Louis Althusser’s Machiavelli and Us is a strange, tortured text that bears all the marks of its long germination. It originates in a lecture course given in 1962, which was cut short by Althusser’s nervous breakdown and hospitalization. The notes for that course were apparently lost, and rewritten from scratch, we are told, “very probably after 1968” (vii). These led to a new course, given in 1972, but Althusser continued to work on the manuscript “on and off up to the mid 1980s” (vii), although he never published it in his lifetime. It finally saw the light of day in 1995, five years after his death. Hence the version we have (in the translation by Gregory Elliott) has numerous footnotes indicating some of the major handwritten revisions, correction, and addenda, often of very uncertain date. One can only suspect that there is a reason for this difficult history, and perhaps also a reason why Althusser kept on returning to Machiavelli, seemingly obsessed but at the same time dissatisfied with his analysis. As he himself notes, “Machiavelli grips us. But if by chance we want to grasp him, he evades us: he is elusive” (4).
On the one hand, the book does its darnedest to present Machiavelli as a theorist of hegemony. No wonder, in that Althusser takes much of his inspiration from Antonio Gramsci’s reading of The Prince. Machiavelli, Gramsci and Althusser argue, is not so much a thinker of the principality, of the many principalities that dotted the Italian peninsula: he is a theorist of the nation state. More particularly, Althusser grants “Gramsci’s master theme,” that Machiavelli is a theorist of “the political question of Italian unity–that is to say, the political problem of the Italian nation’s constitution by means of a national state” (11). So the prince’s task is to found a state that will both expand and endure: it has to expand until it is coterminous with the limits of the Italian nation; and it can only endure so long as it wins the “friendship” of the people, siding with them against the nobility to overturn the legacy of feudalism. The successful prince, Althusser argues, employs both coercion and consent to fashion a people who fear but do not hate him. Hence the role of ideology, both “a basic ideology” and particular ideologies; it is religion that takes on the role of basic ideology, “a general, constant ideology,” while particular ideologies relate to the specific attributes of the prince himself, expressed “in the form of the representation of the Prince in popular opinion” (92). Althusser therefore concludes that “to appreciate this policy of ‘fear without hatred’ properly, it must be called by its name: it is an ideological politics, politics in ideology” (101).
On the other hand, many of Althusser’s revisions reveal another side to the book. Here, instead of the telos of the nation state, the historical destiny of Italian unification, what is stressed is rather the conjuncture defined by its “aleatory” singularity and unpredictability: “Machiavelli is the first theorist of the conjuncture or the first thinker [. . .] to think in the conjuncture: that is to say in its concept of an aleatory, singular case” (18; the phrase “aleatory, singular case” is a late addition); “There comes a moment when Machiavelli can no longer ‘gamble on’ classical theory, or play it off against another, to open up his own space: he must leap into the void” (42; “into the void” is a late addition). Systematically, Althusser shifts the emphasis of what he had previously written such that what begins to emerge is what he elsewhere terms “a materialism of the encounter, hence of the aleatory and of contingency” (qtd. xiii). Here what counts are not so much the means by which the prince binds the people to himself by “establish[ing] Italian unity from the standpoint of the ’populare’ [. . .] gaining the people’s friendship–that is, to speak plainly, an alliance with the people against the nobility” (129). Rather, what’s at stake are “the forms of the encounter between fortuna and virtù” and the undecidability of the tension between concrete actuality and an aleatory future, “the discrepancy between the definite and indefinite, the necessary and the unforeseeable” (80). From this perspective we might turn from thinking about ideology in terms of representation to a consideration of how the army, for instance, acts more like what we might call (drawing on Althusser’s famous “Ideological State Apparatuses” essay) “ideology in general” by interpellating and constituting subjects through habit and affect. Rather than taking the “people” (and its hostility to the nobility) for granted, we would then turn instead to the prior process of “the becoming-people of the people” (102).
In short, there is a posthegemonic reading of Machiavelli that is constantly escaping and perhaps threatening to overwhelm Althusser’s otherwise Gramscian insistence on hegemony. There is, we might even add, an ontological dimension that undermines Althusser’s contention that Machiavelli’s singularity is his insistence on “the primacy of politics tout court” (99). Or rather, there is a “primitive political accumulation” (125) that precedes the establishment of any space or institutions onto which hegemony can be projected as though it were politics, and as though politics were hegemony.