Political Essay: Italian Minds in Politics: Machiavelli’s Lessons and Gramsci’s Reinterpretation

Writer: Mohsen Ebrahimizadeh Ghahrood

Professor Bruno Settis

February 21, 2024

Italian Minds in Politics: Machiavelli’s Lessons and Gramsci’s Reinterpretation


Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist philosopher born on January 22, 1891, in Ales and Died on April 27, 1937, in Rome. He is also very well-known for his works and theories on politics, and for being a founding member and one-time leader of the Italian communist party. He was among the other politicians and political activists who criticized Benito Mussolini and Fascism all his life and because of that, he was imprisoned in 1926 and remained in prison until he died in 1937.

Five centuries before Antonio Gramsci, one of the most important politicians in the history of Italy born in May of 1469. Machiavelli was a Renaissance political philosopher who wrote his book “ The Prince “ which had an impressive impact on Gramsci’s works and his theory, especially on Gramsci’s book with the title “The Prison Notebooks”. Machiavelli was a forty-four-year-old diplomat facing ruin while he wrote his masterpiece called “The Prince”. In this essay, I seek to explore the relation between Gramsci’s works, particularly the “Prison Notebooks” and the legacy of Machiavelli’s ideas on Gramsci’s thinkings regarding political strategy and governance. 

The connection between Machiavelli and Gramsci goes with the coexistence of classical political theory and Marxist philosophy. This essay aims to look at different layers of the influence that contribute to Gramsci’s intellectual framework specially regarding the concept of masses, parties and show how Machiavelli’s wisdom can be discovered again in the evolution of political thought, however, it is obvious this matter needs to be studied as a series of classes and would take more than a book to discuss it.

 First I will try to summarize Machiavelli’s life and thoughts and quote some parts of his book “ The Prince “ and also “ The Discourses ” that have a huge impact on Gramsci’s works. In the second chapter, that is my main focus, I will try the same pattern with Gramcsi’s work “The Prison Notebooks “ and in the last part, I will discuss the relationship between these two chapters and try to draw a line between the ideas and the works of these two political philosophers. 


During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Italy was suffering from a complicated political crisis between the five states that were in power. At the time, Italy was divided into five different states; the kingdom of Naples, the Papal States, Florence, Venice, and Milan. All these five powers in the peninsula constantly competed for new territories they could get. From outside the situation wasn’t different. Turks conquered much of Italy’s overseas empire, France was more powerful than before after its unification in the north of Italy and eventually invaded Italy in 1494. Also, the Italian wars (1494-1559) were ongoing conflicts which were involving the most powerful European powers trying to get control over Italian territories. So to short, in this period there is nothing but chaos and instability in the political landscape of Italy. In Florance, from 1434 on, the Medicis – first Cosimo, then Piero, then Lorenzo – had been manipulating the electoral process so that they could be in power or bring up their friends to power. So, although the Florentines still liked to boast that they were free citizens, by the mid-fifteenth century they were living in something very similar to a dictatorship. Machiavelli thus grew up in a society where the distance between how things were run and how they were described as being run could not have been greater.

Machiavelli was a politician who tried his whole life to observe and learn from these conflicts and compare them to the wars and challenges that Italy and other countries were struggling with throughout history. He reflected all his observations and gains in his book “The Prince” in which he discusses the idea of how the reality of politics is rough and how the prince should behave regardless of moral considerations. 

At the time, the church, especially the Pop, had a strong influence all over Italy, even in France. There was a meaningful difference between matters of religion and matters of state. The Pazzi conspiracy had been backed by the Pop, Priests had been involved in the assassination attempt and Lorenzo was excommunicated after it failed, in short, the religious edict was a political tool. Machiavelli saw these contradictions and he realized and understood religion was not as it had to be, it was a tool for Pop and the church to be able to push their political ideas and because of their power over the people, they could force the kings to go the way they wanted. Because of all these happenings and contradictions, he built his philosophy on the division of religion and morality with power. He believed that there were many occasions when winning and holding political power was possible only if a leader was ready to act outside the moral codes that applied to ordinary individuals. Public opinion was such, he explained, that, once victory was achieved, nobody was going to put the winner on trial. Political leaders were above the law.

Machiavelli believed that political life, is routinely, cruel and that once established in a position of power a ruler may have no choice but to kill or be killed. He understood that when there is a matter of the country, the prince should decide without any thinking of passion unless he will lose the whole kingdom. «Machiavelli systematizes such behavior and appears to recommend it, if only to those few who are committed to winning and holding political power.»

