Lev Kamenev's Preface to Machiavelli (from New Left Review)

Chimen Abransky on Kamenev's Last Essay
(Courtesy Harrison Fluss)

This is not the place for an examination of the purges which devastated the Soviet Union in the 1930's, and their impact on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The aim of this introduction is very limited. It is to give a brief account of the last known public episode of Lev Kamenev, who together with Grigori Zinoviev was the principal actor in the first of the great and tragic trials of 1936–1938. 
Stalin moved to destroy Zinoviev and Kamenev before settling his accounts with the other Old Bolsheviks, because these two stood closest to Lenin at many crucial periods in the history of the Bolshevik Party. One incident alone will serve to show how close Lenin felt to Kamenev. When the Kerensky Government launched its bitter attack on Lenin in July 1917, and the Central Committee of the party decided that Lenin must go into hiding, he went with Zinoviev. But before he left, preoccupied with the fate of his then unpublished book 'The State and the Revolution' (which he considered his most important theoretical contribution to Marxism) Lenin wrote the following note to Kamenev, appointing him in effect literary executor for the book—no mean honour.

'Entre nous: in case I am killed, I will ask you to publish my notebook: "Marxism on the State" (left behind in Stockholm). A blue cover, bound. All the quotations from Marx and Engels are in it, as well as from Kautsky against Pannekoek. There are a number of notes and remarks and some formulations. I think that it will only take a week to publish the book. I consider it important that not merely Plekhanov but also Kautsky confused matters. One condition: this absolutely entre nous!'

When Lenin was 50 in 1920 the Central Committee decided to publish the first collected editions of his works, and Kamenev was asked to edit them. He had established a major reputation before the Revolution as an authority on Alexander Herzen and as a bibliographer of social-democratic literature. In 1916 his book on 'Imperialism' expounded theses similar to Lenin's, independently of Lenin's work (Kamenev was in Russia at the time, and Lenin in Switzerland). Fittingly, his edition of Lenin's works met the highest standards of European scholarship. Lenin had considered that the opposition of Zinoviev and Kamenev to the October Insurrection was not 'accidental', but in spite of this and their various disagreements in the past, he afterwards urged that their opposition of that time 'ought as little to be used against them personally as the non-Bolshevism of Trotsky'. It was he who had moved that both men should hold leading positions in the Soviet Party and Government after the Revolution, and it was he who nominated Zinoviev to be head of the Comintern, and Kamenev to be First Deputy Chairman of the People's Commissars, under himself.

After his death, Zinoviev and Kamenev were drawn into ephemeral alliance with Stalin, but by 1924 they had joined the ranks of the Opposition. And in 1925, at the 14th Party Congress, at the height of the controversy between Stalin and the Opposition, it was Kamenev who uttered the sharpest warning against the danger of what became known after the 20th Congress as the cult of personality. 'We are opposed to the theory of a leader; we are against the making of a leader. We are opposed to the secretariat's practice of combining both politics and organisation and placing itself above the political organs of the Party. We cannot consider it as normal, we think it harmful to the Party that a situation should continue in which the secretariat combines politics and organisation, and in fact decides policy in advance.' He concluded his warning with the following words:

'We are opposed to the theory of individual control, and we are opposed to the creation of a leader.' 
In reply, Kirov admitted that Kamenev's words had made 'the most powerful impression of all the speeches here from the Opposition.' After years of exile, in which he and Zinoviev were expelled from the CPSU no less than four times, Kamenev was for the last time re-admitted into the Party in 1933, and became the editor of the publishing house 'Academia'. He was even allowed to attend the 17th Party Congress in January, 1934, and to address it. To everyone's surprise, he received an ovation. Amid the blossoming of the cult of personality, Kamenev paid his tribute to Stalin.

The official report of the Congress was only published some months later, and despite a reference to it in Pravda at the time, there was no mention of Kamenev's speech in the report. However, an account of it is given in 'The Letter of an Old Bolshevik', a pamphlet originally attributed by Vyshinsky to Rykov but now ascribed by Boris Nikolaevsky to Bukharin, which is a major document on the first trial and the mood of the Soviet Party during 1934–6:

'In his speech Kamenev presented a "theoretical" justification of the need for a dictatorship, not just for a party or a class dictatorship, but for a personal dictatorship.' ' "Democracy", he argued, 'both inside a class and inside a party, was only practicable in periods of peaceful development, when there was sufficient time for discussion and for convincing others. But in time of crisis, the situation was different. At such times the country required a leader, a man who could take responsibility for decisions upon his own shoulders. Happy, indeed, were a party and a country possessing at such moments a leader gifted with that intuition which made it possible to overcome the most difficult situations, but woe to them if a man unfit for leadership stood at the helm, for then destruction was certain." ' The anonymous author continues: 'Kamenev's speech was so formulated and delivered that no doubt could remain in the minds of the audience that the speaker regarded Stalin as a leader of first rank. The Congress gave Kamenev an ovation, which turned into an ovation for Stalin. Not until much later was it observed that the speech was rather Machiavellian, and that, carefully read, it was likely to produce an impression opposite to the one apparently intended.' (Ibid p. 48–9).

