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Marx in the Agora

The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests

by G.E.M. de Ste. Croix
Cornell University Press, 732 pp., $49.50

I

When Cyrenus Osborne Ward, that interesting figure in early American socialism, wanted to publish his two-volume work The Ancient Lowly, he had to arrange to do so (essentially) himself, since no established publisher would touch such a work. Ward took his task of telling the history of the ancient lower classes seriously. He traveled widely and was introduced by leading scholars to documents in the original languages. Unfortunately his intentions were more laudable than his training for the work, and despite his devoted labors, it remains a curiosity, more important in the history of ideas in the US than in the historiography of the ancient world. Ste. Croix does not cite it in his book on class struggle in the ancient world.

As far as I know, Ste. Croix’s comprehensive study is unique. Margaret Wason’s Class Struggles in Ancient Greece (1947), covering a short period, is rightly characterized as “negligible” by Ste. Croix. P.A. Brunt’s Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic (1971) is rightly praised by him and much drawn on, but it covers an even more limited range. Ste. Croix’s is the only work in a Western language that has ever attempted to tell the story of the greater part of the ancient world with the interests of the lower classes as its central theme.

Ste. Croix’s title is deliberately understated. Only the subtitle explains. Where one might expect a treatment ending (at most) with the Roman conquest, he defines his topic as covering “the vast area…within which Greek was, or became, the principal language of the upper classes,” from the archaic age to the seventh century AD. Nor is even that limit to be taken strictly. While some effort is made to exclude the western provinces of the Roman Empire, the history of the Roman Republic is included in some detail (largely following Brunt as a well-chosen guide) and there is something on ancient Palestine as well.

The author has, one may say, given his life to this work, and no other living scholar would be able to produce a book to equal its sweep. Yet while he keeps the major issues constantly in view, Ste. Croix can hold his own with any “antiquarian” (his term for a specialist scholar) in discussing a point of chronology or the nuances of meaning of a Greek or Latin word, with collections of material to back his view. For unlike some who profess to deal in large issues, he knows what distinguishes the scholar from the windbag.

Needless to say, no one can be equally well informed throughout so wide a range. Ste. Croix’s own expertise lies at its two ends: early and classical Greece and the late Roman Empire. Outside those periods, he is a little less familiar with source problems and with the tone of society. Aristotle (although not, as Ste. Croix tries to make out, a proto-Marxist: he paid little attention to the forces of production and none to the part played by slaves in the process of production) regarded the conflict between the rich and the poor as basic to the history of the city-state. To a large extent, of course, this is true and obvious. But it became a commonplace of interpretation, glibly applied (like some modern theories) even where demonstrably out of place. Moreover, members of the Roman upper class, after conquering the world, liked to think—and wanted it to be thought—that they had consistently supported the “best” people against the rabble and that that support had consistently been mutual. Ste. Croix, in any case predisposed to interpretation in class terms, is less on his guard against ancient propaganda and pseudo-explanation in fields less familiar to him. Still, even there the reader will find much that is interesting, stimulating, and, once noted, obviously true.

The scale of Ste. Croix’s work is worth emphasizing. Successfully understated by excellent printing and publishing (the number of printing errors, many of them noted in the errata list and a separate corrigenda page, is comparatively negligible), its scope may not fully impress itself upon the reader. About 500 pages of text, 600 words to the page, and (perhaps) 27,000 words of appendixes; over 120 pages of notes, 58 lines to the page; a bibliography of over 1,000 items (books and articles), with hundreds more casually cited in the notes; and a good analytical index of about 3,000 main entries—that would normally have sufficed for two volumes of standard size. Yet we have it in one, all legible and accurate, and comparatively inexpensive.

As the title is meant to make clear, the approach is Marxist. In fact, the title is more programmatic than descriptive: it takes only a few pages for the reader to find out that the author is not writing about such a limited theme—that he is including “situations in which there may be no explicit common awareness of class on either side,…and perhaps even little consciousness of struggle of any kind.” The term “class struggle” seems to be adopted mainly because “the opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto…[has] made this inevitable.” In view of the author’s readiness to abandon other Marxian formulations (see below), his insistence here is perhaps unfortunate. He himself calls the term “not a very happy one,” and he has to define it as “exploitation or [not “and”!] resistance to it.” After a long (and very interesting) discussion of the relevant ideas of Marx and what he tries to show are various recent misinterpretations of them, Ste. Croix defines exploitation in such a way that the class of the exploited can include not only the unfree (who, as he insists, provided the bulk of the economic surplus appropriated by the upper classes), but also some free peasants and artisans, as at least indirectly and collectively exploited.

