Monday, 5 July 2010

Machiavelli and Marxist Politics

The 'Modern Prince' is among Gramsci's most important writings. Because of their significance, his notes on the modern prince (i.e. the political party) will be spread over a number of posts. In this short piece I will be concentrating on Gramsci's appreciation and appropriation of the early Florentine political theorist, Niccolò Machiavelli.

Machiavelli's had a bad press these past 500 years. Along with the
Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf, The Prince is regarded as a notorious tract of political pornography. Why? For dictators, careerists and climbers of the greasy pole, The Prince is *the* handbook for achieving and maintaining political power. Machiavelli is said to be responsible for exposing political calculation in all its naked cynicism and bad faith. For example, this piece is typical of the commentary on Machiavelli. Gramsci however had no truck with this sort of hand wringing and goes some way to rehabilitate him for Marxist political theory.

What did Gramsci want to recover from centuries of hypocritical commentary on
The Prince? It was the fact Machiavelli and Gramsci were motivated by analogous political projects. Whereas Gramsci theorised the political strategy appropriate to socialism in an age where capitalism appeared exhausted (what is fascism if it is not an attempt to freeze historical development by state violence and dictatorship?), Machiavelli was concerned with developing an ideal construct/individual that could unite a "shattered people". In other words he was motivated by a political vision of a united and strong Italy that could compete on equal footing with the powerful unitary states of England, France and Spain. In this sense he was an enemy of the feudal land owners and the Pope, whose interests were served by the division of the Italian peninsular into petty states and fiefdoms. From the standpoint of the development of the productive forces, Machiavelli's project, had it been a success, would have set Italy firmly on the path to capitalist modernity centuries before Italian national unification actually occurred.

For Gramsci what made Machiavelli a modern political thinker as opposed to a utopian dreamer like
Thomas More and Plato was the rooting of his project in the prevailing social conditions of his day. Gramsci argues Machiavelli knew that a movement for national unity would need to mobilise the mass of the peasantry, and the means for doing so lay in the emerging urban bourgeoisie. He favoured the reformation of militias - which were the preserve and playthings of aristocrats and princelings - into truly popular forces. And of course 'the Prince' of his work's title was to spearhead this movement. Therefore the hard headed advice Machiavelli dispenses is really a programme for building consent, winning power and consolidating a new nation-wide regime in 16th century Italy.

As far as Gramsci was concerned, Machiavelli's work was not written for those already 'in the know': it was addressed to the (would-be) constituents of the historic bloc for whom politics was not part of their complex of socialisation. In so doing he systematised the existing political practice of elites - an enterprise that may have seen the traditional classes in the centuries since reap the benefit, but also and more significantly he introduced the mechanics of political technique to those outside these exalted circles. For many commentators on Machiavelli's work, this is his real, unpardonable sin.

What was Machiavelli's relevance to Gramsci? In a very basic sense their respective political projects were similar, that is to forge a new collective will that could bring together an historic bloc of classes whose interests lay in a revolutionary direction. But that is where the similarities end. For Machiavelli, the movement he desired was personified by the prince: a figure who would act as a lightning rod for the popular social forces and who, in turn, would stamp this bloc with his personality. Under modern conditions the roles and functions of 'great men' are much more tightly circumscribed. For Gramsci it's only at specific conjunctures where politics allows decisive individual action, such as moments of crisis (
cometh the hour, cometh the man is a political myth, but it contains a grain of insight by recognising individuals can exercise a crucial influence over the course of events). However the actions of the individual political leader are capable of "restoration and reorganisation", but not the major shift the supersession of capitalism by socialism would require. Therefore individual leadership is an improvisation that serves particular interests at particular times.

Instead of an individual standing at the front of the workers' movement we have (or should aim to have) the modern prince: the revolutionary socialist party. Only a collective actor is capable of the immense task of organising for socialism. As the harbinger of the socialist future and the expression of working class interests, of necessity it must address itself to the question of 'Jacobin' (i.e. insurrectionary) technique, but more importantly it is the chief agent for organising a new collective will from political and (seemingly) non-political moral, intellectual and cultural phenomena and promote the vision of socialism.

This is why Machiavelli was significant for Marxist politics. Just as
The Prince stresses building the consent necessary for achieving and stabilising the prince's reign (while recommending violence be deployed when necessary), Gramsci emphasises the patient work of developing the collective will, putting off a violent confrontation with the ruling class to the point where the modern prince can pull the rest of society in its train.

