Origins of the Bourgeois State

Workers World, Chicago Bureau wwchi at
Fri Oct 27 06:22:28 MDT 2000

-----Original Message-----
From: Yoshie Furuhashi <furuhashi.1 at>
To: marxism at <marxism at>
Date: Friday, October 27, 2000 1:20 AM
Subject: Re: Origins of the Bourgeois State

>Compare Athens and Sparta.  Surely you would have to say that Sparta,
>by virtue of its state ownership of numerous slaves, tempts us less
>to project our modern image of capitalism upon it than Athens, which
>had decidedly fewer slaves than Sparta; developed a form of democracy
>based upon small peasants, merchants, artisans, etc.; & developed &
>relied upon commerce & trade much more extensively than Sparta to
>finance its imperial expansion (timber for the vaunted Athenian
>fleets _had_ to be imported, and so were grains) militarily &
>demographically.  In Sparta, the majority of the population were
>slaves, who engaged in manual agricultural work; therefore, Spartan
>citizens placed a heavy emphasis upon the military discipline, since
>they lived in fear of revolts of Helots; and the militarization of
>Sparta, in turn, made it perhaps the least commercial city-state in
>the ancient Greek world.

You clearly know a good deal more about ancient Greece than I do, so I will
try to skirt the details and respond with generalities and/or rhetorical

IF it were the case that there were a LOT of cases of early societies which
looked like Sparta as you have described it, with permanent slave majorities
doing the productive work over periods of centuries, then I would have no
problem with the concept of a 'slave society stage'.  But I think you would
have a hard time coming up with another example.  Sparta was weird.  It was
known to be weird at the time, and everyone who writes about it now
emphasizes its uniqueness.

Furthermore, were the helots really slaves?  In the societies which produced
our common understanding of what slavery is, the slaves were alienable
chattel, the personal property of identifiable people.  Calling the helots
'state slaves' sort of pushes the envelope.  Couldn't I call them, with
equal or better accuracy, 'very oppressed serfs'?  Or perhaps Sparta just
doesn't fit into the categories.

When Marx wrote about the stages of 'Ancient' and 'Slave' society preceding
'Feudal' society, he was using the historical and archaeological scholarship
of his day, which is a lot less extensive and reliable than it is now, and
was full of mythic and Biblical stuff about 'the slaves building the
Pyramids', for example, which modern scholars discount.

Of course there have been personal slaves, acting as house servants, in a
lot of societies - generally taken as captives in war, often traded as
commodities, and often having the power to obtain 'citizenship' in the
capturing society.  But if a 'slave system' is a society in which a majority
of the productive labor is done by a permanent hereditary class of slaves,
then when did these societies really exist?  I don't think it's really that
common in history.  MAYBE there was Sparta.  Then you have Rome from the
late Republic on, at its cultural and commercial height.  Then you have a
long gap.  And then you have the European creations in the Western
Hemisphere.  I would wager that if one worked out the numbers, MOST of the
slaves in the history of the world lived after 1492 and were either born in
the Western Hemisphere or kidnapped to it or died while being transported

Lou Paulsen

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