International Endowment for Democracy ���or��￁

Labour and Democracy, Ancient and Modern

By Ellen Meiksins Wood

Originally printed as Chapter 6 of Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 181-203.

The Greeks did not invent slavery, but they did in a sense invent free labour. Although chattel slavery grew to unprecedented proportions in classical Greece and Athens in particular, there was nothing novel in the ancient world about unfree labour or the relationship of master and slave. But the free labourer enjoying the status of citizenship in a stratified society, specifically the peasant citizen, with the juridical/political freedom this implied and the liberation from various forms of exploitation through direct coercion by landlords or states, was certainly a distinctive formation and one that signaled a unique relationship between appropriating and producing classes.

This unique formation lies at the heart of much else that is distinctive about the Greek polis and especially the Athenian democracy. Hardly a political or cultural development in Athens is not in some way affected by it, from the conflicts between democrats and oligarchs in the transactions of democratic politics to the classics of Greek philosophy. The political and cultural traditions that have come down to us from classical antiquity are, therefore, imbued with the spirit of the labouring citizen, together with the anti democratic animus which he inspired and which informed the writings of the great philosophers. The status of labour in the modern Western world, in both theory and practice, cannot be fully explained without tracing its history back to Graeco Roman antiquity, to the distinctive disposition of relations between appropriating and producing classes in the Greek and Roman city state.

At the same time, if the social and cultural status of labour in the modern West can trace its pedigree back to classical antiquity, we have just as much to learn from the radical break dividing modern capitalism from Athenian democracy in this regard. This is true not only in the obvious sense that chattel slavery, after a renewed and prominent role in the rise of modern capitalism, has been displaced, but also in the sense that free labour, while becoming the dominant form, has lost much of the political and cultural status it enjoyed in Greek democracy.

This argument runs counter not only to conventional wisdom but also to scholarly opinion. The point is not just that there is something deeply counter intuitive about the proposition that the evolution from ancient slave societies to modern liberal capitalism has also been marked by a decline in the status of labour. There is also the fact that free labour has never been accorded the historical importance typically attributed to slavery in the ancient world. When historians of classical antiquity address themselves at all to the question of labour and its cultural effects, they generally give pride of place to slavery. Slavery, it is often said, was responsible for technological stagnation in ancient Greece and Rome. The association of labour with slavery, this argument runs, produced a general contempt for labour in ancient Greek culture. Slavery in the short term enhanced the stability of the democratic polis by uniting rich and poor citizens, while in the long term it caused the decline of the Roman Empire��whether by its presence (as an obstacle to the development of productive forces) or by its absence (as a decline in the supply of slaves placed intolerable strains on the Roman imperial state). And so on. No such determinative effects are generally ascribed to free labour. In what follows, there will be some attempt to redress the balance and to consider what a different perception of labour in antiquity may tell us about its counterpart in modern capitalism.


Few historians would hesitate to identify slavery as an essential feature of the social order in ancient Greece, and Athens in particular. Many might even say that slavery is, in one way or another, the essential feature and describe classical Athens as a 'slave economy', a 'slave society', or an example of the 'slave mode of production'. Yet there is little agreement about what exactly it means to characterize Athenian society in this way or about what exactly such a characterization is meant to explain.

Such descriptions would be relatively unproblematic if we knew that the bulk of production in Greece was performed by slaves and that the division between producing and appropriating classes corresponded more or less transparently to the division between a juridically defined community of free men, especially citizens, and a subjected labouring class of slaves. But since it is now commonly accepted that production throughout Greek and Roman history rested at least as much on free labour as on slavery, the role of slavery as the key to ancient history has become a rather more thorny question.1

Athens, the case for which evidence is most substantial, poses especially difficult problems. It is both the Greek polis that most unambiguously fits the description of a 'slave society' and, at the same time, the most democratic polis, in which the majority of citizens were people who worked for a living. In this sense, free labour was the backbone of Athenian democracy. It cannot even be said that, in this still essentially agrarian society, agricultural production rested largely on slave labour. The extent of agricultural slavery remains a matter of controversy;2 but there can be little doubt that smallholders who worked their own land remained at the heart of agricultural production. On large estates, there undoubtedly existed a permanent though not very large stock of farm slaves; but landholdings were generally modest, and even wealthy landowners typically owned several scattered smaller properties rather than large estates. Although little is known about how such smaller holdings were worked, farming them out to tenants or sharecroppers may have been a more practical expedient than the employment of slaves. At any rate, there were no slave plantations, huge estates worked by slave gangs living in barracks, like the Roman latifundia. Casual wage labour was widely used at the harvest and was probably available at all times in the form of propertyless citizens or smallholders whose own lands (or tenancies) were insufficient to support their families. A great many things we do not know, and very likely never will, about the Attic countryside in classical antiquity, but one thing seems certain: the peasant-farmer remained its most characteristic figure.

