Sam Thomas argues that Machiavelli can help us understand the bourgeois nature of fascism, and how anti-fascism must empower the proletariat.
Why should socialists study Machiavelli?1 He was, after all, no socialist, writing centuries before the first socialist movements arose. People may dismiss him because his name has become synonymous with conniving, scheming, and brutal authoritarianism. Yet this flippant dismissal of Machiavelli ignores four important facts. First, of course, knowledge is its own reward. Second, the analysis of the state that Machiavelli develops in the Discourses is invaluable. It stands out among liberal theories of the state because it prioritizes the working classes and seeks to defend them from the nobility. Third, Machiavelli’s analysis applies to modern politics as well. It sheds light on fascism, exposing it as a bourgeois tyranny. Fourth, the Discourses show why socialists should seek to establish political offices free from bourgeois influence. Given that there are three areas in which Machiavelli’s analysis proves useful, this article is divided into three sections. The first gives a brief overview of Machiavelli’s analysis of the state, while the second gives historical context and an economic analysis of fascism in Italy. Finally, the third section argues that the nature of fascism requires that we empower the proletariat and disempower the bourgeoisie.
The Roman Republic served as an inspiration and example for Machiavelli. He advised that any republic larger than a city-state that wishes to keep itself free must “do everything like Rome.”2 In a republic there are two broad classes of people – nobles and commoners. These two classes struggle for economic and political power. Rome was no exception. Its nobles, the patricians, struggled against its commoners, the plebeians. But for Machiavelli, class struggle is helpful, not harmful, to a republic. He argued that “the animosity in Rome between the Senate and the Plebeians kept Rome free.”3 It did so because it vented the ambition of the classes and lead to laws protecting individual freedoms.4 In Ancient Rome, the class struggle between patrician and plebeian consisted of two aspects. First, the political struggle concerned the establishment of an office called the Tribune of the Plebs. Only plebeians could vote for or hold such an office, in contrast to the other political offices of the Roman Republic. Second, its economic struggle concerned a series of economic reforms called the Agrarian Laws. Such laws, had they been passed, would have limited the amount of land that a single person could hold and would redistribute any land captured during wartime among the plebeians.5 The class struggle often turned violent. For example, patricians and their supporters assassinated Tiberius Gracchus, a Tribune of the Plebs who was a prominent advocate for the Agrarian Laws. After Tiberius’ death, patricians and their supporters harassed his younger brother, Gaius Gracchus, another supporter of the laws.
In both political and economic affairs, plebeian agitation prolonged the era of republican rule in Rome because it thwarted the ambitions of the patricians.6 Agitation by the commoners is more conducive to maintaining a republic than agitation by the nobles. This is because nobles wish to rule over everyone else, and thereby establish an oligarchy. The commoners, meanwhile, merely wish not to be ruled over and thus wish to maintain a democracy.7 Machiavelli picked this thread up again when discussing the Agrarian Laws. He granted that the struggle over the laws set off a conflict that ended the Roman Republic.8 But the struggle over the Agrarian Laws, while bad, was better than the alternative. Letting the nobles win would have been the worse course of action. This is because “the ambition of the great is so [large], that if… it is not… beaten, it promptly reduces that city to its ruin.”9 If the plebeians “had not always constrained the nobles’ ambition,” Rome would have fallen to tyranny sooner.10 Republics should thus set up political institutions in which the common people can check the ambition of the nobles. In short, republics must trust the common people to keep it free. The will of the free people is “rarely dangerous to liberty, because it is born either from being oppressed, or suspicion of having been oppressed.”11
There is one key exception to this analysis, according to Machiavelli. Small city-states like Sparta and Venice trusted the nobles to keep the state free.12 This satisfied the nobles’ ambitions and “gave rise to a quality of authority to the restless souls of the plebeians.”13 But city-states are few and far between today. Aside from a few exceptions like San Marino, all republics today are large enough to need the common people to agitate for freedom – a historical exception does not undermine the general rule.
