The Classy Dictatorship of Democracy

The mantle of democracy is a heavy one; as a rhetorical device it’s frequently evoked across the political spectrum, from parliamentary republics to communist dictatorships. The Cold War was rife with democratic rhetoric, with western capitalist heads of state declaring their passion for democracy as the reason for foreign interventions to prevent the spread of Soviet backed “Democratic Republics.” However, if we were to look past all the rhetoric of modern day republics and tyrannies, which rings eerily of the similar ostensibly pro-democratic rhetoric of the Hellenistic oligarchs,[1] there is one concept that may help illuminate a more accurate conception of Athenian democracy: the dictatorship of the proletariat. This Marxist concept, largely associated with the Paris Commune, was famously evoked by Lenin and the many revolutionaries of the 20th century, even if the system they delivered largely failed to live up to this promised class dictatorship. The question of whether democracy is a revolutionary or reconciling force in society is perhaps one of the biggest and oldest questions of political theory. For most of history, it has been aristocrats arguing against democracy on the grounds that doing so would give power to the poor masses who would destroy private property and cause a leveling of status. The destruction of private property is ultimate goal of the Marxist dictatorship of the proletariat, and if Athenian democracy can be read as such a dictatorship, the question remains as to why there wasn’t expropriation.

Firstly, what exactly is meant by the “dictatorship of the proletariat?” In the context of Marx, it was first mentioned in a letter where he laid out his contributions to theory, that primary contribution being that while he had not discovered class, he had shown that the existence of classes was bound to historical stages of production, and that this historical class struggle would lead to a dictatorship of the proletariat which would abolish private property and class[2]. The phrase itself most likely originated from Louis Auguste Blanqui, the French socialist and President elect of the Paris Commune, which Marx borrowed after the failed European revolutions of 1848.[3] Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune may then give us some key insights to exactly what this dictatorship entails. To Marx, “[the commune] was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor ,”[4] going on to add that universal suffrage in opposition to “hierarchical investiture” was natural to the spirit of the commune. Althusser, commenting on the peculiar use of the word “dictatorship” in “dictatorship of the proletariat” which usually evokes images of despotism and tyranny, explained that “…what is in question here is the dictatorship, not of a government or regime, but of a class. In Marx’s thought, the dictatorship of a class has nothing to do with political dictatorship or a dictatorial form of government.[5]” Rather, the dictatorship of the proletariat is simply a system of class domination, which, according to Marx, is all systems in which there exists a class, whereby the dominant class is the proletariat. There is, however, some ambiguity here, and Lenin would often invoke the alternative interpretation of dictatorship, that is of regime characterized by a lack of the rule of law, which governed by decree. For the purpose of this essay, I will be invoking the first definition of the dictatorship of the proletariat, outlined by Marx and Althusser, but in light of the complicated relationship of Athenian democracy with the rule of law, the second definition is also worth bringing up.

The alternatives to this class based, factional model of Athenian democracy proposed by the analogy of a dictatorship of the proletariat is the idea that Athenian democracy served and represented the people as a whole, including the elites. Or possibly that democracy did not exist in Athens at all. The primary source evidence seems to confound these pictures. Aristotle is perhaps the most forceful in painting this factional picture, declaring that

“…the real thing in which democracy and oligarchy differ from each other is poverty and wealth; and it necessarily follows that wherever the rulers owe their power to wealth, whether they be a minority or a majority, this is an oligarchy, and when the poor rule, it is democracy, although it does accidentally happen, as we said, that where the rulers hold power by wealth they are few and where they hold power by poverty they are many, because few men are rich but all men possess freedom, and wealth and freedom are the grounds on which the two classes lay claim to the government,”[6]

