Class Struggle, Ancient and Modern

“The history of all hitherto existing society”, wrote Marx and Engels at the beginning of the 1848 Communist Manifesto, “is the history of class struggle.” To which Engels added the qualification, in the English edition of 1888, “all written history” to take account of the fact that humans had originally and for many hundreds of thousands of years lived in classless communistic conditions. So Marx and Engels were saying that the history of society since the break-up of primitive communism has been one of class struggles.

But has it? Well, that depends what is meant by the term “class struggle”. Certain historians, including some in the Marxist tradition, have understood this to mean struggles in which one or other of the contending groups recognises itself as a class and is consciously pursuing its interests. In other words, that class struggle has necessarily to involve an element of class consciousness. The drawback with this view is that class-conscious struggles have by no means been a permanent feature in all written history, thus negating the claim.

The Socialist Party, on the other hand, has always understood the class struggle to be a basic feature of any exploiting class society, whether or not those involved are aware of their historical role. The class struggle necessarily goes on whenever there is exploitation of one class by another; whenever, that is, part of what one section of society produces is appropriated by another section. It is the struggle between members of the two classes to maximise or minimise the amount appropriated.

The slaves who refuse to work hard and the slave owner who whips them are both engaged in the class struggle, even if neither consider they belong to one of two separate classes in society with antagonistic interests. So is the modern wage or salary earner who demands better working conditions, higher wages or shorter hours, or who resists having to work harder; or, indeed, who turns up late for work or takes days off. The class struggle—resistance to exploitation by the exploited class—is  a daily, permanent feature in any class society.

One historian who has taken up this position is G.E.M. de Ste Croix of New College, Oxford, in his 500-page book The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981). This is how he puts it in chapter II:

“Class (essentially a relationship) is the collective social expression of the fact of exploitation, the way in which exploitation is embodied in a social structure. By exploitation I mean the appropriation of part of the product of the labour of others: in a commodity-producing society this is the appropriation of what Marx called ‘surplus value’. A class (a particular class) is a group of persons in a community identified by their position in the whole system of social production, defined above all according to their relationship (primarily in terms of degree of ownership or control); to the conditions of production (that is to say, the means and labour of production) and to other classes. . . The individuals constituting a given class may or may not be wholly or partly conscious of their own identity and common interests as a class, and they may or may not feel antagonism towards members of other classes as such.”

“It is of the essence of a class society that one or more of the smaller classes in virtue of their control over the conditions of production (most commonly exercised through ownership of the means of production), will be able to exploit—that  is, to appropriate a surplus at the expense of—the larger classes and thus constitute an economically and socially (and therefore probably also politically) superior class or classes.”

This is essentially the position we take up too, and why we say that class struggle is a permanent feature of any class society—governments continually seek to extract as much profit as they can from the wage and salary working class and workers resist in any ways they can, individually as well as collectively.

Applied to Ancient Greek society, this struggle over the level of exploitation went on mainly between slaves and slaveholders, but not exclusively. Ancient Greek and Roman society, it is important to realise, was not composed just of slaves and slaveholders; most people were in fact free (in the sense of not being owned by someone else) peasants who owned no slaves and lived by working on the small pieces of land they occupied.

At no time was the bulk of the wealth in ancient society produced by slave-labour, although Ste Croix estimates that in the early part of the period studied—which spans some 1300 years from the 8th century BC to the mid-7th century AD—the bulk of the wealth appropriated by the exploiting, propertied class was probably produced by slaves. As time went on, however—and this is the basic theme of his book—the propertied classes, identified by Ste Croix as those who had a sufficient income from their land owning so as not to have to take part in production themselves, came to more and more exploit the non-slave working population as well. This was done not by appropriating the product of their labour by virtue of being owners, but through rents (in money or kind) and taxes and through debt-bondage. By the end of the period under study virtually the whole working population of the Roman Empire (of which ancient Greece had been a part since the 2nd century BC) had the status of serfs, tied to the land and obliged to produce a surplus for their landlords; this included slaves, most of whom had by this time been settled on the land in small farms rather than working big estates in chain-gangs.

Since Ste Croix covers a period of 1300 years and an area comprising not just Greece proper but also modern Turkey, Syria, Palestine and Egypt—then within the sphere of Greek culture—his book could not be a chronicle of events. It is rather a history of the relationships between the three classes of slaves, peasants and the land and slave-owning propertied class and of how these changes affected the general course of history.

He argues that the increasing exploitation of the non-slave working population arose because, at a certain point, slaves had to be bred rather than simply captured in wars and raids. As breeding was more costly, the propertied class sought to maintain their standard of living—that  is, the amount of appropriated wealth on which they lived—by taking a greater surplus from non-slaves. Ste Croix speaks of

“the fall in the rate of exploitation of slave labour consequent upon the widespread extension of slave breeding, and also an increased exploitation of humble free men, as a material result of the fact that the propertied classes were determined to maintain their relatively high standard of life and had all the political control necessary to enable them to depress the condition of others.”

Thus did the class struggle—the struggle over the level of exploitation—determine the general trend of events in ancient Greek and Roman society and eventually led to its decline and replacement by a society based on serfdom rather than chattel-slavery.

Ste Croix’s attitude to Christianity is refreshingly hostile. The Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its state religion in 313 AD and Ste Croix refuses to see this as an advance in civilisation, as we are taught, but regards it, if anything, as a regression. He points out that it introduced another layer of parasites—the bishops and higher clergy—who had to be maintained out of the labour of the working population, as well as instigating religious persecution (of other Christians regarded as heretics, rather than of pagans) which had not existed previously. Readers might find some of Ste Croix’s comments here more in the rationalist than the Marxist tradition, but it should not be forgotten that Marx was an atheist and Jesus therefore an impossible bedfellow, whatever some might think.

But then, so is Mao. Which is why it is disconcerting to have to note that Ste Croix was a Maoist of some sort when he wrote his book. Just how a person capable of writing this excellent application of the materialist conception of history should at the same time have fallen for the ravings of a mad dictator like Mao is difficult to understand. For a start, why didn’t he realise that his analysis of class and exploitation applied equally to Mao’s China as to ancient Greece?

Leave a Reply