The Third International after Lenin

Friday, June 3, 2011

Althusser’s reflections on Machiavelli

Gopal Balakrishnan on Louis Althusser, Machiavelli and Us. The French philosopher on the Italian consigliere: a Parisian Marxism in the mirror of the Medici.



The posthumous publication of Louis Althusser’s reflections on Machiavelli offers an unsettling occasion to return to both thinkers. If we except the more limited cases of Della Volpe and Colletti, Althusser was the only figure in the Western Marxist tradition to engage with a number of the classics of Western political theory. But his writings on Montesquieu, Rousseau and Hegel—remarkable, even at times coruscating, as they could be—were still beholden to the idea that such theorists might be judged by how closely they came to anticipating the discoveries of historical materialism. His unpublished text on Machiavelli, dating from a later period, exhibits a different spirit. Here relations are if anything reversed—the Florentine figured as a more radical and original theorist than any successor in the Communist tradition. According to his pupil Emmanuel Terray, he once confessed that Machiavelli was ‘without doubt the author who has most fascinated me, much more so than Marx’.

Althusser began to sketch lectures on Machiavelli in 1962, less than a year after a formative first encounter while on holiday in Italy; a draft took shape around 1971–2 in preparation for another course, and was largely completed by 1975. This version was periodically revised up through the mid-eighties, but left unpublished at his death in 1990. Overtly, none of the major events of post-war Communism left any mark on these pages. De-Stalinization, the Sino-Soviet split, the Cultural Revolution, May 1968, Eurocommunism are visible only through extremely oblique allusions. Unmistakeably, however, Althusser intended Machiavelli and Us—his own title—as a philosophical reflection on the short 20th century defined by the legacy of the Russian Revolution.

Only indirectly topical, the text is also only subliminally exegetical. Althusser not only avoids conventional quotation from Machiavelli. Even more conspicuously he ignores nearly all of the great multinational landmarks of 20th century Machiavelli scholarship. It seems likely that Althusser came to know of this body of work only when he read Le Travail de l’œuvre, a massive study of Machiavelli by Claude Lefort published in 1972 which discusses a number of scholars—Gerhard Ritter, Rene Koenig, Ernst Cassirer, and Leo Strauss amongst others—far removed from the French intellectual scene of the time. The only influence he acknowledges, if still somewhat perfunctorily, is Gramsci. His own glosses are often cavalier, scanting issues others have reflected on more clearly and carefully. Althusser’s philological indifference finds revealing expression in his comment that Machiavelli can only be made interesting if he is ‘utterly transformed’ by reading his ideas in the light of contemporary concerns.

The primary concern of Althusser’s study is to establish Machiavelli’s significance as a unique figure in the history of philosophy. His central claim is that Machiavelli’s writings inaugurated a completely original materialism—one that is neither a monistic ontology, nor a claim about the primacy of the economic in history, not even in the last instance. More captiously, Machiavelli is defined as a materialist because he is a theorist of ‘concrete conjunctures’, who brings concealed vectors of strategic action to light, exposing the immanent possibilities of the present as a moment in history. ‘Matter’ under this meaning is too complex and ductile to allow for any general laws: it is simply the ungrounded, emergent causality of open-ended transitions.

Marxists have classically argued that historical materialism is the science of the systemic compulsions and counter-finalities of the struggle between groups fought out under conditions of scarcity. Although in the whole tradition of Western Marxism there was no one who had a more positive view of science, Althusser actually subscribed to an extremely modest view of the knowledge that a Marxist science of history could offer; as a field of contradiction and over-determination, history was a process structured only in a distant last instance by economic modes of production. Here, however, dismissing the stereotype of Machiavelli as the founder of a coldly realistic analytics of power, Althusser tacitly relinquishes his own distinctive conception of class struggles too. For the flux of conjunctures now precludes any law-like regularities. What Machiavelli offers us instead is an art of thinking focussed wholly on the conditions of undertaking tasks immediately to hand, without anchorage in any underlying movement of history: a supposedly deeper, albeit more unstable kind of knowledge. The purpose of his rhetorical construction of exemplary cases was, Althusser argues, to offer a repertoire of scenarios for transformative agency. This was an optic designed for sharp focus on those faint interstitial possibilities that only become ‘events’ through great, improbable awakenings of the down-and-out. Indeed, according to Althusser, the problem which defined the horizon of Machiavelli’s thought was how a new political order could be established in wholly unfavourable circumstances. The utopian energy of his writing springs from an impasse: while the possibilities of a new state were being realized elsewhere in Europe in the form of absolutism, the Italian city-state was unable to reinvent itself on the enlarged national scale necessary for a successful transition to capitalism.

