Machiavelli and the primacy of politics

By Doug Enaa GreeneDedicated to my friend Destiney Linker. 
June 10, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- If we were to look at most people who have existed throughout history – we can say that they lived in obscurity, dire poverty, possessing no titles or pretensions to greatness. They lived and died in toil. The vast majority of humanity has passed through these conditions. Yet what did these people think about their circumstances and what to do about them? While there has always been resistance and struggle to oppression, most people have understood their conditions to be divinely ordained, the natural “order of things,” that human nature is unchangeable, or that this is best of all possible worlds. In other words, there was often little concrete thinking about how to change their fate. In fact, we can safely say that the whole structure and ideology of class society from the Pax Romana to Pax Americana is designed to exclude the consideration of any alternatives. 

The revolutionary left, more often than not, rather than challenging these modes of thinking, has tended to reinforce them. Trends such as economism, a naïve belief in “scientific laws” of history, reformism, faith in the development of the productive force or evolutionary social change have tended to encourage passivity and, ultimately, acceptance of the established order. These tendencies are not confined to any single group on the far left, but can be found amongst all them – Moscow-line Communists, Maoists, Trotskyists, anarchists, etc. These modes of thought encourage mechanical determinism which foreclose action and serious thinking about politics and strategy. 

In our time though, the predominant view on the left is not one of determinism or fatalism, but cynicism. According to the philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, 

We all know the innocent child from Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes" who publicly proclaims the fact that the emperor is naked-today, in our cynical era, such a strategy no longer works, it has lost its disturbing power, since everyone now proclaims that the emperor is naked (that Western democracies are torturing terrorist suspects. that wars are fought for profit, etc., etc.), and yet nothing happens, nobody seems to mind, the system just goes on functioning as if the emperor were fully dressed.[1]

Even though we all know the “emperor has no clothes,” we still go through the motions and rituals of pretending that we believe, which helps to perpetuate the social order and the reigning ideology.

Despite the openly voiced cynicism when we utter that the system 'is corrupt and irreformable,' Zizek says that “we only imagine that we do not "really believe" in our ideology-in spite of this imaginary distance, we continue to practice it.”[2] This cynicism is not emancipatory and the message it conveys is “a resigned conviction that the world we live in, even if not the best of all possible worlds, is the least bad, such that any radical change will only make things worse.”[3] And in contrast to our cynical society with its lack of belief, those who do take their beliefs seriously, whether “terrorists” or communists are dismissed as barbarians and “a threat to culture—they dare to take their beliefs seriously?”[4] And if we do take our belief in an emancipated society seriously, then it is imperative upon us to not succumb to any of the pitfalls that our society is the “natural order,” passive determinism or cynicism. What it requires is that we do something else.

What I will propose here, basing myself largely upon Machiavelli (and drawing heavily from Gramsci and Althusser's readings of him), is another approach for Marxists – that of the primacy of politics. It is only through revolutionary praxis, building alliances of the oppressed and exploited, creating independent political organizations, and the development of strategy that we can win. This has been true of the great Marxist revolutionaries throughout history – whether Lenin, Gramsci or Mao. In other words, our approach, following that of Machiavelli is to grasp the primacy of politics by understanding our moment with its relation of forces, how to apply our strengths and act to create a new order that endures.

I. History 

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), a Florentine diplomat and author of the The Prince (1513) and The Discourses (1517), was emblematic of many of the trends of the Italian Renaissance. The Renaissance displaced God as the center of the universe and, following the rediscovery of Greek philosophy, saw: “Man is the measure of all things.” The Renaissance brought with it a flowering and revolutionizing to previous conceptions of art, literature, architecture, and, in Machiavelli's case, politics. This shift in values had profound implications for how Machiavelli would conceive of politics. Whereas previous thinkers subordinated politics to religion, Machiavelli would “place religion in the service of politics.”[5] By detaching politics from religion and looking at it as an autonomous discipline with its own methods and laws, Machiavelli can be said to be the founder of modern political science. 

