Saturday, 28 December 2013

Trotsky on Soviet culture under Stalin

Passage from Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (1937),
Chapter 7 “Family, Youth and Culture”

Spiritual creativeness demands freedom. The very purpose of communism is to subject nature to technique and technique to plan, and compel the raw material to give unstintingly everything to man that he needs. Far more than that, its highest goal is to free finally and once for all the creative forces of mankind from all pressure, limitation and humiliating dependence. Personal relations, science and art will not know any externally imposed “plan”, nor even any shadow of compulsion. To what degree spiritual creativeness shall be individual or collective will depend entirely upon its creators.

A transitional regime is a different thing. The dictatorship reflects the past barbarism and not the future culture. It necessarily lays down severe limitations upon all forms of activity, including spiritual creation. The programme of the revolution from the very beginning regarded these limitations as a temporary evil, and assumed the obligation, in proportion as the new regime was consolidated, to remove one after the other all restrictions upon freedom. In any case, and in the hottest years of the civil war, it was clear to the leaders of the revolution that the government could, guided by political considerations, place limitations upon creative freedom, but in no case pretend to the role of commander in the sphere of science, literature and art. Although he had rather “conservative” personal tastes in art, Lenin remained politically extremely cautious in artistic questions, eagerly confessing his incompetence. The patronising of all kinds of modernism by Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar of Art and Education, was often embarrassing to Lenin. But he confined himself to ironical remarks in private conversations, and remained remote from the idea of converting his literary tastes into law. In 1924, on the threshold of the new period, the author of this book thus formulated the relation of the state to the various artistic groups and tendencies: “while holding over them all the categorical criterion, for the revolution or against the revolution, to give them complete freedom in the sphere of artistic self-determination.”

While the dictatorship had a seething mass-basis and a prospect of world revolution, it had no fear of experiments, searchings, the struggle of schools, for it understood that only in this way could a new cultural epoch be prepared. The popular masses were still quivering in every fibre, and were thinking aloud for the first time in a thousand years. All the best youthful forces of art were touched to the quick. During those first years, rich in hope and daring, there were created not only the most complete models of socialist legislation, but also the best productions of revolutionary literature. To the same times belong, it is worth remarking, the creation of those excellent Soviet films which, in spite of a poverty of technical means, caught the imagination of the whole world with the freshness and vigour of their approach to reality.

In the process of struggle against the party Opposition, the literary schools were strangled one after the other. It was not only a question of literature, either. The process of extermination took place in all ideological spheres, and it took place more decisively since it was more than half unconscious. The present ruling stratum considers itself called not only to control spiritual creation politically, but also to prescribe its roads of development. The method of command-without-appeal extends in like measure to the concentration camps, to scientific agriculture and to music. The central organ of the party prints anonymous directive editorials, having the character of military orders, in architecture, literature, dramatic art, the ballet, to say nothing of philosophy, natural science and history.

The bureaucracy superstitiously fears whatever does not serve it directly, as well as whatever it does not understand. When it demands some connection between natural science and production, this is on a large scale right; but when it commands that scientific investigators set themselves goals only of immediate practical importance, this threatens to seal up the most precious sources of invention, including practical discoveries, for these most often arise on unforeseen roads. Taught by bitter experience, the natural scientists, mathematicians, philologists, military theoreticians, avoid all broad generalisations out of fear lest some “red professor”, usually an ignorant careerist, threateningly pull up on them with some quotation dragged in by the hair from Lenin, or even from Stalin. To defend one’s own thought in such circumstances, or one’s scientific dignity, means in all probability to bring down repressions upon one’s head.

But it is infinitely worse in the sphere of the social sciences. Economists, historians, even statisticians, to say nothing of journalists, are concerned above all things not to fall, even obliquely, into contradiction with the momentary zigzag of the official course. About Soviet economy, or domestic or foreign policy, one cannot write at all except after covering his rear and flanks with banalities from the speeches of the “leader”, and having assumed in advance the task of demonstrating that everything is going exactly as it should go and even better. Although this 100 per cent conformism frees one from everyday unpleasantnesses, it entails the heaviest of punishments: sterility. ...

No less ruinous is the effect of the “totalitarian” regime upon artistic literature. The struggle of tendencies and schools has been replaced by interpretation of the will of the leaders. There has been created for all groups a general compulsory organisation, a kind of concentration camp of artistic literature. Mediocre but “right-thinking” storytellers like Serafimovich or Gladkov are inaugurated as classics. Gifted writers who cannot do sufficient violence to themselves are pursued by a pack of instructors armed with shamelessness and dozens of quotations. The most eminent artists either commit suicide, or find their material in the remote past, or become silent. Honest and talented books appear as though accidentally, bursting out from somewhere under the counter, and have the character of artistic contraband.

The life of Soviet art is a kind of martyrology. After the editorial orders in Pravda against “formalism”, there began an epidemic of humiliating recantations by writers, artists, stage directors and even opera singers. One after another, they renounced their own past sins, refraining, however – in case of further emergencies – from any clear-cut definition of the nature of this “formalism.” In the long run, the authorities were compelled by a new order to put an end to a too copious flow of recantations. Literary estimates are transformed within a few weeks, textbooks made over, streets renamed, statues brought forward, as a result of a few eulogistic remarks of Stalin about the poet Mayakovsky. The impressions made by the new opera upon high-up auditors are immediately converted into a musical directive for composers. The Secretary of the Communist Youth said at a conference of writers: “The suggestions of Comrade Stalin are a law for everybody,” and the whole audience applauded, although some doubtless burned with shame. As though to complete the mockery of literature, Stalin, who does not know how to compose a Russian phrase correctly, is declared a classic in the matter of style. There is something deeply tragic in this Byzantinism and police rule, notwithstanding the involuntary comedy of certain of its manifestations.

The official formula reads: Culture should be socialist in content, national in form. As to the content of a socialist culture, however, only certain more or less happy guesses are possible. Nobody can grow that culture upon an inadequate economic foundation. Art is far less capable than science of anticipating the future. In any case, such prescriptions as, “portray the construction of the future,” “indicate the road to socialism,” “make over mankind,” give little more to the creative imagination than does the price list of a hardware store, or a railroad timetable.

The national form of an art is identical with its universal accessibility. “What is not wanted by the people,” Pravda dictates to the artists, “cannot have aesthetic significance.” That old Narodnik formula, rejecting the task of artistically educating the masses, takes on a still more reactionary character when the right to decide what art the people want and what they don’t want remains in the hands of the bureaucracy. It prints books according to its own choice. It sells them also by compulsion, offering no choice to the reader. In the last analysis the whole affair comes down in its eyes to taking care that art assimilates its interests, and finds such forms for them as will make the bureaucracy attractive to the popular masses.

In vain! No literature can fulfill that task. The leaders themselves are compelled to acknowledge that “neither the first nor the second five-year plan has yet given us a new literary wave which can rise above the first wave born in October.” That is very mildly said. In reality, in spite of individual exceptions, the epoch of the Thermidor will go into the history of artistic creation pre-eminently as an epoch of mediocrities, laureates and toadies.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Antigone, Lysistrata and Medea: Feminism in Classical Greece

It seems a paradox, given the breadth of popular political rights under democracy, that women had fewer rights and less freedom in most Greek cities than in contemporary Egypt and Persia. In the fiercely masculine world of ancient Greece, only males were educated and allowed to vote. The Greek love of athletics and physical perfection, worshipped in the gymnasium and on the Olympic field, was limited to the male body. In Sparta women enjoyed relatively more independence, partly because men spent so much time in barracks: Spartan women competed in gymnastics, could own land and divorce their husbands, and held influence in community matters. Nonetheless, the Greeks’ celebrated thought and inquiry hit a brick wall where gender was concerned.

Though the realities of life meant that lower class women might work – and slaves certainly would – wealthier Greek women were expected to stay in domestic isolation, limited to childbearing, weaving and managing the household. They had no choice in marriage, becoming an object of exchange between the father and bridegroom, and had little control over property. Greek houses had an andron or men’s room, equipped with a door to the street so that no woman need pass through; here men would recline on seats to sing, drink and talk politics, as recreated in Plato’s Symposium. But the only women permitted in these discourses were servants, entertainers or hetairai (prostitutes).

Women were the targets of various hostile ideas: they were high-pitched, polluting creatures, inferior imitations of men. It was a woman, Pandora, who in Greek mythology was responsible for opening a jar and releasing evil into the world [1]. Aristotle held many sexist views, arguing for example that the female character was “a sort of natural deficiency”. The historian Xenophon wrote that women should “see and hear as little as possible, and ask the fewest possible questions”.

There is always a difference between the world of such statements and life as it was actually lived, but we would not expect female characters and deeds to be celebrated in such an atmosphere. It is typical of the wonderful contradictoriness of real life that in spite of all this misogyny, classical Greek theatre provides us with arguably the world’s first ‘feminist’ plays. Here we shall pick out three outstanding texts: Antigone, Lysistrata and Medea.