Even so, he admits that those who were neither exploiters nor really exploited “at most periods…and in most areas…were very numerous and must have been responsible for the largest share in production….” It is undoubtedly true that throughout classical antiquity political leadership, and nearly always political control, was in the hands of those who did not have to work for a living. This is universally recognized. What is not so easy to see is how the facts of history (which Ste. Croix knows with rare accuracy), as expounded throughout Part Two of the book, can in many cases be fitted into the theoretical frame he has constructed for them, which demands (as he puts it) “that class…is in the long run the fundamental element” (his italics).

Ste. Croix’s aim is to produce a contribution to Marxist thought as well as to use the Marxist concept of class as a tool of analysis (one of Ste. Croix’s favorite phrases) for ancient history. He regrets the unfamiliarity with Marx and Marxism among English-speaking historians of antiquity. (It is astonishing to learn on his good authority that A.H.M. Jones, his revered teacher and one of the most erudite and socially aware scholars in this field, “never read Marx or took the slightest interest in Marxism.”)

What he uses for analysis, of course, is his own interpretation of Marx. It has often been said that Marx, like (e.g.) Freud and the Bible, will provide almost any suitable text in the hands of a believing interpreter. What these and other “world religions” share is a developing Weltanschauung, which on a diachronic view is full of contradictions and thus forces the user to select. Ste. Croix’s own reading has been selective. It is surprising that he knows no Russian, and he confesses that he has read little of the Italian Marxists writing on ancient history and that some German work is little to his taste. (Not much of the work recently published in the DDR in this field, whether original or translated from the Russian, is in his bibliography, vast though that is.) He is no less selective in his use of Marx’s writings.

He well knows that Marx never defined his concept of class and that, inspite of his impeccable background in ancient history and Greek (and Engels’s background as well, stressed by Ste. Croix: his readers will learn, many for the first time, that Engels wrote a poem in ancient Greek at the age of sixteen), he never devoted much attention to the interpretation of ancient history. We might add that by present-day standards he had too little information available to produce a serious interpretation. Ste. Croix is scathing about Marx’s concept of the “Asiatic mode of production” (and its recent defenders): he admits it was an unfortunate theory based on inadequate knowledge. And he regrets the fact that so unsatisfactory a work as Engels’s The Origin of the Family “has had such great influence on Marxist thought.” Many of Marx’s statements about antiquity must be judged in a similar light. The result has been to create large streams of Marxist interpretations of ancient history that try to force our vastly expanded knowledge of antiquity into a framework that cannot accommodate them.

Ste. Croix has little sympathy for them. He is honest and serious, both about his scholarship and about his Marxism. The one British Hellenist who achieved real prominence in the Communist movement and won the personal favor of Stalin, whose historical and linguistic dicta he developed for the benefit of the English-speaking public—the late George Thomson—gets short shrift here, as “essentially a literary scholar and not a historian.” There is no routine approval for Marxist work: it undergoes, if anything, more critical scrutiny than that of non-Marxists, which Ste. Croix seems more comfortable about following than that of “heretics.” There are references to “self-styled Marxists” (though it is hard to imagine a body whose imprimatur he would uncritically accept), and the index offers an entry: ” ‘Marxism’ and ‘Marxists’ (genuine or not).”

Whether such individual writing as his own will ever gain that putative imprimatur is (fortunately) not for a non-Marxist to decide. He himself feels sure that he is developing the mainstream of Marx’s thought and is true to what Marx really intended. He will not accept nonsense, from Marx or anyone else. He tries to regard it as unfortunate lapses, not seriously considered—as when Marx describes the dispossessed peasants of the late Republic as “a mob of do-nothings.” But he will not stop there. We have already seen his attitude to that family Bible, The Origin of the Family, which is not Marx himself, of course. But Ste. Croix also regrets that Marx “saddled” his successors with the term “feudal mode of production.” (Though he insists that Marx never used it—well, hardly ever—except to apply to pre-capitalist Western Europe.) He himself disarmingly claims that “there is nothing in this book which Marx himself (after some argument, perhaps!) would not have been willing to accept.” The reader that way inclined will delight in picturing the imaginary debate—a dialogue worthy of Lucian’s pen.

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