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The class struggle in the ancient world.

The Class Struggle in the Ancient World

The recent publication of G. E. M. de Sainte Croix's The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World offers an opportunity to reopen the debate on the role of the class struggle in shaping history. For the importance of this work exceeds by far the illumination the author casts, with considerable skill and erudition, on this slice of history.

We will not take up here each of Sainte Croix's arguments. Suffice it to say that in our view, his opposition to the thesis of a "trade-oriented' Greek antiquity and to the positions held by Thomson and Rostovtzeff seem unnecessarily extreme. However, his principal theses do furnish arguments that largely support positions we have advanced. These bear on: (a) the concept of the "Asiatic mode of production,' which he judges useless (p. 155), (b) the unfree labor (slave and serf)/free labor (wage earner) couplet, which he deems more fruitful than the one that sets in opposition the slave and freeman (p. 173), (c) the nature of the class struggle in antiquity, which in his view was shaped primarily by peasant (not slave) revolts (numerous passages), (d) the fragility of the imperial Roman system, and (e) his appreciation of the role played by Christianity in this epoch.

While experts in the field will no doubt comment on the more specialized aspects of Sainte Croix's work, we will use this space to pose certain questions prompted by his study. The first pertains to the fundamental problem of Marxist historiography: how to articulate the class struggle on the one hand, and the development of the productive forces on the other in a materialist account of societal evolution. According to the dominant interpretation of Marxism--one which is, moreover, faithful to the letter of certain texts by Marx himself--the class struggle merely "reveals' what is in any case inevitable, namely, the progressive development of the productive forces.

That this deterministic interpretation of Marxism has proved so compelling is in a way understandable. For did not the passage from the epoch of Greco-Roman slavey (antiquity) to European feudalism and later capitalism coincide with the progressive development of the productive forces? Does it not follow that just as the slaves' revolts against their masters finished off the slave mode of production and the peasants' rebellions against the feudal lords ended the feudal mode, so the proletarian insurrection will one day abolish the capitalist mode of production? To effect the transition from one mode to the next, did not a qualitative break-- i.e., a revolution--in the system of social organization always prove necessary? And what better proof of the superiority of each successive mode over its predecessor than the progress--inconceivable in the previous epoch--registered in the development of the productive forces?

Our exposition of this--the dominant--interpretation of Marxism is admittedly very schematic, but we have avoided caricaturing it. Now, given the universal pretensions of this thesis, it must also apply in other parts of the world. But all the artifices of the ideologues of scholastic dogmatism notwithstanding, there is simply no evidence that a slavery-feudalism succession occurred elsewhere. Marx was well aware of this objection; and despite the precious few resources available to him in nineteenth-century Europe, he earnestly sought an answer to it. To the end of his life, he struggled with this problem, particularly as it bore on the situation in Russia. And the unpublished manuscripts he left behind bear witness to the difficulties he encountered, for the elements of a convincing response are nowhere to be found.

The dilemma is obvious. If this passage is the sine qua non of progress at the level of the productive forces, then the comparative development of feudal Europe and Asia on the eve of the latter's colonization is inexplicable. But if the productive forces were able to develop without a change in the mode of production, then there is no necessary correspondence between different levels of development of the productive forces and specific (i.e., different) and successive modes of production. We have therefore advanced the thesis (in Class and Nation) that this correspondence pertains rather to three levels, each of which may contain significant subdivisions: communitarian societies, tributary societies (one variant of which is the feudal mode), and capitalism. In this perspective, slavery is neither a "general' mode nor a "necessary stage'; its particularity is thus fully restored. To be sure, the emergence and development of slavery in Greco-Roman antiquity as well as its impact on the subsequent history of this region still call for an explanation.

But even if we fix our attention exclusively on the Greco-Roman-European region, the thesis of the "necessary' passage presents certain difficulties. The internal factor (the class struggle in the Roman Empire) and the external one (the barbarian invasions) remain to be articulated. And who were the real beneficiaries of the slaves' and serfs' revolt? Who stands to gain from the proletarian insurrection? Do politics and ideology play the same role in successive modes? Do the crises which mediate the transition from one mode to the next (to feudalism, then capitalism and socialism) possess analogous characteristics? Finally, why do we speak of a bourgeois revolution (and a future socialist one) but not of a feudal revolution?