«These reflections prompt the question: is it better to be loved rather than feared, or vice versa? The answer is that one would prefer to be both but, since they don’t go together easily, if you have to choose, it’s much safer to be feared than loved. […] Fear means fear of punishment, and that’s something people never forget.» 

The question about the relation between effective political leadership and Christian principles, as Machiavelli describes, some situations would arise where one was bound to choose between two. As mentioned the prince must reject all ethical values outright; the strength, unity, and independence of the people and the state certainly constituted goals worth fighting for « ’I love my country more than my soul’, Machiavelli declared in a letter to fellow historian Francesco Guicciardini». He considered Christian principles admirable, but not applicable for politicians in certain circumstances; the idea that all human behavior could be assessed about one set of values was naive. it was in so far as Machiavelli allowed these dangerous implications to surface in his writing that he both unmasked, and himself became identified with, what we might call the unacceptable face of Renaissance Humanism.

For Machiavelli ‘virtù’ was any quality of character that enabled the prince to take political power or to hold on to it. A winning trait. It could be courage in battle, or strength of personality, or political cunning. 

The project obliged him to explain that there were many occasions when winning and holding political power was possible only if a leader was ready to act outside the moral codes that applied to ordinary individuals. Public opinion was such, he explained, that, once victory was achieved, nobody was going to put the winner on trial. Political leaders were above the law.

«He had no way of keeping the initial believers on board or forcing the skeptical to see the light. But any new ruler bringing in changes will have to deal with huge obstacles and dangers, mostly in the early stages, and must overcome them with his own abilities. Once he’s done that and eliminated those who resented his achievements, so that people start to respect and admire him, then he can enjoy his power in safety and will live honored and fulfilled.»

Machiavelli experienced the crisis that opened the modern age and radically challenged the traditional understanding of politics. His focus was mainly on the conflictual facts of politics that modern thought attempted to dispel and placed transformation and conflict at the heart of human societies. 

«I send you a present that, if it does not correspond to the obligations I have to you, is without doubt the greatest Niccolò Machiavelli has been able to send you. For in it I have expressed as much as I know and have learned through a long practice and a continual reading in wordy things».


During Gramsci’s lifetime, a huge range of events has been happening. The most important one was the rise of fascism in Italy in 1922. Mussolini came to power in 1922. At the time, Italy was suffering from political maneuvering, economic instability, and widespread social discontent. After the First World War, the whole of Europe was struggling with economic challenges, social problems, and high unemployment. Mussolini and his party, National Fascist Party, used this situation and became popular by presenting themselves as a solution to these problems that Italy was facing. Mussolini and his followers, with the help of the Blackshirts who were trying to create a scene of chaos and urgency, marched on Rome and demanded King Victor Emmanuel III to let him form the government. Because of the fear of the civil war, the King accepted Mussolini’s demand and helped fascism to rise. Then Mussolini established a one-party state, suppressed political opposition, and centralized power within his party that ruled Italy until the end of World War II. 

The rise of fascism didn’t happen just in Italy. Similar movements were occurring in other European countries during the interwar period. Some characteristics that made fascism appealing to the people were: nationalist sentiments, economic hardship, fear of communism, and a leadership was charismatic; Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party had similar conditions. 

The second important event of this period was the formation of The Soviet Union. In 1917 the Bolshevik revolution succeeded and led to the establishment of The Soviet Union which had a profound impact on Marxist thought worldwide. However, Gramsci was critical of the Soviet model, particularly its emphasis on a centralized and bureaucratic party structure. His ideas diverged from the traditional Marxist orthodoxy, focusing on the role of culture, civil society, and intellectuals in the struggle for social change.

In 1926, Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned by the Italian Fascist Regime because of his political activities and ideology. Gramsci’s involvement with Italian Communist Party which he was one of the founding members of it, his writings and publications and his leadership and organizational skills were the most important factors that led to his imprisonment. Gramsci actively advocated for communist ideals and critizied the rising Fascist movement in Italy. Also because he was a prolific writer and journalist, he used his publications to analyze and critique society, particularly the working class and their struggles, exposing the inequalities and injustices under the fascist regime and drawing the attention to the fact that the regime’s policies and the fascist idea is responsible for all these. 

