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Niccolò Machiavelli Was the Philosopher of Left-Wing Populism

John P. McCormick

For centuries, detractors of Niccolò Machiavelli have presented him as the founding father of political cynicism. But the Italian thinker was really a republican idealist whose support for popular rule can inspire struggles against the oligarchies of today.

John P. McCormick, author of influential works like Machiavellian Democracy, argues that Niccolò Machiavelli should be understood as a forerunner of today’s left-wing populism.(Nickniko / Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Gabriele Pedullà

Almost five centuries after his death, the Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli remains one of the most influential figures in the history of political thought. The author of The Prince would probably be astonished to find himself the subject of books on leadership skills aimed at business CEOs, or mistakenly referred to as “Prince Matchabelli” by Paulie Walnuts in The Sopranos.

A misleading view of Machiavelli as the founding father of political cynicism — or even political evil — is almost as old as the man himself. But John P. McCormick, author of influential works like Machiavellian Democracy, argues that the Florentine thinker is better understood as a forerunner of today’s left-wing populism. Far from being outdated, some of Machiavelli’s arguments are still ahead of our own time, and a truly “Machiavellian” approach to politics can help strengthen popular democracy.


GP

There is probably no university in the United States where Machiavelli’s works, or at least The Prince, are not taught. However, your dedication to him is quite exceptional. You have published two books on Machiavelli, and, as far as I know, a third one is in the making. Why Machiavelli? And how did you first discover him?

JM

Of course, I had encountered The Prince in college, but during graduate school at the University of Chicago, I had the good fortune to take two seminars entirely devoted to Machiavelli’s Discourses in 1992. Those classes triggered my lifelong fascination with Machiavelli. Although I started my scholarly career working within a Frankfurt School “critical theory” vein, the orientation of my work reverted back to Machiavelli in the 2000s.

GP

What prompted this reorientation?

JM

I guess it was rising inequality and military adventurism under the George W. Bush–Dick Cheney administration in the US. After all, Machiavelli had taught me that the citizens of ancient republics punished elites much more severely for corruption and treason than we do in contemporary liberal democracies. Anyone who reads Machiavelli seriously would see that modern democratic citizens let elites get away with precisely the sort of behavior that he thought must be severely punished.

GP

You are not only a Machiavelli specialist. In fact, you have extensively published also on the thought of the Weimar Republic. One could say that you are attracted by the most acute political crises.

JM

I certainly didn’t plan it this way, but the overarching theme of my scholarly career has become “democratic republics in crisis.” For over two decades now, I’ve been investigating democracy’s perpetual susceptibility to plutocratic and oligarchic corruption, corruption that often results in authoritarian coups. I’ve explored the exceedingly precarious status of civic liberty and popular government in wide-ranging historical contexts like Renaissance Florence, Weimar Germany, the contemporary United States, and the member states of the European Union (EU).

GP

Still today, many people think that Machiavelli was a teacher of evil. Scholars — or at least the majority of them — have tried to correct this erroneous idea by focusing instead on his loyalty to Rome’s republican tradition and on his Discourses on Livy. Your reading is different, however. Because your Machiavelli is not just a republican thinker: He is a pro-popular one, hostile to the oligarchic degenerations of free states.

JM

Although Machiavelli never used the word “democracy,” and even though he expressed serious (but not unqualified) reservations about Athenian democracy, I’ve made the case that Machiavelli is in fact the first “democratic theorist” in the history of Western political thought. Machiavelli obliterates the classical distinction between aristocrats and oligarchs, charging that socioeconomic elites are always agents of oppression over common people.

Moreover, Machiavelli inflates the few moments in traditional political thought where authors grudgingly concede that the common people may occasionally exercise good political judgment, and he proceeds to build a novel democratic theory on that basis. Even today, famous scholars fixate on the few instances where Machiavelli depicts the people making bad choices, and they completely ignore the much more calamitous choices that he shows elites (specifically aristocratic senates) to have made in the Spartan, Roman, Venetian, and Carthaginian republics.

GP

Curiously, in Italy, Machiavelli is often associated with lamentations about past Italian glories. In your book, on the contrary, you clearly demonstrate how his thought offers fresh ideas to correct the oligarchic drive of Western democracies.

JM

Machiavelli was such a hopeful visionary about Italy’s future who drew inspiration from a vibrant Mediterranean past. He was not engaged in tragic nostalgia. He was thoroughly inspired by how ancient Tuscans, Syracusans, Spartans, and Achaeans so valiantly, and for so long, withstood domination by imperial hegemons like Macedonia, Carthage, and Rome. Machiavelli firmly believed that a return to ancient domestic and military orders would enable modern Italians to beat back contemporary hegemons such as France, Spain, and the German emperor.

