A Reflection on Ancient Greek Democracy

I recently completed G.M.E. de Ste. Croix’s brick/masterpiece of the application of historical materialism, Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (I suspect I may be the only college graduate in the United States to use one of his precious graduation giftcards to buy this book after we’re supposed to have completed reading such things for the time).

I have only passing familiarity with the Greco-Roman society and with the classics – just enough to have made it through honors high school and a liberal arts college education. Since my adoption of Marxism, I have regarded the whole area as no more than a particularly pernicious section of ruling class ideology whose time for the dustbin has come and gone sometime ago without it noticing.

Ste. Croix gives me and others of the same blueprint a few reasons to think otherwise. I mean exactly what I said that his book is a masterpiece of historical materialism. Perhaps more than any other historian who I have heard of, he has demonstrated the validity of our analysis by demonstrating its full application to a kind of society that is probably entirely alien to our own.

One thing that fascinated me in the vast panorama of time (BC 800 to AD 650 or so) and space (Iberia to Mesopotamia, Britain to the Sahara) is his analysis of Greek democracy. This is perhaps a case in point of what I regarded as the most demonstrably pernicious nature of the classics. Growing up under Western liberal democracy, we are informed as the summit of what is supposed to be our political education that the Greeks invented this thing called “democracy,” in which all citizens had an equal right to participate and decide the course of the state they lived in. It is the merest inconvenience to note that this as well as all the other cultural achievements of the classical age depended on the brutal exploitation of slave labor on an unimaginable scale – that women and most of the population of the Greek cities had little say in these democracies. It may have been imperfect, we are told, but over time, from then to today, this “great idea” of democracy has evolved to more perfect expressions, until the present era where we enjoy it in the sense that it was always intended.

Lenin succinctly brushes aside the pretensions of bourgeois democracy by analogy to its Greek forbear in his pamphlet The State and Revolution, written on the eve of the seizure of power by the Soviets in Russia:

… democracy is always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in effect, a democracy for the minority, only for the propertied classes, only for the rich. Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics: freedom for the slave-owners.

Tadeusz Borowski, a Polish Communist journalist who did time in Auschwitz, extended this from democracy to all the cultural expressions of antiquity in a brilliant passage from his collection of stories, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, that has always been close to my heart:

The Egyptian pyramids, the temples, and the Greek statues – what a hideous crime they were! How much blood must have poured on to the Roman roads, the bulwarks, and city walls. Antiquity – the tremendous concentration camp where the slave was branded on the forehead by his master, and crucified for trying to escape! Antiquity – the conspiracy of free men against slaves!

You remember how much I used to like Plato. Today I realize he lied. For the things of this world are not a reflection of the ideal, but a product of human sweat, blood and hard labor. It is we who built the pyramids, hewed the marble for the temples and the rocks for the imperial roads, we who pulled the oars in the galleys and dragged wooden ploughs, while they wrote dialogues and dramas, rationalized their intrigues by appeals in the name of the Fatherland, made wars over boundaries and democracies. We were filthy and died real deaths. They were ‘aesthetic’ and carried on subtle debates.

There can be no beauty if it is paid for by human injustice, nor truth that passes over injustice in silence, nor moral virtue that condones it.

What does Ste. Croix as Marxist and classicist simultaneously have to say about this? I don’t think he would have had much truck with Borowski, but then it might be said that the latter was much closer to the position of the slaves of antiquity than the former could be as a 20th-century British academic, however much he sympathized with the struggles of the oppressed in his field of study. In his opinion, Greek democracy was a stellar achievement, and what is more, he justifies this entirely within a class-struggle framework. What follows is based almost entirely on his account, as I lack any expertise in matters of antiquity outside the equipment I have after reading his book.

