Freedom vs. Liberty: Karl Marx and Niccolò Machiavelli

June 13, 2008
Senior Thesis, Victoria Hershiser
Advisor: Chris Swanson
The word “politics” in this day and age generally applies to endless arguments in which no one ever makes any progress, everyone talks past each other, and nothing is ever solved or agreed on. Yet this is only part of a broader picture; it is impossible to avoid politics because, as Aristotle once said, “man is by nature a political animal” (Politics, 59). Taken in a broad sense, this description applies to every age and culture. To be political is to live in some kind of organized state with other people. How organized and in what way may vary widely, but for people to interact in any meaningful way, a structure must exist. Even language itself is an organization of symbols according to socially agreed-upon rules. The only alternatives to polity are either total solitude or total anarchy, and it is doubtful whether there are any cases of the later which do not eventually develop a political structure or else self-destruct.
For Americans, and all people who participate actively in their own government, the question arises of what this structure should look like, because it depends on their choices. Yet, in the age of information-overload and sophisticated propaganda, it is exceedingly difficult to sort out which choices are good and which are bad; there are almost always a large number of people arguing persuasively for any particular position, and an almost equally large group against it. On major issues, they very rarely argue about facts; instead their different views come from different ideas of what a political system is supposed to do. Unfortunately, almost no one ever brings up this question. Instead, each side assumes it knows what the goal for a political system is, and then debates issues based on that assumption.
In order for an individual to make any sort of rational decision between these different views, it is necessary to first answer the question of what the goal of a political system should be. Although few are willing to discuss it today, there have been authors in the past who were willing to lay out their ideas plainly.
Two of these have been particularly influential. One can hardly enter into a discussion about politics without running into the ideas of Karl Marx and Niccolò Machiavelli. Both have been generally loved or hated, praised or blamed by the great (and not-so-great) political theorists, activists, and people in power who have read them. More importantly, each of them laid out a specific model of what he considered to be the best possible political system, and both of them believed that these systems would work in the real world. They also were both confident enough in their basic assumptions that they did not feel the need to hide them.
Although they lived in two different times and were writing to address two very different situations, the core issues about what a political system should be, and what the nature of man is, are just as relevant today. The details may be different, but the central issues are the same.
However, it is important to know the particulars of their situations, and how they differ from each other and from today, to better understand their larger ideas. Machiavelli wrote while living in exile from his home of Florence after Lorenzo di Medici rose to power, at a time of princes and states, where the idea of a “nation” was still fairly new. The Prince, Machiavelli’s best-known work, was dedicated to Lorenzo di Medici, because he represented the main power in Italy at the time, and also had the ability to bring Machiavelli back from exile, if he was impressed.
Marx wrote in response to the rise of industrialization and capitalism, which had led to extremely exploitative and inhuman conditions for almost everyone not in the small upper class. When Marx denounces capitalism in the Manifesto, he is not complaining about a system in which not everyone can afford a flat-screen T.V. and decent health insurance; he is talking about a system in which people were literally being worked to death on a regular basis. Unlike Machiavelli, he is not talking to powerful leaders (except possibly to warn them to get out of the way), but to a group of people who are being incited to revolution by very specific circumstances.
Yet they do have some very important traits in common. Both had a rare combination of interests and knowledge, in that they both were practically addressing real, specific political situations, and yet both had visions for the way politics and history worked as a whole. Each also expected his principles to hold valid in every situation, present, past, and future.
Marx believed that history was the history of class struggles, which had been unfolding until it reached the point at which communism was the next necessary step. Machiavelli believed that men always had and always would behave in much the same manner, and so a system which was based on principles which had worked well in the past would be very likely to work well again. Each of them believed unwaveringly in his own assertions because he did not consider it a belief at all, but rather a logical necessity based on historical evidence. Because of this, they also share a certain degree of bravado; Marx welcomes “Every opinion based on scientific criticism” (Capital, 298) with the confidence of one who believes that, while a few particulars of his ideas might be flawed, the foundations are untouchable; similarly, although Machiavelli’s introduction to The Discourses apologizes for any errors of judgment he may have made, he is so certain that his view of the consistency of history is sound that he makes no attempt to defend it (103-04).