Sophocles’ drama Antigone, written around 441 BCE, is one of his three ‘Theban plays’ that chronicle the dark fortunes of the house of Oedipus, king of Thebes. After Oedipus’ death, there is a struggle over the kingship between his two sons Eteocles and Polyneices. The army of Polyneices marches on Thebes and is defeated, but both brothers are killed in the battle. The new ruler, Creon, decrees that whereas Eteocles will be buried with full honours for defending the city, the rebel Polyneices must be denied holy rites and left to rot in the field.

Shortly afterwards, a sentry runs in, reporting that someone has disobeyed and performed a burial. The guards exhume the body and watch from a distance in the hope that the culprit will return. Their trap succeeds and they arrest the rebel trying to rebury the body. She is Antigone, sister of Polyneices and Eteocles, and niece of Creon.

Antigone (right) presented to Creon (seated) by a guard. Athenian vase painting by the Dolon Painter, ca. 380-370 BCE.

Antigone raises several key questions around the relationship between human beings and the gods and the nature of kingship. However, one of the play’s most interesting features for a modern audience is its embryonic feminism. Antigone takes centre stage, showing us that not all the rebels in her family are men.

In the opening scene of the play, Antigone tries to win her sister Ismene’s help in burying their brother. Ismene refuses, taking the traditional, perhaps stereotypical, female role:
Now we two [are] left; and what will be the end of us,
If we transgress the law and defy our king?
O think, Antigone; we are women; it is not for us
To fight against men; our rulers are stronger than we
And we must obey in this, or in worse than this.
May the dead forgive me, I can do no other
But as I am commanded; to do more is madness.[2]
When Antigone is brought before Creon, she does not deny what she has done, even though the admission means a death sentence, and she shows no fear of Creon, the dominant male of the drama. Instead she directly challenges him for putting his own human law before that of the gods.
CREON: Did you know the order forbidding such an act?
ANTIGONE: I knew it, naturally. It was plain enough.
CREON: And yet you dared to contravene it?
That order did not come from God. Justice,
That dwells with the gods below, knows no such law.
I did not think your edicts strong enough
To overrule the unwritten unalterable laws
Of God and heaven, you being only a man.
Religion offered women one of their few public roles. Priestesses managed funding of temples, held the keys to temple wealth, and helped society to function through the performance of ritual. It is probably no coincidence therefore that it is a woman who performs the ritual burial and shows the greatest concern for religious correctness.

Creon is unbending and orders Antigone to be shut into a cave to slowly die. The reason for this harshness partly lies in his anger at Polyneices’ attack and in his belief in the importance of strong kingship. But it is also explicitly because Antigone’s rebellion threatens the sexual hierarchy of ancient Greece, in which women’s proper place is to be kept indoors – “we’ll have no woman’s law here, while I live.” As he later explains to his son Haemon:
...I hold to the law,
And will never betray it – least of all for a woman.
Better be beaten, if need be, by a man
Than let a woman get the better of us.
When the blind prophet Teiresias warns Creon that the gods are angry at his treatment of Polyneices’ corpse, the king is shaken. He orders the body to be buried and tries to release Antigone, but it is too late – she has already taken her own life in despair. Haemon, who was Antigone’s betrothed, has done the same; and when she hears of her son’s death, Creon’s wife Eurydice adds her own suicide to the bodycount.

In the debate over the correct treatment of a dead rebel, both Antigone and Creon have valid arguments, but Sophocles chooses to vindicate Antigone, who is brave enough to defy the king to do what she thinks is right. She loses her life, but it is Creon who is punished by the gods. If Creon represents human law, Antigone represents divine law, which is infinitely greater.


Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata concerns an extraordinary plan to put an end to the Peloponnesian War. When the play was written in 411 BCE, the Athenian empire and an alliance led by Sparta had for twenty years shed one another’s blood, destroyed cities, and devastated the countryside. The war eventually exhausted Athens and brought the ‘golden age’ of Classical Greece to an end.

An Athenian named Lysistrata (‘Liquidator of Armies’) calls a meeting of women from across Greece – from Thebes, Corinth, even the arch-enemy Sparta – and persuades them to refuse sex until the men agree to stop fighting. Their abstinence is all the more heroic when we consider that the Greeks thought women were the more lascivious of the sexes. The women seize the Acropolis, where the treasury is kept, and bar the doors to stop the men taking it back. When elders, magistrate and constables turn up, the women respond with bad language and violence, ranging from hurling water to pitched fisticuffs.

Lysistrata explains to the magistrate that women know everything that is going on, but when they complain about the men’s mistakes they are told to keep quiet by their husbands. “Quite right too,” says the magistrate.
LYSISTRATA: Right? That we should not be allowed to make the least little suggestion to you, no matter how much you mismanage your affairs? But now every time two men meet in the street, what do they say? ‘Isn’t there a man in the country?’ And the answer comes, ‘Not one.’ That’s why we women got together and decided to unite and save Greece… So let’s make a deal. You listen to us – and it’ll be good advice we give – listen to us and keep quiet, like you made us do, and we’ll set you to rights.[3]
Women, too, argues Lysistrata, have made sacrifices in the war, watching their sons and husbands leave to fight. Their demand that the men come home so both sexes can live in peace is both legitimate and reasonable.

Eventually the sex strike takes its effect and the increasingly frustrated men meet with the women to negotiate. Lysistrata introduces a female companion, Reconciliation, and lectures the delegates on the common culture and interests of the warring Greek sides, and how they have come to each other’s aid in the past. Beguiled by Reconciliation, the delegates come to terms, and when the women agree to resume sexual activity the play closes with garlands and dancing. The women have succeeded in forcing peace.

In ancient Greece women played very little political role. The one example of a female ‘tall poppy’, Pericles’ partner Aspasia, appears to have been intelligent, witty and cultured, exercising political influence at the highest level in Athens – and she attracted loathing, political attacks and gossip. Plutarch wrote:
Aspasia, as some say, was held in high favour by Pericles because of her rare political wisdom. Socrates sometimes came to see her with his disciples, and his intimate friends brought their wives to her to hear her discourse.[4]
By contrast, he goes on to claim she ran a brothel – it’s impossible to know if this is true, or mere slander. Aristophanes himself, in The Acharnians, accuses Aspasia of being responsible for the Peloponnesian War, much as another woman, Helen of Troy, was often blamed for the Trojan War. Yet the loud, brash women who take the destiny of their nations in their hands in Lysistrata would be remarkable characters in any literature.

Critics may point out that the female characters are simply using their sexuality to gain their ends, that Aristophanes views the empowerment of women as comical, or that he exploits female stereotypes. The women’s goal is a return to the pre-war way of life, not a sexual revolution. But the play remains highly subversive. Lysistrata explicitly argues for greater respect for women’s opinions and abilities. When we watch her outshining the Magistrate in argument, or watch the women outfighting the men, Aristophanes is allowing, whatever his other intentions, that women can act on an equal basis with men.


Euripides’ tragedy Medea, written in about 431 BCE, tells how a woman takes terrible revenge on her husband when he betrays her for another woman.

The hero Jason (of Argonauts fame) married Medea after she helped him win the Golden Fleece, and they fled together to Corinth after bringing about the death of King Pelias of Iolcus. But Jason, to make an alliance and guarantee the future of his two sons, marries Glauce, the daughter of the King of Corinth. Medea – “a frightening woman” as her slave nurse warns us – is devastated: weeping, refusing to eat, and barely able to look at her sons. After the initial paroxysm of grief she becames cooler and plots her revenge.

Cruel, dangerous and fierce-willed, Medea could easily be a one-dimensional harridan.Yet despite the crimes she is about to commit, Euripedes allows her considerable sympathy, as when she laments the situation of women:
Surely, of all creatures that have life and will, we women
Are the most wretched. When, for an extravagant sum,
We have bought a husband, we must then accept him as
Possessor of our body. This is to aggravate
Wrong with worse wrong. Then the great question: will the man
We get be bad or good? For women, divorce is not
Respectable; to repel the man, not possible.[5]
Her difficulties are aggravated by her foreign birth – Medea is from Colchis on the Black Sea, in modern-day Georgia.

She goes on:
...If a man grows tired
Of the company at home, he can go out, and find
A cure for tediousness. We wives are forced to look
To one man only. And, they tell us, we at home
Live free from danger, they go out to battle: fools!
I’d rather stand three times in the front line than bear
One child.
The king of Corinth comes to Medea to order her into immediate exile, fearful of her reputation and what she might do. Medea persuades him to allow her one more day so she can make arrangements for her sons, a concession that will prove fatal for the king. When Jason pleads his case with her, Medea shows none of the submission we might expect from a traditional Greek wife. She calls him a ‘filthy coward’ who has abandoned her sexually and remarried behind her back, reminding him of the lengths she went to so he might win the Golden Fleece – including murdering her brother to delay pursuers, and convincing Pelias’ daughters to boil their father alive.

