A Makeover for Machiavelli

For over a decade now, John P. McCormick has worked to reintroduce political theorists to Niccolò Machiavelli. Alleging that existing scholarship misrepresents Machiavelli by underplaying his populism, McCormick’s own contributions have aimed at establishing the Florentine as a radical and uncompromising proponent of democracy. At the heart of this effort has stood the observation that Machiavelli’s political world is a fundamentally conflictual one, driven by the incessant clash of grandi and popolo. But whereas others have read Machiavelli as providing a mixed assessment of these groups and recommending that states organize themselves in ways that manage them advantageously, McCormick presents Machiavelli as being unambiguously and unreservedly aligned with the people.

Notwithstanding the author’s insistence that Machiavelli’s radical populism has been overlooked, one can find versions of this interpretation in seminal readings of The Prince (1532) and the Discourses on Livy (1531), most notably those of Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser.[1] What sets McCormick’s work apart is rather the swell of moral accusation that buoys it along, which he attributes to Machiavelli and directs at his own scholarly rivals. Unlike the clinical analysis of revolutionary class struggle developed by Machiavelli’s Marxist interpreters, McCormick stirs outrage at injustices perpetrated by the rich throughout history, converting Machiavelli’s often spare accounts of elite manipulation and abuse into vehement denunciations. Moreover, McCormick absorbs the ongoing interpretive debate into this moralizing narrative, alleging that Machiavelli’s true convictions have been suppressed by academics propagandizing on behalf of oligarchy—a scheme that McCormick himself is determined to unmask and expose.

These twin projects continue apace in his latest book, Reading Machiavelli: Scandalous Books, Suspect Engagements, and the Virtue of Populist Politics. On the one hand, Reading Machiavelli aims to “further substantiate Machiavelli’s consistent advocacy for a new form of muscular, populist politics” (p. 2) capable of achieving what no Christian prince has attempted: “eliminating the metaphorical ‘sons of Brutus’”—the “oppressive-minded elites who detest the people’s liberty, bitterly resent their participation in politics, and oppose any reformer who attempts to limit their own aristocratic power and privilege” (p. 16). On the other, it proposes to “show in detail how and why major interpretive schools of Machiavelli’s political thought have either missed or deliberately obscured the radical extent of the Florentine’s decidedly democratic form of republicanism” (p. 2). The “suspect engagements” that McCormick confronts are alternative interpretations developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Leo Strauss, and the Cambridge School (p. 2), who are said to share a “common agenda” that “approximates an aristocratic conspiracy to repress and obscure [Machiavelli’s] democratic politics” (p. 4).

Readers familiar with the work of McCormick, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, will recognize much of the material in Reading Machiavelli, as it consists mainly of revised articles and book chapters. In addition to an introduction and brief conclusion, it contains six chapters. These are divided into two parts, with Part I focusing on “the effectual truth of popular empowerment in Machiavelli’s political thought” (p. 207) and Part II on the “proclivity to distort or overlook the radically democratic character of the Florentine’s political thought” (p. 210) that McCormick claims is evident in the secondary literature.

A Machiavelli Who Worried about Rising Income Inequality

In general, the arguments in Part I are clearly delineated, amply (and vividly) defended, and sometimes compelling. Chapter 1, “The Passion of Duke Valentino,” carefully unearths a network of intersecting Biblical allusions in Machiavelli’s famous discussion of Cesare Borgia in The Prince and marshals them behind the claim that Machiavelli “raises the possibility that certain aspects of Christianity may prove congruent with ancient pagan practices and might well serve as the basis of future virtuous princely and popular politics” (p. 16). The textual analysis in this chapter is exceptional; and yet I was confused as to how Machiavelli could believe that populism is synonymous with republican liberty if the latter is also fully consonant with princely power, as McCormick here maintains.

Chapter 2, “Keep the Public Rich and the Citizens Poor,” argues that Machiavelli believes the principle foundation of republican liberty is economic equality and thus views all symptoms of political corruption to be explainable in terms of rising economic inequality. This chapter hinges on some peculiar claims, including that Machiavelli believed that the Romans of the early Republic rejected the advances of tyrants promising economic redistribution (Manlius Capitolinus, Spurius Cassius, and Spurius Maelius) because they were “not forced to choose between political liberty and economic well-being” (p. 60).

Machiavelli would have known, of course, that Manlius Capitolinus initially enjoyed plebeian support because he promised to relieve the people of crushing debts (Livy, 6.14) and that he actually lent more than 400 plebeian debtors the money necessary to avoid enslavement (Livy, 6.20). Moreover, he would have been aware that Spurius Cassius attempted to curry favor with plebeians by offering to repay them for grain bought from Sicily amidst years of grain shortages, which Coriolanus had recently used to threaten the plebs with starvation (Livy, 2.34). Indeed, Machiavelli himself relates that Spurius Maelius offered free grain to plebeians at a time when  “Rome was overburdened with hunger and public provisions were not enough to stop it” (D 3.28). But even if McCormick’s position is overstated, it brings crucial questions about Machiavelli’s political economy more fully into view.

