‘Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New …


A brilliant Marxist historian, Ellen Meiksins Wood is able to tread a fine line between the particular and the universal, the subject and society, making sure the one is not annulled by the other, and remaining alive to the tension which exists between them. In her latest work –Citizens to Lords – she examines the most important political theorists of the ‘western’ canon in and through the social relations and conflicts which underpinned their epochs. She traces the development of the ‘western tradition’ across three main stages – the polis, the Roman Empire and the feudalism of the Middle Ages.

With regard to Greek antiquity, Wood’s work has always been provocative. She was the first to argue (persuasively in my view) that the development of Greek philosophy owed more to the presence of free labour in Athenian society than it did to slavery. In Citizens to Lords, she takes up the same motif. ‘It was the liberation of Greek peasants from any form of servitude or tribute to lord or state, unlike their counterparts elsewhere, that produced a new conception of freedom and the freeman’ (29). She adds, with express clarity, that the Greek conception of ‘eleutheria’ (literally, liberty personified) derives not from ‘freedom from labour but the freedom of labour’ (29).

Previously, Mycenaean civilisation, the first civilisation to develop on mainland Greece, had been defined by a loosely knit set of territories, overseen by several or even many kings, often embroiled in vicious rivalries and very much removed from the class of direct producers. Despite their rivalries, these ‘Homeric’ lords formed a central block, an ‘aristocracy of property’ which used ‘non-economic powers’ to forcibly appropriate the surplus product of subordinate producers.

However, in post-Mycenaean Greece, the situation was somewhat different, for there was ‘no powerful apparatus of rule to sustain the power of appropriators over producers. Property was held by individuals and households’ (31). The weakening of the aristocracy was exacerbated by the reforms of Solon and the ‘shaking off of burdens’, whereby he abolished the common situation in which ‘peasants whose land, and some portion of their labour was held in bondage to landlords’ (32).

The change in structural relations was reflected in a different political dynamic which ‘had less to do with relations between rulers and subjects than with transactions and conflicts among citizens, united in their civic identity yet still divided by class’ (30). The ‘political role of noble birth and blood, kinship and clan’ (33) was increasingly weakened in favour of ‘impersonal principles of law and citizenship’ (33). Later, the reformer Cleisthenes was to further accentuate this process by creating a geo-political space in which tribes were subdivided, and individuals were organized according to their townships or ‘demes’ rather than any supposed blood lineages.

As a result of the weakening of the aristocracy and the emergence of the ‘peasant citizen’ there was a fundamental shift in the dynamics of power. Ruling class rivalries were mediated by the ‘demos’ in a way they had never previously been. Aristocratic factions were now compelled to appeal to the ‘demos’ in order to attract the men needed for inter-factional feuding – no longer could they simply command the peasants bound to them by virtue of the land. The ‘demos’ itself emerged as a coherent political entity more and more capable of expressing and realising its own interests – ‘traditional hierarchies had been challenged in practise’ (44) – with ‘the common people in the role of political actors’(44), whose volition was often sought by the most powerful. It was inevitable that such a climate would prove conducive to a new way of thinking about ‘the moral and political responsibility of ordinary humans who no longer looked upon themselves as the simple playthings of the gods or obedient subjects of lords and kings’ (46).

Wood then embarks on a detailed and fascinating consideration of Plato and Aristotle, whose thought she also construes as fully imbued with the character and dynamic of the polis, though she regards the greatness of both philosophers as growing out of an ‘aristocratic’ counter-reaction to the democratic up-swell achieved by the populace.

In support of this, Wood cites Plato’s work Protagoras. Here Plato has Socrates ironize about the possibility of rendering an ‘ordinary’ man a good citizen by teaching him the art of politics. Socrates questions whether such a thing is at all possible, for, on all concrete questions like ‘construction or shipbuilding projects’ (58), the democracy requires specialists who have devoted their lives to accumulating knowledge in that field, and the same ‘democrats’ dismiss the opinions of those who, however well-bred, lack similar expertise. In an astute, dialectical reversal Plato is then able to make Socrates question the viability of having the ‘demos’ participating in political life per se, for the ‘poor’ citizen requires a trade in order to sustain him, whereas it is only the leisured aristocrat who can devote himself to the study of governance, and thereby become a true and legitimate specialist with regard to it.

