- Behind Every Great Man There’s a Great Ape
- Binders of the Sun and Moon
- Farmers and Breakers of Cities
- Rome’s Undemocratic Republic
- Not All Roads Lead to Rome
- The Small-State Dream
History is all about Class Struggle, but more complex than Marx set out in the Communist Manifesto. More complex than Engels’s later elaborations. More complex than Marx’s later stray suggestions, which official Leninism tried to build into a rigid system ‘for all times and all men’.
I find it significant that Marx jotted a few remarks about the complications in his notes for Capital, but left it unfinished.
The work was incomplete, but I praise and credit Marx and Engels as the first to have a modern understanding of class. To see the economic ties as vital enough to override individual wishes. To see class as something that had not only changed historically, but might in time be abolished.
Some would claim that class has been abolished, within existing society, and with capitalism still flourishing. John Major claimed that Tory policy was for a Classless Society. This would have been impossible from earlier Tory leaders, and improbable for Mrs Thatcher.
The rigid social conventions that once defined social class have eroded a lot, in Britain and across the world. In Britain, much of the loosening came from the USA. There, supposedly, differences in income did not depend on who your parents were. People were assured that hard work and real talent would get you where you belonged.
But that’s not what really happened: not entirely and not at all since the 1980s. In an article parallel to this one – originally a single study, but I saw it as needful to split – I describe how the richest 10% should be split into a 1% or Millionaire Elite, and a Next Nine who are vastly less wealthy. That while the Next Nine are mostly a real Meritocracy, the Millionaires are not a Super-Meritocracy. That luck and unfairness and some rather bad human qualities are the main things making them so much richer than the Next Nine and the rest of us.
And how this Millionaire Elite were let down by the deep falseness of New Right doctrine. How they have been an Overclass, not a Ruling Class.
Even the worst Ruling Class accepts a duty to keep the society in being. They may have a false idea: even suicidally bad. The last couple of generations of elite in Tsarist Russia were a notable example: something I will be detailing in another article. But what we have now in the Anglosphere is an Overclass that is just as selfish and detached as the Underclass that they have allowed to develop among the poor.
When ‘poor-but-honest’ is sneered at, an Underclass should be predictable, even if such insights are beyond the New Right.
When ‘rich-but-honest’ is seen as a fool who should have been much richer, an Overclass emerges.
But you can’t fully understand without knowing where it all came from. Here, I look at how past societies developed the idea of classes in the first place.
A tribe can be run with everyone economically equal, and everyone equally powerful. But this mostly works for hunter-gatherers, where everyone has a clear and immediate interest in sharing a kill, even where the hunting is individual. Group or individual hunting depends on the landscape and prey. Sharing must have been part of our nature when we evolved from Great Apes to Early Hunters.
Note also that almost all of them have a division of labour between the sexes. Many also allowed a few individuals to have a social role that contradicted their biological sex: ‘transgender rights’ are not so new in the broad sweep of human history. But custom was also a strict regulator of what was or was not allowed. Real humans with a great variety of needs and desires can’t actually do without such things.
When farming began, a lot of the work became better done by individual families. Good or bad land mattered, and how much of it you had. Inequalities happened – sometimes caused by luck or by inheritance from past generations.
Farmers can be tribalists, but if you have irrigation there has to be some regulation. If a water channel passes through the land of several different families, they might agree. But if it is hundreds or thousands, or if massive projects might be needed, things get more complex. And I’m sure it is no accident that most of the world’s first cities are found in river valleys where irrigation and flood protection are needed. Probably elites emerged first, and cities with walls emerged as they got richer.
Warfare also counts. Richer families can give their men better armour and weapons. And sometimes risk their women in fighting, though this was rarer. In early societies, the power of a family was tied to how many babies the women could have and raise to adulthood. Combining warfare and babies is possible but rare.
In all cases, commanders are needed, and a chain of command. But commanders can become too powerful, and a ‘chain of command’ can become a chain of oppression.
Mercenaries can be hired, but may then grab power. Or keep a war going to keep themselves employed.
Whatever the society, the well-connected and the clever get an unfair advantage. But they also do a necessary job, coordinating a complex society.
A film called Rapa-Nui is not at all accurate about the history of what the West calls Easter Island. But it’s not wrong about the people thoughtlessly cutting down all of the island’s trees: archaeology confirms this. There was also definitely an elite that concentrated on making gigantic stone statues with enlarged heads. And a general breakdown into small-scale warfare and cannibalism when this elite was overthrown.
‘Bird Man’ definitely came later. And managed to gradually exterminate the local population of birds whose eggs they were making a big thing of.
A popular book called Aku-Aku: the Secret of Easter Island gives a nice account of what was known in the 1950s. And the author’s claim for a South American connection has been supported by DNA studies, though the details he claims are probably wrong.
Within the vast complexities of human history, there are usually several layers of privileged classes for any given society. Mostly a lower class of slaves below the common people. Usually a stratum of vagrant wanderers, and sometimes also Untouchables. Sometimes, in more modern societies, you get what Marxists call a lumpenproletariat. To me, this is the same as an underclass. And Marx’s view that they were mostly bad news has been mostly correct. They may be drawn into a revolution, as he said. But not often, and unable in themselves to make anything solid.
As well as that, there are often several categories of Commoner, at odds with each other.
Marx didn’t deal properly with civilisations outside of Europe. His idea of an ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ applies at best to some parts of India. Perhaps not even there: I have no deep knowledge of that extremely diverse subcontinent. Chinese history I know much better, and Marx seems unaware of Imperial China’s mass of small farmers with no feudal ties. How it had been stable for centuries with exactly the system of small-scale commodity production that he saw as the source of capitalism. He and Engels also paid little attention to China’s Taiping, at that time the only armed communists operating within an advanced economy. Engels never thought to link it to his early work on collectivist peasant rebels in the early Reformation in Germany, though I’d see marked similarities.
It’s imperfect, and shares the common 19th century error of seeing European history as central and the rest as a collection of oddities. But their views were far closer to the truth than any other 19th century social vision. A much better description of recent history than any of our modern anti-Marxists can manage.
Leninism updated Marxism, by showing how you could still win if the ruling class refused to politely step aside in the face of socialist electoral success. And successfully transmitted a version of Europe’s Enlightenment Values to the wider world, where it was new and hard to learn. Leninists in the vaster world outside of Europe and its settler-colonies learned much more successfully than those non-Europeans who saw liberalism as the source of truth.
The big non-Leninist success was Imperial Japan. But a lot of them had read translated Marxist books, which probably helped their understanding. Sadly, if the elite maybe decided that Lenin’s view of Imperialism was true, they definitely decided that Japan should aim to be the winner within this aggressive world system. It strengthened what they’d come up with by themselves with their 16th-century invasion of Korea and dreams of conquering China. That may have been sparked by their encounter with early European imperialism with its world-spanning warships. Back then, the war in Korea had failed, and they opted for isolation instead. But in the mid-19th century, the USA used the threat of massive armed force to make them open up. And they were realistic in their choices. Much more effective than Imperial China, faced with the same challenge.
For the non-Western world, Marxism offered realism that was much less tied to the things that Europeans mostly saw as natural, and Japanese mostly did not. But most Japanese did not want the classlessness or the racial and sexual equality that the Soviets were pushing. That the Soviets were the main force for, until the West adopted many of the same values in the 1960s and the Soviet Union stagnated under Brezhnev.
Within Japan, Hotsumi Ozaki was a secret Communist reporting to Soviet agent Richard Sorge. And he was much appreciated as a clear-minded advisor to some of the elite. He only had to conceal what he wanted, not how he understood power-politics – and his contacts disliked the extreme aggression that ruined Imperial Japan. But many were amazed at how close they came to succeeding, damaging the USA early on. Perhaps losing because they were unlucky in the critical Battle of Midway. And with a similar outlook, Japan bounced back to another amazing success as the USA’s main outpost in East Asia during the Cold War. And being needed, they were allowed to apply a very intense version of the Keynesian or Mixed Economy system. They achieved what everyone called an Economic Miracle.
This success contrasts with the amazingly bad advice the New Right ‘experts’ gave to the USA in the 1990s. Whose projects are crashing everywhere, not just Afghanistan.
And it’s notable that Japan’s Economic Miracle turned to confusion and much slower growth when the USA pushed them into moving closer to the New Right outlook.
Liberals understand history as the emergence of Freedom. But that’s not what actually happened. The Marxist-Leninist notion of original tribal equality undermined by advancing economics is much closer to the truth.
