Marxist Classical Classics

by Barry Baldwin

On August 15, 1835, as part of his Abitur examinations at the Gymnasium in Trier, the seventeen year old Karl Marx composed in Latin (how many modern students could do that?) an essay on Roman History entitled Does the Reign of Augustus Deserve to be Called One of the Happier Periods of the Roman Empire? As I found when editing it in the Archiv Für Kulturgeschichte, apart from a couple of sentences in S. S. Prawer’s Karl Marx and World Literature, this piece remains largely neglected or slighted by modern students of Marx, being (e.g.) left out of Geoffrey de Ste Croix’ survey of Marx as a classical scholar in his brobdingnagian The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, and curtly dismissed as “uninteresting” in David McLellan’s Karl Marx: his Life and Thought. Marx’ examiners called his handwriting “abominable” and were severe - sometimes unduly so - on his Latinity. And we would not expect to find mature Marxism springing fully armed from the head of a schoolboy. Yet, just as the remark “To some extent our social relations have already begun before we are in a position to determine them,” made in another of his Abitur essays (A Young Man’s Reflections on the Choice of a Career - with Marx envisaging the “noble calling” of a scholar), has been understood as the germ of Marxism, so also these first thoughts on the interrelationship between the cultural and economic histories of the Romans may be taken as an always fascinating and sometimes suggestive prelude to his mature thinking.

Here is a translation of his essay, word for word, except that I have compressed some of the prolix repetition complained of by his examiners, also a few purely ancient details, e.g. the list of tribes defeated by Augustus:

There are many ways to judge the Augustan Age. First, compare it with other periods of Roman history. Then enquire what the ancients felt, what foreigners thought of the empire - did they fear or despise it? Finally, what was the state of the arts?

Keeping this as short as possible, I shall adduce the finest epoch before Augustus, one made happy by moral simplicity, a striving for excellence, and the unselfishness of both the politicians and the people; then, the reign of Nero, the worst of them all.

Before the Punic Wars, the Romans were quite uninterested in the fine arts. Learning was ignored, since the top statesmen devoted most of their energy to agriculture. Fine talk was eschewed. They spoke crisply only of what they had to do, preferring substance over style. No fine writing either: their literature was confined to purely factual annals. But the entire period was largely a struggle between the upper and lower classes, each side fighting for its own self-interest, along with the fierce personal battles between politicians of all stripes. Nero’s reign is easy to sum up: a monstrous tyranny, the best citizens liquidated, the laws flouted, the city burnt down, peacemongering generals afraid to seek glory lest this count against them.

The mild regime of Augustus was completely different. True, all freedom, even its semblance, was gone; the emperor adopted laws and customs to suit himself; the powers previously vested in elected officials were now in one man’s hands. However, the Romans accepted the fiction that they themselves ruled through this one man, and refused to see that real freedom was lost. But this very double-think is a cogent proof of imperial mildness.

Roman military power reached new peaks, with their enemies crushed in both East and West. Above all, their most dangerous foes, the Germans, whom even Julius Caesar had failed to conquer, were overcome by a combination of citizenship grants to individuals, military might, and their own tribal squabblings.

In Rome, by contrast, since Augustus had concentrated all authority in himself, the sovereign power remained centripetal, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of a diminished central government and political vendettas that put private ambition above the public good.

The Augustan Age was no utopia, being inferior to early times in terms of freedom and morality. Still, the personal virtue of Augustus and his purging of the senate to replace immoral old-timers by able and bright newcomers did much to consolidate the post-civil war reconstruction. The emperor himself could dissimulate when it suited him, but was a genius at making autocracy seem beneficial. All political institutions are products of prevailing conditions. The early Roman Republic suited early Roman hardihood and morality; in an age grown soft and decadent, autocracy confers an ersatz freedom that can work better than the real thing.

The Romans themselves thought Augustus more divine than human. This is not just the poetic licence of Horace; that great historian Tacitus also describes his reign in terms of respect, admiration, even love. His reign marked a cultural apogee, producing as it did a flood of great writers from whom, as though from a fountain, all people imbibed their culture.

So, his Rome flourished; he genuinely wanted the best for the people; political strife was eliminated; he appointed good men to put his best intentions into effect; cultural flowers bloomed. The Age of Augustus may be called a golden one, thanks to the placing of unprecedented one-man rule at the genuine service of all.

As is evident, the notion of class struggle is already formulated. So is the importance of private ownership, also man as a product of his environment. In Capital, Marx would write, “The secret history of the Roman Republic is the history of its landed property,” while he invoked its collapse to illustrate his polemical The Civil War in France where Nero is also used as a paradigm of evil in his attack on the scholarly statesman Adolphe Thiers. The fair-minded appraisal of ancient German virtues and vices is preferable to his sometimes militant attempts in later life to equip them with primitive communist qualities. The only egregious error in this school essay is his claim that Tacitus spoke highly of Augustus - the reverse is nearer the mark. But later at university he would come to know the Roman historian better by translating him as a stylistic exercise: in his Herr Vogt, a pamphlet at once rebarbative and dazzling in its parade of quotations from classical literature, Marx dubs his victim “a Tacitus of the antechamber.” By no coincidence, in a fragment of his abandoned novel Scorpion, Augustus has been downgraded to a “buffoon”.

