How Red Was Plato?

By David Black

No capitalist would want to live in a Republic like Plato’s, which excludes from goverment all those who pursue wealth at the expense of others. Even worse for them, to make sure they stay excluded, the Republic forbids any individual from accumulating inordinate riches.

Plato attaches little credence to "opinion" - whether private or public. For him truths are universal ideal forms which are as timeless as the soul. And because a long and arduous journey of the mind is needed to approach the ultimate Form of the Good, he thinks the philosophers should rule the Republic.

Plato sees the philosophical understanding of the soul as essential for running a harmonious, organic society. He divides the soul into three parts: the rational, which desires wisdom; the passionate, which desires honour and power; and the concupiscent, which desires food, comfort and sex. The threefold division corresponds to the hierarchy of classes in the Republic. At the top of the social pyramid are the Philosophers. Below them are their fellow "Guardians," who enjoy power in education and administration, or honour in the Military. At the base are the Multitude, the artisans, labourers, farmers and merchants (slaves are curiously absent from Plato's formulation; and whether this is because Plato thought an "ideal" state wouldn't have slavery, or because he presupposed slavery as the obvious economic basis for any society, is something commentators disagree on).

The Guardians do not own property and are required to live ascetic, somewhat monkish lifestyles. Their material sustenance and housing etc are provided for by the productive multitude, through the state. Above the subordinate Guardians, the ruling community of philosophers practice amongst themselves communism - owning all things in common - and allow women equal status.

Given the top-down communist aspect of Plato’s Republic, it is hardly surprising that when the October Revolution in Russia appeared to be challenging capitalism, Plato came back to haunt the bourgeoisie. Bertrand Russell wrote of Lenin’s regime in 1921:

“The Communist Party corresponds to the guardians; the soldiers have about the same status in both; there is in Russia an attempt to deal with family life more or less as Plato suggested.… the parallel is extraordinarily exact between Plato's Republic and the regime which the better Bolsheviks are endeavoring to create.”

If Russell had been more aware at the time of Lenin’s profound, yet unpublished, philosophic studies he might have even seen a “philosopher king” at the head of the “better Bolsheviks.” In later years Russell might have seen Plato’s Nocturnal Council (the secretive "extra-legal" body with "special powers" for monitoring the virtuously incorrect in the mythical city of "Magnesia") as an ideal prototype of the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (the Cheka). But soon the “better Bolsheviks” were consigned to the Gulag and the firing squads by their upwardly-mobile fellow Guardians. The latter, rather than lovers of wisdom, first became envious worshippers of bourgeois technology and then dishonourable gaolers, police agents and imperialists in their exercise of power. Under Stalin there was nothing noble about the lie of the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”

Given the above it was perhaps no accident that under Stalinism, any notion of Plato-the-Proto-Bolshevik found no further takers. In Stalinist philosophical circles Plato was denounced as an “idealist,” a “reactionary,” an “elitist,” a “religious cultist” and even a "proto-fascist" - terms every bit as aggressive as those thrown by the Comintern hacks at Trotsky. Against Plato, the Communist Party Hellenist Benjamnin Farrington championed the Atomist philosopher Epicurus as the founder of a "scientifically true" theology for the “average man,” which denied that the gods had any role in human fortunes. The Cambridge Greek scholar, Frances MacDonald Cornford, felt that the attacks on Plato were crude and prejudiced by modern political concerns. Cornford also pointed out that the Atomist method had nothing in common with any "science" based on empirical observation, and wryly commented:
“An impartial critic (if there was such a person) might wonder how the average man could be expected to feel any religious devotion towards gods who were (like Epicurus himself) egoistic hedonists… indifferent to human concerns…” - as indifferent perhaps, as the Stalinist "scientific method."

(The young Marx actually viewed Epicurus as a precursor of Hegel’s idealism, because in opposition to the "scientists" Epicurus saw the material world as the embodiment of contradictions between existence and essence; form and content, and being and thought.)

George Thomson, another Communist participant in the Cornford debate, claimed that Plato, "for the further security of his ruling class, drew up a fantastic system of education designed to poison the minds of the people by dissemination of calculated lies" - an accusation which mocks Plato's dedication to "A love of truth and a hatred of falsehood that will not tolerate untruth in any form." Certainly Plato argues that the masses can never be the point of being able to govern. But if the "ruling class" consists of the better-off seekers of wealth and pleasure whose desires are as uneducated as the Hoi Polloi's then Plato would exclude them from ruling as well. He would say the only education that could benefit them would consist of moral truths, taken on trust from philosophers, but presented in non-philosophic forms such as fable and myth.

Arguably myth in this sense is not the same as the “noble lie,” which is generally attributed to Plato (some, like Cornford, think the term is a bad translation from the Greek). For Plato, myth is just another form of the truth, and perhaps we can see it as no more harmful than a parable in the New Testament or a clause about "socialism" in the New Labour party constitution. For Plato, as for Gordon Brown, mythology promotes national identity with its glorification of heroic deeds of the kind needed to defend the homeland – whether disseminated by a Delphic oracle or a global television channel. Hesiod’s myth of the races of Gold, Iron and Silver reinforces Plato’s argument that not all men are born with the same talents and capacities. Plato however, argues that although superior qualities are usually hereditary, this is not always the case; they may appear in any strata. In any case those fit to govern can be identified through a universal system of education; and those of the privileged classes who are unfit can be weeded out. Plato then, places limits on class privilege and, like a New Labour Educational White Paper, promotes both elitism and meritocracy.

In conclusion it would seem that Plato, while no firm friend of the bourgeoisie, might be a troublesome ally for any renewed Left of the 21st Century, whose goal is a classless society. In a future article I will discuss why the philosophic grounding of Anti-Capitalism might need Plato's student, Aristotle - as well as Hegel and Marx.

6 September 2008


Bertrand Russell Theory and Practice of Bolshevism]

FM Cornford, ‘The Marxist View of Ancient Philosophy’ in The Unwritten Philosophy p36. Cambridge 1950

Peter Fenves, 'Marx's Doctoral Thesis on Two Greek Atomists and the Post-Kantian Interpretations.' Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1986)

Brian Calvert, 'Slavery in Plato's Republic', The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 37, No. 2 (1987), pp. 367-372

George Thomson, 'Aeschylus and Athens' London 1941

Plato, 'The Republic'