Medea begins her revenge by securing asylum from the unsuspecting Aegeus of Athens. Then, feigning contrition, she makes a gift to Glauce of a dress and coronet treated with poison. Her most dreadful plan however is to break Jason’s heart by murdering their two children.

Medea killing her son. Vase by Ixion Painter, ca. 330 BCE.

Medea is not entirely cold-hearted, and understands perfectly what she is about to do. As Jason talks about what his sons will be like when they are fully-grown, she breaks down and weeps, and in a moment of doubt it seems that perhaps she won’t be able to go through with it. But once Glauce and her father have died in agony from poison – described for us in ghastly detail by an eye-witness – there is no turning back, as the boys would be hunted down anyway by the vengeful Corinthians.

Medea is guilty of one of the most unacceptable crimes: a mother killing her own children. Yet she is also an incredibly willful woman with a sense of honour as strong as any Greek hero. “Yes, I can endure guilt, however horrible; / The laughter of my enemies I will not endure.” And in a remarkable conclusion, her actions go unpunished. As Jason bursts in seeking his children, Medea is lifted aloft by a chariot drawn by dragons, sent by her grandfather, the sun god Helios. She has won her revenge against Jason by slaying his new bride and his children, and instead of being struck down for daring to stand up to her husband and perverting the norms of womanhood, she is carried off to sanctuary in Athens. The gods – themselves fickle and vengeful beings – actually appear to vindicate her behaviour.

The Chorus of women of Corinth sum up Medea’s impact thus:
Legend will now reverse our reputation;
A time comes when the female sex is honoured;
That old discordant slander
Shall no more hold us subject.
Male poets of past ages, with their ballads
Of faithless women, shall go out of fashion...
We’d counter with our epics against man.
This challenging subject matter may explain why Euripedes came third out of three in the tragedy competition of 431 BCE. If the Athenian judges didn’t like the play, posterity has a different view. Of course, we may interpret Medea as a hysterical female, a warning of what women are capable of if not held in check. But Euripedes’ work is more complex than this. Medea is always articulate and human, and she cannot be explained away by casual sexism or xenophobia. In the male-dominated world of ancient Greece, Euripedes has created a woman whose sex drive is more powerful than her maternal instincts, and done so triumphantly.


Even the female parts in Greek theatre were played by males, and it is uncertain whether they were even allowed to attend performances. Given the origins of theatre in ritual, a thoroughly female social activity, it would be strange if women were forbidden to attend. But even if they did, the target audience was generally assumed to be male. There is no evidence that women played any part in the writing, production or judging of plays.

It is unlikely therefore that any of these three plays was intended as a ‘feminist’ text. Antigone, Lysistrata and Medea were all written by aristocratic men, many centuries before a coherent body of feminist theory began to be assembled.

Yet there are always contradictions between cultural conventions – such as ‘women are born inferior to men’ – and the richness of actual lived experience. This creates opportunities for artists to develop an awareness that goes beyond stereotypes, and write characters or discourses that run against the societal norm even without intending it. We can stage convincingly feminist interpretations of these plays today because the opportunities are in the texts themselves; strong female characters shine through despite the misogyny of the culture. The best Classical Greek writers were engaging dynamically with one of the first truly literate societies, and infused their work with the stuff of real life – including in the relations of men and women.

[1] Unwittingly, it must be said.
[2] Quotes from Sophocles’ Antigone are from E.F. Watling’s translation in Penguin Classics.
[3] Quotes from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata are from Alan Sommerstein’s translation in Penguin Classics.
[4] Plutarch, Lives, ‘Pericles’ v24.
[5] The ‘extravagant sum’ refers to a dowry. Quotes from Euripedes’ Medea are from Phillip Vellacott’s translation in Penguin Classics.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

On the death of Margaret Thatcher

Some responses by artists and performers to Margaret Thatcher, who died yesterday.

I don’t agree, by the way, with partying in the street, or attempting to disrupt the funeral. This might satisfy the grievances of a minority of left-wingers, but must seem distasteful to most Britons, despite everything Thatcher did in her war against the working class. The enemy is not one old woman with dementia who had no direct influence on politics any more: it is Thatcherism as the ideology of right-wing reaction against the advances of the left from 1945-79.

John Cullagh: I’ll Dance On Your Grave Mrs Thatcher

Morrissey: Margaret on the Guillotine

The kind people
Have a wonderful dream
Margaret On The Guillotine
Cause people like you
Make me feel so tired
When will you die?
When will you die?
When will you die?
When will you die?
When will you die?

And people like you
Make me feel so old inside
Please die

And kind people
Do not shelter this dream
Make it real
Make the dream real
Make the dream real
Make it real
Make the dream real

Hefner: The Day That Thatcher Dies

We will laugh the day that Thatcher dies,
Even though we know it’s not right,
We will dance and sing all night.

I was blind in 1979, by ’82 I had clues,
By 1986 I was mad as hell.

The teachers at school, they took us for fools,
They never taught us what to do,
But Christ we were strong, we knew all along,
We taught ourselves the right from wrong.

And the punk rock kids, and the techno kids,
No, it’s not their fault.
And the hip hop boys and heavy metal girls,
No, it’s not their fault.

It was love, but Tories don’t know what that means,
She was Michelle Cox from the lower stream,
She wore high-heeled shoes while the rest wore flat soles.

And the playground taught her how to be cruel,
I talked politics and she called me a fool,
She wrapped her ankle chain round my left wing heart.

Ding dong, the witch is dead, which old witch?
The wicked witch.
Ding dong, the wicked witch is dead.

Danny’s speech from the movie Brassed Off (1996).

Elvis Costello: Tramp the Dirt Down

Well I hope I don’t die too soon
I pray the lord my soul to save
Oh I’ll be a good boy, I’m trying so hard to behave
Because there’s one thing I know, I’d like to live
Long enough to savour
That’s when they finally put you in the ground
I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down

Pete Wylie: The Day That Margaret Thatcher Dies!

But the final word belongs to Gerry Adams, leader of the most advanced political current in these islands. The working class suffered across Britain, but nowhere so intensely as in the occupied counties of Ireland, where the armed struggle meant a risk of death:

Margaret Thatcher did great hurt to the Irish and British people during her time as British Prime Minister.

Working class communities were devastated in Britain because of her policies.

Her role in international affairs was equally belligerent whether in support of the Chilean dictator Pinochet, her opposition to sanctions against apartheid South Africa; and her support for the Khmer Rouge.

Here in Ireland her espousal of old draconian militaristic policies prolonged the war and caused great suffering. She embraced censorship, collusion and the killing of citizens by covert operations, including the targeting of solicitors like Pat Finucane, alongside more open military operations and refused to recognise the rights of citizens to vote for parties of their choice.

Her failed efforts to criminalise the republican struggle and the political prisoners is part of her legacy.

It should be noted that in complete contradiction of her public posturing, she authorised a back channel of communications with the Sinn Féin leadership but failed to act on the logic of this.

Unfortunately she was faced with weak Irish governments who failed to oppose her securocrat agenda or to enlist international support in defence of citizens in the north.

Margaret Thatcher will be especially remembered for her shameful role during the epic hunger strikes of 1980 and ’81.

Her Irish policy failed miserably.

Monday, 1 April 2013

De Ste Croix on Greek art

The two passages below, selected for their relevance to the topic of ancient Greek art, are reproduced from The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World by G.E.M. de Ste. Croix (1981). This mighty work of Marxist scholarship is one of the best books on the ancient world.

On the class nature of Greek art:
The most important single dividing line which we can draw between different groups of free men in the Greek world is, in my opinion, that which separated off from the common herd those I am calling ‘the propertied class’, who could ‘live of their own’ without having to spend more than a fraction of their time working for their living. …

Although small peasants and other free men such as artisans and shopkeepers, working on their own account, without much property of their own, must always have formed a substantial proportion of the free population of the Greek world, and indeed were probably a majority of the whole population until about the end of the third century of the Christian era, they would normally have to spend most of their time working for their livelihood, with their families, at somewhere near the subsistence level, and would not be able to live securely and at leisure, as members of the upper class… By and large, a comfortable, leisured existence could be secured only by the possession of property (primarily in land…) which alone gave the upper classes that command over the labour of others which made it possible for them to live the good life, as the Greeks saw it, a life not constrained by the inescapable necessity of working for one’s living, a life which could be devoted to the pursuits considered proper for a gentleman: politics or generalship, intellectual or artistic pursuits, hunting or athletics…

These men, liberated from toil, are the people who produced virtually all Greek art and literature and science and philosophy, and provided a good proportion of the armies which won remarkable victories by land over the Persian invaders at Marathon in 490 and at Plataea in 479 BC. In a very real sense most of them were parasitic upon other men, their slaves above all; most of them were not supporters of the democracy which ancient Greece invented and which was its great contribution to political progress, although they did supply almost all its leaders... But what we know as Greek civilisation expressed itself in and through them above all, and it is they who will normally occupy the centre of our picture.