Slaves were more important to the urban economy, though large manufactories employing many slaves seem to have been very rare. The citizen craftsman may not have been as prominent a figure as the peasant citizen, but he was certainly not eclipsed by slaves. Slavery did appear in virtually every corner of Athenian life, from the most menial labour to the most skilled, from the mine slaves of Laureion to the Scythian archers who served as a kind of police force; from domestic servants to business agents (one of the richest men in Athens, the banker Pasion, had been a slave of this kind), teachers and the nearest thing to civil servants; from the most servile conditions to the relatively independent and privileged. But there were only two domains which we know with any degree of certainty were more or less monopolized by slave labour domestic service and the silver mines (though there existed small leaseholders who may have worked the mines on their own). The mines were, to be sure, critically important to the Athenian economy; and a polis in which free men and women, rather than slaves, were employed as servants in the households of their wealthy compatriots would have been a very different place than democratic Athens. Nonetheless, the centrality of free labour in the material foundations of Athenian society demands, at the very least, a nuanced definition of the 'slave society'.3

The point here is not to play down the importance of slavery in Athenian society. Chattel slavery was more widespread in Greece��notably in Athens��and Rome than anywhere else in the ancient world, and indeed than anywhere but in a handful of societies at any time in history.4 Estimates of the number of slaves in classical Athens have varied greatly among modern scholars: for example, for the late fourth century BC, estimates have ranged from 20,000 as against a free population of 124,000, to 106,000 slaves with a free population of 154,000 (112,000 citizens with families, and 42,000 metics).5 A more common figure now is something like a 60,000��80,000 maximum in peak periods; but this is still a very substantial number, comprising something like 20��30% of the total population. And even if slaves did not dominate material production, they almost certainly dominated (the albeit relatively limited number of) large enterprises, agricultural and 'industrial'.6 Slavery on such a scale must remain a critical defining feature of Graeco Roman antiquity, and it justifies the designation 'slave society'. But no account of ancient history, and especially the history of democratic Athens, is even remotely adequate that does not place free labour on at least an equal footing as an explanatory factor.

The simple truth is that, while various forms of unfree labour have been a common feature in most places at most times, the status enjoyed by free labour in democratic Athens was without known precedent and in many respects has remained unequalled since. The peasant citizen of classic antiquity��in varying degrees a characteristic of both Greek and Roman society but nowhere more fully developed than in the Athenian democracy��represents a truly unique social form. The clarity of slavery as a category of unfree labour distinct from others such as debt bondage or serfdom stands out in sharp relief precisely because the freedom of the peasant had erased the whole spectrum of dependence that has characterized the productive life of most societies throughout most of recorded history. It is not so much that the existence of slavery sharply defined the freedom of the citizen but, on the contrary, that the freedom of the labouring citizen, both in theory and in practice, defined the bondage of slaves.

The liberation of Attic peasants from traditional forms of dependence encouraged the growth of slavery by foreclosing other forms of unfree labour. In this sense, democracy and slavery in Athens were inextricably united. But this dialectic of freedom and slavery, which accords a central place to free labour in material production, suggests something different from the simple proposition that Athenian democracy rested on the material foundation of slavery. And if we acknowledge that the freedom of free labour, no less than the bondage of slaves, was an essential, and perhaps the most distinctive, feature of Athenian society, we are obliged to consider the ways in which that feature helps to account for much else that is distinctive about the economic, social, political and cultural life of the democracy.

Giving the labouring citizen his due is no less important to an understanding of slavery than to an appreciation of free labour. Neither one nor the other can be fully understood outside the nexus that unites them. In both Greece and Rome, there was always a direct relation between the extent of slavery and the freedom of the peasantry. Democratic Athens had slaves, Sparta had helots. Oligarchic Thessaly and Crete had what might be called serfs. Outside Roman Italy (and even here the majority of the population outside the city of Rome were probably still peasants even when slavery was at its height), various forms of tenancy and sharecropping always prevailed over slavery. In North Africa and in the eastern Empire, slavery in agriculture was never important. Both in the Hellenistic kingdoms and in the Roman Empire, slavery was always less important in those regions traditionally dominated by some kind of monarchical or tributary state, where peasants lacked the civic status they enjoyed in the polis.

If the exceptional growth of chattel slavery in Athens resulted from the liberation of the Athenian peasantry, so the crisis of slavery in the Roman Empire was accompanied by the increasing dependence of peasants. It is beyond the scope of this essay to determine which is cause and which effect; but, in one way or the other, the key to the transition from slavery to serfdom has as much to do with the status of peasants as with the condition of slaves: either the propertied classes needed to depress the condition of the free poor because the supply of slaves had declined and slavery had ceased to be as productive as it once had been; or, as the growth of monarchical and imperial government in Rome produced a gradual decline in the political and military power of poor citizens and imposed on them an increasingly insupportable burden, there occurred a 'structural transformation' in Roman society which made peasants more available for exploitation and thus reduced the demand for slave labour.7 In either case, slavery recedes as the civic status of the peasantry declines.

When centuries later, chattel slavery again assumed a major role in Western economies, it was inserted into a very different context (with some striking ideological effects on the connection between slavery and racism, which I shall take up in chapter 9). Plantation slavery in the American South, for example, was not part of an agrarian economy dominated by peasant producers but belonged to a large scale commercial agriculture in an increasingly international system of trade. The main driving force at the core of the capitalist world economy was not the nexus of master and slave, nor landlord and peasant, but capital and labour. Free wage labour was becoming the dominant form in a system of property relations increasingly polarized between absolute property and absolute propertylessness; and, in this polarized system, slaves too ceased to occupy a broad spectrum of economic functions. There was nothing like the banker Pasion or the slave civil servant. Slave labour occupied the most unambiguously menial and servile position in the plantation economy.


Historians generally agree that the majority of Athenian citizens laboured for a livelihood. Yet, having placed the labouring citizen alongside the slave in the productive life of the democracy, they have made little effort to explore the consequences of this unique formation, this uniquely free labourer and his unprecedented political status. Where there is any attempt at all to draw connections between the material foundations of Athenian society and its politics or culture (and the dominant tendency is still to detach Greek political and intellectual history from any social roots), it is slavery that takes centre stage as the single most determinative fact.

