The publication of Yanis Varoufakis’ And The Weak Suffer What They Must? in paperback has been heralded by a short video in which James Galbraith, Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Zizek and Jeffrey Sachs offer their praise; the latter presents him as “the Thucydides of our time”, and Vintage have taken that as a key line for their publicity. It’s an interesting indication of the contemporary standing of Thucydides – but also a little puzzling.
The Thucydiocy Bot, having expressed scepticism on this point, got into an entertaining little spat with the Vintage Twitter account, who doubled down on the claim: Varoufakis had written a history of the European project (this was repeated several times) that revealed the democratic deficit at its heart, hence the suffering of the weak. Okay… I have to confess that Varoufakis’ book, which I bought in hardback last year, is still sitting on my bookshelf waiting for me to work through a list of more urgent tasks before I can do a proper analysis of his use of the Melian Dialogue – which I do have some hopes for. So, I can’t refute this claim – but on the basis of what I have read, I’d be inclined to say that this looks like a critique with some historical overview rather than a history in the normal sense.
Even if we use a broader definition and grant this the status of history, it’s hard to see what makes it Thucydidean. Certainly not the structure or organisation; it resolutely avoids a chronological narrative in favour of jumping backwards and forwards in time. It’s also much more personal than we’d expect from Thucydides. Varoufakis does echo some key themes, above all the Melian Dialogue from which his title is of course taken. But it’s a stretch to claim that Thucydides’ account is about the democratic deficit at the heart of the Athenian Empire; if anything, as someone else pointed out on the Twitter, his concern is with the problems of an excess of democracy. ‘Thucydidean’ here appears to be a set of ideas confined to the Melian Dialogue, and perhaps an image of the calm, illusionless analyst of human weakness.
To be fair to Varoufakis, I don’t have any reason to suppose that he is making this comparison himself; I would guess that he just talks about Thucydides a lot, and that Sachs – about whose knowledge of Thucydides, beyond what he’s read in Varoufakis, I know nothing – has spotted this as an appropriate compliment to offer. It could actually seem a bit double-edged, given that Thucydides’ brief career in public service was a bit of a shambles – or maybe deliberately non-committal, coming from an economist, pointedly *not* comparing Varoufakis to, say, Stiglitz, Krugman or Keynes.
What it reminded me of – and I’m well aware that I’m probably in a minority of one here – is Marx’s habit of referring to Wilhelm Roscher as “the Thucydides of Political Economy” or “Herr Thucydides Roscher”. Roscher had written the book on Thucydides earlier in his career, and persisted in the claim – presumably sincere, though definitely bizarre – that he’d learnt as much about political economy from Thucydides as from any other writer, ancient or modern. Marx picked up on his frequent references – but not as a compliment; rather to highlight the incongruity, both between Roscher’s pretensions and the reality of his work, and of introducing Thucydides into discussions of modern capitalism at all.
Being “the Thucydides of Political Economy” is a category error, like being the Picasso of particle physics; striking and original, but not actually what is required. There’s a more plausible case that we could do with a “Thucydides of our time”, though with lots of scope for arguing over what that actually means. Certainly, however, we can follow Varoufakis in thinking that what we need is the original Thucydides, who, read in the right way, can speak to our time.