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Machiavellian Democracy, John P. McCormick, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011

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Abstract McCormick’s book engages with the theoretical and political positions discussed by the Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli about five centuries ago, and, in particular, the creation of the tribunes of the plebs. In ancient Rome, plebeian power had been institutionalised through the creation of tribunes. According to McCormick, a similar institution would offer a legitimate forum for expression to the people in modern democracies. In fact, following Machiavelli’s suggestions, this would contribute to the implementation of a new form of democracy, more respectful of the people and more eager to defend values such as freedom and independence from the influence of the powerful and the rich. In this review, Filippo Del Lucchese comments on McCormick’s book from a Marxist point of view. One of the strongest points of the book is the discussion of the opposition between democracy and republicanism. Over the last decades, the latter has in fact been absorbed into the sphere of influence of the Cambridge School, and neutralised, or at least defused its most interesting and radical aspects. McCormick’s attempt to repoliticise the Machiavellian discourse is indeed praiseworthy, yet, by mainly focusing on the ‘institutionalisation’ of popular power, McCormick fails to discern the most radical elements of Machiavelli’s thought. From this angle, the review discusses McCormick’s use of the category of ‘class’ and offers a different perspective on the revolutionary dimension.

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26. FN1 1. See also Senellart 1995 and Gaille-Nikodimov 2007.
27. FN2 2. De Giovanni 1976.
28. FN3 3. Negri 1992 and 1999.
29. FN4 4. But apart from these problems, McCormick’s conclusions are at times barely comprehensible. See, for example, ‘Democracies and governi larghi, from ancient Athens and Rome to contemporary Poland and Chile, emerge out of authoritarian regimes, whether autocratic or oligarchic.’ (McCormick 2011, p. 35.)
30. FN5 5. The Discourses, Book III, Chapter 1 (Machiavelli 2003, p. 388).
31. FN6 6. McCormick 2011, p. 25: ‘Machiavelli intimates that the people’s decency or onestàentails a fundamental disinclination to injure others. The following contrast between the humours verifies this point: when the Roman people felt oppressed by the grandi and saw no recourse to relief via civic institutions such as the tribunes, they did not lash out by murdering patricians or destroying their property; rather, their first reaction was to secede peacefully from the city.’
32. FN7 7. Florentine Histories, Book III, Chapter 13 (Machiavelli 1988, pp. 122–3).
33. FN8 8. Florentine Histories, Book III, Chapter 1 (Machiavelli 1988, pp. 105–6).
34. FN9 9. This is contrary to some interpreters (such as Guidi 1969) who view these pages as the product of someone whose aspirations were in decline by this point. According to this interpretation, when Machiavelli wrote this it appeared that all was lost and nobody believed anymore that the Cardinal (who was then at the height of his power) could be sincerely interested in listening to his past enemies, Machiavelli included. For more along the same lines, see Villari 1891, pp. 351ff.
35. FN10 10. McCormick 2011, p. 103: ‘Unfortunately, the manner in which Machiavelli presents the provosts may have been too subtle and understated for commentators on the “Discursus”: most scholarly interpreters simply ignore them.’ Curiously, McCormick only cites Giovanni Silvano and Maurizio Viroli.
36. FN11 11. Alessandro de’ Pazzi described it as ‘strange’ and ‘eccentric’. See de’ Pazzi 1842.
37. FN12 12. McCormick 2011, p. 8: ‘Even commentators who understand Machiavelli to be an advocate of the people, an antagonist of the grandi, or – albeit more rarely – a democrat pure and simple largely neglect the crucial role that the Roman tribunes play in his political thought and consistently overlook his proposal to establish Florentine tribunes, the provosts, within his native city.’ The literature to which McCormick is referring in this case is, again, peculiarly limited to a few English-language sources: de Grazia, Hulliung, Gilbert, Silvano, and Viroli.
38. FN13 13. Nitti 1876, p. 359.
39. FN14 14. See the letter to Ricciardo Becchi of 9 March 1498 referred to above.
40. FN15 15. Guicciardini will write that ‘to praise discord is like praising a sick man’s illness because of the virtues of the remedy applied to it.’ See Guicciardini 2002.
41. FN16 16. Florentine Histories, Book VI, Chapter 1 (Machiavelli 1988, p. 230).
42. FN17 17. See the chapters devoted to the war with the Visconti, also omitted from McCormick.
43. FN18 18. Along these lines, see the studies on the language of Machiavelli, effectively developed by French scholars. See, for example, Fournel and Zancarini 2000 and 2004.
44. FN19 19. McCormick 2011, p. 157: ‘Pettit’s attempt to depoliticize a wider range of important policy spheres suggests that he largely subscribes to the traditional philosophical narratives concerning the people’s inability to judge political matters dispassionately and impartially that, as we’ve observed repeatedly, Machiavelli explicitly criticized (e.g. D I.58)’; and again: ‘Pettit is generally much more wary of the people than he is of elites, and he frequently goes to great lengths to generate rationales for why elites can be expected to act on behalf of the common good, while he tends to accept as fact the notion that the people simply cannot. Pettit insists that popular judgement is prone to “collective unreason,” and he asserts definitively (i.e., without the softening qualifier “probably”) that majoritarian tyranny is “the real danger” posed by democracy.’ (McCormick 2011, p. 158.)
45. FN20 20. For a fuller discussion of this topic I refer the reader to Del Lucchese 2007 and 2009.
46. FN21 21. Letter of 25 September 1857, in Marx and Engels 1983, p. 186.
47. FN22 22. See Barthas 2010, p. 266. In his famous and intriguing comment, the liberal Benedetto Croce defines Marx himself as the ‘Machiavelli of the proletariat’. See Croce 1900, p. 134.
48. FN23 23. See, for example, the connection Gramsci established between the Jacobins and the context of physiocracy, asking if Machiavelli had ‘anticipated those times’ as well as, in some way, a demand that laterfound expression in the Physiocrats. See Gramsci 1977, p. 1575.
49. FN24 24. Frosini 2003, pp. 164–5. See also Thomas 2009.
50. FN25 25. Gramsci 1977, pp. 1558–9.
51. FN26 26. Especially Marxist-inspired thinkers, not that this is necessary and indispensable in every case, but since this book is intended to describe a Machiavellian political theory in terms of class, I believe that a broader dialogue with this literature would have strengthened his arguments. See, for example, Morfino 2002.

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Affiliations: 1: Brunel University


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