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Machiavelli and Modern Thought

R. Fahan

Machiavelli and Modern Thought

A Critique of James Burnham’s Book

(December 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 11, December 1943, pp. 334–337.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


M. Proudhon does not know that the whole of history is nothing but the progressive transformation of human nature. – Marx

The past decade has brought not only the defeat of the socialist movement and the consequent desertion of the American intellectuals who had adhered to it, but also the rise of anti-socialist and anti-democratic voices propounding theories which were getting rather musty at the turn of the century. Such profundities as “human nature makes socialism impossible”; “collectivism inevitably results in tyranny”; “what we need is a mixed economy of balanced social forces”; “the masses cannot play a decisive r&le in history, only the elite can” – have filled the writings of the ex-radical intellectuals. Only a few have been conscious of the origin of these concepts, and we therefore have James Burnham to thank for a book [1] which synthesizes into a coherent system the theories of the “Machiavellians” – Mosca, Michels, Pareto. Possible some of our intellectuals may be a bit disturbed to find their stray thoughts so rigorously systematized as Burnham has, for the net result is not very pretty. What concerns us, however, is that his book provides an opportunity for discussion of concepts recently directed against us as part of the anti-socialist arsenal; it is that, rather than any desire to polemize against Burnham’s doubtful volume, which prompts the detailed discussion these articles will contain.


Machiavellianism, as used by Burnham, does not refer to the mass-manipulation which Machiavelli urged on his Prince and which has since been the supposed counsel of malevolent rulers. Rather he refers to a school of political thought whose credo is summed up in the following major propositions:

  1. “The primary subject-matter of political science is the struggle for social power in its diverse open and concealed forms.”
  2. “The laws of political life cannot be discovered by an analysis which takes men’s words and beliefs ... at their face value.” Machiavellianism claims that most men are deceived about the motives of their social activity and that “logical or rational action plays a relatively minor part in political and social change ... Non-logical action spurred by environmental changes, instinct, impulse, interest, is the usual social rule.”
  3. All history is the history of the elite, the ruling group, “its composition, structure and the mode of its relation to the non-elite.” There is no realistic possibility of removing the elite, only of changing its members. This latter process is, after Pareto, the “circulation of the elites.”
  4. All revolutionary attempts at changing society must inevitably substitute one elite for another, and may often result in an increase in tyranny because of revolutionary zeal to extirpate opponents. Democracy is both meaningless and impossible: self-rule is socially and organizationally impossible for the masses. All that can be done in this increasingly totalitarian and collectivist world is to preserve certain “juridical defenses” (Mosca), i.e., civil liberties.

The reader will perceive that all theories which categorically reject the possibility of a democratic, classless society and posit the continuation of class oppression as an invariable constant, must ultimately reside on a premise about human nature. Burnham may fancy himself an exponent of modern science – which he often equates with a genuflective idolization of crude empiricism – but there is no way of saying that a classless society is necessarily impossible without resting on a theory of human nature as immanently “evil” ... or proving that society is economically too primitive for socialism. Since the latter is an obvious absurdity, it is the theory of human nature which is at the foundation of Machiavellianism. True, Burnham attempts another argument: the argument from technique, which claims that the difficulties in instituting a classless society are insuperable because of the size and complexity of the modern societal unit. But this thesis, to be discussed later, can never be posed in terms of invariant constants but only in probabilities, thereby removing the “inevitability” prop from the argument. That is why we must turn to the argument from human nature in order to pierce to the root of Machiavellianism. We hope the reader will remember that if we discuss this matter at length it is only because recent years have seen a recrudescence of such thought among our most “scientific” political writers. The choice is not ours.

I – The Argument from Human Nature

Burnham is usually quite ready to rush in where angels fear to tread. There is, however, one question which he steadily avoids giving explicit treatment, and that is the very theory of human nature which is central to his approach. His reticence is understandable enough. To state explicitly as an organized thesis that human nature is static and “evil” is a bit too much even for him; he is simply too well educated. Yet elementary intellectual responsibility would seem to dictate a frank statement that the static concept of human nature is recognized as fundamental by Pareto when he writes that “The centuries roll by and human nature remains the same,” and when Pareto posits his concept of residues which is merely an elaborate terminological dress-coat for this same theory; and by Michels when he writes of the “natural love of power” as precluding a classless society. Nonetheless, Burnham cannot evade this central problem completely. He is forced by the very logic of his position to blandly slip in an occasional statement which betrays his full accord with his mentors. We quote a few such statements, since an explicit summary is evaded in the book:

If we review the history of humanity ... it is apparent that despotic regimes are far more frequent than free regimes, and it would therefore seem that despotism is more nearly than freedom in accord with human nature (page 150).