With this background in mind, Machiavelli turned to a class of people whom he calls “gentlemen.” Gentlemen “live abundantly on the incomes of their possessions, without caring either about cultivation or about other necessary exertions to live.”14 They “are dangerous in every republic”15 because a republic needs “an equal equity”16 between citizens. Because gentlemen can live off their private property, they do not rely on the state for anything. The state thus cannot hope that the gentlemen will help it when needed. A state with a corrupt population and full of gentlemen would not thus be stable as a republic. As such, Machiavelli advised that a state must transform itself into a kingdom if it cannot get rid of the gentlemen.17
But kingdoms are imperfect. They rely on absolute force to restrain the gentlemen, but the gentlemen remain.18 The function of the kingdom, then, is to formalize the rule of the gentlemen and nobles over the commoners. If kingdoms cannot do away with corruption, which type of state does Machiavelli think best? A republic. As philosopher Antonio Negri notes, Machiavelli’s theory of the state is “an apology of the people… and… an explicit declaration of the absoluteness of democracy as government.”19 Republics have benefits monarchies cannot replicate. They work in areas with equality and free of corruption. Indeed, one who wishes to create a monarchy in such an area must first undermine equality by creating gentlemen.20 Furthermore, it is easier for a republic to keep itself free than for a society to transition from a monarchy to a republic. This is true even though Machiavelli grants that it is difficult to keep a republic free.21 States are difficult to keep free because “always in managing that city one [finds] new necessities, and it [is] necessary to create new directives.”22 Conditions and circumstances change, meaning laws and government must change alongside them. Yet while keeping the republic free is difficult, it is an impossible task for a monarchy. Machiavelli uses the example of Florence to show this. The Roman Empire kept Florence in its grasp for centuries, and when “the occasion to breathe came, [Florence] started to make its own laws; these being mixed with the ancient [laws], which were bad, could not be good.”23
Machiavelli considered the death penalty as another reason to prefer republics to monarchies. In Rome, the commoners oversaw the death penalty cases in most circumstances.24 During exceptional times, a dictator took temporary control over the death penalty. By contrast, Florence vested the power in a foreigner. This was a “most dangerous thing”25 since powerful citizens could corrupt him. As such, Florence later put this power in the hands of eight of its own citizens. But Machiavelli claimed that this is an even worse solution, since the eight “were always ministers of the few and of the most powerful.”26 What concerned Machiavelli, then, was the concentration of power into the hands of a small economic and political elite.
The ideal Machiavellian state is thus a democracy where the people rule. It is not a “neutral” government which chooses laws independently of class interests. Rather, Machiavelli and Negri emphasize that “the plebs are the guarantors of freedom.”27 After all, it was the plebeians who kept the patricians in check during the struggle over the Agrarian Laws. While Machiavelli imported the idea of a mixed government (that is, a government which mixes elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy) from Polybius, Negri claims that this influence “is more erudite and taxonomic than philosophical.”28 Rather than import the model of mixed government wholesale, Machiavelli emphasized time and time again that the passionate tumultuousness that the plebeians brought forth upon the republic was necessary to keep it free. Thus, the republic must empower the working classes by establishing democracy.
Machiavelli’s analysis of the relation between the class structure of a state and its form of government, between the “base and superstructure,”29 in Marx’s terminology, is not a relic of the past. The gentlemen of today, the capitalists, are damaging to a republic for reasons like those Machiavelli gives. Machiavelli’s analysis thus allows us to analyze the class relations of capitalism.
The development of industrial capitalism in Machiavelli’s native land is intertwined with another phenomenon: that of the development of fascism. Italian fascism grew out of the trenches of the First World War.30 The country declared war on the Central Powers in 1915 and started a series of ineffective assaults on Austrian positions along the Isonzo River. The Italian Socialist Party (PSI), the main left-wing party before the war, opposed entry into the war. Yet not every party member agreed. An influential party member, Benito Mussolini, favored entering the war, and even joined the Italian Army at this time. The PSI expelled Mussolini from the party for his pro-war position, and as time went on, it became clear that Mussolini’s faction had abandoned socialism altogether.
After the war ended, Italy underwent an economic decline.31 The incumbent government gave some concessions to the working class in an attempt to ease the inevitable unrest that the economic decline was sure to cause. This was not enough, though. Throughout 1919 and 1920, workers took control of factories, staged strikes, and agitated against both capitalists and the government in what is called the Biennio Rosso (The Two Red Years).
