The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom - by James Burnham

Part I - DANTE: POLITICS AS WISH

The Formal Meaning of De Monarchia

Taking the treatise at face value and judging it as a study of politics, it is worthless, totally worthless. With this, it might seem that no more could, or ought to be, said about De Monarchia. Such a conclusion, however, would show a thorough failure to understand the nature of a work of this kind. So far we have been considering only the formal meaning of the treatise. But this formal meaning, the meaning which is explicitly stated, is the least important aspect of De Monarchia. The formal meaning, besides what it explicitly states when taken at face value, serves to express, in an indirect and disguised manner, what may be called the real meaning of the essay.

By “real meaning” I refer to the meaning not in terms of the mythical world of religion, metaphysics, miracles, and pseudo-history (which is the world of the formal meaning of De Monarchia), but in terms of the actual world of space, time, and events. To understand the real meaning, we cannot take the words at face value nor confine our attention to what they explicitly state; we must fit them into the specific context of Dante’s times and his own life. It is characteristic of De Monarchia, and of all similar treatises, that there should be this divorce between formal and real meanings, that the formal meaning should not explicitly state but only indirectly express, and to one or another extent hide and distort, the real meaning. The real meaning is thereby rendered irresponsible, since it is not subject to open and deliberate intellectual control; but the real meaning is nonetheless there.

The Real Meaning of De Monarchia

The entire formal meaning, which has told us nothing and proved nothing, assumes its genuine role of merely expressing and disguising the real meaning. This real meaning is simply an impassioned propagandistic defense of the point of view of the turncoat Bianchi exiles from Florence, specifically; and more generally of the broader Ghibelline point of view to which these Bianchi capitulated. De Monarchia is, we might say, a Ghibelline Party Platform.

It should not be imagined, however, that this point of view is argued rationally, that there is offered in its favor any proof or evidence, that any demonstration is attempted to show that its acceptance would contribute to human welfare. The proof and evidence and demonstration, such as they are, are all devoted to the mysteries of the formal meaning. The real meaning is expressed and projected indirectly through the formal meaning, and is supported by nothing more than emotion, prejudice, and confusion. The real aims are thus intellectually irresponsible, subject to no intellectual check or control. Even if they were justifiable, the case for them is in no degree established. The ostensible goals of the formal argument are noble, high-minded, what people often call “idealistic.” This serves to create a favorable emotional response in the reader, to disarm him, to lead him to believe in the “good will” of the author. The unwary reader carries this attitude over to the practical aims of the real argument. But what of these latter aims, what do they concretely amount to? When we dig behind the formal façade, they emerge as vengeful and reactionary. There is an intellectual advantage in separating the two, the poetry and the politics, for judgment.

The Typical Method of Political Thought

  1. There is a sharp divorce between what I have called the formal meaning, the formal aims and arguments, and the real meaning, the real aims and argument (if there is, as there is usually not, any real argument)

  2. The formal aims and goals are for the most part or altogether either supernatural or metaphysical-transcendental—in both cases meaningless from the point of view of real actions in the real world of space and time and history; or, if they have some empirical meaning, are impossible to achieve under the actual conditions of social life. In all three cases, the dependence of the whole structure of reasoning upon such goals makes it impossible for the writer (or speaker) to give a true descriptive account of the way men actually behave. A systematic distortion of the truth takes place. And, obviously, it cannot be shown how the goals might be reached, since, being unreal, they cannot be reached.

  3. From a purely logical point of view, the arguments offered for the formal aims and goals may be valid or fallacious; but, except by accident, they are necessarily irrelevant to real political problems, since they are designed to prove the ostensible points of the formal structure—points of religion or metaphysics, or the abstract desirability of some utopian ideal.

  4. The formal meaning serves as an indirect expression of the real meaning—that is, of the concrete meaning of the political treatise taken in its real context, in its relation to the actualities of the social and historical situation in which it functions. But at the same time that it expresses, it also disguises the real meaning. We think we are debating universal peace, salvation, a unified world government, and the relations between Church and State, when what is really at issue is whether the Florentine Republic is to be run by its own citizens or submitted to the exploitation of a reactionary foreign monarch. We think, with the delegates at the Council of Nicea, that the discussion is concerned with the definition of God’s essence, when the real problem is whether the Mediterranean world is to be politically centralized under Rome, or divided. We believe we are disputing the merits of a balanced budget and a sound currency when the real conflict is deciding what group shall regulate the distribution of the currency. We imagine we are arguing over the moral and legal status of the principle of the freedom of the seas when the real question is who is to control the seas.

  5. From this it follows that the real meaning, the real goal and aims, are left irresponsible. In Dante’s case the aims were also vicious and reactionary. This need not be the case, but, when this method is used, they are always irresponsible. Even if the real aims are such as to contribute to human welfare, no proof or evidence for this is offered. Proof and evidence, so far as they are present at all, remain at the formal level. The real aims are accepted, even if right, for the wrong reasons. The high-minded words of the formal meaning serve only to arouse passion and prejudice and sentimentality in favor of the disguised real aims.

This method, whose intellectual consequence is merely to confuse and hide, can teach us nothing of the truth, can in no way help us to solve the problems of our political life. In the hands of the powerful and their spokesmen, however, used by demagogues or hypocrites or simply the self-deluded, this method is well designed, and the best, to deceive us, and to lead us by easy routes to the sacrifice of our own interests and dignity in the service of the mighty.

Part II - MACHIAVELLI: THE SCIENCE OF POWER

Machiavelli’s Practical Goal

There are certain goals which are peculiar and proper to science, without which science does not exist. These are: the accurate and systematic description of public facts; the attempt to correlate sets of these facts in laws; and, through these correlations, the attempt to predict, with some degree of probability, future facts. Many scientific investigations do not try to go beyond these special goals; nor is there any need for them to do so. In the field of historical, social, and political science, as in other sciences, these goals might be, and sometimes are, alone relevant. But without these goals, whether or not there are also others, an inquiry is not scientific. These special goals of science are not present in De Monarchia. They could not be served by Dante’s methods. In Machiavelli’s writings, in contrast, they are always present, and they control the logic of his investigations.

Though our practical goals may dictate the direction that scientific activity takes, though they show us what we are trying to accomplish by the scientific investigation, what problem we are trying to solve; nevertheless, the logic of the scientific inquiry itself is not controlled by the practical aims but by science’s own aims, by the effort to describe facts and to correlate them. In this respect, too, Dante violates the demand of science. His treatise is merely the elaborate projection of his wish. It tells us nothing.

Machiavelli’s chief immediate practical goal is the national unification of Italy. There are other practical aims in his writings, some of them more general, and I shall discuss them later on. To make Italy a nation, a unified state, is, however, central and constant. There is nothing ambiguous about this goal of making Italy a nation. Anyone, reading Machiavelli, could accept it or reject it, and, doing so, would know exactly what he was accepting or rejecting. There are no dreams or ghosts in Machiavelli. He lives and writes in the daylight world.

Almost all commentators on Machiavelli say that his principal innovation, and the essence of his method, was to “divorce politics from ethics.” Thereby he broke sharply with the Aristotelian tradition which had dominated medieval political thought. His method, they grant, freed politics to become more scientific and objective in its study of human behavior; but it was most dangerous because, through it, politics was released from “control” by ethical conceptions of what is right and good. We have already seen enough to realize that this opinion is confused. Machiavelli divorced politics from ethics only in the same sense that every science must divorce itself from ethics. Scientific descriptions and theories must be based upon the facts, the evidence, not upon the supposed demands of some ethical system. If this is what is meant by the statement that Machiavelli divorced politics from ethics, if the statement sums up his refusal to pervert and distort political science by doctoring its results in order to bring them into line with “moral principles”—his own or any others—then the charge is certainly true.

This very refusal, however, this allegiance to objective truth, is itself a moral ideal. Moreover, in another sense, Machiavelli undertook his studies of politics for the sake of very definite goals, one of which I have analyzed in this section. These goals, like all goals, have an ethical content: indeed, ethics is simply the consideration of human behavior from the point of view of goals, standards, norms, and ideals. Machiavelli divorced politics from a certain kind of ethics—namely, from a transcendental, otherworldly, and, it may be added, very rotten ethics. But he did so in order to bring politics and ethics more closely into line, and to locate both of them firmly in the real world of space and time and history, which is the only world about which we can know anything. Machiavelli is as ethical a political writer as Dante. The difference is that Machiavelli’s ethics are much better.

Machiavelli’s Method

Machiavelli’s method is the method of science applied to politics. Naturally, Machiavelli’s conceptions often seem to us somewhat immature—we know so much more than Machiavelli knew. We must make our judgment in a proper historical perspective, remembering that he wrote more than four centuries ago. In those days, scientific method in our sense, deliberate, systematic, self-conscious, was only beginning.

Positively, then, in the first place, we find that Machiavelli uses language in a cognitive, scientific manner. That is, except where he is frankly urging his readers to action, he uses words not in order to express his emotions or attitudes, but in such a way that their meaning can be tested, can be understood in terms of the real world. We always know what he is talking about. This, a requirement for all scientific discourse, is in political and social discussion an achievement of the very first rank.

Second, Machiavelli delineates with sufficient clarity the field of politics. What are we talking about when we talk politics? Many, to judge by what they write, seem to think we are talking about man’s search for the ideally good society, or his mutual organization for the maximum social welfare, or his natural aspiration for peace and harmony, or something equally removed from the world as it is and has been. Machiavelli understood politics as primarily the study of the struggles for power among men. By so marking its field, we are assured that there is being discussed something that exists, not something spun out of an idealist’s dreams, or nightmares. If our interest is in man as he is on this earth, so far as we can learn from the facts of history and experience, we must conclude that he has no natural aspiration for peace or harmony, he does not form states in order to achieve an ideally good society, nor does he accept mutual organization to secure the maximum social welfare. But men, and groups of men, do, by various means, struggle among themselves for relative increases in power and privilege. In the course of these struggles and as part of them, governments are established and overthrown, laws passed and violated, wars fought and won and lost. A definition is arbitrary, true enough, but Machiavelli’s implied definition of the field of politics as the struggle for power is at least insurance against nonsense.

Third, Machiavelli assembles, and with some measure of system, a large number of facts: facts drawn from his reading in the historical works available to him, from what others, prominent in the politics of his own day, have told him, and from what he has himself observed during his own active political career. In any field except politics, such a procedure might seem too obvious to deserve comment. But in writing about politics, the usual approach is that of Dante, starting not with observed facts, but with supposed general principles governing the nature of man, society, and the universe. Conclusions are reached by deductions from the principles; if facts disagree, so much the worse for the facts. For Machiavelli, the facts come first; questions are answered by appeal to them as final court. If they disclose that successful rulers lie frequently and break treaties, then such a generalization takes precedence over an opposite law drawn from some metaphysical dogma which states that all men have an innate love of the truth, or from an optimistic, unexamined hope that in the long run truth triumphs over lies. For Machiavelli, when the facts decide, it is the principles that must be scrapped.

Fourth, Machiavelli is always attempting to correlate sets of facts into generalizations or laws. He is interested not alone or primarily in the individual, unique political event, but in laws relating events. He does not suppose that it will be possible for him to formulate, at that primitive stage of political science, universal laws covering the whole realm of politics. But he evidently thinks it possible to state approximate generalizations about many kinds of political event.

Finally, though this is not strictly part of the logic of scientific method, we feel everywhere in Machiavelli, in every line and chapter, an intense and dominant passion for the truth. Whatever other interests and goals he may have, to this all the rest are, if need be, subordinated. No prejudice, no weighty tradition, no authority, no emotional twist is enough to lead him to temper his inquiry into the truth, so far as he can discover it.

In general summary of Machiavelli’s method, we may recall the distinction between formal and real meaning which I defined in analyzing De Monarchia. It is a characteristic of Machiavelli’s writing, as of all scientific discourse, that this distinction is inapplicable. Formal meaning and real meaning are one. There is no hidden meaning, no undisclosed purpose. This is why, where Machiavelli is wrong, it is easy to correct him; and why he cannot deceive us.

Political Man

There have been many critical discussions about Machiavelli’s supposed views on “human nature.” Some defend him, but he is usually charged with a libel upon mankind, with having a perverted, shocking, and detestable notion of what human beings are like. These discussions, however, are beside the point. Machiavelli has no views on human nature; or, at any rate, none is presented in his writings. Machiavelli is neither a psychologist nor a moral philosopher, but a political scientist. It is clear from a study of Machiavelli that what he is trying to analyze is not “man” but “political man,” in somewhat the same way that Adam Smith analyzed “economic man.”

