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From Athens to the Paris Commune

Neocons, empire building and democracy

By Deirdre Griswold

It seems, according to recent newspaper accounts (e.g., "A Classicist's Legacy: New Empire Builders," New York Times Week in Review, May 4), that the more ideological among those defining a newly aggressive role for U.S. imperialism, who today wield the upper hand in Washington, like to harken back to ancient Athens for their political inspiration. People like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and George W. Bush himself often present their mission as one of imposing "Western values" on a recalcitrant world, and cite Athenian democracy as the model civilization.

Of course, one could say that all this is merely ideological window dressing for policies that are so clearly dictated by the profit greed of the huge oil companies, banks and military corporations which call the shots in Washington, despite all the hype about representative democracy.

But what was Athenian democracy? Can the "neocons"--the neoconservatives who are but a makeover of the old right wing--lay claim to it? And where should the workers and oppressed of today be looking for democratic forms to serve their interests, as opposed to the interests of the war profiteers and modern-day slave drivers?

Peasant uprisings & the 'Tyrants'

Athenian democracy evolved over a period of about 150 years, beginning in the sixth century B.C.E. Repeated peasant uprisings had been challenging the plutocracy, the rule by a class of wealthy land owners. At the same time, new men of wealth were emerging as Athens became a center of trade, commerce and the manufacture of many commodities by skilled artisans and slaves.

The use of the word "men" here is very deliberate, because, whether it was a monarchy or a democracy, women were excluded from political life and, with a few exceptions, from owning property.

The word "tyrant," which today has such a brutal connotation, comes from this period. The Tyrants were military figures, usually swept into power by peasant rebellions against the monarchs and land-owning nobles whose wealth came from serfdom. The Tyrant Solon seized power in Athens in 594 B.C.E. He cancelled the debts of the poor, gave the right to vote to all male citizens and established a new governing council of 400 people. He was the first ruler to codify a body of laws. But he refused to carry out land reform.

Pisistratus, who became Tyrant of Athens 34 years later, in 560 B.C.E., redistributed the land and abolished land ownership as a requirement of citizenship.

Even having land, however, the peasants were not truly free. The productivity of their land was declining even as wheat and other foods began to be imported from more fertile areas around the Mediterranean, and they soon fell into debt slavery. The class antagonisms had not been eradicated by the reforms of the Tyrants.

The first democratic assembly, where representatives of all 10 "tribes" of Athens voted directly on major issues, was formed in 508 B.C.E. when Cleisthenes took power and extended the reforms, cutting down further the power of the nobility. This assembly of 500--50 from each tribe--met 40 times a year and also selected a smaller body that met almost every day. Members of this standing committee could be recalled at any time if they didn't carry out the wishes of the assembly.

The century that followed was considered the Golden Age of Greek democracy and produced many accomplishments in science and culture. It was also an age of military conquest and the taking of conquered peoples as slaves. Many of these people came with highly developed skills from other centers of civilization around the Mediterranean and northern Africa that had also amassed impressive scientific, technological and cultural knowledge. (See, for example, the book "The Ancient Engineers" by Lyon Sprague de Camp.) They enriched Athens in many ways.

No rights for slaves, women and foreign-born

Slaves and the foreign-born in general were never granted the rights of citizens. By the fourth century B.C.E., Athens had three slaves for every two free citizens. Most labored in the homes and workshops of their masters. There were no large agricultural estates based on slave labor, unlike later in the Western Hemisphere when slaves captured from Africa were intensely exploited by European settlers to produce sugar and cotton for an international capitalist market. The hardest and most dangerous work done by slaves in ancient Greece was in mines and on sailing vessels.

Ancient Athens at its height was a city-state of about 140,000 people, of whom some 40,000--free men--had the right to vote. However, only those citizens who owned property could run for office.

What is it about this particular center of ancient society that so enthralls the neoconservatives? Undoubtedly, it is the high development of the art of politics--that is, the art whereby a minority, propertied class succeeds in ruling over a propertyless majority while engaging in the political process a broader section of society than just themselves. In this, today's liberals are just as enthusiastic as the right-wingers.

Socrates, Plato and the state

Many thinkers in the period of Athenian democracy, like Socrates and Plato, bent their minds around the problem of how to strengthen the state, which seems to stand above society but in fact serves the interests of the dominant class. Students today read Plato's "Republic" and other such political works but are seldom told that in the course of social evolution the state is a fairly recent development. For tens of thousands of years, people lived in communal societies where there was no division into opposing classes and no state--that is, no special, organized body of repression. The state arose with the overthrow of communal societies and the emergence of a class that claimed for itself the ownership of land and even of other human beings.

In a society like that of Athens, where slaves outnumbered free citizens and where the peasants were in a constant struggle with the nobility over the land, the question of the state became preeminent.

