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Were Ancient Spartan's the First Socialists?

Politics / Social Issues Nov 03, 2012 - 04:29 PM GMT



Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleAlexander Gray: At what point a history of socialism should begin is a question which might give occasion to high argument. There are some who hold that we merely becloud our judgment if we allow ourselves to speak of socialism before the middle of the 18th century, or perhaps even somewhat later. On this view socialism is essentially a manifestation of the proletarian spirit; or, if socialism is not necessarily proletarian in character and origin, it at least postulates a society which tends to be comprehensive in its membership. Accordingly, it is suggested that a society which assumes for its efficient working the existence of a slave population, denied all rights, may at times speak a language suggestive of socialism, but it can know nothing of socialism as that word has been understood in the 19th and 20th centuries. The existence of a serf or slave population may in certain respects add a complication to life; but in other directions it quite obviously enormously simplifies the social and political problems of existence, as these are presented to that section of the population who are not slaves. On this view, a history of socialism should probably begin among these first ripples and disturbances which presaged the deluge of the French Revolution.

As against this view, which looks on socialism as something which cannot be dissociated from the social and political conditions of the last century and a half, there are some who carry their excavations for the roots of socialism not merely to ancient Greece, but to ancient China and to the early days of the children of Israel, and who accord a place in the socialist temple to Moses, in virtue of certain provisions in the Mosaic Law; and to Isaiah, in virtue of his poetic sensitiveness to the wrongs of this world.

If we are strict, it is probably to the former of these views that we should incline. We shall see presently how futile to our present-day mind is the justice and the equality of a state which attains these elevated aims by building on the slavery and oppression of the overwhelming majority of the population. Yet it does not follow that the history of socialism can exclude all that happened before the 18th century. Lycurgus and the polity of Sparta may in fact have little to teach us. The community of life which Minos introduced into Crete may have no point of contact with our modern needs. Plato, to ascend to higher names, may have dreamed a dream which would be but a nightmare today, if any attempt were made to realize it. Yet throughout the ages, somewhat surprisingly, the limitations imposed by the assumptions of Sparta and Athens have been overlooked. Plato and Lycurgus, to mention no others, have been permanent influences in molding communist theory. This is particularly true of Plato, though at times (as in Mably) Lycurgus runs him hard. It would be an unpardonable exaggeration to say that all communism and egalitarianism derive from Plato; but on the more visionary and Utopian side, he is everywhere. Like the fabled tree of the nursery, his evergreen branches have given support and shelter to all manner of strange birds, great and small: Tous les oiseaux du monde vont y faire leurs nids.

Even if the "socialism" of antiquity has, in its own right, no claim to be considered as an integral element in a history of socialism, its representatives demand attention as inspirers of socialism in others in much later centuries.

This subsequent appeal to Greece, as the presumed holder of the original title-deeds of socialism, has been made on two grounds. On the one hand, Greece, in its highly variegated political life, is presumed to have given examples of the actual functioning of the communistic way of life. Here, of course, it is pre-eminently Sparta that has fascinated later ages; though Crete also enters into the picture — and to a much lesser extent, Lipara. On the other hand, Greece has supplied the theory and the vision of Communism. On this side, needless to say, it is Plato, in The Republic and The Laws, who in himself very largely constitutes the legacy of Greece. Before approaching Plato, the begetter of much socialism which he would have disowned, it may be advisable to glance, even if hastily, at Greek communism in practice.

According to tradition, Sparta was the handiwork of Lycurgus; but what may any one profitably or usefully say regarding this obscure personality, of whom even Plutarch says that there is nothing concerning him that is not the subject of dispute? This original lawgiver, on whose persuasive powers the socialist laws of Sparta rested, is indeed a shadowy figure — a kind of cross between Moses and King Arthur. If we accept Plutarch's account, Lycurgus was oppressed by the glaring contrast between riches and poverty, the vast number of poor and landless on the one hand, and, on the other, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few individuals — almost a Marxian vision. And so — although surely external circumstances must have reinforced his arguments — he persuaded the Spartans to agree to a new distribution of lands on a basis of equality, and by other measures he weaned them from the love of silver and gold, and led them to adopt that harsh simplicity of life which the very name of Sparta has come to connote. Plutarch's description is of interest because, waiving the question of its historical accuracy, it gives a very adequate definition of the ideal communistic state, as ideally imagined by countless later generations. In general, he says,

he trained his fellow-citizens to have neither the wish nor the ability to live for themselves; but like bees they were to make themselves always integral parts of the whole community, clustering together about their leader, almost beside themselves with enthusiasm and noble ambition, and to belong wholly to their country.

Thus Plutarch, of the influence of a man who is after all but the shadow of a shade, and who, it may be, was more or less imagined in order that his influence might explain what was.

