The class struggle in the Roman Republic

“Two mighty camps are locked in irreconcilable conflict. Neither side can win by parliamentary means. Neither would willingly accept a decision unfavourable to it. Such a split in society foreshadows a civil war. The threat of civil war creates a need in the ruling class for an arbiter and commander, for a Caesar. That precisely is the function of Bonapartism.” (Leon Trotsky, The German Puzzle, August 1932.)

In the last analysis, the movement of history is determined by the development of the productive forces and the changes in class relations that result from them. These constitute the solid ground upon which rises the complex superstructure of legal forms, constitutions, governments and the state, morality and religion, philosophical schools and so on. However, the relation between all these elements is complex and contradictory, and not at all easy to determine.

Marxism explains that economics is the dominant factor in social development. However, the superstructure that arises on this economic base tends to raise itself above this base and enters into contradiction to it. Gradually, changes in production within the old society gives rise to a contradiction, which can only be resolved by bringing the super-structure into line with the new conditions, bringing about a complete reorganization of society on the base of the new mode of production.

This is the essence of a genuine social revolution. But there are other kinds of revolution, which do not bring about a fundamental change in economic relations, but affect only the superstructure and the political relations between different layers of the ruling class. Such revolutions we call political revolutions. The so-called Roman Revolution that finished off the Republic and ushered in the Empire was precisely of this kind.

In circumstances where the class struggle reaches deadlock, the inherent tendency of the state (“armed bodies of men”) to rise above society and acquire a certain independence becomes accentuated. The ruling class can lose control of its own state. This is a dialectical contradiction that formalistic minds find it impossible to grasp. But history furnishes us with many examples of this phenomenon.

The state

Let us take the question of the state. Engels explains that the state arose to prevent the class struggle from destroying society. The state “regulates” the struggle between the classes, and, once having arisen, and within limits, it develops a certain independence and a logic of its own. Under certain conditions, this independent movement of the state can assume an extreme form. In The Origins of the Family, he wrote:

"But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, shall not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, a power, apparently standing above society, has become necessary to moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’, and this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state."

Marxism explains that the state is instrument for the oppression of one class by another. In the last analysis, it consists of armed bodies of men: the army, police and the bureaucracy that sustains them. That is the essence of the Marxist view of the state. However, this general definition by no means exhausts the question. What was the ruling class under Louis Napoleon? The answer is: the bourgeoisie. Yet in the Eighteenth Brumaire Marx described how the drunken soldiery of Louis Napoleon shot down the bourgeoisie. This would appear to be a contradiction, and so it is: not an absurd contradiction but a dialectical contradiction. The state of Napoleon III, like that of Caesar, was composed of gangsters and adventurers who were defending their own interests, plundering the state and also the very bourgeoisie they represented.

Elsewhere Engels writes:

"As the state arose from the need to keep class antagonisms in check, but also arose in the thick of the fight between the classes, it is normally the state of the most powerful, economically ruling class, which by its means becomes also the political ruling class, and so acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class... Exceptional periods, however, occur when the warring classes are so nearly equal in forces that the state power, as apparent mediator, acquires for the moment a certain independence in relation to both.”

And again:

"The central link in civilized society is the state, which in all typical periods is without exception the state of the ruling class, and in all cases continues to be essentially a machine for holding down the oppressed, exploited class..."

Engels uses very careful and precise language. In typical periods, the state is normally the state of the ruling class. But there can be periods that are abnormal and atypical, in which this does not apply. This question was dealt with in a masterly fashion by Ted Grant in his Reply to Tony Cliff:

“Let us take a case extremely rich in examples, the history of France. The bourgeois revolution took place in 1789. In 1793 the Jacobins seized complete power. As Marx and Engels pointed out, they went beyond the framework of bourgeois relations and performed a salutary historical task because of that, accomplishing in a few months what would have taken the bourgeoisie decades or generations to accomplish; the complete cleansing from France of all traces of feudalism. Yet this regime remained rooted in the basis of bourgeois forms of property. It was followed by the French Thermidor and the rule of the Directory, to be followed by the classic dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon re-introduced many feudal forms, had himself crowned Emperor and concentrated the supreme power in his hands. But we still call this regime bourgeois. With the restoration of Louis XVIII the regime still remained capitalist...and then we had not one but two revolutions - 1830 and 1848. These revolutions had important social consequences. They resulted in significant changes even in the personnel of the state itself. Yet we characterise them both as bourgeois revolutions in which there was no change in the class which held power.