In Chapter 3, “On the Myth of the Conservative Turn in the Florentine Histories,” McCormick challenges those who discern in this work a more pessimistic attitude toward popular republicanism than Machiavelli had expressed several years earlier in the Discourses. As someone who interprets the Histories this way, too, I was interested in McCormick’s substantive claims about this nuanced work and how they intersect with his other analyses of Machiavelli’s republicanism.[2] These elements of the chapter, unfortunately, are underdeveloped. For example, according to McCormick, “Machiavelli’s answer to the question posed in the Histories—why is the Florentine Republic so inferior to the ancient Roman one?” points to their “vastly different institutional-constitutional frameworks” (p. 71), an explanation that is virtually tautological and a missed opportunity to say more about the economic causes of political corruption.[3]

Way More Populist than Rousseau

In Part II, McCormick attempts to explain why others before him have failed to view Machiavelli as he does.

Chapter 6 focuses, surprisingly, on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who famously asserts in The Social Contract (1762) that Machiavelli wrote The Prince on behalf of the people and in support of their liberty. Rather than accept Rousseau as his interpretive predecessor and ally, however, McCormick disqualifies him on the basis of his overview of the Roman constitution in Book IV of The Social Contract, which is said to be designed to legitimate class domination. As McCormick puts it, Rousseau “deliberately repudiates Machiavelli’s democratic reconstruction of the Roman Republic as an emulable model for future large-scale republics” and “replaces it with a constitutional model that both empowers wealthy citizens to outvote poorer ones and neutralizes the populist institution of the tribunate” (p. 4).[4] To this end, McCormick highlights Rousseau’s favorable view of the Roman comitia centuriata and his failure to offer an unqualified endorsement of the tribunate. (To McCormick’s chagrin, Rousseau recommends only “a wisely tempered tribunate”—SC 4.5, quoted on p. 137.)

Leaving aside the fact that Machiavelli himself praises the tempering (temperamento) of Rome’s tribunate (D 3.11), I was somewhat baffled by the idea that “Rousseau celebrates an oligarchy cloaked as popular government.” If this were true, how would we make sense of Rousseau’s political economy, which is based on frequent and vehement condemnations of class conflict and domination—not to mention Rousseau’s refusal to give blanket approval to the comitia centuriata since it only promoted liberty thanks to customs that made Romans care little about wealth (SC 4.4; cf. D 3.25)?

Chapter 5, entitled “Leo Strauss’s Machiavelli and the Querelle between the Few and the Many,” addresses “the subtle and often blatant distortions of Machiavelli’s texts perpetrated by Leo Strauss in his efforts to undermine Machiavelli’s explicit arguments in favor of the people and to convert the Florentine into an advocate of enlightened oligarchic rule” (p. 4). According to McCormick, Strauss misreads Machiavelli as having “implicitly, but deliberately and definitively, undermin[ed] his otherwise explicit praise” of the people by “exaggerat[ing] Machiavelli’s criticisms of peoples and underplay[ing] his criticisms of nobilities” (p. 144).

Whether or not this is true is difficult to grasp through the morass of McCormick’s own distortions. To give one example: McCormick holds that Strauss “exaggerates the extent to which Machiavelli considered the people to be guilty of exhibiting the morally culpable character of insolence” by referencing “Machiavelli’s supposed claim that a prince must ‘contend with the ambition of the great and the insolence of the people’” (p. 149, emphasis in original). In fact, McCormick counters, Machiavelli “attributes insolence to the people, without qualification, on only two occasions: The Prince (P 19) and once in the Florentine Histories,” whereas he applies it to grandi “no less than sixteen times” (p. 150).

Explaining that his figures are not the product of “numerology” but rather “basic arithmetic” (p. 240, n. 25), McCormick alleges that Strauss has twisted a parallel description of grandi in D  1.16—either because Strauss is too “lazy” to quote Machiavelli correctly, McCormick speculates, or because he “cynically distorts the evidence in such cases” (p. 150). And yet I count nine instances in which Machiavelli attributes insolence to the people. There is one in The Prince (Chapter 19, which contains the exact formulation that McCormick deems a “mischaracterization” or “mistranslation” of D 1.16: “…dove nelli altri principati si ha solo a contendere con la ambizione de’ grandi et insolenzia de’ populi…”). There are five in the Discourses (1.53, 3.11, 3.13, 3.19, 3.33). There are three in the Florentine Histories (1.16, 3.17, 4.9).[5] Whatever “basic arithmetic” demonstrates interpretively, McCormick’s is off by almost 400 percent.