The obsession of Athenian intellectuals with politics stands in stark contrast to other areas of the ancient world, where wealthy people who had leisure time in which to think and experiment were much more interested in solving the problems of mechanics, astronomy and navigation, metallurgy and other scientific challenges posed by the expansion of trade.

Science & materialist philosophy

In Miletus, a city in Asia Minor (today Turkey) not dependent on slavery but on wage labor for its extensive role in commerce, remarkable progress was made not only in these sciences but in developing a comprehensive view of the universe. This enthusiasm for understanding the material world, rather than for ruling over people, fostered the early development of materialist philosophy.

The view that everything in the universe was made up of tiny particles called "atoms"--which was advanced 2,300 years before the tools existed to prove or disprove this theory--originated with Leucippus of Miletus. His greatest disciple was Democritus of Adbera in Thrace, who traveled to Persia, Egypt and Babylon (today's Iraq) in search of knowledge, and may also have been to Ethiopia and India. (The book "Greek Science" by the British Marxist scholar Benjamin Farrington skillfully explains the social conditions that led to the development of opposing philosophies--materialism vs. idealism--at the same time in different parts of the ancient world.)

It is a twist of historical fate that today's neocons hold up Plato and Aristotle as their great inspirers. They would be more honest to honor Leucippus and Demo critus, for it was the awesome detonation of two atomic bombs over Japan in 1945 that encouraged the intellectual servants of the U.S. capitalist class to entertain the idea that it was their manifest destiny to rule over the entire world and turn the 20th into the "American" century.

Capitalism has revolutionized the means of production by incorporating the intellectual achievements of all previous societies whenever they could be useful in turning a profit. In this respect, it cares not at all whether the ideas came from Greece or Mesopotamia or China.

But when it comes to political ideas, the present-day rulers are very choosy. Their eyes mist over and their hearts beat faster when they encounter a political philosophy that glosses over terrible social inequities as long as the form of class rule is democratic.

Slaves and women shut out

The United States political system owes a great deal to Athenian democracy. This, too, is a country where slavery was considered normal for hundreds of years, and slaves had no political rights, even though their masters were able to claim added seats in the House of Representatives by counting each slave as two-thirds of a person.

A bitter Civil War ended in the abolition of slavery, but the Northern capitalists soon betrayed their promises of Recon struction and the descendants of slaves were effectively disenfranchised until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And even in 2000, George W. Bush became president only after the systematic exclusion of Black voters allowed him to claim victory in the key state of Florida.

Athenian women never got the right to vote. It took nearly a century and a half for women here to win suffrage.

And even after these victories for the right to vote, the elections in the U.S. still result in the domination of the billionaire ruling class over the political process. That is why, when the people registered their opposition to attacking Iraq in the clearest way, demonstrating again and again in numbers not seen since the Vietnam War, the Congress completely ignored the will of the people. Without even a mock debate, it allowed the executive branch to proceed with its criminal war of aggression.

The word democracy supposedly means rule by the people. In a modern capitalist society, the majority of the people are wage earners and their families--not the owners and CEOs of Halliburton and ExxonMobil and Fox News, all of whom are so cosy with the Athenian democracy-loving Bush administration.

The democracy of the Paris Commune

Can the majority really rule, and not just be used to rubber stamp the agenda of the moneyed class?

That question was answered, if only for a short time, by the workers of Paris in 1871. While the central government was preoccupied by a war with Germany, they took over and set up the Paris Commune. Some of the measures they instituted, like the right of the people to recall their elected representatives at any time, echoed steps first taken in Athens. But the Commune's democracy went much further.

The Commune dissolved the standing army and police and replaced them with a people's militia. It reduced the salaries of public officials to what an ordinary worker earned. It opened up all schools and universities to the people, free of charge.

It ended the state's support of and use of the church by disestablishing all religion. Priests who had been paid by the state would have to depend on their parishioners for support.

The Commune conferred full political rights on those from other countries who sided with the revolution. At a time of war between France and Germany, it elected a German-born worker as Minister of Labor.

The Commune was not advanced enough to offer full equality to women, even though women had started the uprising. But by establishing a pension for all widows and children of "citizens killed defending the rights of the people," it struck a blow for women's emancipation, recognizing the rights of children born "out of wedlock." Many Parisian workers lived in "free unions" not previously recognized by either church or state.

The Commune was crushed by the combined weight of French and German armies before it had a chance to go further. Karl Marx analyzed its strengths and weaknesses in "The Civil War in France." It was not a blueprint for today. It had no political party or other experienced leadership at its helm, and that left the field free for adventurers and opportunists of all kinds. But it showed emphatically that the working class could become an independent force in history and could create new political forms to strike directly at the entrenched privileges of the old rulers.

For these reasons, and because it promoted the international solidarity of the workers and opposed national chauvinism, the democracy of the Commune is despised by today's empire-building neoconservatives in Washington.

Reprinted from the May 15, 2003, issue of Workers World newspaper

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