Issue 239 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review


Voice of the voiceless

Geoffrey de Ste Croix's legacy is to increase our understanding of historical change, explains Alex Callinicos

Geoffrey de Ste Croix

The great Marxist historian of antiquity, Geoffrey de Ste Croix, died last month a few days before his ninetieth birthday. His masterpiece, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, appeared in 1981, when he was already past 70.

Ste Croix's 'Class Struggle Book', as he liked to call it, was remarkable for three things. First, it involved--most unusually for any British historian--the rigorous and systematic use of Marxist theoretical concepts. Secondly, and much less surprisingly from an Oxford classics don, the book displayed a massive, detailed mastery of the textual remains of ancient Greece and Rome. Thirdly, and most strikingly, Ste Croix passionately identified with the oppressed and exploited. The book's frontispiece is Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters, a study of Dutch peasants at their evening meal. Ste Croix commented, 'These are the voiceless toilers, the great majority--let us not forget it--of the ancient Greek and Roman world, upon whom was built a great civilisation which despised them and did all it could to forget them.'

The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World is a titan of a book, more than 700 pages long, and covering a vast sweep of history. It explores the social and political structures of the eastern Mediterranean from 700 BC onwards, concluding (rather reluctantly) with the Arab conquests over 1,300 years later. It is a rambling work, more a collection of closely related essays than an integrated narrative, full of digressions and pungent asides, as Ste Croix takes on pedants and reactionaries both ancient and modern (another classical historian said that challenging Ste Croix was like getting into the ring with Muhammad Ali).

Yet the book has a unifying theme. It is, quite simply, exploitation. In what is in my view the best single discussion of the Marxist theory of class, Ste Croix argues that 'class is the way in which exploitation is reflected in a social structure'. Classes are defined by people's positions in the relations of production, and in particular by their control or lack of control of the means of production. Thus understood, class is an objective relationship. It does not depend on individuals being aware of their class position or on classes self consciously organising themselves politically.

Yet wherever society is based on exploitation, the class struggle goes on, usually silently as the propertied classes seek to squeeze as much as possible from 'the voiceless toilers'. Ste Croix relentlessly marshals and minutely analyses the evidence to support such a view of classical antiquity. He demonstrates that the Greek and Roman ruling classes were ruthlessly efficient exploiters, as is shown, for example, by the fact that--most unusually in pre-industrial times--ordinary country dwellers suffered worse in times of famine than the towns where the rich landowners were based.

He also argues that ancient Greece and Rome were slave societies, not in the sense that most people were slaves (in fact they were peasants), but because slave labour provided the surplus product off which the ruling class lived. Therefore, as the use of slaves became more costly in the later Roman Empire, the society went into crisis. Yet, as the empire declined, the senatorial aristocracy continued to amass yet more wealth. In a characteristic final paragraph Ste Croix compares them to vampire bats.

This preoccupation with exploitation and class had political sources. In an autographical piece Ste Croix describes how, having left school at 15 and trained as a solicitor, he was radicalised by the rise of fascism in the 1930s. As a Labour Party activist he puzzled over the familiar objection to Marxism that many workers show no signs of class consciousness, but resisted the conclusion that 'the Marxist theory of class conflict (class struggle) has little or no heuristic or explanatory value and does not enable us to understand the contemporary world, and that the Marxist analysis of modern society therefore fails'.

Grasping that class is an objective relationship allowed Ste Croix to see that class struggle can take place even where at least one major class (usually the exploited) lacks class consciousness or collective organisation. This enabled him to avoid the difficulty into which another great Marxist historian, Edward Thompson, got when he defined class in terms of subjective experience.

Though Ste Croix mainly applied this insight to the ancient world, he was delighted when one learned reviewer of his 'Class Struggle Book' asked whether one could find his 'categories of analysis convincing without drawing disturbing inferences for contemporary society'.

By the time Ste Croix had developed his theoretical analysis in the 1970s he was securely lodged at Oxford. After serving in the RAF during the Second World War he studied classics at London University under the great ancient historian AHM Jones, and was eventually elected a fellow of New College, Oxford. There he seems to have been entirely unaffected by the preciousness and elitism typical of Oxford classics dons. His pugnacity and mastery of the sources made those who might otherwise have been tempted to scorn him for his Marxism tread warily.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to hear Ste Croix give a paper at a London Socialist Historians conference. He seemed to have preserved in his late 80s the vigour and commitment of his youthful 1930s militancy. Though he was a much better Marxist than Thompson, like him Ste Croix had something about him of the eccentric English anti-clerical and anti-aristocratic radical. This quality helps to give his writings their unaffected charm.

Ste Croix devoted his later years to a study of the origins of Christianity that he never finished, though fragments will be published. But he will live on in his writings.

A few months ago I was having a theoretical discussion with two Korean Marxists. To aid his argument one comrade invoked Ste Croix's support. Later he showed me his treasured, carefully annotated copy of the 'Class Struggle Book'. A militant atheist like Ste Croix could wish for no better form of immortality.

Challenging Ste Croix was like getting into the ring with Muhammad Ali

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