Two Pages of Roman History: Lecture 2, Part 1

Submitted by AWL on 7 October, 2014 - 9:56 Author: Daniel De Leon

Lecture 1: Plebs leaders and labor leaders. Part 1.
-- --. Part 2
Lecture 2. The Warning of the Gracchi. Part 1.
-- --. Part 2

Comrades of Section New York: The purpose of this second page from Roman history, "The Warning of the Gracchi," is in a measure supplementary to the first. The first page, "Plebs Leaders and Labor Leaders," was strategic, this one is tactical. The first pointed out a peculiar danger that threatens the Socialist or Labor Movement from without; this one is to point out an inherent weakness of our forces under fire. As the first was intended for aggression, this one is intended for precaution.

The Socialist is not like the chicken in the fable that, having on its back still a bit of the shell of the egg from which it just crawled, looked out into the world and said: "Why, as things are, they have always been, and will be." The Socialist, whether with such a shell on his back or not, knows that, as things are, they have not always been; and he knows that neither will they always remain so. The Socialist looks back over history and finds "things," so far from being in a state of placid, stable equilibrium, convulsed by violent upheavals; and he shrewdly surmises the end is not yet. The Socialist looks below the agitated surface: of that agitated mass, and he discovers that its aspect is not that of turmoil and chaos, merely. He discovers there is a succession of well marked social changes, many of them having existed and gone down long before his days, and been succeeded by others, that also disappeared before he was born, to make place for the Social system under which he now lives. The Socialist looks still closer, and he recognizes in these social changes, not merely a succession, but a progression of revolutions. He perceives that it is not a case of "wave following wave," but a case of development. With eyes increasingly trained, the Socialist detects the active agency in each of these progressive upheavals.

Each of these upheavals is found to mark the downfall and extinction of a Ruling Class, achieved by a Ruled Class, which, in turn, develops, and enthrones itself on a new Ruled Class, which, again in its turn, supplants its oppressors; and so on. Finally, equipped with the key that these researches fit him out with, the Socialist fathoms the secret of the force latent in, and that brings on this progression of revolutions. It is the law of economic evolution. Every Ruling Class represents a distinct Economic System, born of that that went before. The overthrow of a Ruling Class means the overthrow of its Economic System. When the Economic System of a Ruling Class has worn out, When it has been sapped by the Economic System carried in the womb of the then subject Class, it is cast aside. The downfall of a prevailing Social or Economic System is conditioned upon the ripeness of the Economic System next in order to substitute it, and the executor of such fiats in social evolution is the subject Class, whose class interests dictate the new system, and that then takes the reins of government. One illustration will do for all. Going no further back than the Feudal System, it is seen to have declined in the measure that - nursed into vigor by the sheltering boughs of the very tree of Feudalism - there rose and gathered strength a new Economic System, that was able to sap the Feudal System and render the feudal lords dependent upon it. Feudal rule was grounded on land. All the same, among the subject Class - the bourgeoisie, or future Capitalist Class - there rose a new, the capitalist Economic System, grounded on capital, slowly undermining the foundation of the Ruling Class, until the day came when an Economic System different from its own held it by the throat. And then came the toppling over; and then came the struggle; and the Capitalist Revolution was accomplished.

Along identical lines we notice things are proceeding to-day, under the Capitalist System. Again - nursed into vigor by the sheltering boughs of the capitalist tree itself - there has been rising and gathering strength a new Economic System, that is sapping the Capitalist System and rendering the modern Ruling Class, the Capitalist Class, dependent upon it. Capitalism is grounded upon the individual operation and ownership of the machinery of production. And again, among the now subject class - the Proletariat, or Working Class - there has risen, obedient to their own class interests, a new Economic System - Socialism, grounded on the collective operation and ownership of the machinery of production. The Socialist Economic System has been gradually undermining the Capitalist: individualism in production is vanishing. When the Economic Principles of a Ruling Class are worn out, that Class itself is nearing its finale. The Capitalist Class is on its last legs. When matters came to that pass in feudal days, the victory of Capitalism followed inevitably, as night does day. Is the victory of Socialism, the emancipation of the Working Class, therefore equally inevitable? The danger is natural, and, therefore, serious, of drawing automatic - or, as the Germans call it, schablone - conclusions.