This neglect is truly extraordinary if we consider just how exceptional the position of free labour was and just how far reaching its consequences. It would be no overstatement to say, for example, that the real distinctiveness of the polis itself as a form of state organization lies precisely here, in the union of labour and citizenship and specifically in the peasant citizen. The polis certainly belongs to what is commonly, if somewhat imprecisely, called the 'citystate', which the Greeks in broad terms had in common with the Romans, as well as the Phoenicians and Etruscans��that is, the small autonomous state consisting of a town and its surrounding countryside. But that category must be further broken down to identify what is most distinctive about the Greek polis.

In pre-capitalist societies, where peasants were the predominant producing class, appropriation��whether by landlords directly or through the medium of the state�� typically took the form of what we might call politically constituted property, that is, appropriation achieved through various mechanisms of juridical and political dependence, by direct coercion��forced labour in the form of debt bondage, serfdom, tributary relations, taxation, corvee, and so on. This was true in the advanced civilizations of the ancient world, where the typical state form was one or another variant of the 'bureaucratic redistributive' or 'tributary' state in which a ruling body was superimposed upon subject communities of direct producers whose surplus labour was appropriated by the ruling apparatus.8

Such forms had existed in Greece before the advent of the polis, in the Bronze Age kingdoms. But in Greece a new form of organization emerged which united landlords and peasants into one civic and military community. A broadly similar pattern was to appear in Rome. The very idea of a civic community and citizenship, as distinct from a superimposed state apparatus or community of rulers, was distinctively Greek and Roman; and it signalled a wholly new relationship between appropriators and producers. In particular, the peasant citizen, a social type specific to the Greek and Roman city states��and not even to all Greek states9��represented a radical departure from all other known advanced civilizations of the ancient world, including the state forms that preceded it in Bronze Age Greece.

The Greek polis broke a general pattern in stratified societies of a division between rulers and producers, and especially the opposition of appropriating states and subject peasant communities. In the civic community, the producer's membership��especially in the Athenian democracy meant an unprecedented degree of freedom from the traditional modes of exploitation, both in the form of debt bondage or serfdom and in the form of taxation.

In this respect, the democratic polis in particular violated what a Chinese philosopher (in a passage that could, with some philosophical refinements, have been written by Plato) once described as a principle universally recognized as right 'everywhere under Heaven':

Why then should you think ... that someone who is carrying on the government of a kingdom has time also to till the soil? The truth is, that some kinds of business are proper to the great and others to the small. Even supposing each man could unite in himself all the various kinds of skill required in every craft, if he had to make for himself everything that he used, this would merely lead to everyone being completely prostrate with fatigue. True indeed is the saying, 'Some work with their minds, others with their bodies. Those who work with their minds rule, while those who work with their bodies are ruled. Those who are ruled produce food; those who rule are fed.' 10

It can even be argued that the polis (broadly defined to include the Roman city state11) represented the emergence of a new social dynamic, in the form of class relations. This is not to say that the polis was the first form of state in which relations of production between appropriators and producers played a central role. The point is rather that these relations took a radically new form. The civic community represented a direct relationship, with its own logic of process, between landlords and peasants as individuals and as classes, separated out from the old relation between rulers and subjects.

The old dichotomous relationship between appropriating state and subject peasant producers was compromised to a certain extent throughout the Graeco Roman world wherever there existed a civic. community uniting landlords and peasants, that is, wherever peasants possessed the status of citizenship. This was true even where, as in Rome, the peasant's civic status was relatively restricted. There were, however, significant differences between the conditions of aristocratic Rome and democratic Athens. In both Athens and Rome, the juridical and political status of the peasantry imposed restrictions on the available means of landlordly appropriation and encouraged the development of alternatives, notably chattel slavery. But in Athenian democracy the peasant regime was more restrictive than in aristocratic Rome and left its imprint much more decisively on the whole of the democracy's political, economic and cultural life, even tailoring the rhythm and objectives of warfare to the requirements of the small farmer and his agricultural calendar.12 Indeed, the democracy, while encouraging the growth of slavery, at the same time, by inhibiting the concentration of property, limited the ways in which slavery could be utilized, especially in agriculture.

By contrast, although the aristocratic regime in Rome was restricted in various ways by the civic and military status of the peasant, the Roman city state was dominated by the logic of the landlord. The concentration of property which made possible the intensive use of slaves in agriculture was one important manifestation of this aristocratic dominance. Another was the spectacular drama of imperial expansion (in which the indispensable participation of the peasant soldier made him vulnerable to dispossession at home), a landgrabbing operation on a scale the world had never seen. It was on this aristocratic foundation that city state gave way to empire, and with it the status of the peasant citizen declined. Neither slave latifundia nor a vast territorial empire, two of Rome's defining characteristics, would have been compatible with the smallholder's regime of democratic Athens.

Nowhere, then, was the typical pattern of division between rulers and producers broken as completely as it was in the Athenian democracy. No explanation of Athenian political and cultural development can be complete that fails to take account of this distinctive formation. Although political conflicts between democrats and oligarchs in Athens never neatly coincided with a division between appropriating and producing classes, a tension remained between citizens who had an interest in restoring an aristocratic monopoly of political status and those who had an interest in resisting it, a division between citizens for whom the state would serve as a means of appropriation and those for whom it served as a protection from exploitation. There remained, in other words, an opposition between those who were interested in restoring the division between rulers and producers and those who were not.