Finally, in Chapter 6 (“The Cambridge School’s ‘Guicciardinian Moments’ Revisited”), McCormick writes that

Cambridge scholars such as Skinner and Pocock attempt to shoehorn Machiavelli’s politics into a Ciceronian model of a harmonious mixed regime  . . . in which . . . class conflict is minimized and the people, whose motivations these scholars deem just as dangerous to liberty as those of the nobles, are subordinated to elite domination. (p. 4)

The first part of this critique is fair enough; the second depends on what one understands domination to be, as Philip Pettit has articulated a concept of non-domination that is tailored to fit Cambridge School interpretations of Machiavelli.[6] I also wanted to hear more about how “traditional republicanism” could be said to have an “inherent oligarchic bias” (p. 177) given McCormick’s own insistence, in this chapter and others, that both Rome and Florence were home to vibrant expressions of democratic republicanism.

To Calumniate Is Easy; to Accuse, You Need Proof

McCormick concludes his book by comparing himself to Machiavelli, who also, it is said, “exposed the powerful forces operating throughout intellectual history that disparaged the political judgment of the people” (p. 214). Is Reading Machiavelli truly, as he says on that same page, a “Machiavellian critique of Machiavellian scholarship”? I’m not so sure. Machiavelli’s criticisms of other writers are everywhere, but they are generally indirect: nowhere in The Prince, the Discourses, or the Histories does Machiavelli refer explicitly to De officiis, for example, and Cicero himself is named only rarely. Instead, Machiavelli allows his counter-interpretations of political history to speak for themselves, secure in the knowledge that he is making the better case.

But it is understandable that McCormick feels it necessary to explain himself, as scholarly norms have generally condemned the kinds of insinuations and personal attacks contained in this book. And so they should, for these maneuvers chip away at the very idea of legitimate scholarly disagreement. Variations in emphasis and inference, once recognized as an inevitable feature of textual interpretation, are treated here as prima facie evidence of illicit motivations and agendas which cannot be determinatively proven, but must be announced nevertheless. Machiavelli calls this calumny, which he says is distinguishable from accusation in that “calumnies have need neither of witnesses nor of any other specific corroboration to prove them, so that everyone can be calumniated by everyone; but everyone cannot of course be accused, since accusations have need of true corroborations and of circumstances that show the truth of the accusation” (D 1.8).

In this regard, however, Reading Machiavelli is a book of its time. The political world is currently rife with allegations of conspiracy intended to discredit voiced opposition without having to meaningfully engage it; not to mention promises to “drain the swamp” and protect the country from “some very bad people.” For better or worse, we now have someone ready to protect us from suspect interpretations, too.

[1] Antonio Gramsci, “The Modern Prince,” in Selections from The Prison Notebooks, edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (International Publishers, 1971) and Louis Althusser, Machiavelli and Us, edited by François Matheron (Verso, 2011).  See also Miguel Vatter, Between Form and Event: Machiavelli’s Theory of Political Freedom (Springer-Verlag, 2000).

[2] Michelle Clarke, Machiavelli’s Florentine Republic (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[3] Although, in fairness to McCormick, explaining Florence’s inability to develop well-ordered republican institutions in terms of rising levels of economic inequality would be difficult since economic inequality actually declined in the critical decades after the Black Death, only rising again in the Quattrocento). See Charles M de La Roncière, Prix et salaires à Florence au XIVe Siecle, 1280-1380 (Palàis Farnese, 1982);  David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, The Tuscans and Their Families: A Study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427 (Yale University Press 1985); Guido Alfani and Francesco Ammannati, “Long Term Trends in Economic Inequality: The Case of the Florentine State, c. 1300-1800,” Economic History Review 70: 4 (2017), 1072-1102. On the dynamics of the Ciompi Rebellion in particular, see Samuel Cohn, Lust for Liberty: The Politics of Social Revolt in Medieval Europe, 1200-1425 (Harvard University Press, 2005).

[4] McCormick is insistent that Rousseau’s treatment of the Roman constitution is a calculated effort to obliterate Machiavelli’s populism and replace it with a system that privileges and protects the rich: “I argue that Rousseau’s analysis and appropriation of the Roman Republic deliberately undermines Machiavelli’s efforts to reconstruct and promote institutions that both maximize the participation of poor citizens in popular governments and facilitate their efforts to control or contain economic and political elites” (p. 109, emphasis added).

[5] This count includes references to the insolence of Roman armies towards their commanders, since McCormick identifies armies as a key form of popular organization, especially in Rome (pp. 101-102; on commanders as grandi, pp. 60 and 67).

[6] For the concept of domination operative in the Cambridge School literature and an overview of the Skinner interpretation of Machiavelli as a theorist of non-domination, see Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford University Press, 1997).