Nostalgia wars are all the rage at the moment, but an extraordinary example appears to have been missed: a hammer and sickle painted on the newly erected statue of Lady Thatcher. Communism was in fact invented by the Greek comic poet Aristophanes (c. 446-386 bc). For him, it was one long, uproarious joke.
His Ecclesiazusae(‘Women Running The Assembly’) was produced in Athens in 391 bc. In it, he depicts the women of Athens disguising themselves with beards and taking total control of the male-dominated assembly. Their leaderene Praxagora then issues a programme of reform, which abolishes private property – land, goods, and money – and uses it to feed and clothe the whole citizen body, under female management. She also abolishes marriage, instantly destroying the whole Greek family and kinship system. Sex is to be communally available, but on one condition: any man desired by more than one woman has to give first dibs to the ugliest and/or oldest woman (who argue ferociously about who is uglier and older). And vice versa.
It was from this comedy that Plato developed, through the mouth of Socrates, the blueprint of his utopia that was to have such influence on later political thought. The Guardians of his brave new world would have no private property; marriage would not exist; and women would be held in common among men (though Aristophanes’ preferential conditions for sexual relations were a step too far).
Plato also understood the consequences of this arrangement in the same way as Aristophanes did: there would be no private houses, little litigation, communal dining, deep respect between young and old because no one could be quite certain who their parents or children were, and all would be supported by slave labour. Further, Plato admitted that people would regard this idea as ridiculous and urged them not to be put off by the sarcastic jokes which it would attract – not surprising, since Aristophanes had got there first.
If only Marx had read Ecclesiazusae… If only Plato hadn’t… But how can anyone still be nostalgic for their utopian fantasy?
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