We publish here In Defence of Marxism editor, Alan Woods's brand new introduction to a German edition of his important series, Class Struggles in the Roman Republic. After explaining the historical materialist method, Alan explores the class forces in ancient civilisations, the role of the individual in history, the falsehood of 'objective' history, and the contradictions underpinning slave society that were ultimately the reason for Rome's descent and decline. He then relates the lessons of the ancient world to modern capitalist society, which like the last days of Rome is also teetering on the brink of collapse. The choice before us is socialism or barbarism.
I was delighted to hear the news that a collection of my articles on the class struggle in the Roman Republic is to be published in the German language. For Marxists the study of history is not an academic exercise but an important way in which we can learn how society develops and how the class struggle unfolds.
In saying this, I am conscious of the fact that it flies in the face of the recent fashion for post-modernism, which informs us that it is impossible to draw any conclusions from history, since history follows no laws that can be understood by the human mind. From this point of view, either the study of history is merely a form of entertainment or a complete waste of time.
Despite the pompous way in which this idea is put forward, there is nothing new about it. Shorn of all its pseudo-philosophical pretensions, it merely repeats an idea that was already put forward far more succinctly by Henry Ford who said that “history is bunk”, or even more amusingly:
“History is just one damn thing after another.”
The great English historian and author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, wrote in the 18th century that history was “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind”. (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1, p. 69.) Anyone who reads the pages of this great masterpiece could be excused from drawing similarly pessimistic conclusions. Nevertheless, we must beg to disagree with a method that denies any lawfulness to the history of our species.
When you come to think of it, it really is an extraordinary claim to make. Modern science has firmly established the fact that everything is governed by laws: from the smallest subatomic particle to the galaxies and the universe itself. The idea that, alone in the whole of nature, the history and development of our own species is so special that it stands outside of all laws, is quite preposterous.
Rather than being a scientific theory, it flows directly from the biblical notion that humankind is a special and unique creation of the Almighty – so special and unique that it defies all attempts to understand it. Such supreme arrogance flies in the face of everything we know about nature and the origin of all animal species. And for all our pretensions of superiority, we humans are also animals and subject to the laws of evolution, although the laws of our social evolution are infinitely more complex.
What is historical materialism?
History presents itself to us as a series of actions and reactions by individuals in the field of politics, economics, wars and revolutions and the whole complex spectrum of social development. To lay bare the dialectical relationship between all these phenomena is the task of historical materialism.
The materialist conception of history is therefore a scientific method, which for the first time enables us to understand history, not as a series of unconnected and unforeseen incidents, but rather as part of a clearly understood and interrelated process.
Just as the waves of ocean, which at first sight appear to be unpredictable and arbitrary, are only a surface reflection of profound currents and changes in the wind, so the actions of individual actors in historical dramas are the unconscious agents of profound changes in society that occur unknown to them and which provide a determining framework within which they perform their historical function.
Karl Marx uncovered the hidden mainsprings that lie behind the development of human society from the earliest tribal societies up to the present day. As he explains in a celebrated passage from his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
“In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production...The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence (which) determines their consciousness.”
The individual in history
It is necessary to emphasize that Marx and Engels never denied the role of the individual in history. In The Holy Family, written before The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels explained that the idea of ‘History’, conceived apart from individual men and women, was merely an empty abstraction:
“History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.” (Marx and Engels, The Holy Family, Chapter VI)
All that Marxism does is explain the role of the individual as part of a given society, subject to certain objective laws and, ultimately, as the representative of the interests of a particular class. Ideas have no independent existence, nor their own historical development. "Life is not determined by consciousness," Marx writes in The German Ideology, "but consciousness by life”.
The ideas and actions of people are conditioned by social relations, the development of which does not depend on the subjective will of men and women but takes place according to definite laws, which in the last analysis reflect the development of the productive forces. The interrelations between these factors constitute a complex web that is often difficult to see. The study of these relations is the basis of the Marxist theory of history.
But if men and women are not the puppets of “blind historical forces”, neither are they entirely free agents, able to shape their destiny irrespective of the existing conditions imposed by the level of economic development, science and technique, which, in the last analysis, determine whether a socio-economic system is viable or not. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx explains:
"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living […]."
In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, written much later, Engels provides us with a more developed expression of these ideas. Here we have a brilliant and concise exposition of the basic principles of historical materialism:
"The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men's brains, not in men's better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange.”
One of the most deeply ingrained prejudices of the human mind is the idea of free will – the notion that we are in complete control of our actions. But Sigmund Freud explained long ago that the actions of individuals are not the product of free will but reflect powerful unconscious forces of which the individual has no knowledge and over which he or she has no control.