Democracy was a product of a period of intense class struggle across the ancient Greek world stretching back into times before we have any real documentation. Though of course the Greeks originated in what we now call mainland Greece, in ancient times they had founded cities all the way from Asia Minor to Sicily, and many of the non-Greek states increasingly came under their cultural influence. Greek society was rural and agricultural to a point that it is hard to fully comprehend from the point of view of late stage capitalism. In the countryside the predominant form of production was land tenancy by individual families of farmers, with some scattered freeholders and some large farms worked by slave labor. The propertied classes, living in the few urban centers, were entirely dependent on the exploitation of the countryside for their luxurious lifestyle, which gave them time to produce the literature and philosophy we remember ancient Greece for today. Though rents were always an important source of income for the propertied, their main source of income was the labor of their slaves, whether on the farms, the mines or in the cities in what we would call the first factories. Indeed, in a society whose means of production remained at such a consistently primitive level, it is hard to imagine any other way than a mass system of forced labor for the production of a luxurious lifestyle for the few. It is for this reason that Marxists describe the era of antiquity as existing under “the slave mode of production,” despite the fact that slaves, unlike the modern proletariat, always were a small minority of the population: the exploitation of their labor was the primary source of profit, in other words, where the main action of the ancient Greek economy was.

Ideologically, the slaveowning class of antiquity regarded themselves as superior at a fundamental level to their slaves (“tools with the power of speech,” as Aristotle put it) and to all those who had to labor for a living: though it was occasionally desirable to engage in manual labor, especially in agriculture, as a diversion, to have to work was regarded as fundamentally degrading. However, a majority of the free urban population had to do just that. It is unlikely that anyone in this society ever survived by wage labor, as the public works projects that provided wages to large numbers were always much more talked about than enacted. The urban landscape was therefore a patchwork of independent artisans, small shopkeepers and service-providers, most of whom lived hand to mouth and many of whom were in constant danger of falling into debt bondage (most of the time equivalent to slavery) if they failed to keep up payments on credit extended by the ruling class. The fact that charity was little extended by the slaveowners (this was something that remained true even after the rise of Christianity) and that there was rarely a public dole made life quite precarious for most of these people.

The first stage in the battle for democracy in the ancient world was the seizure of power by men known as “tyrants.” It is probably hard to appreciate the real role of these persons when their title has acquired the obvious connotations. The tyrants, who held power in nearly all of the Greek cities at one point or another, are the first historical personalities we can say much about for sure. Though most of them came from the ruling class, their education allowed them to give voice to the grievances of the urban demos – broadly speaking, the people of little or no property. Their aims were, in so many words, a lessening of the harsh exploitation of the ruling class: lower rents, forgiveness of debts or lower interest, less competition in artisanal production from slaves, more progressive taxation, etc. The tyrants therefore resembled Marx’s portrait of the figure of Louis Bonaparte, whose power derived from his representation of the masses of the small peasantry:

They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above.

It is a historical fact that the tyrants became “tyrants” largely because they tended to rule against the interests of the propertied class, which was in the oligarchical form of government rather than personal rule.

Though it was not a conscious historical process at any point, in many of the Greek cities rule by a tyrant eventually gave way to rule by and for the demos – democracy. Though we know little about democracies other than Athens in the Greek world, it seems reasonable to see this as the result of a revolutionary process that brought the class power of the demos to bear upon the propertied classes for all the demands described above, in an innovative system which relied at every point on popular assemblies, in which all citizens (free men of a certain amount of property equivalent to financial independence by most definitions) of the city took part and had a right to serve in all responsible positions, the highest of which were elected but some of which, like the more humble magistracies, were rotated among citizens by lot. (Of course, positions of great national importance like generals were always appointed from those best qualified).

Ste. Croix describes the merits of Greek democracy in a passage which is highly worth quoting at length:

A. (i) The first and most characteristic feature of demokratia was rule by the majority vote of all citizens, determined in a sovereign assembly (normally voting by a show of hands) and large popular lawcourts, consisting of dicasts who were both judges and jurors, voting by ballot and inappealable. Even many classical scholars have failed to recognize the extraordinary originality of Greek democracy, which in the fundamental sense of taking political decisions by majority vote of all citizens, occurred earlier than in any other society we know about.