Although the Renaissance flourished in Italy, the peninsula itself was politically divided. Italy was composed of multiple city-states which fought each other in wars and was ravaged by the neighboring powers of France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and Switzerland. There were attempts by local rulers such as Cesare Borgia (1475–1507) and his father, Pope Alexander VI, to bring central Italy under their rule. Despite the brutality of the Borgias' state building methods, Machiavelli took inspiration from them, declaring: “I shall never hesitate to cite Cesare Borgia and his actions.”[6] In fact, one of the main (although not the only) inspirations behind Machiavelli's Prince was to offer instructions for a future ruler who would take up his “An Exhortation to Liberate Italy from the Barbarians”[7]

Before going further, it is necessary to stress that Machiavelli's conception of history. On the surface, it appears that Machiavelli argues that nothing ever changes in the world and he believes in fatalism and a cyclical view of history. As he says in the preface to Book II of the Discourses, 

Reflecting now upon the course of human affairs, I think that, as a whole, the world remains very much in the same condition, and the good in it always balances the evil; but the good and the evil change from one country to another, as we learn from the history of those ancient kingdoms that differed from each other in manners, whilst the world at large remained the same.[8]

However, Machiavelli contradicts this statement by saying in chapter six of the Discourses that 

But as all human things are kept in a perpetual movement, and can never remain stable, states naturally either rise or decline, and necessity compels them to many acts to which reason will not influence them; so that, having organized a republic competent to maintain herself without expanding, still, if forced by necessity to extend her territory, in such case we shall see her foundations give way and herself quickly brought to ruin.[9]

What Machiavelli is doing here is stating that there is a historical law of change. History is not standing still, but it is going through unceasing change as people, circumstances and institutions rise and fall. In fact, it isn't just that things are forever changing, but that many of these changes are unpredictable. According to the French Communist Louis Althusser, Machiavelli traces the development of human society to chance and rejects any social contract view of politics:
To say that chance is at the origin of societies and governments, and to say that at the outset human beings were scattered - dispersion is inherent in chance, from Democritus and Epicurus up to Rousseau in the Second Discourse - is obviously to reject any anthropological ontology of society and politics.[10]

Machiavelli notes that as society develops, there are various different forms of government that can exist - whether a republic, monarchy or an aristocracy. However, he notes that “all kinds of government are defective; those three which we have qualified as good because they are too short-lived, and the three bad ones because of their inherent viciousness.”[11] Machiavelli notes that “good governments” are that way because they are short-lived, otherwise if they lasted longer than they would go through the process of degeneration.[12] And this is where Machiavelli recasts the debate on the state, he is not so much concerned whether it is good or bad, but with its duration. According to Althusser, Machiavelli “is interested in only one form of government: that which enables a state to endure.”[13]

When Machiavelli looks at the cycle of history with its immutable human nature and continual movement of growth and decay, he is interested in putting a stop to this cycle by studying states that last (hence his interest in Rome which lasted for nearly a millennium). As Althusser puts it, Machiavelli wants to “escape it - the will to be emancipated from the immutable necessity of the endless cycle of the same revolutions in order to create not a government that is going to degenerate to pave the way for its successor, but a state that lasts.”[14] So what does it mean to break with the cycle of history and to undertake something new?

II. The Prince

A major theme, if not the major theme, of Machiavelli's Prince is that of a new prince founding and ruling new order. This new prince must not deal with people and the conjuncture as he would like or imagine them to be, but as they really are. Machiavelli uses examples from ancient and medieval history to illustrate how princes ought to rule and live. A prince is guided by expediency to use all means to achieve their ends. Seemingly, many commentators such as the Catholic Church have concluded that Machiavelli was justifying immorality in place of ethics in politics. As Machiavelli is being realistic, since a new order has many stalwart defenders of the old way and only lukewarm friends among its partisans.

At the heart of Machiavelli's Prince, according to Althusser, is that he was the founder of modern political science who is able to conceive how human action and ability (or virtu) can intervene in a conjuncture to found a new order. Machiavelli is no longer concerned with the various forms of government, “but of virtu and its opposite... virtu is quintessentially the quality specific to the subjective conditions for the constitution of a state that endures.”[15] A prince filled with virtu would thus be able to act politically and can master fortune to his advantage in a given historical situation to pursue the goal of “founding, consolidating and expanding a state that endures.”[16] The prince who does so is walking on an unknown road where there is no guarantee for success, but is able act independently, rally his forces and forge his own path. Yet if the prince remains beholden to others, without his own initiative, Machiavelli says that there is the danger of “he who has not first laid his foundations may be able with great ability to lay them afterwards, but they will be laid with trouble to the architect and danger to the building.”[17]

Althusser says that Machiavelli is the “first theorist consciously and systematically to subordinate technical questions regarding armies and war to the primacy of politics.”[18] By primacy of politics, Machiavelli means that arms, ideology, and religion must be subordinated to the political goal to accomplished. For if a prince has virtu and acts politically, this means that he can influence how events turn out. Unlike the heavens, the events of the human world are subject to change and manipulation. We are not merely objects of fate, but we can understand our situation, the rhythms and fluctuations of fortune in order to prepare an effective intervention. Therefore, Machiavelli demystifies and secularizes political and social phenomena by showing not only how we can understand them, but how to influence events in our favor.

