Future Hope column, October 30, 2010
By Ted Glick
“But what can I tell you of him? They want to make him a giant, but he wasn’t a giant. He was an ordinary man. He was gentle and good and filled with love. When the slaves would fight and bicker, Spartacus would call them together, and they would all talk, and then he’d talk to them and they’d listen. They did bad things, but they always wanted to be better. And Spartacus taught me that all the bad things men do, they do because they are afraid. He showed me how men could change and become fine and beautiful, if only they lived in brotherhood and shared all they had among them. I saw this. I lived through it. They were something like the world never saw before. They were the way people can be.”
-Varinia, soul mate and wife of Spartacus, in “Spartacus,” by Howard Fast
I’ve watched the movie at least five times, but I’ve never read the book, until this week. Written in 1951 during the height of the repressive McCarthy era by one of the 20th century’s most popular authors, Howard Fast, “Spartacus” is one of the most inspiring and insightful books I have ever read.
Fast, a member of the Communist Party at the time, was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1950. When he refused to give this committee the names of contributors to a fund for orphaned children of Americans who had fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, he was given a three-month sentence for contempt of Congress.
According to Wikipedia, “It was while he was in jail that Fast began writing his most famous work, Spartacus, a novel about an uprising among Roman slaves. Blacklisted by major publishing houses following his release from prison, Fast was forced to publish the novel himself. By the standards of a self-published book, it was a great success, going through seven printings in the first four months of publication. According to Fast in his memoir, 50,000 copies were printed, of which 48,000 were sold.”
There’s no doubt in my mind that the publication and circulation of Spartacus had more than a little bit to do with the eventual end of McCarthyism and the rise of the movement for justice and peace in the 1960’s.
History, indeed, rarely moves forward in an unbroken upwards direction. It’s more like our personal lives, full of ups and downs.
Because I’ve seen the movie, which features Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons in leading roles, I knew the Spartacus story, a true story of a massive rebellion by Roman slaves from 73-70 BC. But as sometimes happens with books in relation to movies, there was a depth of analysis, an attention to detail, in the book that the movie wasn’t able to fully capture.
Fast’s elucidation of the relations between oppressor and oppressed, combined with wise descriptions about relations between individual people within that class society, are masterfully drawn .
He contrasts the lives of the Roman rulers, and those who identified with them, with the lives of slaves, who constituted a large percentage of Roman society. Through the words of a Roman Senator, Gracchus, he explains “how empty our lives are. That is because we spend so much time filling our lives. All the natural acts of barbarians, eating and drinking and living and laughing – all these things we have made a great ritual and fetish out of. We talk of love, but we don’t love, and with our endless innovations and perversions we try to find a substitute. With us, amusement has taken the place of happiness, and as each amusement palls, there must be something more amusing, more exciting – more and more and more. We have brutalized ourselves to a point were we are insensitive to what we do, and this insensitivity grows.”
Not just 2,000 years ago, but still today, for the dominant culture of the dominant system.
Spartacus, on the other hand, as explained by Varinia after his death, “wanted a world where there were no slaves and no masters, only people living together in peace and brotherhood. He said that we would take from Rome what was good and beautiful. We would build cities without walls, and all men would live in peace and brotherhood, and there would be no more war and no more misery and no more suffering.”
Or as Spartacus says to a Roman soldier, “The world is tired of the wealth and splendor that you have squeezed out of our blood and bone. The world is tired of the song of the whip. We don’t want to hear that song any more. In the beginning, all men were alike and they lived in peace and they shared among them what they had. But now there are two kinds of men, the master and the slave. But there are more of us than there are of you, many more. And we are stronger than you, better than you. All that is good in mankind belongs to us.”
Today, after almost a century of revolutions, corruption of revolutions and counter-revolutions, we know that the process of economic, social and cultural transformation is not so simple. We know from historical experience that the most noble of causes can turn sour, turn into its opposite, become a force of oppression rather than liberation. That is why it is essential that as we build our movement to transform the world we must be about the transformation today of how we live as human beings, how we interact with others, how we consciously build a new and loving culture as we strive together towards a new world.
Historical examples like the Spartacus rebellion are part of the usually-hidden history most of us don’t get in the public schools growing up. Learning this history is important so that we can deal with the down times of the work of social change. Our hearts and our spirits will be stronger as we remember those who have gone before us who refused to give in despite much more difficult circumstances.
Ted Glick has been a progressive activist and organizer since 1968. Past writings and more information can be found at http://www.tedglick.com.