Modern social and political thought has inherited two fundamental values from the Enlightenment: a belief in human rights or human dignity, and a belief in human progress or human destiny.footnote1 Marx’s theory of history emphasizes that these fundamental values of modern political consciousness historically have been and still are in irreconcilable conflict. Marxism is noted among Enlightenment theories of human progress for emphasizing that this progress is unavoidably painful and conflict-ridden.

This article will examine Marx’s complex attitudes towards ancient Greek slavery and early capitalist accumulation and conquest, historical events that are usually overlooked or dealt with superficially by standard liberal political theories, either Kantian or utilitarian. This article will also propose a coherent and satisfying resolution to the ethical problems such events pose us consistent with Marx’s basic historical theories, and will be critical of recent attempts to argue that Marx’s basic political values should be understood as based on or even consistent with a transhistorical theory of distributive justice or moral rights.

The writings of Marx and Engels on ancient slavery and early capitalism are very difficult to interpret consistently. They seem full of clashing values and attitudes. On the one hand, Marx and Engels claim as their heroes fighters for the freedom of the oppressed such as Spartacus and Thomas Münzer and they devoted their lives, despite much hardship, to the liberation of the working class. On the other hand, they are equally able to emphasize both the necessity and desirability of even human slavery in promoting human progress.

For example, Engels argues that in ancient Greece the ‘introduction of slavery under the conditions prevailing at the time was a great step forward’:

Marx similarly regards ancient slavery as one of the ‘progressive epochs in the economic formation of society.’footnote3 Marx displays a sympathy for Aristotle who ‘excused the slavery of one person as a means to the full human development of another.’footnote4