It is both an honour and a pleasure for me to be speaking here today.footnote It is an honour to have been asked to give the annual lecture in memory of Isaac Deutscher, a man who always resolutely pursued his own line of thought with the greatest courage, and throughout his life tried to tell the truth as he saw it, undismayed by attacks from whatever direction. (I greatly regret that I never had the good fortune to meet him.) And it is a pleasure to be allowed to give this lecture at the London School of Economics, where (you may be surprised to hear) I actually had my first academic post, and taught for three years in the early 1950s—though perhaps ‘taught’ is something of a euphemism, because my field of interest as an Assistant Lecturer in Ancient Economic History was rather far removed from anything prescribed by the syllabus; and indeed I was sometimes made aware by some of my colleagues in the Economic History Department (very politely, of course) that I was really a bit of a nuisance, occupying a post which, but for my presence, might have been filled by some genuinely useful person, who could have taken on some of the burden of teaching the syllabus, as I, alas, could not. Well, I did my best to find someone who might be interested in what I had to offer; but when I went around, asking people in different departments whether I might think of giving lectures that could conceivably interest their students, they prudently rejected my advances. And then, suddenly, to my great delight, I was slotted in, if only in a very small way. I received a letter from the Professor of Accounting, Will Baxter (one of the leading authorities on his subject in the English-speaking world), asking me to lecture in his department. ‘We’d very much like to know’, he said, ‘about accounting by the Greeks and Romans, and in particular if they had double-entry: things like that’. Of course, I knew nothing whatever about the subject of ancient accounting, any more than most other ancient historians; but I duly got it up. I had to do a vast amount of work on it from original sources, as I found that there was hardly anything in the modern books that was any good at all. But I did find an astonishing amount of first-hand evidence, not only in the literary sources and the law-books, but also in the inscriptions and above all the papyri. I wrote a piece which is, I think, the only general study of the subject that makes use of all the various kinds of source material.footnote1 (It still seems to be cited as the standard account.) I also gave some lectures at the School, both on ancient accounting and on some kindred subjects like the ancient bottomry and respondentia loan (the precursor of marine insurance):footnote2 these were attended by the professor and his staff, and some ancient historians from other colleges, though not, as far as I could discover, by any undergraduates of the School itself. And even after I had left London for Oxford, thirty years ago, I was invited to come back and give a lecture at the School each year on ancient and mediaeval accounting, until the late 1970s.

I shall not be giving full references today to the various published works I have occasion to cite; but they can virtually all be identified easily, either from my recent book, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, sub-titled From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (I shall refer to it as ‘my Class Struggle book’), or from a paper I am contributing to the forthcoming ‘Colloque Marx’ in Paris, the proceedings of which will be published in due course.footnote3

I hope you will forgive me if I now launch right into some personal reminiscence, which is in fact highly relevant to the subject of this lecture (namely, the nature of class in Karl Marx’s conception of history), because it explains an important part of the process of intellectual development which led me to my present position.

I knew nothing whatever about Marx until the middle 1930s, when I was in my mid-twenties. After a thoroughly right-wing upbringing, I had qualified as a solicitor and was working with a Westminster firm, and—under the impact of the rise of fascism—I had just begun to become interested in the Labour movement. Even then, although I was deeply impressed by the Marxist interpretation of history, in so far as I had discovered anything about it (I knew precious little, really), my ideas remained confused. In particular, although I was very willing in principle to accept Marxist ideas about class and class struggle, which made a powerful appeal to me as soon as I became aware of them, there were difficulties even in that area which I was unable at that time to deal with satisfactorily. I had already come to think of myself as a Marxist (although I suppose ‘come to feel myself a Marxist’ would really be more accurate); but as yet I was ill-equipped to engage in controversy. For example, I could not as yet produce an effective answer to the argument that it was dishonest to speak of ‘the working class’ in the way many people on the Left did then, and still do, as if it were a united body, carrying on political activity in unison, with a common purpose and a real ‘class consciousness’. I remember being reproached by a friend, who was active in the Communist Party, with having no faith in ‘the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat’. I don’t expect I had the confidence to reply then (as I would now) that the proletariat certainly has a potential ‘revolutionary consciousness’ which events could one day make actual; but I do remember feeling, even then, that to speak of a ‘revolutionary consciousness’ as if it were already actual in the British working class was self-delusion. Above all, I had no answer at that time to non-Marxist friends who pointed out to me—rightly—that in the eyes of Marx, class and class conflict were fundamental, and who then went on to insist—though here, as I now realise, wrongly—that this necessarily entailed that a class should have a consciousness of common identity, a class consciousness, and that it should regularly participate in common political activity. These people then pointed triumphantly to the fact (for it is a fact) that in most countries throughout the world in modern times these two characteristics do not exist to a sufficient degree—particulary not for the working class, in the most advanced countries, and above all the one in which capitalism is most fully developed: the United States, where politics in the main are not conducted according to class alignments or in class terms. From this my non-Marxist friends drew the conclusion (as so many people of course still do today) that the concept of class itself, and in particular the Marxist theory of the importance of class conflict (class struggle), has little or no heuristic or explanatory value and does not enable us to understand the contemporary world, and that the Marxist analysis of modern society therefore fails.

I hope I have conveyed the fact that the whole argument I have just been describing rests upon certain presuppositions (which I now realise are false): namely, that we must regard both class consciousness and regular political activity in unison as necessary features of class and class conflict, with the consequence that when these features are not present the Marxist class analysis cannot be applied. Today, if we do not reject, these false presuppositions, it will be even harder for us to deal with the arguments I have just outlined, for it is a fact that at the General Election in June 1983 only a minority of the British working class who voted at that election voted for Labour while something like a third or more, depending on one’s definition of working class, voted for the Conservative Party, led by a woman with deeply reactionary opinions, thoroughly opposed to their interests. We are now told more insistently than ever by people of right-wing views (are we not?) that a Marxist class analysis of society is becoming increasingly inappropriate.

I know now how to deal with the arguments I have outlined; but in the 1930s I had not realised that they depended upon false presuppositions, and (as I shall explain) it was only when I became an ancient historian that I discovered why those presuppositions had to be decisively rejected.

Before I had solved these and certain other problems came the war, during which I decided to forsake the law when I came out of the raf, take a degree, and try to go in for some kind of teaching. I had left school at fifteen, after spending most of my time there on Greek and Latin, and although I had forgotten much of what I had learnt of those languages I hoped that at University I would be able to study Greek and Roman history, of which I knew little or nothing. As was the wont in those days, my school study of Classics had centred on a few standard literary texts (treated above all as a taxing series of grammatical and stylistic problems), and of course on trying to write Latin and Greek prose, and even verse, in the style of the same standard authors. Although I cannot recall ever finding the slightest interest or significance in that kind of activity, I had been rather good at it, and I felt sure that with the historical perceptiveness I had since acquired, I might be able to find special significance in Greek and Roman history. I was not disappointed. I was extraordinarily fortunate, at University College, London, in being taught mainly by Professor A.H.M. Jones, who from my point of view has made the greatest contribution to ancient history of anyone writing in English since Gibbon—although he never in his life, as far as I know, read a word of Marx. I took my first degree when I was 39, and after a year’s research I came to the lse in 1950, as I have mentioned already.