Ancient Exploitation

Christopher Hill

  • The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests by G.E.M. de Ste Croix
    Duckworth, 732 pp, £38.00, December 1981, ISBN 0 7156 0738 3

This is a powerful book, which should be read by all ancient historians and all Marxists. It will not please the orthodox in either group. Dr de Ste Croix has evolved his own personal brand of Marxism, though he relates it carefully to Marx’s own works, and he gives short shrift to his Marxist predecessors in the field. George Thomson, whose Aeschylus and Athens excited me very much when it came out in 1940, is dismissed in three curt sentences. But Dr de Ste Croix is no less critical of his fellow Classical historians, among whom he commonly refers favourably only to A.H.M. Jones and P.A. Brunt. Sir Moses Finley is rarely mentioned except to be criticised.

His aim is ‘first (in Part One) to explain, and then (in Part Two) to illustrate, the value of Marx’s general analysis of society in relation to the ancient Greek World.’ He starts from a careful analysis of what Marx meant by ‘class’ and ‘class struggle’. For Marx, ‘the really distinctive feature of each society is not the way in which the bulk of the labour of production is done, but how the extraction of the surplus from the immediate producer is secured.’ ‘Slavery increased the surplus in the hands of the propertied class, to an extent which could not otherwise have been achieved and was therefore an essential precondition of the magnificent achievements of Classical civilisation.’ Although ‘a large part of production in antiquity was always carried on by small free producers, mainly peasants but also artisans and traders,’ nevertheless ‘we can speak of the ancient Greek world ... as a “slave economy”.’ Employment of unfree labour was ‘the main way in which the dominant propertied classes of the ancient world derived their surplus, whether or not the greater share in total production was due to unfree labour’. He draws an interesting analogy with the Southern states of the USA, quoting Carl Degler to the effect that in 1860 ‘slaves made up less than a third of the population of the region; fewer than a quarter of the Southern families owned a single slave, let alone a gang of them.’

Dr de Ste Croix also insists that the notion of class struggle should not be restricted ‘to circumstances in which an overt struggle on the political plane can be shown to exist (as it cannot between masters and slaves in Classical antiquity)’. It is the relationship of ‘economic exploitation which is the raison d’être of the whole class system’, whether or not there is ‘effective and open struggle on the political plane, involving actual class consciousness on both sides’. He draws attention to the linguistic and ethnic heterogeneity among the slaves which made it difficult for them to organise political resistance: West Indian slaves faced the same problem in the 17th century.

Reminding us that Marx was very well informed about the ancient world, Dr de Ste Croix goes on to demonstrate that Aristotle’s sociology of Greek politics comes very near to a Marxist analysis. He brushes aside, with salutary impatience, those ‘ “antiquarians” who renounce, explicitly or by implication, any wish to provide an organic picture of a historical age, illuminated by all the insights that we in modern times can bring to bear upon it, and deliberately confine themselves to reproducing as faithfully as possible some particular feature or aspect of that society, strictly on its own original terms’. He proceeds to refute the determinism ‘of which Marx is often accused by a comparison between Marx and the greatest historian of antiquity, Thucydides’. ‘Thucydides was anything but a determinist although he often speaks of men as being “compelled” to act in a particular way when he describes them as choosing the least disagreeable among alternatives none of which they would have adopted had their choice been entirely free.’

A methodological point which appears equally obvious once it is stated is that ‘the nature of our evidence for antiquity is often such as to tempt us to draw misleading conclusions about the absence of certain phenomena, when all we have a right to do is to note the absence of evidence for those phenomena.’ ‘When there is little or no relevant literature or epigraphic material from which we can expect to derive enlightenment about the labour situation ... we must be particularly careful not to jump to the conclusion that unfree labour was of little significance.’ Here his use of later analogies, from South Africa and the Southern states of the USA, is particularly suggestive.

