The posthumous publication of Louis Althusser’s reflections on Machiavelli offers an unsettling occasion to return to both thinkers. If we except the more limited cases of Della Volpe and Colletti, Althusser was the only figure in the Western Marxist tradition to engage with a number of the classics of Western political theory. But his writings on Montesquieu, Rousseau and Hegel—remarkable, even at times coruscating, as they could be—were still beholden to the idea that such theorists might be judged by how closely they came to anticipating the discoveries of historical materialism. His unpublished text on Machiavelli, dating from a later period, exhibits a different spirit. Here relations are if anything reversed—the Florentine figured as a more radical and original theorist than any successor in the Communist tradition. According to his pupil Emmanuel Terray, he once confessed that Machiavelli was ‘without doubt the author who has most fascinated me, much more so than Marx’.

Althusser began to sketch lectures on Machiavelli in 1962, less than a year after a formative first encounter while on holiday in Italy; a draft took shape around 1971–2 in preparation for another course, and was largely completed by 1975. This version was periodically revised up through the mid-eighties, but left unpublished at his death in 1990. Overtly, none of the major events of post-war Communism left any mark on these pages. De-Stalinization, the Sino-Soviet split, the Cultural Revolution, May 1968, Eurocommunism are visible only through extremely oblique allusions. Unmistakeably, however, Althusser intended Machiavelli and Us—his own title—as a philosophical reflection on the short 20th century defined by the legacy of the Russian Revolution.

Only indirectly topical, the text is also only subliminally exegetical. Althusser not only avoids conventional quotation from Machiavelli. Even more conspicuously he ignores nearly all of the great multinational landmarks of 20th century Machiavelli scholarship. It seems likely that Althusser came to know of this body of work only when he read Le Travail de l’œuvre, a massive study of Machiavelli by Claude Lefort published in 1972 which discusses a number of scholars—Gerhard Ritter, Rene Koenig, Ernst Cassirer, and Leo Strauss amongst others—far removed from the French intellectual scene of the time. The only influence he acknowledges, if still somewhat perfunctorily, is Gramsci. His own glosses are often cavalier, scanting issues others have reflected on more clearly and carefully. Althusser’s philological indifference finds revealing expression in his comment that Machiavelli can only be made interesting if he is ‘utterly transformed’ by reading his ideas in the light of contemporary concerns.

The primary concern of Althusser’s study is to establish Machiavelli’s significance as a unique figure in the history of philosophy. His central claim is that Machiavelli’s writings inaugurated a completely original materialism—one that is neither a monistic ontology, nor a claim about the primacy of the economic in history, not even in the last instance. More captiously, Machiavelli is defined as a materialist because he is a theorist of ‘concrete conjunctures’, who brings concealed vectors of strategic action to light, exposing the immanent possibilities of the present as a moment in history. ‘Matter’ under this meaning is too complex and ductile to allow for any general laws: it is simply the ungrounded, emergent causality of open-ended transitions.

Marxists have classically argued that historical materialism is the science of the systemic compulsions and counter-finalities of the struggle between groups fought out under conditions of scarcity. Although in the whole tradition of Western Marxism there was no one who had a more positive view of science, Althusser actually subscribed to an extremely modest view of the knowledge that a Marxist science of history could offer; as a field of contradiction and over-determination, history was a process structured only in a distant last instance by economic modes of production. Here, however, dismissing the stereotype of Machiavelli as the founder of a coldly realistic analytics of power, Althusser tacitly relinquishes his own distinctive conception of class struggles too. For the flux of conjunctures now precludes any law-like regularities. What Machiavelli offers us instead is an art of thinking focussed wholly on the conditions of undertaking tasks immediately to hand, without anchorage in any underlying movement of history: a supposedly deeper, albeit more unstable kind of knowledge. The purpose of his rhetorical construction of exemplary cases was, Althusser argues, to offer a repertoire of scenarios for transformative agency. This was an optic designed for sharp focus on those faint interstitial possibilities that only become ‘events’ through great, improbable awakenings of the down-and-out. Indeed, according to Althusser, the problem which defined the horizon of Machiavelli’s thought was how a new political order could be established in wholly unfavourable circumstances. The utopian energy of his writing springs from an impasse: while the possibilities of a new state were being realized elsewhere in Europe in the form of absolutism, the Italian city-state was unable to reinvent itself on the enlarged national scale necessary for a successful transition to capitalism.

But despite the fact that the examples and distinctions deployed in his texts are often embedded in the contentions of a distant era, Machiavelli remains actual today as the inventor of a new genre of writing about politics, whose potential has yet to be grasped. The most significant moments in his work speak to an interlocutor who is not ultimately a valorous individual, but rather the masses whose possibilities of agency are represented in the form of such a figure. Machiavelli’s writings establish roles for potential actors on the political stage and interpellate subjects who will play out those roles. It is the presence of these empty spaces, to be read and occupied by anonymous partisan subjects, that make it so difficult to decipher the agendas lurking beneath his deceptively clear prose. This indeterminacy is constitutive and ineradicable. By way of parables, stories of the concrete, Machiavelli broke out of the generalizing format of the classical treatise, and invented the prototype of the manifesto. The rhetorical novelty of the latter is that it is a text which inserts itself into the space of agency that it has itself identified. Machiavelli, unlike Marx, leaves these spaces open: more cognizant of the aleatory dialectic of political conflict, he does not seal them with any ideological closure. Machiavelli addresses the masses via the silhouette of a resolute ruler only because, conceived in that form, decisive action can begin at any time. The Prince, unlike the proletariat, is ‘the pure possibility of the event’, ‘agency out of the void’, ‘absolute new beginning’. Machiavelli’s writings analyse ‘the conditions of an impossible event’, blasting open the continuum of history. It is as if we overhear at this point an uncanny, voluntarist echo of Benjamin.

Shifting from the plane of this unearthly general ‘materialism’, Althusser’s text moves to a more specific question, the object of a long-standing controversy, to which he returns an over-coded answer. How is it possible to reconcile Machiavelli the patriotic republican with Machiavelli the counsellor of princes? Althusser argues that there is no conflict between the political agenda of The Prince and that of the Discourses because the former simply explores the violent agency required to found a new state which will, over the course of time, eventually become the national-republican polity which Machiavelli was ultimately aiming for. Here Althusser develops Gramsci’s idea that Machiavelli was, even as a counsellor to princes, a proto-Jacobin attempting to shape the construction of an emergent popular will by pointing out courses of appropriate action to those for whom this could never be a conscious goal. The Prince is the handbook for a would-be founder of a new state, who must work alone, purging and liquidating his enemies. The Discourses, by contrast, offer a more panoramic vision of the longer-term work of incorporating the masses into the new state through laws, and mobilizing them though representative institutions.