Yet, in spite of this shared confidence, their idea are mutually exclusive. Machiavelli believes that, however circumstances may change, “all cities and all peoples are and ever have been animated by the same passions” (Discourses, 216). They will not be perfectly predictable, because there is an element of chance in all human ventures, and no two situations are exactly the same, but the general trends will always follow pre-established patterns (216). Marx, on the other hand, believes that the nature of human interaction not only can change, must. All history has been the history of class struggles, yet communism will be the end of class struggle (Manifesto, 473-78); it is something which could not have happened in the past, but which must happen in the future. It will not only be a change, but progress; humanity as a whole will actually improve.
From these differing principles come two very different views of what man is like, and therefore of what the goal of a political system is.

Marx and Freedom

“Man does not exist for the law but the law for man—it is a human manifestation.”

Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right”

According to Marx, the goal of a political system is freedom for its people to act in accordance with their nature. Marx's ideas about freedom will make no sense, however, unless one discerns Marx’s understanding of human nature. He sees humans as purely social beings, who will feel total alienation if they are not allowed to exist and act as such.
Marx’s view of humanity is a drawn primarily from the philosophy of Hegel. Hegel described history as a dynamic, unfolding process, in which each new stage arises from the conflict between two antithetical ideas. The result is a synthesis of both ideas, but it is also something new. Similarly, Marx saw history as a series of epochs defined by struggles between social classes, in which each new epoch is the result of the struggle of the last, but also a new development. Hegel also saw human beings as a corporate entity; for him, “the people” was in some sense just a development of “the state.”
Marx rejected Hegel’s picture of Geist (abstract spirit or mind) coming to know itself, and replaced it with a materialistic, human-centric vision, all the while maintaining many of Hegel’s concepts. Engels says of Marx’s views, that he “placed [Hegel's philosophy] upon its head; or rather, turned [it] off its head, on which it was standing” (Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader, Introduction, xxi). While Marx argues that “The state is an abstraction. The people alone is what is concrete” (Critique, 18), he retains Hegel’s notion that “the people” is a singular entity, not a group of individuals. This becomes more obvious as he discusses the political state in connection with humans, not as individuals, but as a species.
Marx borrows the term “species-life” from Feuerbach (another Hegelian) to describe this relationship. Feuerbach argued that
Man is to be distinguished from the animals, not by “consciousness” as such, but by a particular kind of consciousness. Man is not only conscious of himself as an individual; he is also conscious of himself as a member of the human species. (On the Jewish Question, 34)
“Species-life” as Marx defines it is the state of man existing socially, rather than individually. He argues that
since this “species-consciousness” defines the nature of man, man is only living [...] in accordance with his nature when he lives and acts deliberately as a “species-being,” that is, as a social being. (34)
By assuming that man’s nature is social, and that the goal of a political system is to allow humans the freedom to act in accordance with their nature, he can argue that
The perfect political state is, by its nature, the species-life of man as opposed to his material [or egoistic] life. (34).
In contrast, a state which does not express the species-life oppresses man by suppressing his nature; he feels unfulfilled or, as Marx puts it, “alienated,” when he cannot be what he is supposed to be. This is the case when people are being forced to act against their will, as in a tyranny, but also in any state in which there is a separation between political and private life, or between what a person does as an individual and what he does as a member of the species.
For example, Marx is vehemently opposed to religion, especially Christianity and Judaism, because they both require a submission to something external to the species-life. It “is only the illusory sun about which man revolves so long as he does not revolve around himself” (Critique, 54).
This explains his seemingly paradoxical anti-Semitism (he did, after all, come from a Jewish background (Tucker, 26)). Judaism, in particular as it existed in the midst of culturally Christian Germany, is the ultimate example of rejecting the species-life. It not only puts a higher calling above the idea that man is primarily a member of a species, but Jews tended to reject even German culture in favor of their religious, individual identity.
Marx perhaps does not deal sufficiently with the paradox of religion which may be chosen without compulsion, and even in spite of punishment for choosing it. He rejects this choice as foolish and irrational, arguing that “it is not religion which creates man but man who creates religion” (Critique, 20), but he does not explain why man as a species would have created religion in the first place.
