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Machiavelli and Modern Thought

R. Fahan

Machiavellian Political Theory – III

Problems of Power and Leadership

(February 1944)

From The New International, Vol. X No. 2, February 1944, pp. 50–54.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Burnham, like his Machiavellian predecessors, has more than general scientific considerations in mind when he puts forward his theories. [1] As much as if he were proposing a formal program, he is concerned with political problems – not the specific immediate problems of our society (he has little to say about war or unemployment or fascism), but rather about the more general political problems of modern society. He is most concerned with the “problem of power.” While in our first two articles we showed the psychological premise which underlies the Machiavellian assumptions, in this article we shall discuss the dual argument which Burnham puts forward: the argument from organization, which can be made without psychological premises. It is this argument – the theory that the complexity of modern society makes impossible the achievement of a truly democratic action – which has been seized upon most eagerly by many of the ex-radicals.

It is on Michels that Burnham leans most heavily in this connection. Of all the Machiavellians, Michels is the most interesting writer. His study of political parties contains a vast amount of fascinating material even if its theoretical conclusions are insupportable.

The socialists may triumph but socialism never will, said Michels. In this phrase is concentrated the theory of Machiavellianism with regard to power, and it has received powerful support – in the minds of many – from the experiences of the Bolshevik Revolution. Men may start with noble ideological motives; their quest for power may have had its origin in profound humanitarian goals; but the very struggle for power, with its inevitable mechanisms and corruptions, engenders a desire for power as an end in itself; it supplants the professed goal and is transformed from a means to an end. The party, from being an instrument for the achievement of goals, is transformed into a sacred object, incapable of wrong-doing, and beyond question. It is in this manner that all idealistic movements end in tyranny.

A General Problem of Power

Clearly enough, this political theory presumes the existence of a general problem of power extending through all societies and criss-crossing all conditions. Even if, however, we remove its inevitability quotient – its claim to universality – by destroying the psychological premise which must necessarily underlie such a claim, we have still not disposed of the entire problem. For certainly it cannot be denied that the power complex has been a potent historical factor and that it will present a major problem for a future socialist society, certainly a far more difficult one than that of technological organization. Nor can it be denied that there have been many points of similarity, even congruent patterns between different social movements for power. So that even if on the theoretical plain we force Machiavellianism out of its “inevitability” bastion and prove that it cannot even claim to speak in more than terms of probabilities, we must still face the problem of power.

Yet we can make no progress at all toward its solution if we do not insist on its rigorous integration into specific historical contexts. No problem of power can be considered as an abstract syllogism; Lord Acton’s famous maxim that “power corrupts” may be a fairly valid, though by no means conclusive, summary description of previous historical experience, it may even serve as a valuable warning for the future; but it cannot serve as a social law. For that purpose we must always give a contextual setting: the Stalinist bureaucracy developed as a result of certain very specific historical circumstances and many members of the old Bolshevik vanguard fell prey to the degenerative process, but what was basic to the split in the ranks of the Bolshevik Party was a class issue and the personalities of the participants determined at most the class allegiance of a particular individual, though often enough that allegiance too was “predetermined” by a whole set of antecedent political and psychological conditions. In a word, we must insist that all problems of power are specific, that they are engendered not by any alleged super-social laws of political functioning applicable to all societies, but rather by a given historical situation. Once this is granted, it becomes impossible for anyone to assert a priori the necessary transformation of a socialist revolution into a quest for power by a bureaucratic minority. [2]

Nonetheless, if all problems of power are specific, there are certain crucial points of similarity between them which makes it necessary to consider them as an independent series. It is unquestionably true, as Michels has said, that each newly-triumphant revolutionary movement tends to attempt a consolidation of its power, a sort of closing of the floodgates to the very social waves which have swept it into power – or that at least, it has been so in most cases. But how are we to explain this fact? We have already shown the invalid character of the attempt to explain it by psychological theories. A glance at recent history will demonstrate, we believe, that seemingly parallel formal patterns have their origin in similar social conditions. Thus, for instance, one might say that both Robespierre, in his suppression of the Hébertists, and Cromwell, in his suppression of the Levellers, were demonstrating the validity of Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy. But is it not rather more fruitful to see that as bourgeois revolutionists both Robespierre and Cromwell faced the necessity of not merely destroying the old order but also the extraordinarily difficult task of simultaneously propelling the masses into revolutionary action on behalf of the bourgeoisie and cutting off any attempt to extend the revolution beyond the stage desirable to the bourgeoisie? The simplistic Machiavellian approach is shown as further inutile when it is remembered that it is even questionable, despite our sympathies, whether in the circumstances it was not to the deeper interests of the French revolutionary masses to support Robespierre – in view of the social immaturity of the then incipient French proletariat – rather than the more radical Hébertists. [3]