(ii) Demokratia was the rule of the ‘demos,’ a word used in two main senses, to mean either the whole citizen body, or the poor, the lower classes. Since the majority of citizens everywhere owned little or no property, the propertied class complained that demokratia was the rule of the demos in the narrower sense, and in effect the domination of the poor over the rich. In so far as this was true, democracy played a vital part in the class struggle by mitigating the exploitation of poorer citizens by richer ones – a fact that seldom receives the emphasis it deserves.

(iii) Only adult males were citizens in the full sense, and women had no political rights…

(iv) We must never forget, of course, that Greek democracy must always have depended to a considerable extent on the exploitation of slave labor, which, in the conditions prevailing in the ancient world, was if anything even more essential for the maintenance of democracy than of any more restricted form of constitution… However, even though we may regard slavery, sub specie aeternitatis, as an irredeemably evil feature of any human society, we must not allow the fact of its existence under Greek democracy to degrade that democracy in our eyes, when we judge it by even the highest standards of its day, for Greek states could not dispense with slavery under any other constitutional form either, and virtually no objection was ever raised in antiquity to slavery as an institution.

B. The great aim of democrats was that their society should achieve as much freedom (eleutheria) as possible. In strong contrast with many twentieth century societies which boast of their freedom but whose claim to have achieved it (or even to aim at it) may be denied and derided by others, the opponents of Greek democracy fully accepted that freedom was indeed the goal of democracy, even when they disparaged that goal as involving license rather than real liberty. Plato, one of the most determined and dangerous enemies that freedom has ever had, sneers at democracy as involving an excess of freedom for everyone – citizens, foreigners, slaves, women and (a brilliant conceit) even the animals in a democracy are simply “full of eleutheria!” (Republic VIII.562a-4a). Since public debate was an essential part of the democratic process, an important ingredient in democratic eleutheria was freedom of speech (Ste. Croix, CSAGW, 284-5).

There are two important features of Ste. Croix’s appreciation of ancient Greek democracy which I want to go into: first, the charge that it depended on slave labor, covered amply by the historian and the reason I am writing this post, and secondly, the enemies of democracy he refers to passingly in this passage, but covers at length in the rest of the chapter.

Ste. Croix’s appreciation of ancient Greek democracy freely admits that it was based on the mass exploitation of slave labor – in fact, as he relates in the passage I have quoted, it may be the case that slaves may have been subject to harsher exploitation under democratic states than oligarchical ones. This is precisely because democratic constitutions, a form of law that congealed the class power of the demos to mitigate their exploitation and oppression by the slaveholders, forced that class to deal that much more harshly with their slaves, who had no power or choice, unlike the free citizens of however little property. Thus, in ancient Greece, it would seem that “freedom and slavery advanced hand in hand,” an elegantly dialectical formulation, if I might say so.

(As a quick aside, I must note that Ste. Croix continuously insists that the class struggle in the ancient world took place largely either between slaves and slaveholders, or between free men without property and slaveholders, in contrast to the class conflict between “citizen and slave,” as Marx and Engels write in the Communist Manifesto. This distinction is somewhat irrelevant here. Though the citizens did not as a class enter into conflict with the slaves, the slaves were not involved in the fight for democracy and what gains were made, as Ste. Croix writes, were made on their backs.)

His defense of the economic base of Greek democracy, however, carries somewhat less weight in my mind, based somewhat along the lines of the Borowski quote above. I am inclined to agree with Ste. Croix that the great achievement of Greek democracy must be recognized, not thrown away because it happened to exist in a time where civilization was impossible except if carried out on the backs of slaves. However, I feel in the passage above that he is a little too quick to move on from the sufferings of slaves to the accomplishments that such sufferings allowed.

