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Machiavelli and ‘political realism’: Gramsci’s interpretation of Machiavelli

One of the most commented passages on Machiavelli is that which refers to the verità

effetuale della cosa, where Machiavelli distinguishes his method from that of many who

have written on the subject and have "imagined republics and principalities that have never

been seen or known to exist in truth"1. Machiavelli reflects on politics, he himself says,

“leaving out what is imagined about a prince and discussing what is true”2.

According to an important number of interpretations, this passage suggests the existence of

an opposition between what is (essere) and what ought to be (dover essere). Indeed, some

interpreters of Machiavelli believe that this distinction constitutes the core of his entire

theoretical project. Leo Strauss, for example, considers the distinction between "is" and

"ought to be" as the main line of demarcation between classical political philosophy and

modern thought, inaugurated, according to him, by the Florentine secretary. For Strauss,

“traditional political philosophy took its bearings by how one ought to live or what one

ought to do or by ‘the good man’ […]. Being concerned with usefulness, Machiavelli is

more concerned with ´the factual truth’, with how men are seen to live or with what men

are seen to do than with imagined things and with what exists only in speech but not in


According to Strauss, the contrast between classical and machiavellian approaches to

politics is clearly stated in chapter 18 of The Prince, specially through the vindication of

Chiron, the centaur. Indeed, according to Strauss the symbol of the new philosophy of

1 Machiavelli, N. The Prince, Trans. Harvey C. Mansfield, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1998, XV,
p. 61
2 Ídem
3 Strauss, L. Thoughts on Machiavelli, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1958, pp. 232-233
Machiavelli is precisely the centaur, “the Beast Man as opposed to the God Man”, which is

the standard of Christian political theories. The centaur illustrates the fact that Machiavelli

“understands man in the light of the sub-human rather than on the super-human” 4. In

Strauss view -and this is very important- this ‘realistic’ portrayal of human nature is in the

service of redefining political science in practical rather than theoretical terms. The goal of

this redefinition, Strauss contends, is to seek not the best state but one that is realizable on

earth: “the scheme of a good society which it projects is therefore in principle likely to be

actualized by men´s efforts or its actualization depends much less on chance than does the

classical ‘utopia’”5.

A similar kind of interpretation sees in the passage on the verità effetuale the defense of a

scientific approach to political affairs, according to which politics is a science whose

methodology requires the use of nonmoral categories. Political science, from this point of

view, should be related to “what is” leaving out of consideration matters about “what ought

to be”. The political science inaugurated according to this reading by Machiavelli, is

considered fundamentally as a technique about the best means for the conquest and

maintenance of power. When this is related with the Dedicatory of The Prince what

emerges is the infamous image of Machiavelli as an advisor of tyrants6.

For Gramsci both interpretations are defective because they are based on a mistaken view

about the relationship between “what is” and “what ought to be”. In this presentation I take

my cue from Strauss’s observation about the practical character of the political thought of

Machiavelli to arrive, however, to a very different conclusion. For Strauss, I suggest, the

4 Ibíd. p. 297
5 Ídem.
6 Poner referencia
practical character of the philosophy of Machiavelli depends on the very distinction

between man and nature. In his words, “since man is not by nature ordered towards

goodness, or since men can become good and remain good only through compulsion,

civilization or the activity which makes men good is man´s revolt against nature”7. Thus, in

Machiavelli, “the human in man is implicitly understood to reside in an Archimedean point

outside of nature”8. From this point of view, the establishment of a good society depends on

the conquest of nature “by men of sufficient brain [which] can transform the most corrupt

matter into an incorrupt one by the judicious application of the necessary force”9.

For reasons I can´t develop extensively here I think this interpretation is incorrect. I will

limit myself here to say that the image of the centaur and the depiction of the new prince as

being halfway between a fox and a lion shows how inextricably intertwined are the human

and the animal (or nature) in the thought of Machiavelli 10. In any case, in his interpretation

of Machiavelli Gramsci displaces this opposition. Instead of the opposition between the

force of man (“brain”) and nature, Gramsci focuses in the relationship between opposing

social forces, changing the point of view through which the text of Machiavelli has to be


Instead of the view of the scientist, for whom the distinction between subject and object,

man and nature, is very significant, Gramsci considers that Machiavelli has to be read from

a ‘purely’ political point of view. For him, Machiavelli is not a scientist but an active

politician, and is precisely from the political point of view that the distinction between “is”

7 Strauss, L. Op. cit. p. 297

8 Ídem
9 Ídem.
10 For this reading on the centaur, see Esposito, R. Living thought: the origins and actuality of Italian
philosophy, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2012, in particular, chapter 2: “The power of the origin”.
(essere) and “ought to be” (dover essere) must be interpreted. In fact, only from this

‘purely’ political perspective one can understand, Gramsci contends, the so-called political

realism of Machiavelli.

