One of many demonstrations that took place outside the Clarendon Building in the 1960s
By Dr Paul Cartledge
(New College, 1965)
I belong to the late ‘60s Oxonian generation – 1965-1969, reading ‘Greats’ at New College. I therefore also belong to the ‘Hart Report’ (1968) generation – and indeed had more than my fair share of engagement with that Report one way or another. As my undergraduate Greek History tutor (a major contributor to the Hart Committee’s deliberations) was fond of saying, a report that was self-styled as being to do with relations between ‘The University’ and ‘The Junior Members’ seemed to suggest that they were two distinct, and possibly even antagonistic entities or corporate bodies.
The great lawyer Herbert Hart (himself a New College ‘Greats’ man originally, whom I got to know and admire deeply when I was a junior research fellow of Univ. from 1970 to 1972) told me that Geoffrey de Ste. Croix (for it was he) was one of the most extraordinary persons he had ever met, possibly the most extraordinary. I can confirm that from my own experience, and it was he who persuaded me and a couple of my fellow New College undergrads to write a letter to the Oxford Magazine (then edited by my future best man, Ewen Bowie of Corpus) demanding – in effect – that the University (‘The University’!) democratise itself. I converted word to deed personally too: both by picketing All Souls on the High, bearing a placard to that effect, and by attempting with others to secure rights of representation (note: not effective power) for students both graduate and undergraduate on New Coll.’s major decision-making bodies. We were met with what we liked to dismiss as mere ‘repressive tolerance’ by the eminently tolerant and gracious Warden of New College, Sir William Hayter. I even indulged in ‘direct action’, not just in demonstrations of one sort or another but also in an ‘occupation’ – or ‘sit-in’ as they were called then, more of a sleep-in, actually - of the University’s then chief administrative hub, the Clarendon Building. We were left undisturbed overnight but woken unceremoniously in the early morning by Marshals – an office that until then none of us students knew existed – and had our names taken, but without any further express consequences that we were aware of. Repressive tolerance, again.
That brief foray into personal reminiscence is meant to convey the fact that I’ve been preoccupied with democracy pragmatically as well as theoretically, and with contemporary democracy as well as ancient Greek democracy, for almost half a century now. Over the years the fact that I am a subject, not a citizen (except in the extended sense conferred by the incorporation into UK law of the European Convention on Human Rights), has weighed ever more heavily upon me, such that the gaping gulf between my own political experience and that of a fully empowered citizen of the ancient Athenian democracy has become ever more painfully apparent. Towards the end of my career as a fully paid-up member of the ‘C Caucus (Ancient History)’ of the Faculty of Classics in the University of Cambridge, in some sort of act of compensation I suppose, I delivered over four academic years (2009-13) a series of 24 lectures on ‘Ancient Greek Democracy and its Legacies’. It is those lectures that form the bedrock of my latest book, published by O.U.P. New York (and Oxford – but the heavy lifting has been done in the Big Apple): Democracy: A Life.
The book is quite short – I tend to the laconic anyway (well, I would, wouldn’t I, as an honorary citizen of Sparta) - and has three main aims: 1. to describe and explain the emergence and development of demokratia (people-power) in the ancient Greek world between about 700 BCE (emergence of the polis or citizen-state and of politics and the political) and 322 BCE (death of old-style demokratia, assassinated by an unholy combo of Athenian oligarchs, their Macedonian overlords and Roman imperialists,), emphasising the reforms attributed to Cleisthenes at Athens in 508/7. 2. To describe and explain the decadence, decline and disappearance of demokratia in antiquity and mediaeval Europe. 3. To account for the re-emergence of the 'people' as a potent political force in the early-modern period (especially in the three great 'moments' - the Levellers’ Debates during the Civil War of seventeenth century England, the American and the French Revolutions) until by the mid-nineteenth century versions of ‘democracy’ were considered 'ok' in the developed West . (A subsidiary, fourth aim is to trounce the touchy-feely 'inclusive' view that democracy wasn't a peculiarly ancient Greek invention. It was.)
But – and this holds throughout - the emphasis in this last part of the book is, as it has to be, on difference rather than similarity: it was only a tamed, representative version of democracy, not the full-blooded ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ notion of ancient Greece, that surfaced in the late eighteenth and more particularly the first half of the nineteenth century. I tout a bookshop/book festival/schools talk called something like 'Ten Things You Really Ought to Know About Democracy in Ancient Greece'. This is the basis of an article commissioned by Paul Lay, the estimable editor of the monthly, popular-history magazine History Today. For further detail of my - I hope controversial – views, that might be a plausible first port of call.
Dr Paul Cartledge is A.G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow, Clare College, Cambridge and A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture (2008-2014), University of Cambridge, emeritus. His book Democracy: A Life is published through OUP.
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