But despite the fact that the examples and distinctions deployed in his texts are often embedded in the contentions of a distant era, Machiavelli remains actual today as the inventor of a new genre of writing about politics, whose potential has yet to be grasped. The most significant moments in his work speak to an interlocutor who is not ultimately a valorous individual, but rather the masses whose possibilities of agency are represented in the form of such a figure. Machiavelli’s writings establish roles for potential actors on the political stage and interpellate subjects who will play out those roles. It is the presence of these empty spaces, to be read and occupied by anonymous partisan subjects, that make it so difficult to decipher the agendas lurking beneath his deceptively clear prose. This indeterminacy is constitutive and ineradicable. By way of parables, stories of the concrete, Machiavelli broke out of the generalizing format of the classical treatise, and invented the prototype of the manifesto. The rhetorical novelty of the latter is that it is a text which inserts itself into the space of agency that it has itself identified. Machiavelli, unlike Marx, leaves these spaces open: more cognizant of the aleatory dialectic of political conflict, he does not seal them with any ideological closure. Machiavelli addresses the masses via the silhouette of a resolute ruler only because, conceived in that form, decisive action can begin at any time. The Prince, unlike the proletariat, is ‘the pure possibility of the event’, ‘agency out of the void’, ‘absolute new beginning’. Machiavelli’s writings analyse ‘the conditions of an impossible event’, blasting open the continuum of history. It is as if we overhear at this point an uncanny, voluntarist echo of Benjamin.

Shifting from the plane of this unearthly general ‘materialism’, Althusser’s text moves to a more specific question, the object of a long-standing controversy, to which he returns an over-coded answer. How is it possible to reconcile Machiavelli the patriotic republican with Machiavelli the counsellor of princes? Althusser argues that there is no conflict between the political agenda of The Prince and that of the Discourses because the former simply explores the violent agency required to found a new state which will, over the course of time, eventually become the national-republican polity which Machiavelli was ultimately aiming for. Here Althusser develops Gramsci’s idea that Machiavelli was, even as a counsellor to princes, a proto-Jacobin attempting to shape the construction of an emergent popular will by pointing out courses of appropriate action to those for whom this could never be a conscious goal. The Prince is the handbook for a would-be founder of a new state, who must work alone, purging and liquidating his enemies. The Discourses, by contrast, offer a more panoramic vision of the longer-term work of incorporating the masses into the new state through laws, and mobilizing them though representative institutions.

By this account The Prince is the more ‘revolutionary’ of the two works because it lays bare the violence involved in the foundation of the new state, and gazes unperturbed at the horrors of this origin. Unlike theorists of natural law and the social contract, who saw consent at the origins of government, Machiavelli was ‘a man who, even before all the ideologists blocked out reality with their stories, was capable not just of living, or tolerating, but of thinking the violence of the birth-throes of the state.’ In this sense Machiavelli was not a theorist of political conjunctures in general, but of a particular, recurring phenomenon: the traumatic revolutionary moment of ‘primitive political accumulation’. This is what a return to the ‘absolute beginning’ means: the restoration of the primordial vulnerability and plasticity of human beings. But Machiavelli’s insights extended further. For he saw the necessity of building up a new citizen-army not just as a condition of survival in the predatory world of war and diplomacy, but also as a way to liquidate old social hierarchies and fuse new groups. It is in this context, Althusser suggests, that we should grasp the significance of Machiavelli’s notorious, unfairly ridiculed belief in the superiority of infantry to cavalry and artillery. What underlay this conviction was a vision of epic mass mobilizations, comprehensively subordinating animal and mechanical power to human purposes.