“Let us proceed further. After the Paris Commune of 1871 and the shake-up of the relations which this involved, we had the organization of the Third Republic with bourgeois democracy which lasted for decades. This was followed by Petain, then the De Gaulle-Stalinist regime, and now the Quielle Government. Examine for a moment the amazing diversity of these regimes. To a non-Marxist it would seem absurd to define in the same category, shall we say, the regime of Robespierre and that of Petain. Yet Marxists do define them as fundamentally the same - bourgeois regimes. What is the criterion? Only the one thing: the form of property, the private ownership of the means of production.

“Take, similarly, the diversity of regimes in more modern times to see the extreme differences in super-structures which are on the same economic base. For instance, compare the regime of nazi Germany with that of British social democracy. They are so fundamentally different in super-structure that many theorists of the non-Marxist or ex-Marxist school have found new class structure and a new system of society entirely. Why do we say that they represent the same class and the same regime? Despite the difference in super-structure, the economic base of the given societies remained the same.”

Deadlock between the classes

The period that we have been describing here, the last period of the Roman Republic, was a period in which the struggle between the classes exceeded all bounds. Wars, civil wars, slave uprisings, constant factional strife between different layers of the ruling class for possession of the state, led to a state of utter prostration and exhaustion of the contending classes. This fact was already understood by the idealist Hegel when he wrote:

“We see the internal contradiction of Rome now beginning to manifest itself in another form; and the epoch which concludes the second period is also the second mediation of that contradiction. We observed that contradiction previously in the struggle of the patricians against the plebeians: now it assumes the form of private interest, contravening patriotic sentiment; and respect for the state no longer holds these opposites in the necessary equipoise. Rather, we observe now side by side with wars for conquest, plunder and glory, the fearful spectacle of civil discords in Rome, and intestine wars.” (Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, p. 307)

In the last analysis, Caesarism (and its modern equivalent Bonapartism) is rule by the sword. It emerges in certain periods, when the class struggle reaches a point of deadlock, and the state power (basically, the army) raises itself above society and requires a certain independence. At the head of this power there arises the “strong man”, or dictator. In the period of the decline of the Republic the intense class struggles had already reduced a series of such men including Marius and Sulla, and later Pompey and Caesar.

This was the soil upon which the phenomenon of Caesarism took root and flourished, as Trotsky explains:

"Caesarism, or its bourgeois form, Bonapartism, enters the scene in those moments of history when the sharp struggle of two camps raises the state power, so to speak, above the nation, and guarantees it, in appearance, a complete independence of classes - in reality, only the freedom necessary for a defense of the privileged." (L. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 277.)

The class struggle at Rome had reached complete deadlock. The contending classes were locked in a deadly struggle for control of the state. The rival parties alternated in power, and took advantage of the opportunity to slaughter their opponents. The internal cohesion of the state was fatally undermined, as nobody recognized the authority of the other side, or the validity of its laws and statutes, as Hegel affirms:

“The sovereignty was made dependent on the people – that people which was now a mere mob, and was obliged to be supported by corn from the Roman provinces. We should refer to Cicero to see how all affairs of state were decided in riotous fashion, and with arms in hand, by the wealth and power of the grandees on the one side, and by a troop of rabble on the other. The Roman citizens attached themselves to individuals who flattered them, and who then became prominent in factions, in order to make themselves masters of Rome.” (Hegel, op. cit., p. 311)

The real cause of this situation was the inability of the plebs to unite with the slaves in their struggle against the ruling oligarchy. In the last analysis, the Roman lumpenproletariat shared in the fruits of the exploitation of the slaves and the plunder of the provinces. This doomed the Roman Revolution to failure. The contending classes fought each other to a standstill, but neither could prevail. Under such circumstances, the state itself must become the master of society, imposing its absolute rule to prevent society from devouring itself in internecine conflicts.

Caesarism, Absolutism, Bonapartism

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels pointed out that the class struggle eventually ends either in the total victory of one of the classes, or else in the common ruin of the contending classes. The fate of Roman society is the clearest example of the latter case. The rise of slavery destroyed the free Roman peasantry that was the backbone of the Republic. In the absence of a free peasantry, the state was obliged to rely on a mercenary army to fight its wars. This produced what we call Caesarism.

There are many other cases in history in which one section of the ruling class has attacked other sections and the state has risen above society. In the wars of the Roses in Britain, the two factions of the ruling barons (the Houses of Lancaster and York) virtually exterminated one another. At one time or another big sections of the ruling class were either in jails or were executed, and the throne occupied by adventurers of one gang or another. Finally, a new dynasty emerged, the Tudors, which balanced between the bourgeoisie (London) and different factions of the barons to establish an absolutist regime. Similar processes occurred in other countries.