In the same way, the participants in history may not always be aware of the objective processes that condition their actions and impose strict limitations on their scope. They are not necessarily conscious of the real forces driving them, seeking instead to rationalise them in one way or another, but those forces exist and have a basis in the real world.
In the English Revolution of the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans he led into battle firmly believed that they were fighting for the victory of the Kingdom of God on Earth. However, subsequent history shows that what they were really doing was overthrowing a form of society that had outlived its historical purpose, thus clearing the ground for the victory, not of the ideal kingdom of God, but of the moneygrubbing bourgeoisie.
Similarly, in the 18th century, Maximilien Robespierre and the leaders of the French Revolution fought the feudal monarchy under the banner of Reason, but behind the slogans of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity was hidden the cynical profit motive of the French bourgeoisie that played no role in the revolutionary struggles against the old regime, but simply waited in the wings to pick up the fruits of victory.
In both cases, those who carried out the revolution were inspired by a vision of the future. They were sincerely convinced of what they were fighting for. But their ability to achieve their declared aims ran counter to the existing state of development of the productive forces, which inevitably led – and could only lead – to the victory and consolidation of a capitalist economy.
Can historians be objective?
However dispassionate and ‘factual’ the historian may wish to be, it is impossible to escape having some sort of view on the events described. To claim otherwise is to attempt to defraud the reader. The persistent attempts by bourgeois, academic historians to hide behind a hypocritical façade of alleged objectivity cannot hide the fact that in every case they are guided, consciously or unconsciously, by the desire to defend the existing social order and its values.
To prove this assertion, it is only necessary to cast a glance over the mountain of rubbish that has been produced over the last 12 months to prove that the Bolshevik Revolution was, in the best-case scenario, a terrible mistake, and in the worst a crime against humanity. It is hardly necessary to point out that these ‘scientific’ works are little more than crude propaganda, full of the most blatant lies and distortions, the sole intention of which is, to quote the words of Thomas Carlyle (referring to the similarly slanderous treatment of Oliver Cromwell by contemporary historians), to bury the October Revolution “under a mountain of dead dogs”.
When Marxists look at society they do not pretend to be neutral, but openly espouse the cause of the working class and socialism. However, that does not at all preclude scientific objectivity. A surgeon involved in a delicate operation is also committed to saving the life of his patient. He is far from ‘neutral’ about the outcome. But for that very reason, he will distinguish with extreme care between the different layers of the organism.
Marxists will always strive to obtain the most scientifically exact analysis of social processes, in order to successfully influence the outcome. But we are not dealing here with just a series of facts, “one after another”, but rather seek willingly to draw out the general processes involved and explain them.
From this we can see that the flow and direction of history has been – and is –shaped by the struggles of successive social classes to mould society in their own interests and the resulting conflicts between the classes that flow from that.
Class struggle in the ancient world
As Communist Manifesto reminds us, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” In the ancient world we already have clear proof of this assertion. The first example of a strike in recorded history is to be found in the so-called “strike papyrus” in Turin, where a very interesting account of a strike of the workers building the tomb of the pharaoh, Ramesses III, is explained in detail.
The history of ancient Athens is one of the most violent and continuous class struggle, revolutions and counterrevolutions. But the clearest and most fully documented history of the class struggle in ancient times is the very rich record that has come down to us of the history of the Roman Republic. Marx was very interested in this phenomenon, as we learn from a letter that he wrote to Engels on 22 February, 1861. In it we read the following:
“As a relaxation in the evenings I have been reading Appian on the Roman Civil Wars, in the original Greek text. A very valuable book. The chap is an Egyptian by birth. Schlosser says he has ‘no soul’, probably because he goes to the roots of the material basis for these civil wars. Spartacus is revealed as the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history. Great general (no Garibaldi), noble character, real representative of the ancient proletariat.
“Pompeius, reiner Scheisskerl [an utter rotter]; got his undeserved fame by snatching the credit, first for the successes of Lucullus (against Mithridates), then for the successes of Sertorius (Spain), etc., and as Sulla's ‘young man’, etc. As a general he was the Roman Odilon Barrot. As soon as he had to show what he was made of – against Caesar – a lousy good-for-nothing. Caesar made the greatest possible military mistakes – deliberately mad – in order to bewilder the philistine who was opposing him. An ordinary Roman general – say Crassus –would have wiped him out six times over during the struggle in Epirus. But with Pompeius everything was possible. Shakespeare, in his Love's Labour Lost, seems to have had an inkling of what Pompey really was.”