In this next passage De Ste Croix comments on the status of the artist later, in the Roman period, and the distinction that had begun to be drawn between amateur and professional art production:
There is a much-quoted passage in Plutarch’s Life of Pericles (2.1-2) which some people today may find astonishing: in Plutarch’s eyes no young gentleman, just because he had seen the Zeus of Pheidias at Olympia or the Hera of Polycleitus at Argos (two of the most admired ancient statues) could possibly want to be Pheidias or Polycleitus. Such statements in the mouth of a ‘real Roman’ might not seem so surprising, it will be said; but was not L. Mestrius Plutarchus, the Roman citizen (albeit a newly-made, first-generation one), also very much a Greek? The answer is that in the Roman period the Greek as well as the Roman propertied classes felt a greater gulf between themselves and all those (including technitai, and therefore ‘artists’) who engaged in ‘banausic’ occupations than had the leading Greeks of the Classical period, at least in Athens and some other democracies. Had Pheidias and Polycleitus sculpted purely as amateurs, had they enjoyed large private incomes and received no payment for their artistic work, Plutarch and his like would have found nothing contemptible about them. It was the fact that they could be considered to have earned their living by actually working with their own hands that made them no fit model for the young Graeco-Roman gentleman. Plutarch says elsewhere that the Athenian painter Polygnotus showed he was no mere technites by decorating the Stoa Poikile at Athens gratis (Cimon 4.7).

Since in a class society many of the values of the governing class are often accepted far down the social scale, we must expect to find disparagement of craftsmen, and therefore even of artists, existing in the ancient world not only among the propertied Few. In particular, anyone who aspired to enter the propertied class would tend to accept its scale of values ever more completely as he progressed towards joining it. Yet it would be absurd to suggest that the lower classes as a whole dutifully accepted the social snobbery and contempt for the ‘banausic’ that prevailed among the well-to-do. Many Greeks (and western Romans) who might be called ‘mere artisans’ by superior people even today were evidently very proud of their skills and felt that they had acquired dignity by the exercise of them: they referred to them with pride in their dedications and their epitaphs, and they often chose to be pictured on their tombstones in the practice of their craft or trade, humble as it might be in the eyes of their ‘betters’. To say that ‘the ancient Greeks’ despised craftsmen is one of those deeply misleading statements which show blindness to the existence of all but the propertied Few.

Readers interested in De Ste Croix can find David Harvey’s Guardian obituary article at:

Thursday, 28 March 2013

The origins of ancient Greek art: summary

The Riace bronzes, recovered from
the sea in 1972
Classical Greece saw a relatively brief flowering of unusual brilliance in many fields, including theatre, mathematics, philosophy, sculpture, history, technology and painting. I haven’t tried to summarise these well-documented achievements. Nor do I dispute them. My aim in the last few articles has instead been to put Classical Greek art into context and analyse why it happened.

There was of course nothing innately superior about the people living in Greece – happily, contemporary historians avoid the gushings of the last few centuries. And there was no shortage of brilliance among contemporary cultures such as Persia. The Axis Age saw extraordinary cultural leaps in several centres of world culture, and so-called ‘golden ages’ are found elsewhere in history too. India, for example, enjoyed a particularly brilliant period during the Gupta empire of c.320 to 550 CE. When Arnold Hauser refers in The Social History of Art to the ‘native genius’ of the Greeks, we may well wonder where that genius was hiding for the few thousand years before Homer or the two thousand after the Roman conquest, during which – with all due respect – Greek cultural achievement has been much nearer the average.

There was an intensity and innovation in Classical Greece, peaking in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, which can be explained as a particular combination of elements.

The fragmentation of Greece into relatively isolated city-states, and the absence therefore of a hegemonic ruling class and religion, helped open the door to democracy and individualism. The economic revival from the 8th and 7th centuries BCE onwards, assisted by the spread of iron technology, bankrolled an anti-monarchic oligarchy, opened up contacts with the wider Mediterranean and Eastern worlds, and provided resources for cultural investment – a revival later intensified in the epicentre, Athens, by silver mining and imperial tribute.

The advent of literate culture encouraged public debate and scientific inquiry. The Greeks inherited the best of the discoveries of their Iron Age contemporaries – the Phoenician alphabet, Babylonian astronomy, Egyptian sculpture, etc – and assimilated them into a theoretical culture that laid everything open to question. We can credit them with the invention of democracy, history and drama.

The foundations of Classical Greek art rest on a number of factors of which only one – democracy – was unique to Greece. However, it was the individualism which flowed from mass political participation that is probably the most powerful element in defining the art of Greece as against the art of contemporary cultures, underlying its (relative) orientation to the human over the divine, its realism, its observation of nature, and its interest in a sense of time as actually experienced. It was in the wake of the closing down of the democratic revolution by Alexander and the Romans that the world cultural significance of Greek achievements faded.

A millenium and a half later, the achievements of Classical Greece would be selectively fished out of history by the young bourgeoisie and claimed as ancestors, to legitimise their own revolutionary worldview and to create a narrative about the origins of ‘Western’ civilisation which persists to this day. There is some truth in the narrative, but it has been exaggerated by propaganda, Eurocentrism and racism. The West’s debt to the civilisations of the East is at least as immense.

The Classical Greeks created an art which achieved vitality, clarity and harmony, and like any major art, it belongs to all the world.

Terry Eagleton on Marx and the Greeks

I reproduce below a passage by Terry Eagleton from his book Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976). His section on ‘Literature and Superstructure’ includes an interesting comment on Marx and Greek art.

The materialist theory of history denies that art can in itself change the course of history; but it insists that art can be an active element in such change. Indeed, when Marx came to consider the relation between base and superstructure, it was art which he selected as an instance of the complexity and indirectness of that relationship:

In the case of the arts, it is well known that certain periods of their flowering are out of all proportion to the general development of society, hence also to the material foundation, the skeletal structure, as it were, of its organisation. For example, the Greeks compared to the moderns or also Shakespeare. It is even recognised that certain forms of art, e.g. the epic, can no longer be produced in their world epoch-making, classical stature as soon as the production of art, as such, begins; that is, that certain significant forms within the realm of the arts are possible only at an undeveloped stage of artistic development. If this is the case with the relation between different kinds of art within the realm of art, it is already less puzzling that it is the case in the relation of the entire realm to the general development of society. The difficulty consists only in the general formulation of these contradictions. As soon as they have been specified, they are already clarified.[1]

Marx is considering here what he calls ‘the unequal relationship of the development of material production... to artistic production’. It does not follow that the greatest artistic achievements depend upon the highest development of the productive forces, as the example of the Greeks, who produced major art in an economically undeveloped society, clearly evidences. Certain major artistic forms like the epic are only possible in an undeveloped society. Why then, Marx goes on to ask, do we still respond to such forms, given our historical distance from them?:

But the difficulty lies not in understanding that the Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still afford us artistic pleasure and that in a certain respect they count as a norm and as an unattainable model.

Why does Greek art still give us aesthetic pleasure? The answer which Marx goes on to provide has been universally lambasted by unsympathetic commentators as lamely inept:

A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in the child’s naivete, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children? Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm? There are unruly children and precocious children. Many of the old peoples belong in this category. The Greeks were normal children. The charm of their art for us is not in contradiction to the undeveloped stage of society on which it grew. (It) is its result, rather, and is inextricably bound up, rather, with the fact that the unripe social conditions under which it arose, and could alone rise, can never return.

So our liking for Greek art is a nostalgic lapse back into childhood – a piece of unmaterialist sentimentalism which hostile critics have gladly pounced on. But the passage can only be treated thus if it is rudely ripped from the context to which it belongs – the draft manuscripts of 1857, known today as the Grundrisse. Once returned to that context, the meaning becomes instantly apparent. The Greeks, Marx is arguing, were able to produce major art not in spite of but because of the undeveloped state of their society. In ancient societies, which have not yet undergone the fragmenting ‘division of labour’ known to capitalism, the overwhelming of ‘quality’ by ‘quantity’ which results from commodity-production and the restless, continual development of the productive forces, a certain ‘measure’ or harmony can be achieved between man and Nature – a harmony precisely dependent upon the limited nature of Greek society. The ‘childlike’ world of the Greeks is attractive because it thrives within certain measured limits – measures and limits which are brutally overridden by bourgeois society in its limitless demand to produce and consume. Historically, it is essential that this constricted society should be broken up as the productive forces expand beyond its frontiers; but when Marx speaks of ‘striv(ing) to reproduce its truth at a higher stage’, he is clearly speaking of the communist society of the future, where unlimited resources will serve an unlimitedly developing man.

[1] Introduction to the Grundrisse.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Ancient Greece: Making sculpture their own

To gain an insight into how ancient Greece transformed artistic conventions to create their own aesthetic, we may take a lesson from one of their most renowned achievements: sculpture.