"The Feudal System," one often hears asserted from many a sincere Socialist source, "overthrew the Theocratic System; the Capitalist System overthrew the Feudal System; the Socialist System must, therefore, inevitably overthrow the Capitalist System." Some put it this way: "Theocratic rule was overthrown by the Feudal Class; the Feudal Class was overthrown by the Capitalist Class; therefore the Proletariat will overthrow the Capitalist Class." And they consider that, by saying that, all is said that is to be said on the matter.

At best these automatic reasoners may grant the usefulness of stimulating the people at large, the proletariat in particular, with descriptions of the beauties of the Socialist New Jerusalem; and there you are. The Capitalist Class will stand by, cap in hand, and allow the Proletariat - some call it "the people" - to step in - and there you have your Socialist Republic. Socialist science is no automatic affair. It knows and teaches that nothing is the result of any one, but of many causes, operating together. Accordingly, Socialist science submits to the microscope the solemn procession of past class uprisings. The additional observations thus gathered disclose this important fact: The Working Class, the subject class upon whom depends the overthrow of Capitalism and the raising of Socialism, differs from all previous subject classes called upon by History to throw down an old and set up a new Social System. Going again no further back than the days of Feudalism, the distinctive mark of the bourgeoisie, or the then revolutionary class, was the possession of the material means essential to its own Economic System; on the contrary, the distinctive mark of the proletariat to-day is the being wholly stripped of all such material possession. While wealth, logically enough, was the badge of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, poverty, likewise logically enough, is the badge of the proletariat. The sign, the symptom, the gauge of bourgeois ripeness, as of the ripeness for emancipation of all previous subject classes, was their ownership of the physical materials essential to their own Economic System; the sign, on the contrary, of the proletariat is a total lack of all material economic power - a novel accompaniment to a revolutionary class, in the whole range of Class Revolutions.

Does this difference establish a difference in kind between the proletariat and the old bourgeoisie as a revolutionary class? It does not. But it does establish a serious difference in the tactical quality of the two forces, a difference that imparted strength to the former revolutionary forces under fire, while it imparts weakness to the proletariat There was nothing imaginable the feudal lord, for instance, could do to lure the bourgeois from the path marked out to it. Holding the economic power, capital, on which the feudal lords had become dependent, the bourgeois was safe under fire. All that was left to Feudalism to maneuver with was titles. It might bestow these hollow honors, throwing them as sops to the leaders of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeois was not above "rattles and toys;" but not all such "rattles and toys" could have led the bourgeois revolution into the ground. On the contrary. If already stripped of economic power, the feudal lords had also stripped themselves of exclusive feudal filigrees, they would only have abdicated all the sooner. A "good king," a "soft-hearted duchess," might have stayed the striking arm for a while. The striking arm was bound to come down. Wealth imparts strength; strength self-reliance. Where this is coupled with class interests, whose development is hampered by social shells, the shell is bound to be broken through. The process is almost automatic.

Differently with the proletariat. It is a force, every atom of which has a stomach to fill, with wife and children with stomachs to fill, and, withal, a precarious ability to attend to such urgent needs. Cato the Elder said in his usual blunt way: "The belly has no ears." At times this circumstance may be a force, but it is only a fitful force. Poverty breeds lack of self-reliance. Material insecurity suggests temporary devices. Sops and lures become captivating baits. And the one and the other are in the power of the present Ruling Class to maneuver with.

Obviously the difference I have been pointing out between the bourgeois and the present, the proletarian, revolutionary forces shows the bourgeois to have been sound, while the proletarian, incomparably more powerful by its numbers, to be afflicted with a certain weakness under fire, a weakness that, unless the requisite measures of counteraction be taken, must inevitably cause the course of history to be materially deflected. It is upon this vital point that the career of the Gracchi utters its warnings across the ages to the Socialist.

The Rome of the Gracchi - about 100 B. C. - was the Rome of 400 B. C, the time when the address "Plebs Leaders and Labor Leaders" closed, only with the then existing evils intensified by 300 years. All the causes that, years previous, brought on those evils were at work now, only with the added swing of 300 years' additional momentum. To those causes there should be added just one, so as to help explain and complete the picture. Actuated by the giddy notions of aristocracy that had seized the Ruling Class, it took the fancy of being the lords of large cattle and sheep ranges, rather than of farms. It carried on its designs in this way: Corn was imported free from Sicily and the Asiatic possessions. That rendered valueless, at least not marketable,- the corn raised in Italy.