This opposition is nowhere more visible than in the classics of Greek philosophy. To put the point baldly: the division between rulers and producers is the fundamental principle of Plato's philosophy, not just his political thought but his epistemology. It is in his work that we can take the full measure of the status of labour in the Athenian democracy. This is so, however, not in the sense that Plato's visible contempt for labour, and for the moral or political capacities of those who are bound to the material necessities of working for a living, represents a cultural norm. On the contrary, the writings of Plato represent a powerful counter example, a deliberate negation of the democratic culture.

There is sufficient evidence in other classics of Athenian culture to indicate the presence of an attitude to labour very different from Plato's, one more in keeping with the realities of a democracy in which peasants and artisans enjoyed full rights of citizenship. Indeed, Plato himself provides testimony to that attitude when, for example, in the dialogue Protagoras, at the beginning of Protagoras's long speech defending the Athenian practice of allowing shoemakers and smiths to make political judgments (320a ff.), he puts into the sophist's mouth a version of the Promethean myth in which the 'practical arts' are the foundations of civilized life. The hero of Aeschylus's Prometheus, the bringer of fire and crafts, is the benefactor of humanity, while in Sophocles's Antigone, the Chorus sings a hymn of praise to human arts and labour (350 ff.). And the association of democracy with the freedom of labour is suggested by a speech in Euripides's Suppliants (429 ff.), where it is said that among the blessings of a free people is not only the fact that the rule of law gives equal justice to rich and poor alike, or that anyone has the right to speak before the public, but also that the citizen's labour is not wasted, in contrast to despotic states where people labour only to enrich tyrants by their toil. It is no doubt significant, too, that Athens' eponymous deity, the goddess Athena, was patron of the arts and crafts, while nowhere in Greece was there a larger temple devoted to Hephaestus, god of the forge, than the one built in the mid fifth century BC overlooking the Athenian agora. But none of these bits of evidence testify to the status of free labour in the democracy more eloquently than does Plato's reaction against it.13


In his dialogue, Protagoras, Plato sets the agenda for much of his later philosophical work. Here, he raises questions about virtue, knowledge and the art of politics which will preoccupy him in his later works, most notably in the Republic; and the context in which those questions are raised tells us a great deal about the centrality of labour in the political discourse of the democracy. In this dialogue, perhaps for the last time in his work, Plato gives the opposition a reasonably fair hearing, presenting the sophist Protagoras in a more or less sympathetic light as he constructs a defence of the democracy, the only systematic argument for democracy to have survived from antiquity. Plato was to spend the rest of his career implicitly refuting Protagoras's case.

The Protagoras has to do with the nature of virtue and whether it can be taught. The question is raised in an explicitly political context, as Socrates sets the terms of the debate:

Now when we meet in the Assembly, then if the State is faced with some building project, I observe that the architects are sent for and consulted about the proposed structure, and when it is a matter of shipbuilding, the naval designers, and so on with everything which the Assembly regards as a subject for learning and teaching. If anyone tries to give advice, whom they do not consider an expert, however handsome or wealthy or nobly born he may be, it makes no difference: the members reject him noisily and with contempt, until either he is shouted down and desists, or else he is dragged off or ejected by the police on the orders of the presiding magistrate. That is how they behave over subjects they consider technical. But when it is something to do with the government of the country that is to be debated, the man who gets up to advise them may be a builder or equally well a blacksmith or a shoemaker, merchant or shipowner, rich or poor, of good family or none. No one brings it up against any of these, as against those I have just mentioned, that here is a man who without any technical qualifications, unable to point to anybody as his teacher, is yet trying to give advice. The reason must be that they do not think that this is a subject that can be taught.14

In reply to Socrates, Protagoras sets out to demonstrate that 'your countrymen act reasonably in accepting the advice of smith and shoemaker on political matters'.15 And so the fundamental epistemological and ethical questions that form the basis of Greek philosophy, and indeed of the whole Western philosophical tradition, are situated in an explicitly political context, having to do with the democratic practice of allowing shoemakers and smiths to make political judgments.

Protagoras's argument proceeds, first, by way of an allegory intended to demonstrate that political society, without which men cannot benefit from the arts and skills that are their only distinctive gift from the gods, cannot survive unless the civic virtue that qualifies people for citizenship is a universal quality. He then goes on to show how virtue can be a universal quality without being innate, a quality that must and can be taught. Everyone who lives in a civilized community, especially a polis, is from birth exposed to the learning process that imparts civic virtue, in the home, in school, through admonition and punishment, and above all through the city's customs and laws, its nomoi. Civic virtue is both learned and universal in much the same way as one's mother tongue. The sophist who, like Protagoras himself, claims to teach virtue can only perfect this continuous and universal process, and a man can possess the qualities of good citizenship without the benefit of the sophist's expert instruction.

Protagoras's emphasis on the universality of virtue is, of course, critical to his defence of democracy. But equally important is his conception of the process by which moral and political knowledge is transmitted. Virtue is certainly taught, but the model of learning is not so much scholarship as apprenticeship. Apprenticeship, in so-called 'traditional' societies, is more than a means of learning technical skills. 'It is also', to quote a distinguished historian of eighteenth century England, 'the mechanism of inter generational transmission', the means by which people are both initiated into adult skills or particular practical arts and at the same time inducted 'into the social experience and common wisdom of the community.16 There is no better way of characterizing the learning process described by Protagoras, the mechanism by which the community of citizens passes on its collective wisdom, its customary practices, values and expectations.

