France’s Machiavellian Moment—Then and Now

19 February 2018

Hugo Drochon is a political theorist and historian of political thought, with interests in continental political philosophy, democratic theory, liberalism and political realism. His latest book is Nietzsche’s Great Politics, and he is currently researching elite theories of democracy and their impact on democratic theory.


In the summer of 2016 Patrick Boucheron, the new professor of history at the Collège de France, decided he wanted to reread Machiavelli. He did so with his radio audience on France Inter, exploring both Machiavelli’s life and his writings, and the programme was subsequently published in short-book form as Un été avec Machiavel. The main point of the exercise, however, was to warn that convocations of Machiavelli usually happen during periods of political instability, mapping themselves back onto the turbulent times Machiavelli himself lived through. That Machiavelli is being invoked today is thus a clear sign for Boucheron that we are entering into a new “gros temps” of political instability for modern democracies. We are entering into a new “Machiavellian Moment.”


Machiavelli lived through the destitution of the Medicis and the restoration of the Florentine Republic (for which he served in the Chancery) after the execution of the radical Dominican friar Savonarola It was the return of the Medicis which ended his political career and led him to write The Prince. He thus lived through a Principality, an oligarchic Republic, and, through Savonarola’s brief rise to prominence, a highly puritanical and repressive “popular” Christian republic. The question Machiavelli addressed was this: which is the best type of political system, and who is the best ruler? Or, to put it in slightly more contemporary language: which is the best type of elite?


It is John Pocock who first theorised the “Machiavellian Moment” in his eponymous book of 1975. His interest was to map the debates between the “Machiavellians”— Machiavelli, Savonarole, Guicciardini, Giannotti—during the Florentine republic, and how their attempts to provide a secular conception of time and their anxieties surrounding the stability of regimes emigrated to seventeenth century England in the work of James Harrington and to eighteenth century American debates over virtue and commerce.


But this idea of a “Machiavellian moment” has also been applied to post-War France by Serge Audier in his 2005 book Machiavel, conflit et liberté. There he argued that the work of Raymond Aron, Claude Lefort and Maurice Merleau-Ponty in the mid-twentieth century represented a “moment machiavélien francais.” Certainly Raymond Aron, who used “Machiavelism” as a prism through which to analyse the rise of totalitarianism—both fascist and communist—very much fits the theme. Aron’s worked is marked by concerns about both political rationality, in particular his life-long engagement with Weber, and the corruption of the French Republic, having lived through de Gaulle’s forceful passage from the IVth to the Vth. Lefort wrote his PhD on Machiavelli under Aron’s supervision during the 1960s, and that PhD, completed in 1971, was published one year later as Le travail de l’oeuvre Machiavel. If Lefort, whilst acknowledging Aron’s input, would ultimately reject Aron’s more institutional and sociological understanding of democracy in favour of a symbolic conception influenced by Merleau-Ponty, his theory of democracy as a lieu vide—an “empty space”—nonetheless posited a fundamentally Machiavellian division at the root of society.


So this “moment” seems very much to be in existence in post-War France, but should it be limited solely to the three figures Audier has identified? What about the thinkers that congregated around Aron within the Centre Raymond Aron that was set up by François Furet in his name? Pierre Manent, for instance, considered by some as one of Aron’s inheritors, places his general reflections in his Cours familier de philosophie politique (2001) under the sign of Machiavelli’s “effective truth,” much as his mentor had done, and the notion of a balanced representative regime, which combined aristocratic and democratic elements, was the key concern of Bernard Manin’s classic Principes du gouvernement représentatif (1995), to give just two examples. If we are entering into another Machiavellian Moment in France, as Boucheron would have it—he consciously relays Pocock, Lefort, and Merleau-Ponty in his book—can we learn anything from the previous one?


As it crossed over into the New World in the eighteenth century to serve as an intellectual bedrock to the American Founding, Pocock’s original Machiavellian moment was infused with the themes of commerce and credit. The same can be said of the first French moment, which is mediated, especially through Aron, by those he himself will label the “Neo-Machiavellians,” namely the elite theorists of democracy Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels. Indeed, it is on the “fact of oligarchy” that Aron will distinguish between Western “Constitutional-Pluralist” and the Eastern “Party-Monopolistic” regimes during the Cold War, themselves grounded in a distinction between “divided” and “unified” elites.


This influence can be felt in the members of the Centre’s work. Manent, again in his Cours familier, will completely accede to the fact that political sociology has demonstrated the undeniable oligarchic nature of modern democracies, within which political parties play an important role—all rather reminiscent of Michels. And the definition Manent will give of democracy is the “organisation of separations.” In other words, modern politics is organised around two separations: that between the represented and the representatives, a relationship centered on the dichotomy between command and obedience and where the represented authorise their representatives to decide on their behalf; and the more classic “separation of powers,” namely a series of divisions amongst the governing elite. It is these two divisions, between the elite and the masses and within the elites themselves, that modern liberty is to be found. The centrality of these divisions had been Aron’s point all along, mediated through his reading of the Neo-Machiavellians.


Manin, for his part, accepts the “oligarchic” or “elitist” nature of elections, which he readily attributes to Pareto. He also affirms Michels’s critique of the oligarchic nature of modern mass parties, which bring about new elites cut off from the general party membership. Manin’s argument, of course, was in part intended as a refutation of the elite theorists of democracy, and in particular Schumpeter: whilst modern democracy contains within it patently aristocratic elements, notably elections, it also contains democratic elements too. It is a “mixed” regime in the sense that elections are open to all. If Michels was right to point out the gap between members and their leaders within the party, Manin still held that those two groups were closer than rulers and the ruled at large because parties served an important function of representation. Thus Manin’s ultimate claim is that for the regime to be stable—another key Machiavellian theme—it needs to maintain a balance between the aristocratic and democratic features of the modern mixed regime.


Needless to say, this French Machiavellian moment has quite a different emphasis to Pocock’s, who was interested in extracting from it a theory of non-domination, which was to be further elaborated upon in the works of Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit. The guiding light for Aron at least seems rather to be found in the Discorsi I, IV, when Machiavelli explains that there are two parties in every republic, that of the grandi and of the popolo, and that it is from the conflict between the two that all laws conducive to liberty take root.


The turbulent time the French Machiavellians, starting with Aron, lived through no doubt played a major role in developing their ground-breaking insights democratic politics. But the other key element was their recovery of the early elite theorists of democracy–Mosca, Pareto and Michels. It is through their notions of the “ruling class”, the “circulation of elites” and the “iron law of oligarchy” that the French Machiavellians were able to make sense of the world they lived in. With the Occupy Movement and their rallying cry against the “one percent,” the election of Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit, the relation elites entertain with democracy seems to have lost none of its actualité. If we are to make it out of Boucheron’s Machiavellian ‘gros temps’ of political instability, it is to these early elitists that we must once again turn for guidance.


Photo credit: David Biesack, Niccolo Machiavelli, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


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