What was the class nature of absolutism? These absolute monarchs, in an attempt to consolidate themselves as a power standing above society, and increasingly alienating themselves from it, leaned on the nascent bourgeoisie to strike blows against the feudal nobility. Yet the class nature of the regime remained feudal. It was determined by existing property relations, not by the political configuration of the government.

The Roman emperors rose above society and viciously oppressed the ruling class, the slave owners, who found themselves looted by taxation, arrested, tortured and murdered by the emperors, who were “elected” by the Praetorian Guard. Yet this fact did not change one iota the class nature of the Roman state as a slave state. And the slave owners remained the ruling class even under the iron heel of Caesarism.

As we have already shown, Caesar and his supporters plundered the slave-owning oligarchs and stole their estates. But in the last analysis, they stood for the defense of the slave system and allied themselves with the wealthy oligarchs and bankers to save private property from “anarchy” and the mob. There are many variants of this phenomenon, which constantly appears in different disguises. Engels wrote the following on the Bismarck regime in Germany, which he regarded as a variant of Bonapartism:

“Bonapartism is the necessary form of state in a country where the working class, at a high level of its development in the towns but numerically inferior to the small peasants in rural areas, has been defeated in a great revolutionary struggle by the capitalist class, the petty bourgeoisie and the army. When the Parisian workers were defeated in the titanic struggle of June 1848 in France, the bourgeoisie had at the same time totally exhausted itself in this victory. It was aware it could not afford a second such victory. It continued to rule in name, but it was too weak to govern. Control was assumed by the army, the real victor, basing itself on the class from which it preferred to draw its recruits, the small peasants, who wanted peace from the rioters in the towns. The form this rule took was of course military despotism, its natural leader the hereditary heir to the latter, Louis Bonaparte.

“As far as both workers and capitalists are concerned, Bonapartism is characterized by the fact that it prevents them coming to blows with each other. In other words, it protects the bourgeoisie from any violent attacks by the workers, encourages a little gentle skirmishing between the two classes and furthermore deprives both alike of the faintest trace of political power. No freedom of association, no freedom of assembly, no freedom of the press; universal suffrage under such bureaucratic pressure that election of the opposition is almost impossible; police-control of a kind that had previously been unknown even in police-ridden France. Besides which, sections of the bourgeoisie and of the workers are simply bought; the former by colossal credit-swindles, by which the money of the small capitalists is attracted into the pockets of the big ones; the latter by colossal state construction-schemes which concentrate an artificial, imperial proletariat dependent on the government in the big towns alongside the natural, independent proletariat. Finally, national pride is flattered by apparently heroic wars, which are however always conducted with the approval of the high authorities of Europe against the general scapegoat of the day and only on such conditions as ensure victory from the outset.” (Marx and Engels, Collected works, Vol. 20, Engels, The Prussian Military Question and the German Workers' Party.)

Trotsky also wrote extensively on Bonapartism, which he describes as a situation in which the state rises above society: “A government which raises itself above the nation is not, however, suspended in air. The true axis of the present government passes through the police, the bureaucracy, the military clique. It is a military-police dictatorship with which we are confronted, barely concealed with the decorations of parliamentarism. But a government of the saber as the judge arbiter of the nation – that’s just what Bonapartism is.

“The saber by itself has no independent program. It is the instrument of “order.” It is summoned to safeguard what exists. Raising itself politically above the classes, Bonapartism, like its predecessor Caesarism, for that matter, represents in the social sense, always and at all epochs, the government of the strongest and firmest part of the exploiters; consequently, present-day Bonapartism can be nothing else than the government of finance capital which directs, inspires, and corrupts the summits of the bureaucracy, the police, the officers’ caste, and the press.” (Trotsky, Bonapartism and Fascism, July 1934.)