Yet still incomplete. A lot of modern discoveries need to be integrated, to produce a wider Historical Materialism that drops some of the standard assumptions of Marxism. That I would call Post-Leninist.
Humans are a deluxe version of the vast family of primates. And we are apes rather than monkeys: our ape ancestors lost their tails when they adapted to life in trees. But this was one of the little accidents of Historic Biology: monkeys kept them and those of the New World turned the tail into a useful 5th limb. The loss of the tail seems to have been a single mutation, but it’s a puzzle that it was successful and that there were soon no more apes with tails.
Space fiction really should show most humanoid aliens as having tails. It would have made it much less of a hassle standing upright and freeing the forepaws to become tool-making hands.
Apart from the tail, the Higher Primates have a great deal in common. They are much more similar to each other than they are similar to other social mammals. And all of these are more like each other than they are like other social animals – ants, for instance. Living in groups is a common animal adaptation, but how you make it work is more complex.
When monkeys live in groups, there is usually an Alpha Male who won’t allow the other males to have sex with the females. Nor allow females to refuse him, though some manage to have other males of their choice by being secret. And there will also be one or more Alpha Females whose support the top male needs. But Alpha Males basically defend themselves with violence, and from time to time are overthrown. Sometimes it is a coalition, and sometimes the Alpha Male has a deputy who is also allowed sex with the females.
Among apes, chimps have the monkey system, but bonobos are much more peaceful. With bonobos, the females gang up and control any male who gets out of line. Sex is much more relaxed, and both sexes are bisexual.
By contrast, gorillas have lone males running a group of females and infants. Outside males sometimes take over and kill the children of the old male, which is also the system with lions. Admirers of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ generally prefer ‘nature lightly cooked’. Squalid realities are adjusted to fit the limits of what humans could find admirable.
Also note that within the animal kingdom, which is far larger than just mammals and birds, far more gene-lines have ended up as parasites than as free-living. And most show no signs of bigger brains or of drifting towards being an intelligent species. Dinosaurs, with less brain per body weight than mammals, were dominant until a meteor strike destroyed them.
Humans emerged gradually, after one type of ape became rather good at walking on two legs. Surprisingly, our walking gives us a staying power that lets human hunters wear down an animal that is much faster over short distances.
With the forelimbs no longer needed for walking, the forepaws developed into hands, and the brain got bigger. Engels knew nothing of the walking habits of early humans: the relevant fossils were found only in the last few decades. But he made a huge insight in seeing that there was feedback. A natural partnership between hands that could shape things and brains that could think out how things might be shaped.
We know of human labour from shaped stone tools, which last even better than bones. Pre-humans probably also made basic clothing and blankets that let our original thick body hair be replaced. Bags or backpacks to carry things. Gourds for water. And though we were slow to tame fire, I have a personal theory that pre-humans were making meat much more long-lasting and digestible by some mix of sun drying and air drying. In warmer climates, modern humans often do this in preference to making a fire. (Don’t try this in Britain or Ireland.)
‘Cooking’ using Africa’s bright sunshine would explain why pre-humans could become slimmer in their bone structure and lose the long vegetable-digesting guts of other large apes, well before there is undisputed evidence that fire was being controlled.
New methods came slowly. Making tools from bones rather than stone might seem obvious, but it seems that only Neanderthals and modern humans managed it. Only their relics include bones that are clearly shaped as tools, rather than being just broken fragments.
Humans also have much less of a difference in size between the sexes. For a given population, the ear of the average male will be level with the top of the average female’s head – and a surprisingly large number of human couples have something close to this pattern. So while we remain a violent species and an unequal species, we have moderated it.
In most apes and monkeys, the males may be twice as big as the females. Also true of most mammals where the males fight. Gibbons, the other main branch of the ape family, are an interesting exception. The two sexes are much the same size. They typically live as mated pairs in their own territory. They are sometimes called monogamous, but this is exaggerated, with adultery and divorce also happening. You could call them ‘suburban apes’ – but since humans are not gibbons, it is unsurprising that the suburban way of life reached its peak in the USA and is now breaking down. Life as separate mated pairs works for many couples, but does not meet the entirety of human needs. And almost all of us like to be part of wider groups, though mostly based on things other than sexual intercourse.
Gibbons are also the least intelligent of the apes. Intelligence among primates seems to have developed as a way of getting along with others of their species. Gibbons have simpler minds because that’s all that is needed for their ‘suburban’ way of life. And brains are a big burden; one-fifth of the food that humans eat is to support our energy-hungry brains.
I once saw someone say that humans are distinctly unusual apes, but would count as rather typical birds. I’ve lost track of the source, but obviously they were not saying there was a genetic link. We come from two long-separated branches of land quadruped: the sauropsids (including reptiles and birds) and synapsids. Mammals are the only survivors of the synapsids, though before the Jurassic there were many, including the famous Dimetrodon, lizard-like creatures with bony spines on their backs. And we have now confirmed by fossil discoveries that birds are an offshoot of one type of dinosaur. But whatever their Maniraptoran relatives were, most species of bird are peaceful with others of their species.
Mammals typically have violent competition between males for access to females. Human violence is not paradoxical: it is merely a moderate version of our biological heritage. And if advanced alien species exist and come from some milder origin, it would explain the ‘Fermi Paradox’: their failure to visit us. They may be waiting to see how far we can control the worse side of our heritage. If so, the last few decades would not be encouraging.
While many mammals get interested in music and seem to like it, we are the only land mammals that sing. As far as I know, the only creature that can make music with tools of our own making. And we have a similarity in body-mass between the sexes that is typical of birds. Also human mating for a majority in any real-world society is more often based on rituals and good social connections, rather than on violence. This does of course include sport, much of which could be seen as ritualised violence, and which does attract a female following. But also music, with skills for song or music-making being highly praised and a booster to sexual attractiveness.
We make progress as a species. For almost all mammals where males compete in groups, violence is the key and female choice is limited. Among humans, only marginal and relatively powerless subcultures have free-form violence. It is not even true of all violent subcultures: family ties more often decide. And almost always, the violence is among themselves or with similar low-status groups. Powerful outsiders who rely on their own police and army to handle the violence are dominant almost everywhere. This includes aggressive imperialism, but also states that just wish to live their own lives.
Only very occasionally do the violent low-status groups stand up and try to assert themselves as real radicals and revolutionaries. And invariably, this goes along with a ban on violence among themselves, and a bigger status for women. A belief in universalism, setting aside the hatreds and prejudices they had as low-status groups.
But until modern times, these were exceptions and mostly failed. And from the development of agriculture, there has also been an unhappy habit of a young woman’s relatives deciding who she should marry. Also applied, but less strictly, to young men. But it is a different game from free-flowing violence between males. It is anyway being replaced by female choice, as civilisation develops.
Incidentally, many male birds lack a penis, discarded as a needless weight for a flying creature. They mate using what is charmingly called a Cloacal Kiss. Real raw nature is not at all what macho types think it is.
I can’t see how it is relevant, but another human oddity is that males lack the bone in the penis that all of our close relatives possess.
As a species, we rose by living in groups, but became more equal than most primates. Domineering human males get compared to Alpha Males. But I seem to be the first to have said ‘behind every great man there’s a great ape’. Because I know enough about both ancient societies and our Great Ape relatives to note the differences.
We live in much larger groups than most primates. Women can safely entrust their babies to other woman to look after. And except where there is famine or social breakdown, orphaned children will be taken in. And I know of no human society in which the dominant man has all the women and prevents the lesser men from marrying.
Human male control of females is unequal, but much less so than for other primates living in groups. Sometimes the woman has a choice, though pre-industrial societies mostly refused this in favour of family politics. Only when Extended Families lost their authority did the women get back the freedom that was probably the original human condition:
“Simple hunter-gatherer groups are those with low population densities. They are completely egalitarian, with no social hierarchy and with all resources being completely shared.” (Beneath the Night)
This is from a book on the history of astronomy in the context of culture. But the broad picture of original equality is a general finding of all modern studies. In Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, some of the details are wrong. But he was broadly correct about families and property. Correct in defiance of conventional opinion, though most current books by right-wingers and centrists cover this up.
Humans were fairly equal in our original stone-age lives. Both organised violence and hierarchy emerged later, when people became more prosperous. When the temptations to kill, dominate or enslave another human became stronger. The rewards became much larger, so more were tempted. And the need for a class of specialist organisers became unavoidable.
