Spartacus: A Study in Revolutionary History. Francis Ambrose Ridley 1944

Part III: The Spartacist Tradition

Chapter I: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Antiquity

The servile revolt under Spartacus was, as we have seen, the great revolution of classical times. No other slave revolt, so far as we can judge from our surviving records, caused such profound and lasting alarm amongst the ruling classes of ancient times. When we learn, and, of course, from sources bitterly opposed to the slave revolutions, that, long after the suppression of the insurrection, the mothers of the ruling class used to frighten their refractory children by telling them that the bogey-man, Spartacus, was coming, such an apparently trivial detail speaks volumes for both the profound alarm that the slave revolution had caused amongst the ruling classes and for the narrow margin by which alone it missed success. And, indeed, even the bare recital of the Spartacist campaigns cited above demonstrates the narrow margin by which the slaves fell short of victory. Had they only held together under the military genius who commanded them, who knows what would have happened?

Thus, it cannot be stated dogmatically that military success for the slaves was necessarily impossible. As far as we can see, they could have scored a decisive military success had their luck not been so adverse. Indeed, if the study of universal history teaches us anything, it is that the word ‘inevitable’ must always be used with the very greatest caution in relation to historical phenomena. Nothing, indeed, seems ‘inevitable’, except Death; and Death is not a thing but the negation of a thing! Certainly, on the evidence at our disposal, we do not appear to be justified in asserting that the revolt of the slaves under Spartacus could not conceivably have been successful.

A revolt, however, is not a revolution, at least not in any scientific usage of the last-named term. For whilst a revolt only changes the political appearances of society, a revolution changes its underlying realities: it creates not only or principally a new governing apparatus, but, ultimately, a new social order. The servile insurrections of antiquity, of which that of Spartacus was the climax, were certainly revolts, but whether they are entitled to be called revolutions is a much more complicated and doubtful question.

The scientific conception of revolution, as used in modern times, presupposes the existence of social and economic forces latent in a decaying society and waiting to be released from an outmoded social structure by the dynamic energy of a rising and historically progressive revolutionary class. Such revolutionary classes in modern society have been represented on the stage of world history by the capitalist class in the era of the Reformation and the French Revolution, and by the modern proletariat. For in both the above cases, the victory of the new rising class over the old order liberated new progressive forces from the womb of an obsolete and decadent social order and, by their instrumentality, created new social orders different from, and superior to, the old.

Thus, for example, the victory of the sequential chain of bourgeois revolutions between the Reformation and the French Revolution ended not only the feudal class, but, equally, the feudal social order. And whatever one may think of the capitalist order, which replaced it, it is, at least, historically undeniable that, with all its crimes and shortcomings, it released the potential forces latent in science and technology on a scale undreamt of by the old feudal order. And was, thus, a revolutionary force which transformed its contemporary society from top to bottom, thus making for human progress and for human betterment in the current state of society.

As Marx and Engels pointed out, once for all, in the Communist Manifesto, whatever counter-revolutionary role the now decadent capitalist class may adopt today, nothing, absolutely nothing, can deprive it of its historic claim to be the most revolutionary class in all history prior to the rise of the modern proletariat. The contemporary colossal forces of production, as and when compared with the meagre social production alone at the disposal of ancient and medieval society, constitute the extant convincing testimony to the thoroughgoing social revolution which the bourgeoisie have carried triumphantly through between the Reformation and our own day.

Similarly, the modern proletariat, as yet incompletely victorious, but moving forward in stages to the world revolution, which is their historical goal, likewise have a still more far-reaching plan than their bourgeois predecessors. They aim at nothing else or less than world unity and universal well-being, to be achieved by internationalism and the world-wide substitution of production for use in lieu of production for profit. By the agency of this profound social transformation the vast reservoirs of social productive power will be released from capitalist bonds and from their limiting property relations, and will bring into being social achievements and potentialities that will far surpass the highest and most far-reaching achievements of the preceding bourgeois order.

The modern age has, therefore, been a revolutionary age; it has, successively, been transformed beyond all recognition by the dynamic agency of revolutionary social forces, which last have expressed themselves historically in the revolutionary victories of the class struggle against, successively, feudalism and capitalism.

Ancient society, contrarily, knew no such movements of social transformation and revolutionary renewal. For these historic results could, in the given conditions, have been achieved only by a revolutionary class utilising the latent possibilities of an industrial revolution; which last, as we have seen already, were never translated from potentiality to fact at any point in the evolution of classical society, which remained to the end a complete stranger to the dynamic and all-transforming power of the scientific industrial revolution and of its offspring, the Machine Age. As for the revolutionary class, this was the slave class, of which Spartacus was the ‘Lenin’, to employ a modern analogy. And the slave class, as we have seen, never succeeded, under either Eunus, Aristonicus or Spartacus, in making its revolutionary overturn of the ancient slave-owning society, the ‘executive committee’ of which, its governmental apparatus, was the Roman Empire.