The principle invoked by Socrates against Protagoras at this stage, still rather tentatively and unsystematically is that virtue is knowledge. This principle was to become the basis of Plato's attack on democracy, especially in The Statesman and The Republic. In Plato's hands, it represents the replacement of Protagoras's moral and political apprenticeship with a more exalted conception of virtue as philosophic knowledge, not the conventional assimilation of the community's customs and values but a privileged access to higher universal and absolute truths.

Yet Plato too constructs his definition of political virtue and justice on the analogy of the practical arts. He too draws on the common experience of democratic Athens, appealing to the familiar experience of the labouring citizen by invoking the ethic of craftsmanship, techne. Only this time, the emphasis is not on universality or the organic transmission of conventional knowledge from one generation to another, but on specialization, expertise and exclusiveness. Just as the best shoes are made by the trained and expert shoemaker, so the art of politics should be practised only by those who specialize in it. No more shoemakers and smiths in the Assembly. The essence of justice in the state is the principle that the cobbler should stick to his last.

Both Protagoras and Plato, then, place the cultural values of techne, the practical arts of the labouring citizen, at the heart of their political arguments, though to antithetical purposes. Much of what follows in the whole tradition of Western philosophy proceeds from this starting point. It is not only Western political philosophy that owes its origins to this conflict over the political role of shoemakers and smiths. For Plato the division between those who rule and those who labour, between those who work with their minds and those who work with their bodies, between those who rule and are fed and those who produce food and are ruled, is not simply the basic principle of politics. The division of labour between rulers and producers, which is the essence of justice in The Republic, is also the essence of Plato's theory of knowledge. The radical and hierarchical opposition between the sensible and the intelligible worlds, and between their corresponding forms of cognition an opposition that has been identified as the most distinctive characteristic of Greek thought and which has set the agenda for Western philosophy ever since17 is grounded by Plato in an analogy with the social division of labour which excludes the producer from politics.


So great is the imbalance between the historic importance of free labour in ancient Greece and its neglect by modern historiography that something needs to be said about how this imbalance occurred, about how the labouring citizen, for all his historic distinctiveness, has been lost in the shadow of slavery.18 It is not, again, that historians have failed to acknowledge that the citizen body in democratic Athens consisted in large part of people who laboured for a livelihood. It is rather that this acknowledgement has not been accompanied by a commensurate effort to explore the historic significance of that remarkable fact. As a determinative factor in the movement of history, free labour in the ancient world has been virtually eclipsed by slavery, and not only for the admirable reason that our best instincts have been preoccupied by the horrors of that evil institution.

The eclipse of the labouring citizen in democratic Athens has less to do with the realities of Athenian democracy than with the politics of modern Europe. Before the second half of the eighteenth century, and especially before the American and French Revolutions, there would have been nothing unusual about a characterization of the ancient Athenian democracy as a 'mechanic' commonwealth, a commonwealth in which the aristocracy was subordinated to a 'banausic' multitude of labouring citizens in contrast, for example, to Sparta, where the citizenry as a whole constituted a kind of nobility, 'such as live upon their own revenues in plenty, without engagement either unto the tilling of their lands or other work for. their livelihood'.19 Characterizations of this kind were part of along tradition, stretching back to ancient Greece itself and the identification of democracy with the dominance of a 'banausic' demos. In these accounts of the democracy, the labouring citizen is still very much alive.

But by the late eighteenth century, a significant shift had occurred. The mechanic multitude had begun to give way to the 'idle mob', supported by the labour of slaves. The explanation of this shift is not that historians had suddenly discovered the extent of chattel slavery in democratic Athens. Earlier writers had been no less aware of it. Montesquieu, for example, if anything greatly overestimated the number of slaves in Athens; and as the author of an influential attack on slavery, he was not inclined to make apologies for its Greek manifestations. Yet none of this prevented him from maintaining that the essence of Athenian democracy in contrast to Sparta, whose citizens were 'obliged to be idle' was that its citizens worked for a living.20 Nor can the appearance of the idle mob be explained by a new preoccupation with the evils of slavery, generated by a heightened democratic consciousness in the Age of Revolution. On the contrary, the idle mob was born primarily in the minds of reactionary anti democrats.

The principal culprits were, in the first instance, British historians who wrote the first modern narrative and political histories of ancient Greece, with the explicit object of warning their contemporaries against the dangers of democracy. The most important of these was William Milford, the Tory country gentleman and opponent of parliamentary reform, who wrote an influential history of Greece, published in several volumes between 1784 and 1810. When in the course of his work the French Revolution intervened, he interrupted his narrative to explain why the English had been spared this evil; and his explanation had to do with the ways in which England differed from modern France and ancient Athens. England enjoyed an unequalled harmony among 'the several ranks of citizenry', while Greece (and France) lacked any comparable harmonizing mechanism. In particular, 'throughout Greece, the noble and wealthy, served by their slaves, not only as domestics, but as husbandmen and manufacturers, had little connection with the poorer Many, but to command them in oligarchical states, and in the democratical, to fear, flatter, solicit, and either deceive, or be commanded by them. No common interest united the two descriptions of men . . .'.21 The result was a licentious and turbulent mob, 'citizens without property, without industry, and perhaps without objects for industry', an idle mob sustained by slavery and by public payments, and always eager to plunder the wealth of the rich.22

But if Mitford represents a particularly extreme example of antidemocratic rhetoric, the same idle mob makes an appearance in much more sober and scholarly works throughout the following century. In August Bockh's influential economic history, slavery and public payments are again the sources of corruption in the democracy, making the multitude accustomed to 'indolence' and giving them the leisure to participate in politics, 'whereas in countries in which slavery does not exist, the citizens having to labour for their subsistence are less able to employ themselves in the business of governments . . .'. The result was that: 'Even in the noblest races of Greece, among which the Athenians must without doubt be reckoned, depravity and moral corruption were prevalent throughout the whole people.'23 And even Fustel de Coulanges was to attribute the turbulence of ancient Greece to the absence of economic principles that would have compelled rich and poor to live together on good terms, as they might have done '[i)f, for example, the one had stood in need of the other, if the wealthy could not have enriched themselves except by calling upon the poor for their labor, and the poor could have found the means of selling their labor to the rich'.24 As it was, 'The citizen found few employments, little to do; the want of occupation soon rendered him indolent. As he saw only slaves at work, he despised labor'. And so on.

