What if Machiavelli was neither a teacher of evil, nor simply a man of his time, but rather a radical democrat who boldly broke with a centuries-old tradition of denigrating the masses? This is the provocation John McCormick offers in his latest book on the Florentine writer and diplomat.

Reading Machiavelli  seeks to refashion Machiavelli as the champion of a robustly populist form of government on the Athenian or Roman model, in which, McCormick argues, the constant and often violent push and pull between rich and poor—the rich seeking to dominate, the poor to avoid domination—actually established an equilibrium that provided roughly equal freedom and wealth to citizens.1 This was novel because the thinkers who wrote during the periods of Athenian and Roman popular government were, as McCormick rightly notes, nearly unanimous in criticizing both democracy and this aspect of social antagonism in their own regimes.

In proposing to defend Machiavelli from misinterpretation, McCormick also becomes at least a proxy supporter of this form of democracy by class conflict, a position that raises deeper questions about the dangers of taking too much inspiration from classical regimes. The instinct to defend class democracy leads him to spend much of his time combating three rival interpreters—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Leo Strauss, and the “Cambridge school” of intellectual history—who not only differ in their opinions of Machiavelli but, in a more political sense, either do not support this form of government or do not do so with enough vigor.

In proposing to defend Machiavelli from misinterpretation, McCormick also becomes at least a proxy supporter of this form of democracy by class conflict.

The argument for the salience of class conflict in Machiavelli’s work is consistently forceful, and it allows McCormick to score stinging—if never fatal—blows to his adversaries. Yet his focus on this idea verges at times on the monomaniacal, and leads the author to some odd or forced stances. The argument that Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories does not represent a late-career turn to a more conservative or at least anti-popular bent is especially a stretch. To prove it, McCormick is obliged to contend that there exist contradictions between Machiavelli’s “descriptions and his evaluations of actions and events”: that is, that Machiavelli will say the people acted badly and then go on to describe their actions in a way that seems not so bad. It may be McCormick whose descriptions don’t match his evaluations: even in his words, the Florentine Histories seem at the very best ambivalent towards the people.

McCormick stresses, but does not fully resolve, the difference between Machiavelli’s Rome, whose society is divided neatly into plebeians and patricians, and Florence, which defies such dichotomization. This difference is telling, and it endangers McCormick’s attempt to revive a kind of visceral socioeconomic conflict in modern thought through the vehicle of Machiavelli’s work. The ineluctable reality, after all, is that modern societies are broken into too many classes to give much force to a politics built on a bipartite vision of society (whether classical or Marxist). Machiavelli’s struggle to divide Florentine society into categories is evidence he was aware of this problem. In Florence, the middling ranks of society, represented by a constellation of guilds of varying stature, prevented the playing-out of things as they did in Machiavelli’s Rome, with the people seeking to avoid domination and the nobles seeking to dominate. In general, a profusion of classes and degrees of wealth and status leaves most moderns—not just Florentines—unsure to what degree they are dominating or seeking to avoid domination.

In a similar vein, McCormick’s argument with Rousseau is not so much an argument over Machiavelli’s text, though it is supposed to seem that way; but rather an argument over whether democratic political theory ought to abstract away from social class. Rousseau’s entire system, which is often described as democratic, is based on the notion that, indeed, one should. McCormick, who argues that democracy ought to do nothing of the sort, thus feels inclined to label Rousseau a sort of crypto-elitist. Rousseau, he says in so many words, cared more about his principles than the poor. If this is true, it seems no one told the Abbé Sieyès so before, inspired by Rousseau, he set the French Revolution into motion by declaring that the Third Estate was everything.

McCormick alleges that Rousseau’s ideas lead to a government less than democratic when applied to a vast, multifarious nation-state accustomed to luxury rather than a small, austere city-state. This is, of course, an unimpeachable claim, confirmed by the history of France from 1789 to 1794. But the same flaw seems to apply to Machiavelli, or rather the class democrat that McCormick makes him out to be. Why should a form of government that may have worked for ancient cities with vastly more simple social structures work in a wealthier and more complicated modern world? Western regimes in the modern world, it is hard to deny, are based on a political theory which does, in fact, abstract from social class. Instead of attaching the theory of government to a social world both byzantine and in constant flux, liberal constitutionalism, theorized by Montesquieu and actualized by Madison, transformed something that looked like McCormick’s social equilibrium—rich versus poor—into a theoretical one, consisting of institutionalized conflict between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. The modern world, in short, makes it very hard for one to be a Machiavellian democrat, at least in McCormick’s sense. 

Machiavelli is, at some level, a diplomat more than a thinker, and for that reason it seems a shame to impress upon him any such idée fixe.

It is partially for that reason that the book remains enticing. Its core idea, that the wonderful popular energy displayed by Athens and Rome was derived from constant clashes between rich and poor, and that this same energy could be injected into modern regimes if certain alterations to institutions were made, is a sort of siren song which keeps one reading, conjures up lofty images of toga-draped crowds in the Forum and Pericles speaking on the hill of the Pnyx.

Yet Machiavelli himself, that veteran of intrigues both petty and grand, that consummate player of the political game—even if he always played to lose—seems to fade here into the backdrop. Machiavelli is, at some level, a diplomat more than a thinker, and for that reason it seems a shame to impress upon him any such idée fixe, even one so simple as this notion of class democracy. It is like fixing upon a given card and demanding an expert player never discard it from his hand: it seems he ought to be able to, even if he does not choose to in the end.

As for class democracy, it might better be promoted through the frank declarations of its learned proponents, rather than by proxy through thinkers who cannot talk back. Perhaps we ought also to remember Benjamin Constant’s warning of the danger of too much classical study. “One could not read the beautiful pages of antiquity,” he says, “without feeling an indefinable and special emotion, which nothing modern can possibly arouse.” Yet the regret for lost glory leads unavoidably into imitation—and therein lies the danger.

  1.   [1] Reading Machiavelli: Scandalous Books, Suspect Engagements, and the Virtue of Populist Politics, by John P. McCormick; Princeton University Press, 288 pages, $29.95.

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