“Complex hunter-gatherer groups tend to arise when the density of people increases. In these societies, there is an emerging hierarchy, usually to do with surplus of food; those families who produce the most have a higher status than the others. There is also a tendency in these groups for families to own small patches of land.” (Ibid, pages 13-14)
This is actually the transition to early agriculture. Much better and more detailed accounts can be found in Jared Diamond’s books Guns, Germs, and Steel and The World Until Yesterday. That this stuff has been mostly disconnected from Marxism is regrettable. But to stick to the astronomy book, which puts things briefly, people need basic social organisation even as advanced hunter-gatherers:
“Most tribes observe the solstices in some way and maintain some form of lunar calendar… the winter solstice – i.e. the shortest day of the year … appears to be the most important for the group as a whole… Surplus food for feasting comes from the wealthier families and is used as a way to gather allies and increase their importance among the tribe.” (Ibid, page 14.)
Studies of the visible cycles of sun, moon, and stars may have happened sooner, and for a range of reasons. The caves used for the famous cave paintings have a relationship:
“Cave art is found across the world… the caves themselves do not usually contain artefacts relating to ongoing habitation. So they were not homes in which families lived but places that people visited for some particular reason…
“Lascaux and similar caves … are penetrated by the Sun’s rays at sunset on just one single day of the year: the summer solstice…
“Some form of elite or even secret society that revolves around calendrical and astronomical knowledge is a feature of more complex hunter-gatherer societies…
“As the myths grow, the role reverses until the community ends up working to carry this elite.” (Ibid, pages 16-18.)
People with knowledge of the stars could make surprising predictions and be correct. The same book mentions that the mysterious temple-like monument known as Gobekli Tepe was built at much the same time as the bright star Sirius would have become visible in the region where it was built. Sirius in the northern hemisphere is mostly near the horizon, and sometimes below it. And to us it sits a little below Orion, with its striking line-up of three bright stars of the ‘belt’. And then three more below, called a sword but also capable of being seen as a giant penis. This might have made a newly visible Sirius seem very significant: maybe the child of the sky-giant. Seen as one star of a group called a dog by the Greeks: Canis Major in modern Latin-using astronomy. But a bow and arrow in the Babylonian astronomy that the Greeks borrowed heavily from. And ‘Orion’ is a god or patriarch in many other star mythologies.
Not that it is any sort of Deeper Truth. That’s a folly that some disappointed leftists fall into. Most notably Doris Lessing, who confuses the traditional but now-demoted constellation of Argo Navis with an ancient Greek city in her Canopus in Argos books. And the Chinese system was entirely different, breaking up or shuffling many of the groups seen by Babylonians and Greeks. Australian aboriginals, seeing the bright Milky Way much better, made groups out of the dark patches.
The stars we see are a random collection of middling nearby stars and brighter more distant stars. But not that distant: a few thousand light-years at best in a galaxy whose bright stars make up a disk with a visible diameter of 100,000 to 200,000 light-years. Our eyes fail to see the most common sort of star, Red Dwarfs, without the aid of good telescopes. The very closest, Proxima Centauri, was only identified in 1915! And of the stars we see, many of those we group as constellations are not related. For instance the ‘twins’ Castor and Pollux are two quite different things. A fairly young collection of six stars at a distance of 56 light-years, and an elderly yellow-orange giant star 34 light-years away. If nearby stars have astronomers, they would mostly not see those two as close to each other. Nor will most future human star colonies, if we get to make them.
Early star-gazers could know nothing of this, of course. But they could watch and pass on knowledge by word-of-mouth. For Sirius, long slow changes in the orientation of the Earth change the places where particular stars are sometimes visible. A society of astronomer-priests might have gone further south and learned how the bright star we call Sirius was becoming visible at steadily more northerly locations. They might have passed this on across the generations. So they could have made a surprising prediction about a bright new star, and been vindicated. This might have given them the prestige to get hunter-gatherers united for a huge building project. And also perhaps gain unfair advantages, but we have no clear evidence of such things until much later.
Thinking about Sirius as a possible New Star to ancient peoples, I naturally found myself thinking of the Star of Bethlehem from Christian tradition. But it is not mentioned in any early Christian document except the Gospel of Matthew. Pagan writers who recorded all sorts of oddities mention nothing similar. Nor any unexplained massacre of ordinary children by a Jewish king. The ‘star’ may have been something important only to astrologers, if it was even more than a later invention. And some scholars have suggested that the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ is a garbled version of a joke made by Romans. After King Herod the Great executed several of his sons – adults and very far from innocents – they remarked that it would be safer to be Herod’s pig than his child. Herod followed Jewish law and would not have kept pigs at all.
But regarding Gobekli Tepe, we know that for later Egyptians with advanced agriculture, great significance was attached to the star Sirius becoming visible above the horizon. This happened at much the same time as the flooding of the Nile, on which their agriculture depended. Timings would presumably have been different back when Gobekli Tepe was raised, but people there would probably have been growing some crops on the fringes of flooded land. They might have told their northern colleagues about the strange corelation.
I also have a personal theory that Gobekli Tepe had a very serious purpose, in addition to real beliefs that the stars could influence events down on Earth. If there were light wooden panels on top of the corridors between concentric stone walls, these might have been frighteningly dark and lit by torches. The huge carved images might have been terrifying to anyone unused to such things. It might have been suitable for an Initiation Ceremony for young men, including strict rules to limit and control the violence that teenage males are always prone to. This would have been useful social control, all mixed up with a real belief in star magic.
It is hard to see how a better system could have been created and preserved across the generations on the basis of what humans then knew. Sadly, ‘common sense’ gets confused when trying to keep track of sun and moon. 29 or 30 days in a month, and slightly more than 12 of them in a solar year. If you want to predict the winter solstice well enough to invite a wider population and prepare food for their feasting, you can’t assume it will be 12 lunar months after the last one. Sometimes it will be 13, and to get it right you need to know all the complexities.
Radicals sometimes see all religion as trickery and exploitation. But what I see is a broad pattern of social organisation and knowledge that was needed for human society to function. To keep it coherent with the huge populations that agriculture made possible.
Radicals must take note of actual managerial skills – organising work, handling people, negotiating, handling offences, handling accusations and feuds. People have variable gifts, but training can do a lot. A ruling class would usually pass on these skills, and have the prestige to have their decisions accepted. Democratic debates can sometimes become endless debates in which rival factions are more keen to win than to get a sensible outcome.
In the run-up to Brexit, the British Parliament, which certainly has a lot of expertise, messed up in the debates over what form of Brexit to accept. All possibilities had a majority against them, including holding a second referendum now that we knew the real terms for leaving. It was this and not Corbyn that got Labour mauled in the 2019 election. People knew that only a Tory victory would end the deadlock. Only Boris Johnson as a Prime Minister with a secure majority would carry through the Brexit that many Labour voters thought they had legitimately won in the referendum.
I did a detailed study showing that Corbyn in 2017 got more votes than Blair had got in his second and third electoral victories. That the problem was a revival in Tory fortunes, with Liberal-Democrats losing votes after their poor performance in coalition with the Tories. And that the falling away in the Labour vote in 2019 in some constituencies was similar to those same constituencies having favoured Brexit. But in both 2017 and 2019, the Tories got back two to three million votes that had previously gone to Liberal-Democrats or parties committed to Brexit.
I also noted what is very seldom mentioned even by the left – that Corbyn won over a clear majority of the young. Labour in 2019 had more votes than the Tories among people under 40, and much more definitely with people under 30. These also are less likely to vote, but they are the future of British politics.
Sadly this study – which almost anyone might have done had they doubted the story pushed by the media – got little attention. The coalition that had rallied around Corbyn broke up, and shows few signs of reviving.
Problems of managing complex societies have existed ever since the neolithic. Ever since we stopped being hunter-gatherer tribes. Tribes in which people who don’t agree can just separate, though they still have violence and murder.
Giving a few people power over others does solve some problems. Undeniably this power was easily exploited. State officials can be guilty, and often are blamed. But businesspeople following capitalist rules are mostly much worse.
People are appalled at the way the libertarian promise of the internet led instead to a few ultra-powerful multi-millionaires dominating. But only in China is anything serious being done to curb them.
I see it as an elite that operates within each new power-structure as it emerges. Keeps it in being, while taking selfish advantage.
And must have begun just as useful neighbours who could tell you if the next Winter Solstice Feast would be 12 or 13 lunar months after the last one. Impressive, when there are few clear clues. But how did neolithic experts work out what was happening?
The astronomy-history Beneath the Night mentions a fossilised baboon bone from Africa that is around 20,000 years old, and has three clusters of notches. The first gives the prime numbers that lie between 10 and 20: 11, 13, 17 and 19. The second is puzzling, but the third is 11, 21, 19 and 9.