Now, the interpretation to which Gramsci opposes his own is not that of Leo Strauss, but

that of the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, for whom Machiavellianism “was a

science, serving reactionaries and democrats alike, just as skilful swordplay serves both

honest men and brigands, for self-defense and for murder” 11. For Gramsci, this supposed

instrumental neutrality of Machiavelli´s text, that is, their ability to serve different purposes

according to the agent’s interests and desires, is true only if we consider it from an abstract

point of view. On the contrary, Machiavelli was well aware, Gramsci contends, “that what

he is writing about is in fact practiced, and has always been practiced, by the greatest men

throughout history”12.

As it is known, Gramsci derives from this the idea that The Prince should not be read as a

project aiming for the political education of the members of the actual ruling classes.

“Anyone born into the traditional governing stratum –Gramsci writes- acquires almost

automatically the characteristics of the political realist, as a result of the entire educational

complex which he absorbs from his family milieu, in which dynastic or patrimonial

interests predominate”13. Thus, Gramsci argue that in writing The Prince “one may

therefore suppose that Machiavelli had in mind ‘those who are not in the know’”14.

11 Gramsci, A. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Edited and Translated by Q. Hoare and G.N. Smith, New
York, International Publishers, 1992, p. 135
12 Idem
13 Idem
14 Idem
Now, who are ‘those who are not in the know’? In other words, which social group is the

target of Machiavelli´s knowledge? In his reading of Gramsci, Claude Lefort argue that “to

determine which political actor Machiavelli addresses in The Prince one must find out in

the social scene that group which is located in a position to refer their action and thought to

the principles of [political] realism”15. Lefort emphasizes that the addressee of Machiavelli

´s teaching has “not only the power to exploit this or that discursive lesson [as Croce

maintains], but to appropriate it”16. The relevance of this question in the interpretation of

Gramsci is expressed by the fact that if this subject were absent the speech were pointless,

moreover, would not have happened. Now, the answer that Gramsci offers is well known.

The subject of Machiavelli´s discourse is, according to him, “the revolutionary class of the

time, the Italian ‘people’ or ‘nation’, the citizen democracy which gave birth to men like

Savonarola and Pier Soderini, rather than to a Castruccio or a Valentino”17.

From here it follows that Gramsci discussed the question about the meaning of The Prince

through the identification of the recipient of Machiavelli´s discourse 18. Hence, in a similar

way that the tradition of anti-machiavellism, Gramsci takes as a starting point the

hypothesis that Machiavelli addresses to a specific political actor. In effect, the

antimachiavellians are convinced that The Prince has the political reality (as such) as his

subject and are also very confident in that it has a clear recipient (v. gr. an actual prince or

tyrant). Gramsci, then, takes at the outset this last insight of the traditional interpretation but

15 Lefort, C. “La primera figura de la filosofía de la praxis. Una interpretación de Antonio Gramsci”, en
Maquiavelo: lecturas de lo político, Madrid, Trotta, 2010, p. 90
16 Gramsci, A. Op. cit. p. 135
17 Idem
18 In contrast, “ignorance about the status and meaning of the work depends on the disjunction of subject
matter and recipient”. Lefort, C. Op. cit. p. 89
only to, in the same moment, put forth its incapacity to “define the position of the addressee

in the object definition”19.

The Prince, then, is a revolutionary book in a twofold sense. First, it revolutionizes the

“mirror of princes” literature, which was centered principally on the catalogue of virtues

that a good ruler must possess20. Instead of the focus on the political education of princes,

Machiavelli´s text is concerned with the political education of the Italian popular masses.

Second, it is directed towards the formation of a collective will with the necessary power to

found a new type of state. In discussing this second sense, Gramsci draws a distinction

between political scientist and active politician. About the first, Gramsci writes that he “has

to keep within the bounds of effective reality in so far as he is merely a scientist” 21.

Machiavelli, he adds, “is not merely a scientist: he is a partisan, a man of powerful

passions, an active politician, who wishes to create a new balance of forces”22.