First, he implies everywhere a rather sharp distinction between two types of political man: a “ruler-type,” we might call one, and a “ruled-type,” the other. The first type would include not merely those who at any moment occupy leading positions in society, but those also who aspire to such positions or who might so aspire if opportunity offered; the second consists of those who neither lead nor are capable of becoming leaders. The second is the great majority. There is a certain arbitrariness in any such distinction as this, and obviously the exact line between the two groups is hazy. Nevertheless, it is clear that Machiavelli—and all those, moreover, who write in the tradition of Machiavelli—thinks that the distinction reflects a basic fact of political life, that active political struggle is confined for the most part to a small minority of men, that the majority is and remains, whatever else happens, the ruled.

When Machiavelli concludes that no man is perfectly good or bad, he is not making a primarily moral judgment. He means, more generally, that all men make mistakes at least sometimes, that there are no super-men, that no man is always intelligent and judicious, that even the stupid have occasional moments of brilliance, that men are not always consistent, that they are variable and variously motivated. Obvious as such reflections may seem, they are easily forgotten in the realm of political action, which is alone in question. The tendency, in political judgments, is toward black and white: the leader, or the proletariat, or the people, or the party, or the great captain is always right; the bosses or the crowd or the government, always wrong. From such reasoning flow not a few shocks and dismays at turns of events that might readily have been anticipated. The ruled majority, changeable, weak, short-sighted, selfish, is not at all, for Machiavelli, the black to the rulers’ white. Indeed, for him, the ruler-type is even less constant, less loyal, and on many occasions less intelligent.

There are, however, certain common characteristics that mark the rulers and potential rulers, and divide them from the majority that is fated always to be ruled. In the first place, the ruler-type has what Machiavelli calls virtù, what is so improperly translated as “virtue.” Virtù is a word, in Machiavelli’s language, that has no English equivalent. It includes in its meaning part of what we refer to as “ambition,” “drive,” “spirit” in the sense of Plato’s θυμός, the “will to power.” Those who are capable of rule are above all those who want to rule. They drive themselves as well as others; they have that quality which makes them keep going, endure amid difficulties, persist against dangers.

The ruler-type has, usually, strength, especially martial strength. War and fighting are the great training ground of rule, Machiavelli believes, and power is secure only on the basis of force. Even more universal a quality of the ruler-type, however, is fraud. Machiavelli’s writings contain numerous discussions of the indispensable role of fraud in political affairs, ranging from analyses of deceptions and stratagems in war to the breaking of treaties to the varied types of fraud met with daily in civil life.

Finally, political man of the ruler-type is skilled at adapting himself to the times. In passage after passage, Machiavelli returns to this essential ability: neither cruelty nor humaneness, neither rashness nor caution, neither liberality nor avarice avails in the struggle for power unless the times are suited.

Machiavelli’s Conception of History

  1. Political life, according to Machiavelli, is never static, but in continual change. There is no way of avoiding this change. Any idea of a perfect state, or even of a reasonably good state, much short of perfection, that could last indefinitely, is an illusion. The process of change is repetitive, and roughly cyclical. That is to say, the pattern of change occurs again and again in history (so that, by studying the past, we learn also about the present and future); and this pattern comprises a more or less recognizable cycle. A good, flourishing, prosperous state becomes corrupt, evil, degenerate; from the corrupt, evil state again arises one that is strong and flourishing. The degeneration can, perhaps, be delayed; but Machiavelli has no confidence that it could be avoided. The very virtues of the good state contain the seeds of its own destruction. The strong and flourishing state is feared by all neighbors, and is therefore left in peace. War and the ways of force are neglected. The peace and prosperity breed idleness, luxury, and license; these, political corruption, tyranny, and weakness. The state is overcome by the force of uncorrupted neighbors, or itself enters a new cycle, where hard days and arms purge the corruption, and bring a new strength, a new virtue and prosperity. But once again, the degeneration sets in.

  2. The recurring pattern of change expresses the more or less permanent core of human nature as it functions politically. The instability of all governments and political forms follows in part from the limitless human appetite for power.

  3. Machiavelli assigns a major function in political affairs to what he calls “Fortune.” Sometimes he seems almost to personify Fortune, and, in the manner that lingered on through the Middle Ages from ancient times, to write about her as a goddess. He discusses Fortune not merely in occasional references, but in a number of lengthy passages scattered throughout his works. From these passages it becomes clear what Machiavelli means by “Fortune.” Fortune is all those causes of historical change that are beyond the deliberate, rational control of men. In the case both of individuals and of states, Machiavelli believes that those causes are many, often primary, and in the long run probably dominant. He does not altogether exclude from history the influence of deliberate human control, but he reduces it to a strictly limited range. This conception of Fortune fits in closely with the idea, which we have already noted, that the ruler-type of political man is one who knows how to accommodate to the times. Fortune cannot be overcome, but advantage may be taken of her. Beyond such accommodation (“opportunism,” we might nowadays call it), men and states will make the most of fortune when they display virtù, when they are firm, bold, quick in decision, not irresolute, cowardly, and timid.

  4. Machiavelli believes that religion is essential to the well-being of a state. In discussing religion, as in discussing human nature, Machiavelli confines himself to political function. He is not engaged in theological dispute, nor inquiring whether religion, or some particular religion, is true or false, but trying to estimate the role that religious belief and ritual perform in politics. He is analyzing, we might say in a general sense, “myth,” and myth he finds to be politically indispensable.

  5. What kind of government did Machiavelli think best? Machiavelli’s writings, taken in their entirety, leave no doubt about the answer. Machiavelli thinks that the best kind of government is a republic, what he called a “commonwealth.” Not only does he prefer a republican government; other things being equal, he considers a republic stronger, more enduring, wiser and more flexible than any form of monarchy. Nor does this preference for a republic contradict his conclusion that the leadership of a prince was required for the national unification of Italy. If a republic is the best form of government, it does not follow that a republic is possible at every moment and for all things. Machiavelli’s preferences are always disciplined by the truth. The truth here, as he correctly saw it, was that Italy could not then be unified except, in the initial stages at least, through a prince.

Beyond and superior to his preference among the forms of government, Machiavelli projects his ideal of “liberty.” For any given group of people, “liberty,” as Machiavelli uses the word, means: independence—that is, no external subjection to another group; and, internally, a government by law, not by the arbitrary will of any individual men, princes or commoners. Independence, the first condition of liberty, can be secured in the last analysis only by the armed strength of the citizenry itself, never by mercenaries or allies or money; consequently arms are the first foundation of liberty. There is no lasting safeguard for liberty in anything but one’s own strength. Internally, also, liberty rests on force—on the public force of the state, however, never on force exercised by private individuals or groups, which is invariably a direct threat to liberty. Guaranteed by force, then, internal liberty means government by law, with strict adherence to due legal process. As protectors of liberty, Machiavelli has no confidence in individual men as such; driven by unlimited ambition, deceiving even themselves, they are always corrupted by power. But individuals can, to some extent at least and for a while, be disciplined within the established framework of wise laws. A great deal of the Discourses is a commentary on this problem. In chapter after chapter, Machiavelli insists that if liberty is to be preserved: no person and no magistrate may be permitted to be above the law; there must be legal means for any citizen to bring accusations against any other citizen or any official; terms of office must be short, and must never, no matter what the inconvenience, be lengthened; punishment must be firm and impartial; the ambitions of citizens must never be allowed to build up private power, but must be directed into public channels. Machiavelli is not so naïve as to imagine that the law can support itself. The law is founded upon force, but the force in turn will destroy the law unless it also is bridled; but force can be bridled only by opposing force. Sociologically, therefore, the foundation of liberty is a balancing of forces, what Machiavelli calls a “mixed” government. Since Machiavelli is neither a propagandist nor an apologist, since he is not the demagogue of any party or sect or group, he knows and says how hypocritical are the calls for a “unity” that is a mask for the suppression of all opposition, how fatally lying or wrong are all beliefs that liberty is the peculiar attribute of any single individual or group—prince or democrat, nobles or people or “multitude.” Only out of the continuing clash of opposing groups can liberty flow. This balancing clash of opposed interests will the more surely preserve liberty when the state guards against too great inequality in privilege and wealth. Liberty, then—not the rhetorical liberty of an impossible and misconceived utopia, but such concrete liberty as is, when they are fortunate, within the grasp of real men, with their real limitations—is the dominant ideal of Machiavelli, and his final norm of judgment. Tyranny is liberty’s opposite, and no man has been a clearer foe of tyranny.

Machiavelli’s Reputation

Men are fond of believing that, even though they may for a while be mistaken, yet in the long run they do suitable honor, if not to the persons then at least to the memories, of those who have brought some measure of truth and enlightenment to the world. We may burn an occasional Bruno, imprison a Galileo, denounce a Darwin, exile an Einstein; but time, we imagine, restores judgment, and a new generation recognizes the brave captains of the mind who have dared to advance through the dark barriers of ignorance, superstition, and illusion. Machiavelli was so plainly one of these.

If his detailed conclusions were sometimes wrong, his own method, as the method of science always does, provides the way to correct them. He would be the first to insist on changing any of his views that were refuted by the evidence. Though this is so, Machiavelli’s name does not rank in this noble company. In the common opinion of men, his name itself has become a term of reproach and dishonor. Why should this be? If our reference is to the views that Machiavelli in fact held, that he stated plainly, openly and clearly in his writings, there is in the common opinion no truth at all. We face here what can hardly be, after all these centuries, a mere accident of misunderstanding. There must be some substantial reason why Machiavelli is so consistently distorted.

It might be argued that there have indeed been oppressors and tyrants who learned from Machiavelli how to act more effectively in the furtherance of their designs, and that this justifies the common judgment of his views. But the mere fact that the knowledge made explicit by Machiavelli has been put to bad uses, which is a potential fate of all knowledge, cannot explain why he is singled out for infamy.

We are, I think, and not only from the fate of Machiavelli’s reputation, forced to conclude that men do not really want to know about themselves. When we allow ourselves to be taken in by reasoning after the manner of Dante, we find it easy to believe such remarks as Aristotle made at the beginning of his Metaphysics: “All men naturally desire knowledge”; and to imagine that it is self-evident that knowledge will always be welcomed. But if we examine not what follows from some abstract metaphysical principle but how men behave, some doubts arise. Even in the case of the physical world, knowledge must often hammer long at the door. Where they are themselves the subject-matter, men still keep the door resolutely shut. It may be that they are right in this resistance. Perhaps the full disclosure of what we really are and how we act is too violent a medicine.

In any case, whatever may be the desires of most men, it is most certainly against the interests of the powerful that the truth should be known about political behavior. If the political truths stated or approximated by Machiavelli were widely known by men, the success of tyranny and all the other forms of oppressive political rule would become much less likely. A deeper freedom would be possible in society than Machiavelli himself believed attainable. If men generally understood as much of the mechanism of rule and privilege as Machiavelli understood, they would no longer be deceived into accepting that rule and privilege, and they would know what steps to take to overcome them. Therefore the powerful and their spokesmen—all the “official” thinkers, the lawyers and philosophers and preachers and demagogues and moralists and editors—must defame Machiavelli. Machiavelli says that rulers lie and break faith: this proves, they say, that he libels human nature. Machiavelli says that ambitious men struggle for power: he is apologizing for the opposition, the enemy, and trying to confuse you about us, who wish to lead you for your own good and welfare. Machiavelli says that you must keep strict watch over officials and subordinate them to the law: he is encouraging subversion and the loss of national unity. Machiavelli says that no man with power is to be trusted: you see that his aim is to smash all your faith and ideals. Small wonder that the powerful—in public—denounce Machiavelli. The powerful have long practice and much skill in sizing up their opponents. They can recognize an enemy who will never compromise, even when that enemy is so abstract as a body of ideas.

Part III - MOSCA: THE THEORY OF THE RULING CLASS

The Machiavellian Tradition

Machiavelli lived and wrote during a great social revolution, through which feudal society, its economy, political arrangement, and culture, were being replaced by the first stage of capitalist society. We also live during a great social revolution, a revolution through which capitalist society is being replaced by what I have elsewhere defined as “managerial society.” It is, perhaps, the close analogy between our age and Machiavelli’s that explains why the Machiavellian tradition, after centuries during which it was either neglected or misunderstood or merely repeated, has, in recent decades, been notably revived.

