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Warren Breckman: Machiavelli and the

Contemporary Left
March 21, 2014
Tobias Mueller
In 1977, long before the fall of the Soviet Union, Louis Althusser conceded that there was a “crisis
of Marxism.” While the answers provided by Marxism, for example the deterministic unilinear
development of history or the dictatorship of the proletariat were no longer conceived as legitimate,
the questions of social injustice and capitalist exploitation remained urgent. Moreover, Althusser
acknowledged, Marxism lacked a theory of action, and the Leninist solution of a vanguard party
had been discarded.
Enter Machiavelli, doomed by the Jesuits for being in league with the devil, considered a “teacher
of evil” by Leo Strauss, his works held up by Stalin as grounds for execution.
How did a Renaissance thinker contribute to the New Left’s search for new answers? That was the
subject of a recent lecture by Warren Breckman. Breckman, a professor of history at the University
of Pennsylvania, promised to take the audience from renaissance Florence to Paris in the 60s to
Zuccotti Park, New York in 2011.
He began by noting that both Althusser and Claude Lefort draw on Machiavelli’s notion of a “void”
at the core of society, emptied by the gradual erosion of the old holy order. For Althusser,
Machiavelli’s void serves first as a recurrent point of reflection on his “own delirium”, his fragile
mental health situation. On a theoretical level, Althusser depicts Machiavelli as the philosopher “of
the beginning,” revealing the need for a “new state”
Machiavelli argues for the fundamental contingency of anything trying to fill the void. For
Althusser, this contingency serves as a check against any forms of essentialism and determinism,
including those common within Marxism. Althusser thereby uses the Machiavellian confrontation
between virtù and fortuna to prioritise agency over structure. He calls for someone filling the void
as the Machiavellian prince, an individual to finally bring about the overthrow of capitalism.
Breckman’s Althusser argues for contingency regarding whether a revolution will happen, who will
be its agent and what circumstances will facilitate this task.
However, it is interesting to compare this assessment to alternative proposals. Recently, I attended a
masterclass at Birkbeck given by theorist Ernesto Laclau. Laclau pointed out how the Heideggerian
abgrund or abyss, Lacan’s objet petit a, a total desire that can never be satisfied, and Gramsci’s
notion of the undetermined agent for the task of hegemony all provide for an ontology similar to the
void in Machiavelli.
By contrast, Claude Lefort is drawn to Machiavelli’s approach to social division and symbolic
power. The Florentine claims that in every polity the grandees desire to oppress the people and the
people desire not to be oppressed. Thus, Rome’s greatness lay not in its stability but in its inherent
conflict. Only through this rift could achievements such as laws in favour of liberty emerge. But
Lefort goes even further. Because of the absence of certainty and the search for foundation, the
debate about the latter is bound not to end. As Breckman put it, “Social division is the essence of
democracy’s political logic.” Interestingly enough, other left-wing theorists such as Chantal Mouffe
found their antagonistic view of democracy on the critical reception of another purportedly anti-
democratic thinker, Carl Schmitt.
How do these concepts traced back to Machiavelli help us to explain phenomena in the 21st
century? How is he, as Eric Weil puts it, carried “from the library into the public square”,
particularly Zuccotti Park? What are the new ideas for left thinking after the “crisis of Marxism”?
As Breckman explains, one of the New Left’s major shifts away from orthodox Marxism was the
conviction that the revolutionary subject would not be created by the impoverishment of peasants
and the middle classes resulting in the world-wide homogenisation of the proletariat. Even as many
Occupy Wall Street activists accepted the Zapatista slogan “One No, many Yeses”, diversity in
social struggles is now a recognised and welcomed fact. Lefort argues that the center of democracy
is empty, whereas well-established institutions and social movements struggle for its occupation.
Though Breckman describes non-hierarchical modes of communication and the lack of strong
leaders as “new global idiom for activism”, he fails to explain how this can be explained or
conceptualised by Lefort. Moreover, it would be interesting to further analyse how different
processes of Althusserian “beginning” and “conjuncture” actually evolve in spontaneous fora such
as the Occupy movement’s general assemblies. Another interesting angle to look at these struggles
for the void would be from he lens of deliberative theories of democracy. As Breckman describes
the antagonistic character of the egalitarian and non-hierarchical debates in these movements, it
would be worthwhile to locate Althusser and Lefort in the arena between Trotsky’s permanent
revolution and a Habermasian model of discourse free of domination.
On an empirical level, it would be interesting to juxtapose the social protests since 2011 in the Arab
world, Spain, the US, Greece, Turkey, Ukraine and elsewhere with the social movements in the late
1960s. This would enable us to analyse whether Lefort’s claim of a change in the power-structure of
protest movements can be approved and whether Breckman’s attempt to apply these concepts to
recent events provide for a deeper understanding of recent political phenomena. At any rate,
Breckman’s enterprise to analyse the sources of new paths for left thought is as fascinating as its
empirical implications.
Tobias Mueller is an MPhil candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the
University of Cambridge, and an Associate Book Review Editor at the Cambridge Review of
International Affairs.