Even today, a reading of Roman history, and particularly the moving story of the revolt of the slaves led by that towering revolutionary giant Spartacus, can be a source of great inspiration for the present generation. Although our only record of this great man was written by his enemies, his actions come across sufficiently clearly to shine like a beacon, the light of which has remained undimmed after two millennia.
It was no accident that those great revolutionary heroes of modern times, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, took the name of Spartacus as the emblem of the revolutionary German proletariat. Like the hero whose example they followed so bravely, they fell victim to the forces of a brutal counterrevolution. Today, the names of their murderers are forgotten, but the names of Spartacus, Liebknecht and Luxembourg will forever be remembered by every class-conscious worker and revolutionary youth fighting for a better future.
The secret of Rome’s greatness
In its heyday, the Roman Empire presented an impressive sight. Its buildings, monuments, roads and aqueducts stand even today as a mute but eloquent reminder of Rome’s greatness. But it must never be forgotten that Roman power was based upon violence, mass murder, robbery and deceit. The Roman Empire was, like every subsequent empire, a massive exercise in oppression, slavery and common theft.
The Romans utilized brute force to subjugate other peoples, sold entire cities into slavery and slaughtered thousands of prisoners of war for amusement in the public circus. Yet the Roman Empire began its existence as a tiny, almost insignificant state that found itself at the mercy not only of its Latin neighbours, but of the far more powerful Etruscans and even, at one point, by the Celtic barbarians that defeated and humiliated the Romans. In the beginning it did not even possess a standing army. Its armed forces consisted of a militia based upon a free peasantry. Its cultural life was as poor as the peasants themselves.
Yet within a few centuries, Rome succeeded in dominating not only Italy, but the whole of the Mediterranean and what was then known as the civilized world. How was this remarkable transformation brought about? The answer to this question is still a closed book for some modern historians. I recently saw a series about Roman history on British television in which a well-known historian put forward the idea that the secret of Rome’s greatness was somehow implanted in the genetic make-up of the Romans themselves. From this point of view, its conquests were a foregone conclusion.
At this point we leave science behind and enter into the realm of fantasy and fairy tales. By what magical process the secret of greatness was implanted into the genes of early Romans is a mystery known only to those who believe it. It calls to mind the lines of the English poet Coleridge when he ridiculed the philosophical mysticism of a fellow poet:
“Explaining metaphysics to the Nation:
“I wish he would explain his explanation.”
Using the Marxist method of historical materialism in my articles I have tried to explain the process whereby Rome was transformed from a humble city state – one might almost say an outsized village – into a powerful and aggressive imperialist power.
I might add that this case is by no means unique in history. History shows the proof of the dialectical law that things can change into their opposite. It is generally forgotten today that the most powerful imperialist nation on earth, the United States of America, started out as an oppressed colony of Great Britain. Likewise, Rome spent its early life under the dominion of its Etruscan neighbours. Forced by circumstances into an interminable series of wars, Roman society was compelled to develop a powerful military machine, which eventually drove all before it into submission.
But these continuous wars – which were initially wars of defence – turned into wars of offence, aimed at conquering territory and subjugating other peoples. This changed the very character of Roman society and the nature of its army. In turn, it undermined the very existence of the factor that had given early Roman society its coherence, stability and strength – the free Roman peasantry. The conquest of foreign states provided the basis for a transformation of productive relationships through the introduction of slavery on a massive scale.
Contradictions of slavery
Like all forms of class oppression, slavery contains an inner contradiction that led to its destruction. Although the labour of the individual slave was not very productive (slaves must be compelled to work), the aggregate of large numbers of slaves, as in the mines and latifundia (large scale agricultural units) in Rome in the last period of the Republic and the Empire, produced a considerable surplus. At the height of the Empire, slaves were plentiful and cheap and the wars of Rome were basically slave hunts on a massive scale.
But at a certain stage this system reached its limits and then entered into a lengthy period of decline. Since slave labour is only productive when it is employed on massive scale, the prior condition for its success is an ample supply of slaves at a low cost. But slaves breed very slowly in captivity and so the only way a sufficient supply of slaves can be guaranteed is through continuous warfare. Once the Empire had reached the limits of its expansion under Hadrian, this became increasingly difficult.
However, the beginnings of a crisis in Rome can already be observed in the latter period of the Republic, a period characterized by acute social and political upheavals and class war. From the earliest beginnings there was a violent struggle between rich and poor in Rome. There are detailed accounts in the writings of Livy and others of the struggles between Plebeians and Patricians, which ended in an uneasy compromise. At a later period, when Rome had already made herself mistress of the Mediterranean by the defeat of her most powerful rival Carthage, we saw what was, in actual fact, a struggle for the division of the spoils.