In a revolutionary transition, the struggle for power, which, during years of social stability, is often hidden or expressed through indirect and undramatic forms, becomes open and imperious. Machiavellism is concerned with politics, that is, with the struggle for power. It seems natural, therefore, that its first appearance as well as its revival should be correlated with social revolution. The revolutionary crisis makes men, or at least a certain number of men, discontent with what in normal times passes for political thought and science—namely, disguised apologies for the status quo or utopian dreams of the future; and compels them to face more frankly the real issues of power: some because they wish to understand more clearly the nature of the world of which they are a part, others because they wish also to discover whether and in what way they might be able to control that world in the furtherance of their own ideals.

Gaetano Mosca, like all Machiavellians, rejects any monistic view of history—that is, any theory of history which holds that there is one single cause that accounts for everything that happens in society. Mosca himself holds what is sometimes called an “interdependence” theory of historical causation: the view that there are a number of important factors that determine historical change, that no one of these can be considered solely decisive, that they interact upon each other, with changes in one field affecting and in turn being affected by changes in others. He makes his critique of historical monism in order to break down abstract approaches to history, to do away with preconceptions of how things ought to be, and to force a concrete examination of the facts in each specific problem rather than an adjustment of the facts to fit the requirements of some schematic theory. Monistic theories of history, he believes, are a great obstacle to a recognition of the facts.

The Ruling Class

It is characteristic of Machiavellian political analysis to be “anti-formal,” using “formal” in the sense which I have defined in the discussion of Dante’s De Monarchia. That is, Machiavellians, in their investigations of political behavior, do not accept at face value what men say, think, believe, or write. Whether it is the speech or letter or book of an individual, or a public document such as a constitution or set of laws or a party platform, Machiavellians treat it as only one fact among the larger set of social facts, and interpret its meaning always in relation to these other facts. In some cases, examination shows that the words can be accepted just as they stand; more often, as we found with De Monarchia, a divorce between formal and real meaning is discovered, with the words distorting and disguising the real political behavior which they indirectly express.

This anti-formal approach leads Mosca to note as a primary and universal social fact the existence of two “political classes,” a ruling class—always a minority—and the ruled. By the theory of the ruling class Mosca is refuting two widespread errors which, though the opposite of each other, are oddly enough often both believed by the same person. The first, which comes up in discussions of tyranny and dictatorship and is familiar in today’s popular attacks on contemporary tyrants, is that society can be ruled by a single individual. The other error, typical of democratic theory, is that the masses, the majority, can rule themselves.

Within the ruling class, it is usually possible to distinguish roughly two layers: a very small group of “top leaders,” who among themselves occupy the highest and key positions of the society; and a much larger group of secondary figures—a “middle class,” as it could properly be called—who, though not so prominent nor so much in the limelight, constitute the day-to-day active directors of the community life. Just as Mosca believes that the individual supreme leader is unimportant to the fate of a society, compared to the ruling class, so does he believe that this secondary level of the ruling class is, in the long run at least, more decisive than the top.

From the point of view of the theory of the ruling class, a society is the society of its ruling class. A nation’s strength or weakness, its culture, its powers of endurance, its prosperity, its decadence, depend in the first instance upon the nature of its ruling class. More particularly, the way in which to study a nation, to understand it, to predict what will happen to it, requires first of all and primarily an analysis of the ruling class. Political history and political science are thus predominantly the history and science of ruling classes, their origin, development, composition, structure, and changes. The theory of the ruling class in this way provides a principle with the help of which the innumerable and otherwise amorphous and meaningless facts of political life can be systematically assembled and made intelligible.

In stating the theory of the ruling class, Mosca is not making a moral judgment, is not arguing that it is good, or bad, that mankind should be divided into rulers and ruled. I recently read, in a review by a well-known journalist, that “this country will never accept a theory of the élite”—as if it is wicked to talk about such things, and noble to denounce them. The scientific problem, however, is not whether this country or any other will accept such theories, but whether the theories are true. Mosca believes that the stratification of society into rulers and ruled is universal and permanent, a general form of political life. As such it would be absurd to call it good or bad; it is simply the way things are. Moral values, goodness and badness, justice and injustice, are indeed to be found, and Mosca does not try to avoid making moral judgments; but they are meaningful only within the permanent structure of society. Granted that there are always rulers and ruled, then we may judge that the societies of some ruling classes are good, or more good, just, or less unjust, than others.

Composition and Character of the Ruling Class

These qualities—a capacity for hard work, ambition (Machiavelli’s virtù), a certain callousness, luck in birth and circumstances—are those that help toward membership in any ruling class at any time in history. In addition, however, there is another group of qualities that are variable, dependent upon the particular society in question. “Members of a ruling minority regularly have some attribute, real or apparent, which is highly esteemed and very influential in the society in which they live.” To mention simple examples: in a society which lives primarily by fishing, the expert fisherman has an advantage; the skilled warrior, in a predominantly military society; the able priest, in a profoundly religious group; and so on. Considered as keys to rule, such qualities as these are variable; if the conditions of life change, they change, for when religion declines, the priest is no longer so important, or when fishing changes to agriculture, the fisherman naturally drops in the social scale. Thus, changes in the general conditions of life are correlated with far-reaching changes in the composition of the ruling class.

The various sections of the ruling class express or represent or control or lead what Mosca calls social forces, which are continually varying in number and importance. By “social force” Mosca means any human activity which has significant social and political influence. In primitive societies, the chief forces are ordinarily war and religion.

From this point of view, it may be seen that the relation of a ruling class to the society which it rules need not be at all arbitrary; in fact, in the long run cannot be. A given ruling class rules over a given society precisely because it is able to control the major social forces that are active within that society. If a social force—religion, let us say—declines in importance, then the section of the ruling class whose position was dependent upon control of religion likewise, over a period, declines. If the entire ruling class had been based primarily upon religion, then the entire ruling class would change its character (if it were able to adapt itself to the new conditions) or would (if it could not adapt itself) be overthrown. Similarly, if a new major social force develops—commerce, for example, in a previously agricultural society, or applied science—then either the existing ruling class proves itself flexible enough to gain leadership over this new force (in part, no doubt, by absorbing new members into its ranks); or, if it does not, the leadership of the new force grows up outside of the old class, and in time constitutes a revolutionary threat against the old ruling class, challenging it for supreme social and political power. Thus, the growth of new social forces and the decline of old forces is in general correlated with the constant process of change and dislocation in the ruling class.

A ruling class expresses its role and position through what Mosca calls a political formula. This formula rationalizes and justifies its rule and the structure of the society over which it rules. The formula may be a “racial myth,” as in Germany under a Nazi regime or in this country in relation to the Negroes or the yellow races: rule is then explained as the natural prerogative of the superior race. Or it may be a “divine right” doctrine, as in the theories elaborated in connection with absolutist monarchies of the 16th and 17th centuries or traditional Japanese imperialism: then rule is explained as following from a peculiar relationship to divinity, very often in fact from direct blood descent (such formulas were very common in ancient times, and have by no means lost all efficacy). Or, to cite the formula most familiar to us, and functioning now in this country, it is a belief in the “will of the people”: rule is then said to follow legitimately from the will or choice of the people expressed through some type of suffrage.

Tendencies in the Ruling Class

Within all ruling classes, Mosca shows that it is possible to distinguish two “principles,” as he calls them, and two “tendencies.” These are, it might be said, the developmental laws of ruling classes. Their relative strength establishes the most important differences among various ruling classes.

The “autocratic” principle may be distinguished from the “liberal” principle. These two principles regulate, primarily, the method by which governmental officials and social leaders are chosen. “In any form of political organization, authority is either transmitted from above downward in the political or social scale [the autocratic principle], or from below upward [the liberal principle].” (P. 394.) Neither principle violates the general law that society is divided into a ruling minority and a majority that is ruled; the liberal principle does not mean, no matter how extended, that the masses in fact rule, but simply gives a particular form to the selection of leadership. Moreover, it is seldom, probably never, that one of the two principles operates alone within a ruling class. They are usually mixed, with one or the other dominant. Certain absolute monarchies or tyrannies show the closest approximation to a purely autocratic principle, with all positions formally dependent upon appointment by the despot. Some small city-states, such as Athens at certain times in its history, have come very close to a purely liberal principle, with all officials chosen from below—though the voters were at the same time a restricted group. In the United States, as in most representative governments of the modern kind, both principles are actively at work. The greater part of the bureaucracy and much of the judiciary, especially the Federal judiciary, is an expression of the autocratic principle; the President himself, as well as the members of Congress, are selected according to the liberal mode. Each principle in practice displays typical advantages and defects.

The distinction which Mosca makes between the “aristocratic” and “democratic” tendencies is independent of his distinction between the autocratic and liberal principles. Aristocratic and democratic, as Mosca uses the terms, refer to the sources from which new members of the ruling class are drawn. “The term ‘democratic’ seems more suitable for the tendency which aims to replenish the ruling class with elements deriving from the lower classes, and which is always at work, openly or latently and with greater or lesser intensity, in all political organisms. ‘Aristocratic’ we would call the opposite tendency, which also is constant and varies in intensity, and which aims to stabilize social control and political power in the descendants of the class that happens to hold possession of it at the given historical moment.”

In terms of this definition, there can be, as there have often been, in spite of common opinion to the contrary, autocracies which are primarily democratic in tendency, and liberal systems which are largely aristocratic.

The Best and Worst Governments

Mosca, like Machiavelli, does not stop with the descriptive analysis of political life. He states plainly his own preferences, his opinions about what types of government are best, what worst.

Again following Machiavelli, the dominant element in Mosca’s conception of that “relative justice” which he thinks possible as well as desirable is liberty. The meaning of “liberty” he makes more precise by defining it in terms of what he calls “juridical defense.” “The social mechanisms that regulate this disciplining of the moral sense constitute what we call ‘juridical defense’ (respect for law, government by law).… It will further be noted that our view is contrary to the doctrine of Rousseau, that man is good by nature but that society makes him wicked and perverse. We believe that social organization provides for the reciprocal restraint of human individuals by one another and so makes them better, not by destroying their wicked instincts, but by accustoming them to controlling their wicked instincts.”

Juridical defense, then, means government by law and due process—not merely formally, in the words of constitutions or statutes, but in fact; it means a set of impersonal restrictions on those who hold power, and correlatively a set of protections for the individuals against the state and those who have power. The specific forms of juridical defense include the familiar “democratic rights”: “In countries that have so far rightly been reputed free, private property cannot be violated arbitrarily. A citizen cannot be arrested and condemned unless specified rules are observed. Each person can follow the religion of his choice without forfeiture of his civil and political rights. The press cannot be subjected to censorship and is free to discuss and criticize acts of government. Finally, if they conform with certain rules, citizens can meet to engage in discussions of a political character, and they can form associations for the attainment of moral, political or professional ends.”

A firm juridical defense is required for the attainment and maintenance of a relatively high “level of civilization.” Level of civilization is measured, according to Mosca’s definition, by the degree of development and number of social forces: that is, the more social forces there are and the more fully each is developed, the higher the level of a given civilization. A civilization that has an active art, an active literature and commerce and science and industry, a strong army, and a progressive agriculture, is higher than one that concentrates on only one or two of these, or one that is mediocre in most or all of them. Thus, the conception of “level of civilization” can serve as a rough standard for evaluating different cultures.

But what is it that makes possible a high level of juridical defense and of civilization? The mere formal structure of laws and constitutions, or of institutional arrangements, cannot guarantee juridical defense. In real social life, only power can control power. Juridical defense can be secure only where there are at work various and opposing tendencies and forces, and where these mutually check and restrain each other. Tyranny, the worst of all governments, means the loss of juridical defense; and juridical defense invariably disappears whenever one tendency or force in society succeeds in absorbing or suppressing all the others. Those who control the supreme force rule then without restraint. The individual has no protection against them.

From one point of view, the protective balance must be established between the autocratic and liberal principles, and between the aristocratic and democratic tendencies. Monopoly by the aristocratic tendency produces a closed and inflexible caste system, and fossilization; the extreme of democracy brings an unbridled anarchy under which the whole social order flies to pieces. More fundamentally, there must be an approximate balance among the major social forces, or at the least a shifting equilibrium in which no one of these forces can overpower all the rest.