It is precisely in this place when Gramsci turns to discuss the relationship between what

“is” and what “ought to be”. Unlike Strauss, for whom the perspective of Machiavelli

involves a rejection of the second dimension, that is, the dimension of the dover essere,

Gramsci interprets Machiavelli as proposing an specific articulation between both

dimensions. Thus, whereas Strauss considered that modern political thought begins with the

concern with the “factual truth” and the correspondent dismissal of the normative

dimension, for Gramsci the point is how to conceive in a proper way the articulation of

“what is” and “what ought to be”.

19 Lefort, C. Op. cit. pp. 89-90

20 See Gilbert, A. Machiavelli´s Prince and his Forerunners: The Prince as a Typical Book ‘De regimine
principum’, Duke University Press, 1938
21 Gramsci, A. Op.cit. p. 172
22 Ídem
About this, I think that if one adopts a political point of view there are two ways of

interpreting this relationship. On one reading, which following Gramsci I will call

“mechanical” realism, the effectiveness of the innovative political action depends entirely

on the knowledge of what “is”, that is to say, on the correct analysis of the effective reality.

Since the politician can´t perform in a social vacuum, its action must be based on an

effective understanding of the actual equilibrium of forces. In fact, the active politician is in

need of the fullest possible knowledge of the “effective reality”.

From this perspective, the imperatives of action in a particular situation derive from the

empirical observation of the state of things. Here, one can say that the “what is” is seen like

a text whose deciphering would deliver the guides for an effective political intervention.

There are several passages in The Prince pointing in this direction. In chapter 14, for

example, dedicated to the art of war, where Machiavelli famously said that a prince or ruler

“should have no other object, nor any other thought or take anything else as his art but that

of war and its orders and discipline”23, he equates skill in government with skill in reading.

“Besides keeping his armies well ordered and exercised –Machiavelli writes- […], he [the

prince] should learn the nature of sites, and recognize how mountains rise, how valleys

open up, how plains lie, and understand the nature of rivers and marshes” 24. Here,

Machiavelli is advising the prince to learn to read the terrain (imparare la natura de’ siti)

and by doing so he is making “the ruler´s landscape into a text and the text into a realm of

forces”25. “This knowledge –Machiavelli continues- is useful in two modes. First, one

learns to know one´s own country, and one can better understand its defense; then, through

23 Machiavelli, N. The Prince, op. cit. p. 58

24 Ibíd. p. 59
25 Kahn, V. “Virtù and the example of Agatocles in Machiavelli´s Prince”, Representations 13, 1986, p. 64
the knowledge of and experience with those sites, one can comprehend with ease every

other site that it may be necessary to explore as new”26.

From this conflation of the art of politics with the art of war it follows that the politician has

to act like a general and collect all the knowledge that is possible to obtain about the

(social) terrain in which the struggle is going to happen as well as about the opposing force.

His success depends entirely on his capacity to read well both of them. The consideration of

the effective reality as a text is reinforced when Machiavelli urges the prince to “read

histories and consider in them the actions of excellent men” 27. In this sense, it is worth

remembering that the call for the imitation of the ancients expressed at the beginning of the

Discourses on Livy is accompanied by a critique of the mode of reading exercised by his

contemporaries.28 For Machiavelli, the correct understanding (or reading) of history is thus

a necessary preamble to the “imitation”.

Now, alongside the spatial dimension in the analysis of the realm of forces, metaphorized

through the image of a landscape, Machiavelli highlights in various passages the

importance of time for politics. In this regard, Machiavelli suggests in several places that

the politician should try to secure the proper correspondence between his actions and the

times (or between virtù and fortuna). In Discourses on Livy he states this in a very clear

way: “I have often thought that the reason why men are sometimes unfortunate, sometimes

fortunate, depends upon whether their behavior is in conformity with the times”29. While

“some men are impetuous, others look about them and are cautious”. However, both of
26 Machiavelli, N. The Prince, op. cit. p. 59
27 Ídem.
28 “This I persuade myself is due […] to the want of a right intelligence of History, which renders men
incapable in reading it to extract its true meaning or to relish its flavour. Whence it happens that by far the
great number of those who read History, take pleasure in following the variety of incidents which it presents,
without a thought to imitate them” (Discourses on Livy I, Preface).
29 Machiavelli, N. The Discourses III, 9, Suffolk, Penguin Books, p. 430
them go astray because “they go to extremes and are unable to go about things in the right

way”30. On the contrary, the politician “is likely to make fewer mistakes and to prosper in

his fortune when circumstances accord with his conduct”31.