... Wars are a natural phase of the historical process (page 131).

... The aristocratic principle will always be asserting itself to some degree at least; it too accords with ineradicable human traits (page 106).

The Machiavellians have shown that the practical impossibility of democracy depends upon a variety of factors: upon psychological tendencies which are apparently constant in social life (page 236).

Willy-nilly, Burnham is forced to adopt the human nature premise which is central to Machiavellian theory. We can therefore proceed to a direct examination of this premise, secure in the knowledge that Burnham cannot possibly worm out of his adherence to it.

There has never been a progressive historical movement which has not had to contend with some variety of the human nature premise. Locke, with his theory of the mind as a “wax tablet,” and Rousseau, with his theory of the social contract, constructed elaborate psychological rationalizations to aid their advocacy of the then revolutionary bourgeois cause. Each declining social order has always attempted to identify the temporal ethics and morals bred of its uniqueness with immanent human nature.

The Attitude of Modern Psychology

Modern psychology is little concerned with the controversy about “human nature” which continues to rage among political writers. Ever since it left the adolescent realms of speculative philosophizing and embraced the disciplines of experimental science, modern psychology – acutely aware of its immaturity – has seldom ventured to propose such a definitive, closed-door answer to the problems of human existence as is given by Machiavellian theory. The most fruitful of modern psychologists and psychoanalysts have concentrated on experiment and measurement; their theories are hardly more than tentative hypotheses; there is certainly no scientific evidence whatever for the belief that there exists some core of inherited and intrinsic behavior patterns with which each man is endowed. It has rather been the philosophers and sociologists, like John Dewey (in his Human Nature and Conduct) and Bertrand Russell (in his Philosophy) who, more aware of its sociological implications, have turned their attention to destroying the human nature theory.

Yet, the evidence of modern science to the contrary notwithstanding, the Machiavellians have had to resort to the theory of endowed instincts. Pareto’s list of residues (the motive forces of human action which he identifies as the basic causal factors of history) are merely a socialized version of the thoroughly discredited list of instincts which William McDougall so laboriously compiled some years ago. It is a theory of human activity which is false because:

  1. it is based on an unscientific failure to differentiate masses of activities lumped under generic but, in reality, unbinding classes and therefore prey to the Aristotelian procedure of explaining by classifying rather than by critical experimentation;
  2. it ignores the recent evidence of contemporary psychological research;
  3. it ignores the findings of modern anthropology;
  4. it ignores the experiences of history.

As John Dewey points out in his monumental Human Nature and Conduct, the theory of inherited evil nature has its origin in the glorification of the divine and the accompanying disparagement of the mundane, as well as in the apparently necessary stage in human development which, expressing the compulsive quest for certainty, attempts to explain the unknown in terms of some mysterious motive causes within itself.

On the Concept of Instinct

Modern science, however, has largely refrained from accepting the concept of “instinct” (an inherited, highly complex behavior pattern which provides directive to the basic needs of life) which is at the core of the human nature theory. Under the sweeping headings of “sex,” “fear,” the “instinct of domination,” or the “instinctive drive for power,” have been lumped so many conflicting types of human experience, derived from so many different social contexts, that the generalized classification blurs rather than clarifies. As Dewey has so conclusively shown, even what might appear as the most elemental of “instincts” are acquired, social in their origin and learned in their developmental pattern. He writes in Human Nature and Conduct:

Why do we not set out with an examination of those instinctive activities upon which the acquisition of habits is conditioned? ... The query is a natural one, yet it tempts to flinging forth a paradox. In conduct the acquired is the primitive. Impulses although first in time are never primary in fact; they are secondary and dependent. The seeming paradox in statements covers a familiar fact. In the life of the individual, instinctive activity comes first. But an individual begins life as a baby, and babies are dependent beings. Their activities could continue at most for only a few hours were it not for the presence and aid of adults with their formed habits. They owe to adults the opportunity to express their native activities in ways which have meaning. Even if by some miracle original activity could continue without assistance from the organized skill and art of adults, it would not amount to anything. It would be mere sound and fury.

In short, the meaning of native activities is not native; it is acquired. It depends upon interaction with a material social medium.