11 and 19 make 30. So do 13 and 17, and likewise 21 and 9. 30 is a good approximation to the lunar month. The fact that 30 is the sum of two sets of primes is an oddity that might have seemed significant, though we can now only see it as coincidence.
The bone-notcher might also have seen significance in 21 and 9, each of which is the sum of three primes. Perhaps someone was recording two possibilities that would be remembered by the next generation, and perhaps improved upon. They presumably had no way to represent numbers other than a collection of notches: there are no signs of numerals until much later, in early Mesopotamia. But they were as clever as we are, and could count. They could make guesses about what numbers meant.
12 and 18 also make 30, as do 14 and 16. But the unknown thinker may have been prejudiced against even numbers. Someone working with pebbles would have noticed the difference: only even numbers can be split into two identical groups, and only a minority of the smaller odd numbers can be split into three or more identical groups. So they could have got some idea of what prime numbers were.
There remains the awkward fact that the moon’s cycles can be 29 days rather than 30. More exactly, the moon orbits the Earth in 27.32 days. But because the entire Earth-moon system is also in orbit, the phase of the moon as seen from Earth repeats after 29.53 days. And a ‘lunar year’ of 12 moon-cycles will be 11 or 12 days shorter than the solar year.
Early cultures could only guess at these values. As a further awkwardness, a solar year is just over 365 days long, requiring leap-days every 4th year to stay in step. And then further adjustments because the year is really 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 45 seconds. That was the Gregorian Calendar, a reform made with expert advice by Pope Gregory XIII and only slowly accepted by Protestant states. Rejected in Tsarist Russia and adopted early on by the Bolsheviks. But by that time it was a firm habit to speak of February and October revolutions, despite them happening in March and November by the Western calendar.
Resistance to the Gregorian Calendar was based on it having the awkward implication that either Roman Catholicism was closer to Divine Truth than its rivals, or else no one was at all close. Tsarism resisted such logic.
Calendars are normally seen as sacred, but fitting them to the observed cycles and positions of sun and moon and stars was a huge problem for all early civilisations. And should have raised doubts about the world having been made by a Superior Being with a definite plan for how humans should live. Physically, an Earth-like planet could have a solar year of exactly 360 days, and lunar months that were always exactly 30 days. But I’m not aware of any ancient atheists raising the matter – nor any modern ones. The religious excuse was mostly that humans had somehow spoiled God’s Plan and were being punished for it. And some astronomers are vaguely religious, while being entirely clear that the orbits of Moon and Earth and the spin of the Earth were pure accidents. Accidents that changed over tens of millions of years, we know now with the detailed measurements modern science can make.
Ancient peoples coped with the irregularities in various ways.
Egypt opted for months no longer tied to the actual lunar cycle, which was retained for religious reasons. They had Administrative Months of 30 days and five extra days not included in a month. This made it slightly inaccurate, and one of the Ptolemaic pharaohs tried to reform it by adding a sixth extra day every four years. But it seems this sensible reform was beyond the power of even a strong pharaoh. The old imperfect system lasted until Augustus as outside ruler of Egypt imposed it. The earlier attempt is known as the Decree of Canopus, and was even more useful than the well-known Rosette Stone in letting Egyptian writing be understood, since it too was repeated in Greek and in two Egyptian writing systems.
Julius Caesar consulted experts and devised a version of the Egyptian system for Rome, with leap-years included. But he also decided that every day should be part of a month, and the numbers irregular. By Roman custom, months mattered for the power of Consuls, and February was considered unlucky. That was the Julian Calendar, and the Gregorian Calendar is identical apart from skipping over accumulated extra days, and dropping three leap-years every four centuries. Other calendars are still used – you can find a nice selection on the Wikipedia entry for Gregorian calendar. But like the English language, it has become a convenient shared standard. A neutral bridge between cultures that differ from each other just as much as they differ from the globalised version of English and Latin-Christian values.
Egypt was one end of what’s been called the Fertile Crescent – a curve of good crop-raising land stretching from Egypt through Palestine and Syria, and down to Mesopotamia, now Iraq. Most of the breakthroughs to agriculture happened in this Afro-Asian swathe of land, and it may be significant that Gobekli Tepe sits near its mid-point. And it was there that humans fully tamed the highly productive river valleys of the Nile and the two Mesopotamian rivers, having previously probably lived on the less dangerous wet margins. It was where they built the first towns and the first cities.
Significantly different agricultural civilisations arose in the New World at around the same time: civilisations that had the Aztecs and Incas as their top layer when Europeans finally discovered and conquered them. But those had no super-productive river valleys to boost them. And as Jared Diamon notes in Guns, Germs, and Steel, they could not expand west and east into extensive lands with similar climates and allowing similar crops. The maize-eating Central Americans and the potato-eaters in the Andes had little contact before the Spanish overran them both.
Almost everywhere, the growth of towns and cities involved vast increases in inequality. The emergence of a ruling class that lived off the commoners. And probably the growth of slavery, though slavery can also exist among the more prosperous hunter-gatherers. Also among crop-growing tribes without towns or cities. We don’t really know, but it was almost universal when Europeans pushed out into the wider world, and became the first humans to have accurate knowledge of the entire planet. And if we look back to ancient times when Europe was a backward fringe, the earliest surviving records assume the existence of slaves. The famous Code of Hammurabi, much admired by liberals, specifies lesser rights for slaves and more for the upper classes.
It was not the only way. In southern Anatolia and beyond the normal definition of the Fertile Crescent was a different sort of town:
“Imagine a small town where you walk over other people’s roofs to get to your house. Where the dead are mostly buried under the floors, but some people have their skulls dug up and covered in plaster to give the appearance of life. Where everyone’s house is about the same size, and each house is rebuilt on exactly the same lines when it needs to be replaced. Where dogs are not pets but tolerated just as outlying scavengers. Where mice are a plague, but the ancestors of house-cats are not wanted – though leopards are hyped in religious imagery. A place where cats are no more than a handy meat-treat, so they naturally avoid this concentration of highly dangerous humans.”
That’s Catalhoeyuek, which existed from 7500 BC to 6400 BC. And genetic studies of buried bodies suggest that the people in each house swapped babies with other households, making them all about equally related to each other.
Anyone who thinks it human nature to be a ‘semi-detached suburban Mr Jones’ should reflect on why people once chose to live so differently. As an Aboriginal European, I am about equally descended from farmers of original West Asian origin and from the hunter-gatherers who replaced the Neanderthals in Europe. And who seem to have just replaced them: genetic studies suggest a single mix in West Asia for surviving Europeans. Some Asians also absorbed additional Neanderthals, and in a few cases the enigmatic Denisovans. Tibetans may have picked up a Denisovan gene that helps them live at high altitudes. Genetic studies show that various human groups living at very high altitudes in different parts of the world have different adaptations to keep them healthy.
A majority of modern Europeans are largely descended from those Anatolian farmers, with the hunter-gatherers a minority. My own heritage is 46% hunter-gatherer: more than most. And we now know that those hunter-gatherers were often blue-eyed but dark-skinned – rather darker than the lady of Romanian and Chinese ancestry who is now hailed as Britain’s new hope after winning the woman’s section of the US Open Tennis championship.
The highly equal and connected houses of Catalhoeyuek are sometimes seen as an effort to avoid the inequality that was increasing elsewhere. And a culture which perhaps was less flexible, and definitely failed with no clear signs of a cultural heritage.
Peace became harder to achieve as humans became more prosperous and more capable of making choices. Probably less respectful of ancient customs, when they discovered useful new tricks. For instance Minoan civilisation had cities with palaces and temples, but no defence against enemies. Perhaps their fleet kept them safe. There are also suggestions of human sacrifice, but these are disputed. But the Minoan-influenced cities of Mainland Greece had huge walls and were the real-world origins of the highly mythologised Trojan War. And Greek-speakers probably invaded and definitely took over Minoan Crete. The mysterious script of Linear A was replaced by Linear B, a derived script that was found to be recording a version of Greek older than Homer’s.
Mary Renault does a clever historic fiction about the Minoan fall in The King Must Die, but it was probably something much less familiar. She uses the common trick of keeping all narrative details of a famous tale that can be explained without getting too supernatural. Readers like it – but where we have several versions of a popular tale, we find that almost everything can change. The oldest surviving tales of King Arthur show a much nastier character, and not always a king. Lancelot enters much later. Merlin – actually Merthin and sounding unpleasantly like the Norman-French word for dung – originally had his own separate myth. The weak Sir Kay began in The Mabinogion as a formidable but unpleasant character. And similar things are true of Robin Hood and Little John: much nastier characters in the first surviving tales, and many details are different. Not even always based in Sherwood Forrest.
