History man

Explaining decline and fall

Geoffrey Ernest Maurice de Ste Croix, the noted historian of the ancient Greek world, died on February 5 in Oxford aged 89. Born in the Portuguese colony of Macao on February 10 1910, where his father was a customs official, the early life of de Ste Croix was coloured by fundamentalist christianity. His mother was a member of the British Israelites, a protestant sect, which believed that the date of Armageddon could be calculated from the dimensions of the great pyramid of Giza (it measures 480 feet high and has four 755-feet sides - so work it out).

GEM de Ste Croix came to despise christianity's baleful role as an arm of the imperial Roman state from Constantine onwards. Christianity did not improve the rights and conditions of the popular classes - proletarians, peasants and slaves. On the contrary it preached resigned submission in the face of the concerted drive by the state and the ruling classes to squeeze greater and greater amounts of surplus product from them. Much to the discomfort of polite society, de Ste Croix espoused militant atheism. To provoke thought and controversy he would call the christian god by the Jewish name Yahweh. In particular de Ste Croix held a scornful dislike for catholicism and its misogynist doctrines.

Geoffrey's father died when he was four. The de Ste Croix family - a name of Huguenot origin - returned to Britain. Here he was introduced to the classics at Clifton College, a private boys' school near Bristol. Colonial Britain drummed ancient aristocratic and imperial values into the tender minds of those who had been selected by accident of birth to administer the far-flung empire. However, Geoffrey drew conclusions unintended by fastidious teachers. He joined the CPGB. It was the Party leadership's attitude prior to the start of war in 1939 which caused his break with organised politics. After years of anti-fascist propaganda the CPGB did an 180-degree about-turn with the signing of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact. Stalin decreed that Hitlerism was no longer the main enemy. Despite a membership haemorrhage, the CPGB instantly fell into line.

De Ste Croix did not begin adult life as an academic, but a lawyer. He practised in London and Worthing. The outbreak of World War II saw him enter the RAF as an officer. He served in the Middle East and managed to convert radar signals into a form from which the flight paths of enemy aircraft could be plotted. During this time in the RAF his passion for ancient history blossomed. Following demobilisation in 1946 he gained entry into University College London - aged 37. He studied classics. The celebrated historian AHM Jones came to be a big influence. After teaching at LSE, de Ste Croix moved to New College in 1953. He stayed at Oxford till retirement and gained wide recognition for his talents - elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1972 and an emeritus fellow of New College in 1977 and an honorary fellow in 1985.

His two outstanding books were published late in life. The origins of the Peloponnesian war (1972) was greeted by academic reviewers as a milestone. "Not only the most profound large-scale treatment of the origins of the Peloponnesian war, but also one of the most provocative and important contributions to Greek political history" (Journal of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences). "No review can do justice to the richness of this book," wrote WR Connor (Phoenix). Oswyn Murray considered it an "amazing book" (Greece and Rome) and GL Cawkwell proclaimed the account of Sparta as the "fullest and best in English ... immensely useful and stimulating" (Classical Review). Others admired the learning, but criticised what was perceived as a Marxist bias.

The aim of de Ste Croix was to "open a new debate" on the protracted struggle between Sparta and Athens in the 5th century BC. Accepted opinion is that Athens, not Sparta, was responsible for breaking the 30-year peace and beginning hostilities in 431. At their conclusion decades later both the 'two great powers' of ancient Greece lay exhausted. First Persia, then Macedonia, benefited. De Ste Croix brought new, Marxist-inspired insights and vigour to the pro-Athenian explanation offered by the great 19th century historian George Grote in his History of Greece.

For de Ste Croix Athens was a democracy in which the class power and successive constitutional gains of the citizen masses managed to significantly curb the exploitation of the polis by the aristocratic landowners. Ellen Meiksins Wood's book Peasant-citizen and slave develops this thesis.

Most city states in classic Greece were oligarchies. The rich alone possessed full rights. Plato and Aristotle admit that such regimes created extremes of wealth and poverty amongst the citizenry. Polarisation in 6th century Athens reached the point where the free peasantry was in danger of falling into permanent debt and therefore bondage. If that had happened the source of the city's militia of fearsome hoplites would evaporate. After a series of violent class struggles, which included political revolutions, Athens evolved the most extensive and most firmly rooted democracy known to us in the ancient world. Leaders of the demos were rarely men of humble origin. Solon, Cleisthenes, Ephialtes, Pericles and Cleon were highly educated and aristocratic. Nevertheless the democratic constitutions of 5th century Athens bore the unmistakable imprint of those below. Peasant debt was abolished and limits placed on aristocratic land ownership. All male citizens were entitled to vote and received payment for attending the popular assembly and court. Army and navy service was also generously rewarded. Moreover the citizen masses won a sort of welfare state - rations of free grain became a right.