We cannot, therefore, say whether a slave revolt, had it been successful, could have become transformed into a revolution which would have been capable of effecting fundamental social changes in the composition of Roman society and that of the Mediterranean world in general.

On the whole, the answer to this speculative question is probably in the negative. Had Spartacus won, probably all that would have transpired would have been that the Romans would have become slaves, and the slaves Romans! Spartacus and Caesar would have merely changed places! Indeed, the destruction of its centralised Roman government might have actually led to the decline of ancient society into a congeries of rustic societies of a more primitive kind, such as later arose, after the fall of Rome, in the Dark and Middle Ages, between AD 500 and 1000. In this last eventuality, the victory of the slaves would have been actually retrogressive in place of revolutionary, and Crassus and his legions would have actually been the saviours of civilisation from barbaric regression! [1]

There was, however, another possible outcome to a victorious slave insurrection. Classical society had reached a very high cultural and administrative level by the first century BC. Probably as high a level, in general, as was reached anywhere prior to the Industrial Revolution, which began about 1750 AD. Many of the prerequisites for such a technical revolution existed in classical society. What held back such a scientific revolution seems to have been chiefly the basic institution of slavery, at all times and places so wasteful economically and so inimical to both scientific and economic development. If the victorious Spartacus had abolished slavery, under the influence of the ‘Sun State’, even for a short time, it is possible, though not very likely, that an industrial revolution might have followed.

In which later case, the whole history of the Western world would have been entirely different; the ancient civilisation need not have sunk into decay, and its religious and ethical legacy to succeeding ages, one that has been so vastly influential, would have been entirely dissimilar. Indeed, if one elects to pursue the theme further, the ancient proletariat might have been transformed into a modern one without the retrogressive interregnum of the Dark and Middle Ages; and socialism might have found its ‘Marx’ in antiquity and made its historic appearance in the classical world. In which case, our modern professors of mechanical ‘inevitability’ would have inevitably proved how inevitable the whole process was!

The above, however, are merely speculative might-have-beens. In actual history, unsuccessful revolutions do not lead necessarily to further revolutions, but to counter-revolutions. Thus, in our own day, we have seen the failure of the Russian Revolution to spread to the West in the years immediately after 1917, lead not to further revolutions, but to the victorious counter-revolutions of Fascism under Hitler and his Fascist co-dictators Mussolini, Franco and others. And, similarly, the failure of the great servile insurrection of antiquity led to the very similar counter-revolutionary regime of the Caesars, that era of permanent dictatorship and permanent counter-revolution that thereafter survived until the end of antiquity: a regime of despotism, the police state and iron repression which found its congruous figureheads in such monstrous figures as Nero and Caligula, and which exalted the worship of the Emperor, that is, of itself, because it had nothing else to offer mankind! An ancient regime which undoubtedly presents impressive parallels with our modern Fascist regimes, which themselves have similarly followed upon the failure of modern revolutionary movements. (Julius Caesar actually used the words ‘New Order’ in a speech!)

It cannot reasonably be doubted that the formidable slave insurrection of Spartacus gave a tremendous impetus to the already existing tendencies towards dictatorship which we have noted in connection with Crassus. Spartacus, therefore, can be ranked as one of the formative causes of the Empire of the Caesars: of the permanent regime of counter-revolution and repression which was set up under Julius and Augustus Caesar, a generation after the death of Spartacus, by the ruling classes of the Mediterranean world in order to ensure their decaying society against both the internal consequences of its own decay and the recurrence of slave insurrections.

In both these aims, we may add, it was entirely successful. There were no more servile insurrections, and the Caesars avoided dissolution by stabilising decay. It is well known for how many centuries ‘the decline and fall of the Roman Empire’ dragged on its weary way, long after all its creative sap of life had departed. Without any social dynamic to urge it on, the revolution that alone might have saved classical society from the otherwise unavoidable consequences of its own decay remained in the limbo of the unborn. Henceforth the ‘Sign of the Beast’, the dead hand of the Caesars, presided over the antique world.