Among other illuminations which Dr de Ste Croix’s method brings is a fresh approach to the decline and fall of the Graeco-Roman Empire. As slaves by capture became less and less easily available, and since the cost of rearing slaves diminished the overall rate of exploitation, so there was a gradual shift in the direction of reducing free labourers and raising slaves to the common position of an exploited peasantry (he is reluctant to use the word ‘feudalism’ here). Simultaneously, taxation was reorganised and increased to pay for the vast armies which were now needed to defend the Empire rather than to expand it for plunder. There followed a ‘deterioration in the position of humble citizens – and indeed of poor free men in general – during the first two centuries of the Christian era’. ‘The burden of maintaining the imperial military and bureaucratic machine, and the Church, in addition to a leisured class consisting mainly of absentee landowners, fell primarily upon the peasantry, who formed the great bulk of the population.’ In consequence, ‘many humble folk in the Roman Empire might evince a positive preference for barbarian rule, as being less oppressive than that of the Emperors.’

Dr de Ste Croix’s arrangement of his material, discussing methodology in Part One and applying his method in Part Two, leads to repetitions and a multitude of cross-references. His book lacks a clear chronological structure. This may have been necessary to achieve his purposes, but it demands continuous sympathetic concentration from his readers. I suspect that not all of them will be prepared to grant him this. But no one could fail to be impressed by the many shafts of light which are thrown into dark corners. Already on pages 11 and 12 he has a learned excursus on the relative cost of transportation by land and by water. ‘I wonder how many people,’ he asks, ‘who have not only read Greek and Latin literature but have looked at Greek vase-paintings and at the reliefs on Greek and Roman monuments have noticed the absence from antiquity of the wheel-barrow?’ He takes Marx and Engels to task for not recognising that women (or married women) have played ‘a special class role’ in history. He notes the fable as the slaves’ contribution to literary forms (Aesop, Phaedrus). It had the same advantages as pastoral had for 16th and 17th-century English poets plagued by the censor. ‘Sometimes under the pretty tales of wolves and sheep,’ wrote Sir Philip Sidney, we can without risk ‘include the whole consideration of wrongdoings and patience’.

Among the more agreeable qualities is a brisk Gibbonian way of dismissing those historians or historical characters whom the writer dislikes. ‘The wildly exaggerated respect which has been paid down the ages to Plato’s political thought is partly due to his remarkable literary genius and to the anti-democratic instincts of the majority of scholars.’ ‘I shall notice some of this disagreeable stuff later,’ he writes à propos Greek political thought of the Hellenistic-Roman period. ‘We can often find the choicest expression of any given form of Roman hypocrisy’ in Cicero. Speaking of the desirability of combining history and sociology, he remarks: ‘anyone who is not capable (whether from a deficiency of intellect or from lack of time or energy) of the great effort needed to combine the two approaches ought to prefer the strictly historical one, for even mediocre work produced by the purely fact-grubbing historian may at least, if his facts are accurate and fairly presented, be of use to others capable of a higher degree of synthesis, whereas the would-be sociologist having insufficient knowledge of the specific historical evidence for a particular period of history is unlikely in the extreme to say anything about it that will be of use to anyone else.’ This does not prevent him from quoting Weber, often with approval.

This book should come as a refreshing stimulus to Marxist historians, at a time when too many Marxists are occupying themselves with scholastic theorising divorced from the actual writing of history. Dr de Ste Croix spares nobody – not Eric Hobsbawm or Edward Thompson. But what he writes about theory is worth paying attention to, since, like Hobsbawm and Thompson, he has produced first-class history himself. His book should also stimulate ancient historians, who one hopes will be no more set in their ways than Marxists. If they read it, they will see that they cannot dismiss him as holding views conventionally attributed to Marxists by those who have never read Marx – ‘economic determinism’, for instance. He carefully distinguishes his views from the stereotype. Whether or not one agrees with all that he has to say, at least he raises important new questions. What exactly was the importance of slavery in ancient society? Even if slave production was not greater than the production of free labourers, was it nevertheless ‘the really distinctive feature’ of that society, for good and ill, as de Ste Croix’s version of Marxism claims? Is he right in arguing that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was accelerated by the social conflicts which he depicts? Let us hope that the young will read him, despite the length and the cumbrous organisation of his book, and despite its alarming price. An abbreviated paperback soon would seem to be the answer.