Of course, as de Ste Croix emphasises, the Athenian peasant-citizen state stood on the foundations not only of taxing the rich aristocratic and merchant classes. Slavery, sexism and imperialism were essential to the system's functioning. "We must not forget that even the Athenian democracy ... was a dictatorship of a minority of the population," he writes (GEM de Ste Croix The origins of the Peloponnesian war London 1989, pp44-45). Women as a sex were unenfranchised, along with the slave class. The minority of politically empowered citizens was, though, not a small one, as in other Greek city states. The numbers of slaves in Athens and Attica was hotly disputed for many years. De Ste Croix estimates that there might have been no more than 100,000 at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war. However, he is at pains to locate Athens and its polis within its own time and circumstances. It must be judged not only by our contemporary standards, but also those of its day.

That also applies to Athenian imperialism. Tribute was exacted from a string of colonies and willing and unwilling allies around the Aegean Sea. De Ste Croix agues that despite the exploitation of her Delian League allies "few paid very much" (ibid p43). Athens was, moreover, responsible for sponsoring democracies and overthrowing tyrannical and oligarchal regimes. Athenian imperialism, while not necessarily welcomed by those below, was in all probability viewed as a lesser evil. Certainly Athenian imperialist democracy struck fear into the hearts of all Greek oligarchs.

As for Sparta, it was a deeply conservative social formation. The 9,000 Spartan citizens and the ruling ephors lived primarily at the expense of the Helots - a people-class of state serfs who were obliged to deliver up half their harvest. This was a fact of cardinal importance. The slave class of Athens and elsewhere in Greece was highly fragmented. It was built up piecemeal primarily through war booty, trade with barbarians and slave breeding. In general slaves shared no common sense of nationality and could often not communicate except brokenly in their masters' tongue. Atomised by language and culture, they could resist only as individuals. The slaves were helpless and inert as a class.

This was not the case with the Helots. They were an ever-present internal threat. Their status as the enemy within was more than just symbolised by the stipulated period where once a year it was legal for Spartans to hunt down and freely kill them without incurring any religious impurity. Not surprisingly numerous revolts took place before, with outside help, the Messenian Helots finally re-established their polis in 370-369.

By conquering Messenia Sparta gained some of the most fertile land in Greece and an abundant supply of serfs to farm it. However, because the Messenians refused to accept their oppression the Spartans were driven to "organise themselves as a community of professional soldiers, dedicated not (like other militaristic peoples) to foreign conquest - which might prove highly dangerous if it extended Spartan commitments too far - but above all to maintaining strict internal discipline and harmony" (ibid p91). All males from 20 to 30 were housed in single-sex barracks, older men were organised around mess halls and the whole city and its environs came to resemble a giant military camp. There was something North Korean about Spartan militarism and xenophobia.

Only through their own unfreedom could the Spartans keep down their large population of Helots. For de Ste Croix Sparta provided an "admirable illustration of the maxim that a people which oppresses another cannot itself be free" (ibid p292). In consequence of the unfreedom it brought upon itself Spartan culture atrophied and sank into total impoverishment. Life must have been miserable even for the elite. Spartan aristocrats did not enjoy the artistic and intellectual pursuits considered the birthright of other such Greeks.

Normal class conflict within the polis proved impossible. The Helots would have used it as their opportunity. So although land was parcelled out and made inalienable the position of the Spartan rank and file slowly deteriorated till social reproduction was badly impeded. Only after Sparta lost Messenia and the greater part of its Helots in the 4th century did class conflict erupt and radical constitutional change come about. Fear of the Helots dictated everything, including, shows de Ste Croix, war against democratic Athens.

In 1981 The class struggle in the ancient Greek world was published. It won the prestigious Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize and was much praised on the left. De Ste Croix set out to survey and analyse the class struggle in the Greek world - ie, where Greek was the dominant language of high urban culture - from the archaic age to the Arab conquests. Due to the peaceful inroads of maritime trade and a mosaic of strategic colonies as much as Alexander's staggering conquests in the east this world comprised not only the 'home' territories of Greece, Macedonia, Thrace and the coastal rim of Asia Minor. Egypt and Cyrenia (modern Libya), Syria, the northern edge of Arabia and western Mesopotamia, former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania and the Black Sea coast of Ukraine formed a Greek 'near abroad'.