After all, the modern hegemons, as far as he was concerned, were merely paper tigers compared to their ancient counterparts. If only Italian cities would rearm their common citizens — both militarily and civically — they could overcome foreign domination and domestic oppression by clerics and ottimati (those who supported oligarchic rule).

Perhaps he was too optimistic about the future. Machiavelli may have underestimated how obstinately the elites of his day would resist the reforms that he advocated; the revival of plebeian tribunes, of large popular assemblies, and of extensive citizen militias that he believed had guaranteed the liberties of ancient peoples and republics.

GP

You have been accused of being a populist or a supporter of populism. What is the difference between a pro-popular and a populist political theorist — now and in Machiavelli’s time?

JM

I am indeed an advocate of populism — left-wing populism. The difference between left-wing and right-wing populism is simple. Progressive populism is a chauvinistically majoritarian movement that challenges the unfair advantages enjoyed by a wealthy and powerful elite minority. Right-wing populism, on the contrary, is a chauvinistically majoritarian movement that challenges the imaginary privileges enjoyed by vulnerable immigrants or religious and ethnic minorities. I think that Machiavelli’s writings anticipate left-wing populism because he encourages plebeians to challenge elites and demand from them an ever greater share of economic and political power.

Machiavelli demonstrates rather convincingly that popular governments are the constant targets of (although he didn’t use the term) “vast right-wing conspiracies” — at all times, in all places, and at every moment. From this perspective, plutocratically generated systemic corruption is simply a constant, existential threat to any civic polity that is not already a naked oligarchy. The only way to halt or roll back this corruption is for common people to mobilize and use any leverage they have — military service or labor power, for instance — to extract concessions from elites who would prefer to expand rather than relinquish their disproportionate authority.

Of course, the ancient republics that Machiavelli analyzed never had to deal with “right-wing populism.” Socioeconomic elites in such republics could invoke patriotism or anti-tyranny to thwart reformist demands on the part of the demos or the plebe; that is, they could prioritize the necessity of war against hostile foreign enemies or invoke the danger of populist leaders accruing royal power while championing the plight of the lower classes.

The Roman Senate masterfully exercised both strategies, frequently diverting the plebeians from tumulti at home to war abroad, and often getting away with killing popular champions, from Marcus Manlius Capitolinus to the Gracchi brothers, as “aspiring tyrants.” But such oligarchs could never fully mobilize large segments of the common people in a sustained movement against popular reforms and popular reformers. They eventually had to resort to violent repression to do so, as exemplified by the tyranny of Sulla.

On the other hand, contemporary right-wing populists have a powerful weapon to wield against both center-left parties and left-wing popular movements: namely, the charge of disloyalty, or national betrayal. Because modern democrats and socialists are motivated by the universalist principles of the Enlightenment, they are perpetually susceptible to charge that they are not really dedicated to the well-being of “the people” within their own countries. They are too easily accused of caring ultimately for “humanity” (for the people worldwide), or for subaltern domestic minorities. Hence, the effectiveness of right-wing populists in smearing center-left politicians and left-wing populists alike as treasonous “globalists” or as anti-majoritarian adherents of “identity politics.”

GP

What is your attitude toward Marxism? It is clear that your approach to Machiavelli is different from that of Marxist political thinkers.

JM

Admittedly, I’m very tough on European post-Marxists in the new introduction to Machiavellian Democracy. I’m quite impatient with the extent to which authors such as Louis Althusser, Claude Lefort, Étienne Balibar, and more recent Italian authors who are influenced by them ignore, downplay, or discount the role of institutions in Machiavelli’s political thought. They reconstruct Machiavelli’s writings in a way that the people merely contest the workings of institutions, that is, the machinations of a monolithically conceived “State.”

But Machiavelli’s conception of governo popolare is just that: the people participating in government through the workings of institutions such as the Roman tribunes of the plebs; assemblies in which the people propose and discuss, affirm, or reject laws; and public trials in which the people serve as ultimate judges of citizens accused of political crimes. The post-Marxists are afraid that the people will get their hands dirty in morally dubious ways by participating in “rule”; or that the people will be co-opted into the workings of “the State” by participating in its functioning. But Machiavelli insists that reforms demanded by the people through tumulti must be instantiated in “laws,” the adjudication of which the people, not a privileged party, continue to oversee, even command.