Classical Greek sculpture probably had its beginnings in the assimilation of Near Eastern and Egyptian styles during what we now call the Archaic period (ca. 700–450 BC). The colonisation of the Mediterranean coast and the opening of new trade routes introduced Greek artists to Eastern imagery such as composite beasts – griffins, sphinxes – and palmette and lotus motifs. Herodotus claims in the Histories that Greeks and Egyptians began to interact during the reign of the Pharaoh Psammetichus I, who came to power in 664 BCE. The Egyptians possessed great skills in cutting, transporting and carving huge pieces of stone, and their monumental stone statues and architecture seem to have made a profound impression on the Greeks, who in the second half of the seventh century began to imitate them on a smaller scale back home.

But whereas Egyptian statues are schematic and rigid, we know Greek sculpture as naturalistic and fluid in movement. To understand why sculpture took such different forms in the two societies, we need to look back to the arguments made in the last few articles.

Breathing new life into traditional art

The first step toward the sculpture of Classical Greece was the appearance of human figures known as kouros (male) and kore (female) statues, in the 7th century BCE. These youthful statues seem to have been used as dedications to gods and as tomb monuments. They have a visible relationship to Egyptian models, with stiff upright posture, one foot taking a step forwards, youthful curls mimicking the pharaonic headdress. This sort of stylisation meant that, like the Egyptians, Greek sculptors could produce figures according to a formula.

Egypt meets Greece. On the left, statue of the mayor Nen-kheft-ka, ca 2350 BCE. On the right, one of a pair of marbles depicting Kleobis and Biton, ca. 580 BC.

However, democracy introduced into Greek society a completely different spiritual dynamic. Egyptian statues attempt to impress us with the eternal truth of religion and class hierarchy. As we have been arguing, the Greek context of many city states, with no centralised nobility, and a democratic system granting freedom of speech even to a section of the masses, influenced the cultural conditions in which Greek art was created. The influence of individualism and a new interest in the human over the divine led Greek artists to gradually become interested in representing particular, lifelike human beings, and to this end sought to depict what they saw, rather than what they had been told or thought they knew. For these reasons, Greek sculpture moved away from the rigid Egyptian model.

The kouros is always on a human rather than a monumental scale. Whereas an Egyptian statue was often supported by a pillar, the kouros supports itself, and it is tempting to read this as a symbol of greater confidence in human capacities. We see an increasing secularism in the gradual appearance of artists’ or patrons’ names carved onto the pedestals, and the smile that plays on the statues’ lips breathes human expression into lifeless stone. The sculptors kept striving for ever greater realism in features and anatomy, and by the early fifth century BCE, the kouros had relaxed and become more natural.

The Kritios Boy. Photo: Tetraktys.

The Kritios (or Kritian) Boy, a statue dating to around 480 BCE, illustrates how the kouros had been brought to life. The sculptor sees the figure as a system of parts that is in balance: the left leg takes the weight while the right bends at the knee, subtly shifting the torso. The anatomy is accurate but graceful. This statue is clearly the product of trying to capture the pose of actual standing figures through careful observation. It represents the last phase of the kouros, and is the immediate precursor to the athletes and heroes of Classical Greek sculpture.

Classical sculpture

In the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, now known as the Classical period of Greek art, we see a revolutionary leap to a new form. Greek sculptors had thoroughly mastered the technical aspects of working marble. They had the advantage of iron tools and might model in clay, making moulds to allow for casting with bronze. They also began to produce work that celebrated expressiveness and movement in a way never seen before in sculpture. By studying how nature actually worked, they could show subtle variations in poses and drapery. This took sculpture in a direction quite unlike the Greeks’ contemporaries.

The human body was explored through its anatomy, its three-dimensionality, and its potential for aesthetic grace. The sculptor Polykleitos wrote a treatise or Canon that discussed mathematical proportions for the human figure while exploring how a figure could be brought to life through the counterbalance of relaxed and tensed parts. The Greeks also portrayed subjects that existed in ‘human’ time, such as in Myron’s Discobolus, a statue of a discus-thrower paused at the dramatic moment before the discus is released.

This approach introduced an unprecedented vitality into sculpture. By all accounts, sculptors such as Phidias, Praxiteles, Lysippos and others created elegant works which brought this balance of realism and idealism to an unprecedented perfection. Tragically, only a tiny portion of original Greek sculpture has survived. But the fact that we know their names, and that they were renowned even when alive, is revealing about the permeation of individualism into Greek culture at a time when so much artistic work was anonymous.

We are used to seeing Greek sculpture in the pure white of exposed marble, so our usual image of these works is rather severe. The contemporary reality was different: pigment traces reveal that statues and temples were painted in vivid colours. Bettany Hughes has evoked how Athens must have looked:

Athens was a territory where the breathing population was watched by beautifully worked stone and metal men – idealised versions of humankind, an embodiment of the democratic Athenians’ ambition. Sculptures – bronze, marble, wood – all dressed in real clothes as if they suffered hot and cold like any other human, lined the sanctuaries, the roads, the colonnades, the law-courts. Only a tiny fraction of the bronze statuary cast in Athens in the fifth century remains, so it can be easy to underestimate just what a packed, ever-expanding site-specific gallery this city was, the public spaces populated by crowds of silent humans. Silent, but not muted. With a showman’s urge to make their new attraction (in this case, the show city of democracy) as gaudy as any Persian king’s court or Babylonian tyrant’s processional way, the Athenians stage-set demos-kratia. Statues, monuments, temples, democratic courts were all painted and stained in Technicolour. The stark application and gloopy pigments used would shock most of us today, but these were designed to be seen under the bright Attic sun, and their gaudy glory to be remembered. [1]

The Greeks would have seen their sculpture not as sterile and cold, mounted on a museum wall, but as exuberant, arrogant and buoyant with life [2].

A comment on aesthetic value

Is Greek sculpture better than Egyptian or other Eastern sculpture because of its innovations? It is surely more vital and naturalistic, and this will usually be more to the Western taste, but it would be a mistake to claim that the Greeks or their culture were ‘superior’ to the East. This is a myth constructed from the Renaissance onwards to justify Eurocentrism and racism. The Egyptians were perfectly capable of realist sculpture, as we see from examples such as the famous head of Nefertiti, and they were also capable of great vitality, as in the paintings from Nebamun’s tomb. The reason they did not develop these skills in the same direction as the Greeks was that their cultural needs were different. It is the material and ideological conditions of a culture that define most powerfully the particular qualities of its art.

In Classical Greece, these conditions included a fragmented ruling class, democracy and individualism, and a newly literate culture that encouraged inquiry into the natural world. The result was a balance between their delight in naturalism and a very traditional desire for order and proportion. Some cultures adopted this art as an aesthetic standard, others chose to physically smash it; either way, it was characteristically Greek.

[1] Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (2010).
[2] The colour restoration work of German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann offers us an insight into how ancient Greek sculpture looked in its heyday.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Axis Age

The culture of the classical Greeks is justly renowned. But it was far from a unique flowering of enlightenment in an era of despotic darkness. It was one part of a larger story.

A few hundred years from around 800 to 200 BCE witnessed a major re-evaluation of the Bronze Age legacy across human civilisation. Four great cultural centres in particular laid spiritual and philosophical foundations that have profoundly influenced human society to the present day: ancient Israel, classical Greece, Buddhist India and Confucian China.

Greece produced the poetry of Homer, the philosophy of Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates and Aristotle; Platonism would become a major influence on Western thought, including Christianity, for centuries.

In India, a prodigious blooming of intellectual and spiritual life produced philosophers including atheists and materialists among their number; the 6th–5th century BCE (the dates are disputed) brought us the teachings of the Buddha; in the 6th century BCE Jainism was founded; Hindu philosophy produced the Upanishads and in the 5th–2nd century BCE the Bhagavad Gita as part of the epic Mahabharata.

In China, Confucius (551–479 BCE) and his followers produced the Analects, and the founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu (traditionally 6th century BCE), produced the Tao Te Ching (or Daodejing). These have been the most widely read and studied texts in China.

In Palestine, the great Hebrew prophets – Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah – laid the foundations of the Abrahamic religions, producing the canonical texts of the Hebrew scriptures.

And we should add that in Persia, possibly around the 7th–6th centuries BCE, Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) founded a philosophy and monotheistic religion that survives to this day.

These currents of thought, giving us the first real classics of literature, seem to have arisen more or less independently, all of them asking very modern questions about the nature of reality and humanity’s place in it. It is striking that so many seminal figures were alive at the same time and many could even have met each other. Clearly, humanity in this period was bringing traditional practices and beliefs into question and speculating with great creativity about how to conceive and change the world. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers described this as the Axis or Axial Age: “the point most overwhelmingly fruitful in fashioning humanity” [1] – the axis or hinge upon which world history turned.

Merlin Donald on theoretic culture

Over a space of few centuries humanity experienced a leap to a new level of intellectual sophistication. So what was happening here?