None of these writers was unaware that the Athenian citizens laboured, as farmers and craftsmen. The point was not so much that they did not work but that they did not work enough and above all that they did not serge. Their independence and the leisure they enjoyed to participate in politics proved the undoing of Greek democracy. For Mitford and Bockh, participation by the multitude was evil in itself. For the more liberal Fustel, it was rather that, in the absence of traditional forms of political control, what was needed was the kind of economic discipline afforded in modern society by the material necessity which obliges propertyless labourers to sell their labour for a wage. What was lacking, in other words, was a modern bourgeois state and economy. But, in all these cases, the independence of the labouring citizen was consistently translated into the indolence of the idle mob, and with it came the dominance of slavery.

The effects of this historical revision were enormous, extending far beyond the original anti democratic motivations of historians like Mitford. The idle mob reached from Hegel's account of the democracy, where the basic condition of democratic politics was that citizens should be freed from necessary labour and 'that what among us is performed by free citizens the work of daily life should be done by slaves',25 to the Marxist inversion of the idle mob in the 'slave mode of production'.

There is, however, a paradox here, because the ideological weight attached to slavery was not expressed in a commensurate scholarly interest in it.26 The anti democrats who pushed slaves into prominence by playing on the theme of the idle mob were far less interested in exploring the problem of slavery itself than in denigrating the democratic multitude. On the other side, liberals who invoked the example of ancient Greece in defence of modern political reform were even less anxious to dwell on the embarrassment of slavery, while, in their ambivalence toward democracy, toward the extension of political rights to the working class (as distinct from the improvement of representative institutions and civil liberties), they were generally no more keen to emphasize the role of the labouring multitude in Athenian democracy.

The result was a curious vagueness about the political economy of Athens, perhaps even more among liberals than conservatives. George Grote, political reformer and author of a distinguished history of ancient Greece, makes only passing mention of dependent labour and then in relation to the serfs of Thessaly or Crete rather than the slaves of Athens; while Grote's friend, J.S. Mill, was less inclined to focus on the democratic features of the Athenian democracy than to praise its liberal values, the individuality and variety of Athenian life in contrast to the illiberal Spartans, whom, in his review of Grote's history for the Edinburgh Review, he actually describes as 'those hereditary Tories and Conservatives of Greece'. None of this did much to illuminate the position of either slavery or free labour in classical antiquity.


It is not surprising that the transition from mechanic multitude to idle mob took place in the eighteenth century (and especially in England, Mitford's encomium to the English constitution notwithstanding). 'The eighteenth century', writes E.P. Thompson,

witnessed a qualitative change in labour relations . . . , a substantial proportion of the labour force actually became more free from discipline in their daily work, more free to choose between employer and between work and leisure, less situated in a position of dependence in their whole way of life, than they had been before or than they were to be in the first decades of the discipline of the factory and of the clock . . . .

Working often in their own cottages, owning or hiring their own tools, usually working for small employers, frequently working irregular hours and at more than one job, they had escaped from the social controls of the manorial village and were not yet subject to the discipline of factory labour . . . .

Free labour had brought with it a weakening of the old means of social discipline.27

The language with which these developments were greeted by the English ruling class is the very language of the idle mob. The labouring poor in England, scorning the 'great law of subordination' and the traditional deference of servant to master, were alternately 'clamorous and mutinous', growing 'ripe for all manner of mischief, whether publick Insurrection, or private plunder', and 'saucy, lazy, idle and debauch'd . . , they will Work but two or three Days in the Week'.28

The myth of the idle Athenian mob is then the age old complaint of master against servant, but with the added urgency of a new social order, in which free and propertyless wage labour was becoming the dominant mode of work for the first time in history. In the same process of capitalist development, the concept of labour was undergoing other transformations too. It is often said that the modern world has witnessed the elevation of labour to an unprecedented cultural status which owes much to the 'Protestant Ethic', and the Calvinist idea of the 'calling'. And with or without Max Weber's 'Protestant Ethic', the association of the 'spirit of capitalism' with the glorification of work has become part of conventional wisdom.

Yet while capitalism, with its imperatives of profitability and labour productivity, has certainly brought with it more stringent labour disciplines, the glorification of hard work has been a two-edged sword. The ideology of work has had an ambiguous meaning for workers, justifying their subjection to capitalist disciplines at least as much as it has elevated their cultural status. But perhaps the most important point about the transformation in the cultural status of labour that accompanied the rise of capitalism is the conflation of labour with productivity, which we noted in our discussion of Weber. This transformation is, as we saw, already visible in the work of John Locke and his conception of 'improvement'. The virtues of labour no longer unequivocally belong to labourers themselves. They are above all the attributes of capitalists, and not because they work themselves but because they utilize their property actively and productively, in contrast to the passive appropriation of the traditional rentier. The 'glorification' of work in the 'spirit of capitalism' has less to do with the rising status of the labourer than with the displacement of render property by capital.