If, then, habits or “instincts” are secondary and acquired, and not native and original, then they are clearly amenable to adaptation. Surely, also, if the primary activities of a baby are dependent upon a “matured social medium” for their expression, the complex activities of social classes and political movements cannot be explained by the generic catch-all instincts which fail to elucidate even the most simple of human actions. But are there not some basic “instincts” common to all men [2], the very motive forces which make for the continuation of the race? Here again Dewey comes to our aid:

Even in the case of hunger and sex, where the channels of action are fairly demarcated by antecedent conditions (or “nature”) the actual content and feel of hunger and sex are indefinitely varied according to their social contexts. Only when a man is starving is he under an unqualified natural impulse; as it approaches this limit, it tends to lose, moreover, its psychological distinctiveness and to be come a raven of the entire organism.”

It is clear then that there is no human nature in the abstract, apart from the social framework which encases it. By this statement we do not wish to suggest that it is necessary “to choose between innate ideas and an empty, passive, wax-like mind” (Dewey) but rather that “the innate apparatus of man consists of ‘reflexes’ rather than ideas; also that our sense organs and our glands and muscles lend to responses of certain kinds in which our organization plays a part ... as that played by the external stimulus” (Russell) and that both the human organization and the “external stimulus,” being historical products, are historically amendable.

A Limit to Human Adaptability?

Whether there is any limitation to the social adaptability of the human race has not yet been determined; and whether that limit, if such there be, precludes a classless society has certainly not yet been proved. One thing is certain: there is no positive evidence for such an assertion, and its conclusive proof is impossible short of the actual attempt to establish such a society. If anything, the teachings of history and anthropology demonstrate the wide range of adaptability which the human impulses or drives have been subject to under differing conditions. Even the very “instincts” themselves (following Dewey’s useful distinction, we use “instinct” as signifying a complex, highly organized behavior pattern, while “impulse” is a human drive or reaction, “something primitive, yet loose, undirected, initial” and exerting its “main force in the struggle for survival,” rather than in more complex societal situations) are so hazy and vague as to preclude any possibility of testing their validity.

In fact, also, every reaction takes place in a different environment, and its meaning is never twice alike, since the difference in environment makes a difference in consequences. It is only mythology which sets up a single, identical psychic force which “causes” all the reactions of fear, a force beginning and ending in itself.

Fear of the dark is different from fear of publicity, fear of the dentist from fear of ghosts, fear of conspicuous success from fear of humiliation, fear of a bat from fear of a bear. Cowardice, embarrassment, caution and reverence may all be regarded as forms of fear. They all have certain physical organic acts in common – those of organic shrinking, gestures of hesitation and retreat. But each is qualitatively unique. Each is what it is in virtue of its total interactions and correlations with other acts and with the environing medium. – (Dewey)

If then, again, habits are learned, are socially-conditioned and are unique in their forms and expression within each situation, the traditional psychology of “instincts” which set up a hard-and-fast preordained class under which specific acts are subsumed, was merely attempting to explain what it didn’t know in terms of its ignorance. It speaks of the instinct or capacity for fear or sex, but in what demonstrable way does that increase our knowledge of the primary qualities of fear or sex themselves? The entire instinct theory [3] is akin to defining words in terms of themselves; its causal factors (the instincts) are only names condensing into duplicate form a variety of complex occurrences; it reduces social custom to individual habit and offers the latter as explanation of the former by means of a covering term which explains neither. In his book, Pareto, Franz Borkenau neatly sums up this idea:

A century ago, Hegel turned his bitter irony against Kant, who explained every mental activity by assuming a specific capacity for it. Plato, in his turn, explains every psychological and sociological fact by assuming a specific instinct or sense for it in human nature. Now an explanation is the correlation of unknown phenomena with other phenomena better known to us. Is the “instinct of combinations” known better to us than the combinations themselves, the natural aversions better than the taboos they are supposed to explain, the sense of uniformity better than the actions enforcing uniformity? Certainly not! Those instincts, as Pareto assumes them, are simple doubles of the facts they are supposed to explain, queer psycho-sociological Dinge an sich which resemble on all points the phenomena they are intended to make intelligible, except the one point that they are unobservable and thus metaphysical entities, whereas the social phenomena they are meant to explain are observable.