An insight into this phase of human civilisation was proposed by the Canadian psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald in his book Origins of the Modern Mind. Donald argued that human cognition had passed through three broad stages. Early humans made a transition from the ‘episodic’ cognition of animals to a ‘mimetic’ stage, characteristic of Homo erectus, which features gesture and non-verbal communication. The next transition, concluding with our species, Homo sapiens, was the ‘mythic’, which featured language and narrative thought. The final stage was the ‘theoretic’, representing the emergence of institutionalised, theoretical thought. This development depended upon the expansive use of external memory storage, which in most cases requires writing. Instead of relying upon oral culture and upon human biological memory, human culture invented written archives, as well as the other existing ways of recording our ideas such as monuments and works of art.

Put into Donald’s terms, the Axis Age was the period of human history in which mimetic and mythic culture was joined by the theoretic. This was a cultural rather than a biological change, and it was profound. Literacy had been invented much earlier, but only now did humanity develop a truly literate culture. To put it simply, we shifted from oral tradition to libraries. External memory storage changed the way humans approached reality and its attendant puzzles such as religion, perception and society. Taking the Greeks as his example, Donald writes:

Our concern here is not so much with the history of science or philosophy per se as with the cognitive framework that enabled such accelerated change. How had the structure of human thought process changed? The answer appears to be at least partly that, in the ancient Greeks, all of the essential symbolic inventions were in place for the first time. The evolution of writing was complete; the Greeks had the first truly effective phonetic system of writing, so successful that it has not really been improved since. They also possessed advanced systems of numeration and geometric graphing. Astronomy had advanced considerably under the Babylonians, and the Greeks were aware of that body of knowledge, as they were of Egyptian mathematics. Moreover, their society was open, intensely competitive, and sufficiently wealthy that education went beyond the immediately pragmatic.

The key discovery that the Greeks made seems to have been a combinatorial strategy… In effect, the Greeks were the first to fully exploit the new cognitive architecture that had been made possible by visual symbolism.[2]

For the Phoenicians, writing was mostly a mercantile tool; in Greece, every educated male could read or write. The Greeks externalised their speculation upon reality through the widespread use of literature, which stored ideas in a more reliable and permanent form than was possible under the oral tradition. Written opinions on the natural world, law, sculpture, etc could be placed into the public domain to be analysed, discussed and improved upon, even after their originators had died. The Greeks “founded the process of externally coded cognitive exchange and discovery” (Donald), using external memory storage to create a collective social memory. Greek culture stepped out of the oral tradition dominant during Homer’s time and began the journey that culminated in the Library of Alexandria.

Although, because of a particular combination of elements, this process was perhaps most intense in Greece (their 5th century BCE heyday pivoting in the very centre of the Axis Age), it produced a systematic inquiry into the nature of things in four major centres of world culture. It did not spring up fully formed, it was uneven, and it drew heavily upon earlier innovations; nonetheless the Axis Age was not a historical coincidence but a fundamental cultural shift. This shift to libraries was much more significant than the modern age’s great ‘information’ innovation, namely the internet.

It is true that classical Greece produced some of the greatest achievements of the ancient world. But anyone who wishes to claim it as the single, direct ancestor of the West, or as a brilliant moment of uniquely European enlightenment, is required to ignore great swathes of historical context. He or she must become, as Edward Said put it:

someone who wants to make ‘civilisations’ and ‘identities’ into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history.[3]

[1] Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (1949).
[2] Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind (1991).
[3] Edward Said, ‘The Clash of Ignorance’ (in The Nation, 2001). Said is commenting here on Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations, but the principle applies.

Ancient Greece: legacy to the West

Classical Greek culture has long been interpreted in the West [1] as the beginning of European civilisation. There is no doubt that Classical Greece was one of the great episodes in world culture. But it was not, of course, single in nature. Spread across the Mediterranean, conditioned by and conditioning other cultures, it was a complex phenomenon which archaeology is still piecing together.

Greece’s role as a spiritual ancestor is usually taken for granted in Western states, and on a certain level this is uncontroversial. It is written on the very streets in buildings like the Capitol in Washington, DC. However, the relationship was neither linear nor continual. As the historian Michael Wood observed:

Should we even view Greece as part of the West? The question may seem perverse, but where a Muslim scholar in tenth-century Baghdad would unquestionably have seen himself as the intellectual heir of classical Hellenism, the idea may never have occurred to a tenth-century scribe in England. She would have been familiar with some of its stories and myths; indebted too to the great patristic legacy in Greek; but she would hardly have thought herself its heir. Israel and Rome loomed far larger in her imagination.[2]

We mentioned in an earlier post that Minoan Crete should be seen not as the first ‘European’ civilisation so much as the westernmost expression of a development that began in the east. Ancient Greece occupied a similarly ambiguous position. The origins of Classical Greek culture can be traced back to the Near East and Egypt, partly via the Minoans and Mycenae, partly through their own direct contacts – early Greek sculpture for example is highly derivative of the Egyptian style. The Greeks owed a great deal to the Phoenicians, a Semitic culture from the coast of modern-day Lebanon, from whom they learnt to use an alphabet and to share other ideas, in sites like Al-Mina on the coast of modern Syria. The Ionian Greeks – inhabiting the colonies on the west coast of modern-day Turkey and in direct contact with Asia – benefited especially from their contact with Eastern ideas. It is true that the Greeks assimilated and transformed this cultural traffic to produce their own distinct, revolutionary culture. But as far as the Greeks do represent the beginning of Western civilisation, this means that the modern West, which is relatively very recent, ultimately finds its ancestry in the East. To draw a line at around the 8th century BCE on the Greek peninsula is somewhat arbitrary.

By 400 BCE Greek culture was already declining under the pressure of constant internecine war. As Wood points out:

Greece never united, remaining instead a land of warring city states, and in the mid-fourth century they fell to the brutal and vigorous Macedonians from the north. With that, Athens lost for good its cultural eminence which passed to the great Hellenistic foundations in Asia and North Africa, the powerhouses of a multi-racial empire which spread from the Balkans to India. It was the ideals of this Hellenistic Age, adapted by the Romans, which would be the first shapers of the Western tradition [my italics].

The identification of Greece as the birthplace of European civilisation was an invention of the Renaissance, when the early bourgeoisie was looking for legitimacy for its own secular, scientific, individualistic and imperialist worldview. In the Greeks they saw a certain correspondence of interests in the study of the natural world, realism in the arts, etc. But even then, Greek culture was seen through the mediation of Rome. It was really the Romans who laid down the foundations for the last two millennia of culture in Europe and its offshoots. It is no accident that bourgeois revolutionary France and the United States took inspiration from the Roman Republic, not democratic Greece; the model for their senates was Roman.

There are very practical reasons for this. The Roman legacy was one of organisation, administration, and importantly – beginning with the conversion of the emperor Constantine in about 312 AD – Christianity. The Roman policy of winning over sections of the ruling classes in the conquered territories created a culture that looked to Roman models even when the Romans had gone. For example, when in 800AD Charlemagne united most of western Europe for the first time since the Roman empire broke up four hundred years before, he was crowned Imperator Romanorum (‘Emperor of the Romans’), in Rome.

Another reason is the limited availability of original Classical Greek culture. The works from antiquity unearthed during the Renaissance and later at Pompeii and Herculaneum were Hellenistic or Roman. Even today, a great deal of Greece’s artistic legacy exists only second-hand. The closest thing we have to a full-scale Greek painting, for example, is the ‘Alexander mosaic’ from Pompeii [3] – itself possibly a Hellenistic work shipped to Italy, or a Roman recreation; and works like Myron’s Discobolus sculpture survive only as Roman copies of original works of higher artistic quality. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that Europeans began to study the Classical Greeks directly. Even so, many now-famous Greek works were unknown to the West until relatively late: the Parthenon marbles weren’t brought to Britain until the early 19th century, and the ‘Riace bronzes’ were not fished from the sea until the 1970s.

The rational, self-critical European who is supposedly the enlightened inheritor of the Greeks didn’t appear until two thousand years after the heyday of Classical Greece, having in the meantime been immersed in the legacy not of Greece but of Rome – and the often bloody superstitions of feudal Christianity.

The line of continuity from ancient Greece to modernity was constructed by the bourgeoisie to add legitimacy to their own concerns. When reinventing the Greeks as spiritual ancestors, they concentrated upon the rational, scientific, humanist legacy rather than the bickering, superstition, sexism or blood-letting which were equally part of that culture. European history is a plentiful panorama from which subsequent generations can cherry-pick ideas and events which suit their ideological purposes, while ignoring other equally powerful ideas and events which don’t. One example of such an element of ancient art was its frankness about sexuality. The scale on which Greek and Roman art proudly sported genitalia and sex acts was utterly unacceptable to bourgeois Europe, which hid the offending objects from sight in museum vaults. Another is the participatory nature of Greek democracy – most modern bourgeois would be horrified by any proposal to allow direct votes for the working class about forty times a year, with terms of office lasting just one year, and the threat of exile hanging over politicians who earned popular disapproval.

