Chapter 5 - The Rise of the Athenian State

Submitted by libcom on August 5, 2005

HOW the state developed, how the organs of the gentile constitution were partly transformed in this development, partly pushed aside by the introduction of new organs, and at last superseded entirely by real state authorities, while the true "people in arms," organized for its self-defense in its gentes, phratries, and tribes, was replaced by an armed "public force" in the service of these state authorities and therefore at their command for use also against the people -- this process, at least in its first stages, can be followed nowhere better than in ancient Athens. The changes in form have been outlined by Morgan, but their economic content and cause must largely be added by myself.

In the heroic age the four tribes of the Athenians were still settled in Attica in separate territories; even the twelve phratries composing them seem still to have had distinct seats in the twelve towns of Cecrops. The constitution was that of the heroic age: assembly of the people, council of the people, basileus. As far as written history takes us back, we find the land already divided up and privately owned, which is in accordance with the relatively advanced commodity production and the corresponding trade in commodities developed towards the end of the upper stage of barbarism. In addition to grain, wine and oil were produced; to a continually increasing extent, the sea trade in the Agean was captured from the Phoenicians, and most of it passed into Athenian hands. Through the sale and purchase of land, and the progressive division of labor between agriculture and handicraft, trade, and shipping, it was inevitable that the members of the different gentes, phratries, and tribes very soon became intermixed, and that into the districts of the phratry and tribe moved inhabitants, who, although fellow countrymen, did not belong to these bodies and were therefore strangers in their own place of domicile. For when times were quiet, each tribe and each phratry administered its own affairs without sending to Athens to consult the council of the people or the basileus. But anyone not a member of the phratry or tribe was, of course, excluded from taking any part in this administration, even though living in the district.

The smooth functioning of the organs of the gentile constitution was thus thrown so much out of gear that even in the heroic age remedies had to be found. The constitution ascribed to Theseus was introduced. The principal change which it made was to set up a central authority in Athens -- that is, part of the affairs hitherto administered by the tribes independently were declared common affairs and entrusted to the common council sitting in Athens. In taking this step, the Athenians went further than any native people of America had ever done: instead of neighboring tribes forming a simple confederacy, they fused together into one single nation. Hence arose a common Athenian civil law, which stood above the legal customs of the tribes and gentes;

the Athenian citizen, as such, acquired definite rights and new protection in law even on territory which was not that of his tribe. The first step had been taken towards undermining the gentile constitution; for this was the first step to the later admission of citizens who did not belong to any tribe in all Attica, but were, and remained, completely outside the Athenian gentile constitution. By a second measure ascribed to Theseus, the entire people, regardless of gens, phratry or tribe, was divided into three classes: eupatridai, or nobles, geomoroi, or farmers, and demiourgoi, or artisans, and the right to hold office was vested exclusively in the nobility. Apart from the tenure of offices by the nobility, this division remained inoperative, as it did not create any other legal distinctions between the classes. It is, however, important because it reveals the new social elements which had been developing unobserved. It shows that the customary appointment of members of certain families to the offices of the gens had already grown into an almost uncontested right of these families to office; it shows that these families, already powerful through their wealth, were beginning to form groupings outside their gentes as a separate, privileged class, and that the state now taking form sanctioned this presumption. It shows further that the division of labor between peasants and artisans was now firmly enough established in its social importance to challenge the old grouping of gentes and tribes. And, finally, it proclaims the irreconcilable opposition between gentile society and the state; the first attempt at forming a state consists in breaking up the gentes by dividing their members into those with privileges and those with none, and by further separating the latter into two productive classes and thus setting them one against the other.

The further political history of Athens up to the time of Solon is only imperfectly known. The office of basileus fell into disuse; the positions at the head of the state were occupied by archons elected from the nobility. The power of the nobility continuously increased, until about the year 600 B.C. it became insupportable. And the principal means for suppressing the common liberty were -- money and usury. The nobility had their chief seat in and around Athens, whose maritime trade, with occasional piracy still thrown in, enriched them and concentrated in their hands the wealth existing in the form of money. From here the growing money economy penetrated like corrosive acid into the old traditional life of the rural communities founded on natural economy. The gentile constitution is absolutely irreconcilable with money economy; the ruin of the Attic small farmers coincided with the loosening of the old gentile bonds which embraced and protected them. The debtor's bond and the lien on property (for already the Athenians had invented the mortgage also) respected neither gens nor phratry, while the old gentile constitution, for its part, knew neither money nor advances of money nor debts in money. Hence the money rule of the aristocracy now in full flood of expansion also created a new customary law to secure the creditor against the debtor and to sanction the exploitation of the small peasant by the possessor of money. All the fields of Attica were thick with mortgage columns bearing inscriptions stating that the land on which they stood was mortgaged to such and such for so and so much. The fields not so marked had for the most part already been sold on account of unpaid mortgages or interest, and had passed into the ownership of the noble usurer; the peasant could count himself lucky if he was allowed to remain on the land as a tenant and live on one-sixth of the produce of his labor, while he paid five-sixths to his new master as rent. And that was not all. If the sale of the land did not cover the debt, or if the debt had been contracted without any security, the debtor, in order to meet his creditor's claims, had to sell his children into slavery abroad. Children sold by their father -- such was the first fruit of father-right and monogamy! And if the blood-sucker was still not satisfied, he could sell the debtor himself as a slave. Thus the pleasant dawn of civilization began for the Athenian people.

