A Makeover for Machiavelli

For over a decade now, John P. McCormick has worked to reintroduce political theorists to Niccolò Machiavelli. Alleging that existing scholarship misrepresents Machiavelli by underplaying his populism, McCormick’s own contributions have aimed at establishing the Florentine as a radical and uncompromising proponent of democracy. At the heart of this effort has stood the observation that Machiavelli’s political world is a fundamentally conflictual one, driven by the incessant clash of grandi and popolo. But whereas others have read Machiavelli as providing a mixed assessment of these groups and recommending that states organize themselves in ways that manage them advantageously, McCormick presents Machiavelli as being unambiguously and unreservedly aligned with the people.

Notwithstanding the author’s insistence that Machiavelli’s radical populism has been overlooked, one can find versions of this interpretation in seminal readings of The Prince (1532) and the Discourses on Livy (1531), most notably those of Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser.[1] What sets McCormick’s work apart is rather the swell of moral accusation that buoys it along, which he attributes to Machiavelli and directs at his own scholarly rivals. Unlike the clinical analysis of revolutionary class struggle developed by Machiavelli’s Marxist interpreters, McCormick stirs outrage at injustices perpetrated by the rich throughout history, converting Machiavelli’s often spare accounts of elite manipulation and abuse into vehement denunciations. Moreover, McCormick absorbs the ongoing interpretive debate into this moralizing narrative, alleging that Machiavelli’s true convictions have been suppressed by academics propagandizing on behalf of oligarchy—a scheme that McCormick himself is determined to unmask and expose.

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