Lecture Notes on Machiavelli and Marx

Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532)


Quote (chapter 26)


"Everyone is sick of being pushed around by the barbarians. Your family must commit itself to the enterprise. Do it with the confidence and hope with which people embark on a just cause so that, marching behind your banner, the whole nation is ennobled. Under your patronage, may we prove Petrach right:


“Virtue [virtu] will take up arms against savagery,

And the battle will be short.

For the courage of old is not yet dead

In Italian hearts.”  (Petrarch, Italia mia, ll 93-96)" 

We have to address this quotation with what did it mean to Machiavelli in terms of virtu, necessita, prudence;, and fortuna. Virtu translates as manliness and virility; necessita as necessity geopolitically defined; prudence as moderation; and fortuna as blind luck, which is half of our fate in life. The blend of the four components in an individual heroic redeemer, The Prince, helps forge the outcome. So, the treatise is a handbook for aspiring leaders who would unite Italy and all its city states.

The geopolitical situation of Italy circa 1515 was desperate. It had a host of enemies along with the occupation France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and Swiss mercenaries. Machiavelli made his appeal to the Medici family in Florence and Rome to take up the sword and scourge these intruders. He was looking for charismatic leadership, as modeled in ancient Republican Rome, to save the day.

There is an anti-humanism in his work because he extols the use of violence, mass force, and cruelty to achieve noble ends by often ignoble means. He was a practitioner of Realpolitik, in which you deal with the cards at hand; hence, he was a hard realist with no philosopher’s grandiose schemes. He was a hands-on diplomat, performing many missions for Florence.

He believed that violence should be applied economically; violent preemptive strikes against domestic and foreign enemies should be done surgically and in a manner to protect people’s property, since people valued land and money above loss of kinfolk. The prince should inspire fear but not hatred; otherwise, weaker enemies would ally to bring him down.

Good government is republican and he deplored factions, much as Madison would during the American Revolution. Nonetheless, he believed in a democracy or aristocracy of talents where the mobs were controlled. There is a war between states where only the fittest survive. He advocated aggressive warfare, which entailed crimes against the peace, in order to be dynamic and imperial. He believed in republics of a scale to be successful, particularly as nation-states. Dynastic  and small city states were coming to an end; there was to be a revolution in the European balance of power where he hoped a revived Italy would play a critical role as a player of consequence. Machiavelli augured the era of the modern nation-state system.

He said that the prince should be part fox and part lion. The fox is crafty but weak; the lion is strong but brutish in intelligence; hence, t the prince should be a hybrid of thetwo animals. He believed that you should keep your word when possible; however, he advocated breaking it for the national interest since people are naturally wicked and tend to be suspect of making promises. A great prince should have the following qualities: patriotic, truthful, sympathetic, reliable, and religious. He put strong emphasis on religion because people tend to be superstitious and look up to those who have God’s grace and the appearance of good character. Hence, he was being very cynical.

Other books of consequence are his Discourses on Livy, The Art of War, and Florentine Histories.


Machiavelli and Marx

In the course of our dialogues, it has been asked whether Machiavelli can be transmitted into a Marxist. The answer is plain no. Machiavelli had a cyclical version of history; Marx had a developmental and historical materialist ontology. The more extreme form of Marx can be found in the dialectical materialism of Engels, who believed history is irretrievably teleological. Communism must triumph. The more cautious Marx only claimed that communism was a possibility since human events find themselves enmeshed in radical contingency and in need of mediation by fallible humans. Marx allowed for human error in that political praxis found its agency in the operant, instrumental reason of the vanguard of the proletariat, that is, the intellectuals. Machiavelli, to the contrary, was seeking a great man or woman to demonstrate virtu in liberating Italy from the “barbarians.”

However, they do coincide in one respect. They both objectified man and nature in their writings. Machiavelli took virtu to an extreme degree when necessary and advocated violence to cleanse enemies therapeutically. Marx advocated mass action (based on class definitions) when objective conditions in the material mode of production produced fatal contradictions that invited revolutionary action. Marx saw man as perfectible and capable of infinite improvement in the technological and scientific sense. Science, as a force of production, could produce the material conditions that would permit a privileged category of men to come to self-understanding. In this sociohistoric process, man is generically conceived, a manifestation of a species-being essence that inherently unfolds as the forces of production in science, materially a political force, break the fetters on production, ultimately expressed in class conflict. Marx reified man by seeing him as objectified subject of history and as abstract second nature (n described merely as a laboring beast whose social relations to others are of an object to object character), grounded in the domination of pristine nature.

Machiavelli gives primacy to the singular agent of history who stamps his personality on time; but time cyclical, nature dominated, and man objectified (alienated from his species being). Above all, Machiavelli believed men to be flawed and manipulable, not perfectible. His ideas are pre-Enlightenment and preclude a concept of rationality that has a liberatory impetus. I could not make a Marxist out of Machiavelli because he is so idiosyncratic. Marx would disown Machiavelli as a “Blanquist,” a man who would seize power by coup d’état independent of the correlation of forces in the social field. Marx savagely critiqued such a subjectivist attitude of the “great man theory of history” because it precludes the “scientific” approach to analyzing history and its trends. In short, Machiavelli’s Prince is anti-historical since he acts in defiance of the facts and attempts to create a polis after his own image, whatever the cost. Marx was not such a risk taker.