For this same reason, Marx rejects republican government, because the people are subject to a written constitution which is superior to the will of the people. Even if the people chose their constitution freely, “The content of the state lies outside these constitutions” (22), so there is room for private lives outside of the corporate life of the state.
Democracy is the best form of government which has existed so far, because it does away with the separation between the personal and the political. Marx says that “all forms of state have democracy for their truth and [...] are therefore untrue insofar as they are not democracy” (21), because only democracy merges the will of the people with the form of government. Yet even in a democracy there exists the possibility of oppression, not from the government but from external circumstances.
Freedom can only exist in a democracy, but a democracy does not ensure freedom. Both the ancient Greeks and the people of the middle ages had “democracies of unfreedom.” That is to say, they had political systems in which all parts of their lives were political; there was the same correlation between the species-life of the people and the government form which would be required for true freedom, but the people were still enslaved by forced labor.
Forced labor is work done for the sole purpose of survival. Marx argues that “freedom actually begins only where labor which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases” (Capital, 441). People in all political structures in the past had to labor to keep themselves fed, clothed, and protected from the elements. Although they felt it as an oppressive force, they submitted to it because they had no alternative. They could also draw some satisfaction from their work, because it directly benefited them by keeping them alive, and they still had some time for life beyond labor.
By Marx’s day, things had changed, and a new, spectacularly oppressive political system emerged. In spite of varying governmental structures between different countries, a single economic structure had emerged which gave the real form to people’s lives. Capitalism became the structure which influenced all of people’s social actions, regardless of their government’s official constitution. In this structure, combined with the technological advances of the industrial revolution, forced labor appeared for the first time in a pure form:
The bourgeoisie [...] has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored [...] It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-laborers. (Manifesto, 476)
Instead of providing for their survival directly, the wage-laborers’ work provides them with money, which they may then use to buy necessities. This money is not determined by what they do, but only how long they work and how little their employers can get away with paying them. When people work in factories, there is no direct connection between the labor they are doing and their resulting survival. Labor “is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely the means to satisfy needs external to it” (Manuscripts, 74). The worker feels alienated from his work, because it does not fulfill him directly, and is therefore not his. “External labor, labor in which man alienates himself, is a labor of self-sacrifice [...] It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self” (74).
Nor does this sacrifice even provide for the physical needs of the workers. Because the driving force behind capitalism is the accumulation of money, it is subject to a very strange disease, “the epidemic of over-production” (Manifesto, 478), which leads to famine. This epidemic is possible because of the unique qualities of capitalistic exchange.
In the past, when people valued objects for their usefulness, it was possible for people to make exchanges in which both parties benefited, such as the exchange of bread for clothing, because the two objects had qualitatively different uses (Capital, 303-08). When they primarily value capital, or the accumulation of money, however, all profitable exchanges must exploit one of the participants; money only varies in quantity, so in order to get more, one must trade a small amount of money for a larger one (329-36). This may be done primarily by exploiting workers; if a man produces twice what he needs to keep himself alive, but is paid only enough to survive, his employer may sell his product for twice the means of subsistence while only paying for it once (358-59).
If too much is produced to be consumed, however, the capitalist can no longer make money in this way. Technology in the industrial age had reached a point where enough product to flood the market could easily be produced (Manifesto, 478). Since the capitalist is unwilling to provide employment if it does not turn a profit, and unable to sell at greater prices due to competition, he either pays his employees less than they need to survive, or else fires them. This creates a vicious cycle, because his laborers are also consumers, and if they cannot afford products then demand will go down even further, leading to lower profits, etc. (Capital, 427-28).
Yet, within this system of oppression, Marx sees hope for a new epoch, in which oppression is done away with entirely. “[The bourgeoisie] is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure the existence of the slave within his slavery [...] [therefore] Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” (Manifesto, 483). The people will unite into one, undivided group, and for the first time they will be able to be completely free from forced labor. This new epoch will be the age of communism.
