The inclusion of the works of Niccolo Machiavelli in the series of volumes published by ‘Academia’ needs no justification. The episodes which inspired Machiavelli’s works, the works themselves (propagandist, historical, fictional), the bitter disputes which raged around his name for centuries afterwards—all these are major events in the cultural history of Europe. The Soviet reader who comes across, as he is bound to do, references to Machiavelli in historical studies, in current editorials in the press (‘Machiavellism’, ‘Machiavellian politics’ etc.), and in literary works, rightly wants an opportunity to read the actual, original texts of the secretary of the Florentine Republic in the sixteenth century. The ‘Academia’ edition is intended to meet this need.

In an excellent study specially written for this volume, A. K. Dzhivelegov outlines Machiavelli’s life and the historical circumstances which influenced his work. The fate of Machiavelli’s ideas and works after his death falls outside the scope of his study. In fact, their destiny was remarkable and revealing. A study of the attitudes displayed by different groups in European society towards Machiavelli over a period of four centuries (sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries), in the course of which his work was the object of constant attention on the part of politicians, propagandists and historians, would provide the richest and most varied material for a history of the ideological terms of the class struggle, from the overthrow of feudalism to the era of the proletarian revolution. We can only venture a few remarks in this connection here.

In spite of accepted terminology, the importance of Machiavelli does not lie in his ‘theory’ or ‘political system’. He has in fact no ‘theory’ nor ‘system’, in the sense of a deeply considered and fully developed doctrine of society, or even of the state. He had no gift for profound philosophical enquiry, nor yet for broad sociological generalisations. His real talent is that of the political publicist, writing on urgent contemporary issues, or on past events as recorded by historians of the ancient world. In either case his aim is to have direct, immediate influence on the political events of his time. In either case his ‘theoretical judgments’ and his professional reports really amount to the same thing—a record of the first-hand observations of one whose position was close to the real centre of the struggle for power.

The social content of power, its social determinations, interested him very little. Whether power was in the hands of Alexander VI or Cesar Borgia, Cesar Borgia or Prince Orsini, Prince Orsini or the Duke of Urbino, in the final analysis its content remained virtually unchanged. Machiavelli’s primary concern is with the actual process of the struggle for power. His most famous work, ‘The Prince’, is not a study of the changing social groups which have won power, and the conditions and significance of these changes: it is concerned with the mechanism of the struggle for power within one narrow social group, in the period of transition from feudalism to capitalism.

Of course, Machiavelli’s work bears the impress of a major historical force: the drive to create a powerful, national and essentially bourgeois state in Italy, by the systematic destruction of the complex of independent feudal, semi-feudal and commercial communes, republics and dukedoms. But in Italy at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century this idea had to fight its way (and at the time it was unsuccessful) through the inextricable confusion of countless myriads of powerful and petty Italian rulers incessantly warring against each other. It is the political practice made up of these innumerable clashes which receives open formulation in Machiavelli’s treatise.

He was a master of political aphorism and a dialectician of brilliance, who from his observations had come to the firm conclusion that all concepts and all criteria of good and evil, of the permissible and the impermissible, of the lawful and the criminal, were relative. Machiavelli made his book an astonishingly acute and expressive catalogue of the rules which a prince of that period had to follow in order to win power and to retain it victoriously in the face of all attempts to wrest it from him. This was far from being a sociology of power, but from his recommendations there emerges a magnificent picture of the zoological features of the struggle for power in a slave society, in which a rich minority ruled over a toiling majority. Thus by accident or design the secretary to the Florentine bankers, their ambassador at the Papal court, set off a shell of such tremendous explosive force that it disturbed the peace of mind of rulers for centuries afterwards.

In Machiavelli’s work there is not the slightest mention of a religious or metaphysical ‘essence’ of the state, not a word about the ‘divinely chosen’ ruler—even of the Papal domain, not one reference to the ‘will of the people’, to the ‘laws of history’, to the ‘interests of humanity’. This servant of the Florentine oligarchy was not afraid to look at the political reality of his time and to reveal behind the broad banners and paltry finery its true countenance: an oppressive class of masters struggling amongst themselves for power over the labouring masses. In one small book he put to scorn the most learned scholars, the authors of innumerable theological, moral and political treatises on the nature of political power, full of references to the philosophy of Aristotle, the tablets of Moses and the precepts of St. Paul.