Books / Digital Text

Chapter 8: A Word about Marx and Machiavelli

It is customary to describe the new Marxian immoralism, and the devious and vicious conduct of its Soviet apostles, as Machiavellian. But that is a whitewash of Marxism and a slander against Machiavelli that, even in his least elevating counsels, he little deserves. These counsels of duplicity were addressed only to a “Prince,” to whom he looked, not for ideal government in general—as to that he was a republican—but for the specific task of unifying the Italian nation in the circumstances of his time. It is one thing to suggest that in dominating a society regulated by aristocratic tradition and the mores of feudal caste, a prince may hold himself immune to moral judgments. It is a very different thing, in trying to pass from political democracy to a more ideally cooperative form of social union, to offer the same immunity to “the proletariat” conceived as the “great majority” of mankind. Machiavellian is not a suitable name for this, because the word suggests serious reflection. An insane act of self-frustration would be a better name for it—an injection of poison into the lifeblood of the society you are proposing to improve.

It is not sophisticated, but merely frivolous, to deny the political importance of moral character and moral principles. Of course they are important. But this does not require us to become mystical about conscience, or imagine that being good differs at bottom from being intelligent. If the whole causal nexus were known, moral judgments could hardly turn out to be anything more or better than scientific. It happens, however, that in social and political matters there exists no science, no detailed technical knowledge, capable of replacing the principles of common sense. It is utopian to imagine that such a body of knowledge ever will exist. To those who strive only for power, that does not matter. But those who cherish civilization, or want to better it, will restore the judgment of men and their behavior to the position in political enterprise that it holds, and always has held, and always will hold, in practical and personal affairs.

Civilization itself is little but a set of learned attitudes and social habits. Chief among them is the demand men habitually make upon themselves and their associates for mutual respect of dignity, for truthful, kind, sincere, loyal and honorable conduct. Civilization is on the defensive now. It is fighting for its life. It needs, in order to fight well, a vision of the future, a sense of growth toward better things. It needs a young and courageous vanguard. But let us hope that the young and courageous, the new generation in whom hope always resides, will not mix their projects for the improvement of social life with a contempt for those elementary wisdoms which have made social life possible.

Shield icon library