Rome having by that time become mistress of all Italy, this policy spread ruin over the whole peninsula. The farmers were bankrupted; their farms were expropriated, and these were added to the lands of the ruling Romans, who thus changed the face of the Italian soil into immense cattle ranges and sheep walks, run entirely by slaves. The social-economic situation of the time is summed up graphically in the words of Tiberius Gracchus, which I quoted in the course of the first address of this series, to indicate the utter hollowness of the Plebs Leader victories, as far as the middle class and the proletariat were concerned. I shall quote it here again for the sake of completeness: "The wild beasts of Italy have their caves to retire to, but the brave men who spill their blood in her cause have nothing left but air and light. Without houses, without any settled habitations, they wander from place to place with their wives and children; and their generals do but mock them, when, at the head of their armies, they exhort their men to fight for their sepulchres and domestic gods; for, among such numbers, .perhaps there is not a Roman who has an altar that belonged to his ancestors, or a sepulchre in which their ashes rest. The private soldiers fight and die, to advance the wealth and luxury of the great: and they are called masters of the world, while they have not a foot of ground in their possession." A language that reminds one of the language of the Nazarene, about 150 years later. When to this is added that a horde of 14,000,000 slaves is said to have been then in Italy; that not 2,000 families were possessed of solid wealth, and that the vertigo had reached the point that a Roman knight, finding himself bankrupt, tried his luck by freeing his slaves, having them elect him their king, and starting a servile uprising, which, of course, was speedily suffocated, a picture may be formed of the social condition of the Rome of the Gracchi.

As to the political situation, it had remained unchanged, barring one circumstance that is of importance, having quite a bearing on this subject. Rome, like most of the empires of antiquity, was a city empire. Like Athens, like Sparta, like Carthage, Rome was a city-government, a city-commonwealth, and one may say she was ruled on democratic principles, in the sense that all those who had the right to a say in the government had a say directly, by appearing at the Forum, at the market place, at a certain place, and there 'giving their vote. The territorial expansion of Rome brought on a change. So long as Rome was absorbing only tribes contiguous to the city the Roman citizen who settled upon the newly acquired territory could, with comparative ease, appear in Rome on election, or voting, day, and have his voice heard. In the measure, however, that the conquered territories lay further and further away, this direct participation in the government became more difficult. When, finally, all Italy was a Roman possession, even the Roman citizen colonists were de facto, though not de jure, disfranchised. Presence at the Forum in Rome was out of the question. Somehow the minds of the ancients ran up against a dead wall in face of the problem thus presented.

Modern civilization has solved the problem through "representative government." In Washington, for instance, the laws are enacted that govern this vast country, infinitely larger than the Italy that Rome owned. The laws proceed from Washington, but it is not the people of Washington that enact the laws. The laws are enacted by representatives of the whole country, chosen by the whole people, and in that way the whole people actually legislate. If the laws as passed do not suit them, theirs is the fault. A country can now consist of so many active citizens that it would be impossible for them all to meet and legislate, and yet, however far apart they may reside, they can exercise the suffrage and control the national legislation. Representative government makes that possible. Antiquity had no conception of this. As the Roman citizen abroad in Italy had none but a potential vote - potential inasmuch as it became actual only by his presence in Rome - the Italians, who had not been turned into slaves, were mere political pariahs. They were ruled from Rome. This brought on a social alignment of dire results.

Economically, the Italian population, Rome included, remained divided between the landlord-plutocrat and the proletarian classes, with the middle class cutting ever less of a figure; but both these classes fell again into two hostile camps, with the line of cleavage drawn by the Roman suffrage. On the one side stood the denizens of Rome, rich and poor together; on the other stood the Italians outside of Rome, poor and rich together. Now then, by the slow alluvial accretions of over 500 years of habit, the ragged Roman proletarian came to consider himself a limb of the ruling power, held together with the Roman landlord-plutocrat by a common bond of political superiority over the vast numbers of free peoples in Italy, outside of Rome. We have seen, in the course of the address on "Plebs Leaders and Labor Leaders" the baneful results of the superstition that enabled the bourgeois plebeian, under the cloak of the common designation of "Plebeian," to pull the wool over the eyes of his "fellow plebeians," the proletariat and middle class, just as in our own days the Labor Leader does to his "fellow laboring men," under the cloak of the common designation of "Labor." So now. Whenever the question came of granting the franchise to the Italians, the downtrodden proletarian of Rome joined his oppressors in violent opposition to sharing with the Italians "the purple of government." I hope I have made the point clear enough to warrant the conclusion that the situation that confronted the Gracchi at about 100 B. C. had passed the stage of reform. No tinkering could any longer stead. No enactment of 'laws" and waiting for their slow operation could then touch the evils that afflicted Rome, and, along with Rome, her Italian domain. The day for constitutional methods was gone by. Whenever a nation has reached that point, there are no longer "institutions" in existence: the institutions have become shadows. There is extant nothing but usurpation. In such emergencies nothing short of revolution is in order.