But something was rotten in the state of Italy. Mussolini and those sympathetic to him had formed a political party – the National Fascist Party (PNF). Its ranks swelled with veterans and nationalists of all stripes, who formed paramilitary groups called squadristi. These groups acted as shock troops in labor disputes, and often clashed with socialists and communists. One of the parties that bore the brunt of this offensive was the newly formed Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I). Squadristi and government forces collaborated on raids on party newspaper offices in many cities around the country. Founding member Amadeo Bordiga recalled one such raid at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International:
In Rome, the bloodiest episode for our party was the seizure of the editorial offices of Comunista. The print shop was occupied on 31 October, just at the moment the newspaper was to appear, while one hundred thousand fascists held the city under occupation. All the editors managed to slip out through side doors, except for the editor-in-chief, Comrade [Palmiro] Togliatti. He was in his office, and the fascists came in and seized hold of him. Our comrade’s conduct was frankly heroic. He boldly declared that he was editor-in-chief of Comunista. He was quickly put up against the wall, in order to be shot, while fascists drove back the crowd. Our comrade escaped only thanks to the fact that the fascists got news that the other editors had fled over the roof and rushed up to capture them. All this did not prevent our comrade from speaking a few days later at a rally in Turin on the occasion of the anniversary of the Russian revolution.32
Even proletarians who were not members of socialist parties fell victim to repression. Bordiga notes that when squadristi were unable to retake the city of Bari from armed workers after a week of fighting, the government sent in thousands of soldiers, artillery, and even a torpedo boat to retake the city from the workers.33 In a similar manner squadristi and government forces clamped down on worker agitation in cities across the country.
While repression was common in Italian cities, it was even more extreme in the countryside. PCd’I member and philosopher Antonio Gramsci noted that the squadristi in the countryside collaborated with rural landowners to squash proletarian organizations without needing the help of the state.34 Their offensive on the rural proletariat was so effective that, by Gramsci’s estimation, “[i]n the course of a year they’ve seen all the apparatus of the socialist unions smashed and rendered impotent.”35
The effect of such repression was extreme. By 1922, worker agitation had died down. The free press had de facto ceased to exist, as the treatment of Togliatti shows. But the government was not as stable as it may have seemed. In the fall of that year, the PNF marched on Rome, demanding that King Vittorio Emanuele III install Mussolini as Prime Minister. The King, not wishing to shed blood, acquiesced. While Italy would hold rigged elections in 1924 (where, among other things, squadristi assassinated opposition candidate and socialist Giacomo Matteotti36), by 1925, Mussolini was in a strong enough position to abolish parliament and rule by decree until 1943.
The anticommunism central to the ideology of fascism expresses itself in its actions. It suppressed dissent from the left in Italy during the Biennio Rosso. Squadristi assassinated Matteotti. The regime imprisoned members of the PCd’I, such as Gramsci and Bordiga, on the island of Ustica. The former died in prison in 1937, after over a decade of brutal torture. The latter exited political life until after the Second World War. Countless others suffered similar fates. But this anticommunism expresses itself also in the political economy of Fascist Italy. As New School professor Clara Mattei argues, liberal economists in the 20th century influenced fascist economists. Both groups influenced economic policy during Mussolini’s reign. They lowered public spending for many industries, privatized that which was public monopoly beforehand, and strengthened tax enforcement on the working classes while weakening enforcement on the upper class.37
A document that summarized the economic ideology of Fascist Italy is the 1927 Labor Charter. In short, it stated that the economic role of the fascist state is to decimate worker power. Article III prohibited the right to legal representation for unions outside state control.38 Its tenth article prohibited labor controversies from going to a judge “if the corporate organ has not first undertaken an attempt at reconciliation.”39 Article VII stated that Fascist Italy “considers private initiative in the field of production as the most efficient and most useful instrument in the interest of the Nation.”40 Article IX limited state intervention in the economy to only “when private initiative is lacking or insufficient.”41 The fascist state, then, was a state that sought to advance the interest of capital over labor.
These politics were precedents of the economic program that today we call austerity. Yet in Machiavelli’s language, such policies are also a means to break the economic model that sustains the possibility of a republic. The purpose of the austerity programs was to establish a government which excluded the commoners of the time, the proletariat. In short, these politics were a method to establish in Italy the corruption that a monarchy needs. Thus the rise of fascism in Italy was a reaction against the workers’ movement during the Biennio Rosso. The correct schema of the Biennio Rosso puts on one side the Italian worker’s movement that wished to establish a worker’s republic, and on the other side fascism, which aimed to establish a government in which the gentlemen could perpetuate themselves.42
Here there is a parallel between Italy in the 20th century and Ancient Rome. Like the patricians of Ancient Rome, the fascists after World War I struggled against the commoners. This struggle expressed itself in both the base and superstructure. The economic austerity of the fascist state functioned like the resistance of the patricians to the Agrarian Laws in Ancient Rome. Both sought to exclude the multitudes from economic life. Thus the struggle expressed itself in the economic base. There is also a political parallel. The fascist dictatorship dissolved parliament in 1925. It assassinated and imprisoned political opponents and banned opposition parties. This repression mirrored the patricians’ resistance to the foundation of the Tribune of the Plebeians. Both sought to exclude the multitudes from legal and political life. Both were willing to use violence and repression to achieve their aims. Thus, the struggle also expressed itself in the superstructure.