Freedom, in the world as it is, is thus the product of conflict and difference, not of unity and harmony. In these terms we see again the danger of “idealism,” utopianism, and demagogy. The idealists, utopians, and demagogues always tell us that justice and the good society will be achieved by the absolute triumph of their doctrine and their side. The facts show us that the absolute triumph of any side and any doctrine whatsoever can only mean tyranny.

Part IV - SOREL: A NOTE ON MYTH AND VIOLENCE

The Function of Myth

Georges Sorel cannot be considered in all respects a Machiavellian. For one thing, he was a political extremist. Though Machiavellian principles are not committed to any single political program, they do not seem to accord naturally with extremism. Further, Sorel partly repudiates, or seems to repudiate, scientific method, and to grant, in certain connections, the legitimacy of intuition and of a metaphysics derived from the French philosopher, Henri Bergson. To the extent that he rejects science, Sorel is certainly outside the Machiavellian tradition. However, Sorel’s repudiation of scientific method is largely appearance. In reality, he attacks not science, but academic pseudo-science, which he calls the “little science,” that pretends to tell us about the nature of society and politics, but in truth is merely seeking to justify this or that group of power-seekers. Sorel does indeed contend that genuine scientific doctrines are not enough to motivate mass political action; but this conclusion, far from being anti-scientific, is reached by a careful scientific analysis. Moreover, Sorel shares fully what I have called the “anti-formalism” of the Machiavellians, their refusal to take at face value the words and beliefs and ideals of men. In common with other Machiavellians he defines the subject-matter of politics as the struggle for social power; and he makes the same general analysis of the behavior of “political man,” of men, that is to say, as they act in relation to the struggle for power.

In contradistinction to the allegedly “scientific socialism” of the official parties, to their elaborate programs of “immediate demands” and desired reforms, to their lengthy treatises on how socialism will be brought about and what it will be like and how it will work, Sorel insists that the entire revolutionary program must be expressed integrally as a single catastrophic myth: the myth, he maintains, of the “general strike.” The myth of the general strike is formulated in absolute terms: the entire body of workers, of proletarians, ceases work; society is divided into two irrevocably marked camps—the strikers on one side, and all the rest of society on the other; all production wholly ceases; the entire structure of the existing society, and all its institutions, collapse; the workers march back to begin production again, no longer as proletarians, but as free and un-ruled producers; a completely new era of history begins. Only such an all-embracing myth, Sorel believes, can arouse the masses to uncompromising revolutionary action. No detailed rationalistic program, no careful calculation of pros and cons, no estimate of results and consequences, can possibly be efficacious.

A myth, in contrast to hypotheses or utopias, is not either true or false. The facts can never prove it wrong. “The myths are not descriptions of things, but expressions of a determination to act.”

Though the myth is not a scientific theory and is therefore not required to conform to the facts, it is nevertheless not at all arbitrary. Not just any myth will do. A myth that serves to weld together a social group—nation, people, or class—must be capable of arousing their most profound sentiments and must at the same time direct energies toward the solution of the real problems which the group faces in its actual environment.

The Function of Violence

A great myth makes a social movement serious, formidable, and heroic. But this it would not do unless the myth inspired, and was in turn sustained by, violence.

Sorel does not take the ideas of humanitarianism and pacifism at face value. As in the case of any other ideas, he relates them to the historical environment in which they function. Their prominence does not mean that force has been eliminated from social relations: force is always a main factor regulating society. But, under advanced capitalism, much of the force is exercised as it were automatically and impersonally. The whole weight of the capitalist mode of production bears down upon the workers, keeping them in economic, political, and social subjection. From one point of view, the humanitarian chatter serves to obscure the social realities. Still more important, the moral denunciation of violence helps to keep the workers quiet and to prevent them from using their own violent methods in strikes and for the revolution.

The growth of the humanitarian and pacifist ideologies, this effort to hide the force that nevertheless continues operating in vicious and distorted ways, to place reliance for rule upon cunning and fraud and bribery and corruption, rather than frankly used violence, is the mark of a social degeneration. It is not only the masses who are lulled and degraded. The rulers, too, decay. The rulers rule hypocritically, by cheating, without facing the meaning of rule, and a general economic and cultural decline, a social softening, is indicated.

An open recognition of the necessity of violence can reverse the social degeneration. Violence, however, can serve this function, can be kept free from brutality and from mere vengeful force, only if it is linked to a great myth. Myth and violence, reciprocally acting on each other, produce not senseless cruelty and suffering, but sacrifice and heroism.[*] But, by what is only superficially a paradox, the open acceptance of violence, when linked with a great myth, in practice decreases the total amount of actual violence in society. As in the case of the early Christian martyrdoms, which research has shown to have been surprisingly few and minor, the absolute quality of the myth gives a heightened significance to what violence does take place, and at the same time guards against an endless repetition of vulgar brutalities.

Part V - MICHELS: THE LIMITS OF DEMOCRACY

Michels’ Problem

A Machiavellian does not assume, without examination, the desirability of democracy or peace or even of “justice” or any other ideal goal. Before declaring his allegiance, he makes sure that he understands what is being talked about, together with the probable consequences for social welfare and well-being. Above all, no Machiavellian assumes without inquiry that the various goals are possible. A goal must be possible before there is any point in considering it desirable. It is not possible merely because it sounds pleasant or because men want it badly. Before asking, for instance, how democracy can be made to work, we must ask whether in fact it can work, or how far it can work. In general, Machiavellians are very careful to separate scientific questions concerning the truth about society from moral disputes over what type of society is most desirable.

“The present study,” Robert Michels writes in the Preface to the English translation of his masterpiece, Political Parties, “makes no attempt to offer a ‘new system.’ It is not the principal aim of science to create systems, but rather to promote understanding. It is not the purpose of sociological science to discover, or rediscover, solutions, since numerous problems of the individual life and the life of social groups are not capable of ‘solution’ at all, but must ever remain ‘open.’ ” The subject-matter of Political Parties seems, at first, both narrow and pedestrian. The entire book is an analysis of the nature of organization in relation to democracy. This is at the usual Machiavellian distance from those hymns to an earthly heaven which are so regularly turned out by utopian writers. The central question, which Michels asks and answers, might be put as follows: In what ways is the realization of democracy affected by the tendencies inherent in social organization?

Organization into groups and sub-groups—families, totems, tribes, cities, nations, empires, churches, economic classes, clubs, parties—is an altogether universal feature of human life. The general laws or tendencies of organization, then, are part of the very conditions of social existence. There will be no escape from them no matter what alterations occur in economic or political structure; all attainable social goals, good or evil, will lie within the limits set by them. It is these general laws or tendencies of organization that Michels sets out to discover, in particular those tendencies that bear upon the possibility of achieving democracy. In this task, Michels does not, of course, proceed by abstract demonstration from “first principles”; he makes no appeal to metaphysics or theology or the “eternal nature of things” or to what “must be.” Nor does he accept at face value what men say or think or believe they are doing or want to do. He follows, in short, not Dante’s method, but Machiavelli’s. He examines the facts about organizations, what actually happens in real and existing human organizations, past and present. His generalizations are derived solely from these facts.

The Fact of Leadership

Democratic theory is based upon the principle of “self-government”; the persons belonging to a social group are, according to democratic theory, able to, and properly ought to, govern themselves. It is possible to imagine, and even to discover, social groups in which this theory is fully realized. Such would be a small company of adults (half a dozen or so), united for some jointly held purpose (business or recreation or crime, whatever it might be), who shared the same interests and level of culture, and who reached decisions unanimously, after an adequate discussion, by what we call “a meeting of minds.” Certainly such groups, which are not unknown, can be intelligibly said to be practicing, with respect to their organized purpose, “self-government”: their members are, plainly enough, “governing themselves.” However, as soon as the group becomes at all large (and the politically important groups of modern civilized society are very large) it is necessary, still retaining the democratic intention, to introduce arbitrary rules that are not wholly in accord with democratic theory. For example, the “group” has to be re-defined in such a way as to exclude certain individuals who are nevertheless subject to its decisions: children up to a certain arbitrarily determined age, criminals, insane persons, and so on. Usually, it may be added, additional restrictions apply in practice even when not in theory—property and racial and educational restrictions, to mention some of the most prominent. Secondly, since in larger groups we seldom get opinions that are both freely given and unanimous, it is necessary to accept the decision of a numerical majority as the decision of the entire group. Both of these qualifications are obviously unavoidable, and no sensible person could object to them. Nevertheless, it should not be overlooked that they do contradict strict democratic theory, even though it is easy enough for a clever philosopher to patch up the theory in order to allow for them. They are enough to show that strict and full democracy is not possible in practice. However, having noted this, we shall accept them as a legitimate emendation of democratic theory, and go on to inquire whether democracy thus circumscribed is compatible with the facts of organization.

Even if we accept majority opinion as democratically valid for the entire group, it is at once plain that, in the case of large groups, strict or “direct” democracy is impossible for mechanical and technical reasons. A large group cannot itself directly decide about its own affairs because there is no place big enough to permit a large group to assemble for discussion and decision. Even if the group is sufficiently small to be contained within one place, the study of crowd psychology shows that the decisions voted by a large crowd seldom reflect the considered opinions of the constituent members of the crowd. Choices have to be limited to a few simple alternatives, whereas a great number of divergent views may actually be held by various individuals. Only a few speakers can be heard, not all who think they have something to say. The devices of oratory, appeals to irrelevant sentiment, enthusiasm, boredom, and weariness sway the crowd while it remains together. In a large assembly, votes are very often unanimous, by “acclamation,” when a survey of the individuals either before or shortly after the meeting would show large minorities or even a majority against the voted policy.

When an organization grows to a certain size and when its aims have a certain scope and importance, the conduct of the organizational affairs becomes itself a considerable activity. The principle of the division of labor operates. Certain individuals specialize in the tasks peculiar to the organization and its operational life; they devote all or a considerable portion of their time and intelligence to the organization; they perfect themselves in the organizational duties. Once the organization is fairly large and its tasks of even a minimum importance—from those of a country club to those of an imperial state—this development, too, is unavoidable.

To sum up: All of these causes work alike, and inescapably, to create within the organization a leadership. The leadership, a minority and in a large organization always a relatively small minority, is distinguished from the mass of the organization. The organization is able to keep alive and to function only through its leaders.

Democratic theory is compelled to try to adapt itself to the fact of leadership. This it does through the subsidiary theory of “representation.” The group or organization is still “self-governing”; but its self-government works through “representatives.” These have no independent status; what they do or decide merely represents the will of the organization as a whole; the principle of democracy is left intact. This theory of representation is suspiciously simple, and those who are not bewitched by word-magic will guess at the outset that it is brought off by a verbal juggle. Indeed, the basic theorists of modern democracy were themselves more than a little troubled by “representation.” The truth is that sovereignty, which is what—according to democratic principle—ought to be possessed by the mass, cannot be delegated. In making a decision, no one can represent the sovereign, because to be sovereign means to make one’s own decisions. The one thing that the sovereign cannot possibly delegate is its own sovereignty; that would be self-contradictory, and would simply mean that sovereignty has shifted hands. At most, the sovereign could employ someone to carry out decisions which the sovereign itself had already made. But this is not what is involved in the fact of leadership: as we have already seen, there must be leaders because there must be a way of deciding questions which the membership of the group is not in a position to decide. Thus the fact of leadership, obscured by the theory of representation, negates the principle of democracy.

In short, the leaders—not every individual leader, but the leadership as a group, and a group with at least a considerable measure of stability and permanence—are indispensable to every important organization. Their genuine indispensability is the strongest lever whereby the position of the leadership is consolidated, whereby the leaders control and are not controlled by the mass, whereby, therefore, democracy succumbs. The power of the leadership, organized as an informal sub-group independent of the mass of the membership, follows as a necessary consequence of its indispensability.

The Autocracy of Leadership

The leaders—mere “representatives,” according to democratic theory—have effective control of the organization’s finances. The funds are for the most part supplied by the mass. In theory and to some extent in fact, the mass can impose certain restrictions on what is done with the funds. But in practice the use and distribution of funds is under the direct control of the leaders. This control is often very crudely expressed by the tendency of leaders to assign relatively large amounts of money to themselves.