Theories that recruited the achievements of Greece and Rome to ‘European’ culture were also used to support racism and justify colonialism, by claiming a superior ancestry of civilisation for white cultures. As we’ve touched upon above, Eurocentrists conveniently forget that the West owes its own achievements to an intellectual legacy not just from the Aegean, but from Sumer (the 60-minute hour and the invention of writing), Phoenicia (the alphabet) and Islam (Arabic numerals). Persia, the cartoon villain of ancient Greek history, gave us chess and backgammon, algebra and the medicinal use of alcohol [4].

In short, to understand ancient Greece we must also understand the wider trends of human culture at the time. For that reason the next post will place Greece in context, as one part of a seminal period in human history.

[1] By ‘the West’ I mean the dominant cultures of Western Europe and their offshoots in North America and elsewhere. Dating from the Renaissance, they may be identified as Christian, capitalist and materialist.
[2] Michael Wood, Legacy: A Search for the Origins of Civilisation (1999).
[3] The original may be a work mentioned by Pliny the Elder that depicted Alexander battling Darius, painted by Philoxenos of Eretria from the 4th century BCE.
[4] Anyone interested in Europe’s debt to other cultures will find M. Shahid Alam
s ‘How Eurocentric is Your Day?’ (2009) very interesting.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Ancient Greece: Economy

The advent of iron was a revolutionary forward step for human culture, allowing for increases in productivity. Iron was more durable than bronze, and iron tools improved agricultural efficiency; it was also abundant, and therefore cheaper. This was technology for the masses, becoming widespread in a way that the more expensive bronze could not. This social surplus helped make possible the building of new empires in Persia, China and India.

Although we think of Greece through its famous cities such as Athens, Sparta and Corinth, the dominant sector of the ancient economy was agriculture. As Perry Anderson explained:

The Graeco-Roman towns were never predominantly communities of manufacturers, traders or craftsmen: they were, in origin and principle, urban congeries of landowners… Their income derived from corn, oil and wine – the three great staples of the Ancient World, produced on estates and farms outside the perimeter of the physical city itself. Within it, manufactures remained few and rudimentary.[1]

This is not to say that urban trade was insignificant – in fact, it could make a decisive difference in a world dominated by agriculture. The key to trade for the ancient Greeks was the Mediterranean. It was far cheaper to ship goods across the sea than to transport it across land, and water gave the predominantly coastal Greek cities access to trade from Spain to Syria. This made possible an urban prosperity far more concentrated than the agricultural hinterlands, and dependent upon the great inland sea. Anderson concludes: “The Mediterranean, in other words, provided the necessary geographical setting for Ancient civilisation.”

From the 6th century BCE, the foundations were laid for classical Greek civilisation. Coinage, colonisation, population growth and competitive trade helped create the ‘tyrants’ who played such an important part in the class struggles that broke the aristocracy’s grip on power.

One of the concessions the tyrants made to the masses was the breaking up of aristocratic land monopolies, which was popular with farmers but limited Greek agriculture to the small to medium scale. Democracy also had a curtailing effect upon the power of the big landowners to exploit the citizenry. But there was a way to compensate for this cramping of productivity.


Class society was the means by which human beings massively increased their overall productivity and standard of living. The price for this greater material wellbeing was the division of people into classes according to their economic role, groupings that usually determined their entire lives. The limited productivity of ancient agriculture and industry could be increased by the gross exploitation of a section of the labour force – slavery.

Olive-gathering. Agriculture was a common use for
slave labour. 6th century BCE amphora by the
Antimenes painter.
It appears that slavery existed in many ancient cultures, but it is a complex phenomenon. It was not usually full-blown – i.e. human beings as chattel property – and played a marginal economic role, most production being based on the peasant-farmer. Slaves assigned to palaces, crafts or administrative work could actually enjoy a higher status and standard of living than toilers in the fields. Ancient Greece by contrast seems to have been the first culture to transform slavery into a mode of production. Slaves, who were mostly acquired as prisoners of war, worked the fields, served in households and laboured in construction, providing much of the labour power that fuelled Greek quarries, workshops and shipyards. In a few cases, slaves managed to buy their freedom, but slaves’ lives were normally hard, especially in the mines, and they had no rights whatsoever. The city of Sparta was unusual in keeping an entire population enslaved – the Messenian helots – though it may be more correct to see them as oppressed peasant labour rather than chattel property.

It is impossible to estimate exactly the number and proportion of slaves in the population, since no reliable records were made at the time. In Athens, slaves probably accounted for about one quarter of the population. The Greek economy never depended exclusively upon slave labour, but what matters is not numbers but the contribution slavery made to the production of the social surplus. As G.E.M. de Ste Croix argued, it was not that the bulk of production was done by slaves; in fact the combined production of various forms of free labour exceeded that of unfree labour. The significant thing is that the propertied class extracted the greater part of its surplus from unfree labour. In his own precise formulation:

I think it would not be technically correct to call the Greek (and Roman) world ‘a slave economy’; but I should not raise any strong objection if anyone else wished to use that expression, because, as I shall argue, the propertied classes extorted the bulk of their surplus from the working population by means of unfree labour, in which slavery, in the strict technical sense, played at some periods a dominant role and was always a highly significant factor.[2]

Agricultural slavery formed the economic basis of the Greek ruling class, allowing the nobility to congregate in the sophisticated towns. No wonder they saw slave ownership as one of the essentials of a civilised life! The surplus produced by slave labour allowed privileged Greeks the leisure to contemplate existence or to compose verse. Although slavery is a repugnant idea today, it was one of the foundations of Greek art. It was an unpleasant fact of life that slavery and democracy formed a dialectic; slavery helped to define liberty. And both helped to define culture.

The Athenian empire

The richest city state in the Greek world was Athens, whose wealth was built upon sea trade and the silver discovered at around 483 BCE at Laureion, which it mined using thousands of slaves.

From 499 BCE, the Greek city states were confronted by a military threat from Persia, and formed, with an uncharacteristic unity of purpose, an alliance that won a series of victories at land and sea. In 478 BCE they launched the Delian League – taking its name from its treasury on the ‘neutral’ island of Delos – to organise the collective defence of the Greek cities. The allies paid money into this fund every year, and collective security helped expand trade and prosperity. However, as the Persian threat receded, Athens’ leadership role became increasingly oppressive. When Naxos and Thasos attempted to withdraw from the alliance, the Athenian navy was sent to punish them. The pretence was dropped in 454 BCE when the treasury was moved to the Parthenon, which became more of a bank than a temple as tribute poured into the city. The member cities of the league had to pay Athens every year in her own currency, the silver owl, forcing them to buy Athenian produce to get the required coinage. Athens had created an empire.

This development had its own logic. Perry Anderson points out that slavery militated against any dramatic improvement of technique: slaves have no incentive to be more productive and slave labour degraded the status of labour in general. The main means of expansion in the ancient world therefore was a sideways, geographic one.

Classical civilisation was in consequence inherently colonial in character: the cellular city-state invariably reproduced itself, in phases of ascent, by settlement and war.

It is one of the contradictions of Greek democracy that Athens practiced democracy and sponsored it in other cities, yet became an overbearing imperial power in the Aegean.

Part of what made an Athenian empire possible was the trade goods flowing in from around the Mediterranean, making the Athenian port, Piraeus, a huge commercial centre. Athens now ruled a population of two million, receiving tribute from more than 170 states, and was the biggest importer of grain in the ancient world.

The Athenian imperial system would not survive the plunder, plague and massacres of the Peloponnesian War. But at its exuberant height in the 5th century BCE, Athens was not only rich in money but in ideas. Its cash paid for more triremes, but it also subsidised culture and public buildings. The city became the centre for the tragedy of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes; the comedy of Aristophanes; the history of Herodotus; and the philosophy of Anaxagoras and Socrates. Its most powerful symbol was the temple complex on the Acropolis hilltop that included the Parthenon.

The historian Bettany Hughes described the effect of such wealth:

Athens was able to beautiful itself. Walls, monuments and life-sculptures were erected. Aphrodite’s hoary, soot-blacked husband, Hephaestus, was given a new temple overlooking the Agora. In the city’s spanking-new Odeion, citizens enjoyed public cultural performances and contests, male-voice choirs fifty to 1000-strong competed here; new clothes were bought for performers and for the gods that their music honoured, and Athens’ snaking walls crept four miles further south to Piraeus. Pericles’ building programme was silhouetted on the Athenian skyline: the Propylaia, and perhaps too in his mind the glimmer of a plan for the Erechtheion – a kind of holy-hotel for many gods – famously buttressed by staunch caryatids. And, above all, Athena’s Parthenon: decorated green, blue, gold – dazzling like a peacock. Athena Parthenos, gilded and glowing with crystals and hippopotamus ivory, towered 39 feet high within the temple. Her gold clothes and accessories weighed 120lb, her skin gleamed, and on her outstretched palm perched a 6.5-foot high statue of Nike, the goddess of victory.[3]

Hughes’ description demonstrates vividly why a booming economy was another of the pre-requisites for ancient Greek art.