But let us return to Italy in the 20th century. The economists of the time viewed the proletariat with disdain. Both the liberal economists and the fascist economists said that people were moral only as homo economicus. That is, people were only moral if they were self-interested actors who maximize their utility through thrift.43 But the economists thought that the poor wasted their money instead of saving it. Thus, these economists thought that the poor should remain poor since they had a vicious tendency to waste money. For example, Maffeo Pantaleoni, a member of the National Fascist Party (PNF) and a professor of economics, claimed that in Italy “numerous classes of entry-level and mediocre salary earners were raised and inscribed in categories of superior salary earners.”44 The reasons for this inscription are the law and socialist pressure.45 But Pantaleoni thought that the inscription was futile because “the amount of savings in the inferior classes [is lesser] than in the superior classes.”46 To this end, the economists applied Social Darwinism to the economy. In natural life, according to these economists, the most frugal people would survive, but the poor would perish. Pantaleoni, for instance, stated that “it seems obvious to me that the classes that have smaller incomes are notably deficient in quality in comparison to the others, in a manner that this deficiency is the cause of the lower income and not the already low income the cause of the deficiency.”47
Yet the economists had a problem. Italy after the First World War had created economic aid programs which, according to them, had disturbed the putative natural order of things. Thus, the economists supported the PNF for two reasons. First, they thought, because the PNF fought against the communists during the Biennio Rosso, they would help destroy the economic reforms that the state had created during the First World War. Second, an authoritarian state would help fight the tendency in the proletariat to waste money. If defunding and privatizing public programs were not enough to combat the proletarian tendency to waste, an authoritarian state would have to crack skulls to get rid of it. An authoritarian state was justified if that state would protect the free market. Moreover, these economists justified such actions because the general populace did not behave according to the model of homo economicus. The citizens “wasted” their money and ignored the advice of the economists. The economists’ wounded pride drew them toward the PNF. It was inconceivable that the proletariat knew how to use money better than the economic models! Thus, a state like Fascist Italy was necessary to combat the putative decadence of the working classes.
Overseeing the economic policies of the fascist state was the Fascist Minister of Finance and Treasury, Alberto de Stefani.48 He was an open admirer of Pantaleoni and other economists who saw the poor as vicious and decadent.49 The wave of privatization that the regime implemented was a testament to that fact.
Here we see a parallel between Italy after the First World War and Rome during the agrarian crisis. On one side stood the patricians and the fascists, who wanted above all to combat the struggle for popular freedom. During this fight, it was necessary to destroy the republican tendencies of the commoners. The patricians and fascists thus must “make everything in that state again”50 as a principality. Thus, in Ancient Rome the patricians fought every form of tendency to establish a universal republic, like the Tribute of the Plebeians.51 In Italy after the First World War, the economists and the PNF fought not only against Parliament but also against the economic reforms, not only the superstructure but also the economic base that supported it. On the other stood the plebeians of Ancient Rome and the proletarians of the 20th century, those who prolonged the epoch of liberty. The plebeians of Ancient Rome – in their agitation for agrarian laws and for the foundation of the Tribune of the Plebeians – elongated the life of the Roman Republic.52 The proletarians of the 20th century elongated the epoch of liberty during the Biennio Rosso by fighting against the squadristi.
Let no one say that the plebeians sought the fall of the Roman Republic first. It was the patricians who first spilled the blood of political opponents, killing Tiberius Gracchus. Silla, acting on behalf of the patricians, was the first to march on Rome with his soldiers to proclaim a dictatorship. It was Silla whose proscriptions normalized state violence against political dissidents. Even though Silla later attempted to strengthen the Republic, he had delivered it a blow that would later prove to be fatal.
The parallel between Rome and Fascist Italy should not surprise us. Machiavelli says that “in different peoples one often sees the same occurrences.”53 Class struggle appears time and time again in societies. In fact, the necessity of class struggle is at the base of Machiavelli’s conception of the state. Every type of state – whether “Principality, Optimate [that is, oligarchy], [or] Popular”54 – supports one class over another. The principalities and oligarchies support a reign in which there are gentlemen, but in republics without corruption there are none of them. It is for this reason that Machiavelli advises that one “construct, therefore, a republic where a great equality is or is made, and on the contrary order a principality where there is great inequality.”55 It is there where Negri develops the synthesis between liberty and equality – “equality is the condition of freedom.”56 We have, then, an explanation for the economic base of fascism. Fascism chose a Social Darwinist economic path because, according to Machiavelli and Negri, where there is not equality, neither can there be liberty. Thus, the motive for austerity was not only to “return” to a presumed natural state, but also the reverse: the economists used fascism to introduce austerity, but the fascists used austerity to destroy support for a proletarian republic.