Machiavelli did not simply want the people, through public demonstrations, to protest against the power of oligarchy manifested by “the State” from the outside. He also wanted them to perpetually contest the power of oligarchy within the workings of the state — that is, from the inside. Only by getting their hands dirty through political practice exercised without and within institutions could they effectively combat oligarchy and exercise self-government. Terrified by the examples of Stalinist Russia and Communist China, the post-Marxist interpreters of Machiavelli consistently overcompensate by reducing democracy to anti-rule, that is, to anarchism.

GP

And what is your attitude toward Karl Marx in general? What part of his thought is most vital for us, in your view?

JM

Of course, I revere Marx’s writings tremendously. Reading his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in college changed my life. Even though I’ve since abandoned it as an emancipatory ideal, having Marx articulate the combination of British economics, French politics, and German philosophy inspired me for decades. However, the absence of a constructive political vision in Marx eventually proved very frustrating: Marx was a masterful critic of reactionary politics in works like The Civil War in France and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, but his lack of specificity regarding the politics of socialism was disappointing.

I turned initially to the young, more Hegelian Jürgen Habermas as an alternative, but eventually his attempt to fill the political lacuna in Marx proved to be too liberal for my taste — hence my move to Machiavelli. But there is important work being done today in retrieving political resources from Marx: Bruno Leipold on Marx’s republicanism, Steven Klein on Marxian lineages for social democracy, Will Levine on Marxian Kantians, and Camila Vergara’s work on the tradition of radical institutionalism traceable to Rosa Luxemburg.

GP

The other author you have published extensively on is another anti-liberal thinker, this time from the right side of the political spectrum: Carl Schmitt. What can we learn from him?

JM

Schmitt was, of course, the master of denouncing the universalism of the political left to promote a supposedly more authentic, “democratic” political right in the Weimar Republic. Recently, I’ve come to see Schmitt’s career as emblematic of the almost consistent role played by the center right in attempted or successful usurpations of liberal democracies. Schmitt was an early supporter of the Weimar Republic, but in less than a decade, he justified and participated in its overthrow.

Many modern democracies follow precisely this trajectory: Democracies are established with fairly enthusiastic support by center-right parties, but once in power, these parties tend to move further right, choosing to align with far-right parties to maintain power extraconstitutionally, rather than compromise by forming coalition governments with center-left parties. Center-right politicians always think that they can control the far right, but soon find out that they have a tiger by the tail. This was true in Weimar, and it is certainly true in the United States today. Modern democracies are almost exclusively overthrown from the right rather than the left.

GP

There are two ways to judge Italian politics from abroad. Some commentators present Italy as an exotic and mysterious land, where politics follows enigmatic rules. Wiser and better-informed columnists have noted that Italian politics tends to anticipate the Western trend — generally in its worst aspects. Benito Mussolini was John the Baptist to Adolf Hitler, just as Silvio Berlusconi was to Donald Trump. What is your opinion? And how much do you follow Italian politics?

JM

I firmly subscribe to the latter line of thinking. Italian politics is always the “canary in the coal mine” of Western politics. When I lived in Italy in the mid-1990s, the parallels between Berlusconi’s rise and what was going on with Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan were so clear — but few in the United States wanted to consider the latter as protofascists. There is an enormous vacuum in the American political vocabulary when it comes to the word fascist: It is permissible in public discourse to call Barack Obama a fascist, but not Trump! Yet in Italy during those years, every lunch and dinner conversation was devoted to locating where Berlusconi stood on the fascist continuum, and how much further in a fascist direction he might eventually go.

GP

Contemporary political paralysis clearly has a lot to do with the crisis of the socialist movement. Oligarchs enjoy a very favorable situation now that the neoliberal left advances their interests no less than the Right. For the rich, it is a win-win situation: Whatever the result of an election, they will benefit from a friendly government. How can we fix this?

JM

This is precisely how I try to explain American politics to my mother: When the Republicans win, the rich get richer; when the Democrats win, the rich stay rich. Because of the two-party system in the United States, economic redistribution and regulation have always been problematic policy objectives — although even under Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, post-WWII America was like a social democratic Shangri-la compared to today.

In Europe, matters are less explicable. I suppose that the existence of credible Communist parties in Western Europe during the Cold War induced center-right parties to compromise with center-left ones in ways that fostered relative economic equality. Now, conservative parties are free to engage in outright obstruction when they are out of power.

Of course, you’re correct that social democratic parties deserve their share of the blame. Through neoliberal policies, they’ve participated in the “hollowing out” — to use Peter Mair’s phrase — of the social bases of progressive politics.

GP

What do you think of the experience of the gilets jaunes in France?