We believe we have demonstrated the “instinct” theory of human nature, which Machiavellianism accepts, to be false to scientific evidence which shows that so-called basic instincts are learned from at least the moment of birth and social in their subsequent development; and self-contradictory and meaningless, as well, in its use of what is to be explained as an explanation and in its obscurantist lumping of a variety of unique experiences under generic and vague classes.

Individual Psychology and Social Life

There is still another serious methodological objection to the Machiavellian approach. Burnham speaks of “psychological tendencies which are apparently constant in social life” as one of the factors making democracy a “practical impossibility.” We must strongly object to the attempt to graft psychological conclusions formulated about the individual onto the social organism. The infliction of individual behavior patterns upon social groups or societies is as invalid as the attempts once made to explain organic changes by mechanical laws. For societies are not mere agglomerations of individuals; they have their own character and complexion, determined mainly by factors beyond the individual’s control. It may be fruitful to analyze the psychological effects of a given society’s development on certain individuals, but that is a far cry from describing social classes in terms of individual behavior patterns as do the Machiavellians in their attempt to show history as a monotonous mosaic in which the few inescapable “residues” repeatedly exert their decision. The very language of psychoanalysis is in terms of the individual; its application to social groups is at best analogically illuminating and often merely confusing.

Two Glances at Modern Science

Whatever relevant materials modern science has offered on this subject indicates that the Machiavellian approach is antediluvian, to say the least. We cite two such instances because they represent the general tendency of modern science, at least with respect to this particular problem:

  1. Everyone is by now familiar with Pavlov’s experiments in conditioned reflexes. The connection between training a dog to find the beat of a metronome an adequate stimulus for his salivary glands and the problem of whether human nature precludes socialism, may not be readily apparent. But connection there is, nonetheless. For this initial experiment and its derivatives have demonstrated that even what one might think to be the most basic of human reflexes – connected with the most essential human function: eating – can be radically modified by conditioning. Why can we then not assume that there is at least a reasonable prospect that the “instincts” which men have acquired from the capitalist mode of existence and which are largely unique to it (as a contrast between the mores of capitalism and feudalism will so vividly demonstrate) can likewise be conditioned by a new society?
  2. Without necessarily committing ourselves to his theories, it is worth noting that Freud’s concept of neuroses being bred in infantile experiences within the forbidding arena of adult life, opens incredible vistas for the development of the human race, if it is provided with a milieu which is stimulating and liberating to the child (and the adult!) rather than inhibitory and conflict-breeding.

James Burnham is a well educated man. He is without question aware of the latest developments in the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis. Yet his book is shot through with both the language and concepts of a psychological approach which is simply mediaeval in its essence. Is this not a fine example of how the attempt to rationalize reactionary politics results in abandonment of the heritage of modern science?


The Evidence from Anthropology

We have thus far discussed the human nature theory in terms of its own propositions and methodology. But it can be disproved not merely by internal analysis but also by reference to the experiential disciplines of anthropology and history. We shall not attempt to offer “primitive communism” as a rationale for a modern socialist society’s ability to satisfy man’s nature; “primitive communism” is too controversial an anthropological subject to suffice as definitive proof, and modern society is so different in its structure and relationships that the analogy is not convincing. But anthropology can prove something more important: the flexibility and adaptability of human nature:

  1. Margaret Mead, in her Sex and Temperament, describes two New Guinea tribes, one of them, the Arapesh mountain dwellers, among whom mutual respect and affection are the norm, and among whom the concept of competition is unknown. On the other hand, “The Mundugumor man-child is born into a hostile world, a world in which most members of his sex will be his enemies, in which his major equipment for success must be a capacity for violence, for seeing and avenging insult, for holding his own safety very lightly and the lives of other even more lightly.”
  2. Assuming perhaps that Burnham’s psychological constants in social nature do not, for some mysterious reason, apply to New Guinea, we turn to the American Indian tribes. Ruth Benedict, in her Patterns of Culture (perhaps with the presentiment of Burnham’s discovery that “wars are a natural phase of the historical process”) describes the Pueblo Indians, for whom warfare is the norm of social existence, and the Baffinland Eskimos, who not only never indulge in warfare but cannot – happy folk that they must be! – even understand its meaning when explained to them by an outsider.
  3. Otto Klineberg, in his Race Differences, describes the Yakuts, a Siberian tribe, which leads so cooperative a social life that they cannot understand why – explain it to them, good Machiavellian scientists! – starvation can exist in Western civilization.