In a bold but contentious move, Wood draws this into proximity with Plato’s theory of forms. The ‘aristocrat’ can immerse himself in politics and govern, Plato implies, precisely because he is free from the burden of a specific ‘project’, i.e. he is free from the burden of manual labour. The assertion of the Platonic form over and against its pale and melancholy material counterpart represents, according to Wood, the idealised division between the manual labour sphere of the direct producers, and the intellectual activity of the appropriators. In practice, this results in the eternalisation of the principle of inequality at the level of the soul, where the baser, more sensual parts are commanded by the higher, more spiritual elements. And of course, the operation of the same principle at the level of politics yields the hereditary class of administrators in The Republic, who are encouraged to rule, liberated as they are from the mandates of the manual.

Aristotle’s philosophy, too, is also fissured with this distinction, for he claims ‘there is a universal and natural division between ruling elements and ruled’, and in his ideal polis this division is reflected in the distinction between `the “conditions” and “parts” of the polis’ (136). Wood also draws attention to Aristotle’s prescient distinction between ‘natural’ forms of acquisition ‘having to do with obtaining and securing things required by the household, and the unnatural mode of acquisition whose object is the making of money, retail trade for profit’ (95). This is, of course, the basis of what would later become ‘use’ value and ‘exchange’ value in Marx, and for Wood this shows how ‘an idea shaped by its specific historical context and even by particular social values can reach far beyond its time, place and ideology’ (96).  

Wood makes her transition to the Roman period via a fruitful discussion of Alexander the Great. Alexander, like the later Romans, was ‘able to govern a far-flung empire without a massive imperial state. In this respect, both the Hellenistic and Roman empires contrasted sharply with other great imperial civilizations like the Chinese, whose imperial states were more directly in command of their subjects, by means of much larger imperial bureaucracies’ (102).

For Wood this has important and far-reaching implications. Roman state authority was to a great extent devolved to individual locales – this was a lingering after-effect of the polis paradigm. Consequently, the Roman political system permitted a greater degree of ‘local self government’. But at the same time, the Roman Empire wanted to subsume the particularity of locale within the broader sweep of its imperial project, and so created an exquisite tension between the particular and the universal, a tension which had its genesis in Greek antiquity, and which ultimately affected a transition from ‘polis’ to ‘cosmopolis’ (104).

This antagonism between the universal and particular found necessary expression in the philosophy of the time – ‘the private individual at one extreme – most notably in Epicureanism – and the universal order of the cosmopolis at the other, especially as conceived by the Stoics’ (106). The conflict between particularity and universality also engendered the Roman conceptions of natural and positive law. Positive law was in many ways expressive of a developing system of large scale private property. The influence of private property was increasingly exerted against what remained of the universalist category of the ‘peasant citizen’; the social landscape was more and more recalibrated in accordance with economic imperatives, and the ‘free’ peasant forced into destitution and slavery as a class of large, landed estate owners was consolidated.

Wood analyses Roman Christianity from this perspective. She shows how it tried to reconcile the claims of an ever more developed system of private property with more nominal and universal notions of ‘citizenship’. The biblical claim that we should ‘render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that that are God’s’ expresses a logic whereby ‘God’s cosmic imperium coexists with Caesar’s earthly dominium, just as Caesar’s temporal imperium coexists with the private dominium of the Empire’s propertied citizens’ (148).

This section of the book also provides excellent accounts of Paul and Augustine, though Wood’s explanation of why the ‘fall’ of the empire took place in the west rather than the east is particularly notable. Again her analysis is more fundamental, drawing attention to the unique structural constitution of the ‘west’, whereby the status of individual locales had assumed a higher degree of self-determination. ‘It was in the Western empire, where state rule was diluted and fragmented by aristocracies based on huge landed estates, that the weakness of the empire proved fatal’ (120). What would become the Byzantine Empire would endure for a further 1000 years, not because it was more advanced, but because, in one respect, it was more backward – i.e. less differentiated in terms of its political structure. For its pattern of rule ‘was more like that of other ancient states; a bureaucratic state in which land remained largely subordinate to office’ (120).

