Spartacus Blog

Dominic Cummings, Niccolò Machiavelli and Joseph Goebbels

John Simkin

Niccolò Machiavelli has a fairly negative image, partly because of the definition of the word Machiavellian: "cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics." He is usually seen as a supporter of the status quo. Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), an Italian Marxist, imprisoned by Benito Mussolini, argued just before his death that Machiavelli was first and foremost a theorist of Italian national unity. Gramsci suggests the intended audience of The Prince must be the people of Italy rather than princes... Seen in this way the book is a revolutionary manifesto, a call to action that invites potential agents to create something new. Machiavelli becomes, in Gramsci’s terms, a “man of action”, an “active politician”, a “creator” and “initiator”. (1)

Louis Althusser (1918-1990), a French Marxist, disagrees with Gramsci and suggests that Machiavelli is "a man wholly of his period", and that his writings are "no longer novel for us, they are outmoded, even outdated". However, he is in agreement with Gramsci on the subject of Machiavelli and feudalism. Machiavelli is dismissive of existing forms of rule because they are "forms of political existence and organization stamped by feudalism". What Machiavelli's Prince must do "is to put an end to feudal anarchy". Nevertheless, he is aware that to do this means placing at the disposal of the political other elements of society that previously governed it. Machiavelli attempts to create a durable State, "a state that lasts". Therefore, Machiavelli Is a conservative rather than a revolutionary. (2)

However, both Gramsci and Althusser agree that Machiavelli is a political philosopher that needs to be studied as he provides important insights into the way politics operates in the modern world. Bertrand Russell argues in the History of Western Philosophy (1946): "The Renaissance, though it produced no important theoretical philosopher, produced one man of supreme eminence in political philosophy: Niccolò Machiavelli. It is the custom to be shocked by him, and he certainly is sometimes shocking. But many other men would be equally so if they were equally free from humbug. His political philosophy is scientific and empirical, based upon his own experience of affairs, concerned to set forth the means to assigned ends, regardless of the question whether the ends are to be considered good or bad." (3)

Machiavelli: Radical or Conservative?

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, the third child and first son of the lawyer Bernardo di Niccolò Machiavelli and his wife, Bartolomea di Stefano Nelli was born in Florence, Italy, on 3rd May, 1469. At a young age he became a pupil of a renowned Latin teacher, Paolo da Ronciglione. (4) As a young man Machiavelli became aware of Girolamo Savonarola, a wandering preacher who denounced clerical corruption, and the despotic government and the exploitation of the poor by the ruling Medici family. In September 1494, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy and threatened Florence, Savonarola intervened with the French king, the Florentines expelled the ruling Medicis and, at Savonarola's urging, established a "popular" republic. (5)

Although the young Machiavelli approved of Savonarola's republicanism and his concern for the poor he considered him to be a bad politician: "If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long - as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe. Therefore such as these have great difficulties in consummating their enterprise, for all their dangers are in the ascent, yet with ability they will overcome them; but when these are overcome, and those who envied them their success are exterminated, they will begin to be respected, and they will continue afterwards powerful, secure, honoured, and happy." (6)

On 12th May 1497, Pope Alexander VI excommunicated Savonarola and threatened the Florentines with an interdict if they continued protecting him. On 18th March 1498, after pressure from senior figures in Florentine, he withdrew from public preaching. The following month he was arrested and imprisoned. Under torture Savonarola confessed to having invented his prophecies and visions and along with two colleagues were hanged on 23rd May. Three weeks later, on 19th June, amid rioting throughout the city, Machiavelli was given his first public post, Second Chancellor of the Republic, replacing a deposed follower of Savonarola. (7)

Machiavelli's talents were appreciated and he was sent on important diplomatic missions. He was at first the republic's foreign minister before becoming the minister of war. His role involved frequent travel to the courts of kings, emperors, popes and generals and he had the "opportunity to observe different personalities and systems; and because he was charged with the delicate task of negotiating with powers far more formidable than Florence itself, he was able to refine his analytic and diplomatic skills to consummate levels." (8)

According to Erica Benner: "Both as secretary to the republic and through his writings - which include reams of poetry, risqué comedies and a quietly tragic history of Florence - he spent his life fighting to defend his city’s republican government against threats from within and without. It was a hard fight, with battles on many fronts. It took Machiavelli on a long journey across France with King Louis XII, and to the court of Cesare Borgia, where he spent nerve-racking months trying to dissuade the violent youth from attacking Florence. Machiavelli was convinced the real threats to freedom come from within - from gross inequalities on the one hand, and extreme partisanship on the other. He saw first-hand that authoritarian rule can take root and flourish in such conditions with terrifying ease, even in republics like Florence that had proud traditions of popular self-government." (9)