From this point of view, it seems that the art of the politician is oriented toward doing the

right thing at the right moment. Logically, for this it is necessary that the politician is able

first to identify in the course of events that which Machiavelli refers as ocassio. The

politician should be capable of interpret well the situation before he can act according to his

reading. Machiavelli thematizes this encounter between the action of the politician and

times in chapter 6 of The Prince, when he wrote that if one examines the actions of the

great founders of states, “one does not see that they had anything else from fortune than the

opportunity, which gave them the matter enabling them to introduce any form they

pleased”32. The core of Machiavellian virtù, we might now say, lies precisely on the

capacity to identify when an opportunity occurs to make an intervention in reality.

In a way this is similar to the Marxist-leninist view on revolution at the beginning of the

past century. As it is known, central to this view is the expectation that “objective historical

forces” will produce a “crisis of capitalism” in which a well-organized working class can

seize a momentary opportunity to gain control of the state, consolidate its power, and only

then proceed to the creation of appropriate social relations.

In the rest of this presentation I want to propose that Gramsci´s perspective on political

realism is at odds with this (mechanical) interpretation of it. Whereas for the latter the

“what ought to be” is a product of a realistic and historical interpretation of the “what is”,

30 Ídem.
31 Ídem
32 Machiavelli, N. The Prince VI, Op. cit. p. 23
in Gramsci´s view, I suggest, the “what ought to be” is always something works to

transcends the limits imposed by what he calls the “effective reality”. Thus, to Gramsci the

“ought to be” is not the result of an objective analysis of the “what is” but instead, as

Benedetto Fontana rightly points out, “the engagement of the will within the essere in order

to create a new equilibrium and a new relation of forces”33.

Moreover, I consider that Machiavelli´s reflections on the relationship between the political

action and times can also be read in a different way. According to this alternative reading,

the point for Machiavelli is not that of respecting the times through the adequacy of action

with circumstances. On the contrary, the active politician has to change this circumstances

and act, one might say, against the “times”. Machiavelli, I suggest, defended a perspective

on action according to which the situation is always open for an intervention capable of

change the coordinates of reality.

This idea of forcing the reality, or of being disrespectful with respect that which

Machiavelli called the “times” (fortuna), is clearly stated in chapter 25 of The Prince,

where Machiavelli famously wrote the following: “I judged […] that it is better to be

impetuous than cautious, because fortune is a woman; and it is necessary, if one wants to

hold her down, to beat her and strike her down. And one sees that she lets herself be won

more by the impetuous than by those who proceed coldly. And so always, like a woman,

she is friend of the young, because they are less cautious, more ferocious, and command her

with more audacity”34.

33 Fontana, B. Hegemony and Power: on the relation between Gramsci and Machiavelli, Minneapolis,
University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p. 79
34 Machiavelli, N. The Prince 25, op. cit. p. 101
My argument here is that Gramsci´s interpretation of Machiavelli as an active politician

reflects his adherence to this alternative understanding on political realism, according to

which the reality is mutilated if one excludes from it all voluntarist elements, to use

Gramsci’s language here. There are several passages that lend some support to my view. I´ll

only mention one here, which is located in a note about the analysis of the relations of

force. In the last paragraph of this entrance, Gramsci makes some very important remarks

about the correlation between the situation (‘times’) and the force or spirit of a political

agent where he compares, in a Machiavellian way, the art of politics with the art of war.

There Gramsci affirmed that a situation (the Machiavellian ocassio) can be favourable only

insofar as a well organized and disciplined force exists. This point, Gramsci contends, can

be proved if one looks to the military history “and from the care with which in every period

armies have been prepared in advance to be able to make war at any moment” 35. From this

point of view, the great powers in history “have been great precisely because they were at

all times prepared to intervene effectively in favourable international conjunctures –which

were precisely favourable because there was the concrete possibility of effectively

intervening in them”36.

His critique of “economism” and teleology, I think, should be interpreted taking this into

account. In effect, the problem with the belief in the existence of “objective laws of

historical development similar in kind to natural laws” 37 is that it pays no attention to the

necessity in politics of a critical engagement with the social reality. Moreover, given that

the belief in a predetermined teleology engenders the idea about the inevitability of the

appearance of the necessary conditions for a revolutionary change, “it is evident –Gramsci
35 Gramsci, A. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, op. cit. p. 185
36 Ídem
37 Ibíd. p. 168
wrote- that any deliberative initiative tending to predispose and plan these conditions is

[considered] not only useless but even harmful”38. Thus, what Gramsci seems to have in

mind when he appeals to Machiavelli´s realism is that the analysis of the “what is” is never

a purely theoretical or objective analysis but fundamentally a partisan engagement with

reality in order to transcend it.