Marx graduated from Trier with an excellent report on his Classics, indeed on all subjects save French and Physics; his examiners sign off “cherishing the hope that he will fulfill the favourable expectations which his aptitudes justify.” Six years later at the University of Jena he submitted his doctoral thesis on the atomic theories of Democritus and Epicurus, a study characterised by the great Lucretian, the emphatically non-Marxist Cyril Bailey, as “astonishing” in its knowledge and “arresting” in its conclusions. Marx has by now come a long way from the third of his Abitur essays, a more or less obligatory profession of Christian faith in which the “frivolous philosophy” of Epicurus is derided. Greece and Rome remained with Marx for the rest of his life, underpinning his major writings and engaging both his intellect (e.g. Horace is often quoted with sympathy, in Capital and elsewhere, while Juvenal’s Third Satire on Rome enlivens his disgusted journalistic account of Victorian London) and his emotions - witness this outburst in a letter to Engels in 1861: “Spartacus was a capital fellow, a great general, a true proletarian; Pompey was a turd.” In September 1837, the 16-years-old Friedrich Engels produced an 80-line Greek poem on the Theban civil war between Eteocles and Polyneikes. I edited this some years ago (QUCC 33, 1989, 51-9). As with Marx' school-leaving Latin essay, it deserves inclusion in the history of the European classical tradition, the enrichment of which by these juvenilia of the founding fathers of Marxism has gone largely unnoticed.

It's not surprising that Engels' Greek hexameters are Homeric pastiches. The choice of metre, though, is perhaps unexpected. The theme belongs more to Attic tragedy, above all Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes - the first Western. Aeschylus, though, has had a mixed Marxist reception. Trotsky disparaged him, Ismael Kadare, in Enver Hoxha's Albania, penned a book entitled Aeschylus: The Great Loser. The Marxist scholar George Thomson composed a mammoth volume Aeschylus And Athens, and also edited his Prometheus Bound.

As one who was required to do it at school, I can painfully attest that composing Greek verses of any quality is no easy thing. And the poem's theme may prefigure the adult Engels - civil war and communist revolution went ineluctably together.

Engels left school with a good report on his Greek and Latin. For the rest of his life, he held his own in trading classical allusions with Marx and stoutly defended study of the classics in his Anti-Duhring; for full references, see the East German J. Irmscher's article in Eirene 2, 1964, 7-42.

At the age of 7, Lenin entered the Simbirsk Classical Gymnasium. He survived 8 hours of Latin a week, began Greek a bit later, read the major historians and poets, translated classical poetry into Russian, and wrote original verses in Greek and Latin, earning high marks and golden opinions from his teachers.

A letter from his sister Anna says his zeal for Latin was such that he coached her in it, despite him being 6 years younger. Robert Service puts it well in his excellent biography (London, 2001): "Lenin the writer-revolutionary owes as much to the literary heritage of Athens and Rome as to Marx and Engels. It may even be that he first learned from Demosthenes and Cicero how to discern a crack in the wall of an opponent's argument and prise it open - and perhaps the stories of heroism in Homer, Xenophon and Livy predisposed him to give high value to the potential role of the individual leader."

In 1914-18, Lenin returned to the classical authors, above all Aristotle who, according to Service, helped him to sharpen his Marxism and his strategy for revolution. Lenin evidently devoured Aristotle's Metaphysics - and, surely, his Politics too. He was following Marx and his debt to Hegel who emphasised the primacy of Aristotle - what would they have thought of the Monty Python ditty Now Aristotle Was a Bugger For The Bottle...?

Trotsky, by contrast, was sometimes less admiring, disaparaging "the old Greeks" and Greek thinkers as "the formalists of their day." But the finale of his best book, Literature And Revolution (1924) parades Aristotle along with Goethe as the paradigm of human achievement and expanded his view of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos as the ultimate play - "It expresses the consciousness of a whole people." Summing up, Trotsky wrote: "A new class does not begin to create all of culture from the beginning, but enters into possession of the past, assorts it, rearranges it and builds on it."

Greek was one of Stalin's poorer subjects at school in Gori, but as a seminarian he coped well with it and with Latin. The schoolboy Stalin wrote poems, at least one of which is classically tinged: "The rose opens her petals,/And embraces the violet./The lily too has awakened,/They bare their heads in the zephyrs."

When in power, he replaced current educational experiments with the old strict classically-based curriculum, the one that had produced Lenin and himself. He memorably dubbed writers "engineers of the human soul" - neither his ghost nor that of Trotsky will thank me here, but on this they did agree.

On final reflection, the Marx Brothers may be classics, but the Marxians - Karl, Fred, Vladimir, and Joe - are more classical.

© 2006 by Barry Baldwin


About the Author

Barry Baldwin was born in 1937 and educated in England. He emigrated to Australia in 1962, re-moving to Canada in 1965, where he is Emeritus Professor of Classics, University of Calgary, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He has published around 30 short stories in print (magazines and book anthologies), and has a novella, "Not Cricket", in Chapbook form (Rembrandt & Company Press, USA), also in e-zines. He has been a Finalist in the Arthur Ellis Awards (Canada 1999) and the Anthony Awards (Bouchercon, 2000, USA) in the mystery short story category.


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