It is curious that he makes this distinction, that the two classes lay out their claim to power on the grounds of either wealth or freedom. Unlike the more direct characterization of democracy as the rule of the poor, which would have been in his favor as an elite himself who would have more power in oligarchy, this seems like an anthropological comment, a description of ideology which would have been common knowledge. It is true that we do not have much in the way of a democratic polemic that would be a first hand source for this ideology, what we do have is the polemics of the aristocrats against democracy. Besides Aristotle, The Old Oligarch says of their desire for freedom “For the people do not want a good government under which they themselves are slaves; they want to be free and to rule. Bad government is of little concern to them. What you consider bad government is the very source of the people’s strength and freedom,”[7]. We should expect the bias of the aristocrats to paint the demos in an unfavorable light, but that doesn’t quite seem to be the goal when it comes to references of freedom being the basis of democratic ideology. Consistently, it has been used either as a point of comparison with the hierarchical aristocratic understanding, or as a counter-argument in need of being knocked down. If the poor themselves had a different ideological basis for their support for democracy, wouldn’t the aristocratic thinkers take great pains to place this at the center of their complaints? Especially if it was something more ignoble than “freedom” which had positive connotations outside of the constitutional sense.

Taking this as the ideology of the poor in ancient Athens, we can begin to examine it in terms of the power it gave them, and its function as a source of legitimacy. The proponents of the theory that Athenian democracy was not factional say that ideology did not serve as a tool for power, but rather that the democratic norms encouraged the equal sharing of power across society. A further counter argument would be that there exists a similar ideology about freedom today in western capitalist democracies, and yet there is not the same level of working class power as was seen in Athens.

However, the modern day concepts of freedom are not equivalent to the Athenian constitutional sense. As Hansen explains, “As a constitutional concept, eleutheria was associated with both political participation in the public sphere and with personal freedom in the private sphere,”[8]. Both of these forms of constitutional freedom are key to understanding this difference in democratic ideology, especially as it interacts with the concrete movements of modern and ancient self-proclaimed democracies. The most glaring contradiction here is the case of the United States, which by all accounts, including those of the founders, is a Republic, but yet the word democracy is so thoroughly imbedded in the ruling ideology. While the acceptance of the word democracy into the ruling ideology can probably be credited to Tocqueville, the question remains if this ideology functions in the same way as it did in Athens, and whether it is closer to a bourgeoise conception of liberty, or a Marxist conception of liberty.

In Constant’s speech The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns, he describes his understanding of this difference as one between public and private freedom, that the ancients had public freedom while the moderns had private freedom, and both lost the other in acquiring each of their unique freedoms. However, it seems disingenuous to describe Athens like he does as a place where “All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance,”[9]. The great tyranny of the household, as the ancients freely admitted, was that of the master, the man of the house, over his slaves, wife and children, not that of the state over household, “The rule of a household is a monarchy, for every house is under one head; whereas constitutional rule is a government of freemen and equals”[10]. If perhaps Constant believed his contemporaneous western citizens had acquired this private freedom, I doubt he would say the same a mere two hundred years later, when the state, besides passing many regulations in regard to household relations and the use of private property, has also become ever more concerned with the creation of a vast apparatus of surveillance. Restricted, however, to only its ideological significance, Constant’s explanation of the modern western understanding of liberty rings true.

Ask any American about freedom, in particular constitutional freedom, and they will point to the Bill of Rights and perhaps a handful of other constitutional amendments: freedoms of speech, religion, assembly and press. This is in addition to an understanding of right to private property, the right to own and sell things, something stemming from Locke’s conception of rights and the social contract which is commonly taught in American secondary education. This ruling ideology, however, does not put this liberty as the foundation of democracy, although it may like to say so. Rather, it is perfectly possibly for autocratic rulers to support similar freedoms, and where we see these autocratic systems pop up, we often see American support for them on these very grounds, such as in Chile, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and South Korea. On the other hand, the Athenian conception of liberty would not be compatible with such an arrangement, as political engagement for them was precisely the crafting of laws and sitting as magistrates and jurors. That the poor make up the majority of those concretely making decisions in this system should tell us who exactly benefits from this ideology.

