Machiavelli for Anarchists, Part 1

Readers may be wondering what happened to the planned final post on Trotsky’s “Terrorism and Communism”. It was meant to be a consideration of the issue of methods, of how a revolutionary but non-state force could establish stability and security without employing the methods of their enemies.

But I never quite got much in the way of clarity on the issue, so I’ve decided that the intelligent thing to do is to throw something else on the compost-pile in the hope of cross-germination. The thing is question is Machiavelli, who famously wrote in very hard-headed terms about how to get and acquire power, and whose writings (if I recall correctly) were much studied by many revolutionaries. So this is the first of what will hopefully be a few posts containing random reflections touched off by reading “The Prince” and “The Discourses”.

I should note, by the way, that it’s not like I’m some kind of enthusiast for civil war. There are very few things worse than civil war. Nor do I think civil war necessarily inevitable in the transition to anarchist communism. I do consider ‘revolution’ inevitable, by which I mean, a struggle, in which the holders of power lose power against their will. But that could take any number of forms, which would call for any number of strategies.

The reason the issue of civil war concerns me is that it is in a sense the worst-case scenario, and hence the most appropriate ‘test’ for an ideology or body of thought: when events have led up to a situation such as that in Russia, or Spain, or Germany, in the inter-war period, and a certain territory is contested by two implacably opposed forces, neither of which can permit the other to win, and both of whom have supporters everywhere – then all the easy answers become hardest. And so I feel drawn to consider the issue of how an anarchist communist (feminist anti-racist vegan etc.) force in such a situation should proceed.

So, proceeding the Machiavelli, there is a famous passage in “The Prince” which argues that, boiled down, it is better to be feared than to be loved:

“Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.”

This however is supplemented by a further principle, that:

“Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred”

The methods of which are elaborated thus:

“when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony”

The reason for the priority of fear over love is this:

“Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely…when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined…men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

Which is then re-phrased in a very pithy form as:

“men loving according to their own will and fearing according to that of the prince, a wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control and not in that of others”

What might an anarchist say of this? Well, the first thing to note, of course, is that Machiavelli (or Machiavelli-writing-The-Prince, who may differ from Machiavelli-in-his-true-beliefs) has the advantage of addressing a subject whose identity is guaranteed – though the prince may be ruined, she canot cease to be herself. The identity of the revolutionary force, on the other hand, can easily be compromised, for example, if through embracing a rule of summary execution of counter-revolutionaries, it comes to pass that all those disagreeing with a certain idea are either dead or too afraid to voice their opinion, with the result that the revolutionary force no longer represents the opinions of the people, but only a subset of them.

Machiavelli has an ordering of three principles:

1) seek to be feared,

2) seek not to be hated,

3) seek to be loved.

With 1 being more important than 2 or 3. If we add a fourth principle, ‘maintain your identity as representative of the people’, what rank should it have? I would argue 1st, on the basis that after the Bolshevik victory in Russia, Stalin and his successors had a more pernicious effect on emancipatory struggle elsewhere in the world than an avowedly anti-communist White-guard leader would have had.  That is, roughly speaking, – external defeat sets back the revolution in one country, while internal defeat sets it back across the world, for decades to come. But can we step from this specific historical example to a broader principle? It would seem, after all, that Fidel Castro’s dictatorship in Cuba, though open to much criticism, has not clearly harmed the broader left-wing wave of Latin America more than it helped it. So that is a difficult question.

More broadly though, should we agree with Machiavelli’s rank ordering of these three principles? Let’s first take the crucial issue, that 1 (be feared) is more important than 3 (be loved), if we set aside the role of 2 (don’t be hated). This is, after all, something that Trotsky, it would seem, very much endorses: for him it is essential to intimidate those who opposed the Russian revolution, to persuade them that whatever they might think about the revolution, it was very much against their personal interests to actively oppose it. And it would seem in general that a stable society depends on some belief of this sort – depends on people who dislike that society’s basic set-up being much more reluctant to oppose it by ‘extra-constitutional means’ than by ‘constitutional means’.

But a few counter-points suggest themselves. One is simply that in general, the ‘be feared’ imperative is having to go up against three other imperatives – ‘don’t be hated’, ‘be loved’, and ‘don’t lose your identity’. This might mean that in practice, even if it is very important, it will often be outweighed.

Reinforcing this is the specific relationship of anarchism to ‘love’. Machiavelli describes a situation in which the only thing to inspire love is that one dictator is wiser or more generous than another. Anarchist revolution, on the other hand, has potentially a much greater resource, in that to be successful it must make its very nature ‘lovable’ to most people – must offer them a vision of self-rule, freedom, and equality that will be attractive, and the attraction of which can extend far beyond the physical capacities of a certain movement to provie material aid.

This potentially abundant ‘love-resource’ could be interpreted in two ways. One way is to say that it makes gaining love even less important, because it can be taken for granted. This seems at times to be Trotsky’s approach (with communism only rather than anarchist communist, of course) – that the Bolshevik’s own clear rightness and pro-prole outlook allows them to take the support of the workers for granted. That seems very iffy. On the other hand, it might make gaining love more important, because the ‘power of a good example’ in a few cases may bring greater returns when backed up by an inherently lovable ideology.

Also, the character of the ‘love’ and its relationship to ‘fear’ changes when considering an anarchist revolutionary force specifically. For Machiavelli, the bond of love is reliant on a sense of obligation, as opposed to self-interest. Yet the whole point of self-government and mutual solidarity is to merge these two – so that the ‘love’ which animates a certain person or groups allegiance to the cause is not a moral one but a personal one, a personal commitment to their own self-rule. Of course, one might ask how much people really want this – are people more drawn to the vicarious freedom of identification a heroic saviour than to their own actual freedom? This, it seems, is likely to be a historical question – under what circumstances? Anarchist revolution is hardly to be expected where the former is much stronger, after all.

But the role of ‘hatred’ is also important. Machiavelli warns against depriving anyone of their property – a very hard maxim to follow for a communist movement. Similarly, depriving people of their various forms of property in women will be inevitable for a feminist movement, and depriving people of their precious power and status inevitable for anarchists. So it seems that Machiavelli’s admonition to avoid inspiring hatred must be substantially violated. And if such hatred exists, it might seem that love from those sections is not to be relied on (though by no means impossible).

Hence follows the argument that with this section (the “counter-revolutionaries”) since love is in practice impossible, fear must be established – which is precisely the argument given for terrorism by Trotsky. Open, of course, to many objections, but one that is particularly of note is of course the difficulty of distinguishing who is who. If the criterion were merely one of economic or social class, I rather fear that a great number of ‘revolutionaries’ would fare badly.

So, in conclusion, I draw no firm conclusion.

One Response to “Machiavelli for Anarchists, Part 1”

  1. Machiavelli for Anarchists, Part 2 – Tyranny, Republicanism, and the End of Radical Politics « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] and the End of Radical Politics March 31, 2009 — Alderson Warm-Fork Following on from Part 1 of this series, I want to suggest that Machiavelli’s work can be seen as grounded in a concern with the […]


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