Marx is so certain that the revolutionary change from capitalism to communism and from oppression to freedom is inevitable, that he does not go into much specific detail on what form the revolution will take, and even less on what political structures will look like afterwards. But what he is clear on is that two major changes will have to take place for free species-life to be possible; the dissolution of private property and of class. In The Communist Manifesto, he lays out the specifics of what that will mean.
By the dissolution of private property, Marx means much more by this than just doing away with money and the ownership of goods. He believes that all relationships which are individually “owned” rather than being social will be done away with as well: family, private education, and marriage, will be replaced with non-hierarchical social relationships, social education, and open sexuality (487-88).
He argues that traditional social bonds have already been replaced with bonds based on capitalistic exploitation, and so the communists would merely be removing the exploitative aspect (487-88). More importantly, even pre-capitalistic relationships undermined the species-life through their “private” nature. Family, private education, and marriage are all relationships between individuals; a father is only father to his children, a student is the student of his teachers, a wife is the wife of her husband, just as a capitalist owns his property. Communist relationships will be purely social, purely species relationships.
The dissolution of class is seen in a similar light. As Marx argues, every age so far has had class struggles, manifesting as “the exploitation of one part of society by the other [...] which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms” (489). He assumes that the human race can do away with individualistic selfishness and desire to oppress if they become a homogenous whole.
As for forced labor, Marx believes that it will be obsolete in the new, communist society. While he does not explicitly state why he thinks this, he likely assumes that technology has progressed so far by his time that labor is nearly obsolete. The assumption that technology could solve every human problem prevailed in the modern era, and only began to be dispelled with the advent of the atom bomb. Marx likely believed that work would become so easy that either it would take so little time it would hardly count, or that the human species would be invested enough in its own preservation that it would care for itself without compulsion.
The latter option seems more likely when one considers that Marx thought that free man’s natural activity is “productive life.” He argues that “The whole character of a species—its species character—is contained in the character of its life-activity; and free, conscious activity is man's species character” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 76). This is in contrast to forced labor, which is done only from necessity. Marx argues that man “produces even when he is free from physical need” (76). He is fulfilled by “creating an objective world by his practical activity [...] in accordance with the laws of beauty” (76).
In the past, only those who gained wealth by exploiting others had the necessary leisure time to pursue free production. It is only in communism that both the oppression of exploitation and the oppression of necessity can be done away with at the same time, leaving the entire human race in a state of freedom.
Marx's freedom would seem a very strange thing indeed if one looked at it in terms of individual human beings. It is a freedom which abolishes religion, voluntary submission, or having a private life separate from the political sphere. But, if freedom means freedom from exploitation and necessity, and such a freedom is possible, then communism is the only answer. Each person may freely create without using or being used by any other individual. And if man's true desires can be summed up as the desire to create and the desire to be part of that species who are creators, then in this freedom he will be utterly fulfilled.

Machiavelli and Liberty
“For as good habits of the people require good laws to support them, so laws, to be observed, need good habits on the part of the people.”

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Discourses

Machiavelli believes that it is good for people to be free to do what they want and not feel oppressed. However, he also believes that freedom without limitations will eventually destroy itself. Therefore, he argues, a good political system gives freedom boundaries, so that it is not self-defeating. It must also be able to preserve itself from external attack and internal corruption, so that it can maintain its protective control over freedom. The name Machiavelli gives to this self-sustaining, controlled freedom is liberty.
It is important to note that Machiavelli is often misunderstood. It is possible that he coined the phrase “the ends justify the means,” and even if he didn’t, his name has become synonymous with a willingness to use any means necessary to achieve a desired end, so it is easy to see why people read him as an amoral utilitarian. However, reading him this way misses the substance of his seemingly compassionless practicality.
When a utilitarian uses the phrase, he means that any action is justified, as long as its results are better than they would have been if the action had never been taken. The major problem with this philosophy is that it is impossible to put into practice unless one is omniscient. Otherwise, there is no way to know that the results of a given action will actually be better than those of any other action; they may have a higher probability of being good, but there is no way to know for sure. Also, actions which have an immediate good effect may cause worse results further down the road; the farther away the future consequences are, the harder it is to predict their results, and an action with great positive effects at one point may have terrible ramifications later.