Such were the conditions that confronted the Gracchi, and which they addressed themselves to correct. Did they realize the nature of the task before them? Did they understand the qualities, the tactical strength and the tactical weakness of the material at hand to accomplish their task with? In putting these two questions, I am dividing into two a question that can hardly be divided. They are like the obverse and reverse of a medal. They are the two sides of one and the same thing: the task to be accomplished and the element necessary to accomplish it with. Did the Gracchi understand that? I shall show you they did not, and from the series of blunders that they committed, and the dire result of their blunders, we to-day, in the Rome of to-day, should take warning.

The Gracchi were two brothers of distinguished extraction and connections - Tiberius, the elder; Gaius, the younger. They did not figure together; they figured successively. Tiberius began in 133 B. C. His work was cut short by assassination committed by the Senators. Gaius took up the work of Tiberius a few years later, and carried it on successfully for a while, in the teeth of the Senate, until, left in the lurch by the proletariat, he fled from Rome, and committed suicide in the contiguous Grove of the Furies. And that ended it, in 121 B. C. This constitutes the Gracchian episode, strictly speaking. Its start, however, should be placed several years earlier, in certain incipient reformatory movements, the forerunners of the Gracchian episode proper. The whole period would, accordingly, cover something like a generation, reaching its climax in the Gracchi. And now, as to the series of steps taken to accomplish the gigantic task in hand. I shall not here go into a detailed account of the numerous legislative enactments of this period. It is not necessary, any more than in my previous address, a detailed account of the Roman constitution was needed. That would only surcharge the picture. The salient and successive acts will answer all practical purpose.

The first act of this period consisted in a reform of the suffrage. You will remember that the Roman suffrage was exercised by Centuries; that the Centuries were military divisions of the people, ranked according to property; that the highest Centuries, including the Knights, had the fewest numbers and the largest vote; that the Knights and the First Century together polled 97 votes, an absolute majority of the 193 polled by all, and that the order of voting was according to the rank of the Centuries,- so that if, as happened usually, the first two agreed, the others were not "called upon to express their opinion, seeing the voting was by word of mouth. All this was certainly vexatious. The majority of the citizens were placed at a decided disadvantage: wealth preponderated, poverty was aggravated. The Gracchian Movement attacked this wrongful system first. But how? Did it restore the preponderance of power to where it belonged? No. It tinkered around the form, and merely reduced the evil. It lowered the vote of the First Century from 80 to 70, so that, instead of the first two, it now required the solid vote of the first three Centuries to carry the day. Instead of two Centuries having the power to out-vote five, three Centuries - still a minority- were left with power to out-vote four. And the shuffling was carried a step further by the provision that the Centuries were to vote promiscuously and not by rank, as formerly - as though trump cards became any the less trumps by the order in which they were played. There was a third provision that properly comes under this head. It preceded the others. It was a provision for a secret ballot - thereby attuning a vast revolutionary purpose to clandestine methods.

The Licinian law, described in full in the address on "Plebs Leaders and Labor Leaders," had remained a dead letter. The Licinian law, among other things, limited the number of additional acres that could be acquired by an individual from the public domain. Despite its provisions the landlord-plutocracy had proceeded, if anything, more high-handedly than ever, to appropriate what it never had a right to, State property; but, moreover, did so now in violation of express enactments. The Sempronian law - so called from the middle name, Sempronius, of the Gracchi - dug up the old Licinian law, and, at a time when even its provisions had lost whatever curative power there may have been in them 300 years before, proposed, not the old Licinian law in all its fullness, but that law in a diluted form. Besides the number of acres allowed by the Licinian law to be appropriated from the public lands, one-half the number was now allowed in addition to each holder for each son; the remainder was to be redistributed, and indemnity was provided for possible property expropriated from the expropriator. The Sempronian law was a compromise with Usurpation.

