A Primer of Politics

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A Primer of Politics.jpg
Author James E. Combs
Dan Nimmo
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Penguin Classics
Publication date
February 1984
Media type Paperback
Pages 438
ISBN 0023241004

A Primer of Politics is a 1984 political science textbook by James E. Combs and Dan Nimmo on applying the empirical and ethical thinking of Niccolò Machiavelli to the use of power. Combs counsels the reader neither to be squeamish about exercising power themselves, nor resentful about the power exercised over them. He advises instead to consider the presence of power differentials as an inevitability, and to focus on exercising power as wisely as you can.


The book is divided into 8 parts and 32 chapters.

Politics is Not Just for Princes[edit]

Part 1 begins with the basic Machiavellian vocabulary, advocates pragmatism over idealism, and encourages the reader to be a participant in the politics of their own life rather than thinking about politics only in terms of the government. Key terms from Machiavelli that are highlighted by Combs are:

  • Fortuna: "the worldly factor of fortune, luck, chance, fate, providence". This factor acknowledges that while random things do happen to throw carefully laid plans in disarray, there is much that men can do to exert control.
  • Virtu: "the ability to think and act resolutely and intelligently to get what we want"
  • Necessita: doing what is necessary. According to Machiavelli, "[What] may be necessary is not always nice. Good and bad are mixed up together, and doing what must be done without hurting somebody may be impossible."[1] Machiavelli did not advocate doing harm for its own sake, but that some situations cannot be resolved to everyone's satisfaction.
  • Occasione: "historical opportunity", "occasion", or the "right time". According to Combs, "[Men] should well consider the state of the times and govern themselves accordingly."[1]
  • Ordini: the "good order" or "economy of violence" that emerges from your efforts. The consequences of failing to produce ordini are worse than the harm you must cause in producing it.

Combs denies the conservative view that the world as it is is the best of all possible worlds in quoting Henry James:

Life is in fact a battle... Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally, unhappy. But the world as it stands is no illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of a night; we wake up to it again for ever and ever; we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.[2]

He also argues that an effective career in business, science, or any other field requires the wise and effective use of power:

It is a Machiavellian fact of life that if you are going to go to the top in your chosen career, you will have to exercise power over others. By getting good grades and going to a good law school, you will exercise power. By ruling a hospital or a business or a family, you will exercise power. You exercise power over others anytime you tell other people what to do and they do it. Remember that someone has to rule, someone is going to rule, and there is no reason that it cannot be you. To be effective, you must overcome whatever qualms you may have about dominating others.[2]

The seemingly heavy burden is tempered by seeing life as game:

It is convenient and useful for you to think of life as a game. When you enter the 'game of life'—or more accurately, the games of life—you will see that such areas as love, work, war, and politics do indeed have the dimensions and qualities of games.[2]

However, the responsibility of ruling is acknowledged:

Before you attempt to rule, remember that rule of any kind—including self-rule—means agonizing costs, risks, and dilemmas. It is easier to be ruled than to rule... Power means responsibility. If you are in charge you are expected to lead, to know what to do to win, to keep your followers busy and happy, to ward off threats, to reward and punish, and to express and implement what the group believes; in a word, to rule.[2]

Power, the Clout of Politics[edit]

Part 2 covers the three types of power: autocratic, republican, and totalitarian. He uses Catherine the Great as an example of an autocratic prince, Charles de Gaulle as a republican prince, and Adolf Hitler as a totalitarian prince. He compares the three systems on several characteristics:[3]

Characteristic Autocratic Republican Totalitarian
How it brings order out of diverse interests Authoritative enforcement of one of the diverse interests Letting diverse interests share in the competitive choosing of the government Creating a new society in which conflict would no longer arise
Role of the masses Passive obedience and social deference Voluntary and individual participation Mass participation and compulsory explicit enthusiasm
Basis for allegiance to authority A religious duty; government as part of the divine order Demanded on a utilitarian basis and secular grounds (e.g. social contract theory) Demanded on all-encompassing basis, conceiving people as the product of impersonal forces
Typical social structure Stratified, based on caste or class Large, powerful middle class Power based on political function
Nature of political elite Self-perpetuation and exclusive Stable but non-exclusive political class subject to penetration from institutions designed to encourage mobility Small inner party, large outer party
Basis for the law Customary and/or god-given Both custom and legislative statute Force of history or nature greater than the people and interpreted by the party

