Karl Marx and Classical Antiquity: A Bibliographic Introduction

By McCarthy, George E. | Helios, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Karl Marx and Classical Antiquity: A Bibliographic Introduction


McCarthy, George E., Helios


The last two decades of the twentieth century have seen a flood of works on Marx and classical antiquity. This essay will provide a short bibliographic introduction to the range of issues and questions discussed in some of these writings. The authors of this journal issue nicely add to these important analyses: Neville Morley and Niall McKeown take the position that the traditional study of classical history and economics has been inadequate and that Marxist analysis is crucial to an examination of ancient Greek society. In his essay "Marx and the Failure of Antiquity," Morley outlines the neglect of economic issues in classical Greece by nineteenth-century political economists and historians with their emphasis on ahistorical and universal categories of economic theory. Modern economic ideas about capital, bourgeois society, market economy, and capitalism, according to Morley, were statically imposed upon ancient society without an awareness of the implications of this approach. The noted exception to this w as Karl Marx, who was conscious of the break between modernity and the ancients: "Marx's brief passing comments on antiquity are far more sophisticated and provocative than those of most contemporary, and indeed later, historians." Marx stressed the ancient mode of production with its different class structure and unique social relations of production based on an independent peasantry, absence of capital and free wage labor, underdeveloped material technology, production for use value rather than exchange value, marginalization of money and a market economy, and the use of slavery; competition, the drive for exchange value, and possessive individualism--characteristics of modern society--were noticeably absent in the Greek world. Many of these important historical insights are picked up later in the scholarly tradition by Max Weber, Johannes Hasebroek, Karl Polanyi, and Moses Finley.

McKeown, in his essay "Some Thoughts on Marxism and Ancient Greek History," continues to examine the relationship (or lack thereof) between Marxism and British ancient historians. He is interested in laying out a general introduction to Marxist-inspired authors such as Jean-Pierre Vernant, Maurice Godelier, Barry Hindess, Paul Hirst, Geoffrey de Ste. Croix, and Ellen Wood. These authors have stressed the importance of political institutions over economic ones as the basis for understanding the distinctiveness of the class structure and the mode of production of ancient society. For those wishing to study the structural transformation of medieval society as it moved towards modernity, McKeown recommends the works of E. J. Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson, Perry Anderson, and R. H. Hilton. To supplement what he thinks are inadequacies in the approaches of the first group of authors, McKeown turns to two other scholarly sources: East European Marxism and the historical sociology of the mid-1980s. East Europeans, such as E. Welskopf, I. Hahn, H. Kippenberg, R. Gunther, and G. Bockisch, attempted to see ancient Greece in terms of its productive forces (technology), social relations of production (Asiatic peasant farming), and cultural superstructure. Historical sociology was influenced by Max Weber and represented by the works of W. G. Runciman and Michael Mann. Both of these schools of thought were critical of the overemphasis of historical explanation on the economic conditions of ancient Greece alone, and viewed social change in terms of a more complex interrelationship among economic, military, ideological, and political transformations.

Turning to a different area of research in political and social philosophy, much work has been written detailing the connections between Marx and Aristotle, including an analysis of their theories of objectification and the relation between Aristotle's four causes and Marx's concept of labor (C. Gould); the cultural ideals of the Greek polis and Marx's notion of labor (P. Kain, P. Springborg, and R. …

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