Second, collaborating with financial control, “the press constitutes a potent instrument for the conquest, the preservation, and the consolidation of power on the part of the leaders.” Publicity and propaganda are carried on by all large organizations. Sometimes they are direct and open, where the organization (a political party, for example) publishes in its own name a paper and pamphlets and magazines, runs its own radio programs and speaking campaigns. Sometimes they are more indirect and informal, with advertising and publicity handouts, and subsidized journals, writers and speakers who remain nominally independent. “In all cases, the press [as well as publicity and propaganda generally] remains in the hands of the leaders and is never controlled by the rank and file.” The case for the leadership and its policies, therefore, can be and is always the preponderant burden of the organization’s propaganda.

A third powerful instrument of control possessed by the leaders results from the fact that they administer, in part or altogether, the disciplinary mechanism of the organization. In the state, this is open enough, since the leaders give orders to the police, the jailers, and the armed forces. Physical force is not unknown as a disciplinary weapon in organizations other than the state, but other punishments, such as fines and loss of rights or membership, can be equally effective from the point of view of protecting the leadership.

Michels underestimates the indirect, if not direct, democratic significance of the “opposition.” If it is true that in the end there can be no more than the substitution of one set of leaders for another, nevertheless through the opposition leadership the pressure of the masses is brought indirectly to bear upon the leadership as a whole. An opposition, whatever its theories, is compelled to rest to some extent on a democratic basis and to defend democratic practices. The existence of an opposition is the firmest and the only firm check on the autocratic tendencies of the leaders.

Once granted the principle of representation, Bonapartism can be regarded as the logical culmination of democracy. More than this: to judge from the experience not only of our own times but from that of the Greek city-states, the Roman Republic, and the medieval city-states, Bonapartism is likewise the normal—though not perhaps the invariable—historical culmination of democracy. Bonapartism, in one or another stage of development, is the most striking and typical political structure of our day. The great nations which, in the period since the Renaissance, adopted democratic political formulas and representative parliamentary practices, have without exception in this century exhibited a powerful tendency toward Bonapartism, a tendency which in Germany, Russia, and Italy has gone to full maturity, but which has also been plainly marked in, for example, England and the United States. It is a grave historical error to identify Bonapartism with other forms of despotism. Bonapartism is not mere military dictatorship; it is not the traditional hereditary or God-derived despotism of absolute monarchies; it is not the oligarchical rule of a closed hereditary caste. Mature Bonapartism is a popular, a democratic despotism, founded on democratic doctrine, and, at least in its initiation, committed to democratic forms. If Bonapartism, in fact rather than in theory, denies democracy, it does so by bringing democracy to completion.

The Iron Law of Oligarchy

The autocratic tendencies of organization have not, of course, escaped the notice of those proponents of democracy who have been both hard-headed and sincere. Recognizing them, a number of measures have been proposed in an effort to thwart these tendencies and to guard democracy. Michels discusses the result obtained from four of the chief of these: the referendum, “renunciation,” syndicalism, and anarchism.

The device of the referendum has been tried both in governmental bodies (Switzerland, certain States of the United States) and in many lesser organizations. In theory, it serves to refer policy-making decisions to the entire membership of the group, and thus to operate in accordance with strict democratic principle. In practice, we find that it does not work. Usually only a small percentage of the membership participates in the referendum. It is easy for the leaders to put the referendum-question in such a form as to assure the outcome that they wish.

By “renunciation,” Michels refers to a device that has been frequently advocated for working-class organizations, and sometimes enforced by them. Reasoning that the anti-democratic habits of leaders follow from their possession of material privileges beyond those available to the rank-and-file, it is held that these tendencies will disappear if the privileges are made inaccessible, if the leaders are required to have the same income, conditions of life, social and cultural environment, as the members. It is certainly a fact that there is a most intimate connection between power and privilege. Nevertheless, the device of renunciation fails in practice. In the first place, except sometimes in small or persecuted organizations, the leaders never do renounce all privileges, and they can find very plausible excuses in both the nature and quality of their work for not doing so. Even where they do, renunciation does not produce simple democrats but fanatics, often more tyrannical than those leaders who are sometimes mellowed a little by privilege.

Third, the “syndicalist” policy aims to defend democracy. As we have seen in Part IV, syndicalism, noting the anti-democratic tendencies of the state and of political parties, tells the workers to have nothing to do with politics, but to confine themselves altogether to “their own” organizations, the trade unions (syndicates) and the labor co-operatives. The naïveté of this proposal is apparent enough. Trade unions and co-operatives are not exempt from the autocratic tendencies of organizations, are rather prime sources of these tendencies. Getting rid of political parties would not at all get rid of autocracy, but merely leave the union autocracy a field free of rivals.

Anarchism, finally, which was the first movement to study in detail the autocratic tendencies of organization, draws the clearest and most formally consistent conclusion. Since all organization leads to autocracy, then, in order to achieve democracy, there must be no organization at all, neither state nor party nor union. This viewpoint, which the history of anarchism shows is capable of producing very noble human individuals, is wholly divorced from the reality of human society, which necessarily includes organizations. Anarchism therefore can never be more than a faith—and a completely unrealistic faith, able to integrate an individual’s own isolated life, but never a serious political movement. Anarchists are compelled, when they try to put their ideas into social practice, to accept organization.

It is not surprising that the test of experience shows that these and all other devices fail. Social life cannot dispense with organization. The mechanical, technical, psychological, and cultural conditions of organization require leadership, and guarantee that the leaders rather than the mass shall exercise control. The autocratic tendencies are neither arbitrary nor accidental nor temporary, but inherent in the nature of organization. This, the general conclusion from Michels’ entire study, he sums up as the iron law of oligarchy, a law which, upon the basis of the evidence at our disposal, would seem to hold for all social movements and all forms of society. The law shows that the democratic ideal of self-government is impossible. Whatever social changes occur, whatever happens to economic relations, whether property is in private hands or socialized, organization will remain, and through organization an oligarchical rule will be perpetuated.

However, from the iron law of oligarchy, Michels does not at all conclude that we should abandon the struggle for democracy, or, more strictly, for a reduction to the minimum possible of those autocratic tendencies which will nevertheless always remain.

Part VI - PARETO: THE NATURE OF SOCIAL ACTION

Logical and Non-logical Conduct

Vilfredo Pareto, in his gigantic book, Mind and Society, disavows any purpose other than to describe and correlate social facts. He is not offering any program for social improvement nor expressing any ideal of what society and government ought to be. He is trying merely to describe what society is like, and to discover some of the general laws in terms of which society operates. What could or should be done with this knowledge, once obtained, is a question he does not try to answer.

To understand Pareto’s general analysis of society, we must first be entirely clear about the distinction he makes between “logical conduct” and “non-logical conduct.” A man’s conduct (that is, human action) is “logical” under the following circumstances: when his action is motivated by a deliberately held goal or purpose; when that goal is possible; when the steps or means he takes to reach the goal are in fact appropriate for reaching it. Logical conduct is common in the arts, crafts, and sciences, and frequent in economic activity. If, however, any one or more of the conditions for logical conduct are not present, then the actions are non-logical. Actions may, for instance, have no deliberate motivation at all. This would be true of all or almost all of the behavior of animals; and Pareto, in spite of the prejudice of rationalists, believes it to be true of a surprising percentage of human actions. Taboos and other superstitious acts, which are by no means confined to primitive peoples, are obvious examples, as are many rituals, sports, and courtesies. Human beings simply do things, without any purpose at all; it is natural for them to be active, whether or not there is any consciously understood point in the activity. Very common, also, are cases where the purpose or goal is impossible. The goal may be transcendent—that is, located outside of the real spatio-temporal world of life and history—and in all such cases it is, from Pareto’s scientific standpoint, strictly impossible.

Pareto is strict with his definition. It might be that, though the deliberately held purpose is impossible, yet the activities carried out would yield a result that the person in question would judge desirable, if he stopped to think about it. Striving for utopia, a worker might get a 10% raise in standard of living. This result, doubtless, the worker might judge desirable so far as it went. Even in this case, however, the worker’s conduct is non-logical, because it is not and could not be the logical consequence of the conscious purpose; the desirable result follows as a chance by-product, and the goal held in mind is logically irrelevant to it. We have here the situation which I analyzed in discussing Dante. Where there is a disparity between the “formal” goal and the “real” goal of an action, then the action is non-logical. In logical action, the formal goal and the real goal are identical. Finally, action is non-logical when the means taken to reach the goal are in fact inappropriate to that purpose.

Pareto not only shows that non-logical conduct is predominant; his crucial point is that the conduct which has a bearing on social and political structure, on what he calls the “social equilibrium,” is above all the arena of the non-logical. What happens to society, whether it progresses or decays, is free or despotic, happy or miserable, poor or prosperous, is only to the slightest degree influenced by the deliberate, rational purposes held by human beings.

Residues and Derivations

Words are perhaps the most distinctive trait of human beings. If man is only in small degree a rational animal, he is pre-eminently a verbal animal. Words, spoken or written, are associated with most of his activities, and in particular with those activities that are of social and political significance. After finishing his discussion of non-logical conduct in general, Pareto restricts himself to those non-logical actions which include or are associated with words. Everyone will recognize that nearly all of non-verbal conduct, such as is found in animals or in the purely instinctive behavior of human beings, is also non-logical. The peculiar and deceptive problems arise in connection with conduct which is verbal but at the same time non-logical. Pareto examines a vast number of examples of this sort of conduct, taken from many times and cultures. From this examination, Pareto concludes that two quite different phases may be discovered. There is, he says, a fairly small number of relatively constant factors (or “nuclei”) which change little or not at all from age to age or from culture to culture. These constant factors he calls “residues.” Along with these there are other factors which are variable, change rapidly, and are different from age to age and nation to nation. These variable factors he calls “derivations.”

Pareto records a long list of non-logical practices in many tribes, groups, and nations which have as their ostensible purpose the control of weather conditions. Sometimes the practice is to sacrifice a bull or a cock or a goat; sometimes to manipulate certain material objects; sometimes to repeat certain formulas. The most extreme concrete differences are observable. Often, along with the practice, there is a theory which supposedly explains why the practice is able to affect the weather—because a god is thereby propitiated, or something of the sort. These varying concrete practices together with the explanatory theories are all “derivations.” However, among all the variables, there is a common nucleus, the feeling that by means of some manipulation or another it is possible to control the weather. Once this common nucleus is understood, it is seen to be the same that is manifested in many other types of activities besides those related to weather-control: activities through which men bring together into a “combination” two or more elements of whatever kind, and for whatever supposed purpose or with no purpose at all. This nucleus, common to all this great area of actions, is the “residue,” in this case what Pareto calls the Residue of Combinations.

Or again: we find that everywhere and at all times men believe in the objective reality and persistence of entities like gods or spirits or “the state” or “progress” or “justice” or “freedom” or “humanity” or “the proletariat” or “the law.” The names and special personalities of the entities change, sometimes rather quickly. So also do the theories that explain the entities—religions and philosophies and moralities. The names and special features and the theories are derivations. But always we find, however expressed, this common belief in the reality of such entities, so that here too we have a residue, the residue of “the persistence of abstractions.”

The term, “residue,” then, means simply the stable, common element which we may discover in social actions, the nucleus which is “left over” (hence, perhaps, Pareto’s choice of the word “residue”) when the variable elements are stripped away. It must be stressed that for Pareto “residue” is a sociological, not a psychological or biological term. Residues are discovered not by psychological or biological research, but by comparing and analyzing huge numbers of social actions. Presumably a residue corresponds to some fairly permanent human impulse or instinct or, as Pareto more often calls it, “sentiment.” However, Pareto is not primarily interested in where residues come from, but in the fact that social actions may be analyzed in terms of them, whatever their origin.

Analysis can, Pareto believes, show that there are a good many residues operative in social action. For convenience, he divides them into six main classes, though other divisions might be substituted without altering the main theory.

  • Class I: Instinct for Combinations. This is the tendency which leads human beings to combine or manipulate various elements taken arbitrarily from experience. Many magical practices are a result of its operation: the manipulations to control weather or disease, to bring good luck, the supposed efficacy assigned to certain numbers (3 or 7 or 13, for example) suitably employed, totems, and so on. Supposed connections are established between certain events, formulas, prayers, or words, and good or bad luck, happiness or terror or sorrow. It is residues of Class I, also, that impel men to “system-making”—that is, to elaborate logical or rather pseudo-logical combinations of ideas and mental elements in general, to theologies and metaphysics and ideologies of all sorts. Thus it is this class of residue that chiefly accounts for “derivations,” expressing man’s need to make his own behavior seem rational.

