Thursday, 26 April 2007

Did Plato invent Communism?

I first read Plato's 'Republic' back in 2002 after being prompted by this wonderful person called Yasmin. Two things struck me about the book, the first was the Socratic dialogues at the beginning which blow the mind, the way he makes you question the basis upon which we rest our most deeply held beliefs is incredible and you can appreciate why someone who asked such penetrating questions would make enemies. The other is the question of communism.

I shall start, as I often do, by examining the etymology. The word 'communism' first appeared in the middle of the 19th Century in France in the form communisme and that probably came from the Old French word commun (meaning common) and from the Latin before it with communis. I think I'm right in saying that there is no equivalent word in Ancient Greek so if Plato did invent the concept of communism, he certainly did not create the word. Since we are talking about a utopian belief, that is a word which is also worth considering, especially since Sir Thomas More's treatise 'Utopia' is also touted as a possible birth of communism. Thomas More's usage of the word utopia seems to be the first in English and it comes from Late Latin and from the Greek words before it, ou + topos, literally meaning 'no place' which seems rather apt given the subject.

So, word histories aside, you might be wondering what is it that makes me draw the comparison. In the 'Republic', Plato argued for a Commonwealth, a society in which the community would take responsibility over many of the social aspects of life, from the provision of education and healthcare to the ownership and distribution of property. Almost everything was to be held in communal ownership, including children (who were to be taken away from their parents and cared for and educated by guardians) and women (although I'm not too sure I understand the specifics about the communal ownership of women so it's probably best to gloss over that aspect of his philosophy).

There are, however, some caveats to examine. Plato's utopia of community ownership did not apply to everyone in his society, but was reserved to his 'guardian class'. There is another, almost sinister (now, the word sinister has a fascinating history but I shall write about that some other time as I can see eyes begin to droop) aspect to Plato's philosophy. It is clear from his words that his political philosophy was not one that he believed the masses would necessarily choose, and that didn't particularly bother him. Plato believed in the idea of a elite ruling class. He envisioned philosopher-kings who would be enlightened rulers and act in the interests of his people, even if they did not agree that their actions would be in their interests. In other words, Plato's social system would be enforced on its populous and his guardians would be the police force which has to be the precursor to despotism and authoritarian rule.

I don't know enough about early Ancient Greek scholars to argue conclusively that Plato did invent the concept of communism, but it is certainly true to say that some of the ideas that exist in his 'Republic' have helped form that school of political philosophy. Plato seems to be a great example of someone who has exhibited such an extreme belief that he is neither communist nor fascist, but displays elements of both and it is true; when you go so far off one end of the spectrum, you end up on the opposite side.


gary thomson said...

I'm reading The Trial of Socrates by I F Stone and it would seem that Socrates believed in rule by the one who knows, rule as we would say by experts. This would have looked like advocating a form of kingship in a city which believed in democracy.

What you say here about Plato seems to me to hold water.

Now I'm having to reassess Socrates.

Paolo said...

Socrates is a difficult philosopher to pin down because, as you know, he never wrote anything himself. Plato, Aristophanes and Xenophon all wrote quite a lot about Socrates and there are times where the portrayals are at odds with each other.It is very murky territory to enter with any historical certainty. Furthermore there is some debate as to whether the 'Socrates' of Plato's dialogues was supposed to be a historical portrayal or simply a vehicle through which Plato could express his own ideas. At least Xenophon was considered to be stupid and not capable of spinning Socrates to his own ends. Plato, on the other hand was very clever and it is eminently possible that the character we know as Socrates is entirely of his own creation (probably one of very few people capable of creating such a complex vehicle).

I suppose the idea of Plato's philosopher-kings or Socrates' rule by 'the one who knows' is the ultimate expression of meritocracy and you can appreciate the principles which make the idea attractive, however, it is the potential for corruption that make it unrealistic.

Anonymous said...

Yep, you are right. And Plato's society is very similar in some points to stalinism. Even Marx "class struggle" is in Plato's book when he talks about how one kind of society changes into another.
And Aristotle also did a very good critic of Plato's communism in his book 'Politics'. This is stuff is old, but people still can't understand that both extremes, economic communism, or economic liberalism are bad, and an equilibrium is necessary.


Paolo said...

I completely agree! I can think of no worse nightmare than a Robert Nozick type libertarian night-watchman state where the government only intervenes to prevent crime and enforce contract. There has to be some balance.

I also find it interesting that people who favour economic liberty generally aren't too fussed about personal liberty (i.e. American businessmen who want to be tax free but also ban abortions and gay marriage)!

Anonymous said...

"I can think of no worse nightmare than a Robert Nozick type libertarian night-watchman state where the government only intervenes to prevent crime and enforce contract."


And to take it a step further, why should any government exist at all? A government is a territorial monopoly over the use of violence.

You wrote a very good article on the dangers of extreme government as could be seen as early as Plato.