Machiavelli and Marx

I started reading Karl Marx’s Capital, vol 1. recently and that got me wondering about what similarities or differences there were with or between these two great political philosophers, Machiavelli and Marx.

Form my admittedly limited and autodidactic education in political theory, the first thing that strikes me is the scope. Machiavelli aims his works at the individual leader – the eponymous prince – as the engine of social and political change. Marx, on the other hand, looks at the masses – the proletariat – and sweeping tides of history. He is often speaking to the crowd – although ironically it was the intellectual elite who mostly read his work.

(Gramsci, as I understand, makes an argument in The Modern Prince that the revolutionary socialist party can stand in for Machiavelli’s prince as the sole actor thus take advantage of Machiavelli’s advice, but I don’t think so because it involves group dynamics… it’s an argument for another post, though…)

Many of Machiavelli’s concepts – like virtu, a term undefined but rooted in morality – are personal, not group attributes. He focuses at his widest on small groups to manage events and activities – a single leader and his advisors (whose role is to mitigate the ideology of the individual leader towards common and sustainable goals).

Marx, on the other hand looks at the larger picture, a scientific analysis of events and trends. He disdained the ‘great person’ theory of history. His concepts like revolution and even capitalism would have no place in Machiavelli’s vision, any more than Niccolo’s self-reliant city republican state would have in Marx’s.

Machiavelli doesn’t address class except in general terms – the need for the leader to have the people on his side. Class is taken more or less for granted, although he does distinguish between the strata within the upper class (the hereditary rulers versus those who take or assume power; most of whom are members of an upper crust of rich and powerful families like the Medici and the Borgia).

Marx is all about class and class struggle. Both saw the masses could overthrow a leader and do so easily given the right circumstances – Machiavelli had personal experience seeing the Medicis, Savaronola, then the republic overthrown – but the circumstances for both were different and the results of such revolution more so. Marx saw the proletariat rising to take control itself; Machiavelli saw one leader (or family) replace another.

Of course they are separated by more than 350 years. Machiavelli wrote at the dawn of the modern era, when printing was just getting its start and its impact was not yet fully felt. Marx wrote in the heyday of the industrial revolution when technology was rapidly changing societies and economies.

Machiavelli believed chance or luck – fortuna – played a decisive role in history. Marx did not. Machiavelli thought that, despite local differences, the motivations behind events, desires and politics were essentially the same everywhere. Marx thought that history was a series of waves of class struggle, each one working towards improvement of the human condition to the point where class would finally disappear. However, Marx thought that such revolution was inevitable – it was fated to happen. It hasn’t (yet), at least not on the worldwide scale he envisioned.

Marx also went on at length in several of his publications about freedom and how important it was. Freedom from exploitation was at the top of his list, and he saw the only way to achieve it was through the class struggle that led to a proletarian (communist) state. He saw history as a series of steps, each one ascending to this goal.

For Machiavelli, the modern notions of liberty and freedom simply didn’t exist – they are a construct of the 19th century, not the 16th. Machiavelli believed in freedom with limits and responsibilities set out by just laws. His biggest concern was that actions of leaders and individuals should ultimately benefit the state and if not, then those actions should be curtailled (sometimes with the ultimate sanction: death). He is not opposed to repression, as long as that repression is done for the greater good – but wrote that a stable (i.e. good) state will not need to resort to it.

Machiavelli also did not share Marx’s notion of evolving states – another 19th century idea. For him, history was more static. His Discourses use the Roman Empire as a model for his theories – noting that, while distant in history, the events and motivations behind them were essentially the same as those in his own world.

Machiavelli was inescapably Christian. It was impossible for anyone in his time and place not to be so, although he clearly had ideas about the differences between the spiritual versus temporal authority of the church (his criticism was often indirect). He, however, was not an absolutist: he tried to define and redefine morality based on what was best for the state. What was ultimately ethical was what proved the best for the greater good.

Marx was an atheist or perhaps better described as a humanist (he is, oddly, rather optimistic about human nature and its inherent goodness), yet he also had absolute moral views in his objection to exploitation and the suffering it caused.

Machiavelli and Marx both recognize that evil exists, but where Machiavelli tries to find ways to mitigate it through practical means, Marx unrealistically assumed that human nature would eventually overcome it.

Some have even described Machiavelli as a pragmatist compared to Marx the idealist.

Some political writers have tried to pair Marx and Machiavelli as revolutionary brothers from different ages, but I don’t think the two shared common definitions of the term ‘revolution.’ Machiavelli’s view of the world was that humans are prone to fall prey to their passions, and that collectives aren’t any more moral or less prone to passion than individuals.

What they do share in common is that they are both largely unread by the people who either embrace or demonize them. We’ve all heard the terms Machiavellian and Marxist used to describe people, ideas and events – usually disparagingly, and usually without a proper understanding of what either stood for. This is in large part because those who later adopted their words often changed, condensed or altered them into mere epithets that in no way reflect the depths or complexities they stand for.

What two epithets come to mind with Machiavelli and Marx? “The end justifies the means,” and “Workers of the world unite…” respectively. Neither of which encapsulate even a tiny fragment of their views (and the former are actually not even Machiavelli’s own words!).

They also have in common that they wrote about the conditions of their own times and looked for immediate ways to deal with them. And in their writing, they attempted to expose the mechanics of those politics to outsiders; to shine a light on what had been before them only the purview of the elite. They pulled aside the curtain.

Marx has also become closely – and unfortunately – linked to the Soviet version of communism. While his work may have inspired people like Lenin and Trotsky, the mantle they later wore as ‘communism’ was not what Marx envisioned. That’s too bad because from what I’m reading, his ideas still have resonance today.

I am still learning and reading, so these are but a few of my thoughts. I read some much better posts and papers on Marx and Machiavelli online, and from them I drew some of these ideas, but I don’t agree with all their conclusions, nor all their interpretations of Machiavelli. It’s a big topic. I recommend you read them yourselves. Here are a few of them:


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Author: ichadwick

Freelance writer and editor, book author, public relations/communications consultant. Former journalist/reporter. Currently municipal politician. Interests include ukulele, tequila, history, science, Shakespeare, animal behaviour, politics, English and urban growth.