Machiavelli watched Pope Alexander VI, who took office in 1492, trying to bring a large part of Central Italy under his control. He did this by forming several military alliances. To help him do this he appointed his illegitimate son, Cesare Borgia, who was only seventeen, as Archbishop of Valencia. The following year he became a Cardinal. Another son, Giovanni Borgia, was made captain general of the military forces of the papacy. (10)

After the death of Giovanni (possibility murdered by his brother) Cesare Borgia became commander of the papal army: "Brave, daring and determined, he was insatiably power-hungry and entirely ruthless. Murder, bribery and deceit were all in the day's work to him and his pleasures were women, hunting and fashionable clothes. He was considered the handsomest man in Italy, there were inevitably rumours of incest with his sister Lucrezia and he had syphilis from his early twenties." (11)

Pope Alexander VI died in August 1503. The news of his father's death arrived when his son Cesare was planning the conquest of Tuscany. The new pope, Pius III, supported Cesare but after only twenty-six days, he died. Borgia's deadly enemy, Giuliano Della Rovere, now became Pope Julius II. Cesare was arrested but did manage to escape but was killed on 12th March, 1507. "In his last fight, he struggled alone, like a legendary knight, against a small army. But he was thrown from his horse and was stabbed to death multiple times with lances and daggers. His armor and clothes were removed and the body was abandoned. None of the assassins knew who he was." (12)

Pope Julius II now gave his support to Giovanni di Lorenzo de' Medici (the future Pope Leo X). In October 1511 he was appointed papal legate of Bologna and the Romagna, and when the Florentine republic declared in favour of the schismatic Pisans, Pope Julius II sent Giovanni with the papal army and in 1512, he defeated the republic's armed forces and dissolved the government. Machiavelli was initially placed in a form of internal exile and, when he was suspected of conspiring against the Medici in 1513, he was imprisoned and tortured for several weeks. He was eventually released and he retired to a farm outside of Florence where he could concentrate on his literary pursuits. (13)

Machiavelli told his friend, Francesco Vettori: "When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely." (14)

According to Anthony Grayling: "Machiavelli's main legacy is his writings, and chiefly his classic of frank and frankly shocking political advice, The Prince, completed in 1513. Its message is that princely virtus is not, as other humanist writers maintained, the promotion of justice and peace, but the ability to maintain the state by employing the lion's ferocity and the fox's cunning. To try to rule only by virtue, he said, would be ruinous, because less scrupulous opponents will take advantage." (15) Machiavelli suggested that the book would prove useful to rulers, "it should be welcome to a prince, especially a new prince." (16)

Machiavelli dedicated the book to Lorenzo the Second, as he hoped to win the favour of the Medici. It has been suggested that "he wrote The Prince as a job application, when he was seeking work as an adviser to Florence’s first family, the super-wealthy Medici." However, one of his biographers, Erica Benner, argues against this theory because he must have realised that "as a leading civil servant in charge of foreign affairs and defence, Machiavelli had been one of the republic’s stoutest defenders" and that the Medici would never have trusted him." (17)

Niccolò Machiavelli by Cristofano dell'Altissimo (c. 1560)
Niccolò Machiavelli by Cristofano dell'Altissimo (c. 1560)

George Bull takes a different view. He suggests that Machiavelli was desperate for a job with the Medici and that if you compare the views expressed in The Prince with those of his other books and the numerous letters he wrote, he clearly watered-down his republican views on this occasion. "The new prince he created personified the state and enabled Machiavelli to try and please the Medici while dramatizing his views on the supreme political challenge of an effective foreign policy. What Machiavelli has to say concerning foreign policy could be applied by a republic every bit as much as by an autocracy." (18)

It is assumed that Machiavelli sent a copy of The Prince to members of the Medici family. He also gave copies to a few friends but it was never published in his lifetime. (19) Machiavelli uses examples from history to show how principalities are won, how they are held, and how they are lost. This included a detailed account of how rulers from ancient as well as recent history, gained and maintained power. Machiavelli points out: "All states, all powers, that have held and hold rule over men have been and are either republics or principalities. Principalities are either hereditary, in which the family has been long established; or they are new." (20)