In contrast, Machiavelli argues that any action is justified if its alternative is necessarily self-defeating. He is aware that no one can predict the exact outcome of their actions, but he believes that a great deal can be learned from the mistakes of the past, and that sometimes it is better to put some boundaries on freedom if the alternative would be entirely oppressive.
Using the examples provided by the Roman Republic, Machiavelli describes what he sees as the ideal state in The Discourses. His state is not a perfect, impossible idealization like Plato’s Republic, but a concrete blueprint for building a working political system. He has to compromise between freedom and oppression, because
[...] how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his own preservation. (The Prince, 56)
The reason for this discrepancy between an idea state and one which can actually exist is a basic flaw in human nature. Machiavelli does not explore the cause of this flaw, he merely looks at examples from the past and concludes that “all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature” (The Discourses, 117). They “act right only upon compulsion” (118).
This bad nature keeps people from making reasonable compromises, even those which may actually be in their best interests. Although everyone wants freedom for himself, people also have the innate desire to oppress others. When people are successful securing their own freedom, they always turn on someone else, “as though there were a necessity either to oppress or to be oppressed” (232). This results not only in general oppression for weaker individuals, but also continuous conflict between those currently in power and those who want to be. No one is happy.
Political structure is an attempt to circumvent this problem. Within a political system, laws may compel individuals to act for the good of the group instead of just to further their own freedom at the expense of others. This is ultimately in the individuals’ best interest, because it will result in liberty for all. Liberty is a balance of oppression and freedom, designed so that no one is either so free that he can oppress others, and no one is unnecessarily oppressed.
In order to preserve liberty, however, the state in which it exists must be stable. This also requires some suppression of freedom, because people are more naturally inclined to act in their own interests than in the interests of the state. Machiavelli believed that freedom from oppression does no one any good if the state is not stable, because a free state that either collapses internally or else falls prey to attacks from the outside will degrade into anarchy, or else the constitution will change to something else, in which freedom may not exist at all. Such is the case with monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy; each may be “good” while it lasts, but “monarchy [easily] becomes tyranny; aristocracy degenerates into oligarchy; and the popular government lapses readily into licentiousness” (112).
A stable state, on the other hand, is capable of mitigating oppression. Machiavelli saw the Roman Republic as history’s best example of this kind of state. Its founders opted for a combination of the former three good governments, “judging that to be the most stable and solid [...] [because] these three powers will watch and keep each other reciprocally in check” (115).
In The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, he draws extensively on Roman history for examples of what liberty should look like and how it may be preserved through stability. He argues that Rome was not only “from the first free and independent,” but it maintained this freedom through “privations [imposed by] the laws” (109). Because of these limitations, nothing “could corrupt them during several centuries, and they maintained there more virtues than have ever been seen in any other republic” (109).
He gives several examples from the Republic of cases where limiting freedom is the only way to preserve stability. The first is with the enforcement of laws. Some might argue that violations of minor laws do not deserve harsh punishments. Machiavelli argues, however, that a law which is enforced half-heartedly or inconsistently is worse than no law at all. As he says,
“there can be no worse example in a republic than to make a law and not observe it [...] if the [law] was useful, then the law should have been observed, and if it was not useful, then it should never have been made.” (229-30)
because a law which is often broken without reprimand weakens the authority of the law in general, thereby undermining its protective control.
Nor does it follow from this that the government should have an iron fist, crushing anyone who dares to step outside the laws; rather, it means that there should be no unnecessarily laws, so that the necessary ones will always be obeyed.
The second example is dictatorship. The protest could be made that a dictatorship undermines a free state and its constitution, but Machiavelli argues that the lack of it will lead the state to destruction. The constitution of the Roman Republic could have insisted that the Senate and the People would have to come to an agreement before they could change any law. This was a good system during peacetime, but during wars regular laws could get in the way, and the time lost changing them through due process might lead to defeat. A dictator, on the other hand, could act outside the law without reprimand, for as long as he held the office. He would still be subject to the law, however, that he could only take office in an emergency, and he could hold it for no longer than one year.