From Spain, a real warlord called Rodrigo Diaz was just one of many men who were successful enough in warfare to be called El Cid, ‘the lord’. The poem that made his reputation shows him utterly loyal to King Alfonso, whereas historic records say he became a semi-independent warlord. The poem makes him a perfect knight: what he really was we can only guess at. An episode in a Spanish series known in English as The Ministry of Time chooses to bad-mouth him. And a 1961 Hollywood film adds a great deal of false history, including the ridiculous notion of his stuffed corpse riding out and the enemy fleeing in terror, failing to notice that the man is dead.
Legends are a poor guide to history. They keep getting remade to suit the audience, or at the whim of the author or scriptwriter.
From real history, another case of early peace was the Indus Valley Civilisation. This was a remarkable collection of large cities that show no signs of warfare or defence against armies. They also lack anything looking like a temple or a palace. Unlike Catalhoeyuek, houses are not all the same. It probably had privileged specialists, but a Next Nine rather than a 1% or Millionaire Class.
‘Next Nine’ is a term that I seek to popularise in political thinking. It’s not a question of a unified 99% against the elite. 90% of the population do indeed get a smaller share of the national income than they had before the New Right got to work. Get less benefit than they merit from an economy that has not improved its overall growth rate. But those in the richest 10% but not the richest 1% have largely broken even. This also is a good argument against claims that the rich have earned it. In terms of education, intelligence, skill, or hard work, it is hard to find much difference between the Next Nine and the Millionaire Class. You also find plenty of clever hard-working people who don’t even get Next Nine privileges. Good grounds for saying whatever extra has been gained by the ‘top people’ has been grabbed rather than earned.
20th century cultures worked better when the Millionaire Class were treated with much more suspicion. And in the ancient past, complex societies occasionally worked without any such elite.
From the ancient world, the Indus Valley Civilisation remains mysterious. It used the same food crops as Mesopotamia, whereas the much more distant proto-Chinese of the Yellow River initially relied on millet. It later incorporated rice-growers around what Europeans know as the Yangtze, though to most Chinese it is Chang Jiang, Long River. And the slow but well-recorded development of different food crops all round the world is to me the clearest evidence against the popular myth of an older high civilisation not recognised by the experts. Food crops and domestic animals spread slowly across Eurasia and North Africa, with each agricultural centre gradually adopting what it could use. There was a more limited exchange with Africa south of the Sahara, where the climate is very different. But even though Columbus was not the first to reach The Americas after their original settlement by hunter-gatherers, it was only after his voyage that there was a massive exchange of food crops between Old World and New World. This included China: Imperial China was always happy to accept innovations that did not undermine their cultural values.
Back in authentic ancient history, the Indus Valley people seem to have been a home-grown development that merely borrowed some ideas from Mesopotamia. We find some strings of symbols that may be writing, but are more probably a pre-writing system in which standard symbols are used for particular purposes. In which it would not be possible to represent normal conversations, which was the big advance of Sumerian writing, though with symbols that mostly stood for a meaning rather than a sound.
On the first discovery by British archaeologists, there was a view that the Indus Valley people had been overrun by invading Indo-European chariot riders identified with those in the Rig Veda. It is certainly true that the older cities show few signs of violence or preparation for war. But they also seem to have collapsed after periods of bad weather.
The Hindu god Indra, dominant in early Indo-Iranian culture, has a title that can be translated as ‘Breaker of Cities’. Or perhaps ‘Breaker of Forts’. It is certain that breaking cities was an ancient pattern: cities were accumulations of wealth. They might be broken by rival cities, or by tribal peoples who found them oppressive, or tempting to plunder, or both.
It seems likely that the invading Indo-European chariot riders found a collapsed urban culture in the Indus Valley. That they incorporated many of its values. Incorporation certainly happened with the Anatolian people we call Hittites, the first to write down anything in an Indo-European language. There, we have extensive archaeology and readable inscriptions left by the elite. These show that they took over many values from an earlier people called the Hattians. They may have arrived as mercenary soldiers and later seized power. They probably also brought with them or later brought in enough women from their tribes to make a new culture. Enough for the children to be taught their language and for it to displace the earlier tongue, at least for the elite. This failed to happen with the founders of the Mitanni kingdom, where the names of gods and aristocrats are recognisably from the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European, significantly different from the Hittite branch. But they probably didn’t have enough women with them to change the culture, which spoke a language called Hurrian that seems unrelated to other major language groups.
There’s an excellent book, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, that pulls together the strands of the modern consensus. Wheeled vehicles took time to be invented – or rather, the wheel-and-axel system that makes for useful wheeled carts is tricky. Older civilisations used sleds. And even when you have wagons, they would have been slow and not much use in war.
Fast vehicles called chariots seem to have been invented in what is now South Russia. Quite close to modern Kazakhstan, where horses were most likely first domesticated. The horse, unlike the donkey, is a tricky animal to tame. And also not that useful in early warfare, before chariots and before the tricky technology of making short powerful bows that a rider could usefully use.
The chariot was a useful step forward for conquerors. Possibly they were invented for fun, maybe to compete in the Funeral Games that may have been part of the early culture. But someone must have realise that in a chariot, you could charge at enemy infantry and then pull back safely. A warrior could shoot arrows, while a charioteer controlled the horses. They dominated warfare for centuries, until made obsolete by better cavalry on larger horses. They kept their special and ceremonial status for much longer.
The older civilisations of the Fertile Crescent assimilated chariot technology, but were seldom conquered. Hittites and Mitani are the only clear cases. There were also chariot-riding Hyksos who invaded Egypt and ruled it for a while. But from personal names, it seems they spoke a Western Semitic language and came from Canaan – what was later Israel and Palestine. Some connection with the origin of Israel is likely, but the actual biblical story of Joseph is ridiculous. The storage of grain is much older than Egypt itself, and they certainly didn’t need to learn it from a Canaanite slave. Such a slave might well have done well under Hyksos rule, but whatever was remembered or redacted long afterward in Babylon must be greatly different from real events. (Almost all experts agree that the Hebrew scriptures were put together from several older sources by Jews exiled there after the First Temple was destroyed.)
Someone also brought chariots to the developing river-valley civilisation that became China. The design is recognisable, and many technical names look as if they were put into Chinese from Indo-European words. But there are no signs of larger influence.
Much more decisive was a spread east and west from the original Indo-European homeland. It was probably a swarm of tribes under rival chieftains. When there was a rich and strong civilization, probably some were hired to fight the others and the technology was learned. But chariot-riders swept further west into Europe from what’s now South Russia, bringing with them maybe seven distinct major branches: among them Celtic and Germanic and Italic and Greek as a branch on its own.
A separate branch went north-east and was later written down as Tocharian in what is now Xinjiang. Ancestors of those people probably introduced the idea of chariots to the early Chinese.
Yet another branch went east and south-east, across what’s now Iran and into north-west India. They absorbed the remnants of the Indus Valley civilisation. They created the Sanskrit culture from which modern cultures and languages of North India are descended.
Hindu nationalist from North India sometimes claim the Indus Valley civilisation as their own. But the spread of branches of Indo-European suggest an origin somewhere east of the Baltic but west of the Caspian Sea, with Anatolia with its diversity of original language families occasionally suggested as an alternative. Archaeology favours what’s now South Russia. Something as far east as the Indus Valley is ridiculous as a source, and it is older than Indo-European beginnings. The people might plausibly have spoken something related to Dravidian languages, now found mostly in South India but with one group in Afghanistan. People with their own version of Hindu culture, some of it a survival of things that North India lost with the successive invasions by warlords following Islam.
In Europe, the pre-Indo-European peoples were perhaps not well-prepared for war. They probably spoke a great variety of languages, though there are no certain survivals. Basque is probably one. Hungarian is definitely the product of a much later conquest from further east, and no one is quite sure about Finnish. Both are Uralic languages, believed to have begun in the Ural Mountains. Other Uralic languages are found far to the east.
The western branches of the Indo-European chariot-riders seem to have pushed gradually westward, imposing their culture but evidently assimilating the earlier population. In Britain, their main arrival is identified with the archaeological record of what archaeologists named the Bell Beaker culture. They probably spoke a language ancestral to the various Celtic tongues. And they arrived at about the same time in Ireland.