Dominic Cummings and Machiavelli

How relevant is the work of Machiavelli to the political situation. As Machiavelli was a political adviser rather than a politician, several writers have suggested that Dominic Cummings has been a student of his writings. If he is, he has not mentioned it in his blog. Despite this, articles have appeared suggesting that Cummings has been greatly influenced by Machiavelli. Michael Abberton argues: "In Machiavelli’s time, princes - even those who rose from the ranks, to some extent - still claimed to rule not through consent but by divine right. In our modern democracy, though still a monarchy, the government claims to rule by common consent.... In the case of an un-elected civil servant, the power behind the throne, the one who can bend the ruler to their will so easily, who promises continued security in office and the power to manipulate public opinion - though paid from the public purse, the public have absolutely no say." (21)

Chris Hoar has written a funny piece where he has imagined what Machiavelli would say about Cummings. "In my book The Prince I lay out in great detail the way leaders should act and the strategies they should employ in order to achieve their political goals. The essence of my philosophy is that the end justifies the means, and this ranges from lying and cheating, up to the killing of innocents, however, there are limits to what is morally acceptable and Mr Cummings has simply gone too far... Don’t get me wrong, I admire him greatly. His ability to introduce so many lies and falsehoods that it swamps those who would attempt to scrutinise, thus allowing the lies to enter the public discourse unchallenged is a masterstroke. His unflappable, probably psychopathic tendency to ride roughshod over legal and parliamentary precedent, that has been painstakingly introduced over many centuries and at the cost of much blood and sacrifice, is commendable to the highest degree. Indeed, it is these traits that could rank him amongst the highest of dictators and demagogues, but to follow a course that would result in the destruction of the realm, that’s just too much, even for me." (22)

Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito (c. 1580)
Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito (c. 1580)

Dominic Cummings would definitely approve of Machiavelli when he suggested that it was very important to employ intelligent political advisers: "A prince, therefore, ought always to take counsel, but only when he wishes and not when others wish; he ought rather to discourage every one from offering advice unless he asks it; but, however, he ought to be a constant inquirer, and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired; also, on learning that any one, on any consideration, has not told him the truth, he should let his anger be felt. And if there are some who think that a prince who conveys an impression of his wisdom is not so through his own ability, but through the good advisers that he has around him." (23)

To be a successful ruler Machiavelli believed that it was helpful to be loved. "I say that every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel. Nevertheless he ought to take care not to misuse this clemency." For a ruler, the key question is "it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved?" Machiavelli states: "It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you... Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women." (24)

Machiavelli believed that it is best to rule by consent: "But coming to the other point - where a leading citizen becomes the prince of his country, not by wickedness or any intolerable violence, but by the favour of his fellow citizens - this may be called a civil principality: nor is genius or fortune altogether necessary to attain to it, but rather a happy shrewdness." However, any society is divided between nobles and the people. In all cities these two distinct parties are found, and from this it arises that the people do not wish to be ruled nor oppressed by the nobles, and the nobles wish to rule and oppress the people; and from these two opposite desires there arises in cities one of three results, either a principality, self-government, or anarchy. A principality is created either by the people or by the nobles, accordingly as one or other of them has the opportunity; for the nobles, seeing they cannot withstand the people, begin to cry up the reputation of one of themselves, and they make him a prince, so that under his shadow they can give vent to their ambitions. The people, finding they cannot resist the nobles, also cry up the reputation of one of themselves, and make him a prince so as to be defended by his authority. Therefore, one who becomes a prince through the favour of the people ought to keep them friendly, and this he can easily do seeing they only ask not to be oppressed by him." (25)

Machiavelli suggested that it is important for a ruler to be seen as virtuous: "I know that every one will confess that it would be most praiseworthy in a prince to exhibit all the above qualities that are considered good; but because they can neither be entirely possessed nor observed, for human conditions do not permit it, it is necessary for him to be sufficiently prudent that he may know how to avoid the reproach of those vices which would lose him his state; and also to keep himself, if it be possible, from those which would not lose him it; but this not being possible, he may with less hesitation abandon himself to them. And again, he need not make himself uneasy at incurring a reproach for those vices without which the state can only be saved with difficulty, for if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity." (26)

The most important thing is not to be virtuous ("merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright") but to appear to be virtuous: "It is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived... Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite. And you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to fidelity, friendship, humanity, and religion. Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it. For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you... For that reason, let a prince have the credit of conquering and holding his state, the means will always be considered honest, and he will be praised by everybody; because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on." (27)