Althusser says that Machiavelli is the “first theorist of the conjuncture” whereby he is able to take “account of all the determinations, all the existing concrete circumstances, making an inventory, a detailed breakdown and comparison of them.”[19] In Machiavelli's case, this means understanding the ruin and disunity of Italy, its subjugation to foreign powers, the various classes at play, and the rise of new powerful monarchies in neighboring states like France and Spain. Yet Machiavelli is not proposing a neutral social or political analysis of a conjuncture, but grasping “their contradictory system, which poses the political problem and indicates its historical solution, ipso facto rendering it a political objective, a practical task.”[20] With a practical objective in mind, the elements of a conjuncture “become relations of force. They are assessed as relations of force, as a function of their engagement, with a view to the political objective to be attained.”[21] The relations of force are allies, enemies, neutrals who need to won over, defeated or otherwise by a new prince who is able to mobilize for the task at hand. As another “Machiavellian” political figure of modern times put it, “Who are our friends, and who are our enemies? This question is one of primary importance.”

As we have already mentioned, one of the major concerns of the Prince is the question of founding a new order. The question of foundation means that Machiavelli wants to halt the process of continuous cycles of growth and decay in human affairs with a fresh start by constructing an order which lasts. Machiavelli's realism meant he was under no illusions that creating a new order entailed violence, otherwise chaos would reign. As he warned, “there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, then to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”[22] Machiavelli warned, that a new order would succumb to disorder and resistance unless the new sovereign power undertook swift and violent measures to wipe out the old regime. As the French Communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui succinctly described the function of a revolutionary dictatorship: "The state is the gendarmerie of the rich against the poor. We must produce another state, which is the gendarmerie of the poor against the rich."[23]

The art of statecraft was different when founding a new order compared to ruling an established regime with fixed laws and orderly procedures. In such a settled era, humanity and patience is called for and is the norm. Yet in times of war, collapse and revolution, when the old laws are ignored and cataclysm reigns, no one is safe. In this state of exception, there is no law and order save for those with the power and the will to create their own. And Machiavelli recognized that it was not through orderly plebiscites, the ballot box or divine will that states are created, but via extraordinary and primal violence at their foundation. Foundational violence has played a preeminent role in the creation of new states from the Empire of Alexander the Great, the First French Republic, The Soviet Union and the United States. And every state, before its creation employed “illegitimate violence” which was subsequently turned into “legitimate violence” through both coercion and constitutions. We are fed with the myths that states are established peacefully or through a social contract while the foundational violence is ignored or transformed into a mythical and symbolic narrative to justify the new order. 

Machiavelli, in placing politics first, understood that sovereign power was not established by the grace of God. Rather, religion was at the service of politics “as an instrument, alongside the army, for the foundation, constitution and duration of the state.”[24] However, religion was not a reliable means of control since “the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion.”[25] And should the people lose their obedience to the sovereign, then “it may be possible to make them believe by force.”[26] While ordinary people may hate their rulers and remain resigned to their lot in life for the simple reason that the state holds the sword and shows no hesitation in wielding it.

Machiavelli knew that state power came primarily through force of arms. And if a prince was to succeed in intervening in a conjuncture to create a new order, then he could not prevail with ideas or moral force alone. “Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed.”[27] At the moment of radical rupture, there is no alternative to violence and force. This situation requires a singular will that cannot concern itself with morality, but had to act swiftly and ruthlessly. Otherwise, a prince will find himself facing resistance from holdovers of the old order who desire his overthrow. They need to be annihilated. With stark and brutal honesty, Machiavelli states: 

In seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily; and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits. He who does otherwise, either from timidity or evil advice, is always compelled to keep the knife in his hand; neither can he rely on his subjects, nor can they attach themselves to him, owing to their continued and repeated wrongs. For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavor of them may last longer.[28]

Although Machiavelli posits force as the ultimate guarantee of power, he does not argue that force is the sole foundation of power. If a prince relies just on brute force, he risks becoming a tyrant. In answering the question of “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, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.”[29] Yet Machiavelli goes on and states that a prince should be feared while avoiding being hated. This means that while relying on force, the prince should not act arbitrarily, but “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.”[30] Althusser says that Machiavelli was stating “that the prince must at all costs avoid being hated by his people obviously signifies that he must beware of alienating the people as the greatest peril.”[31] 

When a prince comes to power, he has to deal with both the nobility and the people. For the nobility “wish to rule and oppress the people” and it is impossible to satisfy both the nobility and the people, so the prince should side with the people since he “can never secure himself against a hostile people, because of their being too many, whilst from the nobles he can secure himself, as they are few in number.”[32] Therefore, it is necessary for the prince to be the champion of the people and represent their interests, or at least appear to (something we will return to), and wipe out the old nobility. Once this is done, the prince can create a new nobility or ruling class, who owe their power and authority to him.