Some early Bell Beaker arrivals may have inspired the first use of standing stones at Stonehenge. This was around 2600 BC, and the main Bell Beaker invasion was 2500 BC. It may have been an infiltration by stages, and with some complex politics. Stonehenge by then had been a sacred site for five centuries, with a ditch and bank and wooden monuments.
Note that this is distinct from the much older use of stone along with earth in large graves. One of the most notable, Newgrange in Ireland, dates to 3200 BC. I’ve not seen any studies on how far the older population was replaced by the arrival there of Bell Beaker warriors, who certainly changed the culture. I’d not be surprised if Irish genetics turned out to have changed much less. It does have marked differences from the mix in Britain.
I mentioned earlier that my own heritage owes a lot to the original European hunter-gatherers. About as much to Anatolian farmers who assimilated them. But DNA studies also indicate that most of the existing population of Britain was replaced by continental Bell-Beaker invaders with a similar hunter-farmer mix, but with extra from the Indo-European newcomers.
Nearly 90% of my heritage is European hunters & farmers. But probably only 8% is from people living in Britain before the Bell-Beaker People. These would have been mostly descended from the older peoples of Europe, but acquired the culture of the invaders. A culture that had merits additional to an ability to win wars:
“Milk fueled Bronze Age expansion of ‘eastern cowboys’ into Europe…
“More than 5000 years ago, nomads known today as the Yamnaya rumbled out of the grasslands of modern-day Russia and Ukraine in heavy, ox-drawn wagons. Within just a few centuries they had expanded across Eurasia, leaving a genetic signature in populations from Mongolia to Hungary. Now, fossilized plaque from the teeth of more than 50 Bronze Age skeletons suggests an unlikely weapon powered their expansion: milk…
“Prior to 3300 B.C.E., calculus from the teeth of people living in settlements along the Volga and Don rivers contained virtually no milk proteins. Instead, these pre-Yamnaya groups likely consumed lots of freshwater fish, wild game, and the occasional meal of domesticated cow, sheep, or goat meat, as suggested by previous analysis of isotopes in their skeletons and animal bones at the sites…
“One mystery remains. Previous analyses of ancient DNA have shown the Yamnaya lacked the genetic ability to metabolize milk sugars—in other words, they were lactose intolerant. It’s possible, Wilkin says, that—much like modern Mongolians—the Yamnaya consumed fermented dairy products like yogurt or hard cheeses, which contain virtually no lactose.”
That overplays the positives. It was a violent warrior culture, and it is likely that many of the lower classes were slaves. Later written sources tell of a head-hunting cult and constant warfare.
My Welsh and Devonshire heritage also shows just 12% from ‘metal age invaders’, according to a DNA-testing company I sent a mouth-swab to. But this unfortunately includes my Y chromosome, the one that gets passed down directly from father to son. Like many other Aboriginal Europeans, my heritage includes echoes of a very successful conquest, which must have included a lot of rape and sex slavery.
Similar things are found elsewhere in the world. 8% of the men living in the region of the former Mongol empire carry Y-chromosomes that are nearly identical, and almost certainly come from Genghis Khan and his relatives.
It is an exaggeration to say that our history is just a criminal record. But there is a lot of truth in it. And most of the criminality was caused by the ambition of the rulers, the equivalents of the millionaires of our own era.
Constant warfare must have gradually undermined the relative equality of early societies. But so would bouts of bad weather that caused famine. Farmers tend to have as many children as possible, because more work on decent land leads to more food. But there is always the risk of famine after a few years bad weather.
The Egyptian state could store massive amounts of food, and also decide how much to release in bad times. Most states would have done this. In places like Mesopotamia and North China, they also had to control vast complex irrigation systems.
Agriculture led to the household system. The basis of life is a household that feeds itself, and may let its neighbours starve. In a famine, the poor die, or sell themselves as slaves.
The households presumably feel less solidarity, and will usually not accept full equality. They often compete. And a few of them become ‘super-households’, nobles and then kings. These are supposed to look after the common interest, but often the rich got together to further plunder the poor.
And complex societies did collapse in bad times. As I mentioned, the Indus Valley Civilisation fell apart, discrediting what may have been a system of genuine equality. The four-fold Sanskrit system of Priests, Warriors, Merchants and Commoners had its merits, producing competent specialists. And there are traces of a similar system among Celts and other speakers of Indo-European languages. From Scandinavia, there is a curious poem that describes a three-fold class system, and even has a notion of historic evolution:
“Norse mythology also includes a strange poem called the ‘Deeds of the god Rig’, which is worth mentioning because it is surprisingly similar to what we now believe about human social development. It comes from collections of Norse myths and poems that were written down after their conversion to Christianity. A god called Rig, identified by the collection’s compiler as being Heimdall, visits three existing human couples and fathers three types of humans. First ‘thralls’, serfs, crude agricultural workers. Then farmers and others with middle-class skills. Lastly the gentry. You could class this [as] the origin of the classes as they existed, or as the poet would have wished them to be.”
Different class systems evolved later, or may always have existed as alternatives. There was always a lot of inherited inequality. The Roman Republic failed, because it was at all times an undemocratic republic that gave the bulk of the power to the rich. The ordinary citizens had good reason to think it was better to have one boss who served the common interest.
The Roman Republic was set up to handle the necessities of government, while limiting the personal power of any one person in the elite. There were normally two Consuls, and their power was limited by the Senate.
The Senate was very much the voice of the elite:
“Originally the chief-magistrates, the consuls, appointed all new senators. They also had the power to remove individuals from the Senate. Around the year 318 BC, [a popular vote] gave this power to another Roman magistrate, the censor, who retained this power until the end of the Roman Republic. This law also required the censors to appoint any newly elected magistrate to the Senate. Thus, after this point in time, election to magisterial office resulted in automatic Senate membership. The appointment was for life, although the censor could impeach any senator.”
It could easily become a system that blocked the necessities of government, or those things that the rulers saw as necessary. So a Dictatorship could be created: an official who had to be obeyed, and who could not be prosecuted for questionable actions after he left office.
“A dictator was a magistrate of the Roman Republic, entrusted with the full authority of the state to deal with a military emergency or to undertake a specific duty. All other magistrates were subordinate to his imperium, and the right of the plebeian tribunes to veto his actions or of the people to appeal from them was extremely limited. In order to prevent the dictatorship from threatening the state itself, severe limitations were placed upon its powers, as a dictator could only act within his intended sphere of authority, and was obliged to resign his office once his appointed task had been accomplished, or at the expiration of six months. Dictators were frequently appointed from the earliest period of the Republic down to the Second Punic War (218–201 BC), but the magistracy then went into abeyance for over a century, until it was revived in a significantly modified form, first by Sulla between 82 and 79 BC, and then by Julius Caesar between 49 and 44 BC. The office was formally abolished after the death of Caesar, and not revived under the Empire.”
Prosecution for actions done by former magistrates was part of the Roman system. It could be done by personal enemies, and personal competition was fierce. It was a plague in the Late Republic, and is mostly prevented in modern states.
US Republicans in Texas recently had the bright idea of allowing private prosecution by unconnected individuals for breaches of already-strict rules on abortion. I’d expect it to fail in the long run, or perhaps even quite quickly.
The Roman Republic was imperfect, but it should not be called an imperfect democracy. It was never intended to be a democracy. Much of its history was a struggle between the most privileged citizens and slightly less privileged citizens. We have records of long conflicts between Patricians and Plebians, with the Patricians being the older inhabitants, mostly richer. That was won by Plebians, some of whom then became aristocrats. And there was a later fight about admitting other Italians, and later non-Italians. Here again, the elite were expanded but remained an elite. An elite who got most of the advantages of having an undemocratic republic.
Athens was for part of its history a democracy for its citizens. Only men were citizens, though their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters had rights and protection denied to other free women, never mind slaves. Free residents of Athens didn’t get citizenship easily, and of course slaves got nothing unless freed. But there were careful arrangements to put all citizens at an even level.
Rome had points in common with Athens, but they were actually very different evolved forms of city-state republics. A system perhaps invented by the Phoenicians, and definitely spread by them to Greeks, Etruscans, and some Gauls. Carthage was as much a republic as Rome when the two of them fought. But it was also normal for republics to have a great variety of inherited rights even for those who counted as citizens. A democratic republic was a rarity, and it may well have been Athens that invented it.
Rome in legend had Etruscans among its earlier kings, and probably got the idea of a Republic and most of its forms from Etruscans rather than Greeks. Greek influence came later, and it was Greeks mostly ruled by their heirs of Alexander the Great.