[1] Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974).
[2] G.E.M. de Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981).

[3] Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup (2010).

Friday, 1 March 2013

Ancient Greece: Democracy and individualism

The first foundation of Greek culture that we will look at is its politics.

In the sixth century BCE, Greece launched an unprecedented political experiment in direct democracy, with its epicentre in the city-state of Athens. This revolution had huge consequences for Greek art.



The origin of the small-scale, isolated Greek polis or city state lay in the fragmentation of Mycenaean culture following the Bronze Age collapse. Typically, the polis was a fortified town surrounded by land and villages. Even before the expansionism of Alexander the Great, there were about 1500 city-states scattered across the coast from Spain and France to the Black Sea and Asia Minor. Few of them had a population of more than about 20,000, and the average was nearer 1000. Each was jealous of its independence and had its own constitution, leading to a great diversity of religious practice, culture and customs.

The small size of these Greek cities made their aristocracies more vulnerable, bringing the gulf between the rich and poor into a more intimate light. The privileges of the kings and their families were resented by those whose wealth was based upon the revival of trade. The new rich, or oligarchs, in many cities overthrew the monarchy to establish republics which themselves became subject to coups by popular ruling class leaders known as ‘tyrants’. The tyrants drew political power from mobilising the masses by making concessions on land and building public works, and in Athens and elsewhere this created the political opportunity for the first breakthrough for the masses in the class struggle of antiquity.

The first steps towards democracy were taken in 594 BCE by Solon, an oligarch who introduced reforms designed to steer a course between debt-ridden peasants and disenfranchised traders on one hand, and the aristocracy on the other. But the decisive change came nearly a century later when the pro-aristocratic Isagoras invited the Spartan army into Athens to help push out his reform-minded rival Kleisthenes. In response, Kleisthenes mobilised the masses, who laid siege to the Spartans and forced them out. The oppressed classes had acted, for the first time in recorded history, as a political agent.

Solon’s constitution was reformed. To break down traditional clan affiliations, citizens would now register by their place of residence and were thus placed on a more equal footing. The officials of legislative bodies were now chosen by lottery instead of being appointed by class or clan.

Democracy, which survived for about 200 years, was an astonishing development. An estimated 40,000 citizens of the city of Athens (out of a population of perhaps 250,000) now had a social power unprecedented in the ancient world. This was a limited suffrage compared to today, but it was a revolution compared to the despotisms of the Bronze and Iron Ages. Nor was it the shallow democracy of modern bourgeois states, whose electorate gets to vote once every five years or so for ‘representatives’ from a selection of ruling class factions. When the Assembly (ekklesia), the main legislative body, met on a hillside near the Acropolis, 6,000 citizens were needed for the meeting to be quorate. These citizens had a direct say in the city’s affairs, not just voting on issues put to them but deciding what the issues were. Greek democracy therefore was participatory, not representative. Freedom of expression (parrhesia or ‘to speak frankly’) meant that any citizen could speak in the assembly regardless of social class. Checks and punishments for elected officials included, in the worst cases, exile for ten years (known as ostracism).

Democracy encouraged a plurality of views, a dialectic that encouraged public debate and transformed intellectual life. Schools of philosophy arose from the desire to learn the nature of truth, the best ways to organise society, and the nature of the gods – if gods even existed at all. This process was assisted by the geography of the region. Unlike the civilisations in China and India, built in great river valleys and immense plains, land was scarce in mountainous Greece. As a sea-trading people based in a series of mostly coastal towns and colonies, the Greeks would have encountered a great variety of religions, philosophies, languages, and arts. An exposure to different worldviews can encourage, in the right conditions, an inquisitive mind: which, if any, of these discourses is actually correct? Unlike more centralised seafaring cultures such as the Carthaginians and Phoenicians, the Greeks could debate these things with a rare freedom. Some of these views were startling: including atheism (e.g. Diagoras) and materialism (e.g. Epicurus and Democritus).

Democracy caused consternation among privileged Athenians. Philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and playwrights such as Aeschylus and Aristophanes, are celebrated today as amongst the greatest products of Greek culture. But the ruling class, the leaders of Greece’s philosophical and literary life included, resented the constraints placed upon it by democracy, and, when they could, attempted to overthrow it. Socrates for example was associated with a group of conservative intellectuals who attempted to overthrow democracy in the late 5th century BCE. Yet it was only because intellectual life in Athens was so open and critical that a figure like Socrates could exist at all. Athens’ most brilliant cultural figures represented both a reaction against democracy and its highest product.

After Greece was conquered by the Romans, Athenian democracy died out. Democracy was not seen again in Europe until the advent of the bourgeoisie, who revived it 2000 years later, in their own forms, for their own reasons.


Unlike a great empire like Egypt, these relatively small, self-contained and democratic communities had no monarchy, bureaucracy and priest caste to insist upon a unity of cultural conventions. Artistic production was still dominated by the ruling class, but the ruling classes were more localised, less monolithic and, in democratic cities like Athens, constrained by the genuine political power of the masses.

This conjunction of elements brought something new to culture, in fact one of the most powerful ideas in history: a thoroughgoing sense of individualism. Each citizen of the polis (provided they were neither female nor slaves) could make an individual contribution to society, and assert their own particular views in competition with those of others. An individual, heroic human being could take control of their own destiny – human beings were the measure of all things. The potent inscription on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, ‘know yourself’ (gnōthi seauton), was the slogan of a society that recognised the inner life of the individual like never before.

It is revealing that in the ancient world, it was highly unusual for artists to put their names to their work or become celebrated. In Greece, however, even the creators of that mass-produced art form, pottery, are recognisable by their individual style and sometimes sign their work. The Greeks consistently proclaim their identity as individual artists, lending history an unprecedented mass of named writers, architects, dramatists, poets and painters.

A statue comes to life: head of a kouros, 6th century BCE. Photo: Tetraktys

Let us briefly take the example of sculpture, for which Greece is particularly famed. (We will post on this topic in more detail later.) Influenced by individualism, the Greeks began to break down the rigid conventions they initially imitated from Egyptian art. Greek sculptors gradually became interested in representing particular, lifelike human beings, and to this end sought to depict what they saw, rather than what they had been told or thought they knew. Statues became enlivened by the so-called ‘archaic smile’, anatomy became more realistic, and poses more subtle and elastic.

The dialectic of individualism and scientific inquiry encouraged artists to look again at nature to question tradition and find new ways of seeing. Of course, despite their modern reputation for rationalism the Greeks worshipped an extended family of gods and goddesses and their lives were dominated by festivals, sacrifices and religious rites. This cannot be divorced from their art – almost all of which is inspired by mythology – any more than Greek democracy can be fully understood without its constraints of sexism and slavery. But there was now more space within culture for artists to align with radical political and scientific ideas. Born out of this contradiction, classical Greek art was both ideal and real, typical and individual: it sought a balance between a delight in nature and a very traditional desire for order and proportion.

Even after her independence and democracy were long lost, Athens continued for several more centuries as a centre of education for philosophy, rhetoric and logic. But classical Greek art grew from a combination of elements, some stronger than others. Democracy, and the individualism with which it is entwined, was one of the strongest. It is unlikely to be an accident that the crushing of democracy, under the Macedonians and then the Romans, was followed by the fading of Greek art’s revolutionary flair.

The origins of ancient Greek art

In ancient Greece, an art developed that was later to be seen as a seminal cultural achievement, above all by Western civilisation. When Marx wrote that the ancient Greek arts “are in certain respects regarded as a standard and unattainable ideal” [1], he was endorsing a consensus that has only recently begun to be reassessed. It was summed up by Percy Shelley when he wrote:

We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece. But for Greece... we might still have been savages and idolaters. [2]

The Apollo Belvedere. For hundreds of years this statue was regarded by European culture as one of the greatest achievements of ancient Greek art. Today it is believed to be a Roman copy of a lost bronze original. Photo: Wknight94.

It is unhelpful to repeat art history clichés about ‘the genius of the Greeks’. Is the Greeks’ reputation justified? Are they really the founders of Western culture? Does their art have something that the art of their contemporaries doesn’t? To find answers we have to look for the concrete historical developments that can explain why particular peoples, at a particular time, achieve particular things.

The next few posts will attempt answers to those questions. I will tend to concentrate upon Athens, not because other Greek cities made no contribution, but because we have far more data for Athens, and because it was the epicentre of the ancient Greek world.

Readers may want to begin by revisiting my previous posts around the topic of ancient Greece:
The rise of ancient Greece
Marx and the Greek classics
The Iliad
Is this Sparta?

[2] Percy Shelley, Preface to ‘Hellas’ (1822).