Max Beer 1922

Book Review by G.D.H. Cole
A Word to Max Beer

Source: Labour Monthly, November 1922, pp. 314-315, [by G.D.H. Cole.];
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Social Struggles in Antiquity. By Max Beer. Leonard Parsons.

MAX BEER ought not to have written this book. He has shown, in his History of British Socialism, that he is capable of doing excellent work; but he simply does not know enough about the ancient world to write its history. There is ample room for a study of the social struggles of antiquity written from the working-class standpoint, but it must be written by someone who has first mastered the essential principles of the history of the ancient world. Max Beer evidently approached his task without the necessary equipment of knowledge. He read many books, and he sought to extract from them evidences of class conflict. But, just because he did not understand the ancient world, he had no principle whereby to test the value of evidence; no sound basis for selection or for the assigning to different persons and events their real importance. Consequently, he degenerates again and again into anecdotage and mere collection of references and extracts, and when he does seek to pass judgments, his conclusions are often quite extraordinarily capricious and disputable.

Moreover, this book has an even more serious defect. A large part of it is really almost irrelevant to any study of the social struggles of antiquity. Long extracts from Plato’s Laws or from early Christian Fathers advocating communal feeding arrangements have really nothing to do with social struggles. And Max Beer shows a quite unwarrantable tendency to sort out all classes of ancient reformers into the two classes of “Communists” and “bourgeois reformers.” His interpretation of Communism seems wide enough to include almost anyone who said it would be nicer if we all took our meals together, or shuffled our wives and children, or abolished the use of money. The semi-mythical Lycurgus turns up as a full-blown Spartan Lenin. Solon, on the other hand, is merely a “middle-class reformer,” while Agis is a sort of ancient Kurt Eisner. And were the Stoics really Communists? And did the great heart of the Greek peoples really yearn for the proletarian revolution? With all respect to Max Beer, I beg leave to doubt it.

The section dealing with Rome is even less satisfactory. Max Beer has a down on the Romans, and he doesn’t let you forget it. The Romans were brutes and hypocrites all the time. Perhaps they were, but I could cap every instance he quotes with one as bad from the history of the city states of Greece. He finds few Communists among the Romans – the Gracchi were “social conservatives”; but Cataline was a Communist, presumably because our knowledge of his aims is too scanty for anyone to be able to prove that he was not. The account of Spartacus and his slave revolt is straightforward and to the point, but it is the only bright spot in the Roman chapters.

The book deals also with Palestine and, incidentally, with ancient Egypt, and its later sections discuss primitive Christianity and the dissolution of the ancient world. I cannot check those sections so well, because I know less of the matters with which they deal. But in them, as in the sections I have described, there is really no coherent explanation of underlying economic forces, and therefore no real history such as one would expect from a Marxian student of Max Beer’s capacity. I have dealt with the sections I can best criticise. I suspect that what I say of them applies to the rest.

Either the author or the translator has made a sad mess of some of the names, technical terms, and Greek and Latin words. What Roman official was called a “quastorium”; where was “Pdokea”; who was “Euhomerus”; and what are “Ecclesiazuses"? Someone might have checked these and other words. Also, Max Beer might have given references and a bibliography. A book like this badly needs them. But – I come back to my first point – he ought not to have written it at all. He can write good books; this is a bad one.