But here there is something ironic that one must mention. As author Umberto Eco recounted, Fascist Italy used rhetoric that referred to class. For example, the propaganda in Fascist Italy claimed that “the English were the ‘people of five meals’: they ate more often than Italians, poor but sober. The Jews were rich and helped each other thanks to a secret network of mutual assistance.”57 The irony here is obvious. Fascism condemned the alleged decadence of wealth with one hand but introduced an economy which incentivized inequality with the other. It used as a base of support “the appeal to the frustrated middle classes”58 even though the political economy of fascism was against the welfare of the working classes.
To escape the irony, the fascist must embrace that which Eco calls “irrationalism.”59 In fascism, class struggle does not disappear, but is projected outward. Fascists cannot hate the gentlemen of their own race but must transfer the hate onto a foreign enemy. They thus project hatred onto a foreign enemy to escape the reality of the fascist economy. The fascist analyses politics without reference to present facts. Instead, if facts complicate or disprove the fascist narrative, then the fascist would simply ignore such facts. For example, instead of abandoning the model of homo economicus after the First World War, Pantaleoni and De Stefani maintained it by appealing to the PNF. But, as Machiavelli and Negri note, an ideology which ignores changes in the present set of facts is incompatible with a republic, which always requires “new ordinances.”60 It is this that that Negri calls “constituent power.”61 A republic needs to be able to change as material circumstances dictate. But this task is impossible for a fascist state.
Most of us do not want to live in a state that models itself on Mussolini’s Italy. The specific debate among those who style themselves “anti-fascists” generally concerns how one ought to oppose fascism. To that end, the analysis of Italian fascism that I present may inform the struggle against fascism in that it can point out which groups of people support and benefit from its implementation – namely, the modern analogue of the “gentlemen,” the bourgeoisie. It is here that Machiavelli’s claim that “in different populations one often sees the same occurrences”62 that will form the backbone of an analysis that will provide a response to the normative question of what is to be done.63 For in looking at how other societies dealt with a similar problem, one can see how their answers are relevant for dealing with the problem at hand.
Perhaps the most directly analogous means to do this to our times would be to establish a political office in the mold of the Tribune of the Plebs. As the struggle between patrician and plebeian has been replaced with the struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, the office may very well be called the “Tribune of the Proletariat.” Both voting for and holding such an office would be restricted to those who are wage-workers or members of certain proletarian organizations (e.g., labor unions, worker’s councils), just as the Tribune of the Plebs was restricted to the plebeian class. Just like the Tribune of the Plebs, one would only be able to hold the office for a short amount of time (in Ancient Rome, one year, in our time, perhaps two years) before fresh elections bring in new tribunes. Such an office would thus resemble a formalized version of the worker’s councils and factory occupations in the Biennio Rosso and would thus have provided a direct example of functioning as an anti-fascist organization.
There are two separate types of people who might give two separate types of objections to such a proposal – liberals who will give a liberal objection, and leftists who will give a leftist objection.
Our liberal interlocutor objects that this proposal is going too far because it is undemocratic, and therefore risks a slide into authoritarianism. The Tribune of the Proletariat would forbid the bourgeoisie from voting on matters that affect them and put too much power into the hands of one class. As one of the interests of the Machiavellian state is to keep the balance of forces between classes in check, a liberal might take inspiration from him and argue that this proposal shifts the balance of power too drastically, putting too much power into the hands of the proletariat.
The response to this objection is that to level this accusation is to risk seeing the world through ideological blinders. Ostensible democracies have many offices which are anti-majoritarian in nature to prevent a putatively held fear of “the tyranny of the majority.” As this magazine itself has noted, one of the explicit functions of the U.S. Constitution is, de facto, to temper the political power of the demos and concentrate political power into the hands of the gentlemen of the era.64 In our age, the bourgeoisie are these gentlemen. In the Antebellum U.S., a slaveholding aristocracy also benefited from the concentration of power. In the United States, examples of this lie in the Supreme Court, Senate, Electoral College, and certain House districts which employ extreme gerrymandering. The Supreme Court is exceptionally notable for its lack of accountability to the public. Its members are appointed by the President (who is elected by the Electoral College and not by direct popular vote) and confirmed by the Senate, not by popular vote. The Senate itself is an undemocratic institution. Its members are not beholden to a popular national vote, but only to a vote in a geographically and politically arbitrary area, as if random demarcations on the land determine a political community. But one cannot create a political community ex nihilo by drawing a line on a map.