Formerly, when the conditions of the people still corresponded to the gentile constitution, such an upheaval was impossible; now it had happened -- nobody knew how. Let us go back for a moment to our Iroquois, amongst whom the situation now confronting the Athenians, without their own doing, so to speak, and certainly against their will, was inconceivable. Their mode of producing the necessities of life, unvarying from year to year, could never generate such conflicts as were apparently forced on the Athenians from without; it could never create an opposition of rich and poor, of exploiters and exploited. The Iroquois were still very far from controlling nature, but within the limits imposed on them by natural forces they did control their own production. Apart from bad harvests in their small gardens, the exhaustion of the stocks of fish in their lakes and rivers or of the game in their woods, they knew what results they could expect, making their living as they did. The certain result was a livelihood, plentiful or scanty; but one result there could never be -- social upheavals that no one had ever intended, sundering of the gentile bonds, division of gens and tribe into two opposing and warring classes. Production was limited in the extreme, but -- the producers controlled their product. That was the immense advantage of barbarian production, which was lost with the coming of civilization; to reconquer it, but on the basis of the gigantic control of nature now achieved by man and of the free association now made possible, will be the task of the next generations.

Not so among the Greeks. The rise of private property in herds and articles of luxury led to exchange between individuals, to the transformation of products into commodities. And here lie the seeds of the whole subsequent upheaval. When the producers no longer directly consumed their product themselves, but let it pass out of their hands in the act of exchange, they lost control of it. They no longer knew what became of it; the possibility was there that one day it would be used against the producer to exploit and oppress him. For this reason no society can permanently retain the mastery of its own production and the control over the social effects of its process of production unless it abolishes exchange between individuals.

But the Athenians were soon to learn how rapidly the product asserts its mastery over the producer when once exchange between individuals has begun and products have been transformed into commodities. With the coming of commodity production, individuals began to cultivate the soil on their own account, which soon led to individual ownership of land. Money followed, the general commodity with which all others 101 were exchangeable. But when men invented money, they did not think that they were again creating a new social power, the one general power before which the whole of society must bow. And it was this new power, suddenly sprung to life without knowledge or will of its creators, which now, in all the brutality of its youth, gave the Athenians the first taste of its might.

What was to be done? The old gentile constitution had not only shown itself powerless before the triumphal march of money; it was absolutely incapable of finding any place within its framework for such things as money, creditors, debtors, and forcible collection of debts. But the new social power was there; pious wishes, and yearning for the return of the good old days would not drive money and usury out of the world. Further, a number of minor breaches had also been made in the gentile constitution. All over Attica, and especially in Athens itself, the members of the different gentes and phratries became still more indiscriminately mixed with every generation, although even now an Athenian was only allowed to sell land outside his gens, not the house in which he lived. The division of labor between the different branches of production -- agriculture, handicrafts (in which there were again innumerable subdivisions), trade, shipping, and so forth -- had been carried further with every advance of industry and commerce; the population was now divided according to occupation into fairly permanent groups, each with its new common interests; and since the gens and the phratry made no provision for dealing with them, new offices had to be created. The number of slaves had increased considerably, and even at that time must have far exceeded the number of free Athenians; the gentile constitution originally knew nothing of slavery and therefore had no means of keeping these masses of bondsmen in order. Finally, trade had brought to Athens a number of foreigners who settled there on account of the greater facilities of making money; they also could claim no rights or protection under the old constitution; and, though they were received with traditional tolerance, they remained a disturbing and alien body among the people.