Tiberius Gracchus demanded that the wealth of Rome be divided up among its free citizens. His aim was to make Italy a republic of small farmers and not slaves, but he was defeated by the nobles and slave-holders. This was a disaster for Rome in the long run. The ruined peasantry – the backbone of the Republic and its army – drifted to Rome where they constituted a non-productive class, living off dole from the state. Although resentful of the rich, they nevertheless shared a common interest in the exploitation of the slaves – the only really productive class in the period of the Republic and the Empire.
The great slave rising under Spartacus was a glorious episode in the history of antiquity. The spectacle of these most downtrodden people rising up with arms in hand and inflicting defeat after defeat on the armies of the world's greatest power is one of the most incredible events in history. Had they succeeded in overthrowing the Roman state, the course of history would have been significantly altered.
The basic reason why Spartacus failed in the end was the fact that the slaves did not link up with the proletariat in the towns. So long as the latter continued to support the state, the victory of the slaves was impossible. But the Roman proletariat, unlike the modern proletariat, was not a productive but a purely parasitical class, living off the labour of the slaves and dependent on their masters. The failure of the Roman revolution is rooted in this fact.
The defeat of the slaves led straight to the ruin of the Roman state. In the absence of a free peasantry, the state was obliged to rely on a mercenary army to fight its wars. Eventually the deadlock in the class struggle produced a situation similar to the more modern phenomenon of Bonapartism. The Roman equivalent is what we call Caesarism.
The Roman legionnaire was no longer loyal to the Republic but to his commander – the man who guaranteed his pay, his loot and a plot of land when he retired. The last period of the Republic is characterised by an intensification of the struggle between the classes, in which neither side was able to win a decisive victory. As a result, the state (which Lenin described as ‘armed bodies of men’) began to acquire increasing independence, to raise itself above society and to appear as the final arbiter in the continuing power struggles in Rome.
A whole series of military adventurers come onto the scene: Marius, Crassus, Pompey, and lastly Julius Caesar – a general of brilliance, a clever politician and a shrewd businessman, who in effect put an end to the Republic whilst paying lip service to it. His prestige boosted by his military triumphs in Gaul, Spain and Britain, he began to concentrate all power in his hands. Although he was assassinated by a conservative faction who wished to preserve the Republic, the old regime was doomed.
After Brutus and the others were defeated by the triumvirate, the Republic was formally recognized, and this pretence was kept up by the first Emperor, Augustus. The very title ‘Emperor’ (imperator in Latin) is a military title, invented to avoid the title of king that was so offensive to republican ears. But a king he was, in all but name.
The forms of the old Republic survived for a long time after that. But they were just that – hollow forms with no real content, empty husks that in the end could be blown away by the wind. The Senate was devoid of all real power and authority. Julius Caesar had shocked respectable public opinion by making a Gaul a member of the senate. Caligula considerably improved upon this by making his horse a senator. Nobody saw anything wrong with this, or if they did they kept their mouths firmly shut.
It often happens in history that outworn institutions can survive long after their reason to exist has disappeared. They drag out a miserable existence like a decrepit old man who clings onto life, until they are swept away by a revolution. The decline of the Roman Empire lasted for nearly four centuries. This was not an uninterrupted process. There were periods of recovery and even brilliance, but the general line was downwards.
The decay of the slave economy, the monstrously oppressive nature of the Empire with its bloated bureaucracy and predatory tax farmers, was already undermining the whole system. There was a steady drift to the countryside where the basis was already being laid for the development of a different mode of production – feudalism. The barbarians merely delivered the coup de grâce to a rotten and moribund system. The whole edifice was tottering, and they merely gave it a last and violent push.
A regime of social decay
The failure of the oppressed classes of Roman society to unite to overthrow the brutally exploitative slave-state led to an inner exhaustion and a long and painful period of social, economic and cultural decay, which prepared the way for the barbarians.
In periods like this, there is a general sense of malaise. The predominant mood is one of scepticism, and pessimism about the future. The old traditions, morality and religion – things that act as a powerful cement holding society together – lose their credibility. In place of the old religion, people seek out new gods. In its period of decline, Rome was inundated with a plague of religious sects from the east. Christianity was only one of these, and although ultimately successful, it had to contend with numerous rivals, such as the cult of Mithras.
