. Catholic priests blessed the armies of Franco in their campaign to crush the Spanish workers and peasants. The Pope backed Hitler and Mussolini. In Brazil the hierarchy of the Church had no difficulty in collaborating with the military dictatorship, although many rank and file priests took the side of the workers.
What does this mean? It means that there are really two churches: one that stands for the interests of the rich and powerful, the church of the landlords and capitalists, and another that identifies with the cause of the poor people, the workers and peasants. It is absolutely necessary to extend a hand of friendship and enter into a dialogue with the latter, while conducting an implacable struggle against the former. Our task is to put an end to the dictatorship of Capital that keeps the human race in a state of slavery. In order to do this it is necessary to struggle against all kinds of obstacles. Throughout history the hierarchies of the established churches have always sided with the rich and powerful. But the ordinary workers and peasants who are also believers wish to change society.
Although from a philosophical point of view Marxism is incompatible with religion, it goes without saying that we are opposed to any idea of prohibiting or repressing religion. We stand for the complete freedom of the individual to hold any religious belief, or none at all. What we do say is that there should be a radical separation between church and state. The churches must not be supported directly or indirectly out of taxation, nor should religion be taught in state schools. If people want religion, they should maintain their churches exclusively through the contributions of the congregation and preach their doctrines in their own time.
Socialism will permit the free development of human beings, without the constraint of material needs. To the degree that men and women are able to take control of their lives and develop themselves as free human beings, we believe that interest in religion - that is, the search for consolation in an afterlife - will decline naturally of itself. Of course, you may disagree with this prediction. Time will tell who is right. In the meantime, disagreements on such matters should not prevent all honest Christians from joining hands with the Marxists in the struggle for a new and better world.
The class struggle finds its expression in the church, and this is particularly true in Latin America. It is reflected in the Theology of Liberation and similar progressive tendencies in the church. Marxists regard this as a most important phenomenon. We regard it as our duty to enter into a friendly discussion with this trend and to encourage the evolution of Christians towards socialism and Marxism.
Was Jesus Christ a reformist?
In the Bible God creates Man after his own image. Now Heinz Dieterich transplants his 21st Century reformism back into history and recreates it after his own image. President Chávez always refers to Jesus as a revolutionary and a socialist. What about Heinz Dieterich? He transforms Jesus Christ into a Social Democratic reformist. Instead of courageous revolutionaries and communists, the early Christians become respectable social reformers and liberals:
"The reference [of Chávez] to Jesus as the first socialist is applicable from the ethical plane of the reforming praxis of the Nazarene and the social coexistences (las convivencias sociales) of the first Christian communities, that is to say, from the third and fourth level of human existence (anthropological)." 
Heinz's prose, always leaden footed, here begins to drag itself along even more painfully than usual. But never mind. Let us at least make an effort to discover in what direction he is limping. He continues, either oblivious of the reader's perplexity or indifferent to it: "The first communities were called Ekklesia, taking over the terminology and the praxis [how Heinz loves this word!] of the popular assemblies of the political system of Athens, which was the first participative democracy in a class society in the West, governed by a combination of electoral and lottery systems (by lots), a participative democracy that, nevertheless, was not universal but elitist because it excluded women, manual workers, slaves and freedmen." 
It is not correct to say that the early Christian communities were modelled on the institutions of Athenian slave-owning democracy. Karl Kautsky pointed out a hundred years ago that the early Christian communities derived from the Essene communities, which were rigorously Jewish and shunned all foreign admixtures. The latest investigations into the Essene community in Qumran in Galilee fully confirms this analysis. The Essenes were a revolutionary Jewish sect, which held communist views strikingly similar to the ideas in the Acts of the Apostles. Their founder was said to have been tortured and executed by the Romans, who finally destroyed the Qumran community in the 1st century AD. But let Heinz continue:
"This advance of participative democracy in the ‘church of the catacombs', which was later lost when it became converted into the imperial church, is repeated in the individual praxis of Jesus. The ethic of solidarity, respect for others, compassion for the poor, for the excluded, for those who are discriminated against, and the equality of human rights and practical opportunities in life, which the Nazarene preached and practiced, was, without doubt, a progressive and antisystemic element in the repressive-tribal-male chauvinist environment of Roman-dominated Palestine." 
Having shown he does not understand the early Christian church, Heinz now goes on to present Jesus as a 21st Century reformist - a kind of Galilean Tony Blair. The reverend Tony Blair would readily say Amen to all this, and so would all the other hypocrites, liberals and reformists who cover up the oppressive nature of class society with smug expressions such as "equal rights" and "equal opportunities", "the ethic of solidarity", "compassion for the poor", "respect for others" and similar empty moralistic claptrap that serves as a cover for their subservience to the rich and powerful and their cowardly acceptance of the status quo.
Do we all not have equal rights to become billionaires by showing personal initiative? Do we not all have equal opportunities to "improve ourselves" by working hard? Do the rich not manifest the ethic of solidarity when they give money to charity? And do they not show compassion for the poor when they weep over the fate of the starving millions in Africa? Maybe they do, but all this does not change the situation in the slightest degree.
The French writer Anatole France effectively exposed this hypocrisy when he wrote: "The law in its majesty makes no distinction between rich and poor; both are forbidden to sleep under the bridges of Paris." Engels pointed out that all rights presuppose inequality and are therefore bourgeois rights. The early Christians were not fighting for equal rights but for the New Jerusalem in which there would be no rich and poor and no private property. They were viciously persecuted by the Roman State precisely because they were revolutionaries and communists and not social reformers like Heinz Dieterich, who would have not have alarmed the Romans, or anyone else, in the slightest degree.
|<< 2. Philosophy and science||Contents||4. History and economics >>|
 Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol.3, p. 133.
 Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol.1, p. 20.
 Engels, Letter to Bloch, September 21st 1890, Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol.3, p. 487.
 Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol.1, p. 398.
 Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of German classical philosophy, Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol.3, chapter IV, p. 366.
 Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, Critique of the Gotha Programme, p. 17.
 Marx and Engels Selected Works, Vol. 1, The German Ideology, p. 37, my emphasis.
 Dieterich, Socialismo del Siglo XXI, p.23, my emphasis, AW.
 Ibid., pages 44-45.
 Ibid., p. 62-3.
 Marx, The Critique of Political Economy, my emphasis, AW.
 Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol.1, Preface to A Critique of Political Economy, p. 504.
 Aristotle, Metaphysics, p. 55. Everyman’s Library, 1961.
 Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring, Introduction, General, 1877, my emphasis, AW.
 Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlooks. B) The Illusion of the Epoch.
 Leon Trotsky, Introduction to The Living Thoughts of Karl Marx.
 Leon Trotsky, Introduction to The Living Thoughts of Karl Marx.
 Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol.3, The Civil War in France, p. 221.
 Dieterich, Hugo Chávez y el Socialismo del Siglo XXI, p. 21.
 Ibid. p. 22.
 Ibid., my emphasis, AW