Was Machiavelli
a Fortune Teller ?

by Stanislav Kelman

Philosophy 219
March 3, 1994

Abstract: In this paper I attempt to show how Russia, in its twentieth century history, has undergone almost a complete cycle of changes in its form of government as Machiavelli describes them in his Discourses.

Niccolo Machiavelli, a sixteenth century Italian philosopher, is most famous for his work called The Prince. In this book he advises political leaders on how to make their rule more efficient and lasting. It is believed that many dictators of past centuries used his techniques to their advantage. On the other hand, Machiavelli's conceptions of the structure and constitution of a state are much less well known. Furthermore, it may seem that the modern ideas about a country's organization are quite different from those of five hundred years ago. Nevertheless, in this report I will try to show that in fact there are many similarities between Machiavelli's perception of society discussed in Discourses and the reality of the twentieth century.

In the first book of Discourses, Machiavelli says that "there are six types of government: three of these are very bad; three others are good in themselves but are so easily corruptible that they, too, can become pernicious." The three positive kinds of government are called "principality, aristocracy, and democracy." However, "they can easily jump from one form to another. For the principality easily becomes tyrannical; aristocrats can very easily produce an oligarchy; democracy is converted into anarchy with no difficulty." Machiavelli further states that all of the above forms of government succeed each other in a cycle. Shortly after one of them turns into its negative form, for example, if principality results in tyranny, it is replaced by the next basic type of government, which is aristocracy here.

My first goal was to find a country that in modern history has, at least to some extent, followed the above path. Surprisingly enough, I was able to identify a few such countries, among which are Russia, Egypt, Chile and some others. I will now attempt to show how Russia, in its twentieth century history, has undergone almost a complete cycle of government form changes as Machiavelli describes them.

The Russian Empire had existed as a monarchy since the fifteenth century. The last Russian tzar Nicholas II, as well as a few emperors preceding him, was an inefficient ruler. Russian government became very corrupted and bureaucratic. World War I and the defeat in the war with Japan demonstrated that the Russian army was no longer well organized and trained. At the same time, heavy restrictions were imposed on citizens and many liberal political leaders were imprisoned. What happened to the dynasty of the Romanovs, who had ruled Russia since 1613, is well described by Machiavelli:

When they began to choose the prince by hereditary succession, . . . the heirs immediately began to degenerate from the level of their ancestors . . . So, as the prince came to be hated, he . . . quickly passed from fear to violent deeds, and the immediate result was tyranny.

Does not all this actually sound like a passage from a book on Russian history, written four hundred years before it took place? Of course, Machiavelli knows what happened next:

The masses . . . took up arms against the prince . . . And since those men hated the very idea of a single ruler, they constituted for themselves a government, and in the beginning, . . . they governed according to the laws instituted by themselves, subordinating their own interests to the common good . . .

Now we know that Machiavelli is talking about the Socialist Revolution that established the new government in 1917. We also see reflections of the idea of the "common good" in Marxist theory, which stimulated the Revolution. What I cannot understand is how Machiavelli found out about Marx and Lenin! Now we shall continue our reading:

They turned to avarice, ambition . . . and they caused a government of the aristocrats to become a government of a few, with no regard to any civil rights . . .

I guess here Machiavelli refers to the rule of Stalin and his successors. The term "aristocrats" is applied to the "aristocratic" privileges of the leaders of the Soviet Communist Party. Finally, did not everybody in the Western World talk about violation of "civil rights" in the former Soviet Union just a few years ago? So, what is next?

As the masses were sick of their rule, they assisted, in any way they could, anyone who might plan to attack these rulers, and thus there soon arose someone who, with the aid of the masses, destroyed them . . . They turned to a democratic form of government, having destroyed the government ruled by a few men . . .

Well, that "someone" is clearly Boris Yeltsin, the current Russian president, and all of the above happened within the last five years. I still wonder, where did Machiavelli get all this information?

Anyway, lets read about the future. If he knew all about the history of Russia (that's still four hundred years after he died), we have every reason to believe that he can predict what will happen next and be prepared for it:

And because all governments are, at the outset, respected, this democratic government was maintained awhile, but not for a long time, . . . it immediately turned to anarchy, where neither the individual citizen nor the public official is feared: each individual lived according to his own wishes, so that every day a thousand wrongs were done; and so, constrained by necessity . . . it returned again to the principality.

Wow! Not too encouraging! However, the truth is that we can already see evidence of what Machiavelli is talking about. For example, it is true that the popularity of the democratic government is falling, and both political and economic anarchy can be observed in certain parts of Russia. Also, "a thousand wrongs" is probably an evidence of high crime activity and absence of adequate laws that could protect justice and peace.

The last question is: who is going to be the new monarch? It seems like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose extreme nationalist Liberal Democratic Party just won the parliamentary elections, is a probable candidate. Some people say that Russia needs a strong ruler like him. It could be that this time he will be the one to enjoy "good Fortune" as Machiavelli calls luck.

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