When people feel that the world in which they live is tottering, that they have lost all control over their existence and that their lives and destinies are determined by unseen forces, then mystical and irrational tendencies get the upper hand. People believe that the end of the world is nigh. The early Christians believed this fervently, but many others suspected it. In point of fact, what was coming to an end was not the world but only a particular form of society – slave society. The success of Christianity was rooted in the fact that it connected with this general mood. The world was evil and sinful. It was necessary to turn one's back on the world and all its works and look forward to another life after death.
The immediate effect of the barbarian onslaught was to wipe out civilization and throw society and human thought back for a thousand years. The productive forces suffered a violent interruption. The cities were destroyed or abandoned. The invaders were an agricultural people and knew nothing of towns and cities. The barbarians in general were hostile to the towns and their inhabitants (a psychology that is quite common among peasants in all periods). This process of devastation, rape and pillage was to continue for centuries, leaving behind a terrible heritage of backwardness, which we call the Dark Ages.
A descending line of civilization
In the 19th century, when capitalism was still playing a progressive role in developing the means of production, the predominant theory of the bourgeoisie was liberalism. The idea that capitalism and the free market economy were a cast-iron guarantee for the future of humanity led to the comforting idea that, under the benevolent rule of the bourgeoisie, today will always be better than yesterday, and tomorrow better still.
Until fairly recently that idea still exercised a powerful effect on the psychology of most men and women – at least in the western world. Since the Second World War, Europe experienced decades of economic upswing and relative prosperity, which appeared to be never-ending. The optimistic conceptions of 19th century liberalism were taken over by the Social Democracy, which in Britain, Germany and Austria presided over a series of reforms in welfare, health, housing, education and pensions, which seemed to guarantee a wonderful future for all.
But since the world capitalist crisis of 2008, not one stone upon another remains of these rosy illusions. By degrees, people have come to realize that, just as today is considerably worse than yesterday, no improvement can be expected from tomorrow. In place of the old optimism we have an all-pervading mood of pessimism. Contrary to the old prejudice of liberalism that envisages history as a continuous upwards movement towards ever-greater progress, history knows a descending line as well as an ascending one. That is shown very clearly by the fate of Rome, where the failure to arrive at a revolutionary synthesis between the slaves and the ancient proletariat led inevitably to a long period of decline, and an eventual collapse into barbarism.
Karl Marx pointed out that there are two possibilities before the human race: socialism or barbarism. The question is therefore posed in the starkest terms: in the coming period, either the working class will take into its hands the running of society, replacing the decrepit capitalist system with a new social order based on the harmonious and rational planning of the productive forces and the conscious control of men and women over their own lives and destinies, or else we will be faced with a most frightful spectacle of social, economic and cultural collapse.
The crisis of capitalism represents not just an economic crisis that threatens the jobs and living standards of millions of people throughout the world. It also threatens the very basis of a civilized existence – insofar as this exists. It threatens to throw humankind back on all fronts. If the proletariat – the only genuinely revolutionary class – does not succeed in overthrowing the rule of the banks and monopolies, the stage will be set for a collapse of culture and even a return to barbarism.
In many ways, the present state of capitalist society reminds one of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire that was so graphically depicted in the great work of Edward Gibbon. It is possible to judge the level of civilisation of a given culture by its treatment of women, children and old people. From this point of view modern capitalism is far less civilised, more inhuman and cruel than earlier forms of human society. The level of alienation and degradation of human beings, the indifference to human suffering and obscene egotism have reached levels unknown in history. These are revolting symptoms of the sickness of a society that is rotten ripe for overthrow.
Everywhere there is conflict, unemployment, poverty and hunger. And everywhere a new spirit of revolt is arising and people are looking for ideas that can explain what is happening in the world. The old, stable, peaceful, prosperous capitalism is dead, and with it the old peaceful, harmonious relations between the classes. The future will be one of years and decades of austerity, unemployment and falling living standards. That is a finished recipe for a revival of the class struggle everywhere. Many people are beginning to question the existing social, political and economic order and its values. The search for an alternative is beginning.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history. Nowadays these words have a completely hollow ring. They sound ironic at a time when history has returned to take its revenge on its detractors. For Marxists, the study of history has a very practical purpose. Only by studying carefully the lessons of the past will it be possible for the working class to raise itself to the level of the tasks posed by the future. In the words of the American philosopher George Santayana: “He who does not learn from history will always be doomed to repeat it.”
The rise of modern capitalism and of its gravedigger, the working class, has made much clearer what is at the heart of the materialist conception of history. Our task is not merely to understand but bring to a successful conclusion the historic struggle of the classes by means of the victory of the proletariat and the socialist transformation of society.