If there were no proviso in the law for extreme circumstances, then the people would be limited to two bad options: either they would follow normal procedure, and might be overrun by barbarians while still discussing litigations, or else some individuals would have to break their laws to save the state. The first option will definitely lead to their destruction, and the second probably will as well, “for if the practice is once established of disregarding the laws for good objects, they will in a little while be disregarded under that pretext for evil purposes” (203), leading to the dissolution of liberty.
Rome did not become a “dictatorship” by the more common definition of the word until Caesar broke the law and gave himself the title of “dictator for life.” This, in turn, took place because the Senate, “To deal with an armed threat to its powers, [...] violated the very procedures meant to defend them,” and illegally gave military commands to Pompey and Crassus. Both of them had reasons to be untrustworthy, and therefore legally could not be commanders (Kagan, 136). Both proved to be ambitious and dangerous, especially after they allied with Julius Caesar, forming the First Triumvirate. The Senate, fearing the monster they had created, took the opportunity afforded when the Triumvirate dissolved at the death of Crassus to ally with Pompey and attempt to have Caesar exiled or executed. Caesar, knowing this, violated the constitution again by crossing the Rubicon river and bringing his army to Rome. The conflict between Caesar’s many supporters and the citizens who upheld Roman law led to a series of civil wars, which eventually ended with the establishment of the line of Emperors. (Kagan, 138-39)
Even if Julius Caesar did not intend to oppress the people, he is still responsible for destroying the Republic (Discourses, 142). He made it possible for a single man to come to power and abuse the laws however he wanted, paving the way for later, oppressive regimes like those of Nero and Caligula (143).
The third example Machiavelli gives of oppression for the sake of stability is ostracism. He argues the, in a republic, sometimes one citizen may become so hated by the people that they will be rid of him by any means necessary. It is better, he argues, for there to exist a legal way for them to vent their anger,
[...] for if there exist no legal means for this, they will resort to illegal ones [...] For ordinarily when a citizen is oppressed, and even if an injustice is committed against him, it rarely causes any disturbance to the republic, for this oppression [...] is effected solely by the public force of the state in accordance with the established laws, which have their prescribed limits that cannot be transcended to the injury of the republic. (131-2)
By taking away the liberty of a single citizen, the laws also curtail the degree to which liberty in general can be undermined. If the citizens instead resort to illegal measures, there is no limit to what they might do (132).
It should be noted, however, that a republic is not the only type of rule which can create a strong and stable state. A well-run tyranny is also stable, for a different reason: in a tyranny, everyone is equally oppressed, except for the tyrant. There will not be internal conflict, so they may be strong against outside forces. This is the picture painted and advocated in The Prince. Yet in The Discourses, Machiavelli makes his strongest moral statement out of either of the two books, saying of efficient and oppressive tyranny:
Doubtless these means are cruel and destructive of all civilized life, and neither Christian nor even human, and should be avoided by everyone. (184)
A republic is preferable to a tyranny, not because it works better practically, but because Machiavelli sees oppression as cruel and morally wrong. A republic, on the other hand, not only minimizes oppression, but gives the people freedom to be virtuous. Rome is worthy of praise, not only for its stability, but because within that stability “they maintained there more virtues than have ever been seen in any other republic” (109).
What virtue means for Machiavelli is never explicitly stated. He obviously has a relative of Christian morality in mind, yet is unclear to what degree he believes it is intrinsically valuable, as opposed to just being a useful tool for the state. He argues that the religion of the Romans was good, because it “gave rise to good laws, and good laws bring good fortune” (148). He criticizes the Roman Catholic church on the basis that
[...] if the Christian religion has from the beginning been maintained according to the principles of its founder, the Christian states and republics would have been much more united and happy than what they are. (151)
but it is not clear whether he is critiquing the church’s divergence from true principles or just its poor job of aiding stability in culturally Christian states.
Even if he is a Christian and believes that morality is intrinsically worthwhile, Machiavelli might only discuss the political relevance of Christianity because he is writing a political treatise. It is impossible to say what his views on the personal significance of Christianity are.
He also praises Roman virtue, which is more obviously political in character. With its emphasis on courage, loyalty, and practicality, the Roman moral code was highly suited to protecting and supporting a Machiavellian republic.