The existence of the Senate gives rise to an absurdity. Democracies claim to operate on the principle of “one person, one vote.” However, the Senate distorts this principle, giving more power to certain groups of people at the expense of others. Each state sends two senators to the Senate, but not all states have the same population. California, for example, counted over 39.5 million residents in the 2020 census.65 By contrast, Wyoming counted just over 575,000 residents.66 Rounding California’s population down to 39 million and Wyoming’s up to 600,000 gives the rough estimate that California’s population is over 65 times larger than Wyoming’s, entailing that the average citizen of Wyoming has 65 times more influence over the Senate than the average citizen of California. So much for “one person, one vote!”
The Senate and Supreme Court are thus institutions that fly in the face of the principle of “one person, one vote.” Yet the existence of these offices does not undermine the frequency with which liberals of all stripes call the United States a democracy.
The preceding discussion justifies two further claims. First, when using Machiavelli to analyze political structures, the claim that the state and the law are biased forces which favor one class over another becomes obvious. Gramsci, picking up the Machiavellian thread in the era of Mussolini, notes that “every State tends to create and maintain a certain type of civilization and citizen… and to eliminate certain customs and attitudes and disseminate others.”67 The Law, he notes, is the State’s “instrument for this purpose.”68 Gramsci himself was a victim of such bias. The Mussolini regime sentenced him to life imprisonment because of his political orientation. In our era, the type of civilization that the State upholds via law is bourgeois civilization. A particularly egregious example of this phenomenon occurs in Nestlé USA, Inc. v. Doe, 593 U. S. 19-416 (2021). In Nestlé, anonymous citizens of the Ivory Coast sought relief in U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Claims Act, asserting that Nestle USA aided and abetted their childhood enslavement. Justice Thomas, writing for the 8-1 majority, opined that the act did not allow for a U.S. court to deal with the case, as the harm of enslavement occurred in Ivory Coast. What is interesting about this particular case is that Thomas lets the mask slip, revealing that part of the true motivation behind limiting the jurisdiction of U.S. courts is that doing so helps protect capital from suits brought forth from Third World labor:
This suit illustrates the point, for the allegations here implicate a partnership… between the Department of Labor, petitioners, and the Government of Ivory Coast. Under that partnership, petitioners provide material resources and training to cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast—the same kinds of activity that respondents contend make petitioners liable for violations of international law. Companies or individuals may be less likely to engage in intergovernmental efforts if they fear those activities will subject them to private suits [emphasis mine].69
In lay terms, this states that the court should not hear the case because doing so would disincentivize companies from profiting from unfree labor. This case, however, is but one example of the overall trend which one can see generally – namely, that the legal and political system in the United States is, de facto, of the bourgeoisie, by the bourgeoisie, and for the bourgeoisie.
The second claim worth noting is that the existence of the Tribune of the Proletariat is more democratic than these institutions as it involves the political expropriation of the few by the many, while the existing US institutions function to facilitate the opposite. To see this, it is helpful to establish a historical analogy between politics and economics. In Chapter 32 of Capital, Marx emphasized that the process of primitive accumulation, which uproots peasants and serfs from the land and transforms them into wage-laborers, also transforms the property relations of the society in which it occurs to capitalist property relations.70 While this transformation at first creates private property, it also introduces the economic logic which incentivizes cooperation between workers, division of labor, the use of machinery, and the concentration of capital. As such, individual private property becomes, under capitalism, de facto social insofar as it is reliant upon the labor-power of other individuals. This increasing centralization of capital into fewer hands causes more and more people to join the ranks of the proletariat and increases the socialization of the production process. At this point, the negation of the negation would occur. Instead of capital expropriating the many laborers and converting them into proletarians, the proletariat expropriates capital and socializes the production process. What Marx highlighted here is that the expropriation of primitive accumulation is “the expropriation of the mass of people by a few usurpers”71 while the expropriation the proletariat undertakes involves “the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people.”72
It is this last claim which concerns the Tribune of the Proletariat. The establishment of bourgeois democracy involves the extirpation of political power from a great mass of people. The courts in the United States, for example, are not only modeled on aristocracies and are de jure immune from most public pressure, but have de facto been reduced to mere functionaries of capital. While much of the self-aggrandizing mythos of the United States involves repeating the claim that the U.S. is a democratic society, its constitution was intentionally set up to limit the extent to which direct democracy can influence the law. Madison’s Federalist No. 10, in fact, argues that the system of indirect representation that the U.S. Constitution sets up is superior to direct democracy because the former can more effectively quell the effects of factionalism.73 Add to the system of indirect representation undemocratic elements such as the Supreme Court, Senate, and Electoral College, and one can see that despite the mythologizing of the United States as the land of the free, popular sovereignty is far from universal.