Whether or not Lycurgus succeeded in abolishing "all the mass of pride, envy, crime and luxury" which flowed from the previous state of inequality — indeed, whether or not Lycurgus ever existed — Sparta, with her remarkable system of government and institutions, certainly did exist, and these are in a way something of a portent. The symmetry of her constitution, her clear consciousness of the end for which, in Sparta at least, the state existed, the rigorous discipline imposed on the individual with a view to the realization of these ends, have, taken together, provoked the eulogies of many simple-minded enthusiasts. The beauty and the stability of Sparta became, to take but one example, something of an obsession with the ineffective Mably. On the other hand, Sir Frederick Pollock has suggested — and one's heart warms to him — that the Spartans were the most odious impostors in the whole history of antiquity. In any event, the Spartan state was probably unique in some respects in the record of political institutions. It is difficult to recall any other state in which the individual was so completely subordinated to the general ends of the community — and such subordination is, of course, of the very essence of socialism in its general sense, as distinguished from that species of socialism generally referred to as communism. From the day of his birth, when he might be not merely subordinated but suppressed for the good of the state, the young Spartan continued to be disposed of in one way or another until death opened up for him a way of escape. The common education, which began at the age of seven, was wholly designed to make good soldiers, to teach men to suffer uncomplainingly the extremes of heat and of cold, of hunger and of pain, and in each was implanted the conviction that he belonged not to himself, but to the state.

With this must be taken another fact no less significant, common indeed to all Greek civilization, although perhaps specially important in Sparta. When we speak of Sparta, we are not concerned with a homogeneous population. The problem is complicated, as always, by one form of the slave question. The Spartan state could continue to exist only so long as the Helots were kept under. Thus the Spartans had to consider not merely their enemies beyond their frontier: they also lived as a governing class amid enemies, vastly more numerous, always sullen, constantly menacing. This is the ultimate explanation of the socialistic aspect of the Spartan state. Pöhlmann has a pregnant saying, written long before 1914, and therefore free from any suggestion that it springs from the misfortunes of the last two generations, to the effect that "state socialism is the inevitable correlate of the war-like type of society." Mr. Hawtrey, in our own day, has explained how Collectivism "emerges as the logical outcome of militarism when pushed to the extreme limit." A state that is at war, or that is perpetually organized for war, dare not tolerate individual liberties which may be in conflict with the general interest; and if the crisis becomes acute, so that the very existence of the state is in danger, there always has been, and there always will be, a tendency to sacrifice the individual; and this means one or other of two things, either despotism or state socialism.

This then explains much in Sparta. She was perpetually organized for war; inevitably she was organized to subordinate the individual in the interests of military efficiency. This also, it is probable, discloses the significance of the common meals, so striking a feature of the civil life both of Sparta and of Crete. It has been suggested that these common meals, so familiar in More and Campanella, may here be viewed as the last remnants of an older and more primitive agricultural communism. Clearly, this is largely a matter of speculation; but the argument is that if, far back at the beginning of things, there was a time when men worked together on land held in common, they would naturally eat in common also. Diodorus of Sicily, speaking of Lipara (in book 5), says that the people there "enjoyed their estates in common and fed together in societies," as if the two were bound together as cause and effect. But indeed no such speculative explanation is necessary. The common meals were merely another consequence of the fact that Sparta was wholly and exclusively organized as a military state, which, even in peacetime and at home, maintained as a symbol and as a discipline the habits of a campaigning army in taking meals together under arms.

In summary, what does the communism of Sparta amount to? There is not, it must be confessed, much to support the moral which it has usually been asked to supply. Despite the original equal division of the soil, differences in material conditions were not excluded; and contact with the larger world in time undermined the more characteristic Spartan virtues, if indeed they were virtues. For the modern communist in search of ensamples there are, on wider grounds, grave stumbling blocks. In the first place, the Spartan state was not so much a state as a military machine. Its sole interest was in training men to suffer and endure, and it pursued this by methods which stand unique in their revolting barbarity. They may have attained equality and community in education, but not much is thereby gained if education is directed to an unholy end. And secondly, to revert to a point which cannot be overemphasized, if only because the worshippers of Sparta have so frequently forgotten it, there is the horrible obverse of Spartan communism presented by the hunted and harried Helot. It is not merely that communism in Sparta was a communism in use, others having produced. It was a communism of an idle and boastful people, whose government and whose existence demanded an army of Helots, who suffered at their hands a ruthless tyranny without parallel in history. It has too often been forgotten that the Helots also were men. Mably, in his intoxicated enthusiasm for Lycurgus and all his works, does not seem to have thought of this aspect of the question. It would be a fitting Nemesis, if in some reincarnation he were sent to live — as a Helot — in his so greatly adored Sparta.

Professor Sir Alexander Gray (1882–1968) was a Scottish civil servant, economist, academic, translator, writer, and poet. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1942. In 1948 he published a study of the life and doctrines of Adam Smith. In addition to his economic writings, Gray was an active composer and translator of poetry. See Alexander Gray's article archives.

This article is excerpted from the opening chapter of The Socialist Tradition: Moses to Lenin (1945).

© 2012 Copyright Ludwig von Mises - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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