By Joaquim Marques de Sa
Portuguese Marxist scholar Joaquim Marques de Sa writes an appreciation of Michael Parenti’s The Assassination of Julius Caesar. De Sa’s bilingual ( Portuguese and English) blog is at<<http://revolucaoedemocracia.blogspot.com/2019/04/um-episodio-da-reaccao-oligarquica-ha.html>>
Since human societies became divided into antagonistic classes millennia ago , of which one rules by exploiting the work of others, imperialism soon establishes itself. We observe it already in the ancient civilizations. The corollaries of exploitation and imperialism are wars, genocides, massacres, political assassinations, etc.
These evils will never end as long as there are antagonistic classes. The various moral preaching of religious people do not matter at all. They have been ineffectually preached for millennia. In this respect — as in everything else in nature — what does matter are the concrete material laws ruling societies, which are based on the relations of production.
Here too Marx’s celebrated materialist statement applies: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness” (Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, January 1859).
Class struggle is also an inescapable corollary of the division of societies into antagonistic classes. The exploited people will never passively subject themselves to exploitation, as history demonstrates. It is instructive to observe how certain modus operandi of the exploiters — and their clients — remain constant across millennia of class struggles, encompassing distinct social formations (slavery, feudalism and capitalism, and their subtypes). One of them and a prominent one is the systematic use of deception, in the diffusion of which exploiters always have overwhelming means to their advantage (media, “respectable” institutions, political spokesmen, historians incensed and paid by explorers, priests, etc.).
That deception is a prominent tool used by the exploiters is not surprising. The exploiters always have an urging need in hiding from the masses or “justify” exploitation. It is only when “justifications” are no longer possible that they resort to more radical means, such as the assassination of leaders of the common people, always portrayed as having been the leaders themselves the culprits of what happened to them.
The book The Assassination of Julius Caesar, by Michael Parenti , provides several brilliant confirmations of the above from the history of ancient Rome . This well documented book conveys an analysis of the class struggles of so-called pre-imperial Rome (but in fact already imperial), which runs counter to mainstream historiography, systematically transmitted in schools, films, TV, etc. That is, it runs counter to the historiography of today’s imperialists .
In the first chapter, History of the Lords, Parenti analyzes various portraits of the history of Rome, provided by historians sympathetic to imperialism. (Please note that our citations from the book are back-translated from the Brazilian edition, the only one we have.) In this chapter, Parenti includes a surprising observation from the conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter (1919) on Roman imperialism, with “words that might sound familiar to the present critics of United States ‘globalism’”.
Schumpeter’s observation is (from the original): “… that policy which pretends to aspire to peace but unerringly generates war, the policy of continual preparation for war, the policy of meddlesome interventionism. There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome’s allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest—why, then it was the national honor that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors, always fighting for a breathing space. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly Rome’s duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs.”
What strikes here, as throughout the book, is precisely how the history of class struggles of the late Roman republic constantly reminds us of the means still being used today by global reaction to attack its opponents, in Venezuela too. Deception, slander, smearing of character, use of paid rogues, the support of intellectuals comfortably installed in the system singing praises and justifying reaction, etc., were nvented millennia ago. The essence is the same. Only the form changes. The Roman oligarchy had no television; but it already had wall newspapers.
Let us proceed to the brief analysis of a case.
Parenti describes in chapter 3, A republic for the few, how in the 2nd century BC, the oligarchic aristocracy — the optimates — of the late Roman republic, which was already “supreme ruler of the Mediterranean”, adopted an almost constant policy of war to plunder other countries. The war, in addition to yielding multitudes of slaves, also offered another important means of enriching the oligarchy. The plebs rustica, of petty landowners, overwhelmingly composing the infantry, fell in battle or became impoverished by not being able to care for their land for long periods of time, and then “rich investors bought these rural properties for trifles.”
There were also public lands, ager publicus, leased by the state to small farmers. “The fact that Rome could be fed by ordinary farmers, without a cent of profit for the rich, surpassed the capacity of tolerance of the rich.” “In order to protect small tenants, a law had been adopted [in 367 BC] which forbade any individual to rent more than 500 jugera (about 125 hectares [!]).” The rich quickly got around the law. Parenti cites Plutarch (a conservative historian): “… the rich, using the name of fictitious tenants, succeeded in transferring a large part of their leases to themselves, and they ended up taking openly possession of most of the land, using their own names.”
The main class struggles in the Roman republic opposed not only the slaves to the slave-owners, but also the small peasantry to the oligarchy. Slaves were regarded as mere instruments of labor without legal-political personality. The standing of the rustic and urban plebs was a different thing. They could express their protests in the People’s Assembly, and they had won in the past the right to be defended by two tribunes of the people. The class struggle –plebs vs. oligarchy — manifested itself in the opposition between People’s Assembly and tribunes of the people vis-à-vis the Senate, the supreme organ of power dominated by the oligarchy.
In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune of the people. Despite his aristocratic origin, Tiberius was in favor of a more equitable distribution of land. Parenti writes, justifiably as we shall see, that Tiberius had “strong democratic inclinations.” In all times there have been exceptions such as the one of Tiberius, that is, individuals issued from families of exploiters who embrace the cause of the exploited (and vice versa). The above observation by Marx, like all social laws, is valid in terms of large numbers, admitting exceptions.