Gramsci's discussion of Machiavelli raises a couple of points about the role of personality in modern politics. At first glance his idea that politics have rendered the individual redundant appears to sit uneasily with his own circumstances. If this was the case, how would he have explained the Mussolini personality cult of the fascist regime that jailed him? Furthermore the bulk of his notes date from the time when dictatorships were mushrooming all over Europe. By the time the second world war broke out, liberal democracies were thin on the ground. However if one applies Gramsci's understanding of the modern prince to the likes of Nazi Germany and Stalin's USSR, the qualitative difference between modern and late feudal/early modern politics is plain.

Most dictatorships regardless of their professed ideologies rest on a political party or a party-style organisation. This is no accident of history: parties provide the indispensable foundation for dictatorial rule. In liberal democracies, theoretically speaking parties link (mass) memberships and electorates to competing sets of political elites. The same can be said of Iraq's Ba'ath party, the Korean Workers' Party and Italy's Fascist Party, albeit the linking they performed was with a permanent leadership. While these parties possessed a monopoly on political power and enabled their figurehead considerable license to mould party and society in their image, this was only possible because of the organising capacities of their party. The party did not exist because of their leader: the leader existed because of their party.

Many may moan today about the dominance of personality politics, but this is a far cry from Gramsci's understanding of personality in the political process. Sure, personalities have become more important as the political differences between the main bourgeois parties in the West have narrowed, but it is very rare for an individual to utterly dominate their party. Whatever they like to pretend now, the Tories were never united behind Thatcher. Where personalities persist in having a 'prince-like' effects on their parties, this tends to be toward the fringes where social weight gradually drops away the further the distance travelled from the centre left and centre right (this helps explain why so many far left organisations are grouped around petty gurus, and to greater or lesser extents collectively project the personality of their comrade number one).

Returning to the main point, for Gramsci the modern prince was the revolutionary socialist party. Its task is nothing less than winning over the mass of popular classes (the working class, the peasantry) to a force (the historic bloc) is with the potential to make a revolution. Intertwined with this is the forging of a national-popular collective will that successfully challenges the hegemony of the modern day 'traditional class' (the bourgeoisie), overturns their legitimacy, and justifies the socialist transformation of society.

A list of posts in this series on the Selections from the Prison Notebooks can be found


Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

I'm a big fan of the writings of Machiavelli and anyone who gives them a bad rap is either mis-reading them or naive.

It's been a while since I read his work, I may have to revisit it as the first time around I was struck by its prescience and the fact that rather than being a handbook of evil, it was a painfully sharp insight into how human's carry themselves when in or out of power.

maps said...

You might want to have a look at some of Althusser's late writings on Machiavelli. Althusser was also preoccupied with the man, but in a rather different way from Gramsci -in his post-1980, 'aleatory materialist' phase, Althusser decided that Machiavelli had an understanding of history which was both materialist and non-determinist, and thus had a bit to teach Marxists. Althusser's late work remains very controversial, of course...

andy newman said...

Benito Mussolini also wrote a quite useful short introduction to The Prince, which is clearly still informed by Mussolini's Marxist education.

Mussolini argues that it is incorrect in a society such as Italy in the 1920s to ascribe the role of the prince to the working class or the capitalists, as both have two small a social weight. The majority of society are either the urban middle classes or peasantry, who cannot collectively be masters of their own fate, and therefore the role of the Prince in creating a modern industrialised society must be played by the revolutionary Party (fascisti)

Because the rather different experience of Gem=rman Nazism has been the dominant area of popular interest the interpenetration of theorisation in fascist and socialist thought in Italy (and in Britain, think of Mosley, Strachey, and even the mainstream corparatist theorists in the Labour party, like Evan Durban) has been perhaps underappreciated, for obvious reasons.

Phil said...

I don't know what's up with the comments today. They're playing silly buggers something chronic. Here's the comment left by Arthur Bough that was mysteriously deleted by the system:

There is, though, some debate as to what Machiavelli's real motivation was in writing the Prince. The Prince was Cesare Borgia, of the famous family from the TV series about the Pope Father who screwed his daughter, and everything else in sight.

There is some belief that the prince was actually written as sort of parody of the actual politics of Cesare Borgia.