Formal Similarities in the Power Quest

Thus we may reach the conclusion that what appears to be a series of formal similarities with regard to the quest for power in itself and the suppression of dissident revolutionary minorities is often rather a mere surface outline of a deeper series of class struggles of parallel types. Under those conditions, there is no cause for surprise if there is a prevalent pattern of political development. In fact, one could easily demonstrate that all bourgeois revolutions have had such an overall pattern precisely because they have had to meet the same social problem (viz., Marx’s writings on France and Germany).

But there are still further social considerations which shape the formal pattern of the power problem. With the exception of the Bolshevik revolution, all previously successful revolutions have had as their perspective the substitution of one form of class rule for another, even if they have hidden this claim under the veil of grandiose programs for universal equality. Under the historical circumstance, this was quite inevitable and it is worse than useless to berate Robespierre for not understanding the French Revolution in the terms which we do today. But this same limitation meant that even the greatest of revolutionists were subject to the limitations of the classes they represented: their morality and ethics. Is it any wonder then that none of the bourgeois revolutionists was immune from the degenerative power process which Michels describes? How, under the circumstances, could they be?

But, often enough, what the Machiavellians could see only as the beginning of another substitution of power as an end in place of the professed political goal was really an insidious and subtle commencement of counter-revolution. Of course, the indiscriminate blur which their theory of the elite produced on their political vision prevented them from seeing that what they thought was merely a shift within a bureaucracy based on the rearrangement of power relationships, was really the incipient form of class struggles that rock nations. That is why the Machiavellian interpretation of the rise of Stalinism is so banal, with its reduction of the most complex of all historical events to a mere struggle between the ins and the outs of a bureaucracy consolidating its power. For if, according to the popular fable, “Bolshevism produced Stalinism” (we leave aside the incredible semantic imprecision of this and similar formulations) the Machiavellians and their friends have never yet explained why it was necessary for Stalinism to exterminate the whole Bolshevik generation and why no compromise could be reached. Or why for that matter, the Thermidorians had to exterminate the Jacobins.

The Rôle of the Individual Leader

But what about the individual leaders of revolutions? Can they not, do they not, become drunk with power? Unquestionably, such things occur. But it is only within certain situations that such thirsts can be satisfied. Stalin may have had the same thirst for power in 1920 as he was to demonstrate later; but the individual qualities which later enabled him to personify a social movement would have meted him only scorn and ridicule had he dared act upon them in the early years, of the revolution.

Even more illuminating in this connection is the history of Nazism. One can hardly think of a movement in recent history so openly power-crazed as the Nazi Party, nor of a leadership so frank in its quest for power. Nonetheless, this very Nazi bureaucracy, despite the apparently limitless extent of its internal power, has never dared or even desired to abolish bourgeois property within Germany, thereby showing a profounder understanding of its own historical rôle and limitations than many anti-Nazi theoreticians.

For the personal characteristics of leaders of power-hungry movements are also subject to social conditions, though indirectly. What was once thought of as the unqualified lust for power, a psychological phenomenon unexplained and viewed as an end-result, is now looked upon by more perspicacious thinkers as a more ambivalent complex. The power craze is now seen as symbiotic, that is, a compound of masochistic and sadistic elements, a result of desire for strength to overcome keenly-felt weakness, on the part of frustrated elements of the petty bourgeoisie. This type of analysis has been fruitfully conducted by Erich Fromm, a psychoanalyst who has borrowed from both Freud and Marx, in his book, Escape from Freedom, which applies this approach to the Nazi movement. As the bounds of human knowledge gradually broaden, it is discovered that even what was once thought as being such a seemingly irreducible psychological element as the power complex is increasingly explicable in terms of human, social experience. And if we are to grant the possibility of removing certain of the social causes which generate these presumably inescapable human attitudes, we must accordingly grant at least the possibility of removing the attitudes themselves.

All past history has been the history of class struggles; it is therefore readily seen why power relationships have had many analogous patterns, why it has been possible for Machiavellian theoreticians to abstract these patterns and develop therefrom the “Iron Law of Oligarchy.” But never yet has humanity faced a situation in which it was possible to build a society of plenty; until a relatively few years ago, such a society was an economic impossibility. What, then, is the possibility of this law exerting itself with regard to the socialist revolution? Is that too doomed to degeneration? Here, after all, is the decisive question; the Machiavellians may write about the past but they are most concerned with the future.