While a prince should appear to side with the people, this does not mean he actually does so, since his interests are those of a ruler and not of the people. The prince needs to be adept wearing different masks: merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. Legitimacy is manifested in many ways and means, so the prince must master them all: 

Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.[33]

A prince must be cunning, patient, ruthless, beloved and righteous, all of these traits are the different faces of state power. All of them are means to the end of power and a prince must master them all. Another way Machiavelli puts it is that a prince must possess two natures like a centaur:
You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man.[34]
The ruler who is able to wear the different masks of power and mastering them all will be able to rule.

However, not all princes can possess all the good qualities that Machiavelli lists, so if they are lacking in virtues, then they must appear to have them. A prince needs to be crafty and hide his weaknesses, so he can be ready to “turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it.”[35] The prince who appears to wear all the masks of power will be able to rule in different ways, with law and force, as the situation requires. Machiavelli does not judge these actions to be immoral, since “one judges by the result.”[36]

Machiavelli strips power of its halo and its sanctity, to reveal how it actually works. For revolutionaries, it is a profound lesson that goes contrary to much of our contemporary political wisdom which distrusts political power or at best hopes for some form of “horizontal democracy.” Rather, socialism requires the seizure of political power by the working class. Otherwise, socialism will remain an idle dream that can only be instituted by fantastic means. As Lenin declared, “the key question of every revolution is undoubtedly the question of state power.”[37] And Machiavelli understood, as many other revolutionaries have, that founding a new order is not painless, but comes through primal violence. To try and find another way to power that ignores those difficulties and struggles is to surrender in advance. For the proletariat's struggle for power is “illegitimate” and “illegal” since the law is made, as Blanqui said, to protect the “freedom to enslave and the freedom to exploit."[38] Therefore, the revolution will be illegal since the law is made to defend oppression and crime. The legitimacy for the proletarian revolution will not come about via elections or an orderly transition, which has proven illusory again and again, but by a radical rupture with the old regime, possessing the legitimacy of its own just cause and supported by the people in arms, create its own state and “transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.”[39] The class struggle is a struggle for power with one side or the other destined to rule. The Turkish revolutionary Ibrahim Kaypakkaya laid out the stakes of struggle: “This is a power struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Those who recognize this right for the bourgeoisie and yet deny it to the proletariat are the enemies of the people - whether openly or secretly."[40]

III. The Modern Prince[41]

The Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, reflecting on the defeats of the revolutionary movement of his time and the triumph of fascism, turned to Machiavelli while languishing in Mussolini's jails. Gramsci saw Machiavelli's project as similar to that of Marx and Lenin, “to theorize a practice, to educate those who are ignorant, i.e. the people, the revolutionary class of their time.”[42] Gramsci argued that Machiavelli's Prince was not just addressed to rulers, but his work was intended for 

“those who are not in the know”, and that it was they whom he intended to educate politically. This was no negative political education-of tyrant-haters... but a positive education-of those who have to recognize certain means as necessary, even if they are the means of tyrants, because they desire certain ends.[43]
Machiavelli, according to Gramsci, was not an advocate for political amorality, but addressing the need for the prince to educate the people on the need for a new society.[44] 

Machiavelli's work was valuable since he understood that politics was an “autonomous science”[45] which could help revitalize Marxism (or the philosophy of praxis). For Gramsci, Machiavelli's concern with the primacy of politics, was a welcome antidote to passive, reformist and economistic debasements of Marxism. Politics, as Gramsci understood it, was a practice of concretely analyzing a concrete situation, which Lenin called “the living soul, of Marxism.”[46] Undertaking a “concrete analysis” meant conceiving different relations of force between parties, classes, nations which
offers an opportunity for an elementary exposition of the science and art of politics - understood as a body of practical rules for research and of detailed observations useful for awakening an interest in effective reality and for stimulating more rigorous and more vigorous political insights.[47]
This research project needs to be accompanied “by strategy and tactics, by strategic "plan", by propaganda and agitation, by command structure or science of political organization and administration.”[48] Knowledge of reality thus required combination with politics, in order to transform a particular relation of forces, take the initiative and find the weak spots of one's adversaries. 

