An Indispensable Book
Source: The Communist Review, July 1922, Vol. 3, No. 3.
Social Struggles in Antiquity, by M. Beer.Cloth covers. 222 pp. 6s.
L. Parsons, Ltd.
IT is a very great pleasure, on our part, to recommend this brief but valuable historical study by a celebrated Marxist scholar. Max Beer in Social Struggles in Antiquity presents us with the first volume of a history of the class struggle. We cannot imagine a better subject, nor a more important one. Judging by some statements which appeared in the columns of our distinguished contemporary, The Labour Monthly, it would seem that an historical sketch of the class struggle is not of much assistance to those who are actively participating in the modern class conflict. While yielding to none in recognising the value of specialist studies that examine the problems immediately confronting society, we contend that it is an essential part of the task of the revolutionarv movement to show the historic mission of the working class. But to drive this lesson home needs an historical background.
The Marxist method is historic. This is such a commonplace amongst Marxians that some of our more academic comrades, of University extraction, are apt to be impatient of any efforts devoted to it. Those of us who have received our theoretical training in the working class educational movement and under the guidance of proletarian teachers, can never forget how we were thrilled and enthused when we first heard of the titanic class conflict that has been waged throughout the centuries. The fact that our struggle to-day is but a continuation of the heoric efforts of those who have gone before, inspired us with a new hope and gave an added strength to our courage when battling against terrific odds. Some of us have spent a considerable amount of time tutoring workers at Marxian educational classes. This work brings one into close contact with the mentality of the most serious minded proletarian elements in the Labour movement; for good or evil these are the ones who are destined to play an important part in the rank and file of the revolutionary movement. We believe no teacher of such a class will deny that the subject which creates the greatest interest in the mind of the students is the history of the class struggle.
The greatest Marxian teachers, in dealing with any social institution, have always treated their subject from the historical standpoint. One of the great ambitions of Marx, one which, alas, had to remain unfulfilled, was to write up a study of gentile society based upon Lewis Morgan's famous work on that subject. So important was this task to the mind of Frederick Engels that he, utilising some of the data prepared by Marx on the subject, felt compelled to write that brilliant little classic, The Origin of the Family. This book was the starting point for Lenin in his essay on State and Revolution. So keenly do Marxist propagandists feel the need for emphasising the historic nature of the class struggle and of tracing it from the downfall of gentile society up to the present day, that the great American socialist, Daniel De Leon, translated, into English, the twenty-one volumes of Eugene Sue's famous narrative of The History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages. This was done by a revolutionary fighter who was busily engrossed in the everyday struggle of the masses and who was the editor of a daily and a weekly paper; he had, therefore, neither energy nor leisure to fritter away on fruitless tasks. De Leon knew that nothing so encouraged the workers in their present-day struggles as a knowledge of the great fights put up by the oppressed classes in the past. It was only natural to expect that when a splendid Marxist, like our friend Max Beer, wrote on the class struggle that he would place it in an historical setting, as be has done in Social Struggles in Antiquity.
On several occasions we have reviewed books, in these pages, dealing with the economic conditions of ancient Greece and Rome, and have drawn attention to the attempt of well-known historians to suppress the communistic nature (albeit it was of a crude agrarian character) of the mass struggles in those cities. The importance of Social Struggles in Antiquity is that it deals, very briefly, with this very point. It is an indispensable little volume for those who are anxious to study the underlying causes of the class conflict up to the fall of the Roman empire. The value of the data in this book is that it cannot easily be found in the works of our celebrated "impartial" historians. And this is an additional reason why Marxians should make it part of their work to see that those who are active in the modern revolutionary struggle should know as much as possible about the nature of the class conflict down the ages. To supply such information is the reason why Social Struggles in Antiquity was written and why we recommend it to our readers.
And here we have a dissent on the same book by GDH Cole, the man who recruited Beer into the Marxist movement:
A Word to Max Beer
by G.D.H. Cole
Source: Labour Monthly, November 1922, pp. 314-315, [by
Social Struggles in Antiquity. By Max Beer. Leonard
MAX BEER ought not to have written this book. He has shown, in his
History of British Socialism, that he is capable of doing excellent work; but he
simply does not know enough about the ancient world to write its history. There
is ample room for a study of the social struggles of antiquity written from the
working-class standpoint, but it must be written by someone who has first
mastered the essential principles of the history of the ancient world. Max Beer
evidently approached his task without the necessary equipment of knowledge. He
read many books, and he sought to extract from them evidences of class conflict.
But, just because he did not understand the ancient world, he had no principle
whereby to test the value of evidence; no sound basis for selection or for the
assigning to different persons and events their real importance. Consequently,
he degenerates again and again into anecdotage and mere collection of references
and extracts, and when he does seek to pass judgments, his conclusions are often
quite extraordinarily capricious and disputable.
Moreover, this book has an even more serious defect. A large part of it
is really almost irrelevant to any study of the social struggles of antiquity.
Long extracts from Plato’s Laws or from early Christian Fathers advocating
communal feeding arrangements have really nothing to do with social struggles.
And Max Beer shows a quite unwarrantable tendency to sort out all classes of
ancient reformers into the two classes of “Communists” and “bourgeois
reformers.” His interpretation of Communism seems wide enough to include almost
anyone who said it would be nicer if we all took our meals together, or shuffled
our wives and children, or abolished the use of money. The semi-mythical
Lycurgus turns up as a full-blown Spartan Lenin. Solon, on the other hand, is
merely a “middle-class reformer,” while Agis is a sort of ancient Kurt Eisner.
And were the Stoics really Communists? And did the great heart of the Greek
peoples really yearn for the proletarian revolution? With all respect to Max
Beer, I beg leave to doubt it.
The section dealing with Rome is even less satisfactory. Max Beer has a
down on the Romans, and he doesn’t let you forget it. The Romans were brutes and
hypocrites all the time. Perhaps they were, but I could cap every instance he
quotes with one as bad from the history of the city states of Greece. He finds
few Communists among the Romans – the Gracchi were “social conservatives”; but
Cataline was a Communist, presumably because our knowledge of his aims is too
scanty for anyone to be able to prove that he was not. The account of Spartacus
and his slave revolt is straightforward and to the point, but it is the only
bright spot in the Roman chapters.
The book deals also with Palestine and,
incidentally, with ancient Egypt, and its later sections discuss primitive
Christianity and the dissolution of the ancient world. I cannot check those
sections so well, because I know less of the matters with which they deal. But
in them, as in the sections I have described, there is really no coherent
explanation of underlying economic forces, and therefore no real history such as
one would expect from a Marxian student of Max Beer’s capacity. I have dealt
with the sections I can best criticise. I suspect that what I say of them
applies to the rest.
Either the author or the translator has made a sad mess of some of the
names, technical terms, and Greek and Latin words. What Roman official was
called a “quastorium”; where was “Pdokea”; who was “Euhomerus”; and what are
“Ecclesiazuses"? Someone might have checked these and other words. Also, Max
Beer might have given references and a bibliography. A book like this badly
needs them. But – I come back to my first point – he ought not to have written
it at all. He can write good books; this is a bad one.