Marx and Marxism are central to de Ste Croix. Marx, he reminds us, was a classical scholar and Marx and Engels made a number of invaluable contributions to the study of ancient society, crucially the "concept of class and class struggle" (GEM de Ste Croix The class struggle in the ancient Greek world London 1983, p3). With a masterly combination of historic sweep and an intimate knowledge of original sources he discusses the nature of class in the ancient Greek and Roman world and the manifold forms of extra-economic exploitation: eg, slavery, militarism, serfdom and tribute. Land owned by aristocrats and their use of mass slave labour on it was the key class relationship which moulded the contours of everything else. Though slaves were always a minority of the population, the landed aristocracy, as the ruling class, reproduced itself socially and ideologically through the surplus forcibly (ie, extra-economically) extracted from them.

There was a class of merchants. However, successful merchants - invariably foreigners - did their best to transform themselves into landed citizens through marriage or other methods of social climbing and integration. Hence landed wealth and mass slave (not just unfree) labour was crucial - or, as de Ste Croix says, "archetypal"; and that is why it is necessary to characterise these societies as a slave mode of production (ibid p173).

Such a system must be distinguished from earlier, more benign forms of slavery. From the dawn of civilisation war-captives had been put to work instead of being summarily butchered. They existed outside the polis - having no blood relation to the community through tribe or gen. Nevertheless they were incorporated into the family, albeit in a subordinate position. These slaves worked alongside their masters and mistresses on the land or in the household. Their lot was bearable. Production was for immediate consumption. Exploitation was therefore limited. We can cite the affectionate relationship between Odysseus and the "divine swineherd" Eumaeus. The slave is firmly convinced that his mater "loved" and "took thought for me beyond all others" and if he had returned from the Trojan war he would immediately give him a handsome wife, a small farm and liberty (Homer The Odyssey Harmondsworth 1946, p225).

During classic civilisation there was no personal relationship between a master and the average agricultural slave. Slaves were far too numerous. Aristocratic slave-owners acquired a haughty contempt for manual labour. They did not work alongside their slaves. Nor did the likes of these exhibit the slightest human feelings for the slaves they owned. Slaves were mere speaking tools or instruments (Aristotle). In agriculture (and mining) conditions were miserable. Labour was unremitting. They were kept as prisoners. Life expectancy was pitifully short. Lewis Grassic Gibbon in his novel Spartacus brilliantly portrays the loathing and mistrust that existed between the main classes in ancient society. Slaves would exact the most terrible revenge on their tormentors if they got the chance. Being stabbed, bludgeoned or poisoned by domestic slaves was a constant risk run by abusive masters.

While slaves could easily be obtained, the mode of production flourished. Slaves were for a time "extraordinarily" cheap, notes de Ste Croix (GEM Ste Croix The class struggle in the ancient Greek world London 1983, p227). One could purchase an average slave for not much more than half the annual earnings of an artisan. Slaves in the old South of the USA were greatly more costly in comparative terms. There was, however, a fatal flaw which inevitably led to the decadence or decline of the mode of production.

De Ste Croix explains the dynamics, contradictions and final limits of the slave system. The military prowess of Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Corinth, Macedonia and finally Rome was founded on well drilled and well motivated peasant infantrymen. This citizen militia enabled Rome in particular to resist and then overpower culturally more advanced rivals. First the Latins and Etruscans, then the Macedonians, Greeks and Carthaginians, and finally the great cities and lands of Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Rome thus became the "queen and mistress of the world".

As the surplus available to the elite grew, so did the latifundia of the aristocracy. An aristocratic general could well afford to be absent for lengthy periods His overseers ensured the cycle of production continued as normal. Besides that, victories brought vast rewards, not least in the form of slaves and other booty. It was a different story for peasant-citizens. Long wars often meant ruination. Land remained unploughed. Crops went unweeded or unharvested. Short-term relief was sought in loans. The result then of constant war for the peasant was not prosperity, but chronic indebtedness.

On the one hand the land hunger of the aristocrats and on the other the intolerable burden of debt saw peasants steadily removed from the land and either sold off into slavery or swept into the cities. Here they formed a proletariat or lumpenproletariat that leeched off the surplus generated by slave labour. Cities in the ancient world were, as everyone knows, primarily units of consumption, not production. Industry was an individualised activity and commodity production entirely marginal. Proletarians found work as artisans, or doing this and that around the impressive public works - temples, aquaducts and the like - and portering or other such menial activities. Lumpenproletarians lived through innumerable non-productive activities - from begging and prostitution, to street huckstering and clientage.