Echoing Machiavelli, Gramsci declared that “the active politician is a creator, an

initiator”39. Now, a creator and an initiator of what? I think Andreas Kalyvas is right when

he answers in the following way: “a creator of a new social and political order and an

initiator of new beginnings”40. Taking this as his starting point this author proceeds to

redefine hegemony in terms of the social struggle aimed at bringing about an extraordinary

change in institutions as well as in the cultural and political structures of society. Thus, for

Kalyvas hegemony refers to the “struggle over the instauration of new political and social

orders out of the creative and cooperative activity of the individuals, organized politically

as a collective power”41.

According to Arendt, it is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which

cannot be expected from whatever may happen before. Interestingly, Gramsci thought, in a

similar way, that with respect to beginnings it “is absurd to think of a purely ‘objective’

prediction”42. As it is known, for Arendt the “character of startling unexpectedness is

inherent in all beginnings and in all origins” 43. Gramsci, however, contends that the task of

prediction was meaningless only when it was realized in the absence of a “programme”.
38 Ídem.
39 Ibíd. p. 172
40 Kalyvas, A. “Hegemonic Sovereignty: Carl Schmitt, Antonio Gramsci and the constituent prince”, Journal of
Political Ideologies 5(3), 2010, p. 354
41 Ídem.
42 Gramsci, A. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, op. cit. p. 171
43 Arendt, H. The Human Condition, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1958, p. 178
Thus, while for Arendt it is simply not possible to anticipate the occurrence of an

extraordinary change in the course of human history, for Gramsci this anticipation was

possible provided the predictor abandons the standpoint of the impartial observer. In order

to predict the occurrence of a new beginning, Gramsi seems to say, one has to be an agent

engaged in the struggle over the instauration of ‘new modes and orders’.

In contrast to Arendt Gramsci recognizes that the politician “neither creates for nothing nor

does he move[s] in the turbid void of his own desires and dreams” 44. In fact, Gramsci

argued elsewhere that “one´s own baser and more immediate desires and passions are the

[most common] cause of error” 45 in historical-political analysis. From here it follows that in

order to produce a new beginning the politician is obligated to base himself on effective


Now, for Gramsci not only the effective reality should not be interpreted as something static

or immobile but, more importantly, and as it should be clear, the politician does not relate

with the effective reality as a knowing subject to the objects of understanding. This is clear

in the following passage: “if one applies one´s will to the creation of a new equilibrium

among the forces which really exist and are operative –basing oneself on the particular

force which one believes to be progressive and strengthening it to help it to victory- one

still moves on the terrain of effective reality, but does so in order to dominate and transcend

it (or to contribute to this)”46.

I interpret Gramsci here as saying that the politician enters in a relationship with effective

reality (essere) as a willing subject to the objects of choice. I think Gramsci emphasizes the

44 Gramsci, A. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, op. cit. p. 172

45 Ibíd. p. 178
46 Ibíd. p. 172
difference among this two approaches to the “what is” (one in terms of a knowing subject

and the other in terms of a willing subject) through a distinction between diplomacy and

politics. For Gramsci, whereas the diplomat “inevitably will move only within the bounds

of effective reality”, sanctioning in this way the existing equilibrium, the active politician is

an innovative subject “who wishes to create a new balance of forces” 47. The diplomat, one

might say, is a political realist in the mechanical sense, that is, in the sense according to

which a “stateman should only work within the limits of ‘effective reality’”48.

The politician, in contrast, insofar as he is an initiator of “new modes”, always acts against

the effective reality. Certainly, he should base his performance on (an analysis of) reality

but only, as Gramsci says, to contribute to its revocation. About this, Fontana wrote that

“the analysis of the verità effetuale delle cose looks toward those elements of the given

situation that are dynamically poised to generate a new verità”49. It is from this that

Gramsci can conclude that the “ought to be” is something concrete. Moreover, that “it is the

only realistic and historicist interpretation of reality”50.

Thus, if for Strauss Machiavelli redefined political philosophy through a redefinition of his

relation to reality and the correspondent dismissal of the “ought to be”, for Gramsci the

Florentine secretary redefined political philosophy through the accentuation of the concrete

dimension of the dover essere, that is, through the affirmation of the ultimate unity of

theory and practice, philosophy and politics. In this way, one can say that Machiavelli is the

philosopher who allowed Gramsci to displace philosophy onto a new, political, terrain. This

is, in any case, a subject for another presentation.

47 Ídem.
48 Ibíd. p. 171
49 Fontana, B. Op. cit. p. 80
50 Gramsci, A. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, op. cit. p. 172