  • Class II: Group-Persistences. When once any combination has been formed, forces come into play to keep that combination sustained and persisting. These are, one might say, “conservative” forces, present among animals as well as human beings, and sometimes referred to as “social inertia.” They express themselves, for instance, in the powerful feeling that the family or the tribe or the city or the nation is a permanent and objective entity. So strong are they that the dead and the not-yet-living are included in the supposedly persisting unit, and we thus have all the many forms of ancestor-worship, belief in immortality, and social provisions made for a posterity that will not exist until all living persons are long dead. “Family pride,” “class solidarity,” patriotism, religious zeal are all quite direct modes of these residues.

  • Class III: Need of Expressing Sentiments by External Acts—Residues of Self-Expression and Activity. Most human beings constantly feel the need to “do something,” whether or not the something done can accomplish any desired purpose. Ignorance of medical science in no way stops the family from bustling about when someone is ill. Most persons always feel that something must be done to improve political and economic conditions, even though they have not the slightest idea whether what they do—making speeches or campaigning for votes or advocating this or that reform—will in fact affect conditions favorably; and most people are very impatient with anyone who remains passive “while civilization is being destroyed.” This class of residues is plainly connected with Class I—making “combinations” is one of the chief forms of activity.

  • Class IV: Residues Connected with Sociality. Under Class IV Pareto groups such factors as the need felt by the individual for conformity with the group, and his effort to force conformity on others; the distrust or hatred of innovation; the opposite but related social sentiments of pity and cruelty; the willingness to sacrifice life or comfort or property for the supposed good of others; the sentiments of social ranking and hierarchy present in most persons—feelings, that is, that some individuals are superior, some inferior in the social scale; and the almost universal need for group approval.

  • Class V: Integrity of the Individual and His Appurtenances. In general, according to Pareto’s account, these are the feelings that lead men to guard their personal integrity, to maintain themselves and the conditions of their existence, together with whatever they happen to identify with themselves and those conditions of existence. For example, there is the usual strong feeling against any serious alteration in the social structure. In a slave society, most people are indignant at a proposal for doing away with slaves; in a capitalist society, at attacks on “the rights of property”; and the indignation, which would seem natural enough in the case of slave-holders or capitalists, extends to the other members of the social group who do not have slaves or capital wealth. When something has gone wrong, has violated the integrity of the individual, he seeks to restore his integrity. A taboo has been broken, so a purification ceremony is performed (as in the case of baptism, the purification may be required because of the impiety of a very distant or even mythical ancestor). The individual must “reassert” himself after a slip. A Purgatory must restore a balance that has been upset during real life. Or the integrity is restored by actions directed against the real or supposed violator—that is, vengeance must be carried out, the criminal punished, the heretic burned.

  • Class VI: The Sex Residue. The merely biological sex urge is not, properly speaking, a residue. The sex residue functions only where it receives an expression that is at least partly verbal, where theories and literature and moral rules and religious doctrines are used as the ever-varying but always present disguises and distortions of the sex impulse.

These six, then, or others of the same sort, are the major and relatively unchanging nuclei of non-logical conduct, the conduct that makes up the greater proportion of human action and in particular of those actions that affect the course of government and history.

Derivations—which include all or nearly all doctrines and beliefs and theories that figure in social struggles, principles of democracy and law and authority, moral and theological systems, justifications of this or that form of society, bills of rights and programs and charters—are divided by Pareto into four main classes:

  • Class I: Assertion. These, the simplest and most direct and often the most effective of derivations, are mere dogmatic assertions. They frequently take the form of maxims and aphorisms—“Honesty is the best policy,” “Expect from another what you have done to another,” “It is better to receive a wrong than to inflict one,” the Golden Rule, and so on. The tone and feeling with which these simple assertions are made and accepted, especially if they are constantly repeated, may give them great persuasive value.

  • Class II: Authority. This large variety of derivations argues by making an appeal to some authority: an individual or group of individuals; divine beings or personifications; or the authority of tradition and custom. There is seldom the slightest scientific justification for accepting the relevance of the authority’s opinion—which besides is wholly unreal—but this does not weaken the effectiveness of the derivation. God’s Will, the Bible, what our forefathers did, Marx’s “real meaning,” a Farewell Address or a Testament to Posterity, remain cogent arguments from a non-logical standpoint.

  • Class III: Accords with Sentiment or Principles. With the help of Class II Residues, men convert sentiments into abstractions, persistent realities and everlasting principles. The power of these entities is derived from the feelings they express, not from their supposed logical or scientific rigor. Because of their power they too can serve as premises in the pseudo-logic of derivations. The theorist can appeal to “universal judgment” or “the collective mind” or “the will of the people” or “the opinion of all the best minds,” and be persuasive without any need to take the trouble to gather the actual facts about what actual people think. A political program which serves the “best interests of humanity” or embodies the “principles of natural law” or respects the “eternal rights of individuals” is made acceptable without a tedious scientific assessment of just what its effects upon real society and real men would probably be.

  • Class IV: Verbal Proofs. These are the familiar derivations that depend upon verbal confusions and fallacies, ambiguous terms, the intrusion of emotive expressions in the place of statements of fact, metaphors and allegories taken for proofs, all of which have been recently so much discussed by the many writers on “semantics.”

It will be evident from the examples and analysis given in this and the preceding section that Pareto believes derivations to have little effect in determining important social changes. Residues are the abiding, the significant and influential factor. When the complex of residues is given and while it remains, the general course of conduct is decided; the derivations can come and go, change and be changed, but nothing much is altered. The derivations cannot, it is true, be disregarded; but their importance is primarily as expressions of residues, not in themselves.

Pareto, as well as the other Machiavellians, is often charged by sentimentalists with “neglecting human ideals” and “disregarding men’s goals.” No charge could be more inappropriate. It is the Machiavellians, perhaps more than any other school, who have paid closest attention to ideals. However, as I have already more than once stated, they do not take ideals and the theories accompanying them at face value. They insist on relating the ideals and theories to the whole complex of human behavior, and interpreting what men do, not merely by their words, but by their words related to the rest of their actions. Recognizing that moral, social, and political doctrines have little or no genuinely scientific content, they do not try to evaluate them through a superficial examination of the words that appear in them, nor do they expect to understand and predict the course of social events by accepting the verbal nonsense that a Constitution or Platform or political speech may contain. Often they discover that the actual effects of a doctrine are completely at variance with the results that it claims to be able to accomplish—a discovery not without its practical importance, if we are interested in the welfare of society.

Social Utility

Since the beginning of systematic thought—that is, for about 2500 years in western culture—there has been constant discussion of the problem of “the good community,” “the ideal society,” “the best form of government.” Tens of thousands of persons have given time and intelligence to arguments over these questions, and have devised nearly as many answers. After all this while, men have not reached any generally accepted conclusions, and there is no indication that we have advanced in these matters a single step beyond the reasonings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. This fact, and the contrast it presents to the advances made in solving the problems of the physical sciences, are enough to show that the attempted answers to these questions are not scientifically credible theories, but non-logical expressions, that is to say, derivations. Derivations, not being subject to the controls of logic, clarity and evidence, never reach any objective stability, but come and go with every shift of sentiment and cultural fashion.

Disputes over the best form of society and government can be interpreted in terms of the notion of “social utility.” When we are asking whether some law or economic measure or belief or war or revolution will be best for society, we are wondering if it will contribute to the community’s welfare or utility. In connection with the idea of “social utility,” Pareto makes certain distinctions which help to clarify what is meant by this whole type of problem. To begin with, it may readily be observed that a community (a nation, for example) is heterogeneous. It is not composed of identical elements, but sub-divided into various groups and classes: rulers and ruled in one rough way, but with many more intricate and elaborate divisions—economic classes, religious sects, and so on. Ordinarily, the philosophers, reformers, and social writers speak of “the community” or “the society”; but these are vague and distant abstractions. It is to be expected, and it is ordinarily the case, that any given proposal should be useful to some sub-groups of the community, and detrimental to others: a benefit to the rulers, a detriment to the ruled; good for the workers, but hurtful to employers.… The spokesmen for the various groups never, of course, put things in this distinct way. They make use of derivations, and always put a program, the consequences of which would be favorable to their own group, forward in the name of the community as a whole. From this habit not a little confusion results.

But even a proper analysis in terms of sub-groups and classes will not sufficiently clarify the meaning of utility (welfare, happiness). We must, in Pareto’s language, distinguish further between the utility “of a community” and the utility “for a community.” By the utility of a community Pareto refers to what might be called the community’s survival value, its strength and power of resistance as against other communities. By the utility for a community Pareto means its internal welfare, the happiness and satisfactions of its members. The first of these may be objectively studied. We can observe whether the community endures in its struggles with external rivals, or is overthrown, and disappears as a separate community. The second utility, however, is purely subjective or relative, since what is internally useful for the community will depend upon what the members of the community want, what they regard as constituting happiness and satisfaction. Granted that we accept some particular conception of internal utility (material prosperity would be suitable in the case of most modern nations), we must note that these two utilities, the internal and the external utility, seldom coincide. Those factors which give a community survival value, strength and endurance as against other communities, are usually not the factors that can contribute most to the happiness of its members.

Let us turn to another fundamental question raised by the problem of social utility. There are, in every community, prevailing norms or standards of conduct, embodied in customs, codes, laws, moral philosophies, and religions. By various devices, ranging from the automatic pressure of social approval and disapproval through education to physical force, each individual member of the community is called upon to observe these standards. As usual, men are not content merely to try to bring about conformity. There must be a theory to explain why the individual “ought” to conform—that is, there must be a derivation. This type of derivation is the substance of most systems of ethics or moral philosophy. The question suggested by the facts is: Does an individual in truth realize a maximum happiness for himself by conforming to the prevailing standards of his community? If the community norm says to be honest, patriotic, faithful in marriage, is it true that an individual member of the community will be happier by not stealing, by sacrificing his life in war, by foregoing adultery? The overwhelming majority of moral philosophies unite in holding that these things indeed are true, that the individual best secures his own private happiness by conforming to his community’s standards.

What is the truth about this problem, apart from derivations? The truth seems to be that no general conclusion can be drawn. Sometimes the individual best secures his own happiness by conforming to the group standards; sometimes by disregarding or violating the standards. It all depends upon the individual in question, and upon the circumstances. Nevertheless, though this is the truth, it would, generally speaking, be disadvantageous to society for this truth to be known. Almost always it is socially useful, it contributes to social welfare, to have people believe that their own individual happiness is bound up with acceptance of the community standards: or, as moral philosophers put it, that there is a direct correspondence between the welfare of the individual and the welfare of society. Here, however, we have reached a principle with much wider application than to this particular problem. Is the truth, or rather a knowledge of the truth, always advantageous to society? is falsehood, or nonsense, always harmful? To both of these questions, the facts compel us to answer, No. The great rationalistic dream of modern times, believing that social actions are or can be primarily logical, has taught the illusion that the True and the Good are identical, that if men knew the truth about themselves and their social and political life, then society would become ever better; and that falsehood and absurdity always hurt social welfare. But things do not stand in that simple way. Sometimes the truth aids society. But often a widespread knowledge of the truth may weaken or destroy sentiments, habits, attitudes upon which the integrity of social life, above all in times of crisis, may depend. False beliefs do sometimes produce evil social results; but they often, also, benefit the community. Again no general conclusion is possible. We must examine each concrete case, each specific truth and falsehood in its specific circumstances.

We are not, therefore, entitled to judge that it is invariably a “bad thing” that men believe derivations, ideologies, myths, formulas, these verbal constructions which from a scientific standpoint always contain a large measure of the false and the absurd. The myths are, in the first place, a necessary ingredient of social life. A society in which they would be eliminated in favor of exclusively scientific beliefs would have nothing in common with the human societies that have existed and do exist in the real world, and is a merely imaginary fantasy. Here once more our investigation must be concrete. Certain derivations or myths under certain circumstances are socially useful, others detrimental; when the circumstances change, so may the effects of the myths.

