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Ancient and modern

Jeremy Corbyn and Pericles: spot the difference

Democracy doesn’t have to mean lack of leadership. But sometimes it does…

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

Whatever else one can say about Jeremy Corbyn, one thing is clear: he is a leader who does not believe in leadership. But he is (he believes) a democrat, and thinks democracy means acceding to the views of those who voted him into the leadership. He should try the 5th-century bc Greek historian Thucydides to see what it really entails.

Thucydides’ hero was his contemporary Pericles, a man who so controlled the Assembly — Athens’ sovereign decision-making body (all Athenian citizens over 18) — that Thucydides described Athens at the time as ‘in theory a democracy, but in fact rule by the foremost individual’. This is an exaggeration. Pericles in Assembly had no more power to enforce his will than any other citizen; he was but a single voice among many others. So what was his secret?


Thucydides puts into Pericles’ mouth a speech (in a military context) in which he argues that, since Athens can, as a community, support individuals’ misfortunes, but individuals cannot support hers, it is essential that citizens forget their personal problems and rally rather to the cause of Athens as a whole. That, he says, is his sole concern: the good of the whole city. And, Thucydides went on, the Athenians believed him, ‘for his strength lay in his reputation and intelligence, and he was patently incorruptible. Further, he held the Assembly on a light rein, and far from being led by them, led them himself. He did not have to adapt what he said in order to pander to his listeners and gain power by improper means; indeed his authority enabled him even to anger them by speaking against them.’

And that is the point: Pericles was a man of authority, who had the interests of the whole city at heart, not one small part of it; he could stand up before the whole citizen body and say ‘I know and can explain what is needed’ — and be believed and trusted. And Corbyn? Well, he can hymn the glorious socialist martyrs in the ‘Red Flag’ (1889), to the tune ‘O Christmas Tree’ (1824). Among whom the Labour party is the latest.


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