In our opinion, these difficulties, like the ones mentioned earlier, result from the hypothesis of a necessary "slavery-feudalism' succession.

Actually, the pervasiveness of slavery in Greco-Roman antiquity is an aberration in universal history; and it is precisely this fact, this exception to the general rule, that needs explaining. Our hypothesis is that the explanation bears directly on the relative importance of trade relations in those Greek maritime cities uniquely situated on the border of the ancient nonslave civilized states (notably Egypt). The argument against the "trade' thesis is well known. The world of antiquity was essentially rural, not urban; its cities were parasites living off the exploitation of the countryside; the typical member of its dominant classes was a landowner, not a merchant; whatever profits did accrue to the merchant were reinvested in land. Agreed, but this is true of all precapitalist societies, from Egypt to India to feudal Europe. What distinguishes ancient Greece is the relative importance--and not only at the economic level--of these trade relations with the outside world. Pirenne no doubt exaggerated the opposition between "continental agrarian' and "maritime trading' states. Likewise his-- evidently ideological--proposition that the cyclical repetition of this opposition is the key to all history from the times of antiquity (Greco-Roman conflict) down to our epoch (the Atlantic world-Soviet Union) has a stale air about it. Yet, Pirenne did grasp that these external relations enabled Greece to borrow generously from Egypt, mother of all civilizations in this region.

Moreover, whenever foreign trade figures prominently in the economic life of a region, so too does productive slavery. Look, for example, at the Americas during the epoch of mercantilism.

But to return to our original point, is there really much difference between a slave's status and that of other nonfree workers, if the condition of the wage earner in the capitalist mode of production is the standard against which all these differences are measured? Our interpretation of Marxism places less emphasis on the former distinctions than on the one--in our view, qualitative-- which differentiates all precapitalist modes of production from the capitalist one. Certain of Marx's texts emphasize this rupture. Recall, for example, the importance he attaches to the contrast between the personal and political relations of dependence typical of precapitalist societies and the abstract generalized character of capitalist relations in which labor power itself is a commodity. This explains why ideology is the dominant factor in precapitalist reproduction and why this ideology is typically absolute (i.e., religion); and, contrariwise, why the economic is the dominant element in capitalist reproduction and why the characteristic content of its corresponding ideology is economistic.

Once free of the prejudice which sets in opposition antique slave and feudal serf society, we can better appreciate the crisis of the ancient world. Recall that the free small peasants, not the slaves, were responsible for the bulk of agricultural production at this time. The peasantry, to be sure, was also exploited (through taxes and military conscription) but not nearly so ruthlessly as the slaves who supplied most of the surplus off of which the dominant classes lived. The latter classes, along with the state, therefore ought to extend their field of exploitation to include the mass of "free peasants.' And, more than the sporadic revolts of the slaves, it is these peasants' determined resistance to their further exploitation that occupies the center stage of ancient history. In effect, organized resistance proved a far more elusive goal for slaves, scattered about and ethnically heterogeneous, than peasants, unified through the agency of their small rural communities.

Still, the peasants were eventually defeated, and their subjugation coincides with the generalization of nonfree forms of exploitation --sharecropping and serfdom. The social organization of this region now comes more and more to resemble the kind of order that has long prevailed in the East (notably, Egypt and China). Where once there coexisted thriving communitarian modes and the embryo of class exploitation (i.e., the slave/master relation), a fully developed form of class exploitation (i.e., the feudal variant of the tributary mode) took root.

The crisis of Roman antiquity, then, is less the "crisis of slavery' than the "crisis of the free communitarian peasantry.' And, we would argue, the essence of this long transition--the "Roman decay'--is less the transition from slavery to serfdom than the transition from a still incomplete to a fully developed form of the general precapitalist mode of production (which we have designated tributary). Is not Marx's characterization of "Asiatic' societies--"generalized slavery'--equally apt for feudal Europe?