Bertrand Russell makes the point that to Machiavelli everything was ultimately about power. "To achieve a political end, power, of one kind or another, is necessary. The plain fact is concealed by slogans, such as 'right will prevail' or 'the triumph of evil is short-lived'. If the side that you think right prevails, that is because it has superior power. It is true that power, often, depends upon opinion, and opinion upon propaganda; it is true, also, that it is an advantage in propaganda to seem more virtuous than your adversary, and that one way of seeming virtuous is to be virtuous. For this reason, it may sometimes happen that victory goes to the side which has the most of what the general public considers to be virtue... Those who have seized power can, by controlling propaganda, cause their party to appear virtuous." (28)

In a recent article, the novelist John Wright, suggests that Machiavelli, "that sage of the power hungry mind" has influenced the political strategy of Dominic Cummings. He quotes Machiavelli as saying: "One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived". Wright goes on to say: "One only wonders if this notorious Italian had a hand in Boris Johnson’s election campaign.... We don’t know the nature of the hold that Cummings has over Boris Johnson and his cabinet. But a hold over both he clearly has - such that we are bound to ask if the former has his hand up the back of the latter, directing them like a puppet master in some grotesque Punch and Judy show."

Wright also quotes Edward R Murrow who usefully pointed out that "A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves". Wright correctly adds: "Dominic Cummings is not actually the problem, he is merely a perverse symptom of it. The problem lies in the false consciousness - sown by a media which with few exceptions is way beyond redemption - responsible for people voting for the kind of execrable prime minister who would appoint and defend such an execrable chief adviser. At the same time, the bludgeoning of Jeremy Corbyn by the same media whose most prominent members attend these ridiculous daily briefings to engage in what is a theatre of the absurd revealed just how mendacious this British Establishment is when seriously threatened by the transformational change our austerity ravaged husk of a late stage capitalist society so desperately needs."

Wright's anger was intensified by the way the government dealt with the Covid-19 crisis. "The dire consequence is that the worst possible crisis to arrive in our midst, in the shape of a deadly virus which at time of writing has accounted for over 60,000 souls and counting across the UK, has in the worst possible government the best friend it could possibly have. The controversy surrounding Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, is more than over the way he, if reports are to be believed, violated the very lock-down rules he himself had a role in setting. No, it’s the arrogance and contempt which he and the entire Cabinet have demonstrated in the days since the story broke, dissembling and deflecting as if their lives have depended on it. Boris Johnson’s decision to defend his senior adviser rather than sack him will live on in infamy. It also marks his political demise. The practiced bonhomie and contrived buffoonery has now given way to the deeply malevolent and lying charlatan who resides beneath, to a man dripping in self-entitlement and absorption." (29)

Michael Abberton makes a similar point in his article on Machiavelli and Cummings. "We assume that those we consent to govern over us share a common decency and fundamental moral values - what happens when they reveal that is not the case? Dominic Cummings broke quarantine. That’s indisputable. What is claimed since is that, although uncounted thousands of families found themselves in similar or much worse circumstances and observed the regulations, the option was always there, for everyone, to ignore the rules based solely on their own judgement at the time. This argument is clearly nonsense, and shows complete contempt for the public. Numerous instances have been posted on social media of direct government messaging, or of the Prime Minister or members of his cabinet stating repeatedly that this was absolutely not the case. In the past when ministers or senior government officials were caught out, revealed to be hypocritical or worse, and shamed by public opinion they would apologise and resign or in other cases, be sacked. But when there is no shame, there is no shared common decency or moral value, what we have seen is that the public has absolutely no redress, no method of seeking justice, no way of venting their anger." (30)

Abberton goes on to accuse Cummings of being a follower of Machiavelli's ideas expressed in The Prince. However, I don't think we should blame Machiavelli for Cummings actions. He has been a common target of abuse over the years. In April 1533, Henry VIII appointed Thomas Cromwell as Chancellor of the Exchequer. It has been argued that the king "had many able diplomats, he had no administrator and political manager of Cromwell's calibre." (31)

Cromwell's main enemy was Cardinal Reginald Pole and went to live in Italy and in 1538 traveled to Florence with the intention of reading Machiavelli's The Prince. He had been interested in the book since Cromwell had praised the book in a conversation with him in 1535. On acquiring a copy, Pole began to read with fascination, then growing horror. "I had scarcely begun to read the book, when I recognized the finger of Satan, though it bore the name of a human author and was written in a discernibly human style." Pole declared, the book Cromwell so admired is full of "things that stink of Satan's every wickedness... I found this type of book to be written by an enemy of the human race. It explains every means whereby religion, justice and any inclination toward virtue could be destroyed". (32)