The Prince and the Modern Age

Machiavelli’s The Prince augured the modern age of political and military science (for instance, the invention of the cannon spelled the doom of feudalism).  Machiavelli talked of the strategic advantages of creating a citizen army in order to create a national consciousness to take on the occupiers of Italy—France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. The modern prince was to tap into the growing pool of commercial capital to borrow money to run a successful republican state and to wage war with the idea of imperial expansion. The specific philosophy was mercantilism, in which the measure of the wealth of the nation was its gold and silver; obviously, great powers like Spain had to acquire colonies in order for its political class to wage war. Eventually, the political class of the mercantile state developed corrupt leaders and bankrupted treasuries. There was a substantial burgher class in the city states of Italy during the sixteenth century. The rudimentary idea took root of a civil service based on achievement and merit rather than status attributable to birth. So, there is a realism in the thinking of Machiavelli that discounted utopian philosophizing about an ideal state of affairs. The Prince is an epic figure who makes events and does not look for transcendental (religious) justifications for his direct actions. He may not be from the people, but he does need them from necessity to provide the conviction that goes with a sound military strategy. The strategy was one of expansion, usually by colonization. Power is thus dynamic not static. It is always in motion, much like the heavenly bodies to be discovered in the mechanical laws of Isaac Newton a century and a half later.

Machiavelli epitomized the ideals of the Renaissance in that he looked to the classical world of the Greeks and Romans for military heroes. Nonetheless, he represented a transitional figure to the modern era. The fact that the book was written in Italian rather than Latin made it available to a civic minded polis with the idea that language bound peoples together in a nation-state. The printing press of the previous century provided the means for world communication of ideas with its mass production that brought texts to the marketplace cheaply. In particular, nationalism became a major revolutionary idea that transformed the world over the next several centuries.

With this backdrop of converging socioeconomic and political forces, nationalism had its origins with its fruits in the nineteenth century of the nation-state that is still the Italy of today. It was an imperial state that taxed its colonies as it expanded to its natural limits of ethnicity and territory. The citizen militias, based on notions of virtu and glory, were to be the shock troops of this geopolitical transformation. Machiavelli disdained mercenaries and auxiliaries because of their inherent untrustworthiness. The republic was to guarantee property rights with the rule of law, disinterestedly administered. Machiavelli saw the importance of propaganda or appearances; for instance, a ruler should seem to be religious, hence moral, and even if not, to cement the loyalty of his superstitious populace with its traditional values. Ultimately, inherent in the notion of the nation state, there was to be the centralization of power into one great metropolitan center. This administration of things spelled the end of feudalism with the Church that had become too worldly and the nobles too corrupt. The phenomenon of urbanization became a factor in nation-state formation. People migrated into the cities because there were economic opportunities to move up the social ladder. As populations increased, there necessarily had to be representatives elected by the restricted electors in order to have a rational bureaucracy to run daily governmental affairs. People expected just treatment with mutual respect and reciprocity built into the commercial code of conduct, particularly the notion of enforceable contracts. The bourgeoisie in proto form was making its appearance in Western European countries with its emphasis on individualism, materialism, scientific method, rule of law, and personal autonomy with representative institutions in the government. The Prince is a book on political science whose arguments are solely secular in nature with no appeal to God’s providence. Italy had to be liberated by a great hero of either gender, leading an educated citizenry to military victory by the triumph of the will.

The prince had to have heroic qualities of prudence, virtu, cruelty, and opportunism to adapt to an environment ever in flux. He had to combine the characteristics of the fox and the lion. Machiavelli thought the Medici family exhibited the patriotic traits and leadership abilities that might unify Italy though measured violence, much as a physician uses poison in limited doses to aid his patient to recovery.  

Overall, I would describe these political science recipes as Realpolitik, the employment of realism in achieving possible goals, if Lady Fortune only would cooperate. There were no guarantees in his prescriptions because changing circumstances could undermine the best laid plans; ye, the true prince would be able to adapt quickly and save the day.

Modernism is the doctrine that rational minds and the institution of science with technology could create the conditions for material advancement of man qua individual/citizen and the public interest. It coincided with the rise of commercial capitalism, that pursuit of private egotistical interests in the marketplace, with free information available to all, would result in the public good with minimal state interference. Too, there developed the general notion that the populace had to be educated; so, there emerged the idea that educated humans were a form of capital that is a factor of production. The Church’s influence was to be null, particularly in a political sense.

Philosophically, the premise of modernism is empirical in that when studying nature and human nature there could be identifiable only one cause that could be quantitatively defined. That telos dissolved, by and large, with the widespread destructive and genocidal warfare between nation-states and peoples during the twentieth century. Now, truth is historically relative only to a particular defined situation that has to be interpreted. Interpretations change with new generations of intellectuals, the keepers of the little truths evolved in university confines and the big think tanks, often corporate and government sponsored.

So, people live in a post-modern age. History has no end and simply evolves without any end in sight. Machiavelli had a different spin on philosophy of history. History is cyclical and repeats itself. In that sense, Machiavelli was not a modern thinker. Nonetheless, his belief in the power of violence and science creatively to inaugurate a nation-state system upon sound principles is a very modern notion.


Machiavelli and the American Revolution

The founding fathers certainly read Machiavelli because of his emphasis on military virtu to achieve political goals. Might makes right (Realpolitik where in war the end of victory justifies the means). The martial success of the American Revolution certainly can be attributed to its final victory over Great Britain. The American colonies had allies in France, Spain, and the Netherlands, without whose aid Washington could not have prevailed. He incorporated state militias into his Continental Army—certainly following the prescriptions of Machiavelli that the power of a nation comes from an educated polis, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice on battlefields. Washington made the ultimate noble gesture in renouncing plans for a coup d’état to establish him as president for life. He voluntarily renounced power, like Cincinnatus of ancient Rome, to establish the legitimacy of the central government and help institutionalize the concept of nationhood. He truly was the Prince of American History.