For Rome it was never ‘one citizen one vote’. More exactly, the votes of the richer citizens were grouped into relatively small voting blocks. The poor, if they got to vote at all, were lumped into much larger blocks that each had just the same weight as the blocks for the rich. The system was designed to ensure that the votes of the rich counted for much more than other votes:
“The officeholders were elected by different assemblies. The Centuriate Assembly elected the highest offices of consul, praetor, and censor. This assembly divided all adult male citizens in 193 centuries… Its organization was descended from that of the early Roman Army, and the centuries were organized into tiers rank and property with cavalry equites at the top and unarmed and unpropertied at the bottom. Quaestors, and curule aediles were elected by the Tribal Assembly, while tribunes and plebeian aediles were elected by the Plebeian Council. These were divided into 35 tribes, geographical units of voters. The membership of the two is almost identical, with the only difference that patricians were excluded from the Plebeian Council.
“For the Centuriate, voting was in descending order by status and wealth. The first property class would divide itself first into their 35 tribes and then split each tribe by age … This would form 70 centuries, each with a vote… The first property class and the equites combined for 98 votes, and if they were unanimous a candidate would be declared elected and no other centuries would vote. If no majority was reached, balloting would continue through the lower property classes until a majority was reached.
“The Tribal Assembly did not have a similar order of precedence. Each of the 35 tribes voted simultaneously. The results were then counted and announced in an order determined by lot. Once a candidate had reached a majority of 18 tribes, counting would stop…
“The Tribal Council on its surface was equitable … but actually worked in favor of elites who had the resources to travel to the city to participate in the election.”
More than half the votes for the top jobs were controlled by the richer Roman citizens. Only the lesser offices were chosen by something like Athenian democracy. And if even this system produced something too radical, a Senate whose members did not need re-election could step in and derail moderate reform.
A major aim of the Roman constitution was to prevent anything new happening. This included the prevention of democracy, and in this it was entirely successful.
The resistance by the rich to some reforming moves within the Late Republic was broadly successful. The Gracchi wanted to stop the rich from hogging most of the new land that Rome won by conquest. Catiline was a rebel with a radical program. And their main aim was actually conservative: they wanted to keep the small farmers who had been the basis of Rome’s rise. Who sadly were replaced by vast slave-worked enterprises that fed the wealth of the rich.
Caesar relied on bribing the urban mob. He made no moves against the privileges of the rich: he just exerted authority over them. Likewise Augustus, and the later Emperors.
The Emperors gave Rome most of its greatness. Eventually the system fell apart, as all other Empires have done, all over the world. Some of the old rich families re-invented themselves as feudal lords. These merged with barbarian chiefs, and both tried to take away the freedoms of ordinary peasants. Marxists document this. Other historians mostly ignore it, talking just about struggles within the elite or the rise of merchants.
When you look at the details, most of what people think they know about the politics of Classical Rome is simply wrong. Experts are broadly agreed on the facts, but generally play down the differences between Them and Us.
You seldom find anyone speaking of ‘Roman Democracy’, because obviously this did not exist before modern times. But the ancient Roman Republic is viewed far too respectfully.
Someone who knows more of the details and can read the original Latin could write a good book on this. They might usefully borrow my section title: Rome’s Undemocratic Republic.
One other false notion is worth mentioning: the idea that sexual decadence killed either Republic or Empire. Pagan Rome had been in some ways prudish, though not in the manner of later Christians. Mariage was part of a pious life, apart from the very special case of the Vestel Virgins, who were also free to marry once retired. Sex slavery was fine, but there were limits on divorce and on public displays of affection. But these had been undermined at the same time as Rome rose to conquer their neighbours. It carried on fine for centuries of their strength.
Once you grasp how undemocratic a republic Rome actually was, it becomes easier to understand the change to increasingly powerful rulers that we call Emperors. Note that the word ‘emperor’ in modern languages was a later invention, based on the Roman imperator. This began as a title given to generals who had an outstanding success.
Many on the liberal-left are put off by Caesar, because he made himself Dictator for Life. But this was the job he needed to save and reform the state. The office was abolished after his murder, but after a run of Civil Wars the same powers were gathered by Augustus as Princeps. He ruled with the cooperation of the Senate, and with the election of Consuls etc. who no longer counted for much. Surviving histories are biased by being mostly the voices of the rich, or those who worked for the rich. There is plenty to indicate that ordinary people liked these new rulers. This included the Colosseum getting that name after a giant statue of Nero that had stood there. (But the name Flavian Amphitheatre is a modern invention: we don’t know what its official name was.)
I’d agree that dictatorships are bad. But weak government can be worse.
A Democratic Dictatorship may be a more authentic democracy than a Parliamentary Democracy. Parliamentarians are sometimes from the elite and mostly close to the elite. Often they frustrate the actual will of the majority.
In the 20th century, fixing the injustices and failures of 19th century politics needed either dictators, or open political systems where the elite were flexible. Flexible when they feared to lose a lot of their freedoms to revived fascists, or else lose almost everything to communists.
When it became clear that European fascists were a bad joke, and that Moscow-centred communism was in sharp decline under Brezhnev, the elite lost their flexibility on economic matters. China under Deng was changing, and they assumed that China would become another Japan, accepting Western values and US leadership.
This wasn’t entirely true even for Japan: there was huge continuity and it is much less Westernised than it seems. And has no intention of junking its ancient culture to please the Anglosphere.
It was not true at all for China. Deng was a convert to Global Communism when he was a student-worker in France. I’ve not seen any details, but I’d suppose he was not treated very nicely in a deeply racist society. That he never forgot.
Returned to China, Deng chose to side with Mao in the disputes with the older leadership that lost the Red Bases in South China. And was entirely comfortable with the absorption of the whole of Chinese society into the state / party system in the 1950s. He seems to have felt that the attempt to move to something more collectivist in the Great Leap Forward was a mistake and should not be repeated. This was the real issue in the Cultural Revolution, and of course he helped unroll it again after Mao’s death. But then noted the vast success of Japan and Singapore.
Deng must have also decided that the Marxist prediction of capitalism’s immediate fall and replacement by socialism was premature. Or may have ceased to believe it: it is hard to be sure. He certainly kept Marxist orthodoxy as the creed. He insisted that capitalism was merely restored for a time to grow the economy and allow China to borrow as much as it could of the best Western technology.
China had grown faster than the USA or Britain under Mao, which seems well-known to Western experts, since they will never deny it. They merely insinuate the opposite, by saying it was still poor. Not that it was much less poor than before Mao. Nor that life expectancy had increased much faster than for other poor countries, despite the hardships after the Great Leap Forward failed. Deng was not going to denounce Mao’s rule as a whole, since he was part of that whole. Rather less so than Khrushchev was part of the ‘whole’ created by Stalin, who had personally raised up Khrushchev and forgiven him a brief sympathy with Trotskyism. But Deng must also have noted the confusion and decline that had followed Khrushchev. Mao was acknowledged as the creator of Chinese Communism’s success. Not its creator: he was a minor regional leader when the party was founded in 1921. But the man who found ways to win.
China’s system had not failed, and the 1950s pattern might have continued indefinitely, no longer disturbed by Mao’s efforts to be more radical. But Japan and Singapore had done far better, and with US help. So Deng decided to shift China to a tolerance of revived capitalism, while keeping Leninist politics.
Japan and Singapore are functionally one-party states, with a single lapse in Japan that made no difference. Opposition parties did nothing useful there. Deng saw no need to allow them in China.
Deng led a party consensus that deposed two chosen successors when they showed a different understanding. This was the basis of the Tiananmen Protests, when the first of these died and the second of them tried to use popular protests to dump Deng and become the real boss. Deng then set a line of succession: Jiang Zemin was Deng’s actual successor, with his success in containing protests as boss of Shanghai a major factor. But Deng had designated Hu Jintao to succeed Jiang, and this happened, perhaps against Jiang’s wishes.
There is a lot more to be said: a complete study likely to be larger than this one, and my next task. For now, just note that nothing about China was what the Western ‘experts’ supposed.
From greed and an imperfect understanding of history, the West’s elite began taking back economic privileges, to the horror and surprise of the liberal-left and moderate socialists.
They showed themselves to be an elite continuous with exploiters from the dawn of history. People who felt that they had much less than they deserved. That the Common People had far too much, though this was played down in public since their votes were needed most places. Chile under Pinochet was an exception: he could have simply restored norms after deposing Allende, but chose to wage war on his own people in the service of New Right Values.
