Some Thoughts on Marxism and Ancient Greek History

By McKeown, Niall | Helios, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Some Thoughts on Marxism and Ancient Greek History


McKeown, Niall, Helios


1. Introduction. Three Good(ish) Reasons Why Some Historians Have Hidden Under the Bedclothes and Waited for Marxism to Go Away

Few theories have had their death announced quite so often as Marxism. Its death, if such it is, would probably go unnoticed by many ancient historians. (1) They typically respond to Marxism in one of several ways: (1) credit the theory with some importance, but only for capitalist and not for precapitalist society; (2) dismiss it as an idea whose time has come, and gone (Marxism may have pushed the debate forward in the past, or it may have made us aware of the importance of the economic, but whatever was useful about Marx's work has already been absorbed by mainstream historical writing); or (3) suggest that all that is left of Marxism is politically motivated gobbledegook.

There is perhaps some rationale behind all of these critical positions. Some Marxists themselves hold to (1), which can only encourage ancient historians unacquainted with Marxist ideas to remain that way. The fragmentary and often obscure nature of Marx's writings on antiquity have further helped to promote this tendency. (2) The collapse of East European communist regimes in the late 1980s and 1990s has perhaps given added impetus to (2). (3) The increasing popularity of postmodernist ideas may also have had a similar impact, serving to challenge many of the entrenched categories of traditional sociological thought in a variety of areas (4) It is in fact quite startling to see how much cooler the debate on Marxism and ancient history has grown in this decade. Even before the 1990s, however, the view that Marxism was somehow old fashioned was already current. We shall see that this may have been partly caused by the very strategies adopted by some of its defenders, strategies that sometimes seemed designed m ore to explain away the difficulties of a Marxist approach rather than to explain something with it. Response (3) is also easily explicable when one reads some of the Marxist work on offer. For example:

The analysis of the conjuncture and the determination of the transformations and displacements made possible by its structures is the object of concrete analysis in Marxist theory. The concepts of social formation, of the mode of production that governs the articulation of its levels, and of the particular structures of these levels are necessary instruments for the theoretical definition of the structure of conjuncture. (5)

One needs a lot of time and patience to make sense of something like that Ancient historians have usually lacked both. Life is short, and frustration all too easy when one faces prose of this nature. Even Marxists have expressed despair. (6) That fuels the suspicion among non-Marxists that such prose represents the converted speaking to the converted. There is again some truth in that. We shall see that Marxism is a broad church, and for that very reason, individual Marxists have felt a real need to explain care fully both how they define and how they intend to use various elements of the theory. (7) They seem to feel this need particularly when they move from what might be seen as "classical" formulations of the theory towards approaches that can be easily combined with non-Marxist historical interpretations. Given that Marxism has been so often pilloried and attacked, such scholars could be forgiven for wishing to show that they are not abandoning their beliefs (and their colleagues). From the perspective o f an outsider, however, it can look as if a lot of energy is being expended for little return, in order to show that elements of Marxism and elements of more traditional approaches need not be contradictory. Indeed, there can be something of an inverse ratio between the degree of theoretical discussion at the beginning of an analysis and how far reaching the claims eventually made for the theory actually are.

But if frustration is understandable, dismissal of the theory is not. …

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