Ober, the foremost mainstream historian on Athens today, in an attempt to defend his conclusion that democratic ideology was one that worked on behalf of the whole society, rests his point partly on the popularity of these ideological foundations. “That freedom was a good thing and worth defending and that consensus was a good thing and worth promoting were self-evident by constitutional means might have been construed as an intolerable assault on basic Athenian values. No canny politician would willingly put himself in the position of attacking basic values,”[11]. However, we know that this understanding of freedom was far from hegemonic. The aristocrats were always resentful of freedom in the public sense, it was their understanding that the wisest, or “best” members of society should rule, something that was in complete contradiction with the freedom to rule oneself. This can be evident in the Old Oligarch’s earlier quip about democracy’s poor governance stemming from the masses’ freedom, and Hansen sums it up as follows “the sources show that Greek democrats distinguished constitutional liberty from the two other senses and imposed the distinction on the rest, by inducing aristocrats and oligarchs to hate eleutheria as a mistaken democratic value.”

Ober is absolutely right that no intelligent politician would willingly attack such values, and that stands testament to the ideological and systemic political power of the demos, not as evidence of consensus across society. The oligarchic counter revolutions of the early 400s show that this wasn’t merely a minor difference of opinion, these values which apparently most Athenians held dear was always under threat by the elites who would be waiting to seize back power whenever they had an opportunity. These counter revolutions, one should mention, were also done under the ideological justification that democratic decision making was unwise on the grounds of recent military failures and missteps, and that the wise and best, e.g. the aristocrats, would be better suited to rule.

This cuts to the heart of the problem of Ober and the mainstream’s understanding of ideology. To them, ideology is merely an arrangement of symbols, ideas. With this analysis of ideology it appears almost as if the arrogant and erroneous ideology of the oligarchs compelled them to seize power during the counter revolutions, and not the oligarchs’ own self-interest.

Ober also does protest that this supposed ideology of the poor did not act in the complete material interests of the poor, as he says: “…If democracy is defined as “the rule of the poor,” we might expect Aristotle to suggest that democracy will flourish whenever the material interests of the “poor” are clearly recognized by the “many” qua ruling faction, and maximized accordingly,”[12]. Namely, this maximalist policy would be the redistribution of property. However, as this understanding of ideology only takes into account beliefs and attitudes, he misses a fundamental function of a ruling ideology, and that is its role in reproducing the economic-political system of its ruling class. It is the very simple basis of the Marxist theory of ideology that any social formation that does not reproduce the conditions for its production would not last a year, and that ideology is one of the key tools used in such a process.

In terms of what was required for the political and economic reproduction of Democratic Athens, the elites and wealthy, and even the more middling hoplites all needed to be taken into account. Put together they were a formidable military force on land, forming the cavalry and infantry respectively. The Athenian demos, which was mostly concentrated in the navy, found themselves on the opposite end of a problem that has plagued all states and ruling classes since the dawn of civilization. How does one prevent the revolt of the dominated classes? In this case, the dominated classes were the wealthy and elite. No doubt, outright expropriation and restricting them from the political process would have forced open military confrontation, one which the demos had no guarantee of winning outright, even if the middling and slave classes would end up temporarily joining forces with them to defeat oligarchic power grabs. An interesting situation in of itself, but comprehensible when one considers that the slaves, as the democratic courts tended to punish hubris by their rich masters, and as the Old Oligarch mentioned, were better treated under democratic rule as there was sometimes difficulty distinguishing from the lower classes and the better off slaves. When it comes to interpreting the importance of things such as the Archon pledging that what people own at the beginning of his term they would own at the end, it should exactly be seen in the light of placation, and this is true as much for the oligarchs as it is the demos. Redistribution of property, after all as Lysias pointed out, was more common in oligarchic regimes than democratic ones.

Then there is the economic dimension of the reproduction of society. Athens being a center of trade and agriculture thus needed high agricultural yields as well as a relatively safe place to do business. In terms of agriculture, Stalin in his attempts at collectivization found out first-hand what happens when you discourage yields beyond sustenance. In addition, if the demos had pressed for more extractive policies on the rich they may have engaged in evasive tactics such as hiding their wealth, something that would be an unavoidable problem unless the elites were liquidated as a class which was likely unfeasible.