Yet the balance of forces is never stable, but is constantly shifting, which means political action involves “seizing historical conjunctures in their contradictory tendencies, tendencies that rule out any catastrophism, any policy of the worse, the better’.”[49] Therefore, in studying a historical moment, it was important to distinguish between “organic movements (relatively permanent) from movements which may be termed "conjunctural" (and which appear as occasional, immediate, almost accidental).”[50] In order to better illustrate the differences between “organic” and “conjunctural” movements, let us turn to Trotsky's analysis of the October Revolution. In a 1932 speech, Trotsky listed “a series of [eight] historical prerequisites” that were necessary for the triumph of the Russian Revolution. The first five, he described as “organic”:
1. The rotting away of the old ruling classes-the nobility, the monarchy, the bureaucracy.
2. The political weakness of the bourgeoisie, which had no roots in the masses of the people.
3. The revolutionary character of the agrarian question.
4. The revolutionary character of the problem of the oppressed nationalities.
5. The significant social burdens weighing on the proletariat.

These five “organic” phenomena were relative permanent features of the Tsarist Empire gave rise to certain “conjunctural” factors which are far more transitory, and whose maturations ultimately depended upon the organic. In the Russian Revolution, Trotsky lists the following three conjunctural phenomena:
6. The Revolution of 1905 was the great school or in Lenin’s phrase, “the dress rehearsal” of the Revolution of 1917. The Soviet’s as the irreplaceable organizational form of the proletarian united front in the Revolution were created for the first time in the year 1905.
7. The imperialist war sharpened all the contradictions, tore the backward masses out of their immobility, and thus prepared the grandiose scale of the catastrophe.

 But all these conditions, which fully sufficed for the outbreak of the Revolution, were insufficient to assure the victory of the proletariat in the Revolution. For this victory one condition more was necessary.

 8. The Bolshevik Party[51]

Leaving aside the Bolshevik Party aside for a moment, the causes of the Russian Revolution (like other crises) came about due to a complex interaction between various organic and conjunctural factors where the outcome could not be predicted in advance. Gramsci summed up the interaction between organic and the conjunctural processes as follows: 

A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves (reached maturity), and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts (since no social formation will ever admit that it has been superseded) form the terrain of the "conjunctural", and it is upon this terrain that the forces of opposition organise. These forces seek to demonstrate that the necessary and sufficient conditions already exist to make possible, and hence imperative, the accomplishment of certain historical tasks (imperative, because any falling short before an historical duty increases the necessary disorder, and prepares more serious catastrophes) . (The demonstration in the last analysis only succeeds and is "true" if it becomes a new reality, if the forces of opposition triumph; in the immediate, it is developed in a series of ideological, religious, philosophical, political, and juridical polemics, whose concreteness can be estimated by the extent to which they are convincing, and shift the previously existing disposition of social forces.)[52]

The conjuncture then is defined as the present moment that is made up of a combination of the social contradictions and the balance of class forces. The conjuncture defines the strength of classes, their consciousness and forms of struggle, and different relations to each other and the state. From an analysis of a conjuncture's contradictions and class struggle governs the various means of communist intervention.[53] 

The conjuncture is the embodiment of the unity of theory and practice – on the one hand, understanding reality and on the other, developing the appropriate means of intervention. The US Marxist Paul Costello identified three different types of conjunctures:
1) The socially stable conjuncture is characterized by the latent rather than explosive nature of capitalist contradictions and the relatively smooth process of capitalist development. 

2) The crisis conjuncture is characterized by capitalism’s fundamental need for restructuring of one kind or another in order to maintain itself, but the possibility of state power passing out of the hands of the capitalists is not yet present.

