Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


M.I. Finley, Politics in the Ancient World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983, pp.l52, £8.50

In these lectures Sir Moses Finley reflects upon the material he has brought together in his well-known books on the economics and politics of classical civilisation. A frank and honest tone is brought to the discussion throughout, and despite the real gulf separating our times from theirs, a real attempt is made to interpret the problems for us. The interest for the Marxist, acquainted from a different direction with some of them (for example C.L.R. James’ pamphlet on Greek democracy and its relevance) cannot fail to be quickened by his fourth chapter on Popular Participation (pp.70ff.) which shows quite plainly the real meaning of direct participatory democracy as opposed to the vapid electoralism which we moderns associate with the word. The Greeks, of course, would not have identified our system with a democracy at all, but with an electoral oligarchy by which the citizenry is allowed the dubious advantage of choosing by vote every few years from different sections of its ruling class a committee to whom it hands over all its sovereign power.

At the same time, it is difficult not to feel that some of the differences Finley has with G.E.M. de Ste Croix are due to terminological vagueness. Commenting upon his previous argument in The Ancient Economy that ‘status’ and ‘order’ were preferable to class for understanding ancient society (p.l0 n29), but that in the present book he is returning to ‘class’, he notes significantly that this does not imply a change of view. Whilst complaining that Ste Croix has “turned Aristotle into a Marxist” (n26), he equally condemns “the current bad habit of pinning the Marxist label on any and every political analysis that employs a concept of class” (pp.9-10). Marx, of course, denied being the discoverer of the class struggle; in that sense he has every right to stand inside the Western tradition that includes Aristotle in using it as an analytical tool. Moreover, Sir Moses appears to think that the Marxist concept was that classes encountered each other in conflict in their purest form throughout the struggle between them. But any state in which this took place would be rent by unbearable conflict and could not exist at this level of tension. To supply a mediating mechanism between the classes in conflict is precisely the role of the state itself. When Finley says that ”political stability rested on the acceptance in all classes of the legitimacy of status and status-inequality” (p.27) he does not appear to be aware that he is echoing the Marxist truism that in normal conditions the ideas that dominate society are those of the ruling class, who cannot continue to rule unless substantial sections of the lower classes accept them.

Whatever we think of Finley’s own ideas, his direct assault upon mystifications of these points can only delight and inform. He begins by approving of the remark about Aristotle that “the constitution of a state has its roots in ... its social system” (p.l), points out that Solon acknowledged the centrality of “classes and class conflict” (p.2) and says quite openly that “Roman orators and writers were so explicitly class-conscious that only the most blinkered modern historian can maintain total silence about class divisions” (p.3). Every page contains some such arresting statement, making the book a joy to read, as well as an ideal appetiser for Finley’ previous books around the same topic.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 6.7.2003