The Circulation of the Elites

By “Social Equilibrium,” Pareto means the general state and structure of society, considered dynamically, at any given moment. That is, the term refers to the state of society insofar as it involves the interplay of those forces that both determine what it is at any given moment, and at the same time, through their operation, work to change its state and structure. What are these forces that determine the social equilibrium, that make society what it is and bring about changes in society? Pareto believes the chief of them to be the following:

  1. The physical environment—climate, geographical factors, and the like—is plainly of great importance, but, since it alters very slowly during historic periods, may be treated as a constant and disregarded when trying to discover the laws of social change and development.

  2. Residues are very influential. Residues, Pareto finds, change slowly, remaining surprisingly stable especially within each organized social group. In the end, however, these slow changes alter the whole fabric of social life. Quicker and more obvious in their effect are changes not so much in the residues that are present as in the distribution of residues in the various strata of society.

  3. Economic factors—what Pareto calls “interests”—have also a major role, as is recognized by almost all modern historians and sociologists.

  4. Derivations, too, have a certain influence on the social equilibrium, though Pareto, as we have seen, believes this to be minor and for the most part indirect compared to the other major factors. These non-logical beliefs, myths, formulas, are chiefly notable as expressions of residues or interests, and for their indirect ability to reinforce residues or to alter the pattern of the circulation of the élites. 5. Finally, there functions what Pareto calls “the circulation of the élites.”

The character of a society, Pareto holds, is above all the character of its élite; its accomplishments are the accomplishments of its élite; its history is properly understood as the history of its élite; successful predictions about its future are based upon evidence drawn from the study of the composition and structure of its élite. Pareto’s conclusions here are the same as those reached by Mosca in his analysis of the narrower but similar concept of the “ruling class.”

If, in the selection of members of the élite, there existed a condition of perfectly free competition, so that each individual could, without any obstacle, rise just as high in the social scale as his talents and ambition permitted, the élite could be presumed to include, at every moment and in the right order, just those persons best fitted for membership in it. Under such circumstances—which Pareto seems to imagine after the analogy of the theoretical free market of classical economics, or the biological arena of the struggle for survival—society would remain dynamic and strong, automatically correcting its own weaknesses. However, a condition of this sort is never found in reality. There are always obstacles, or “ties” as Pareto calls them, that interfere with the free circulation of individuals up and down the social scale. Special principles of selection, different in different societies, affect the composition of the élite so that it no longer includes all those persons best fitted for social rule. Weaknesses set in; and, not compensated by a gradual day-by-day circulation, if they go far enough they are corrected sharply by social revolution: that is, by the sudden intrusion into the élite of large numbers of individuals hitherto prevented by the obstacles from finding their natural social level. The most evident and universal of the obstacles to free circulation is the aristocratic principle. The children of members of the élite are helped to a position in the élite regardless of their own capacities and at the sacrifice of individuals of greater capacity appearing among the non-élite. If this principle is carried far enough, if the élite becomes “closed” or almost so, degeneration is bound to set in. The percentage of weak and inferior persons within the élite necessarily increases, while at the same time superior persons accumulate among the non-élite. A point is reached where the élite will be overthrown and destroyed.

From these considerations it follows that a relatively free circulation of the élites—both up and down the social scale—is a requisite for a healthy and a strong society. Conversely, it follows that when in a society the élite becomes closed or nearly closed, that society is threatened either with internal revolution or with destruction from outside. To put the matter simply: a given society will include a certain and relatively stable percentage of, for example, clever individuals; but an enormous difference to the society and its development will result from the extent to which these clever individuals are concentrated in its élite, or spread evenly throughout the entire population, or even concentrated in the non-élite.

The residues which, in their circulation, are of chief influence on the social equilibrium are those belonging to Class I and Class II. Indeed, in discussing the circulation of the élites, Pareto expands his definition of these two Classes so that the whole problem can be summed up roughly in terms of them. Individuals marked primarily by Class I (Combinations) residues are the “Foxes” of Machiavelli. They live by their wits; they put their reliance on fraud, deceit, and shrewdness. They do not have strong attachment to family, church, nation, and traditions (though they may exploit these attachments in others). They live in the present, taking little thought of the future, and are always ready for change, novelty, and adventure. In economic affairs, they incline toward speculation, promotion, innovation. They are not adept, as a rule, in the use of force. They are inventive and chance-taking. Individuals marked by Class II (Group-Persistences) residues are Machiavelli’s “Lions.” They are able and ready to use force, relying on it rather than brains to solve their problems. They are conservative, patriotic, loyal to tradition, and solidly tied to supra-individual groups like family or Church or nation. They are concerned for posterity and the future. In economic affairs they are cautious, saving and orthodox. They distrust the new, and praise “character” and “duty” rather than wits.

The social combination that is strongest against external enemies, and at the same time able to bring about a fairly high internal level of culture and material prosperity, is that wherein (1) Class II residues are widespread and active among the masses (the non-élite); (2) the individuals with a high level of Class I residues are concentrated in the élite; (3) a fair percentage of Class II residues nevertheless still remains within the élite; (4) the élite is comparatively open, so that at least a comparatively free circulation can take place. The meaning of this optimum combination can be translated as follows into more usual terms: (1) The masses have faith in an integrating myth or ideology, a strong sense of group solidarity, a willingness to endure physical hardship and sacrifice. (2) The best and most active brains of the community are concentrated in the élite, and ready to take advantage of whatever opportunities the historical situation presents. (3) At the same time the élite is not cynical, and does not depend exclusively upon its wits, but is able to be firm, to use force, if the internal or external condition calls for it. (4) The élite is prevented from gross degeneration through the ability of new elements to rise into its ranks.

A combination of this sort does not, however, as a rule last long. The typical, though not universal, pattern of development of organized societies goes along some such lines as these: The community (nation) becomes established and consolidated after a period of wars of conquest or of internal revolutions. At this point the governing élite is strongly weighted with Class II residues—revolutions and great wars put a premium on faith, powers of endurance, and force. After the consolidation, activities due to Class I residues increase in importance and are able to flourish. The relative percentage of Class I residues in the élite increases; the Foxes replace the Lions. The proportion of Class II residues remains high, as always, in the masses. A time of great material prosperity may follow, under the impulse and manipulations of the Class I residues. But the élite has lost its faith, its self-identification with the group; it thinks all things can be solved by shrewdness, deceit, combinations; it is no longer willing and able to use force. It reaches a point where it cannot withstand the attack from an external enemy, stronger in Class II residues; or from within, when the masses, one way or another, get a leadership able to organize their potential strength. The combinationist élite is destroyed, very often carrying its whole society to ruin along with it.

Pareto claims, as we have seen, that, though we can come to objective conclusions about the strength of a society relative to other societies, we cannot make any objective judgment about what type of social structure is “best” from the point of view of internal welfare. However, a certain tendency in his own feelings becomes evident from his analysis. To begin with, he plainly puts external strength first, since it is a pre-condition of everything else: that is, if a nation cannot survive, it is rather pointless to argue in the abstract whether or not it is a “good society.” In order to survive, a society must have a fairly free class-circulation; the élite must not bar its doors too rigidly. This freedom will at the same time on the whole operate to increase the internal well-being of the society. Second, in discussing the distribution of residues, Pareto implicitly joins the other Machiavellians in an evident preference for social checks and balances. The strongest and healthiest societies balance a predominance of Class I residues in the élite with a predominance of Class II residues in the non-élite. But Class II residues must not be altogether excluded from the élite. If Class II residues prevail in all classes, the nation develops no active culture, degenerates in a slough of brutality and stubborn prejudice, in the end is unable to overcome new forces in its environment, and meets disaster. Disaster, too, awaits the nation given over wholly to Class I residues, with no regard for the morrow, for discipline or tradition, with a blind confidence in clever tricks as the sufficient means for salvation.

Part VII - POLITICS AND TRUTH

The Nature of the Present

I shall now summarize the main principles of Machiavellism, those principles which are common to all Machiavellians and which, taken together, define Machiavellism as a distinctive tradition of political thought. These general principles constitute a way of looking at social life, an instrument for social and political analysis. They are capable of being applied concretely in the study of any historical period, including our own, that may interest us. In each case, in the list that follows, I shall state in parentheses the contrary point of view which is opposed to the Machiavellian principle. In order to understand what a thing is, we must understand also what it is not.

  1. An objective science of politics, and of society, comparable in its methods to the other empirical sciences, is possible. Such a science will describe and correlate observable social facts, and, on the basis of the facts of the past, will state more or less probable hypotheses about the future. Such a science will be neutral with respect to any practical political goal: that is, like any other science, its statements will be tested by facts accessible to any observer, rich or poor, ruler or ruled, and will in no way be dependent upon the acceptance of some particular ethical aim or ideal. (Contrary views hold that a science of politics is not possible, because of the peculiarity of “human nature” or for some similar reason; or that political analysis is always dependent upon some practical program for the improvement—or destruction—of society; or that any political science must be a “class science”—true for the “bourgeoisie,” but not for the “proletariat,” as, for example, the Marxists claim.)

  2. The primary subject-matter of political science is the struggle for social power in its diverse open and concealed forms. (Contrary views hold that political thought deals with the general welfare, the common good, and other such entities that are from time to time invented by the theorists.)

  3. The laws of political life cannot be discovered by an analysis which takes men’s words and beliefs, spoken or written, at their face value. Words, programs, declarations, constitutions, laws, theories, philosophies, must be related to the whole complex of social facts in order to understand their real political and historical meaning. (The contrary view pays chief attention to words, believing that what men say they are doing or propose to do or have done is the best evidence for what they actually do.)

  4. Logical or rational action plays a relatively minor part in political and social change. For the most part it is a delusion to believe that in social life men take deliberate steps to achieve consciously held goals. Non-logical action, spurred by environmental changes, instinct, impulse, interest, is the usual social rule. (The contrary views assign an important or the primary place to rational action. History is conceived as the record of the rational attempts of men to achieve their goals.)

  5. For an understanding of the social process, the most significant social division to be recognized is that between the ruling class and the ruled, between the élite and the non-élite. (Contrary views either deny that such a division exists, or consider that it is unimportant, or believe that it is scheduled to disappear.)

  6. Historical and political science is above all the study of the élite, its composition, its structure, and the mode of its relation to the non-élite. (Contrary views hold that history is primarily the study of the masses, or of individual great men, or purely of institutional arrangements.)

  7. The primary object of every élite, or ruling class, is to maintain its own power and privilege. (The contrary view holds that the primary object of the rulers is to serve the community. This view is almost invariably held by all spokesmen for an élite, at least with respect to the élite for which they are speaking. Among such spokesmen are to be numbered almost all of those who write on political and social matters.)

  8. The rule of the élite is based upon force and fraud. The force may, to be sure, be much of the time hidden or only threatened; and the fraud may not entail any conscious deception. (The contrary views hold that social rule is established fundamentally upon God-given or natural right, reason, or justice.)

  9. The social structure as a whole is integrated and sustained by a political formula, which is usually correlated with a generally accepted religion, ideology, or myth. (Contrary views hold either that the formulas and myths are “truths” or that they are unimportant as social factors.)

  10. The rule of an élite will coincide now more, now less with the interests of the non-élite. Thus, in spite of the fact that the primary object of every élite is to maintain its own power and privilege, there are nevertheless real and significant differences in social structures from the point of view of the masses. These differences, however, cannot be properly evaluated in terms of formal meanings, verbalisms, and ideologies, but by: (a) the strength of the community in relation to other communities; (b) the level of civilization reached by the community—its ability, that is to say, to release a wide variety of creative interests and to attain a high measure of material and cultural advance; and (c) liberty—that is, the security of individuals against the arbitrary and irresponsible exercise of power. (Contrary views either deny that there are any significant differences among social structures, or, more frequently, estimate the differences in formal or verbal terms—by, for example, comparing the philosophies of two periods or their ideals.)

  11. Two opposing tendencies always operate in the case of every élite: (a) an aristocratic tendency whereby the élite seeks to preserve the ruling position of its members and their descendants, and to prevent others from entering its ranks; (b) a democratic tendency whereby new elements force their way into the élite from below. (Though few views would deny the existence of these tendencies, some would maintain that one of them could be suppressed, so that an élite could become either completely closed or completely open.)

  12. In the long run, the second of these tendencies always prevails. From this it follows that no social structure is permanent and no static utopia is possible. The social or class struggle always continues, and its record is history. (Contrary views conceive a possible stabilization of the social structure. The class struggle, they say, can, should, and will be eliminated in a Heaven on Earth or a “classless society,” not understanding that the elimination of the class struggle would, like the elimination of blood-circulation in the individual organism, while no doubt getting rid of many ailments, at the same time mean death.)