These are inventive notations, if marred—as so often in Althusser—by the absence of any controlled exegesis. Nonetheless many of the points on which they turn are contestable. The claim that Machiavelli was a theorist of the conditions of absolutist state formation in the early modern transition from feudalism to capitalism is not plausible. For his conception of the state so emphatically accentuated the personality of the ruler or ruling body that it failed to capture or anticipate the dual nature of early modern Absolutism, characterized at once by a hypostasization of the figure of the monarch, and an incipient depersonalization—‘bureaucratization’—of the structure of feudal jurisdiction. Likewise, his strenuous attachment to a citizen militia stood in stark opposition to the whole pattern of absolutist state formation. These discrepancies between Tuscan concerns and European trends found repeated expression in his judgements of contemporary polities. Machiavelli had no premonition of the impending involution of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, whose ornate medieval federalism he viewed in a highly positive light. France, the early modern state that loomed largest for him, he esteemed not for its absolutism—which had not yet really taken shape—but as a kingdom based on a legal framework of estates representation. The Swiss Federation, which he admired in Tacitean fashion as an intact relic of ancient Teutonic simplicity, was the polar antithesis of Renaissance proto-absolutism. In his critique of The Prince written more than two centuries later, Frederick the Great of Prussia showed without difficulty how remote Machiavelli was from any understanding of the territorial scale, institutional architecture and aristocratic ethos of the dynastic world of absolutism, an order everywhere erected on the foundations of a quiescent and unarmed populace of peasants and burghers.

It is clear, however, that behind Althusser’s claim that Machiavelli can be seen as a theorist of emergent absolutism, understood as the resolution of the problem of state formation in the epoch of transition from feudalism to capitalism, lay an obsessive contemporary projection. Throughout Machiavelli and Us, Althusser’s ultimate theme was plainly a problematic from his own time—the foundation and evolution of the Soviet Union, as the state form of a transition from capitalism to socialism. This was the conjuncture that defined the horizon of world politics for him. Machiavelli’s quotation from Virgil in The Prince could in this light be read as a maxim of an emergency regime attempting against all odds to build socialism in one country: ‘Harsh necessity, and the fact that my kingdom is new, oblige me to do these things and amass armies on the frontiers.’

Appeal to the authority of such Latin precedent is pervasive in Machiavelli. It raises a perennial question. What is the significance of the classical world in his thought? Was it an expedient cover concealing an entirely new structure of thought, or did he actually seek to restore an ancient political prudence? Althusser’s modernization of Machiavelli is no isolated act of force. It reflects a recurrent pattern in reception of the Florentine. Gramsci’s interpretation of him as a precursor of Saint-Just poses some of the same problems. Was Machiavelli then forced to represent the prosaic content of the emerging absolutist state in ‘Roman costume and with Roman slogans’, as Marx said the Jacobins had done, in order ‘to maintain their enthusiasm at the high level appropriate to great historical tragedy’? In this light, Machiavelli could be seen as the founding father of a bourgeois revolutionary ideology. But if this were the case, he would be a figure of limited relevance in approaching the problems of a proletarian revolution, an enterprise that, according to Marx, no longer needs to cloak its objectives in robes borrowed from a mythical past. Gramsci, representing the disciplined collective parties of the Third International as a ‘New Prince’, discontinuous in nature from the old, in his own way acknowledged this. A classical frame of reference is not out of place in his portrait of Machiavelli.