This relates intimately to the question of why, if Athens can be compared to a dictatorship of the proletariat in terms of class domination, did it not expropriate the property of the rich? To be sure, the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat in its Marxist context was distinct to capitalism. As his simple formula in his letter to Weydemeyer indicated, Marx believed that the dictatorship of the proletariat would only come about as the result of a historical process. He goes into further detail in Capital Volume 1, most clearly in chapter 32, to describe exactly how this process would come about.

According to Marx, the natural centralization of production under capitalism would inevitably lead to a point where it would be incompatible with its own capitalist framework, and that the misery and poverty this process creates for the masses would lead to the expropriation of these capitalists. Specifically, he says in summary, “The transformation of scattered private property, arising from individual labour, into capitalist private property is, naturally, a process, incomparably more protracted, violent, and difficult, than the transformation of capitalistic private property, already practically resting on socialised production, into socialised property. In the former case, we had the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers; in the latter, we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people.” [13]

However, this is a very different situation than the one faced by the ancient Athenians. Their economy was based on slave labor, far removed from modern industry and commercial relations. The working class was also far different from the Proletariat of Marx’s day, largely consisting of substances farmers, as well as small manufactures and tradesmen. Comparatively, Marx’s analysis relied specifically on the rise of large commercial enterprises and factories which created the isolated worker cut off from previous social relations that would have defined him. In the very footnote to the section quoted earlier, Marx cites the sections of the Communist Manifesto that outline this theory:

“The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable…. Of all the classes that stand face-to-face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes perish and disappear in the face of Modern Industry, the proletariat is its special and essential product…. The lower middle classes, the small manufacturers, the shopkeepers, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class… they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history.”

Could it be then, that because the proletariat as Marx had envisioned it did not yet exist the ruling class in Athens was of this other lower, and as he called them, reactionary classes? Perhaps. But not to get ahead of ourselves, the uniqueness of Athenian democracy and the subsequent transformation of the meaning of democracy into its modern meaning leaves a rather deep analytical hole. If Athenian democracy did not abolish property or see a mass expropriation of property as we saw in the Russian revolution (which was largely initiated not by the Bolshevik party, but by the masses themselves via unauthorized nationalizations[14]) and in the intentions of the Paris Commune, it was only due to the fact that the social consequences of the “rule of the poor” were vastly different between Ancient Athens and modern capitalism. A difference born from each unique economic situation, most importantly the mode of production. Marx’s theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat abolishing all classes was predicated on the development of capitalism making its own framework obsolete. The one exception to this, for Marx, was a letter where he stated that the Russians could have a communist system thanks to their previously existing commune system that already required no propertied class to function[15], however no such framework existed in the city state of Athens which was mostly composed of either sustenance farming or aristocratic estates. Therefore, it was somewhat out of the question for the Athenians to have the same revolutionary potential as the modern proletariat.

The very phenomena of factional class rule by the lower classes, as opposed to the wealthy proprietors, is an incredibly rare one in history. For many centuries this phenomenon was referred to simply as democracy, the boogeyman of mass rule for aristocratic political thinkers. However, with Tocqueville’s intervention, and the rise of bourgeoise republicanism, the phrase democracy was coopted once again. Marxism, being the chief ideological movement to embrace the masses as a force of social change of the 20th century, logically brought this idea of “rule of the poor” back into popular consciousness. Indeed, many Marxists also brought direct comparisons of democracy with the dictatorship of the proletariat, most famously being Luxemburg, “[The Proletariat] should and must at once undertake socialist measures in the most energetic, unyielding and unhesitant fashion, in other words, exercise a dictatorship, but a dictatorship of the class, not of a party or of a clique – dictatorship of the class, that means in the broadest possible form on the basis of the most active, unlimited participation of the mass of the people, of unlimited democracy.”[16] The value of the comparison to the dictatorship of the proletariat, even when removed from the capitalist context, is the emphasis of lower class domination through the state, and an extension of the old Marxist argument that proletarian democracy can be the only form of democracy, in the sense of the rule of the majority, when the proletariat, and lower classes at large, form the majority and when all states have been expressions of class domination.