Machiavelli does clearly believe that virtue is indispensable in a good political system. Indeed, he argues that if the people cannot be virtuous, then a republic is not possible: “For as good habits of the people require good laws to support them, so laws, to be observed, need good habits on the part of the people” (Discourses, 168). This is why he is willing to advocate oppressive tyranny in The Prince. He argues that “a corrupt people that lives under the government of a prince can never become free, even though the prince and his whole line should be extinguished” (Discourses, 165). Not all people are this corrupt, but the citizens of Florence whom he writes about in The Prince have already fallen so far that they have no hope for anything better.
Yet virtue alone cannot be the foundation of a republic. Even in a nearly-ideal republic, those in power must be willing to do what is necessary to maintain stability, even if that means resorting to cruel or unjust methods. As stated earlier, because people are flawed and selfish, they will not follow good laws unless those laws are strictly enforced.
In summary, Machiavelli’s republic functions along a similar principle to the arch (which, incidentally, was invented by the Romans). The top of a Roman arch is made of wedge-shaped stones; as each stone is pulled down by gravity, it presses against the others equally, keeping them all from falling. It is actually gravity which keeps the arch up. In the same way, each part of the republic puts pressure on the other parts, and it is the people’s self-interest which keeps them from oppressing each other excessively.
A political system cannot be built on freedom or virtue alone, because neither of these can be maintained without imposed order, due to the selfish nature of man. Nor ought it to be built on stability alone, without freedom or virtue, because such a state would be evil. Liberty is the only goal which is both practically achievable and morally acceptable. Therefore, the best political system is a republic, because it preserves liberty best.

“For the real difference between man and other animals is that humans alone have perception of good and evil, just and unjust.”

Aristotle, The Politics

Both Marx and Machiavelli agreed that the goal of a political system should involve freedom. They disagreed, however, on the their views of human nature, and therefore they developed radically different pictures of what freedom would look like, and whether oppression was a solvable problem or not.
History has shown that Marx must have been at least partially mistaken in his assumptions about human nature, because his “inevitable” revolution (the result of those assumptions) never took place. He assumed, like Hegel, that history was made up of an inevitable sequence of theses and antitheses. The antithesis of capitalist oppression was communist revolution, with the synthesis being the dissolution of class and the triumph of free production. Unfortunately, in reality, human greed was neither altered nor undermined. Although communism did triumph briefly in some places, it did not do away with oppression. Instead, people suffered more under their “communist” dictators than they had under their capitalist overlords. The free production and selfless sharing of goods which Marx envisioned never came to pass, and the outrages he hoped would foment revolution have led instead to reform, if they have been changed at all.
Even if his entire critique of capitalism was right, his predictions of how people would behave when capitalism was overthrown were strikingly flawed. These flaws stem from his view of human nature. Freedom as he described it might have worked if humans really were free producers whose sole concern is the species-life, but history shows that they were not.
Machiavelli has a very different view of history and human nature from Marx. He assumes that people do not change fundamentally from one age to the next. It is true that a wide variety of different circumstances may occur, but people will generally act in the same way that they always have. Therefore, if complete freedom has never existed, it probably never will. Where Marx argued that capitalism and class struggle were causes of human suffering, Machiavelli would probably have argued that they were symptoms of a deeper, unsolvable problem. If individuals oppress others, not because they have no other choice, but because it is in their nature, then oppression is not something which can be done away with at the drop of a revolution.
Despite his ambiguous feelings toward Christianity, Machiavelli’s view of man is also decidedly more Biblical. That men are basically evil, and that they will always have the same kinds of flaws, are both very Christian ideas: “All that has been done is that which will be done” (Eccl. 1:9) is a sentiment which Machiavelli lives by. And, if his political goals are based on an accurate view of mankind, it stands to reason that they are also more appropriate.
Yet, despite the profound insights which both authors have to offer, they both present views of the political world which downplay or ignore points which would have been of paramount importance to earlier authors. When Aristotle or Plato discussed political systems, they described them as institutions for dispensing justice or upholding virtue. Machiavelli, on the other hand, describes them scientifically. Although he has an affinity for virtue, he is not concerned with a political system’s goal outside of itself. The goal of a political system is liberty, and liberty is both the most efficient and the most morally appealing way of maintaining a political system. Whether there is any higher goal is not addressed.