Althusser’s image of Machiavelli, as seer into a farther Stalinist distance, faces more radical difficulties. By the mid-seventies, he had little or no attachment to what had become of the USSR. In Machiavelli he wanted to find the shapes of an alternative history, encompassing the need for a moment of founding violence as Lenin accepted it, but modulating towards a different, less murderous and conservative outcome than the regime built by Stalin. Hence the two-stage theory he puts forward to resolve the apparent conflict of political purpose between The Prince and the Discourses—the former is to the violent foundation of the new state, what the latter is to its duration and eventual ‘democratization’. But this schema does not capture the spirit of the Discourses, often mistakenly thought to be less ferocious in their representation of politics. Although he notes that the distinction between the two fundamental types of regime Machiavelli theorizes—principality and republic—more or less collapses as he moves to the climactic middle of his free-wheeling ‘commentary’ on Livy’s history of the origins and later development of the Roman Republic, Althusser does not recognize the problem this poses for his interpretation of the difference between the two texts.

For what it suggests is the fluidity and imprecision of the names we give to regimes and the fierce tyrannical core of any pouvoir constituant, which manifests itself not just at the outset of a new state but also in periodic conditions of emergency. It is in the Discourses that Machiavelli writes: ‘he who proposes to set up an absolute power, or what writers call a tyranny, must renovate everything.’ He is not pointing to an evil to be thwarted by civic republicans, but to figures by no means viewed as execrable despots—coolly suggesting the example of the Biblical King David ‘who filled the hungry with good things and the rich sent empty away’. He who wishes to make a new beginning must be ready ‘to build new cities, to destroy those already built, and to move the inhabitants from one place to another far distant from it; in short to leave nothing of that province intact, and nothing in it, neither rank, nor institution, nor form of government, nor wealth, except it be held by such as recognize that it comes from you.’ He concedes that ‘such methods are exceedingly cruel and are repugnant to any community, not just a Christian one, but to any composed of men’, but excludes any alternative. The most sacred figures of the Christian tradition could not do otherwise. ‘He who reads the Bible judiciously will see that Moses was forced, in order that his laws and orders should prosper, to massacre innumerable human beings who, moved by nothing but envy, opposed his designs.’

Biblical examples, of course, weighed less for Machiavelli, who was prepared to envisage the end of Christianity as an all-purpose moral code, than the experience of the Roman Republic. It is this that Althusser seems to have had in mind when thinking of the Soviet Union. But here too his two-stage solution to the apparent opposition of The Prince and the Discourses shows its limits, since there was no one founder of the Roman Republic, whose political structure emerged out of a continuous sequence of innovative acts, few or none exempt from force. Machiavelli’s conception of the violence of beginnings must be put into historical perspective. He was after all no revolutionary in the modern sense of the word. His vision of history was cyclical, every epoch ending in the same drastic puncture: ‘when every province is replete with inhabitants who can neither obtain a livelihood nor move elsewhere since all other places are occupied and full up, and when the craftiness and malignity of man has gone as far as it can go, the world must be purged in one of these three ways [floods, pestilence, famine] so that humankind being reduced to comparatively few and humbled by adversity, may adopt a more appropriate form of life and grow better.’

Machiavelli was a theorist of transitions, of fresh beginnings, but the opposite of a utopian. He never imagined the possibility of something truly new: a progressive amelioration of scarcity, bringing a universal emancipation through the transformation of nature. Like Goethe’s Mephistopheles he was an old-world devil, who hoped only to unleash virtuous cycles of conflict, negation and liberty, fully realizing that they would eventually become vicious cycles. The nature of the race did not allow otherwise: ‘By nature there is nothing we cannot long for, but by fortune we are such that of these things we can attain but few. The result is that the human mind is perpetually discontented, and of its possessions is apt to grow weary. This makes it find fault with the present, praise the past and long for the future, though for its doing so no rational cause can be assigned.’ But his reflections on this dismal sequence are infused with a sense of gallows humour. He declined to see it as a tragedy. Althusser’s memorial on Machiavelli traces, in its plunge to indeterminacy and contingency, the dissolution of his own theoretical system, on the eve of the historical disappearance of its practical referent. He dismissed the satirical side of Machiavelli from sight. But this is the legacy that may count most for any future Enlightenment. If Marxism is to play its role in the daybreak to another era of upheavals, it will have to be a gay science.

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