Wednesday, June 26, 2013

We are all Spartacus

The following is extracts adapted from the International Communist Current article found here 

"Spartacus emerges as one of the best characters in the whole of ancient history. A great general, a noble character, a genuine representative of the ancient proletariat" -  Marx letter to Engels.

The information that we have on Spartacus and the slave war is very limited - a few thousand words, written by ancient historians from the ruling class: Sallust, a Roman Senator (1st century BC), Plutarch and Appian were wealthy aristocrats (2nd century AD). The very fact that these members of the ruling class felt the need to deal with this revolt demonstrates how important it was. The slave revolt saw 100,000 or more slaves waging war on their Roman oppressors and defeating the seeming invincible legions time and time again. This revolt, though bloodily crushed, has inspired revolutionary movements. The main grouping of revolutionaries in Germany who opposed World War 1 adopted the name of the Spartacus League to express their determination to wage war on the ruling class; and like Spartacus and the slave army the revolutionary struggle of the workers in Germany was drowned in blood. Thus the name Spartacus became synonymous with the revolutionary aspirations of the exploited.

The rising of the slaves between 73-71 BC did not come out of nowhere. It reflected the wider social turmoil rocking the Roman Republic. By the second century BC the Roman army had conquered the Mediterranean and was extending itself throughout Europe. These ever-expanding conquests brought with them an increasing supply of slave labour, which was used to replace the peasantry that had been the bedrock of the Roman Empire. Instead of the old system of peasant small-holdings, there was a growth of huge estates that used slave labour to extract raw materials and produce agricultural goods. In the cities the artisans were increasingly being replaced by slave labour. At the same time, a very small minority of the ruling class was able to take over the control of the exploitation of the resources of the newly conquered territories. This produced powerful social tensions: between the ruling class and those driven into unemployment in the cities or to the cities from the countryside, and also between the different interests within the ruling class.

 These tensions lead to a series of bloody civil wars from 130 BC. During that period the Gracchus brothers led movements of the dispossessed, particularly the former legionaries who had once received parcels of land for their years of service, against the state: "The private soldiers fight and die to advance the wealth and luxury of the great; and they are classed the masters of the world, while they have not a foot of ground in their possession" (Tiberius Gracchus, quoted by Plutarch). In 132 BC Tiberius and his supporters were slaughtered by the ruling party, and in 121 BC his brother Caius and his supporters met a similar fate. In the following years, massacre and bloody civil war became the norm as tens of thousands were killed as different fractions of the ruling class fought each other for control of the state.

It was in the middle of this turmoil that the slave war led by Spartacus broke out. But again this has to been seen in the context of the two previous slave wars that had taken place in Sicily. In these wars tens of thousands of slaves on the massive estates that covered the island rose up and defeated their Roman masters, and then fought wars against Roman legions until being crushed with great violence. At the time of the first war, in Asia Minor in the Kingdom of Pergamum, Aristonikos, the half-brother of the former king, faced with the Romans, freed the slaves and set up the Sun State, which was taken to mean a 'communist' order. There was "complete political democracy; the whole of the inhabitants, native and foreign, property-owning and disinherited, received the franchise and the independent administration of their State". From 133 to 129 the Romans waged war against the Sun State until they finally crushed it.

Initially, Spartacus and 70 odd other gladiators broke out of their gladiatorial school in Capua, after their plan for a bigger break-out had been discovered. The fact that such a group of gladiators from different ethnic backgrounds, trained to kill each other, could have formed such a plan, testifies to a real solidarity between them. Once free they fled to mount Vesuvius. Here Appian says many slaves and some freemen joined them "Since Spartacus divided the profits of his raiding into equal shares, he soon attracted a very large number of followers"

In the end, after being forced into the very south of Italy by Crassus and with the arrival of more legions from abroad, Spartacus and the slaves were faced with either capture or making a last stand. The slave army chose the latter. They turned in full battle ranks and marched on the pursuing legions. 36,000 died on the battlefield and many more after, as the ruling class relentlessly hunted down all those that had had the audacity to defeat their legions, to kill their generals and nobles, and to stand up to the ruling class. As a warning to all other rebels, the ruling class crucified 6,000 survivors of the slave army along the main road to Rome.

Unlike Kirk Douglas in the acclaimed movie, Spartacus did not die on the cross but fighting his way towards Crassus, the very symbol of the Roman ruling class - he was the richest and most powerful man in Rome - in the final battle. "When his horse was brought to him, Spartacus drew his sword and shouted that if he won the battle, he would have many fine horses, but if he lost, he would have no need of a horse. With that, he killed the animal. Then, driving through weapons and the wounded, Spartacus rushed at Crassus. He never reached the Roman, although he killed two centurions, who fell with him" (Plutarch).

 Howard Fast, a good Stalinist and Arthur Koestler,  an ex-Stalinist, depict Spartacus as the revolutionary leader leading a rabble not up to his ideals and  responsible for the failure of the war. Dalton Trumbo,  the film's screenwriter and also a Stalinist, equated Spartacus with Stalin.

The eventual defeat of the slave army was not simply the results of internal divisions or tactical errors. It reflected the historical limitations of the epoch: despite being the most advanced civilisation the world had yet seen, Roman slavery could never have developed the productive forces to the point where a truly universal communist society could have come out of it. The downfall of slavery could only have been replaced by a more progressive system of exploitation (thus, following its decline, there was the development of feudalism in Europe). Within this framework, it has to be understood that the slaves were not a revolutionary class in the sense of carrying within their struggle the foundations of a new social system, still less a conscious programme for its realisation. Their hopes for a society where private property would no longer exist were doomed to remain dreams, based on memories of a lost tribal order and on myths of a primordial golden age. This does not mean that Marxists look down on the revolts or the communistic dreams of previous exploited classes: on the contrary, these revolts have rightly inspired generations of proletarians, and these dreams remain indispensable stepping stones towards the scientific communist outlook of the modern working class.

In Germany  "Spartacism" became synonymous with Bolshevism and world revolution and the name “Spartacist” was  adopted by the German Communists.  Echoing Rome's bloody suppression of the original Spartacus movement, the Germany bourgeoisie crushed the modern day wage-slave war with great brutality.

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