The Roman and Macedonian empires, then, are but episodes in that history of Europe that extends from the Greek era to the feudal epoch, stages in the "becoming' of the tributary mode. These empires were only shadows of the fully developed precapitalist mode, and thus encountered stiff resistance from the peasantry as well as from the subjugated ethnic communities. Their fragility explains why the barbarian invaders, who made common cause with the peasants and ethnic communities in revolt, were able to prevail. But these invasions, if anything, accelerated the generalization of exploitation by endowing it with a specific form, that of serfdom. As Sainte Croix demonstrates, the intensification of the peasants' explotation went hand in hand with their "integration,' i.e., with the homogenization of the statuses of the "humiliated ones' and the (liberated) slaves. This intensification of exploitation via integration in turn paved the way for a further development of the productive forces (the water wheel replaces the handmill, a more modern plow and the use of draft animals replace the swing plow and hoe, etc.).

Once the passage from antiquity to the Middle Ages is grasped not as the climax of an "antislave' revolution, but rather as a stage in the long transition from communitarian modes to the tributary mode (the general precapitalist form of a fully developed class society), the contribution of the barbarian invasions to the destruction of Rome no longer need be conceptualized as an external factor. For just as the communitarian modes--that is, modes in which classes and the state are still embryonic--predominated among the barbarians, so they had far from disappeared in the greater part of the Roman Empire. The populations of Italy, Gaul and Spain, North Africa, Greece, and the Danubian countries were, by and large, still inscribed in this mode. The state-- whether the Creek city or the Roman Empire--was still in the first stages of its constitution. In the East (Egypt, Mesopotamia), on the other hand, the tributary mode crystallized even before the integration of the Roman system. Hence, the fragility of the empire vis-a-vis the barbarians and, also, the Oriental world (the latter, not as yet integrated, will later welcome Islam as its deliverer).

The fall of the Roman Empire therefore did not impact on the East; the tributary mode survived this "event' just as it would the Islamization-Arabization of the East. In the less developed parts of the world (later to be known as Europe), however, the demise of the Roman system accelerated the generalization of a tributary form of exploitation. But because communitarian modes still predominated among the barbarians, a not especially advanced form of the tributary mode crystallized there. In this regard, it is worth recalling that this feudal form developed more quickly and effectively in the backward regions of the ancient empire (Gaul, Spain, Germany, and England) than in the more advanced parts (Italy, Greece).

Far from being a disadvantage, the incomplete character of the European tributary form--in which, for example, no statist form emerged to subordinate the dispersed feudal demesnes--ultimately proved a historical blessing. We have elsewhere advanced the thesis (Class and Nation) that the inherent flexibility of this incomplete form explains the precocious appearance of capitalism in Europe.

Our thesis on the tributary mode also explains the role of Christianity in the evolution from antiquity to feudalism. For Christianity did not reverse the logic of the process then underway. Rather it inscribed itself within that logic and provided an ideology for subordinating all the peasants to feudal exploitation and breaking up the still vital communities of Greco-Roman antiquity. The antique world was in need of a tributary ideology. Naturalistic religions suited the communitarian stage and the cities which, arising out of the antique communities, constituted only an embryonic form of state power. Such ideologies did indeed survive into the days of the Roman Empire, but only as anachronisms. The barbarians felt an analogous need in the course of their transition to the tributary mode: where once a naturalistic religion sufficed, now only a "universal' religion would do. (The same phenomenon can be observed in contemporary Africa, which explains why Islam is flourishing there.)

Christianity is essentially a Western equivalent of the Chinese Confucian system. Both ideologies call for a strong but just ruler (in China, the "good emperor'), and one who is subordinate to the morality of the church. (When the state disappeared, the church served in its stead, awaiting the--belated--recrystallization of the absolute monarchy.)

The subordination of the "just' monarch--regardless of the title he holds--to a higher ethic is the indispensable condition of social reproduction in the tributary mode. And this superior morality Christianity imported from the most advanced tributary society in the region: Egypt. Pirenne's analyses are, in this respect, unsurpassed. For he is one of the few historians who grasped Egypt's decisive contribution, namely, the invention of a Beyond where everyone's conduct in the here and now is judged for all eternity against a standard of immanent justice that takes no account of status, rank, or wealth. Neither the naturalistic religions nor those of Greco-Roman antiquity contained such a concept of superior morality. This Egyptian legacy in Christianity and Islam served to constrain the ruling classes. And precisely for this reason these religions were the ideologies par excellence of the tributary mode: for such ideologies are suited equally to periods of prosperity and to periods during which the masses are in revolt against an unjust emperor who has "lost the Mandate of Heaven.'
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Author:Amin, Samir; Finkelstein, Norman
Publication:Monthly Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1984
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