Regardless of Gramsci’s imprisonment, he never gave up and tried to develop his ideas about his theories so he wrote more than 30 notebooks and 3,000 pages of history and analysis which were some of them published under the name of “Prison Notebooks”. Also, he is very famous because of his theory of cultural hegemony. This theory describes how cultural institutions are being used by the bourgeoisie to keep their power in a capitalist society. His theory describes the bourgeoisie by using ideology to develop a hegemonic culture without a need for violence or economic force. 

Gramsci and his reading of Machiavelli

As mentioned before, Machiavelli played an important role in Gramsci’s political thoughts. His influence is visible in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks that he wrote while he was in prison in the 1930s (notebooks 13 and 18 of Valentino Gerratana’s critical edition of the Quaderni del carcere ). Also, a selection of Gramsci’s writings appeared in English translation in an edition titled The Modern Prince.

Gramsci’s strategy to deceive the censors was to use Machiavelli’s text as a reference for his writing, but his reflection on Machiavelli was more than an expedient. Gramsci was trying to update Machiavelli’s idea of leadership that is closely linked to the popular classes and that creates a new state in accordance with their will and passion. He considered Machiavelli an exception among the Italian intellectuals, who were usually cosmopolitan and quite distant from the masses: he was deeply concerned with the problems of the Italian situation and tried to imagine how the people could act politically and overcome a condition of subjection.

Gramsci believed that Machiavelli was the first thinker to understand and theorize the necessity of a new form of politics that would recognize and be founded on the presence of the masses in the power system. Also, he tried to establish a form of discourse that renders crucial emergence of the mass, and not in their subordinate condition, but assuming they will be able to move from the particular and private to the universal.

For Gramsci, Machiavelli was a democratic thinker, a philosopher, and at the same time a man of action, who formulated a new political knowledge, where the masses, the people are seen as a collective entity. One of the most important facts about Machiavelli from Gramsci’s point of view was the fact that Machiavelli separated politics from ethics and morality, and as an innovator who tried to start a moral and intellectual reform of the beliefs and ideas of his period to be able to give a new conception of the world in opposition of the common established view. It is worth mentioning that Francesco de Sanctis, a historian, mentioned that Machiavelli’s representation of moral and intellectual renovation was in contrast to the spirit and ideas of the Middle ages.

By reading Gramsci’s writings, it is understandable that he believed while reading Machiavelli, it is important to look at his works at the same time to his era, it is important to analyze his text with the consideration of the specific political conditions of Florence, Italy, and Europe which were distinguished by the tendency to form national absolutist monarchies. Also as De Santis believes that Machiavelli’s innovative project and the new world that it expresses are together the products of feudal society and feudal thought, Gramsci agrees and highlights that his position was directed against the remnants of the feudal world and had a progressive orientation towards the modern conception of the world and a modern notion of science and philosophy that makes him a revolutionary figure.

Gramsci considers Machiavelli’s goal, in his political writings, was not a moralistic liberal interpretation. He admits that Machiavelli didn’t aim at just theorizing but also exposing, however, the latter pursued not a moral but a political goal. This draws Gramsci to the conclusion that Machiavelli did not try to address his works for sophisticated ruling circles, who automatically acquired pragmatic qualities due to their privileged upbringing and education. But pursued the task of political preparation for «ignorant». As a result, by following Machiavelli’s aim, working to improve not only the traditional political technique of the ruling classes but also the political activity of social forces and the masses need to be improved, which refers to the expression of «essentially revolutionary character» by Machiavelli. 

Now with connecting the dots, comes the Hegemony – a conception of the world that has become the life and activity of the popular masses – that is one of the most important concepts in Gramsci’s works that has a strong connection to machiavellian thought. Its main characteristic is precisely the unity of knowledge and action, and also people, that in their interaction forms a conscious subject that moves from particular to the universal, as we already highlighted before, and presents an image of the world elaborated by intellectuals who are to arise from the life of the lower classes. 

Gramsci notes that before Machiavelli’s political science appeared in utopian and scholastic forms, while the treatise “The Prince” was written in the form of a dramatic myth, combining political science and political ideology, influencing in this regard «a divided and dispersed people to awaken in them and organize the collective will» to create a new nation-state. The element of utopia was manifested there in the fact that the absent real sovereign was replaced by his image, which «anthropomorphically» represented the symbol of the «collective will». Thus, providing a link between history and his time, Gramsci expresses the idea that the role of a modern sovereign should no longer be attributed to a heroic personality, but instead to a political party that can express the will of the people and strives to establish a new type of state.