  13. There occur periodically very rapid shifts in the composition and structure of élites: that is, social revolutions. (Contrary views either deny the reality of revolutions or hold that they are unfortunate accidents that could readily be avoided.)

It may be remarked that these Machiavellian principles are much closer to the more or less instinctive views of “practical men” who are themselves active in the social struggle than to the views of theorists, reformers and philosophers. This is natural, because the principles are simply the generalized statement of what practical men do and have been doing; whereas the theorists, most often comparatively isolated from direct participation in the social struggle, are able to imagine society and its laws to be as they would wish to have them.

The Meaning of Democracy

“Democracy” is usually defined in some such terms as “self-government” or “government by the people.” Historical experience forces us to conclude that democracy, in this sense, is impossible. The Machiavellians have shown that the practical impossibility of democracy depends upon a variety of factors: upon psychological tendencies which are apparently constant in social life, and, most decisively of all, upon the necessary technical conditions of social organization. Since our expectations of the future can be based only upon the evidence from the past, and since there is no reason to suppose that the tendencies and conditions which prevented democracy in the past will cease to hold for the future, we must, from a scientific standpoint, believe that democratic self-government is ruled out for the future as it has been absent from the past. The theory of democracy as self-government must, therefore, be understood as a myth, formula, or derivation. It does not correspond to any actual or possible social reality. Debates over the merits of the theory are almost wholly valueless in throwing light on social facts. It does not, however, follow that the theory of democracy (I continue to refer to democracy in the sense of “self-government” or “government by the people”) is without any influence on the social structure. The theory does not correctly describe any social facts. No societies are governed by the people, by a majority; all societies, including societies called democratic, are ruled by a minority. But the ruling minority always seeks to justify and legitimize its rule in part through a formula, without which the social structure would disintegrate. The positive significance of democratic theory is as a political formula of this kind. Moreover, certain political practices are associated with the democratic formula: of particular importance, the practice of suffrage extended to a considerable proportion of the adult members of the society, whereby some questions, including the naming of certain state officials, pass through the electoral process.

The democratic formula and the practice of suffrage do not mean the self-government of the people by themselves. They do, however, constitute a special mechanism of rule by the minority élite, differing from other mechanisms. As a special mechanism of rule, they have effects upon the social structure which differ from the effects of other mechanisms of rule. In general, they exercise a particular kind of influence on the selection of members of the ruling class. When, for example, there exists in society an established ruling class that uses a non-democratic formula (an aristocratic formula, let us say) to justify its position, the influence of the democratic formula and of the suffrage machinery tends to weaken the position of that established ruling class. In addition, the existence in society of the suffrage machinery naturally tends to favor those individuals who are adept at using the machinery; just as, in a society where rule is founded directly on force, the ablest fighting men are favored against the rest.

If we ask what are the primary effects in our own time of the democratic formula of self-government and the suffrage machinery, we must reply, as we noted in Part V, that they are to strengthen the international trend toward Bonapartism. It can hardly be denied that this trend exists, that it is the most indisputable political tendency of our generation. In every advanced nation we observe the evolution of the form of government toward that wherein a small group of leaders, or a single leader, claims to represent and speak for the whole people. As the embodiment of the will of the whole people, the leader claims an unlimited authority, and considers all intermediary political bodies, such as parliaments or local governments, to be wholly dependent on the central sovereignty which can alone stand legitimately for the people. The regime is democratically legalized by the use of the suffrage mechanism in the form of plebiscites. These are the characteristics of Bonapartism.

If we examine, not the verbal definitions that most people, including dictionary-makers, give for “democracy,” but the way in which they use the word in practical application to affairs of our time, we will discover that it does not have anything to do with self-government—which is not surprising, because there is no such thing. In practice, in the real world rather than the mythical world of ideologies, a “democracy” means a political system in which there exists “liberty”: that is, what Mosca calls “juridical defense,” a measure of security for the individual which protects him from the arbitrary and irresponsible exercise of personally held power. Liberty or juridical defense, moreover, is summed up and focused in the right of opposition, the right of opponents of the currently governing élite to express publicly their opposition views and to organize to implement those views. Democracy so defined, in terms of liberty, of the right of opposition, is not in the least a formula or myth. We will never be able to decide whether the democratic wills of their respective peoples are more truly represented by the governments of the United States and England than by the governments of Japan, Germany, Russia, and Italy. We cannot decide because the whole problem is fictitious and the disputes in connection with it purely verbal. But it is a fact, an objective and observable fact, that liberty exists in some societies and not in others; or, more exactly speaking, that it exists more in some societies, less in others.

The modern Machiavellians, like Machiavelli himself, do not waste time arguing the merits or demerits of the myth of democracy defined as self-government. But they are very profoundly concerned with the reality of democracy defined as liberty. They know that the degree of liberty present within a society is a fact of the greatest consequence for the character of the whole social structure and for the individuals living within that structure.

Within any field of human interest, liberty is a necessary condition of scientific advance. This follows because science can proceed only where there is complete freedom to advance hypotheses contrary to prevailing opinion. Experience seems to show that, almost always, liberty is a condition for an advanced “level of civilization,” in the sense that Mosca uses this expression. That is, liberty is needed to permit the fullest release of the potential social forces and creative impulses present in society, and their maximum development. With liberty absent, great development may occur along certain restricted lines—in religion, perhaps, or the technique of war, or a conventionalized art style—but the compulsory conformity to official opinion limits variety and stultifies creative freshness not only in the arts and sciences, but in economic and political affairs as well.

Liberty or freedom means above all, as I have said, the existence of a public opposition to the governing élite. The crucial difference that freedom makes to a society is found in the fact that the existence of a public opposition (or oppositions) is the only effective check on the power of the governing élite. Only power restrains power. That restraining power is expressed in the existence and activity of oppositions. Oddly and fortunately, it is observable that the restraining influence of an opposition much exceeds its apparent strength. As anyone with experience in any organization knows, even a small opposition, provided it really exists and is active, can block to a remarkable degree the excesses of the leadership. But when all opposition is destroyed, there is no longer any limit to what power may do. A despotism, any kind of despotism, can be benevolent only by accident.

It is only when there are several different major social forces, not wholly subordinated to any one social force, that there can be any assurance of liberty, since only then is there the mutual check and balance that is able to chain power. There is no one force, no group, and no class that is the preserver of liberty. Liberty is preserved by those who are against the existing chief power. Oppositions which do not express genuine social forces are as trivial, in relation to entrenched power, as the old court jesters.

Can Politics Be Scientific?

It is at once apparent that the broad question, “Can politics be scientific?” is ambiguous. It must be resolved into several more precise questions before answers become possible. The three of these with which I shall deal are the following: (1) Can there be a science of politics (and of society, since politics is a phase of social life)? (2) Can the masses act scientifically in political affairs? (3) Can the élite, or some section of the élite, act scientifically in political affairs?

The first of these narrower questions can be answered easily and with assurance: Yes, there can be a science of politics and of society. There is no insuperable obstacle to such a science. It is certainly the case that in the field of political and social affairs there are observable events. These events may be recorded and systematically described. On the basis of the observations, we may formulate generalizations and hypotheses. These can then be tested through predictions about future events, or about the results of further research. In order to make a science possible in any field, nothing further is required.

Can the masses act scientifically in political affairs? To act scientifically would mean to act “logically” in Pareto’s sense; that is, to select, consciously and deliberately, real goals (goals which are not transcendental or fanciful or impossible), and then to take practical steps which are, in fact, appropriate for reaching those goals. The goals might be peace or a higher level of material prosperity or economic equality—though conceivably they might be quite different: war or conquest or moral license; we should not make the mistake of supposing that everyone really wants the things that moralists say they ought to want. In any case, the goals would be explicit, deliberately chosen; and the actions would really achieve or at least approach the goals. This question, as Professor Dewey has often shown, is very similar to the question whether full and genuine self-government of the masses by themselves is possible. For a group to act scientifically presupposes that its decisions are reached on a democratic basis, because otherwise the decisions are not deliberate from the point of view of the group itself. In concluding that self-government of the masses is impossible, it therefore also follows that it is impossible for the masses to act scientifically in political affairs. The Machiavellian analysis, confirmed and reconfirmed by the evidence of history, shows that the masses simply do not think scientifically about political and social aims; and that, even if they did, the technical and administrative means for implementing their scientific thought would necessarily be lacking. Beliefs, ideals, do sometimes influence the political actions of the masses; these are not, however, scientific beliefs and ideals, but myths or derivations.

There remains, then, the question whether some sections of the élite can act scientifically about political affairs. It is necessary to raise the question in this modified form, rather than about the élite as a whole, because the élite is not ordinarily a homogeneous group. The inability of the masses to function scientifically in politics rests primarily on the following factors: the huge size of the mass group, which makes it too unwieldy for the use of scientific techniques; the ignorance, on the part of the masses, of the methods of administration and rule; the necessity, for the masses, of spending most of their energies on the bare making of a living, which leaves little energy or time for gaining more knowledge about politics or carrying out practical political tasks; the lack, in most people, of a sufficient degree of those psychological qualities—ambition, ruthlessness, and so on—that are prerequisites for active political life. The deficiencies can all be overcome in the case of sections of the élite. These are comparatively small in size. Their members can and do acquire a good deal of knowledge about administration and rule. Since their members either inherit or discover a way of extracting a living from others without too much effort on their own part, they have available time and energy in which to cultivate political skills. They are careful not to overburden their ranks with squeamish idealists. There would thus seem to be no theoretic reason why sections of the élite should not be scientific about political affairs. If our reference is to the governing élite, we are asking whether rulers can rule scientifically; and the answer would seem to be that, up to a certain point, they can. We may add that, at certain periods in certain societies, they have done so, or come close to it.

What exactly would this mean, for the rulers or some other section of the élite to be scientific about political affairs? And, if they were, would it be to the benefit of society as a whole? It would mean, as always when conduct is scientific, that the section in question would pursue consciously understood and deliberately chosen goals. The goals would have to be real and possible. From these conditions it follows that the choice of alternative goals would be confined within very narrow limits. All utopias would be excluded, all those mirages of permanent and universal peace and plenty and joy. Moreover, since the general pattern of social development is determined by technological change and by other factors quite beyond the likelihood of human control, a scientific élite would have to accept that general pattern. It was an illusion, in 1800, to think that society could revive the social structure appropriate to the pre-steam-engine era; so today is it an illusion to dream that the 19th century structure can be retained on the technological basis of the assembly line, the airplane, electricity, and radio. From this point of view, we may say that a scientific élite would have to be “opportunist”—not in the narrower sense in which opportunism means taking the easiest course today with no clear thought of tomorrow, but in the broader perspective of not trying to buck the main stream of development, not fighting for causes that are already lost when the battle begins. In short, a scientific ruling group would not guide its political actions by myths. We must, however, repeat that our concern is only with political actions.

The lessons of history show that a ruling class can seldom continue long in power unless it is prepared to open its ranks to able and ambitious newcomers from below. A scientific ruling class will therefore keep its ranks open; and this will also be to the benefit of the ruled both in providing an outlet for dynamic individuals, and even more through permitting a greater expansion of creative social energies. Political liberty, too, in the longer run, usually aids both rulers and ruled. We have already seen that this is so from the point of view of the ruled; from the side of the rulers, liberty is a safeguard against bureaucratic degeneration, a check on errors, and a protection against revolution.

A dilemma confronts any section of the élite that tries to act scientifically. The political life of the masses and the cohesion of society demand the acceptance of myths. A scientific attitude toward society does not permit belief in the truth of the myths. But the leaders must profess, indeed foster, belief in the myths, or the fabric of society will crack and they be overthrown. In short, the leaders, if they themselves are scientific, must lie. It is hard to lie all the time in public but to keep privately an objective regard for the truth. Not only is it hard; it is often ineffective, for lies are often not convincing when told with a divided heart. The tendency is for the deceivers to become self-deceived, to believe their own myths. When this happens, they are no longer scientific. Sincerity is bought at the price of truth. In the light of these obstacles and this tragic dilemma, it would seem that the possibility of scientific political action, even on the part of a section of the élite, which is itself only a small section of society, depends upon favorable and temporary circumstances.