Citizens to Lords

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Ellen Meiksins Wood, Verso, £16.99

Greek democracy was traumatic for the ancient ruling class. Ellen Wood is right to root her analysis of western political thought in the context of this extraordinary historical experiment. For around 200 years, in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, Athens and many other Greek city-states were ruled by ordinary citizens. Major decisions - like whether to go to war - were made at mass meetings of thousands. The poorest hill farmer had the same rights as the richest landowner. While it lasted, it was impossible for rulers to screw their own people. Instead the rich faced wealth taxes and corruption trials.

The Greek ruling class never forgot or forgave. They later combined with Macedonian kings and Roman viceroys to smash democracy. This ancient class war between landowners and peasants is the starting point for western political thought. Other civilisations - based on brutally enforced obedience - had no need for political theory: there was a king, he was backed by god, his authority was beyond question, and that was that. But the city-state was a community of free citizens, all doing military service, all having political rights. Anything could happen - like cancellation of debts and redistribution of land (the two great demands of the ancient left) - and right wing intellectuals spent much time concocting theories to justify inequality. This is the origin of Greek philosophy.

How successful were they? Wood's central theme is that all the major figures of the western tradition - Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas and others - were embedded in the ideological class struggles of their own times. Far too often they are discussed as "great thinkers" - often in tones of hushed awe - without reference to any social context.

But how do you explain a convoluted concept like Aristotle's notion that the ideal city-state should comprise "conditions" (people who work) and "parts" (people with power)? What is this if not an attempt to justify an oligarchy of property owners instead of democracy? Or take St Augustine's discovery that it was not what one did that mattered in securing entry to heaven, but only what one thought. How convenient for his super-rich patrons in late Roman Carthage.

The message is that western political thought was poisoned from start to finish by property and power. However brilliant some of its practitioners, it has been hideously distorted by class interest. This is a useful addition to the Marxist literature on pre-capitalist societies.