3) The revolutionary or transitional conjuncture is characterized by the possibility of state power passing from the hands of the ruling class.[54]
Communist intervention in social stable conjunctures means that efforts to spread socialist ideas, undermine bourgeois ideology and intervene in reform struggles will necessarily be limited and not achieve a mass influence. In regards to the second type of conjunctures, may be caused by either political or economic events, leading to a wave of struggle and disruptions in society. A more severe economic depression may lead to a wider social and political crisis. In order to maintain their power, the state and the ruling classes may engage in austerity measures to restore profitability and labor discipline or make compromises with the working class. The orientation of a communist party is essential to determine if this conjuncture is potentially revolutionary and/or to fight for restructuring in the interests of the working class to prepare for further advance. A revolutionary conjuncture will possess elements of the second, but at a much more extreme level, where there is a real possibility for state power to pass from one class to another.[55] Lenin defined the characteristics of a revolutionary conjuncture and the tasks of communists in it as follows: 

The fundamental law of revolution, which has been confirmed by all revolutions and especially by all three Russian revolutions in the twentieth century, is as follows: for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the "lower classes" do not want to live in the old way and the "upper classes" cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph. This truth can be expressed in other words: revolution is impossible without a nation-wide crisis (affecting both the exploited and the exploiters). It follows that, for a revolution to take place, it is essential, first, that a majority of the workers (or at least a majority of the class-conscious, thinking, and politically active workers) should fully realise that revolution is necessary, and that they should be prepared to die for it; second, that the ruling classes should be going through a governmental crisis, which draws even the most backward masses into politics (symptomatic of any genuine revolution is a rapid, tenfold and even hundredfold increase in the size of the working and oppressed masses—hitherto apathetic—who are capable of waging the political struggle), weakens the government, and makes it possible for the revolutionaries to rapidly overthrow it.[56]
In analyzing a particular moment, Gramsci warned of the common errors in studying a historical situation was the inability to find the correct relation between what is organic and conjunctural. These errors can manifest themselves in two ways. The first is “economism,” which is when there is an “overestimation of mechanical causes” and the second is characterized by “voluntarism.”[57] The economistic deviation argues that crises are directly determined by economic factors. Gramsci, to the contrary, states that economic crises merely “create a terrain more favourable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought, and certain ways of posing and resolving questions involving the entire subsequent development of national life.”[58] While it is true that conjunctures such as those of Stock Market Crash of 1929 or the 2007 Great Recession create a more favourable climates for propagating radical ideas, but the onset of a crisis does not in itself guarantee a radical victory. As Gramsci argued, while crises are dangerous in the short run, the ruling class and state is generally able to endure since they possess
numerous trained cadres, changes men and programmes and, with greater speed than is achieved by the subordinate classes, reabsorbs the control that was slipping from its grasp. Perhaps it may make sacrifices, and expose itself to an uncertain future by demagogic promises; but it retains power, reinforces it for the time being, and uses it to crush its adversary and disperse his leading cadres, who cannot be very numerous or highly trained.[59]
Therefore, the outcome of a conjunctural crisis is not determined in advance by the unfolding of an inevitable “economic breakdown” but by the interaction between various active classes and social forces, who “come into confrontation and conflict, until only one of them, or at least a single combination of them, tends to prevail.”[60] 

The second error of “ideologism” puts the stress on the individual element and voluntarism. Gramsci argued that this type of analysis posits that
one's baser and more immediate desires and passions are the cause of error, in that they take the place of an objective and impartial analysis-and this happens not as a conscious "means" to stimulate to action, but as self-deception. In this case too the snake bites the snake-charmer-in other words the demagogue is the first victim of his own demagogy.[61]
In the case of revolutionary politics, Louis-Auguste Blanqui's various conspiracies were not based on any detailed examination of the objective factors necessary for the success of a revolution, but solely on perfecting his conspiratorial organizations. Blanqui's whole approach to revolution was limited by elitism, an organizational divorce from the masses, he possessed no theory to analyse social contradictions, identify allies, plan strategy and to decide the right moment to strike. Rather, Blanqui believed that once the conspiratorial organization was perfected, the revolution would succeed. His method failed again and again. 

One could say the same about Che Guevara's approach to guerrilla warfare, where he argued that “popular forces can win a war against the army. It is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making revolution exist; the insurrection can create them.”[62] Che believed that the objective possibilities for revolution already existed throughout Latin America, but only the subjective possibility of revolution was missing. The subjective factor could be created by the armed struggle itself via a small armed group or foco who would spark the revolution. Che's method of warfare neglected questions on the role of a vanguard party, mass organizations (unions, general strike, etc), carefully determining whether the cities or countryside was the best strategic terrain, and analysis of the different class and political forces in Latin America. The generation of Latin American revolutionaries who took inspiration from Che launched focos that were largely defeated. The failure of Che's strategy was most dramatically highlighted by his own death in Bolivia in 1967. The guerrilla movements of the following decades in Nicaragua, El Salvador and elsewhere abandoned focoism and developed far more sophisticated political and military approaches to warfare such as protracted warfare and guerrilla-inspired popular insurrection.[63]