Tiberius, like any true democratic politician, mobilized the urban and rural plebs to approve his lex agraria, resurrecting that of 367 BC, with the condition that the land wrongfully appropriated by the rich should be distributed to the poor under the control of three elected commissioners. Parenti informs us how in Rome there were, at this juncture, historians (almost all of them) who engaged into defaming the defenders of the people. One of them was the famous Cicero who accused the “popular agitators” of being unbalanced people, who “due to a kind of innate revolutionary madness thrive in civil discord and sedition.”
In drafting the agrarian law Tiberius took the utmost care: he consulted present and former magistrates, contemplated the possibility of compensations to the rich and of non-prosecution for the illegalities they had committed. As stated by Plutarch: “No law against injustice and avarice has ever been written in softer and more conciliatory terms.” It was in vain. The oligarchy swore a lethal hatred against Tiberius. They tried to incite the people against Tiberius by accusing him, with no grounds, of wanting to instigate a revolution in order to seize power and to destroy the republic. Slandering as a weapon against popular leaders is as old as history!
Parenti quotes a survived fragment of a speech from Tiberius in which this leader describes the plight of landless commoners, many of whom were veterans of the army: “Landless and homeless, they are forced to take their wife and children and walk the roads as beggars … They fight and fall to serve only the purpose of multiplying the goods and comfort of the rich. They call them masters of the world, but they do not own a clod of the land that really belongs to them.” Echoing historians of that time aligned with the defense of the imperial oligarchy (for instance, Dion Cassius, 155-235 AD), influential modern historians, “a chorus of later specialists” (Parenti cites works by S.A. Handford, 1964, M. Grant, 1978, H.H. Scullard, 1982 ) spared no effort to defame Tiberius Gracchus: “he did an unspeakable evil to the Republic,” he was “arrogant,” “self-righteous,” “engaged in illegal ways,” “unnecessarily provocative and reckless.”
Tiberius presented his bill at the People’s Assembly and not at the Senate because the latter refused to examine it. It got there the unexpected veto of the other tribune of the people, Marcus Octavius, who aligned himself with the oligarchy. This veto, unworthy of a tribune of the people, earned Marcus Octavius his discharge from the Assembly.
The agrarian law was approved at the beginning of 133 BC. An agrarian commission was elected. The Senate had to reluctantly recognize the law but granted a derisory and outrageous amount (9 assès / day, according to the approved proposal of Publius Nasica, great pontiff, large landowner, and one of the most rabid enemies of reform) to the agrarian commission implementing the law. By that time, the People’s Assembly approved that the income of the province of Asia — donated by King Atala to the Roman people — would be made available to the agrarian commission. Meanwhile, Tiberius proposed other democratic measures: reducing the length of military service (at that time from the age of 17 to 46) and giving the people rights of judicial appeal.
The hatred voted by the oligarchy (headed by Nasica) and by the Senate to Tiberius shot up. They flooded him with a torrent of slander. What is astonishing is that these slanders are repeated with ridiculous justifications by modern historians, aligned with imperial capitalism, in a clear demonstration of the timeless hatred voted by the ideological supporters of the most unbridled exploitation to those who struggle for a more just society.
The celebrated German historian T. Mommsen , on the proposal passed by the People’s Assembly to use the income of the province of Asia, accuses Tiberius of “unduly tampering with public finances.” Other modern historians quoted by Parenti consider Tiberius’ legal decision to run for a new term as “tactless and provocative,” symptomatic of “leaders of the mob,” of “undue haste and foolishness,” etc.
“In the face of the popular revolt against the illegal possession of land, the oligarchs could not easily attack the law of Tiberius. That’s why they attacked him.” The oligarchs systematically accused Tiberius of being a demagogue, a dictator, who wanted to become king. When the People’s Assembly met to vote for the re-election of Tiberius, Nasica with a group of senators and a detachment of paid assassins, invaded the meeting and killed Tiberius and 300 of his followers, all unarmed. According to Plutarch his corpse was outraged in an undignified way and thrown to the Tiber like those of his companions. “They did not stop there with their vengeance: some of his friends were condemned to exile without any sort of trial and all those who they were able to arrest were killed” 
Parenti with full justification remarks: “It is an age-old practice to blame ‘impetuous’ and ‘provoking’ reformers for the violence of the reactionary forces they are victims of.” He cites on this fantastic statements by eminent modern historians: Mommsen accuses Tiberius of having “an escort of bodyguards recruited from the sewer”; C. Robinson (1884-1981)  blames the victims for the 133 BC massacre, for they resorted to “reckless and improper tactics by the Gracchi democrats” and the violence that caused Tiberius’ death is something “for which he, at least in part, must be held accountable”; for Scullard the oligarchy and the murderers were not to blame, for they were forced (!) to confront Tiberius, “the urban crowd that invaded [!!] the People’s Assembly … was becoming increasingly irresponsible … leading to mob rule or to the dictatorship.
Parenti comments: “These critics do not tell us which reform program Tiberius could have proposed so that he would not incur the wrath of the rich landowners.” Indeed, “the rich landowners” were in fact the illegal expropriators of land and the brutal and unscrupulous exploiters of human weakness and misery. But as long as there is a society of antagonistic classes, we will always witness to the benevolence of the treatment of the exploiters by the apparatuses of government, by the justice and mass communication, and by a large cohort of “eminent” and “emeritus” historians who receive praises and sinecures of the rich, and whose opinions — whose sole purpose is to justify exploitation and the status quo that feeds them — are exalted as final and irrevocable opinions by all that is anti-people reaction
What happened to Tiberius and his followers in 133 BC still resonates strongly in today’s brutal violence and violations of capitalists and imperialists. Violence and violations which also find justifications in a today’s large cohort of “eminent” and “emeritus” historians.