Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History
Ellen Meiksins Wood, Peasant-Citizen and Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy, Verso, London 1988, pp.210, £22.95.
This is yet another academic assault on Marxism from within, following the fashion of re-evaluating the peasantry positively at the expense of the working class. This course has been trod by others from the Verso stable, from Löwy’s attempt to assign the ro1e of the working class in the permanent revolution in the underdeveloped countries to a petty bourgeois Stalinist clique undertaking peasant guerilla warfare, to the attack upon Marx’s theory of the Asiatic mode in the appendix to Anderson’s Lineages of the Absolutist State.
This admitted, it should be said that Professor Wood does a real service in demonstrating how thin the evidence is for the traditional view of the part played by slavery in ancient Athens. The most we can say of the Marxist view is now ‘not proven’, though highly likely. But is this saying any more than we already knew about the limitations of our source material in general for reconstructing ancient history?
There are times when evidently the author herself is not aware of exactly where these limits lie. Pythagoras is discussed on the assumption that he really was the originator of the famous theorem that bears his name, as if we really knew anything about him (p.2), and another charmingly naive passage (pp.162-9), whilst drawing our attention to Martin Bernal’s worthless book, tells us that as the Mycenaean script was only ever used for bureaucratic purposes (Linear A, presumably was limited to the same function!), it was to the introduction of the alphabet into the peasant society that we owe Greek achievement in literature, science and philosophy. What she must make of Phoenician literature (the entire Ras Shamra corpus, for a start), let alone the rich unalphabetic literatures of Egypt, Sumeria, Babylon and Assyria is anyone’s guess. And how Athens was capable of raising a hoplite army of thirteen thousand on near subsistence family plot farming is never explained to us.
Read the book by all means as a very successful example of special pleading, but for analysis you are safer with M.I. Finley and G.E.M. de Ste Croix.
Updated by ETOL: 5.7.2003