As opposed to falling into these two errors, Gramsci argued for the active role of politics. Gramsci contended that a communist party or the “Modern Prince” would fulfil a similar function to Machiavelli's Prince by acting as “the proclaimer and organiser of an intellectual and moral reform, which also means creating the terrain for a subsequent development of the national-popular collective will towards the realisation of a superior, total form of modern civilisation.”[64] The “Modern Prince” was not a single person, but “it can only be an organism, a complex element of society in which a collective will, which has already been recognized and has to some extent asserted itself in action, begins to take concrete form.”[65] 

Such a party, if it was to fulfill its historical function would need to be composed of three elements: “average men” whose participation is through organization and discipline, but they are only a force when “there is somebody to centralize, organize and discipline them.”[66] The second element are “captains” or party leadership who not only centralize and discipline the masses, but also possess the “power of innovation.”[67] And lastly, the third group “which articulates the first element with the second and maintains contact between them, not only physically but also morally and intellectually.”[68] In the third group were the organic intellectuals who would serve as the leaders of the proletariat and the party. The organic intellectuals would not only work to narrow the gap between the leaders and the led, but they popularize revolutionary ideas among the masses and raise their intellectual level by combating the “common sense” of bourgeois ideology.

Gramsci looked to Lenin's Bolshevik Party as a successful example of a “Modern Prince.” However, he also looked back in history to the Jacobins of revolutionary France, arguing that they
were the only party of the revolution in progress, in as much as they not only represented the immediate needs and aspirations of the actual physical individuals who constituted the French bourgeoisie, but they also represented the revolutionary movement as a whole, as an integral historical development.[69]
The Jacobins were not merely the party of the radical bourgeoisie, but united under their banner the urban sans-culottes and the peasantry into a multi-class bloc. Furthermore, the Jacobins were the champions of the French Republic and modern civilization against moderates, counterrevolutionaries and foreign invasion. 

The “Modern Prince” needed to act in a similarly “Jacobin” manner. The “Modern Prince” was not a party of professional groups (ex. a party of skilled workers) or a simple class party (a labor party), since this only posed the question of “winning politico-juridical equality with the ruling groups: the right is claimed to participate in legislation and administration, even to reform these but within the existing fundamental structures.”[70] Rather, the “Modern Prince” needed to represent not more than sections of workers or even the whole working class, but they had to represent and lead all the oppressed and exploited under capitalism. By doing so, the Modern Prince provides political, cultural and ideological hegemony to contend for leadership in society.
In developing his concept of hegemony, Gramsci draws on Machiavelli's image of the centaur for the dual tasks of a revolutionary party which are the “levels of force and of consent, authority and hegemony, violence and civilization, of the individual moment and of the universal moment ("Church" and "State"), of agitation and of propaganda, of tactics and of strategy, etc.”[71] For Gramsci, as for Machiavelli and other practitioners of politics, if one seeks to rule, it is necessary to build and cement alliances beyond an immediate group. This will entail compromises and sacrifices to maintain an alliance, however those compromises must not touch the essential political interests of the leading class. For instance, the Bolsheviks created a worker-peasant alliance by granting the peasantry their land (which went against the Bolshevik program), but held onto political hegemony of the revolution. Therefore, the working class cannot limit revolutionary struggle to just their own particular interests, but they had to win the trust and allegiance of other subordinate classes. For Gramsci, it was vital for the proletariat to become the leading force in a revolutionary alliance of the oppressed and exploited, something that has been proven time and time again by the experience of revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Yugoslavia and beyond. 

If the “Modern Prince” wants to gain hegemony among the oppressed and exploited, found a new state, this required learning the art of strategy, war and putting politics in command. Marxist politics understands not just the role of the class struggle and the inner laws of motion of capital, but would develop the means, organizations and strategies necessary to challenge and topple the rule of capitalism. While revolutions have their roots in societal contradictions, they often appear as unexpected and unpleasant events to even the most dedicated revolutionaries. A revolutionary party needs to prepare itself in order to take advantage of them. As Trotsky observed: 

History does not work in such a way that, first, the foundation is laid, then the productive forces grow, the necessary relations between classes develop, the proletariat becomes revolutionary, then all of this is kept in an icebox and preserved while the training of a Communist party proceeds so that it can get itself ready while 'conditions' wait and wait; then when it's ready, it can roll up its sleeves and start fighting. No, history doesn't work that way.[72]

Real life political situations are always more complex than those of theory and are thus “out of order.” However, our approach is not to just wait for things to line up the “way they are supposed to.” This implies passivity and defeatism. Rather, as Lenin says, "...revolutionary propaganda can and should be conducted even in a situation that is not revolutionary.”[73] We can strengthen our forces step by step, as Mao would say by “hastening and awaiting” an approach which is rooted in the strategic orientation of attracting and training the most advanced in society by rallying them to our banner, while awaiting the emergence of a favorable opening, and to seize the initiative once it arrives.