We now come to the last episode of Kamenev's life. As has been said, when Kamenev was readmitted to the Party, he was appointed head of the publishing house 'Academia', which specialised in printing de luxe editions of the classics, edited by well-known scholars. In the middle of 1934 'Academia' announced the works of Machiavelli, and Kamenev wrote a preface, of seven pages, to the first volume. The book appeared in November, 1934.

One month later, on December 1st, Kirov was assassinated in Leningrad. Two weeks later Kamenev was arrested. In January 1935, he and Zinoviev, admitting 'moral and political responsibility' for the murder, were sentenced to five and ten years imprisonment respectively. The edition of Machiavelli which had appeared barely 30 days before his arrest, was confiscated in its entirety. Only a few copies survived. A year after their imprisonment, Zinoviev and Kamenev were brought to Moscow and accused of actually ordering the assassination of Kirov, and of planning to assassinate Stalin and his closest colleagues. This was the first great trial staged by Vyshinsky, one of the most demonic men Stalin ever employed. In his debut as Stalin's Grand Inquisitor Vyshinsky, who had been for many years a Menshevik, devoted himself with all the zeal of a neophyte to the physical and spiritual destruction of the Old Guard of the Bolshevik Party. He decided to make capital gain from Kamenev's preface to Machiavelli. He began by quoting Machiavelli, who wrote:

'You must know that there are two ways of contending, by law and by force; the first is proper to men; the second to beasts. But because the first is often insufficient, recourse must be had to the second. A prince must possess the nature of both beast and man.'

Vyshinsky bore down on Kamenev with this quotation and asked him why he described Machiavelli as a 'master of political aphorism and a brilliant dialectician.' He continued with the utmost savagery: 'According to Kamenev, Machiavelli was a dialectician! This hardened schemer turns out to be a dialectician! "A master of political aphorism". A fine aphorism indeed!' Vyshinsky went on remorselessly: 'Machiavelli wrote: to fight by means of law is characteristic of men; to fight by means of force is characteristic of beasts; pursue this bestial policy, says Machiavelli, and you will achieve your goal. And this is the man the accused Kamenev calls a "master of political aphorism".'

Vyshinsky added with extreme unctuousness, in the authentic tone of Torquemada: 'Let us hear what more Kamenev has to say: ". . . A dialectician 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 . . ." Evidently, for Kamenev, this is dialectics. Mixing up what is criminal with what is not criminal, what is lawful and what is not lawful, what is good with what is evil—this is the new "Marxian" interpretation of dialectics ?nbsp; la Machiavelli.' Vyshinsky finished his peroration with one last quotation from Kamenev: '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.'

Kamenev was found guilty, condemned to death, and shot.

Kamenev's preface to Machiavelli stands in its own right as a Marxist text. It is a masterfully compact condensation and evaluation of Machiavelli's work. The writing is almost entirely free of Party jargon—at points, in fact, it controverts it. In defiance of official taboos against it, Kamenev uses the term 'sociology' throughout the preface. He speaks, moreover, of the 'sociology of power', a concept that was doubly suspect at the time, but accords well with his language as a whole. Kamenev's style is absolutely distinctive. It has neither the lumbering, liturgical monotony of Stalin's, nor the harsh, urgent violence of Lenin's, nor the rich, metaphorical eloquence of Trotsky's. It is taut, spare and crisp. Its elegance owes nothing to rhetoric. The terseness of the writing reflects the precision of the thought. The ideas are expressed so economically and lucidly that commentary on them here is rendered unnecessary: the text is self-explanatory. It need only be said that Kamenev's analysis is one of the very rare coherent— both comprehending and critical— judgments of Machiavelli in the literature of socialism.

