A study of Democracy in Ancient Greece – Its Meaning for Today
Back in the 1970’s I had the opportunity of listening to C. L. R. James speak on three different occasions. These events were held at the Militant Labor Forum sponsored by the Socialist Workers Party in Brooklyn, New York. From what I recall, James impressed me as few other speakers I’ve heard in my lifetime.
Brooklyn, if taken by itself, is one of the largest cities in the United States. A large part of the Black population of this borough was born or has family from the Caribbean or Africa. On the occasions when I listened to C. L. R. James speak, there was a large turnout of people who viewed him as an outstanding leader from the Caribbean.
James was born in Trinidad. He worked for a time as a sports reporter for the Manchester Guardian in Britain. He supported the idea of Marxist politics. For a time, he gravitated to the Socialist Workers Party and met with Leon Trotsky in Mexico.
His book The Black Jacobins is a classic historical work. The so-called history we learn in high school is a glorification of the history of the United States and Europe. In The Black Jacobins, James explained how a revolution of slaves in Haiti defeated the British, Spanish, and French armed forces. This book was one of the first that prompted my lifelong curiosity of history.
James’ article, Every Cook Can Govern is available on the internet in the Marxist Internet Archive. While the article was written in 1956, it could have been written yesterday. The article shows, from a historical point of view, what a democracy looks like. The politicians who support the current political system in the United States argue that we have a democracy. This argument falls apart when we look at the reality that existed in the city-state of Athens around 400 BC.
The pros and cons of Athenian democracy
Before I write about the benefits of Athenian democracy, I will mention its shortcomings that led in part to its demise. The ancient city-state of Athens was a slave society. There were also many people who lived in Athens who were not born there and did not have citizenship rights. Women were also excluded from government. During the period when Athens had a “democracy” the population was about 400,000, but no more than 43,000 were citizens.
In my readings of slavery, I’ve found that technological innovation was very difficult where slavery was the law. In order for technology to advance there must be a climate where inventors are encouraged to create. There must also be workers who have an incentive to transform inventions into useful commodities.
In slave societies, slaves have little interest in scientific innovation. Slave owners have little or no interest in educating slaves. The primary goal of the slave isn’t to develop new technologies, but to become free. However, history has all kinds of exceptions and the facts are that the ancient city-state of Athens made some of the most important advances in human history.
Athens was also an imperial power that went to war to dominate the people of other nations. There is no question that on occasions the Athenians were brutally repressive against the people they conquered. Because Athens was not capable of sustaining itself, dominating other nations was the only way for their world to advance. Because of the advances in technology, today the people of the world have the potential to advance together. This means that under a truly democratic political system workers and farmers would be able to live in harmony.
We might consider that C. L. R. James found no contradiction in writing about the democracy of the Athenian slave world and also writing about the slave revolution in Haiti. Before democracy, Athens had experienced a number of repressive regimes. According to Aristotle, the influence of the Greek Hill party was the basis for Athenian democracy. This Hill party was made up of artisans, small shopkeepers, indigent peasants, miners, as well as the more progressive merchants and manufacturers.
C. L. R. James gives the following summary of some of the most important Greek scholars:
“Epic poetry – Homer, Dramatic Poetry – Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, Comedy – Aristophanes, Lyric poetry – Pindar and Sappho, Statesmen – Solon, Themistocles, and Pericles, Sculpture – The Master of Olympia, and Phidias, Oratory – Dernosthenes, History – Thucydides and Herodotus, Philosophy – Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato, Science and mathematics – Pythagoras, and Archimedes, Medicine – Hippocrates.”
All these intellectuals flourished in an atmosphere the Greeks called isonomia. This word translates to democracy, but for the Greeks this word also meant equality. This meant that literally all Greek citizens participated in making decisions that affected everyone. Those who chose not to participate in this process were labeled idiotes. This is translated to the word idiot.
Decisions in democratic Athens were made in public assemblies. These assemblies appointed officials, generals, and decided on the questions of taxation and war. Every year 6,000 people became the effective government. They were divided into groups of 500. These people were citizens who were chosen at random and made all decisions of government that included trials by juries of 500. Judges were mere secretaries who took notes and followed the orders of the 500 who were charged with making the final decisions.
The consciousness of the Greek citizen in these societies was completely different from what it is today in the United States. Greek citizens didn’t think of themselves as individuals, but as people who were a part of society as a whole. This meant that everyone’s rights were respected. Those who felt they were in any way better than anyone else were ridiculed harshly.
Materialism vs. idealism
The Marxist George Novack also wrote about Athenian democracy in his books Origins of Materialism and Democracy and Revolution. Novack argued that the two principal schools of philosophy are materialism, vs. idealism. Materialism argues that all thought comes from the material world. Idealism argues that the mind operates independently from material reality. Therefore idealists argue that God exists even though there is no physical evidence of this.
The debate between idealism and materialism took place in ancient Athens. Materialists were able to make scientific innovations because of their study of science. Materialists also studied the events of their times without any preconceived ideas of what should or should not be reported.
Idealists also made legitimate criticisms of the materialists. Clearly the Athenians did not have the knowledge we have today which led the materialists to make errors. However, the Athenian materialists were the ones who first recognized that all matter was made up of tiny particles. Centuries later Albert Einstein confirmed this theory and labeled these tiny particles atoms.
We should also recognize that the Greeks of this time were deeply religious. However, the religions of those days attempted to explain the world as it was and not to argue that a supernatural being was responsible for all creation. The Greeks rotated their religious clerics as they rotated their government officials. This idea that everyone participated in government and religion led C. L. R. James to title his article, Every Cook Can Govern.
Democracy before the Athenians
In my readings of history I’ve found that many aspects of Athenian democracy were not new. What was new was the fact that the Greeks of that era made a somewhat thorough written record of their world. Of the developed societies of their era, the Athenians were ones who best utilized democratic norms.
Throughout most history human beings lived in communal societies. We know of these societies from the writers who studied tribal people from all over the world. In these societies decisions were made through discussions and leaders were chosen and removed through these discussions.
Unlike Greek democracy, we know that women experienced much more equality in these societies. Lewis Henry Morgan wrote about the real political power women had in his studies of the Iroquois who lived in what is now the state of New York.
The opportunity to establish a true democracy
Looking at history from this perspective we can appreciate George Novack’s statement about the reality of the so-called “democracy” in the United States. Novack argued:
“A system in which the people do not control the most important decisions and actions of the government, their economy, their welfare or the course of their lives can hardly be considered genuinely democratic. It can be more precisely defined as a plutocracy dressed in democratic disguise.” A plutocracy is a government that serves the interests of the affluent.
Looking at history from this perspective, we can see how working people have the potential to transform the nations of the world into a genuine democracy.