The conception of 'labour' as 'improvement' and productivity, qualities that belong less to workers than to the capitalist who puts them to work, lies at the core of 'bourgeois ideology' and is constantly reproduced in the language of modern economics, where 'producers' are not workers but capitalists. It bespeaks an economic order where production is subordinated to market imperatives and where the driving mechanism is competition and profit maximization, not the 'extra economic' coercions of politically constituted property but the purely 'economic' imperatives of the market which demand increasing labour productivity.

The social property relations that set this driving mechanism to work have placed labour in a historically unique position. Subject to economic imperatives that do not depend directly on a subordinate juridical or political status, the propertyless wage labourer in capitalism can enjoy juridical freedom and equality, even full political rights in a system of universal suffrage, without depriving capital of its appropriating power. It is here that we find the greatest difference between the status of labour in ancient Athenian democracy and in modern capitalism.


In modern capitalist democracy, socio economic inequality and exploitation coexist with civic freedom and equality. Primary producers are not juridically dependent or politically disfranchised. In ancient democracy too civic identity was dissociated from socioeconomic status, and here too political equality coexisted with class inequality. But there remains a fundamental difference. In capitalist society, primary producers are subject to economic compulsions which are independent of their political status. The power of the capitalist to appropriate the surplus labour of workers is not dependent on a privileged juridical or civic status but on the workers' propertylessness, which obliges them to exchange their labour power for a wage in order to gain access to the means of labour and subsistence. Workers are subject both to the power of capital and to the imperatives of competition and profit maximization. The separation of civic status and class position in capitalist societies thus has two sides: on the one hand, the right of citizenship is not determined by socio economic position and in this sense, capitalism can coexist with formal democracy on the other hand, civic equality does not directly affect class inequality, and formal democracy leaves class exploitation fundamentally intact.

By contrast, in ancient democracy there existed a class of primary producers who were juridically free and politically privileged, and who were at the same time largely free of the necessity to enter the market to secure access to the conditions of labour and subsistence. Their civic freedom was not, like that of the modern wage labourer, offset by the economic compulsions of capitalism. As in capitalism, the right to citizenship was not determined by socio economic status, but unlike capitalism, relations between classes were directly and profoundly affected by civic status. The most obvious example is the division between citizens and slaves. But citizenship directly determined economic relations in other ways too.

Democratic' citizenship in Athens meant that small producers were to a great extent free of the extra economic exactions to which direct producers in pre capitalist societies have always been subject. They were free, for example, from the depradations of Hesiod's 'gift devouring' lords, using jurisdictional powers to milk the peasantry; or from the direct coercion of the Spartan ruling class, exploiting helots by means of what amounted to a military occupation; or from the feudal obligations of the medieval peasant, subject to the military and jurisdictional powers of the lords; or from the taxation of European absolutism, in which public office was a primary instrument of private appropriation; and so on. As long as direct producers remained free of purely 'economic' imperatives, politically constituted property would remain a lucrative resource, as an instrument of private appropriation or, conversely, a protection against exploitation; and in that context, the civic status of the Athenian citizen was a valuable asset which had direct economic implications. Political equality not only coexisted with but substantially modified socio economic inequality, and democracy was more substantive than 'formal'.

In ancient Athens, citizenship had profound consequences for peasants and craftsmen; and, of course, a change in the juridical status of slaves and, indeed, women would have transformed the society entirely. In feudalism, juridical privilege and political rights could not have been redistributed without transforming the prevailing social property relations. Only in capitalism has it become possible to leave the property relations between capital and labour fundamentally intact while permitting the democratization of civic and political rights.

That capitalism could survive democracy, at least in this 'formal' sense, was not, however, always obvious. As the growth of capitalist property relations began to separate property from privilege, and especially while free labour was not yet subject to the new disciplines of industrial capitalism and complete propertylessness, the ruling classes of Europe were deeply preoccupied with the dangers posed by the labouring multitude. For a long time, it seemed that the only solution was the preservation of some kind of division between rulers and producers, between a politically privileged propertied elite and a disfranchised labouring multitude. Nor were political rights, needless to say, freely given when they were finally granted to the working classes, after prolonged and much resisted popular struggles.

In the meantime, a wholly new conception of democracy had pushed aside the ancient Greek idea. The critical moment in this redefinition, which had the effect (and the intention) of diluting the meaning of democracy, was the foundation of the United States, which I shall take up in the next chapter. Yet, however much the ruling classes of Europe and America may have feared the extension of political rights to the labouring multitude, it turned out that political rights in capitalist society no longer had the salience of citizenship in ancient democracy. The achievement of formal democracy and universal suffrage certainly represented tremendous historic advances, but it turned out that capitalism offered a new solution to the age old problem of rulers and producers. It was no longer necessary to embody the division between privilege and labour in a political division between appropriating rulers and labouring subjects, now that democracy could be confined to a formally separate 'political' sphere while the 'economy' followed rules of its own. If the extent of the citizen body could no longer be restricted, the scope of citizenship could now be narrowly contained, even without constitutional limits.

The contrast between the status of labour in ancient democracy and modern capitalism invites some very large questions: in a system where purely 'economic' power has replaced political privilege, what is the meaning of citizenship? What would be required to recover, in a very different context, the salience of citizenship in ancient democracy and the status of the labouring citizen?