Although the Russian Revolution is thus far the richest source of experience which the revolutionary movement has, it can by no means be considered conclusive in any respect. If we can imagine the future socialist scholar investigating this very same problem, he would no doubt look upon the Russian Revolution as an aberration that is, one which faced a situation untypical of the problems faced by the workers of the major capitalist countries of the world. Even if the socialist revolution in Europe were, a few years hence, to have its inception in as wracked and economically tortured lands as France and Germany, it would still be. tremendously ahead of the Bolsheviks. We have no intention here to polemize with those who see in the history of Bolshevism a series of mistakes culminating in the biggest mistake of all: Stalin. They are people who find historical analysis easy because they view it from the perch of elevated, if delayed, moral judgments, rather than in terms of reconstructing actual historical situations and weighing the real possibilities of action within them.

Socialism and Bureaucratism

In a country such as America, a socialist society could so rapidly and successfully establish a society of plenty that the peculiar economic basis of each previous society for a ruling class would not be able to appear. Bureaucracy is not nourished on thin air; it requires the more material sustenance of economic inequality and insufficiency. The tremendous surge of activity, self-assertion, self-confidence, and social awareness which a socialist revolution would generate in masses of a Western power – see how much it generated in the Russia of Czarism! – would also serve as the subjective check toward any usurping tendency to derail the democratic engine of the revolution. It is sometimes difficult for us – so used to oppression and manipulation, falsehood and terror as conventional means of political control – to envisage the possibilities which a genuine mass democratic movement toward socialism possesses.

If capitalist society is overripe economically for a transition to socialism, it is that very fact which will, however, place certain difficulties in the path of socialism. Who can doubt that the possibilities of bureaucratic degeneration in, say, a German socialist revolution are greater today than they would have been twenty years ago? The horrible scars which fascism has left on the European people, the difficulty of fully erasing the effects of the present nightmare from their minds, will be a problem of consequence for the socialist revolution long after its economic problems are solved, just as the problem of race relations in this country will occupy a similar position. As capitalist society degenerates, and the advent of socialism is frustrated, the transition will become more difficult: the debasement of humanity under capitalism will exert its penalty on socialism. So that even in connection with the seemingly general problem of power attitudes under socialism, we must again return to the historical conjuncture. The problem in general need hold no terrors for us. When he was still a Marxist, Sidney Hook wrote very sensibly on the question:

That personal abuse of power will always be possible is undeniable. But what Michels overlooks is the social and economic presuppositions of the oligarchical tendencies of leadership in the past. Political leadership in past societies meant economic power. Education and tradition fostered the tendencies to predatory self-assertion in some classes and at the same time sought to deaden the interest in politics on the part of the masses. In a socialist society in which political leadership is an administrative function and, therefore, carries with it no economic power, in which the processes of education strive to direct the psychic tendencies to self-assertion into ‘moral and social equivalents’ of oligarchical ambition, in which monopoly of education for one class has been abolished, and the division of labor between manual and mental worker is progressively eliminated – the danger that Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy will express itself in traditional form, becomes quite remote. (Toward the Understanding of Karl Marx)

The economic foundations of the oligarchical tendency which Michels observes will be removed under socialism; the psychological characteristics by which the Machiavellians explain these tendencies are largely fictitious; and the supposed incompetence and inertia of the masses which allow these tendencies to continue interminably and only occasionally checked, are themselves merely manifestations of class societies and they too can be replaced by the qualities of assertiveness and awareness.

A Conscious Process of Social Experimentation

What the Machiavellian critique does do, however, is to impel us to reassert once more what should never have been submerged: the fact that the transition to socialism is a conscious process of social EXPERIMENTATION: there is nothing inherent in the economic mechanisms of either the socialist state or the transition to it which guarantees a democratic structure. (In general, people who seek guarantees should be more at home in the insurance business than in politics.) The Stalinists and those whom they have influenced (the most theoretically disastrous result of that influence is the theory that Stalinist Russia, while counter-revolutionary remains – in its Platonic essence, so to speak – a workers’ state) have emphasized precisely the opposite.

If there are no guarantees, there are, however, likelihoods. They are the factors previously listed which make a successful transition to socialism likely: the growth of the productive forces and the flourishing of genuine mass education. What is new in this problem is the fact that the second of these factors, mass education, will become increasingly more difficult as capitalism is allowed to continue its degenerative course. That is where the major difficulty in the transition comes in: the old habits, the old traditions, the old psychology, the old morality – what sociologists call “cultural lag.” Admitting this problem, and admitting further that there is no necessary guarantee for success, can anyone say that there have yet been placed in our path any insurmountable theoretical barriers to the socialist position?

We have thus far not discussed what many anti-socialists see as a possible source of tyranny under socialism: the centralization of administrative functions and the unification of the means of production into gigantic apparatuses. Certainly enough, this is an interesting problem; the proposals that have been made for possible checks on administrative mechanisms and decentralization of political and economic functions merit discussion. But here we shall confine ourselves to another aspect of this theory, which is a favorite of the Machiavellians: the “balance-of-forces” theory.

Says Burnham: democratic rights are largely preserved as a result of the struggle between more or less evenly balanced social forces, or classes. So long as there is struggle, so long as there is disagreement, then there will also be a certain free arena for the expression of those disagreements and struggles. Remove the struggle of contending social forces and the field is free for the tyranny of the victor. There is more than a little deviltry in this theory. First of all, it ignores the little fact that at present one can hardly speak of a balance of social forces but rather of the domination of one class by another, and that whatever freedom exists has not been granted by the bourgeoisie but wrested by the proletariat; and that, furthermore, as soon as crises multiply and become intolerable, the bourgeoisie has as its main aim the destruction of even the precarious “balance” that exists today. Certainly as realistic a thinker as Burnham cannot believe that the struggle within the democratic arena can continue indefinitely; he knows full well that the issue must reach a climax of relation sooner or later.

But there is still another aspect to this problem. Why should one assume that socialism would abolish conflict in human life? All that socialism claims is that it will abolish the economic competition of capitalism and its disastrous results; if, of course, one should equate that with a “balance of social forces” then the above assumption is true. But is it not more likely that under socialism, the conflicts of life could be lifted to a higher, more constructive plane than that of the capitalist market and the capitalist political arena? One can readily imagine serious and organized disputes over vital issues in a socialist society, disputes over important problems. Of course, the problems which would be important to a socialist society would hardly appear so to theoreticians of capitalism today whose main concern is painting all past and future history with the colors of their own pallet. In reality, the exposition of the balances-of-forces theory proves more about its supporters than about socialist society: they are so utterly confined to the thought and morality of the society of capitalism that they cannot even conceive of any other.

The Problem of Organization

Machiavellianism is left with one major prop: the argument from organization. That takes two forms: (1) the impossibility of democratic government because of the complexity and size of the societal unit; (2) the tendency of parties toward bureaucratic usurpation. The first argument need not long detain us. As Burnham uses it, all that he proves is that the old Town Hall form of direct local self-government is no longer possible (an observation which two and perhaps even three writers have previously made ...). By a rather childish sleight of hand he “proves” the impossibility of democracy in complex society because of the necessity of deputation of administration; once the voter deputizes the representative to act in his behalf he surrenders his sovereignty. Very well, then, in the confined sense in which Burnham uses it, “democracy” is impossible. But surely Burnham is driving at something else. He is really repeating the old petty bourgeois, anarchistic prejudice against centralization, though he is sufficiently perspicacious to realize that it is by now an inevitable tendency in modern society – at least until there appears a society capable of conscious planning in behalf of the common good. But, although centralization obviously does have certain inherent dangers, it is the prerequisite for planning and construction.

As Sidney Hook, in his Reason, Social Myths and Democracy, describes the approach of Michels:

Political power in behalf of any ideal, no matter how exalted, can be won only by organization. All organization, no matter how democratically conceived, inevitably involves the emergence of a leadership which in the last analysis controls the organization. If it is defeated, it is replaced, not by a functioning democracy, but by a new leadership. All democratic movements are therefore self-defeating. They are doomed by the iron law of oligarchy. According to this law, the majority of human beings, in a condition of eternal tutelage, are predestined by tragic necessity to submit to the domination of a small minority, and must be content to constitute the pedestal of an oligarchy.

In so far as this repeats in another form the Machiavellian conception of power, there is no need for additional comment. But there certainly is a special problem of the party and bureaucratism apart from general considerations of power relationships in society. It is a fact that, in a certain sense, parties and leaderships are necessary evils. (At the present moment, incidentally, the emphasis should be applied most heavily on the “necessary” – it was the absence of the necessary evil of a revolutionary party in Europe which led to the present catastrophe.) For to organize under capitalism means that, to a large measure, one must organize according to the morality of capitalism. Even revolutionary morality, diametrically opposed to capitalism, is based on it; it is not a morality of an entirely different social order as feudal morality was or as socialist morality will be.

Concretely, socialists abhor the use of force; their ultimate perspective is unquestionably pacifist. Nonetheless, they realize that the very fact that we live under capitalism means that a socialist party strong enough to challenge the status quo would have the entire force of the ruling apparatus hurled at it; it must, therefore, be prepared for such an eventuality. But though this is certainly correct politics, it is also unfortunately a necessary adoption of attitudes which we wish to abolish. Resultantly, it becomes clear that a socialist party becomes prone to adopt such attitudes, not merely as passing necessities, but as generally valid categories. Not only is this true of the comparatively conscious process which has been described above, but also of far less conscious processes whereby the revolutionists have adopted as their own precisely the mores they struggle against, often against their own wishes and often to their own amazement and horror when the fact is made clear to them.

Unquestionably one can foresee a situation where a workers’ state which is gradually emerging into a socialist society would face the possible need of challenging the revolutionary – and therefore class-conscious and, at that stage of the game, reactionary – heritage and methodology of the “Old Bolsheviks.” (The jest that has often been made by revolutionists about there being no place for them under socialism contains a profound, if rather sad, kernel of truth.) More immediately, it is clearly obvious how the heritage of capitalist methodology and, more generally, the heritage of a world history of oppressive class societies could mar the transition from capitalism to socialism. In his Historical Materialism, Bukharin writes of “the period of proletarian dictatorship [as being] far more difficult. The working class achieves victory, although it is not and cannot be a unified mass ... There will inevitably result a tendency to ‘degeneration,’ i.e., the excretion of a leading stratum in the form of a class-germ. This tendency will be retarded by two opposing tendencies: first, by the growth of the productive forces; second, by the abolition of the educational monopoly.” And it must be opposed by still a third force: conscious, wary, most advanced socialist elements on guard against the usurpation of power.

We have said before that the socialist revolution is a conscious process of social experimentation. The rôle of the party is the most vital variable in that process. While the general setting is undoubtedly determined by antecedent conditions, the revolutionary consciousness of the vanguard, together with the increasing awareness of the mass, must serve as the conscience of the revolution. No supra-human force – whether they range from Paretian residues to pseudo-Marxian belief in the “inevitability” of socialism – can serve as a substitute.

All that the Machiavellian protestations and whining about the party can do is to make us more conscious of the fact that once humanity is to enter the period of conscious and deliberate history when it will have its own destiny in its hands, it will have to guard, too, against any debasement or degeneration of that destiny. Who, however, except a conscious or misguided defender of the status quo, would urge that fact as an argument against the attempt of humanity to take its destiny into its own hands?


In our articles against Machiavellianism we have attempted to reply to its anti-socialist arguments in a spirit of scientific detachment and without any emotional or sectarian overtones. The degree of our success is for the reader to judge. We cannot end, however, without a word about the role of James Burnham in this matter. He, who once loftily deigned to correct Marxism from the pinnacle of modern science, has now entered the lists as the champion of every outmoded, shop-worn prejudice against the struggle for human freedom. What he has paraded as the last word in scientific realism is nothing more than a pretentious elaboration of the backward, primitive prejudice and notions of the small-town, cracker-barrel philosopher who spits his jawful of tobacco juice into the stove of the village general store as he utters sage profundities about human nature. Burnham certainly is not a fascist, if only because he is too jealous of his right to write books like The Machiavellians. But it cannot be gainsaid that his latest contribution to political thought adds its bit to the degenerative and demoralized atmosphere of the period of capitalist decay which smooths the road for fascism. This is certainly not Burnham’s intention. But then, as Eliot has noted, “Between the idea and the reality ... between the conception and the creation ... falls the shadow.”


1. The Machiavellians, by James Burnham.

2. The Polish theoretician, Makhajski, and his followers have attempted to prove an analogous proposition on economic grounds, namely, that the socialist revolution is a seizure of power by the intellectuals in order to exploit the workers. The methodology of this approach is, in contrast to the Machiavellians, quite permissible since it deals in concrete social categories, though Marxists cannot accept the content of its theories. When, however, Makhajski and his American disciple, Max Nomad, extend their ideas into a general category to assert that all revolutions must end with the revolting class supplanted in power by an intellectual minority or elite, they are adopting the Machiavellian approach, even if – for some strange sort of romantic reasons of their own – they urge that the workers make these foredoomed revolutions nonetheless.

3. For a fascinating discussion of this point, see Mathiez’s history of the French Revolution.

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