The term Bonapartism is very elastic and covers many different variants. In 1934, when dealing with the rise of Hitler in Germany, Trotsky explains:

“Such terms as liberalism, Bonapartism, fascism have the character of generalizations. Historical phenomena never repeat themselves completely. It would not have been difficult to prove that even the government of Napoleon III, compared with the regime of Napoleon I, was not “Bonapartist” – not only because Napoleon himself was a doubtful Bonaparte by blood, but also because his relations to the classes, especially to the peasantry and to the lumpenproletariat were not at all the same as those of Napoleon I. Moreover, classical Bonapartism grew out of the epoch of gigantic war victories, which the Second Empire did not know at all. But if we should look for the repetition of all the traits of Bonapartism, we will find that Bonapartism is a one-time, unique occurrence, i.e., that Bonapartism in general does not exist but that there once was a general named Bonaparte born in Corsica. The case is no different with liberalism and with all other generalized terms of history. When one speaks by analogy of Bonapartism, it is necessary to state precisely which of its traits found their fullest expression under present historical conditions.” (Trotsky, German Bonapartism, October 1934.)


History knows a descending line as well as an ascending one. Under the Empire Rome entered into a prolonged period of decline that lasted for over four centuries and eventually led to a complete collapse and a regression to barbarism. Human civilization was thrown back at least a thousand years. The ultimate causes of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire must be found in the contradictory character of the slave economy – but this question falls outside the scope of the present work.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the impasse of capitalism threatens to drag society back to barbarism. All the grotesque symptoms that we associate with a socio-economic system in a state of advanced senile decay. The strategists of capital have already begun to compare the present situation with the decline of the Roman Empire: economic crisis is expressed in a general crisis of culture, morality, politics and religion.

Many people who do not understand the deeper causes of this crisis nevertheless feel that society has reached an impasse, that something is badly wrong, that the whole world has somehow gone crazy, and that a final denouement is approaching. Similar feelings haunted the collective psyche in Rome during the period of its decline, which was accompanied with all sorts of irrational and mystical tendencies. Nobody believed in the old Gods and the temples stood empty, while there was a flood of religious cults from the East, of which Christianity was only one. In fact, it was just like today.

In the workings of our “democratic” political system we can detect many interesting parallels with the period of the terminal sickness of the Roman Republic. In the later Roman Republic those generals who aspired to power required access to enormous sums of money, just as in our modern Empire, the United States of America, the Presidency, a formally democratic office, is in practice only available to billionaires, or at least those with access to such sums. True, they no longer pour buckets of excrement over the heads of their rivals. Instead, they make use of the “free press”, over which they have a monopoly, to pour filth over their opponents, to blacken their name and destroy their character. This is far more effective than a bucket of wet manure!

In the industrialised countries of Europe, North America and Japan people like to imagine that democracy is well established. It is assumed to be something normal. But in reality, it is an historical exception that was made possible only by a long period of economic upswing in capitalism that enabled the ruling class of the developed world (though not the rest of the world) to make concessions that kept the class struggle within acceptable limits. But that period has now ended. The present crisis is the deepest since the 1930s – and in some respects the most serious in the history of capitalism. The period that opens up is one of years or decades of austerity, of painful reductions in living standards and the curtailment of democratic rights. It is a finished recipe for class struggle on an unparalleled scale. Ultimately, the alternative will be socialism or barbarism.

The Roman state developed into a real monster – a power standing above society and alienating itself from it. But that state was only a child’s toy compared to the modern state that has been perfected by imperialism – a far greater monster consisting of vast armies of bureaucrats, soldiers, police, secret police, prison wardens and judges who lord it over society and absorb unheard-of quantities of the wealth created by the working class. The wars of Julius Caesar were bloody and destructive affairs, yet Caesar could have never imagined the destructive power of our modern armies, which killed at least 65 million men, women and children in the Second World War alone.

Have we advanced no further, then? Have the last two thousand years of history served no purpose but to repeat the crimes of the past, but on a vastly greater scale? That is one possible interpretation of history, which was well expressed by the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Marxists do not share this pessimistic view. Despite all the crimes, violence, wars and cruelties inflicted on humanity, history nevertheless expresses itself as progress, in the deepest and most scientific sense of the word. The development of the productive forces, first under slavery, then under feudalism and finally under capitalism, has laid the material foundation for a new and qualitatively higher stage of human society – socialism.

The Romans referred to the slaves as “tools with a voice.” Today, the marvellous achievements of science and technology, if they were used rationally in a socialist planned economy, could abolish slavery forever and create the conditions for what Engels called “humanity’s leap from the realm of Necessity to the realm of Freedom.” The modern proletarian who has been educated in the Marxist method looks back on history and sees, not just a catalogue of crimes and errors, but an actual development that has prepared the way for socialism. He or she finds inspiration in the heroic struggle of the Gracchi – and above all by that greatest of all the fighters of antiquity – Spartacus. And from a scientific understanding of the class struggles of the past, we draw the necessary lessons to prepare the ground for future victory.

London, 22nd December 2009.