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Marxism or Machiavellianism?

It is a familiar principle of capitalist politics that that means justify the end and so any "tactics" can be used in order to achieve political power. Machiavellianism is alive and well in 1977, and the old master of deceitfulness would be quite proud of his modern disciples in the Palace of Westminster.

Scholars have disagreed as to what Machiavelli's political intentions were. Jeffrey Pulver, writing in 1937 on what constitutes Machiavelli's contribution to political thought, answers plainly: "Nothing at all." It is true that, unlike Marx, Machiavelli did not apply himself to any revolutionary view of society and that his historical observations were less than profound; his advice to aspiring politicians, however, is a frank admission of the way in which leaders win and retain power.

All of Machiavelli's major works—The Prince, The Discourses, and the Florentine Histories—are concerned with political power: the establishment of states, the maintenance of effective governments within them and reasons for, and preventives against, their decline and fall. Unlike Plato and Thomas More they are not concerned with describing a future utopia, but with considering Renaissance Italian society as it was. He was not the first to deal with this subject: many of his contemporaries' writings dealt with

     "the problems of kingship—countless treatises with such titles as 'De Regime Principium', 'De Officio Regis', or 'The governal of princes'—copied and recopied, translated, revised, enlarged and adapted for century after century." (S. Anglo, Machiavelli: a Dissection, p. 189.)

In short, they were writing text books for rulers on how to rule successfully, in the same way as modern advertisements offer free booklets on "How to Influence People and Become Rich". It was Machiavelli's frankness in his advice to princes which has since been seen as shocking by liberal theorists. Alberico Gentile and Garret Mattingly saw The Prince as an outrageous satire; Spinoza and Rousseau saw it as a warning against tyranny; Prezzoloni and Haydn regarded it as a shocking treatise because it attacked Christianity and defended paganism; numerous other philosophers, politicians and social theorists have demonstrated outrage against the views of Machiavelli. And all of them have one thing in common: they do not challenge Machiavelli's fundamental statement that it is virtuous to trick the majority in order to retain power, but have continued to support the capitalist system which depends on obscuring the interests of the majority to safeguard the security of the minority. Perhaps Bertrand Russell is right when he says:

    "Much of the conventional obloquy that attaches to [Machiavelli's] name is due to the indignation of hypocrites who hate the frank avowal of evil-doing." (History of Western Philosophy, Bk. 3, p. 491.)

The outcry over Machiavelli is, therefore, because he paints a portrait of his ideal ruler (based in fact on Cesare Borgia) which is too accurately descriptive of the way political leaders behave. How well does Laurence Arthur Burd's description of Machiavelli's ideal prince remind one of residents at Number 10, Downing Street:

    "He must in the first place be entirely free from emotional disturbance; he must be ready to take advantage of the existing state of things; he must be strong enough to sin boldly, if his country's welfare depends upon it; he must be shrewd enough to understand human nature in whatever form he finds it, and, overcoming evil by evil, play with the passions and impulses of men, use them as he pleases, force them to his purpose, manage them. And above all he must be thorough: a single hesitation, a single half-measure might compromise the whole result. He must depend upon himself and his own soldiers; he must abolish all mercenaries and establish a national army of his own subjects. If such a man could be found, of unflinching purpose, dead to every sentiment but the love of his country, willing to save his fatherland rather than his own soul, careless of justice or injustice, of mercy or cruelty, of honour or disgrace, he might perhaps . . . begin the regeneration of his people."

Machiavelli was not the first to argue against the established belief that the State should be run in accordance with fixed (Christian) moral principles and to propose that rulers should be guided by political and economic expediency. Pontano believed that for the good of the State (i.e. the ruling class interest) a ruler should tell lies (it will be of some comfort to modern political leaders to know that they have Pontano's permission); Patrizzi believed the same, so that people would not know if the nation was in ruin; and Platina claimed that even private citizens could forget about morality if it was for the benefit of the State. Machiavelli realized that:

    "If morals relate to human conduct, and men are by nature social, Christian morality cannot be a guide for normal social existence." (I. Berlin, "The Originality of Machiavelli," in Studies on Machiavelli, ed. Myron P. Gilmore)

In this respect Machiavelli held a similar position to Marx in realizing that morality is socially determined by the needs of the ruling class, and that as society is constantly changing so is morality. The difference between Marx and Machiavelli is that whereas Marx told workers to forget moral values and view society materially, Machiavelli, as an adviser to the rising bourgeoisie of late medieval Italy, sought ways to manipulate existing moral values.

Today workers are still swallowing the morality of the capitalist class—a morality which condemns robbing banks, but encourages mass murder during war time, which censors books but shows every night news of disgusting crimes against humanity in the name of profit, which shows contempt for the workers who produce the wealth of society, and idolizes useless parasites who reap the profits of production. The Machiavellian advice that deluding the masses is the way to retain power is still cherished by political leaders throughout the world. Stalin, Nixon, Mao, Churchill, Thatcher, Powell—all successful masters of the art.

But the delusion of the working class relies upon one factor: the workers' capacity to be deluded. When the working class of all countries unite in class consciousness no attempts, either by force or political cunning, will stop the revolution for Socialism. For the establishment of Socialism lies and deceit will not be necessary. The only words which the Socialist Party of Great Britain have for the working class are simple: toss aside the morals of your masters and organize for a rational society.

Steve Coleman