It is elsewhere laid out by Ober, in his commentary of Demosthenes speech Against Meidias, a difference between honor and dignity in ancient Athens which follows the same lines of private versus public freedom. To the Athenians, dignity was the dignity of the public citizen, equal in freedom and political power to one another[17]. This ideological undercurrent certainly had considerable discursive power, as a quick survey of public law cases show, where appeals to common dignity of the demos are often made explicit and given more attention than arguments about the technicalities of laws. Strikingly, in Against Meidias, Demosthenes advises the jury not to spare his fellow elite on the grounds of his wealth, but to indict him because of it, “…will you say that he is wealthy? But you will find that this is the main cause of his insolence so that you ought to deprive him of the source of his insolence rather than save him because of it[18].” In a similar vein, in the Demosthenes written speech spoken by Apollodorus Against Neaera, the dignity of the Athenian women citizens is invoked as a reason to indict Neaera, so much so that it was said in the speech that it would have been better if the trial had never occurred if it were to result in an acquittal, regardless of Neaera’s guilt or innocence[19].

There is no trouble figuring out why Demosthones made these appeals, the courts of Athens were one of its most powerful democratic institutions, and it was the demos that staffed the 600 strong jury. If dignity and freedom was the ideology of the demos as a class, it would only make sense that if they truly had power in the courts and in Athenian politics more generally that the way to win court cases against your opponents would be to appeal to these popular ideologies. Beyond purely ideology, jealousy on the part of poorer jurors, the majority, for the wealthy defendants could often be inflamed by speakers to extract a punishment and greater fees. Larger fees themselves were encouraged by the fact that they would add to the public purse that was under the demos’ control, and which also paid the jurors for their duty.

That the courts were seen as extensions of the will of the demos is another striking similarity to the Marxist understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat. When Marx says “The judicial functionaries were to be divested of that sham independence which had but served to mask their abject subserviency to all succeeding governments to which, in turn, they had taken, and broken, the oaths of allegiance. Like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable,”[20] he could just as easily be talking about the Athenian courts if he simply replaced election with sortition.

The Old Oligarch is extremely useful at identifying the power of the demos at work in other parts of Athenian politics, for example in redistributive policies that progressively target the rich, with the buildup of the Athenian navy, and the censuring of those that satirize the masses. Many of the formal institutions of Athenian politics also seem geared towards one single thing, preventing the consolidation of power into the hands of individuals, in particular, those institutions of sortition and ostracism. It was striking that even elections were construed as undemocratic as they could be manipulated by those who excelled at rhetoric.[21]

Certainly, the presence of demagogues is one of the main arguments against Athenian democracy and the existence of working class domination. According to the logic of this argument, the demos never really had power because they were only being manipulated by well-spoken demagogues, their will was not their own, but charmed into the wishes of a single individual’s. However, this argument doesn’t seem to stack up against what we know about the institutional power of the demos. The demos held the ultimate policy making power and the power of the purse in the assembly and the courts, and the speeches we see making appeals to the demos, as a demagogue would, are ones that must clearly show how whatever action being proposed benefits the demos, these are the appeals towards the freedom and dignity that make up the demos’ ideological claim to state power. Ober himself describes the demotic control of elite behavior and political speech:

“After the inauguration of democracy, if a nobleman’s speech in the public space of the citizen Assembly was regarded by the mass of the poor as incompatible with their own demotic convictions and aspirations, their collective voice might simply drown out the nobleman’s individual voice. They might furthermore demand to hear a speaker whose public views were more in tune with their own”[22]

According to this logic, if a politician said something that was against the interests of the demos they would quickly lose support. In this way, the demagogue did no impress his own will on the demos, but the demos impressed their will on his.

