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“When I read Machiavelli, Marx rang true”

The below is a special guest post written by Manjeet Ramgotra, contributor to Theoria, Issue 139, and author of ‘Conservative Roots of Republicanism.’


My article “Conservative Roots of Republicanism” is a result of research I conducted for my PhD.  Initially, I had begun to work on Rousseau.  I developed a critique of Pocock’s understanding of republicanism as antithetical to liberalism founded on a discourse of rights and the social contract.  I contended that as Rousseau combines republicanism, rights and the social contract, that Pocock’s view must be ill-founded.  As I began to work on Rousseau and a critique of Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment, my advisers recommended that I read Montesquieu who influenced Rousseau and Machiavelli, the central character of Pocock’s work.  I included these thinkers in my study and was further advised to examine Cicero.  On reading works of Cicero, I realized that although all individuals can promote the public good, not all participate on an equal basis in the political realm.  In fact, the people participate only on a partial basis to protect their freedom to live in security from the arbitrary domination of the nobility.  On reading Machiavelli’s Discourses, it became clear that the class struggle between the nobles (the haves) and the people (the have-nots) was essential to his republicanism.  In fact the unequal participation of each class to protect its own interests – political authority and control for the nobles and political liberty or the freedom to live in security and without fear of arbitrary domination for the people – made Marx’s claim that history is about the struggle between social classes ring true.  However, I did not adopt a structuralist or a Marxist approach; rather much of my argument is a result of exegetical and contextual analysis.

My study developed as a critique of the Cambridge School egalitarian and participatory understanding of republicanism.  Hence I queried what are republican institutions, to what extent do the people and nobles participate in these institutions, who makes the laws and what is the role of the people in this process.  That the people had a partial role in this process is extremely important as this opens boundaries of the political realm.  Nevertheless, this popular role was also used to support and legitimise the authority of the nobles.  The popular voice did not necessarily contest proposed laws, but rather acquiesced in these.  My study took me to Rome, to the foundations of Cicero’s theoretical understanding of the Roman Republic.  It is here that I found the justification for the hierarchical participation of the nobles and people in the political realm on the basis of an understanding of fairness as equity whereby each participates in the public realm according to his rank and due.  Cicero argued that the republic ought to combine the political power of the monarchic element with the political authority of the noble few and the political liberty of the many (or rather the upper echelons of the people who owned enough property to have an adequate voice).

I traced this structure in the thought of Machiavelli and Montesquieu.  Machiavelli analyses the Roman Republic in his Discourses and sees Rome as a great and exemplary republic precisely because it directs the energy of social conflict to empire and expansion.  In The Prince, Machiavelli shows how the power of one man can transform things.  The combination of princely power with the republican aristocratic and popular institutions makes the republic both strong and great.  Montesquieu rearticulates many of these arguments but in a new language dominated by science and mechanics.  Through his theory of the separation and balance of powers, Montesquieu understands the constitution in terms of executive and legislative powers that ought to be harmonized.  Yet as he divides the legislative power into two chambers for the landed nobility and the people, it is clear that he adopts the republican mixed constitution.  Moreover, he combines historical analysis of constitutions and advances the unequal participation of the social classes in the constitution.

On examining the relationship between virtue and commerce in Montesquieu’s political thought, it became apparent that the commerce Montesquieu discussed was that of the transatlantic trade.  The mainstay of this trade was the slave-trade.  I began to read his ideas in a different light.  In my view, his work supported the pursuit of colonial empire; for commerce entailed the acquisition and domination of overseas territories.  It became clear to me that executive power was very important in the institutional structures that Montesquieu promoted.  For executive power could both mediate social conflict between the owners of landed property and owners of mobile property (merchant classes).  Concurrently, a strong central executive power facilitated the pursuit of an overseas empire that sought to secure international trade and commerce.

Subsequently, I read the notion of empire retrospectively and realized that as Montesquieu stood at a moment of great global change so too did Machiavelli.  Machiavelli wrote shortly after navigational routes to the Americas and around Africa had been forged and promoted an expansive republic.  Cicero also promoted the expansive Roman Republic that extended borders beyond the Mediterranean.  So the coherence between the republican views of these three thinkers at very different moments in time became more apparent.  Each advocated a particular form of republic and particular republican values of virtue, authority, freedom and the participation of the various elements of political society on a hierarchical basis and expansion.

Many people have queried how I use the term conservative.  My article sets out to answer these queries.  I described this republican mixed constitution as ‘conservative’ mainly with regard to the social hierarchy, preservation of the nobility’s privileges and how political communities deal with change.  To harness change a republic needs to dominate over unstable elements.  Cicero, Machiavelli and Montesquieu advocate a set of institutional structures that provide the fluidity to adapt to change without revolution and collapse.  In other words, these institutions keep the republic afloat.

Finally, it is important to uncover the conservative bent of this strand of republicanism.  If we continue to assert that radical, egalitarian and participatory conceptions of republicanism originate in the ideas of Cicero, Machiavelli and Montesquieu, we risk inadvertently reasserting hierarchy and empire.


Click here to see Manjeet Ramgotra’s article in Theoria. To get a free 60-day online trial of the journal, click here.