On the basis of this analysis, Wood is able to pinpoint the historical necessity at work within feudalism, by showing how the character of the feudal world was in large part the hang-over inherited from the unique nature of the western wing of the Roman imperial project and its destruction – ‘as the imperial state imploded, it left behind a network of personal dependence binding peasants to landlord and land … the fragmentation of the Roman Empire is still recognizable in European feudalism, a system of “parcellized sovereignty” based on property, with political and economic power united in a feudal lordship dominating and exploiting a dependent peasantry’ (120).

But Wood is nuanced in her analysis of feudalism, in that she recognises ‘there was no single feudal order unvarying throughout the west’ (166). In the case of England, for example, in the aftermath of Roman collapse, there develops relatively early on a centralized state power, which to some extent militated against the power of feudal lords in individual locales, or at least better integrated them in ‘an unusually centralized authority … with a national system of justice and the most effective administration in the Western world’ (174). This had profound consequences: in somewhere like France, there was a more radical and abiding opposition between Royal and seignorial authority, whereas in England you find a situation where often ‘English barons were claiming their rights at common law, that is, as rights deriving from the central state’ (175). In practice, this meant that ‘monarchal rule and exclusive private property … were developing together’ (176), and this had clear implications for the early development of capitalism and a precocious nation state.

And herein lies one of Wood’s many strengths – her attunement to the sensitivity and complexity of structural dynamics, for she is not only concerned with the way in which a class of appropriators gain access to a surplus product produced by those below, but also with the tensions between the appropriators themselves, the relationship between the state and private property, for example, which in western feudalism involves degrees of breach or harmonisation between the two over time.  

The book is not without its flaws. Wood’s account of Islamic thought is tantalizingly brief, restricted as it is to a (perceptive) analysis of the necessary differences which emerged between Islam and Christianity, and a consideration of the philosopher Averroes in light of this. It seems to me that Wood delivers a more rounded account of the thought of Thomas Aquinas, John of Paris, Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham.

And, despite its originality and verve, her reading of Plato remains perhaps the most problematic aspect of this book. As we have seen, she considers Platonism to be, in the last analysis, an expression of an aristocracy which, increasingly thwarted by a democratic uplift, is compelled to find more creative thought paths in order to assert its own viability as a social power. But this is contentious, for if the theory of ‘forms’ is, ultimately, a product of decadence, of class decline, then how did Platonism manage to exert such a profound influence on the history of thought subsequently?

Wood is clearly aware of this paradox, for she writes – with explicit reference to her discussion on Plato – ‘the historicity of an idea or even its partisanship does not preclude its significance and fruitfulness beyond its time and place or outside the politics of its originator’ (80). Indeed, the ‘partisanship’ of an ‘idea’ doesn’t preclude its larger significance. But the historical moment (the historicity) it mediates certainly can.

For example, Wood is quite correct when she depicts Plato’s politics as in some way ‘old world’, as largely expressing his own predilection for the aristocracy he was very much a part of; an aristocracy which, by nature, was made profoundly insecure by the activity of the ‘demos’. This is the basis of Plato’s ‘partisanship’.

But more than anything, we must never lose sight of how the pure philosophy of Plato, the philosophy which yields the ‘forms’, expresses such profound universality. This universalism could never have found its anima in a decaying old world aristocracy, despite Plato’s more conscious political affiliations. The secret of the ‘forms’ lies with a category which was not passing out of social existence, like the aristocracy, but was instead coming into being; a category which was able to dissolve the political distinction between the aristocrat and peasant within itself, for it subsumed them in the depths of its own universality. Such a category was to be the atom of the polis – the category of individual citizen.  

Nevertheless, these few critical notes I have sounded are vastly compensated for by a work which offers a beautiful exegesis of western political thought, a work which realises the author’s own delicious proverb – ‘to historicise is to humanise’.

5 January 2012

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *