Notes on Althusser’s Machiavelli (1)

At the end of the first chapter of Machiavelli and Us (“Theory and Political Practice”), Althusser gives his take on a classic question that structures much Machiavelli scholarship: “whom, then, does this work serve?” (29)

Answers to this question are legion, ranging from “the devil” (as the early “anti-Machiavels” were wont to accuse) to the executive individualism of Greene and Lord (“The first thought that comes to mind is that this treatise on The Prince serves the Prince, or even any prince” [29]) to radical or republican interpretations following after Diderot and Rousseau, among others.

Althusser immediately points out that what appears to be a handbook for political elites also exposes elite strategic behavior to anyone who cares to read it: “at the very moment it arms the Prince with its methods, it disarms him by making them public” (29).

This entails what Althusser rightly terms the “strange contradiction” (30) inherent to Machiavelli’s output. Is Machiavelli’s advice to elites only a pretense? How many layers of dissimulation and irony are we looking at here? Althusser explores the idea a little further. Perhaps Machiavelli is setting up “the great snare of the ‘actual truth’ set in the open for rulers to come and entrap themselves all on their own” (30). On this reading, it is Machiavelli’s observational acuity that allows him to describe elite strategic behavior under the guise of offering advice (although as Althusser notes, “what can he teach them that they do not already know? Rulers have always managed on their own, and they do not need a Machiavelli” [30]). But this is a ruse, for he is exposing the tricks elites use in order to consolidate and exercise power efficaciously.

At this point, Althusser deviates from standard populist readings of Machiavelli, emphasizing the degree to which Machiavelli advocates the specific political goal of founding the Italian popular state – something that only a “New Prince” can accomplish by channeling the historical conditions of this “revolutionary situation” (27). Accordingly, Althusser concludes that Machiavelli purposefully includes a “double viewpoint” in his writing. This double viewpoint folds in the acquisitive or foundational power of elites and the critical, even militant class perspective of the populace.

For Althusser, Machiavelli loses no love on elites, but the class perspective he occupies introduces an interesting tension. Elite strategic behavior can serve the needs of the populace. Accordingly, elites are not something Machiavelli wants to abolish. That being said, elites and populace remain in a relationship of structural opposition. This raises the question of how elites can be constrained into benefiting the populace rather than preying upon it. Althusser doesn’t explore this idea any further in this chapter, but he does distantiate Machiavelli from the tradition of political philosophy insofar as he makes room for political agents to embody multiple, even incommensurable positions. In other words, you can be opposed to elites, but also able and willing to use them – for example, by allowing them to effectuate desired or necessary political outcomes. Elites are wolves, and therefore dangerous, but precisely because of this they can be very useful wolves. It depends on contingent factors, namely, the concrete material details of the political situation.

It is not that Machiavelli provides us with a value-neutral strategic handbook, nor is he engaged in the purely satirical exposure of elite vice. Instead, Althusser’s Machiavelli is a theorist informed by a rigorously normative political materialism. It is a materialism because it engages and explores the modal contours of a given historical and political situation, but it is normative insofar as such situations are “empty for the future” (20) – that is to say, both conducive and responsive to foundings of the new modes and orders with which Machiavelli is so concerned.

Of course, we can fault Althusser for what appears to be his commitment to a form of historical determinism, but, especially in these later writings, I find myself reading his superficially deterministic statements in light of his valorization of the aleatory (“the Prince is a pure aleatory possibility-impossibility” [26]). In other words, he uses the vocabulary of historical determinism as a means to generate normative claims. Ultimately, the usefulness of these claims involves how Althusser helps us think about the implementation and pursuit of various political futures.