In short, the end of the gentile constitution was approaching. Society was outgrowing it more every day; even the worst evils that had grown up under its eyes were beyond its power to check or remove. But in the meantime the state had quietly been developing. The new groups formed by the division of labor, first between town and country, then between the different branches of town labor, had created new organs to look after their interests; official posts of all kinds had been set up. And above everything else the young state needed a power of its own, which in the case of the seafaring Athenians could at first only be a naval power, for the purpose of carrying on small wars and protecting its merchant ships. At some unknown date before Solon, the naukrariai were set up, small territorial districts, twelve to each tribe; each naukratia had to provide, equip and man a warship and also contribute two horsemen. This institution was a twofold attack on the gentile constitution. In the first place, it created a public force which was now no longer simply identical with the whole body of the armed people; secondly, for the first time it divided the people for public purposes, not by groups of kinship, but by common place of residence. We shall see the significance of this.

The gentile constitution being incapable of bringing help to the exploited people, there remained only the growing state. And the state brought them its help in the form of the constitution of Solon, thereby strengthening itself again at the expense of the old constitution. Solon -- the manner in which his reform, which belongs to the year 594 B.C., was carried through does not concern us here -- opened the series of so-called political revolution; and he did so with an attack on property. All revolutions hitherto have been revolutions to protect one kind of property against another kind of property. They cannot protect the one without violating the other. In the great French Revolution feudal property was sacrificed to save bourgeois property; in that of Solon, the property of the creditors had to suffer for the benefit of the property of the debtors. The debts were simply declared void. We do not know the exact details, but in his poems Solon boasts of having removed the mortgage columns from the fields and brought back all the people who had fled or been sold abroad on account of debt. This was only possible by open violation of property. And, in fact, from the first to the last, all so-called political revolutions have been made to protect property -- of one kind; and they have been carried out by confiscating, also called stealing, property -- of another kind. The plain truth is that for two and a half thousand years it has been possible to preserve private property only by violating property.

But now the need was to protect the free Athenians against the return of such slavery. The first step was the introduction of general measures -- for example, the prohibition of debt contracts pledging the person of the debtor. Further, in order to place at least some check on the nobles? ravening hunger for the land of the peasants, a maximum limit was fixed for the amount of land that could be owned by one individual. Then changes were made in the constitution, of which the most important for us are the following:

The council was raised to four hundred members, one hundred for each tribe; here, therefore, the tribe was still taken as basis. But that was the one and only feature of the new state incorporating anything from the old constitution. For all other purposes Solon divided the citizens into four classes according to their property in land and the amount of its yield: five hundred, three hundred and one hundred fifty medimni of grain (one medimnus equals about 1.16 bushels) were the minimum yields for the first three classes; those who owned less land or none at all were placed in the fourth class. All offices could be filled only from the three upper classes, and the highest offices only from the first. The fourth class only had the right to speak and vote in the assembly of the people; but it was in this assembly that all officers were elected, here they had to render their account, here all laws were made; and here the fourth class formed the majority. The privileges of the aristocracy were partially renewed in the form of privileges of wealth, but the people retained the decisive power. Further, the four classes formed the basis of a new military organization. The first two classes provided the cavalry; the third had to serve as heavy infantry; the fourth served either as light infantry without armor or in the fleet, for which they probably received wages.

A completely new element is thus introduced into the constitution: private ownership. According to the size of their property in land, the rights and duties of the citizens of the state are now assessed, and in the same degree to which the classes based on property gain influence, the old groups of blood relationship lose it; the gentile constitution had suffered a new defeat.

However, the assessment of political rights on a property basis was not an institution indispensable to the existence of the state. In spite of the great part it has played in the constitutional history of states, very many states, and precisely those most highly developed, have not required it. In Athens also its role was only temporary; from the time of Aristides all offices were open to every citizen.

During the next eighty years Athenian society gradually shaped the course along which it developed in the following centuries. Usury on the security of mortgaged land, which had been rampant in the period before Solon, had been curbed, as had also the inordinate concentration of property in land. Commerce and handicrafts, including artistic handicrafts, which were being increasingly developed on a large scale by the use of slave labor, became the main occupations. Athenians were growing more enlightened. Instead of exploiting their fellow citizens in the old brutal way, they exploited chiefly the slaves and the non-Athenian customers. Movable property, wealth in the form of money, of slaves and ships, continually increased, but it was no longer a mere means to the acquisition of landed property, as in the old slow days: it had become an end in itself. On the one hand the old power of the aristocracy now had to contend with successful competition from the new class of rich industrialists and merchants; but, on the other hand, the ground was also cut away from beneath the last remains of the old gentile constitution. The gentes, phratries, and tribes, whose members were now scattered over all Attica and thoroughly intermixed, had thus become useless as political bodies; numbers of Athenian citizens did not belong to any gens at all; they were immigrants, who had indeed acquired rights of citizenship, but had not been adopted into any of the old kinship organizations; in addition, there was the steadily increasing number of foreign immigrants who only had rights of protection.