Machiavelli was the first well-known author to treat politics in this way, but it is the way they have been viewed ever since. Marx may have disagreed with most of Machiavelli’s points, but he was still influenced by him; he also treats politics as a closed science, although that science is based on Hegelian dynamics rather than straightforward historical empiricism. He wants to build a totally materialistic model, because he believes such a model is accurate and deterministic. Anything outside this model, including a higher purpose, is considered irrelevant. He does not argue why freedom should be the goal of a political system, he merely states that it is.
This limited view of what is relevant to the realm of politics leads to one of the most striking aspects of both Marx and Machiavelli’s writings: their lack of moral character. Marx is anti-moral, at least in the sense of traditional morality, while Machiavelli is ambiguous: he seems to value a sort of Christian morality, but he is also willing to part with it if the need arises.
Ironically, Marx is the one whose arguments presume objective moral values; despite his anti-moral and anti-religious stance, he believes that oppression and suffering are intrinsically evil. He is outraged at the unjust and exploitative character of capitalism, and he is willing to fight for what he believes. He is not interested in compromise; oppression is evil and should be done away with entirely.
Machiavelli, on the other hand, supports conventional morality and Christian values. At least, he likes them when they are practically executable. When it is not practical to act in accordance with morality, he has no qualms about advocating compromise, even to the point of taking action which is “neither Christian nor even human” (Discourses, 184).
It seems likely from this that he would approve of what has happened to capitalism. Machiavelli argues that when an evil rises up in a state, it is safer to try and mitigate its effects than to try and suppress it completely (198). Capitalism has not been overthrown or fundamentally changed, but its most oppressive tendencies have been limited. People are no longer dying of overwork in droves, and, although most are still deeply unsatisfied with their jobs, they are only selling half of their lives in order to sustain themselves.
As far as the goal of a political system goes, Machiavelli appears to have the more realistic picture. A Machiavellian republic deals with humans as they actually are, keeping them from destroying themselves and oppressing others, while at the same time protecting them from outside threats and protecting its own constitution from corruption. Like Rome, it may be overthrown or corrupted eventually, but it is the best you can get in a world of flawed human beings. It also encourages and depends upon at least a quasi-Christian morality.
Marx, on the other hand, has a highly unrealistic view of the stability and workability of his plans. He gives human beings too much credit, and ignores the vital importance of religion, not just as a political tool, but as something real and vital to human beings living with a sinful nature. Yet he does have something in common with Christians. He believes that things are not as they should be, and that it is possible for them to be different.
As a Christian, I cannot disagree with the picture Machiavelli paints of practical human existence. There is only so much one can do to mitigate people’s general evil and selfishness, and one cannot hope to change the world until God changes it. Also, it does not seem improper to put limits on freedom for the sake of lessening the power of oppression.
However, I also believe in the importance of things which fall outside Machiavelli’s limited view of the political. I am bound to a view that some things are objectively right and wrong, regardless of circumstances. This means that sometimes my actions may have to come into conflict with Machiavellian practicality. Machiavelli argues that tyranny is the only practical option for keeping a state whose people are already corrupt stable; if liberty and virtue are not practically attainable, then there is no sense in pursuing them. I would argue, on the contrary, that if one has to choose between actions which will preserve the existing system but which are morally reprehensible, and actions which are politically futile but morally right, one ought to choose the latter. It is my responsibility to strive after virtue even when it is impossible to succeed, and to feel and act on compassion for people’s suffering even when there is little I can do to change it.
For these reasons, I agree with Machiavelli that liberty should be the goal of a political system, but only with the provision that upholding a political system is an inferior goal to acting in accordance with the mandates of Christian morality.


Unknown said…
I think you did a very fine job in your thesis. I enjoyed reading all of your thoughts and connections between the two subjects. I found a post on Machiavelli's "The Prince" at Peterman's Eye...thought I'd share.

deanna said…
Thank you, Tina. This is my daughter's thesis (proud mom posting with her permission). I'll pass on to her your comment and the link.
stenote said…
Interesting insight. Read also an Interview with Niccolo Maciavelli (imaginary) in