On the other hand, the establishment of the Tribune of the Proletariat would revive political power among the working classes. It does not limit membership to those in geographically arbitrary areas (as is the case in the Senate), or to those who hold judicial appointments and admittance to the bar (as in the case of the U.S. court system), but only to those in a small economic class. It is a democratic institution which entrusts the demos. For this reason, its establishment would entail a higher and purer form of democracy than the one which most governments today practice.
The leftist objection is that an office like the Tribune of the Proletariat would serve to ossify existing economic relations rather than challenge them. By mandating that only those who are proletarians (i.e., those wage-workers who sell labor-power to survive) can vote, one is mandating that the purchase and sale of labor-power continue, and thereby continues the very same capitalist exploitation which is the economic expression of fascism.
The response to such an objection is that it has not engaged with Machiavelli thoroughly enough. If Machiavelli is correct that the commoners agitate simply because they wish not to be ruled over, then the existence of such an office is no trouble whatsoever, as the office would simply be a political tool by which the proletariat could abolish the exploitation of labor-power that occurs in capitalist production. The office of the Tribune of the Proletariat thus functions as Wittgenstein’s Ladder. Wittgenstein thought it necessary for one to use his theory of language to transcend the fashionable nonsense of the time. Once used, though, the theory becomes useless and cast aside as a relic in the manner that a ladder used to scale a wall becomes useless after one has scaled it. A socialist should take a similar stance regarding the Tribune of the Proletariat. Its function is to transcend the misery of capital and the wage-relation. Once such economic relations are disposed of, the proletariat must transcend the office, “and then [it] will see the world rightly.”74 In this sense, the office is not abolished, but withers away.
It is customary for authors to summarize what they intend the reader to take away from their written works. This is a custom that I do not wish to violate. I ask readers on the left to contemplate and critique the concepts herein with philosophical vigor and vitality. One further desire I have is that this article may inspire leftists to examine the specific role that law, judicial institutions, and the state play in reinforcing class domination. It is also my intent here to affirm Marx’s dictum that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is, to change it.”75 The establishment of a tribune of the proletariat would not only change the world, but it would also be a vehicle for further changes.
More liberal readers will read my arguments with more skepticism. To them, I say that the historical facts which I have laid forth here support the notion that worker empowerment is the most effective antidote to the disease of fascism. An antifascism that does not seek to establish and expand workers’ power in both political and economic affairs is an antifascism that is as effective as attempting to use a scalpel to cut down a Redwood.
To all readers, I encourage the most ruthless criticism of all that I have written here. Facts are stubborn things, as Lenin liked to say, and I must grapple with them as much as any other person.
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- I presented an earlier version of this article at the 8th Tarbiat Modares University Student Philosophy Conference, where Prof. Bernard Reginster (Brown) provided commentary. I am furthermore indebted to the following people: Prof. Enrico Minardi (ASU), Prof. Clara Mattei (The New School) for sending me a copy of her paper, as well as the editorial staff of Cosmonaut.
- Niccolò Machiavelli, Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, trans. mine, (Milano: BUR Rizzoli, 2018), I.V.14, p. 74.
- Ibid., I.XXXVII.22, p. 142.
- Ibid., I.IV.8, p. 71-2.
- Ibid., I.XVII.11, p. 140.
- Ibid., I.XXXVII.21-7, p. 142.
- Ibid., I.V.8, p. 73.
- Ibid., I.XXXVII.7, p. 140.
- Ibid., I.XXXVII.22, p. 142.
- Machiavelli, Discorsi, I.XXXVII.23, p. 142.
- Ibid., I.IV.9, p. 72.
- Ibid., I.V.4, p. 72-3
- Ibid., I.V.9., p. 73
- Ibid., I.LV.18, p. 175.
- Ibid., I.LV.19, p. 175.
- Ibid., I.LV.17, p. 175.
- Ibid., I.LV.22, p. 175.
- Ibid., I.LV.23, p. 175.
- Antonio Negri, Maurizia Boscagli, e Michael Hardt, Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State. University of Minnesota Press, 2009, p. 68.