But although Tiberius Gracchus sought to circumvent the Revolution, the Counter-Revolution promptly locked horns with him. His colleague in office had the power to block him, and he did; at least he tried to. His support was constitutionally necessary for the enactment of the law. "Seen" by his patriciate colleagues, Tiberius's colleague refused his sanction, and though at times he wavered under the fervid pleas of Tiberius, he finally resisted all entreaties and even threats. For a moment Tiberius seems to have caught a glimpse of the revolutionary requirements of the task he had set his cap to. He threw legality to the dogs. "Unconstitutionally" he ordered the proletariat to depose his colleague, and, walking roughshod over the tatters of the torn Constitution, pushed the law through. But the glimpse of the requirements of his task, caught by Tiberius for a moment, vanished as soon as caught. Instead of fanning to a flame the spark that his conduct had kindled in the breast of the revolutionary mass behind him, he grew apologetic, sought refuge and justification in legal parallels, and thus cooled off and extinguished the spark. The Senators were not slow in taking advantage of the reaction in their favor. Tiberius speedily fell by their hands, clubbed to death in plain view of the populace that stood by, or ran off awe-stricken.

Four years later Gaius took up the work where his brother Tiberius had been forced to drop it. Gaius saw the Senators' hands red with his brother's blood, and looked upon that body as the barrier against which Tiberius had been dashed. Gaius determined to protect himself against danger from that quarter, first of all. How? By sweeping it away? No. By raising a rival to it. Did he, then, at least raise the rival power to the dreaded Senate out of the revolutionary forces at his back? Yet, again, no. The Equestrian Order, the Knights, consisted of the same economic interests that had been incensed at the measures of Tiberius, and they, though not the direct perpetrators of his assassination; had seconded, and rejoiced in, and profited by the crime To all intents and purposes, they were as guilty as the Senate itself. And yet that element it was that Gaius Gracchus turned to. He halved the powers of the Senate and clothed the Equestrian Order therewith. When warned, his answer was: "I am raising an enemy to the Senate: the Senate and the Equestrian Order will kill each other off." We shall see whether they did.

For a while the Gracchian policy, seemed successful. Senate and Equestrian Order did get into each other's hair. In the meantime, anxious to strengthen his own. hands in a positive, and not merely negative, way, Gaius put through successively two laws, which set the coping stone on the series of Gracchian blunders and, watched by the light of certain modern occurrences, look as if enacted for the express purpose of causing the Gracchian tactics to serve as a bell-buoy to warn the Socialist Movement of this generation of sunken rocks in its course. The first of these was a law providing for 'three colonies. With funds from the Roman Treasury, these colonies were to be set up, outside of Italy, of course, so as to afford immediate relief to the proletarian mass. The patriciate promptly parried the thrust. It outbid Gaius for popularity with the proletariat by offering them twelve colonies.

The second of these two laws was a provision for the free distribution of corn among the poor. The proletarian masses, the revolutionary class, were expected by that measure in particular to become firmly attached to their leader - like domestic animals or children to him who feeds them. Proceeding along these lines, and having arrived at this point, Gaius Gracchus thought himself in condition to take up a question that his penetration told him was a sine qua non to all lasting improvement in the condition of Italy, and, withal, the most ticklish, in view of the existing popular prejudices and habits of thought. That question was the question of the Italian franchise. But the moment he mentioned the subject, it was as if by magic touch he had solidified the denizens of Rome against himself. Knights and Senators suspended their wranglings, on the one hand, and, on the other, all recollection of the "improved form of the suffrage" in Rome; all recollection of the Sempronian law; all expectations of relief from the prospective three colonies, aye, all gratitude for free corn was forgotten and thrown to the winds. So completely did the proletariat fall away from its idol that the Senate and Knights found no difficulty in fomenting a sedition against him. Forsaken by all but a few close friends and one devoted slave, Gaius first took refuge in the Temple of Diana, where, falling on his knees, he implored the gods to punish the Romans with eternal slavery for their base ingratitude. Beseeched to save himself for better days, Gaius left the Temple and fled from the city across the river. But his pursuers were hot upon him, and suicide freed him from further agony in the Grove of the Furies.

Out of the shipwreck of the Gracchian Movement and tactics ten planks come floating down to our own days. They may be termed the warnings uttered by the shades of the Gracchi. They may be erected into so many Canons of the Proletarian Revolution. These canons dovetail into one another. At times it is hard to keep them apart, so close is their inter-relation, seeing they are essentially differentiations of a central idea thrown up by the singular nature, already indicated, of the proletariat as a revolution force.


Lecture 1: Plebs leaders and labor leaders. Part 1.
-- --. Part 2
Lecture 2. The Warning of the Gracchi. Part 1.
-- --. Part 2

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