Princely Palaces Where Power Resides[edit]

In part 3 Combs compares the activities conducted in places where power is exercised in an attempt to answer the question of how human society copes with continuing change and flux. He describes and contrasts what goes on in four places: kingly castles or presidential mansions, legislative chambers, bureaucratic offices, and judicial benches.

The Rulers and the Ruled[edit]

In part 4 Combs shifts from places of power to positions of power and describes the activities of people who wield power. He focuses on what it is that princes learn that others do not.

Taking Political Power[edit]

In part 5 Combs addresses the three ways in which power can be taken: through intrigue, through force, and through electoral campaigning—and the importance of understanding which methods are suited to which circumstances.

Practicing Power[edit]

Once power has been gained, part 6 addresses the importance of getting off to a good start and practicing power wisely, using political "help" and advisors, the unique aspects of ruling through the few and through the many, the use of symbols in government, and a number of activities including law- or policy-making, ruling through war and peace, and the arsenal of political means including propaganda.

Symbols can be expressed through buildings, documents, holy crusades, flags, and heroes and villains as part of an unfolding drama of politics:

[We] live in a society that has a symbolic environment and teaches us symbols. A nation is a symbol we are taught to believe in. The nation, as well, is collectively engaged in a large symbolic drama in order to realize its destiny. All of a nation's welfare and deference values are expressed and celebrated in political symbols, including monuments and buildings.[4]

To encourage this drama, he advocates personification, rather than abstraction, of issues:

Remember too, that propaganda must personify political conflicts. People want to hear a political story that tells them who the heroes, villains, and fools are, giving flesh to complex issues.[5]

Losing Power[edit]

Part 7 addresses the two major ways of losing power: incompetence and overuse of power.

Louis XVI is described as the epitome of losing power through incompetence:

Louis [XVI] was not a bad man. By all accounts, he was pious, earnest and dignified. But he combined all the worst traits of a bad ruler, at the worst possible time to display them. He was well meaning in the worst sense of the word. He was slow-witted and lazy, willing to let the mounting crises develop without concerning himself with the possibility of disaster. He was stubborn when he needed to be flexible and irresolute when he needed to be firm. He would take an astonishingly long time to make a decision and then, when led by another adviser, change his mind, usually at precisely the wrong time...[6]

On the overuse of power, Combs points to Athens and the possibility that the United States may suffer the same fate without a Machiavellian understanding of its role in the world:

If the United States does not go the way of the Athenians, it may well be the result of the rule of cautious, Machiavellian politicians who understand that power has to be handled properly, like nitroglycerin: don't throw it around or squander it, use it to create bridges and not passes, apply it in small doses gingerly and then only when needed, and if at all possible, don't use it at all.[7]

Where Have All the Princes Gone?[edit]

In part 8, Combs summarizes the key points that the world is always changing and that people and institutions must adapt with it. Politics is a necessary but imperfect way to live with and control these changes:

To live the political existence means that you must understand this. There are limits to what politics can do. All political solutions are temporary, and create new problems. Politics is finite, occurring in a disturbed universe of changing times and circumstances. In such a Machiavellian universe moves the figure of the Prince: The person who governs with an understanding of these limitations and absurdities, yet exercises his or her mastery in the brief moment allotted them on the stage of political life. The political power and the glory is not forever, nor godly, but it has to be done, and can be done well. As students of princedom, we can admire political genius as one of mankind's more astonishing achievements.[8]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Chapter 1
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Chapter 2
  3. Chapter 7
  4. Chapter 23
  5. Chapter 27
  6. Chapter 29
  7. Chapter 30
  8. Chapter 32