But only economic changes actually happened, even if a lot of the voters thought that conservative values were going to be restored by the New Right. This prospect was used to lure many older voters, but had little reality. The new elite don’t mostly favour the sharp social distinctions of older class systems. Nor the narrow hypocritical views of sex that Marxists learned to identify as ‘bourgeois’. The things that most Hard Leftists had not expected to perish before socialism replaced capitalism.
Most of the left also forgot to remind voters that they had generated most of the shift in attitudes that established the new sexual freedoms. Or that they had done this with sharp resistance from the centre-right of the time.
It also occurred to me that the recent spate of ‘Me Too’ sex scandals show the nastier members of this elite trying to behave like the Alpha Males of non-human Primates. Not going as far as trying to stop other males breeding or having sex: this is an issue on which even the mildest male is likely to become lethally dangerous. But certainly acting as if all of the women near to them ought to belong to them.
But this is being fixed, after being a continuous problem from the dawn of civilisation, and maybe before. And women among the elite are mostly as bad on other matters.
What we have is a millionaire elite who are significantly different from former ruling classes. Indeed, I’ve been calling them an Overclass. As socially detached as the classical Underclass. People who will not accept responsibility for a society in which their choices shape other people’s lives.
The left are mostly horrified at right-wing autocracies, and sympathetic to those on the left. For the right, things are exactly the reverse. But while left-wing sympathy for Stalin keeps being mentioned, the elite who dominate the media have successfully covered up the degree of centre-right sympathy before World War Two for Hitler, and even more for Mussolini. Once again, I have written on this, and no one much has taken notice.
I seek a consistent view. Obviously I prefer governments that work for aims I approve of. And I’ll point out that Leninism insisted that power should belong to everyone, while fascism specifically denied that most people were fit to decide. But otherwise I will freely admit similarities. I will describe autocratic government as just that, and say that many of them are probably justified by how I hoped to see history turn out.
Liberals make a big thing of City-States and early republics. But the actual breakthrough to modern industry in Britain happened alongside a revival of the power of the monarchy under George 3rd. With a parliament that was entirely dominated by the ruling class up until the 1832 reform. And where one adult male in seven had a vote after 1832.
The British system was not even loosely democratic till the 1870s and 1880s. The ballot became secret in 1872, decades after the Chartists had made this one of their demands. And it led to a notable increase in Irish Nationalists at Westminster, once the views of the agents of rich absentee landlords became much less able to intimidate voters. And it made Mainland Britain less undemocratic, though without a drastic shift in parties until later with the rise of the Labour Party. And the right to vote was only extended to a majority of adult males in the British Isles in 1884.
At that time, the Westminster Parliament was elected by almost all of the British Isles: Mainland Britain and Ireland and some other islands. But not the Isle of Man, which continued to have its own regional government, as did the Channel Islands. The same was true for those parts of the British Empire where the bulk of the population was counted as part of the White Race. The British Empire was never a fully democratic entity: if it had been, the Indian Subcontinent would have dominated.
And radicalism wasn’t always democratic.
An interesting book called The Radical Potter describes how Josiah Wedgwood produced British pottery that could stand comparison with the Chinese ceramics that had become hugely popular in Europe. That gave us the name ‘chinaware’. He was a good employer who looked after his workers, but also got much tighter control of their work. And his main market was the rich.
The same book ends with a denunciation of the people who took over the firm of Wedgewood after World War Two. Who created crippling debts and played fancy financial games that justified payments of millions to top managers. Who moved most production to Indonesia, which according to the book wrecked its reputation. I can’t independently confirm all of it, but it does fit my general understanding of the damage done to Britain by the New Right.
Back in the 18th century, the breakthrough to a modern economy has deep roots, but became dominant in the 1760s in Britain. The period when Adam Smith was writing his famous book, but he showed no awareness that something new had begun. Nor did he wonder why similar beginnings in Italy and the Netherlands hadn’t produced the massive shift that occurred in Britain.
The term Industrial Revolution we owe to the elder Arnold Toynbee – not to be confused with his more famous nephew Arnold Joseph Toynbee, who re-thought history in terms of multiple civilisations. The term had been used earlier by some French and German thinkers, but it was Toynbee who popularised it.
It gets called Early Capitalism, but a lot of it began as simple commerce and did not really follow capitalist rules. The terms capitalism and capitalist began as a term for someone who invested in industries but was rather detached from control of actual production. Something close to the modern idea of a Venture Capitalist, who speculatively puts up cash to back someone else’s good idea. But most of the pioneers were deeply involved in actual production. Often beginning as inventors and never seeing money as the main motive. And most pioneering industry was in the English midlands and north, and in Lowland Scotland. Also coal mining and iron-making were imposed on South Wales, then mostly rural but where unusual amounts of coal and some iron ore were found. But all of them detached physically and socially from the vast financial centre of London, which was much closer to a modern capitalist attitude.
Early industrialism began with actual producers using new methods. It became something much nastier when it was realised that the new methods could be used to drain the modest prosperity of ordinary people and give it to the rich. That was proper capitalism, with the factory system and a sharp downturn in the living conditions of the working classes.
Toynbee had included the transformation of agriculture in his idea of an Industrial Revolution. In modern studies, this mostly gets hived off as a separate Agricultural Revolution: a process that combined some genuine improvements with a ruling-class swindle called Enclosure. A change that concentrated land ownership in the hands of the rich. A process that didn’t happen to the same extent in other successful modern economies, and was very clearly independent of so-called Free Markets.
Early Industry was a new game by the old elite, with more upstarts admitted than had been the norm.
Capitalist theory and ideology was a useful way of justifying the extreme inequality which was allowed and even encouraged by the British state. As was the small-state myth.
State machines grow with the advance of civilisation. Britain was an oddity in as much as Britain privatised aspects, giving the gentry control. But rules for registering births, marriages and deaths were there from early on. And a basic and expanding system of welfare. In England, Wales and Ireland, anyone outside of the Anglican Church had inferior rights. This was harshest for Roman Catholics, especially in Ireland. But outside of Scotland, where they were the Established Church, believing in the ‘wrong’ version of Protestant Christianity got you discriminated against.
The ‘dear little state’ was always a myth.
There was quite a lot of personal liberty for ordinary British people, when it suited the elite. But male homosexuality was illegal and frequently punished up until 1967. It had been decriminalised in France during their revolution, and never re-criminalised. You could be Free and English, only if you avoided annoying the powerful.
The notion of a Small State has been cover for a large state existing mostly for the benefit of the rich. No more welfare than is needed to assure re-election, when the advance of the working class got them the vote.
Parliamentary Democracy has tended to be a way of giving an illusion of control, while MPs are controlled by the rich. Which is why the West has been so keen to spread it to places where other systems had been working fine, but the Anglosphere elite wanted to grab more. Thus it was that Saddam Hussein was saved from his failed war against Iran in 1987, but attacked continuously from 1990 to 2003.
The West’s ‘Wars for Democracy’ have all along been wars that served the selfish interests of the latest version of an ancient elite. But also based on a false understanding of history, which is why the Anglosphere version is currently falling apart.
From 11th Sept – 2412. 13th, 4788. 14th, 6185 SPLIT, 17th – 4800. Then 5733.
27th, 6670. 28th, 8187. 30th, 9767. 3rd Oct, 10,090. 4th, 10,226. 5th, 11,743. 13th, 12,275.
18th, 14,368. 19th, 14,576.
 Multi-Millionaires as a Blight on Civilization.
 I have done a detailed study: https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/problems-magazine-past-issues/traditional-china-resisted-modernisation/
 The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, an unfinished essay by Friedrich Engels.
 Beneath the Night, by Stuart Clark. Faber & Fabre 2021. Page 13
 Ibid, page 47. The name is more properly written as Göbekli Tepe. But this article is also intended for the internet and it tends to make a mess of diacritical marks.
 Ibid, page 59
 More properly Çatalhöyük, but the internet and electronic publishing are dominated by Anglo values and often make a hash of letters with diacritical marks.
 See The Left Redefined ‘The Normal’: https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/m-articles-by-topic/m99-topic-menus-from-long-revolution-website/998-from-labour-affairs/the-french-revolution-and-its-unstable-politics/against-globalisation/the-left-redefined-the-normal/
 Britain’s Pro-Fascist Past. https://labouraffairsmagazine.files.wordpress.com/2020/11/problems-42-pro-fascist-britain-1.pdf, or individual articles at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/problems-magazine-past-issues/.
 The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the Transformation of Britain. By Tristram Hunt.
 See the entry for Industry in Keywords by Raymond Williams.
 Ibid, entry for Capitalism.
All issues of this magazine can be found at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/problems-magazine-past-issues/.
An archive listing of many articles by topic can be found at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/