In 1557, in its efforts to deal with the outbreak of heresies encouraged by the Reformation, the Catholic Church under Pope Paul IV established an Index of Prohibited Books. The decree forbade all books written by certain authors or published by certain printers. This included all the books published by Machiavelli. It caused a great burning of the books throughout Italy. At Venice more than 10,000 books were burned on the Saturday before Palm Sunday. In the city of Cremona it was reported 12,000 books were destroyed. Paul IV said that "even if my own father were a heretic I would gather the wood to burn him." (33)

Machiavelli remained on the Index of Prohibited Books until 1890. However, as David Loades, the author of Thomas Cromwell (2013) has pointed out: "The Prince is not so much a work of moral philosophy as a presentation of things as they are, and that it would be hard indeed to find any competent statesman of the sixteenth century who did not follow its advice at least to some extent." You could of course extend this to the last 500 years. All politicians, even though most of them are unaware of it, employ the strategies advised by Machiavelli. (34)

Joseph Goebbels

Machiavelli was writing at the beginning of the 16th century. His idea of propaganda was providing free food and entertainment. I would argue we have to look to the 20th century in order to understand the strategies used by Dominic Cummings. I would argue that Cummings has learnt far more from Joseph Goebbels than Machiavelli. I am not saying that Cummings is a fascist, only that he is using the same propaganda strategies as he did.

Goebbels became chief political adviser to Adolf Hitler in 1927. He was one of the few educated people in Hitler's government. He had completed his PhD at Heidelberg University, under Professor Max von Waldberg, on Wilhelm von Schutz, a little-known dramatist in the first half of the nineteenth century in 1921. Goebbels spent the next few years writing novels, plays and poems. When he failed to find a publisher for his work he developed the theory that this was because the publishing companies were owned by Jews. Goebbels joined the Nazi Party in 1926 and soon became the brains behind Hitler. (35)

Goebbels main idea was that the way to convert people to fascism was via their emotions. In one speech in 1928 he pointed out: "To attract people, to win over people to that which I have realised as being true, that is called propaganda. In the beginning there is the understanding, this understanding uses propaganda as a tool to find those men, that shall turn understanding into politics…. Propaganda should be popular, not intellectually pleasing. It is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths." (36)

Goebbels was a talented orator but realised he was not in the same class as Hitler: Goebbels now became a strong supporter of Hitler. Goebbels wrote about the first time he heard Hitler speak at a public meeting: "Hitler begins to speak. What a voice. What a gestures, what passion. Exactly what I had wanted from him. I can scarcely contain myself. My heart stands still. I hang on every word.... Shakes my hand. Like an old friend. And those big blue eyes. Like stars. He is glad to see me. I am in heaven. That man has everything to be king.... I am ready to sacrifice everything for this man. History gives peoples the greatest men in the greatest times of need." (37)

Hitler's speeches did not attempt to convince his listeners with intellectual arguments. Take this passage from a speech he made at the Krupp Armaments factory in Essen on 7th March 1936: “If you think my work is right and if you think that I worked tirelessly, that I worked hard, That I’ve stood up for you over these years, that I’ve spent my time properly for my people, give your vote with a yes! Then stand up for me as I stand up for you”. In itself, it means very little, however, by watching the speech you will get some idea of why the crowd cheered. (38)

Goebbels, although he considered himself an intellectual and in his diary he complained that "we have too many philistines in the party". (39) However, he often made attacks on the intelligentsia, who he claimed were usually socialists and communists. This also became part of the campaign against the Jews. Goebbels described "the Jew" as a "parasitic being" the "prototype of the intellectual". The Jew had used his intelligence to become the "conscious destroyer of our race," since he "has rotted our morality, undermined our ways, and broken our strength." (40)

Dominic Cummings and Experts

Cummings first job in government was as an advisor to Michael Gove, who he later arranged for Cummings to become director of Vote Leave organisation. It is no coincidence that Gove, someone else who considers himself an intellectual, who led the attack on "experts". In an interview he gave to Sky News, Gove was asked to name any economists who backed Britain’s exit from the European Union. He replied that "people in this country have had enough of experts". (41)