Over time cheap slave labour - the slave mode of production - tended to displace free peasant labour from the land. Put in sociological terms, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few (the oligarchs) and the mass employment of slave labour saw the decline of the peasant-citizens as a class. Two main consequences follow.

The first is military. The combativity of armies decreases markedly. Neither lumpenproletarians, who live on handouts, nor proletarians, who live by light manual labour, are natural fighting material. When used on the field of battle they were inferior substitutes for the peasant-citizen hoplites. Peasant-citizens were well fed, physically fit and tough; being habitually used to hard work and the extremes of heat and cold. They also had an "šlan born of relative freedom, which enabled the Greeks to put the mighty Persians to flight at Marathon and Plataea (BC 490 and 479). The Greek city states with the main exceptions of Athens and Sparta - who had, as we have seen, their own unique temporary solutions - turned to mercenaries. Rome recruited German barbarians en masse. Such hired forces served to defend, but were never much use in attack.

The second effect is economic. The end of expansionist war closed the abundant supply of captives. Slave prices rise sharply. They have to be bred or purchased from outsiders. In a society where the forces of production are essentially static the rate of surplus extraction had to fall. Slave labour is anyway much less productive than free peasant labour. When slaves were dirt cheap, that mattered not. When they were expensive, it meant a constant negative pressure on the mass of surplus available to the ruling class and thus the drive "to increase the rate of exploitation of the humbler free population" (GEM de Ste Croix The class struggle in the ancient Greek world London 1983, p231). Exploitation of labour being what Marx called absolute, not relative - ie, not through constantly improving technique - that had to be the case.

Slave society proved a dead end. Economic returns declined. Soil fertility declined. The population failed to reproduce itself and therefore declined. Cities and towns became depopulated. Rome itself saw a rapid decrease in the Severi age (AD 193-235). Barbarian Germans were granted large tracts of land and slaves and former slaves enserfed as coloni. So exploited was this unfree, but productive peasant class that large numbers fled over the Roman empire's borders or welcomed barbarian invaders: "Those who have been chastised with scorpions may hope for something better if they think they will be chastised only with whips" (ibid p503). Peasant uprisings plagued Spain and Gaul, but thanks to the legions were never successful.

Wide swathes of society became utterly indifferent to the fate of the empire as the burden of militarism grew. The Roman empire was subject to constant raiding by barbarian neighbours. The standing army, which was 300,000 at the time of Augustus, had to be doubled. We therefore paradoxically find a swelling military budget while total revenue shrank. Taxes had to be more socially widespread, onerous and numerous (Roman citizens had been exempt from taxes). State power and society thereby became opposed. Not only the exploited masses, but the "curial class" of richer citizens hated the state.

In short de Ste Croix provides a rigorous theory of the decline and fall not only of the western Roman empire, but the slave mode of production. Though the Roman empire in the Greek-speaking east survived the fall of Rome by something like 1,000 years, slavery as the dominant mode of production was replaced from Diocletian onwards by a form of serfdom.

Incidentally de Ste Croix insists - rightly in my opinion - that the category 'feudalism' should not be applied in reference to any period or era of ancient society. No matter how distinguished, those historians who have - including AHM Jones, M Rostovtzeff and Ronald Syme - are accused of indulging in a "slipshod" habit that should be "deplored" (ibid p267). If he is prepared to use the term at all, de Ste Croix confines it to the "system of vassalage and of the fief" resting on serf labour described by the French medievalist Marc Bloch - Marx only applied the expression outside western Europe to Japan, where he considered there was a "purely feudal organisation of landed property" (K Marx Capital Vol 1, Moscow 1970, p718).

De Ste Croix concludes the penultimate chapter of his The class struggle in the ancient Greek world with a "short discussion on the religious issue" - ie, christianity. He stresses that, while early christians were subject to persecution, once the church rose to a position of power it "made of organised christianity, over the millennium and a half, a persecuting force without parallel in the world's history" (GEM Ste Croix The class struggle in the ancient Greek world London 1983, p452). A balanced assessment which caused de Ste Croix to steadfastly refuse to even step foot into New College chapel.

Of course, de Ste Croix was an ivory tower academic, and only a Marxist in the sense that he employed the intellectual tools honed by Marx and Engels. It cannot be said that he was first and foremost a revolutionary. Nevertheless he was obviously a man of conviction, spirit and great learning ... learning that we communists would be well advised to absorb.

Jack Conrad