Academic journal article Helios

Marx and Antiquity: Some Comments

Academic journal article Helios

Marx and Antiquity: Some Comments

Article excerpt

Confronted with such rich and considered reflections on Marxism and the historical understanding of classical antiquity, the non-specialist is well advised to tread warily. In what follows I concentrate on Neville Morley's and Niall McKeown's papers, both of which directly consider the bearing of Marxist social theory on the ancient world; Mark Buchan's paper, by contrast, raises issues concerning the pertinence of postmodernism to Marxism which I have discussed ad nauseam elsewhere. (1)

One important theme common to both papers is the relationship between the Marxist theory of history and Weberian historical sociology. Marx and Weber offered what remain the two most powerful historical accounts of the origins, development, and significance of capitalism, and, in consequence, the two most fruitful modem attempts to arrive at an overall theoretical understanding of human history. (2) The contemporary vitality of the intellectual traditions they founded is demonstrated by, on the one hand, the work of many Marxist historians and, on the other, the historical sociologies developed by Michael Mann and W. G. Runciman. (3) Moreover, as Morley shows, Marx, while not systematically addressing the history of classical antiquity, managed to say quite a lot about it in the shape of obiter dicta; among Weber's more important early writings are the texts collected together in the Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations.

Yet, despite the wedge that, as Morley notes, Finley seeks to drive between the two, Weber's substantive account of the decline of antiquity--which centers on the inefficiency of slavery as a form of labor-organization--is one that Marx would have found congenial; indeed one major Marxist historical sociology, Perry Anderson's Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, is evidently indebted to Weber precisely on this issue. Weber is perfectly capable of advancing explanations that appear, in their reliance on concepts specifying economic relationships, as thoroughly materialist as anything Marx wrote. The Agrarian Sociology draws on the German Historical School of economists--the central contrast between "natural" and market economies derives from J. K. Rodbertus--as well as Marx, to order to forge new concepts, notably that of "labor-constitution" (Arbeits-verfassung), which Weber went on to use in his important studies of Prussian agriculture. Though Weber subsequently distanced himself from the Historical Schoo l--the main intellectual tradition in which he had been trained--he was capable throughout his career (for example, in the very late General Economic History) of producing analyses of economic relationships as forms of social domination which could have come straight Out of Capital.

This explains what McKeown calls the ambiguity of Weberian historical sociology, and the consequent difficulty that often occurs in distinguishing the accounts it offers and those provided by Marxist historians. The difference between the two theoretical approaches is often hardest to detect at the level of specific historical interpretations. Morley identifies two larger-scale differences: Marxism offers a grand narrative of historical transformation linked to "an explicit political agenda" of socialist revolution, while Weber, of course, was highly skeptical about, if not hostile to, both. There is, however, a third difference that connects the other two. Weber was an explanatory pluralist who denied that the economy (or indeed any other aspect of social life) had primacy in the historical process. Thus his apparently most "materialist" texts, on the decline of antiquity or East-Elbian rural relations, represent one particular take on an infinitely variegated social reality, and can therefore claim no epist emological priority over those texts that focus on, for example, cultural phenomena--above all, the great cycle of works on the comparative sociology of world religion commencing with The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. …

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