Althusser on Machiavelli on Politics

In the manuscripts that Louis Althusser left after his death in 1990, one extended piece was to be a book on Niccolo Machiavelli. Althusser ultimately said that Machiavelli was the equal of Spinoza as a materialist philosopher, and said that he would add a second book showing this.

One major point of interest in this manuscript, now published as Machiavelli and Us (to be release in Verso’s Radical Thinkers series next year), is the question of a Marxist theory of politics.

A theory of politics is a well marked lacunae in Marx’s thought. Andrew Gamble, Alex Callinicos and David McKnight each report that Marx’s political thought was insufficent in this way. The worst of these remarks equate the Russian disaster with this lacunae.

But perhaps we’re given a false-opposition here; in the idea that there are thinkers with theories of politics and thinkers without theories of politics. What do we mean when we refer to ‘theories of politics’?

Alex Callinicos, for example, labours Marx’s lack of a conception of justice and how this conception would inform the organisation of a communist world. We need to add to Marx a theory of distribution, and so on.

But perhaps this is to ask Marx to do something that his thought cannot do, that his thought is deliberate against doing. It is not simply an oversight that Marx systematically refused to give more than very general comments about the sort of world he was for.

Rather than aping the way liberal politics wants to imagine ways of securing the individual against harm done by others or by the state, Marx’s thought is concerned with politics as what goes on; and not simply (thought not excluding) the facticity of what is.

Machiavelli’s The Prince does something similar. It only gives us a way of thinking, what Althusser called, conjunctures. Machiavelli’s 26 lessons to an unknown ‘new prince’ are all to do with taking action in a way that avoids the brittle character of so many of the principalities that had come and gone in Italy’s past.

Althusser calls this the need to make an aleatory encounter between the atomic structure of Italy’s city-states endure, or take hold.

One way that this is drawn out is in the ‘duality of subjects’ that Althusser reads in The Prince. This ‘duality of subjects’, the new prince and the people is irreducible.

He reads The Prince as itself ‘Machiavellian’ — in the strictly colloquial sense. Machiavelli shamelessly panders to the Medici, but does this in order to talk about the goal of the people: a unified, stabilised and enduring Italy.

For Althusser, Machiavelli is with the people of Italy.

Chapter 9 of The Prince is striking for its division of city-states into “the people do not wish to be ruled nor oppressed by the nobles, and the nobles wish to rule and oppress the people”. Machiavelli advises the unknown ‘new prince’ that the people are a surer foundation than the nobility.

The duality of subjects has traditionally been split. But this forgets that in 15th Century Italy the only political actors were the rise-and-fall princes of the city-states; it is therefore an elusive ‘new prince’ that the people must back (1789 is ways off yet … not to mention 1917).

This excerpt from Mikko Lahtinen’s book on Althusser and Machiavelli gives something of Althusser’s rejection of either the ‘guidebook for tyrants’ or ‘guidebook to democracy’ approaches to The Prince.

His comments about the lack of an Archimedean point on politics is also interesting. Having an understanding of the ‘positioning’ of actors is more important for political action than something like sociological knowledge.

On top of this, Lahtinen notes that in Machiavelli the general and particular are reversed, something characteristic of dialectical — or aleatory — thought.

According to Althusser, if one pays attention only to the role of the prince in The Prince, one falls into ‘Machiavellianism’, and thus the book comes across as a guidebook for tyrants; consequently, the viewpoint of the people as the constituters of politics is forgotten. If, on the other hand, one considers only the viewpoint of the people, that is, that the book is written for the people as a sort of moralistic book of revelations or as a ‘guidebook to democracy’, then the appeal at the end of the book to a ‘new prince’ would have to be disregarded. The point is, however, that instead of searching for such answers, which only lead to conflicts, one must pay attention to the questions. Instead of providing answers, Machiavelli discusses the question about the interrelated position of the political actors within their own conjuncture. He does not even try to define these positions in a generally applicable way or in advance, but rather directs the reader’s attention to the situationally specific character of the political positioning. According to Althusser, Machiavelli’s texts are indeed based on the idea that in a political space it is not possible – and one must not try – to define in a generally applicable way the Archimedean point from which the political conjuncture could be revolutionised. The Prince is indeed a ‘revolutionary’ work because in it the politics of the prince are discussed from the point of view of the goal of the people. This, however, does not mean that Machiavelli would define in advance the conjuncture of the actors, and how and where they should implement the ‘revolution’. The places of the prince and the relationship between him and other ‘points’ of the conjuncture vary according to changes in the conjuncture:

The point demanded by the New Prince or the Modern Prince precisely cannot be a fixed point. First of all, it is not a point that can be localized in space, for the space of politics has no points and is only figuratively a space; at the very most, it has places where men are grouped under relations. And supposing that this place is a point, it would not be fixed, but mobile – better still, unstable in its very being, since all its effort must tend towards giving itself existence: not a transient existence – that of an individual or a sect – but historical existence – that of an absolute monarch or a revolutionary party (Althusser, Machiavelli and Us, Verso, 1999, p 21).

Because of the unpredestined nature of political practice, if one tries to interpret The Prince as a theoretical text, finding ‘laws’ within it which would be repeatable from one conjuncture to the next, it will remain elusive [insaisissable]. The work is gripping [saisissant], drawing in its reader, because it makes him think about his own political position. The Prince is thus also a shock to the classical philosophical way of thinking, where the general rules the particular, because, in this text, the way in which a particular ‘political’ problem is set up governs the ‘theoretical’ and ‘general’.

Excerpted from Mikko Lahtinen, Philosophy and Politics: Niccolo Machiavelli and Louis Althusser’s Aleatory Materialism, Brill, 2010, pp 134-5.