Meanwhile, the fights went on between parties; the nobility tried to win back their former privileges and for a moment regained the upper hand, until the revolution of Cleisthenes (509 B.C.) overthrew them finally, but with them also the last remnants of the gentile constitution.

In his new constitution, Cleisthenes ignored the four old tribes founded on gentes and phratries. In their place appeared a completely new organization on the basis of division of the citizens merely according to their place of residence, such as had been already attempted in the naukrariai. Only domicile was now decisive, not membership of a kinship group. Not the people, but the territory was now divided: the inhabitants became a mere political appendage of the territory.

The whole of Attica was divided into one hundred communal districts, called "demes," each of which was self-governing. The citizens resident in each deme (demotes) elected their president (demarch) and treasurer, as well as thirty judges with jurisdiction in minor disputes. They were also given their own temple and patron divinity or hero, whose priests they elected. Supreme power in the deme was vested in the assembly of the demotes. As Morgan rightly observes, here is the prototype of the self-governing American township. The modern state, in its highest development, ends in the same unit with which the rising state in Athens began.

Ten of these units (demes) formed a tribe, which, however, is now known as a local tribe to distinguish it from the old tribe of kinship. The local tribe was not only a self -governing political body, but also a military body; it elected its phylarch, or tribal chief, who commanded the cavalry, the taxiarch commanding the infantry, and the strategos, who was in command over all the forces raised in the tribal area. It further provided five warships with their crews and commanders, and received as patron deity an Attic hero, after whom it was named. Lastly, it elected fifty councilors to the Athenian council.

At the summit was the Athenian state, governed by the council composed of the five hundred councilors elected by the ten tribes, and in the last instance by the assembly of the people, at which every Athenian citizen had the right to attend and to vote; archons and other officials managed the various departments of administration and justice. In Athens there was no supreme official with executive power.

Through this new constitution and the admission to civil rights of a very large number of protected persons, partly immigrants, partly freed slaves, the organs of the gentile constitution were forced out of public affairs; they sank to the level of private associations and religious bodies. But the moral influence of the old gentile period and its traditional ways of thought were still handed down for a long time to come, and only died out gradually. We find evidence of this in another state institution.

We saw that an essential characteristic of the state is the existence of a public force differentiated from the mass of the people. At this time, Athens still had only a people's army and a fleet provided directly by the people; army and fleet gave protection against external enemies and kept in check the slaves, who already formed the great majority of the population. In relation to the citizens, the public power at first existed only in the form of the police force, which is as old as the state itself; for which reason the naive French of the eighteenth century did not speak of civilized peoples, but of policed peoples (nations policees). The Athenians then instituted a police force simultaneously with their state, a veritable gendarmerie of bowmen, foot and mounted Landidger [the country's hunters] as they call them in South Germany and Switzerland. But this gendarmerie consisted of slaves. The free Athenian considered police duty so degrading that he would rather be arrested by an armed slave than himself have any hand in such despicable work. That was still the old gentile spirit. The state could not exist without police, but the state was still young and could not yet inspire enough moral respect to make honorable an occupation which, to the older members of the gens, necessarily appeared infamous.

Now complete in its main features, the state was perfectly adapted to the new social conditions of the Athenians, as is shown by the rapid growth of wealth, commerce, and industry. The class opposition on which the social and political institutions rested was no longer that of nobility and common people, but of slaves and free men, of protected persons and citizens. At the time of their greatest prosperity, the entire free-citizen population of Athens, women and children included, numbered about ninety thousand; besides them there were three hundred and sixty-five thousand slaves of both sexes and forty-five thousand protected persons-aliens and freedmen. There were therefore at least eighteen slaves and more than two protected persons to every adult male citizen. The reason for the large number of slaves was that many of them worked together in manufactories, in large rooms, under overseers. But with the development of commerce and industry wealth was accumulated and concentrated in a few hands, and the mass of the free citizens were impoverished. Their only alternatives were to compete against slave labor with their own labor as handicraftsman, which was considered base and vulgar and also offered very little prospect of success, or to become social scrap. Necessarily, in the circumstances, they did the latter, and, as they formed the majority, they thereby brought about the downfall of the whole Athenian state. The downfall of Athens was not caused by democracy, as the European lickspittle historians assert to flatter their princes, but by slavery, which banned the labor of free citizens.

The rise of the state among the Athenians is a particularly typical example of the formation of a state; first, the process takes place in a pure form, without any interference through use of violent force, either from without or from within (the usurpation by Pisistratus left no trace of its short duration); second, it shows a very highly developed form of state, the democratic republic, arising directly out of gentile society; and lastly we are sufficiently acquainted with all the essential details.