As for the slaves, they sank into a deep mental coma of hopelessness and chronic despair: ‘without hope in this world’, as an early Christian writer phrased it in the first days of the Caesars. It is true that, as the Roman expansion slowed down and slaves became correspondingly scarce, some check was necessarily put upon the reckless cruelty with which they had been treated in the days of the great Roman land-ramps, when the supply exceeded the demand. As the decline of the Empire wore on, and the state passed to the permanent military defensive, the slaves acquired a certain ‘scarcity value’ and became the object of ‘humane’ legislative protection under the later Caesars! But the canker remained at the basis of ancient society, poisoning its roots and infecting incurably the whole social body.

Under these circumstances an incurable hopelessness seized upon the doomed class. Beaten in this world, it turned to another: to Heaven, the only fatherland of the slave and the outcast. It was no accident, but was in the nature of social evolution, that, barely a century after the final defeat of the slaves, there appeared in the Roman Empire the first great slave religion, the divine symbol of which was the self-same cross upon which the last slave warriors of Spartacus had gasped out their lives in agony; that cross upon which, a century after Spartacus, the titular founder of Christianity, also, was supposed to have been suspended for treasonable revolutionary activities against the Roman Empire.

The rulers of the Roman world were tranquil. They had crushed the slaves and then put their own administrative house in order. ‘All was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.’ Men so fortunately placed as those proud and powerful men needed no assistance, not even Divine. ‘Let the gods attend to their own affairs’, proudly declared the Emperor Tiberius (AD 14-37); and he, no doubt, spoke out aloud the thoughts of his own class.

Such, however, were not the thoughts of the innumerable slaves, serfs and paupers, upon whose ruthless exploitation ‘the grandeur that was Rome’ was built up and maintained. For them there was no hope, no future, and no peace – except the peace of the grave. Only God could help these abject beings who were so effectively precluded from helping themselves.

And, gradually, the idea arose that God had attended, had come from Heaven to help those who were without human help; had lived their life and had died their death on the cross.

A century after the death of Spartacus such ideas began to be preached, first in an obscure eastern province of the Roman Empire, and then universally, by a band of fishermen, slaves and artisans, with a weaver of rugs from Tarsus at their head, in the closing years of Tiberius Caesar.

Note: The huge stagnant state-machine of the Caesars, with its ubiquitous state absolutism, expressed in megalomaniac emperor-worship, an all-pervading spy system, and its totalitarian military-bureaucratic structure, bore a very remarkable resemblance to the total states of modern Fascism. After its final consolidation under the Emperor Diocletian (283-304 AD) the transformation of the originally popular ‘middle-class’ dictatorship of the early Caesars into an oppressive totalitarian despotism became complete. Only the use of the radio was denied to the ancient ‘Fascist’ state, which, otherwise, possessed a complete machinery of repression. For example, compare the trenchant – and truthful! – epigram of the early Christian writer Tertullian (c 200 AD): ‘It is more dangerous to swear falsely by the genius of Caesar than by that of all the gods put together.’ The ‘total state’ in a sentence! (See my book Julian the Apostate and the Rise of Christianity (Watts, London, 1937).)

Note on Spartacus and the Rise of Christianity: As we have already seen, the Spartacus insurrection was the last of its kind. No serious servile disturbances broke the iron uniformity of the police-state of the Caesars. (The jealous suspicion with which the ruling class continued to watch the activities of the slave masses is clearly demonstrated by their rejection of a suggestion to give the slave class a common distinctive uniform, on the very significant ground that such a uniform would show the slaves their numbers and, hence, their potential power!

It seems to be a ‘law’ of human psychology that a class, or an individual, cannot go on living without some hope in and for the future. After the failure of the great chain of servile insurrections, the prospects of the slaves in this world were just hopeless. Warned by the event, the master class got rid of the decadent senatorial oligarchy, the incompetence of which had nearly been fatal when faced with a military genius like Spartacus, and put their administrative house in order. The iron military despotism set up by Julius and Augustus Caesar afforded no opportunity for the slaves to make any further effort to shake off their chains.

The outlook in this world was, henceforth, hopeless for the servile class. Their only hope, henceforth, lay in another supra-mundane world, where the writ of Caesar did not run and where the cross had been transformed from an instrument of oppression into a symbol of salvation.

This last act of spiritual alchemy was effected in the century after Spartacus by the first religion in social history that was of popular, largely servile origin, and which came to be known as Christianity, from the name of its titular founder: the Galilean mystic, preacher and, perhaps, agitator, in whom Eisler and others have seen a Jewish successor of Spartacus crucified for armed insurrection against the Roman Empire; and who, similarly, died on the cross. [2]

Never probably in the whole of recorded history has the social function of religion as ‘the opium of the people’ been demonstrated more clearly than in the case of the great religious revival at the opening of the Christian era. Understood realistically against its original social background, it represents probably the most colossal act of ‘escapism’ in recorded history. The transformation of the cross, the symbol of torture, into the symbol and instrument of salvation, was, assuredly, a stroke of genius on the part of Paul of Tarsus and his associate propagandists.