- Machiavelli, Discorsi, I.LV.27, p. 176.
- Ibid., I.XLIX.2., p. 162.
- Ibid., I.XLIX.7, p. 163.
- Ibid., I.XLIX.11, p. 163.
- Ibid., I.XLIX.12, p. 164.
- Ibid., I.XLIX.14, p. 164.
- Negri, Insurgencies, p. 68.
- Ibid., 65.
- See Karl Marx, “Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” in Selected Writings (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, Inc., 1994), 211.
- The following brief summary of the development of Italian fascism is mostly a series of historical facts. I nonetheless have written another summary of these events in an article entitled “The Folly of Horseshoe Theory” for Diginativ. Sadly, the magazine’s website is now defunct. To that end, I have uploaded the text of the article to the following WordPress website: https://languageonholiday.wordpress.com/2022/03/10/the-folly-of-horseshoe-theory
- See Amadeo Bordiga, “Report on Fascism,” (Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 16 November 1922) from Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (Haymarket Books), p. 403-23. Note that the version used lacks pagination, and thus I cannot provide page numbers. https://www.marxists.org/archive/bordiga/works/1922/bordiga02.htm
- Ibid., cf.
- Ibid., cf.
- Antonio Gramsci, “The Two Fascisms,” Ordine Nuovo (25 August 1921), https://www.marxists.org/archive/gramsci/1921/08/two_fascisms.htm
- Umberto Eco, Il fascismo eterno trans. mine, (Milano: La nave di Teseo, 2017), 30.
- Clara E. Mattei, “Austerity and Repressive Politics: Italian Economists in the Early Years of the Fascist Government,” The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, June 2015, 6-9. DOI:10.1080/09672567.2017.1301510
- Carta del lavoro, trans. mine, dipartimento di Storia dell’Università degli Studi di Milano, 21 aprile 1927, III, https://web.archive.org/web/20110722063713/http://www.historia.unimi.it/sezione/fonti/codificazione/cartalavoro.pdf
- Ibid., X.
- Ibid., VII.
- Ibid., IX.
- Claudio Natoli, “GUERRA CIVILE O CONTRORIVOLUZIONE PREVENTIVA? RIFLESSIONI SUL «BIENNIO ROSSO» E SULL’AVVENTO AL POTERE DEL FASCISMO,” Studi Storici 53, no. 1 (2012): 206. www.jstor.org/stable/41637904
- Mattei, “Austerity and Repressive Politics,” 13-5.
- Maffeo Pantaleoni, “Una causa della crisi italiana” from Bolscevismo italiano trans. mine, (Bari: Gius. Laterza & figli, 1922), 26. https://archive.org/details/BolscevismoItaliano/page/n1/mode/2up
- Ibid., 35.
- Ibid., 36.
- Mattei, “Austerity and Repressive Politics,” 2.
- Ibid., 10.
- Machiavelli, Discorsi, I.XXVI.2, p. 121.
- Ibid., I.IV, p. 70-2 e VI, p. 75-9.
- Ibid., I.XXXVII.22, p. 142.
- Ibid., I.XXXIX.1, p. 145
- Ibid., I.II.10, p. 65.
- Ibid., I.LV.35, p. 177.
- Negri, Insurgencies, 68,9.
- Umberto Eco, Il fascismo eterno trans. mine, (Milano: La nave di Teseo, 2017), p. 41
- Ibid., 39.
- Ibid., 37.
- Negri, Insurgencies, p. 79,0
- Machiavelli, Discorsi, I.XXXIX, p. 145.
- Written with the pun on Lenin’s work intended.
- Jonah Martell, “Fight the Constitution! Demand a New Republic!” Cosmonaut, 25 March 2021, https://cosmonautmag.com/2021/03/fight-the-constitution-demand-a-new-republic/
- “Historical Population Change Data (1910-2020),” The United States Census, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/dec/popchange-data-text.html
- Antonio Gramsci, “The Conception of Law” from Selections from the Prison Notebooks, (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 246.
- Nestlé USA, Inc. v. Doe, 593 U. S.19-416 (2021), on 9. https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/20pdf/19-416_i4dj.pdf
- Karl Marx, Capital, (London: Wordsworth Classics of World Literature, 2013), 533.
- Ibid., 535.
- James Madison, Federalist No. 10, (1787), https://billofrightsinstitute.org/primary-sources/federalist-no-10
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (side-by-side edition, Boston: University of Massachusetts, 2021), prop. 6.54, p. 110. https://people.umass.edu/klement/tlp/tlp.pdf
- Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” from Selected Writings, 101.