These are three instances we have chosen completely at random. There are others, perhaps even more striking. But even these are enough to demonstrate that, at some time, on every part of the globe, every kind of social form, every kind of social practice seems to have been praised or tolerated. As Dewey asks: “How is the tremendous diversity of institutions (including moral codes) to be accounted for? The native stock of instincts is practically the same everywhere. Exaggerate as much as you like the native differences of Patagonians and Greeks, Sioux Indians and Hindoos, Bushmen and Chinese, their original differences will bear no comparison to the amount of difference found in custom and culture.”

Why indeed? Why do certain men have this tendency and others its opposite? [4] “And then,” enters the mocking voice of Bukharin, who, in his Historical Materialism, faced some of these problems, “and then – oh horrors! – we must go back to the conditions of men’s existence ...” [5]

And “History Teaches Us ...”

But history, doesn’t history demonstrate that ... well, it is better to discuss history in terms of historical theory, and that we propose to do in analyzing the Machiavellian approach to history. One thing needs to be said: even the most cursory glance at recent historical experience will demonstrate that the human being has been capable of the most diverse and uncharted of behaviors, from the most base to the most noble. From the heroism and spiritual exaltation of the Russian proletariat in 1919 to the debasement of the GPU agent murdering defenseless Jews – that is the range of present-day “human nature.” Who can draw generalizations therefrom except to say once more that the human being is a completely adaptable organism, molded by the society in which he finds himself, and capable, under certain conditions, of changing that society? When Marx wrote, in his Eighteenth Brumaire, that history repeats itself, once on the tragic plane and the second time on the ridiculous plane, he was really expressing in epigrammatic form the concept that the flow of history is a continued process of unique configurations and that each historical situation and each social attitude it produces among people, must be considered in its own uniqueness as well as in relation to its past and future. Is there any approach more fruitless than that which sees history as a constant variation on a theme, a sort of continued derivation of Eve’s bite into the evil apple of knowledge?


We believe that we have shown that the psychological premise – without which the entire Machiavellian structure begins to wobble as if struck by an earthquake – is contradictory, meaningless, without empirical verification. We for our part entertain no rationalistic illusions about “human nature.” We are convinced, however, that we can make of it almost what we will, provided we furnish a societal seed-bed in which it can flourish. Trotsky, in his Literature and Revolution, speaks of the coming society as producing a race of men on the level of Beethoven, Goethe and Marx. Perhaps that is only a very distant perspective, a mere goal to aim at. Perhaps, on the other hand, we, dragged down by the barbarisms of capitalist civilization, are incapable of envisaging what a socialist society could accomplish. In either case, the perspective is there; the possibility acute; the task remains. Human nature is not a doom; it is an experiment.


In the second section of this article, we shall turn to the historical method of the Machiavellian theory as presented by Burnham, with especial emphasis on the theory of the elites.


1. The Machiavellians, by James Burnham. The John Day Co., 278 pages, $2.50.

2. No more definitive disposition of this notion can be found than in Robert Briffault’s anthropological study, The Mothers, which contains a wealth of material demonstrating that the modern attitude of romantic love is of recent origin and that mating among primitive peoples was without any romantic qualities, as modern man understands them.

3. The very attempt to explain societal phenomena by means of a human nature theory is itself conditioned by the then prevalent social attitude. As Sidney Hook writes in his A Portrait of John Dewey: “It is in social and moral terms that human nature is always constructed, especially by those most convinced of its fixidity.”

4. Without making too much of it, we wish to point out how the Machiavellian theory of human nature makes possible theories of racial supremacy. Admit once the concept of inherited characteristics and then admit that different races or nations have shown different traits (as nobody can possibly deny) and you must face the logical conclusion that it is possible that there are different psychological constants of social nature for each race or nation. That is the logic of the position, and Burnham’s character has little to do with it.

5. A lot of fuss has been raised by anti-Marxists about the fact that Engels used Morgan’s BY NOW outmoded anthropology in his Origins of the Family. Most of this is either demagogical or beside the point and has validity only when directed against those contemporary Marxists who insist on unquestioning adherence to every scrap of material which Engels borrowed from the scientists of his time. For what Engels sought in Morgan was above all evidence to demonstrate the diversity of human experience and culture, the dialectical transitoriness of all societies, the flow of change In history. In that approach be had more of the scientific spirit than all the academicians who now reproach him for not having used twentieth century anthropology which, as a matter of fact, provides even more startling evidence for what Engels was seeking than Morgan ever did.

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