Similarly, from the cynical Marxist approach today, simply because a poor person can appeal to the bourgeoisie for state welfare on the grounds that they will use it to start a business and succeeds in doing so, that doesn’t mean that person suddenly has real power. In the Paris Commune too there was need for some specialists and state officials, all of whom were instantly recallable and thus served at the pleasure of the proletariat. Small businesses continued to exist, but these bourgeoisie were only tolerated to the extent that they served the immediate needs of the working class.

Therefore, I think it is safe to conclude that there did exist this form of working class domination in Athens. It is worth noting that Marx referred to Aristotle with praise on many occasions in Capital volume 1, albeit not with regard to the dictatorship of the proletariat, it remains likely that Aristotle’s description of democracy may have directly influenced his understanding of class dictatorship.

As for why Athens escaped the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” unlike the brief flashes of proletarian dictatorship in France, Russia and Spain during their respective civil wars, the answer comes down to how Athenian democracy was first formed. In all the aforementioned civil wars, the working class rose up in arms against their class enemies and established directly democratic institutions which they used to exorcise power. Unlike in Athens, each of these insurrections was summarily crushed, either by forces assumed to be on their side, the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Stalinists in Spain, or were outright defeated by their class opponents. In Athens, there was quite a different situation when democracy was founded. As Ober’s analysis of the revolution of 508 BC shows, in this case the poor and working class, the demos, rose up on their own power and defeated Cleomenes and his allies at the siege of the Acropolis. They did so without outside help or any form of institutional leadership, but more importantly, they actually succeeded, and rather quickly too[23] (which is perhaps the other distinguishing quality of this revolution, it did not face a long and arduous civil war). With this victory, and the subsequent reforms, the specter of revolt and mass power weighed over society probably in the way popular revolutions hold today in the society’s they found, such as in France or the United States.

Ultimately, while there may be many other factors related to the preservation of this class dictatorship of the poor and common people, there can be little dispute that this was such a dictatorship. The ideological, institutional and even military power (as the revolution proved) of the Athenian demos seems to be more than enough to establish they had a class domination over their oligarchic rivals, in which case, it would make perfect sense to view Athenian democracy as a dictatorship of the proletariat if that was the only criteria. The extremely different economic situation in Athens from modern capitalism, the requirements, both material and ideological, for the reproduction of that situation, and lack of alternatives to the class hierarchy made it unfeasible for the Athenian demos to attempt the radical expropriation and abolishing of classes that Marx envisioned when he spoke of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Still, considering that Marxism is one of the few theories that has an understanding of the state as class domination and one that talks about such domination by the lower classes over the rich, the comparison is valuable to the extent it gets that factional understanding across.

However, there is another side to this debate, and that is whether the dictatorship of the proletariat must necessarily be democratic. The experiences of Athens, and contemporary dictatorships of the proletariat give us an important hint. What makes the proletariat dictatorship distinct from the bourgeoisie dictatorship, it is only that the bourgeoisie state is one that is founded upon private property, it’s purpose is only to defend private property and it will go to great lengths, even acting against the capitalist class’s immediate interests, to preserve it in the long term. But why does it do this, how can the bourgeoisie state not act in the immediate interests of the bourgeoisie, is it acting in the interests of a different class? A bureaucratic class? Yes and no.

We do see situations where a bureaucratic class becomes a sort of ruling class, purely extractive regimes whose focus is on the enrichment of a few oligarchs with ties to state industries (usually oil). However, even these states cannot go on forever if its only activity is the extraction of rent without pretense. In countries with fully developed capitalism, the purpose of the state becomes clear. The American state, for example, is not a state capitalist. In fact, in industry that is nationalized, such as the US Postal Service, profit is intentionally prevented. It also does not exist to make money though the extraction of taxes, as the constant deficits are evidence enough of.

Marx and Lenin consistently referred to the state as a kind of machine, [24] but it wasn’t just any kind of machine. It was a machine that took violence as its input, and created legitimacy as its output. In other words, it was a machine that produces ideology.