IV. Conclusion

In our time, a Marxist approach to the primacy of politics means creating a “Modern Prince” or a political core of communists inspired by a bold idea to establish a new society. The “Modern Prince” needs to identify the mechanisms of power and exploitation in the society, while carefully distinguishing the organic from the conjunctural. Based on this knowledge, the advanced class forces need to do more than clarify their own ideas, they have to conduct all-around outreach among the masses, linking immediate struggles to a universal goal, and build the necessary hegemonic alliances. Lastly, the “Modern Prince” must take advantage of a revolutionary situation that can appear unexpectedly, and lead the conquest of power to institute a new order. Notes [1] Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (New York: Verso, 2012), 92. [2] Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (New York: Verso, 2009), 3. [3] Ibid. 28. [4] Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 7. [5] Louis Althusser, Machiavelli and Us (New York: Verso, 1999), 71. [6] Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. [7] Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. [8] Niccolò Machiavelli, “Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius,” Marxists Internet Archive. [9] Niccolò Machiavelli, “Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius,” Marxists Internet Archive. [10] Althusser 1999, 36. [11] Niccolò Machiavelli, “Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius,” Marxists Internet Archive. [12] Althusser 1999, 39-40. [13] Ibid. 40. [14] Ibid. 41. [15] Ibid. 44. [16] Ibid. 92. [17] Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. [18] Althusser 1999, 83. [19] Ibid. 18. [20] Ibid. 19. [21] Ibid. [22] Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. [23]  Quoted in “Presentation of Blanqui,” New Left Review I/65 (January-February 1971): p. 27. [24] Althusser 1999, 90. [25] Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. [26] Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. [27] Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. [28] Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. [29] Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. [30] Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. [31] Althusser 1999, 100. [32] Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. [33] Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. [34] Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. [35] Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. [36] Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. (My translation) [39] Jean Jacques Rousseau, “The Social Contract,” Marxists Internet Archive. [40] Quoted in TKP/ML, “His Name is Our Pride, His Party is Our Honor, His Doctrine is Our Guide,” (p. 10). [41] This section draws heavily upon my own “Gramsci for Communists,” Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. [42] Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Gramsci and the State (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980), 22. [43] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 135. (Henceforth SPN). The passage Gramsci is referring to is: "Nor do I hold with those who regard it as a presumption if a man of low and humble condition dare to discuss and settle the concerns of princes; because, just as those who draw landscapes place themselves below in the plain to contemplate the nature of the mountains and of lofty places, and in order to contemplate the plains place themselves upon high mountains, even so to understand the nature of the people it needs to be a prince, and to understand that if princes it needs to be of the people." Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” Marxists Internet Archive. [44] Alastair Davidson, “Gramsci: On the Party,” Australian Left Review (October-November 1968): 56. [45] SPN, 136. [46] Kommunismus: Journal of the Communist International, LCW 31. 166. [47] SPN, 175-6. [48] Ibid. 176. [49] Buci-Glucksmann 1980, 238. [50] SPN, 177. [51] Leon Trotsky, “In Defense of October,” Marxists Internet Archive. [52] SPN, 178. [53] Drawn from Paul Costello, “An Introduction to Theoretical Practice,” Marxists Internet Archive. [54] Paul Costello, “Leninist Politics and the Struggle Against Economism,” Marxists Internet Archive. [55] An excellent and in-depth look at the different types of conjunctures can be found in Paul Costello, “The Distinguishing Features of Leninist Political Practice,” Marxists Internet Archive. [56] V. I. Lenin, ““Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder,” Marxists Internet Archive. [57] SPN, 178-9. [58] Ibid. 184. [59] Ibid. 210-1. [60] Ibid. 181. [61] Ibid. 179. [62] Ernesto Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare, ed., Brain Loveman and Thomas M. Davis, Jr (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc., 2001), 50. [63] This analysis draws on ibid. 3-33. [64] SPN, 133. [65] Ibid. 129. [66] Ibid. 152. [67] Ibid. [68] Ibid. 153. [69] Ibid. 78. [70] Ibid. 181. [71] Ibid. 170. [72] Leon Trotsky, Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-5) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975), 185. [73] Speech On The Terms Of Admission Into The Communist International, LCW 31.251.