The slaves thus made life again tolerable by this profound psychological victory over their oppressors, transferred from this world to the next. That the master class later captured the Church and turned it into one of the most effective instruments of counter-revolution in history must not be permitted to obscure its original social significance. In the colossal drama of ‘the foundations of Christianity’, Spartacus and the servile revolution take their place as an indirect but potent formative cause.

A number of passages in the New Testament are still recognisably anti-Roman. In particular, the Apocalypse ('Revelation’), which brands the Roman Empire as ‘the Beast’, and is violently anti-Roman throughout. In such passages, bowdlerised as they are by ‘respectable’ ruling-class Christianity, we still hear faint but authentic echoes of the ancient slave revolutions.

Note on the ‘Spartacist’ Tradition in Revolutionary History: As we have already observed, the name and fame of Spartacus have survived the centuries in a manner reserved for no other revolutionary leader of pre-capitalist times. Alone amongst the long sequence of Utopian leaders of the pre-scientific age, the name of Spartacus still stands for a vital revolutionary tradition. As such, in modern times, it has had many imitators and namesakes, some hardly less famous than their illustrious Roman original.

The revival of classical studies in the early centuries of the modern era again drew attention to the exploits of the Thracian gladiator, the formidable leader of the disinherited in ancient times. In particular, the forerunners of the French Revolution, those intrepid rebels against the dead hand of feudalism, and themselves steeped in classical traditions, rescued the name of the servile leader from the mists of the past.

I have already cited the laudatory reference of Voltaire, which I have placed on the title page of this booklet. About the same time (1760), BJ Saurin contributed his tragedy on this subject, to which, also, I have already made reference. Not, to be sure, a work of any literary genius, but of interest as showing the revival in modern literature of preoccupation with the classical revolutionary tradition.

In the field of revolutionary action, the name and example of Spartacus likewise continued to influence a spiritual progeny in modern times. One of the most formidable and internationally known revolutionaries of the stormy era of the French Revolution, the German ex-Jesuit Adam Weishaupt, wrote under the nom-de-plume of ‘Spartacus’. And Weishaupt was the founder of the famous secret Masonic society of the Illuminati (that is, the enlightened ones), who played a leading role in the international conspiratorial movements of the era, and became a name of terror to their contemporary ruling classes of the old feudal regime.

In the French Revolution itself, the Illuminati, the modern ‘Spartacists’, played a most active role, and, it is alleged, had no less a person than Robespierre, the formidable revolutionary tribune of the ‘Terror’ and the Jacobin Club, amongst their secret membership. In the reaction that followed the fall of Napoleon, the secret police of Metternich and of the ‘Holy Alliance’ had all their work cut out to detect and to prevent the revolutionary activities of these disciples of Weishaupt-Spartacus.

It has, however, been reserved for our own age to witness the most glorious revival of the name and revolutionary role of Spartacus. I refer to that ever-memorable band of German revolutionaries, first and foremost amongst whom were the world-famous leaders and teachers of the revolutionary working class and of international socialism, Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring and Karl Liebknecht. The German ‘Spartacist’ movement, the extreme left wing of the German Social-Democratic Party, who made their immortal stand for world revolution at a time when, above all, Germany was the key to the success or failure of international socialism to supplant capitalism on the world scale.

The heroic courage and evergreen martyrdom of the Spartacists in 1919 went far to redeem the tarnished honour of the European working class corrupted by imperialist propaganda and by social-chauvinistic treachery.

It is now evident in retrospect that the failure of the Spartacists was the primary cause that led up to the victory in subsequent years of the Hitler counter-revolution, and, therefore, ultimately, to the present world butchery, from which the Spartacist victory would have, therefore, definitely saved humanity.

The glorious names of the revolutionary fighters and martyrs Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht are, indeed, worthy to rank beside Spartacus himself in the long annals of the revolutionary struggles of the disinherited and of the oppressed. Let us hope that in the unparalleled age of revolutions amid which our lot is cast we shall find new successors in the glorious tradition which both Spartacus and Luxemburg sealed with their blood, successors, who, more fortunate in their times, will carry forward the emancipation of humanity from class rule to its final and victorious conclusion.


1. See Arthur Koestler, The Gladiators (Jonathan Cape, London, 1939).

2. See Robert Eisler, John the Baptist and the Messiah Jesus (Dial, New York, 1931).