Let us compare the state machines of Athenian Democracy and the American Republic. The American state, as a bourgeoisie state, is founded upon the protection of private property. It’s declares its legitimacy on the grounds of voters alienating their representation into the hands of politicians who take on roles in the legislative and executive roles of government, so to in the same way that private property is founded upon the right of alienation. This right of alienation is first and foremost a bourgeoisie right, the alienation of property on the one hand is what was openly evoked in the right to alienate legitimacy, as articulated by the social contract theorists. This legitimacy, however, isn’t simply accepted freely by all the citizens and subjects of a state.

This doesn’t just mean propaganda being impressed upon in schools, official ceremonies, ect, it requires a certain amount of skin in the game. The state needs to take credible action towards these aims, or the gig will eventually be up. Thus, as a general (but by no means exhaustive) rule, the police may answer the call for both a home invasion in a working class neighborhood and arrest a union leader the very next day. The right to private property actually exists for all, even if only the right.

No state can exist without violence, but it can only remain the state so long as its violence is greater in quantity than all other actors in its vicinity. Thus the game becomes one of minimizing the quantity of violence of its opponents, and maximizing its own, in other words, in creating the largest difference in violence between the two. This is why it must transform its violence into legitimacy, precisely to attain this minimizing effect on its opponents.

This is the case just as much for Athens at is for the US. The Athenian Demos converted their violence into a state ideology, into a legitimacy based upon “freedom.” However, unlike the US, it did not create specialized organs for either this violence or legitimacy. It was the demos itself which carried out the functions of the state. Like the Paris Commune, the Athenian State was a working body, not a legislative or executive one. This is due to the fact that unlike the bourgeoisie of capitalism, the workers, craftsmen and peasants who made up the demos were not defined by alienated property, but by their physical labor. To create an alienated political form would make no sense for them, as that would mean surrendering more of their own power. It is exactly due to this fact that a dictatorship of the proletariat must also be a democratic society.

However, the logic of producing this legitimacy take on a life of its own in the necessity for its reproduction. Political freedom for all also means political freedom for the economic elites, even if the true political power does not lie with their class.

The importance here on reproduction is crucial. In reproducing this process of producing legitimacy, we see how the state can act against the immediate aims of the “ruling class”. It must preserve the foundations of the system of which it is a part, of which the output, legitimacy, is the ideological reflection of (and which could not exist without) this material basis.

The state is of course not infallible or omniscient. It can only protect these foundations to the extent its own strategies, knowledge, tactics and ideological power are used effectively. History is just as much a comedy of errors as it is a tragedy of forgone conclusions.

So too does there always existing countervailing sources of power: ideological, economic and political. The germ of a new society is always found in the existing one, as are the people materially invested, and ideologically committed to it. No system can exist without the possibility of its annulment implicit in its own preservation.




[1] Paul Cartledge,  Democracy: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) Hellenistic Democracy? Democracy in Defecit c.323-86 BCE.

[2] Karl Marx, Brian Baggins, Abstract from Marx to J. Weydemeyer in New York (Marx/Engels Internet Archive, 1852)

[3] Louis Althusser, The Philosophy of the Encounter Later Writings, 1978-87 (New York:Verso, 2006) 86.


[5] Louis Althusser, The Philosophy of the Encounter Later Writings, 1978-87 (New York:Verso, 2006) 89.

[6] Aristotle Politics Book 3


[8] Hansen, Mogens Herman. The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles, and Ideology. Bristol Classical Press, 2001. 76


[10] Aristotle Politics Book 1

[11] Ober, Josiah. Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People. Princeton University Press, 1989. 299



[14] Alec Nove, Economic History of the USSR 53



[17] Josiah Ober, The Athenian Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) 87




[21] Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, (Princeton University Press, 1989) 7.


[23] Josiah Ober, Orgins of Democracy in Ancient Greece, I Besiege that Man

[24] Louis Althusser, The Philosophy of the Encounter Later Writings, 1978-87 (New York:Verso, 2006) 67.

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