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’:

Without slavery, no Greek state, no Greek art and science; without slavery, no Roman Empire. . .We should never forget that our whole economic, political and intellectual development presupposes a state of things in which slavery was as necessary as it was universally recognized. In this sense we are entitled to say: Without the slavery of antiquity no modern socialism.footnote2

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

But, at the same time, we should not forget that whenever Marx discusses slavery or similar forms of social oppression he regards them as a violation of human dignity. Indeed, Marx takes Spartacus, leader of the greatest slave revolt in Ancient Rome, as his historical hero: ‘Spartacus is. . .the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history. Great general (no Garibaldi!), noble character, real representative of the ancient proletariat.’footnote5 Since Marx is commonly—and rightly—thought of as a fighter against all forms of social oppression and exploitation, his admiration for Spartacus is not surprising. But we may wonder in what way Marx’s sympathy for Spartacus and hatred of social oppression are compatible with his regarding ancient slavery as a ‘progressive’ mode of production.