The Modern Prince cannot be a real person. Based on Gramsci’s notes on his book, it can only be an organism, a complex element of society in which a collective will, which has already been recognized and has to some extent asserted itself in action, begins to take concrete form. The political party is the first cell in which there come together germs of a collective will tend to become universal and total. Also regarding the collective will, the most important rule of the modern prince is to create the terrain for subsequent development of the national-popular collective will towards the realization of a superior, total form of modern civilization. By combining these two basic points – the formation of a national-popular collective will, and the active, operative expression and intellectual and moral reform – this prince should structure the entire work. As a result, there can be cultural reform, and the position of the depressed strata of society be improved culturally without previous economic reform and a change in their position in the economic fields. 

For Gramsci, The communist party (as a modern prince) must achieve an ambitious moral and intellectual reform of Italian society, while combining with an economic reform so that people can express a collective and national will. Another vital job is that the prince should act on the consciousness of the people. Not much in the totalitarian sense (that is, imposing his truth), but in a kind of educational role. The party should promote the spontaneous acceptance of a new system of value. 

The decisive element in every situation is the permanently organised and long-prepared force which can be put into the field when it is judged that a situation is favourable (and it can be favourable only in so far as such a force exists and is full of fighting spirit). Therefore the essential task is that of systematically and patiently ensuring that this force is formed, developed and render ever more homogeneous, compact, and self-aware. 

Gramsci’s point is that the party must not be in opposition to the “spontaneous” feelings of the masses. Educating the “popular element” is the solution not manipulating the masses. According to Gramsci, the communist party could not be a revolutionary vanguard imposing a line on its members, but a living organism and a collective actor. There must be a real connection between the intellectual cadres of the party and the feelings of the masses. 

The party must be anchored in a popular base, but also an intermediate element is necessary to articulate the base with the leadership. Between these different levels, there must be a continuous dialectic, not just a hierarchical relationship. The party should promote the expression of a collective will not as an elite of professional revolutionaries who impose their will on the base. In other words, the party is like a vehicle of political education, as well as an institution that exercises moral and intellectual leadership, develops the consciousness of the working class, and pursues a hegemonic strategy. 

Regarding the new social conformism, modern states play a formative and educational role, that is, they promote a certain type of civilization. Different kinds of social conformism, not passively accepted, but actively chosen, is one of the requirement of the creation of a different society and civilization. «the bourgeois state tends to create a social conformism that is useful for the development line of the ruling group». In contemporary mass society, there is a multiplicity of institutions, relations, and discourses that produce consensus and thus already offer the means to create a new type of man and new collective and self-conscious forms of behavior. 

«We are all conformists of some conformism or other, always man-in-

the-mass or collective man. The question is this: of what historical type is

the conformism, the mass humanity to which one belongs?»


In conclusion, by analyzing the relationship between Antonio Gramsci’s works, specifically his “Prison Notebooks” and the legacy of Niccolò Machiavelli’s political ideas, we understand there is an important interplay between these two influential thinkers. Machiavelli’s writings, particularly “The Prince” and “The Discourses” inspired Gramsci who was born in a period which fascism rose in Italy, as he sought to make sense of the complex political landscape. 

The chaotic political conditions of Machiavelli’s time made Machiavelli, a Renaissance political philosopher, observe and reflect upon these conditions and realize the harsh realities of political power. He tried to separate politics from morality and emphasis on pragmatism, left a mark on Gramsci’s intellectual framework. Also, the imprisonment of Gramsci was another element that encouraged Gramsci to turn to Machiavelli’s works while shaping his understanding of political strategy and governance.  

His influence becomes evident in the latter’s “ Prison Books”. Gramsci regards to Machiavelli not as a theorist but as a democratic thinker deeply connected to the masses. Machiavelli believed that there is a necessity for a new form of politics linked to the popular classes resonated with Gramsci’s vision of a conscious subject arising from the coexisting of knowledge and action. 

“The modern prince”, symbolized by the political party, becomes an organism that embodies the collective will of the people. Gramsci mentioned that it is important to form a force that is homogeneous, compact, and self-aware, a force that can seize favorable opportunities. Gramsci presents a dynamic perspective on political leadership, governance, and more importantly the relationship between the masses and the ruling class. 

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