'The secretary to the Florentine bankers, their ambassador to the Papal court . . .' Kamenev, too, had been ambassador in Rome—exiled there by Stalin in the middle twenties. Writing on Machiavelli in 1934, Kamenev was a defeated politician, pursuing secluded scholarly studies in the margin of public life—as Machiavelli himself had been in 1513, writing 'The Prince' in the village of San Casciano. Kamenev too had cause to meditate on 'the mechanism of the struggle for power within one narrow . . . group'. In a sense, Vyshinsky's virulent requisitory was not misplaced. There were similarities between the situations and intelligence of Machiavelli and his commentator. But they were not of a kind to vindicate Vyshinsky and condemn Kamenev. The State Prosecutor quoted Machiavelli, quoted Kamenev on Machiavelli, to show the ruthless amorality of the accused. The reply to his charges was written then, and for all time, in the preface itself, in words he could not quote: 'The cynicism is not in the words of Machiavelli, but in what they describe . . .' In the universe of distorting mirrors created at the trials, Stalin judged Kamenev for the very document which judged Stalin, indelibly. Kamenev had written: 'Popes, courtiers, statesmen, kings rushed to attack the secretary of the Florentine oligarchs. The nearer their actions came in practice to his observations, the more determined were their attempts to refute his maxims. The secretary of the Order of Jesuits called him the "devil's partner in crime", a "dishonest writer and an unbeliever". Apologists for absolute monarchy found his views too strong meat for them, and hastened to announce that "there never was a man so devoid of moral scruple as this Florentine." The unbridled despot, the Prussian king Frederick, called the Great, wrote a book whose title was "Anti-Machiavelli". Machiavelli's name came to be used as an epitome of political cynicism by those bent on concealing the real nature of power . . .' In Moscow in 1936 the Prince destroyed Machiavelli, but it is Machiavelli's verdict that survives.

Lev Kamenev's Preface to Machiavelli : 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.

This was magnificent in its naked truthfulness—and therefore frightening. Popes, courtiers, statesman, kings rushed to attack the secretary of the Florentine oligarchs. The nearer their actions came in practice to his observations, the more determined were their attempts to refute his maxims. The secretary of the Order of the Jesuits called him the 'devil's partner in crime', a 'dishonest writer and an unbeliever'. Apologists for absolute monarchy found his views too strong meat for them, and hastened to announce that 'there never was a man so devoid of moral scruple as this Florentine'. That typical example of unbridled despotism, the Prussian king Frederick, called the Great, wrote a book whose title was 'Anti-Machiavelli'. Machiavelli's name came to be used as an epitome of political cynicism by those bent on concealing the real nature of power in feudal and bourgeois society.

In fact, the cynicism is not in the words of Machiavelli, but in what they describe. Machiavelli's book is unprincipled, criminal and harsh only because he resolved, to use Lassalle's words, 'aussprechen was ist': to express what is. If Machiavelli's picture of the ruler's conduct in feudal and bourgeois society could not but provoke consternation and outrage among the rulers, it inevitably also attracted the attention of those who in some way or another shared his critical outlook. 'We should be grateful to Machiavelli and others like him who openly and without concealing anything described how people normally behaved, and not how they were supposed to behave' wrote Francis Bacon, the 'true originator of English materialism and in general of the experimental sciences of our time', as Marx described him. Hegel had the same opinion of the secretary to the Council of Ten: he categorically refused to render a moralising judgment on Machiavelli, and saw in his 'lack of principles' and 'anti-religious' propaganda only a transcription of the methods of political struggle which inevitably prevailed in that epoch of human history. 'Machiavelli' wrote Hegel, 'established the truly necessary basic principles for the formation of states, principles imposed by the conditions of that period.'

The young Marx wrote down aphorisms from the 'Examination of Titus Livius' in the notebooks in which he developed some of the ideas for the 'Communist Manifesto'; as a result he repeatedly reread the works of Machiavelli and pronounced at least some of them 'magisterial', 'genuine masterpieces'. Engels included this 'devil's partner in crime' in his gallery of the 'giants' of the Enlightenment, the great destroyers of feudal culture whom the founders of scientific socialism held in such great esteem, because in the fulfilment of their historical task, the creation of the new bourgeois state, they 'were not limited in a petty bourgeois way.' (Dialectics of Nature).

The acute perception of the authors of the 'Communist Manifesto' detected in the writings of the Florentine secretary the beginnings of the theory of the class struggle, and a lucid vision, free from all mysticism or idealism, of the nature of the state and the struggle for power. His was a superbly realistic portrait of the political reality of his day. In the works of Machiavelli emperors, popes, kings, lords, bankers and merchants walk without masks, and by their actions confirm the truth of the historical views of the founders of dialectical materialism. The writings of this publicist of the sixteenth century were an outstanding contribution to the work of discovering the real nature of power in class society, consummated in our own time in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. For this Machiavelli has a right to the attention of the reader of today.


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