  1. For example, M.I. Finley, describes Greece and Rome as 'slave societies', not because slavery predominated over free labour but because these societies were characterized by 'an institutionalized system of large scale employment of slave labour in both the countryside and the cities' (Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology [London, 1980], p. 67). G.E.M de Ste Croix argues that, although 'it would not be technically correct to call the Greek (and Roman) world "a slave economy"' because 'the combined production of free peasants and artisans must have exceeded that of unfree agricultural and industrial producers in most places at all times', nevertheless this designation remains appropriate because slavery was, he maintains, the dominant mode of surplus extraction or exploitation (The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World [London, 1981], p. 133). Perry Anderson, in Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (London, 1974), chooses to retain the Marxist concept, 'slave mode of production', but, again, not on the grounds that slave labour predominated in Greek or Roman production but because it cast its ideological shadow over other forms of production. See also Yvon Garland, Slavery in Ancient Greece (Ithaca and London, 1988; revised and expanded edition of Les esclaves en Grece [1982]), especially the Conclusion, for a consideration of such concepts as 'slave mode of production' as applied to ancient Greece.

  2. I discuss the question of agricultural slavery at length in Peasant Citizen and Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy (London, 1988), chap. 2 and appendix 1. The question of tenancy is also taken up in that chapter, with a consideration of the scant and ambiguous evidence, in appendix II.

  3. Such a definition would have to begin, like Ste Croix's defence of the 'slave economy', with the proposition that the essential criterion is not the dominant form of production but the principal form of surplus extraction, the mode of exploitation that created the wealth of the dominant class. There would, however, still remain questions about the extent to which wealth was indeed produced by slaves, as distinct, for example, from free tenants.

  4. Although slaves have existed in many societies, throughout history there have been only five recorded cases of 'slave societies' in Finley's sense: classical Athens, Roman Italy, the West Indian islands, Brazil and the southern United States. See Finley, Ancient Slave, p. 9, and Keith Hopkins, Conquerors and Slaves (Cambridge, 1978), pp. 99-100.

  5. The low figure comes from A.H.M Jones, Athenian Democracy (Oxford, 1957), pp. 76 9; the higher one from the article on 'Population (Greek)' in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, based, with a few modifications, on A.W. Gomme's classic, The Population of Athens (Oxford, 1933)

  6. This is what Finley has in mind when he describes Greece and Rome as slave societies: not that slaves predominated in the economy as a whole but that they constituted the permanent workforce 'in all Greek or Roman establishments larger than the family unit' (Ancient Slavery, p. 81).

  7. For the first argument, see Ste Croix, Class Struggle, pp. 453-503 for the second, Finley, The Ancient Economy (Berkeley, 1973), pp. 86ff.

  8. The first formula is used by Karl Polanyi for instance, in The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, tg57), pp. 5t 2; the 'tributary mode of production' is a concept formulated by Samir Amin in Unequal Development (Hassocks, 1976), pp. 13 ff.

  9. For example, the helots of Sparta and the serfs of Crete and Thessaly represented the antithesis of the peasant citizen.

  10. Mencius, in Arthur Waley, ed., Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China (Garden City, n.d.), p. 140.

  11. For an example of this broad usage, see Finley, Politics in the Ancient World (Cambridge, 1983).

  12. For an excellent discussion of this point, see Robin Osborne, Classical Landscape with Figures: The Ancient Greek City and its Countryside (London, ig87), pp. 13, 138 9, 144.

  13. Much the same is true of Aristotle, whose ideal polls in the Politics denies citizenship to people engaged in labour which supplies the basic goods and services of the polls. Such people are 'conditions' rather than 'parts' of the polls, differing from slaves only in that they perform their menial duties for the community rather than for individuals (1277a - 1278a). In my discussion of Greek attitudes toward labour in Peasant Citizen and Slave, pp. 137 62, I argue, among other things, that, if there were ideological barriers to technological development, they had less to do with a contempt for labour derived from its association with slavery than with the independence of small producers and the absence of compulsions to improve labour productivity.

  14. Protagoras, 319b d.

  15. Ibid., 324d.

  16. E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common (London, 1991), p. 7.

  17. This point is elaborated by Jacques Gernet in 'Social History and the Evolution of Ideas in China and Greece from the Sixth to the Second Century BC', in Jean Pierre Vernant, Myth and Society in Ancient Greece (Sussex, 1980).

  18. This section is based on my book, Peasant Citizen and Slave, chap. 1.

  19. James Harrington, 'The Commonwealth of Oceana' in J.G.A. Pocock, ed., The Political Works of James Harrington (Cambridge, 1977), pp. 259 60. Harrington is here borrowing Machiavelli's definition of the nobility.

  20. Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (New York, 1949), p. 46.

  21. William Milford, The History of Greece, vol. v (London, 1814), pp. 34 5

  22. Ibid., p. 16.

  23. August Boeckh [Bockhl, The Public Economy of Athens (1842), pp. 611 14.

  24. Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City (Garden City, n.d.), p. 337

  25. G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History tr. J. Sibree (New York, 1912), p. 336.

  26. For a historical sketch of the ideological foundations of modern scholarship on ancient slavery, see Finley Against Slavery, pp. 11-66, and Garland, Slavery, pp. 1-14. See also Luciano Canfora, Ideologie del classicismo (1980), esp. pp. 11-19.

  27. Thompson, Customs, pp. 38 42.

  28. Daniel Defoe, The Great Law of Subordination Consider'd; or, the Insolence and Unsufferable Behaviour of Servants in England duly enqnir'd into (1724), quoted in Thompson, Customs, p. 37.

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