One of the reasons that this issue must be difficult for the Marxist, especially the Marxist historian, is that as a class the slaves had no means of achieving collective consciousness. Where slaves worked together, they were drawn from different ethnicities outside of the Greco-Roman world (at least at first, which I’ll get to) and had no means of communication even where they were most concentrated, let alone between cities where the distances remain uncompressed by the rise of industry. They had no means of class struggle other than sabotage by breaking tools and other methods, escape, or in the most extreme cases, suicide. Even the greatest slave revolt we have on record, that of Spartacus (described by Marx as “the most splendid fellow in antiquity”) could have only succeeded as a mass escape beyond the borders of the Roman Empire and the reach of its army. For the slaves, there was quite literally no way out.

The rise of democracy in the ancient world, in any case, was short lived, lasting for only a couple centuries in its fullest expression. During the 5th to the 3rd centuries BCE, the democracies of Athens and other city states existed under constant threat from the military oligarchy of Sparta, whose role in the ancient world might best be compared to that of Tsarist Russia during the bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century, a dependable vanguard of anti-democratic reaction. The oligarchy of Sparta, in a rather exceptional situation, ruled over the Helots, a class of serfs, in a constant state of open warfare that was renewed by each new ruler so that the ritual pollution would not attach if a Helot was murdered. After Sparta’s power was eclipsed, it was not long until Macedonia began its rise. Macedonian rule was an opportunity seized by the ruling class of most Greek cities to complete the rolling back of democratic constitutions they had already begun some years earlier in fierce class struggles with the demos.

Later, Roman rule over the Greek world would consolidate this trend to the point where it would be impossible to speak of democracy in any practical sense. Though the Roman constitution allowed for some forms of popular expression, rule by the Senate was always proudly oligarchical. The main spokesmen of the Roman ruling class detested any hint of democracy with a passion that it is hard to appreciate. Julius Caesar, for instance, was murdered on the grounds of being a “tyrant” – by which was meant he threatened to curb the power of the Senatorial aristocracy, perhaps in the process giving some benefits to the lower classes in order to prop up his rule. (This is not the place for a consideration of the Stalinist Michael Parenti’s treatment of Caesar as a “people’s dictator,” but I think it’s nonsense). Cicero in particular had a special loathing of all forms of popular expression – a fact which should make us look askance at the supposedly democratic character of Western jurisprudence which reveres him.

Under a system of slave production, therefore, perhaps it may be right to say that the forms of popular democracy developed in Athens and other Greek cities were the best that could be done. The slaves could not reach any collective expression of resistance for long, and the free citizens were unable move beyond a system of government which mediated their exploitation rather than ending it. It is highly unlikely that free citizens ever expressed any class solidarity with slaves. Those at the bottom rungs were deathly afraid of becoming slaves themselves and jealous of what little independence remained to them, while those at the top rungs aspired to become members of the ruling class and thus shared its outlook. In this sense, Borowski is completely correct. Antiquity was a blind nightmare with no escape, “the conspiracy of free men against slaves.”

It would only be with the collapse of Roman imperial rule in the West that progress could be made. This was accomplished through the hyper-exploitation of the free lower orders as a necessary outgrowth of the Empire’s expansion, which had ended the widespread acquisition of slaves from outside its own borders, and required the ruling class to allow slaves the time and space to raise their own children to perpetuate the system. By the and 5th and 6th centuries CE, the free population was largely enserfed and had no material reason to oppose the disintegration of the Empire at the hands of invading barbarians.

The society that emerged out of the wreckage of Rome would prove far more dynamic. The forces it produced would over the next millennium lead to a revolutionary transition which would make the material welfare of all, rather than just a few, a concrete possibility for the first time in history. At a time when the capitalist system is in what we hope are the late stages of decline, we should recognize ancient Greek democracy as part of the universal heritage of humanity which the revolutionary proletariat is capable of redeeming.

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1 Comment

Filed under History, Politics

One response to “A Reflection on Ancient Greek Democracy

  1. RedCed

    I suggest you also read the work “Peasant – Citizen and Slave” by another excellent Marxist scholar Ellen Meiskens Wood.

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