JM

A welcome exception to the rule! It was certainly refreshing to see a more or less grassroots, progressive social movement protesting against austerity arise in a major democracy. And what a great relief that such a movement did not take the pathological form associated with right-wing populism — I hope that charges of antisemitism are merely calumnies hurled at them by the movement’s conservative enemies. The gilets jaunes are the spirited and articulate opposition to austerity that centrist politicians like Emmanuel Macron deserved. They said “Enough!” to financial and economic policies that unfairly shift the burden of maintaining a healthy modern society from the wealthy to average people.

I’m sick of centrists like Macron, and even Angela Merkel, taking bows and accepting bouquets for rescuing the Enlightenment, civilization, and human decency by electorally defeating the xenophobic right, and then pivoting to satisfy the policy preferences of the financial interests who, directly or indirectly, back their own campaigns, rather than the working- and middle-class citizens who actually voted for them. They congratulate themselves for slaying the right-wing populist dragon and then enact policies that continue to feed it.

Merkel’s austerity policies ensured that the far right continues to have a constituency in the European South, and Macron’s neoliberal policies ensure that the Marine Le Pen temptation continues to be viable in France. The gilets jaunes demonstrate that there is a viable third way between neoliberal austerity and right-wing populism.

GP

After Poland, Hungary, and Turkey, which European state do you think is now most vulnerable to right-wing populism?

JM

I don’t think that Germany is “next,” but AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, Alternative for Germany) must be watched carefully, and every effort, domestic, European, and international, must be made to keep the movement small. The costs for Germany, the EU member states, Europe as a whole, and democracy itself would be devastating should a far-right movement grow any stronger in Germany of all places.

GP

Any reader of Machiavelli saw in Barack Obama a sort of modern Piero Soderini — the Florence magistrate with whom Machiavelli worked for ten years. Soderini was defeated because, contrary to Machiavelli’s advice, he always feared conflict with the elite and tried to compromise, even when it was clear that his adversaries were not willing to do so — until they finally evicted him from power with a coup. Joe Biden seems readier to push an ambitious program of reform and less timid than Obama when it comes to confronting adversaries. Do you agree with this interpretation?

JM

What you say about Obama is both amusing and depressing. When I teach my course on political leadership, I always devote a class session to the topic “Barack Obama: Tyrant or Suppliant?” and I assign passages from Machiavelli on Soderini. Without a doubt, I believe that Obama was much too circumspect in dealing with the Republicans. Biden was at Obama’s side to witness all the foot-dragging and intransigence perpetrated by Republicans for eight years. Biden has already shown that he will extend his hand to the Republicans to participate in policymaking, but I hope that he’s not going to beg for their cooperation or wait forever for them to reciprocate.

GP

How can Biden fix the problem of a Supreme Court in the hands of the extreme right?

JM

Unfortunately, Biden does not have sufficiently wide majorities in the House and the Senate to enact the reforms necessary to correct the right-wing excesses of the Supreme Court. Eventually, a Democratic president with large congressional support will have to expand the size of the court and appoint another half-dozen justices to the bench. Given the minoritarian biases of federalism, the Electoral College, and the Senate, the conservative justices on the court are entirely out of step with the political preferences of the majority of American citizens.

Alternatively, if the Democrats could someday abolish the filibuster in the Senate, Congress could pass a law that strips the authority of judicial supremacy from the court. The Supreme Court has only acquired the power to decide the constitutionality of laws and orders by judicial precedent. Such constitutional supremacy does not exist in the US Constitution itself.

GP

As a student of Weimar Germany, do you see any parallels with the collapse of the Weimar Republic in the US today?

JM

A lot of people were comparing the Capitol insurrection of January 6 to the Reichstag fire, which the Nazis exploited to consolidate power. I liken it more to the assassinations of the Weimar ministers Walther Rathenau and Matthias Erzberger by right-wing extremists in the early 1920s. These murders prompted an enraged German MP to exclaim in the Reichstag: “There is no doubt that the enemy stands on the Right!”

The Capitol insurrection, like these assassinations, should compel all citizens dedicated to constitutional democracy to repudiate and clamp down on far-right extremism. The warning was not heeded in Weimar, and I am doubtful that it will be in the United States as well. The craven behavior of the vast majority of Republican politicians during and after Trump’s second impeachment trial is not a good sign in this regard.

End Mark

About the Author

John P. McCormick is professor of political science at the University of Chicago. His works include Reading Machiavelli (2018), Machiavellian Democracy (2011), Weber, Habermas and the Transformations of the European State (2006), and Carl Schmitt’s Critique of Liberalism (1997).

About the Interviewer

Gabriele Pedullà is professor of Italian literature at the University of Rome Tre. His works include Machiavelli in Tumult (2018) and In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema (2012).

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