Gove also led the campaign against wearing of face-masks. Even though the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had issued statements pointing out that the evidence suggested that wearing cloth face coverings would help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others, Gove insisted that the government wouldn’t be making face coverings mandatory and would instead leave it to common sense for people to decide whether they wear coverings or not. In those countries that have done well against Covid-19 such as South Korea and Japan, wearing face-masks is the norm. European countries that have had success in the fight against this disease also accepted the need to wear face-masks. For example, wearing a face covering in shops has been mandatory in Germany since 22nd April. (42)

Right-wing figures in the UK have followed their counterparts in the US as being opposed to the wearing of face masks. In the Daily Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley wrote that "face masks are horrible and inhuman." (43) Tory MPs such as Desmond Swayne thought the whole idea of shopping in a face covering to be “a monstrous imposition”. (44) Solomon Hughes has argued that this is all part of the "Culture Wars" imported from the USA: "A culture war tries to picture the right as a friend of the 'man in the street' - and his wife - by saying they share the 'ordinary' Sunday-roast-dinner values and picture the 'left' as a liberal elite. By focusing on cultural issues not economic ones, the cultural warrior hopes to shift the terrain so that the Conservative Party, funded by bankers and stuffed with public schoolboys, looks like the party of the 'common man'. The Labour Party, funded by the unions, is pictured as weirdo metropolitan snobs.” (45)

Cummings and Johnson during the Covid-19 crisis, are doing the same as during the EU referendum and the 2019 General Election, by adopting strategies to persuade people from engaging the intellect when thinking about political issues. This follows the tactics adopted by Joseph Goebbels when attempting to recruit young people into the Nazi Party in the early 1930s. His research revealed: "Our young people show little political interest. They are not really much concerned with the study of Hitler's thoughts; it is simply something irrational, something infectious that makes the blood pulse through one's veins and conveys an impression that something great is underway." (46)

Cummings used his Facebook campaigns to target people who had not voted in recent elections. In a memo distributed to his Vote Leave team he argued: "All politics is personal. The European Referendum will be a vote – not on pure politics – but on people’s hopes and fears for the future, their conflicting identities, their perception of the ‘other’ and their tolerance of risk. It will cut across traditional party, demographic and cultural lines, rendering a traditional political analysis inadequate. As such, the campaign that adapts to that fact and bases its strategy,
message and targeting on this novel dynamic is the one that will prove victorious. Two developments in the past decade will make this possible. The first is the emergence of psychographic profiling. With a deep understanding of underlying cognitive and dispositional processes, we can get to the heart of why people are driven towards almost any behaviour – from the music a person enjoys to how they vote. The second is the use of micro-targeting in political campaigns, which applies advanced computational and data science methods to vast amounts of data to create empirically validated predictive models about each individual voter. In creating distinct and directly targetable groups for a campaign, we can engage each voter with the right message, in the right channel and at the right time." (47)

Cummings explained in an article in The Spectator, why he targeted people who were not interested in, and had no real understanding of politics: "I’ve learned over the years that ‘rational discussion’ accomplishes almost nothing in politics, particularly with people better educated than average. Most educated people are not set up to listen or change their minds about politics, however sensible they are in other fields. But I have also learned that when you say or write something, although it has roughly zero effect on powerful/prestigious people or the immediate course of any ‘debate’, you are throwing seeds into a wind and are often happily surprised." (48)

Goebbels believed that the most effective propaganda was to use of slogans and images rather than intellectual arguments. He compared the propaganda message achieved by a slogan and a book. The key ideas did not need a book. It was better to express it as "a simple and readily grasped theme". As he pointed out: "You will never find millions of people who will give their lives for a book. You will never find millions of people who will give their lives for an economic program. But millions of people will one day be prepared to die for a gospel." (49)

Hans Schweitzer, National Socialism (1932)
Hans Schweitzer, National Socialism: The Organized Will of the Nation (1932)

Goebbels employed the artist, Hans Schweitzer (Mjölnir) to produce propaganda in the form of images and short phrases. In a diary entry Goebbels described Schweitzer as an "artistic genius". (50) He designed several posters for his 1932 presidential campaign. This included his National Socialism and Our Last Hope - Hitler. (51) Anthony Rhodes has argued that "his poster of the three Storm Troopers' heads is quintessential Nazi propaganda - simple, emotional, powerful." It reflected Hitler's idea that "by the masses, brutality and physical force are admired". Goebbels once said, "What lengthy speeches failed to do, Mjölnir did in a second through the glowing fanaticism of his powerful art." (52)

The Big Lie Theory

Hitler and Goebbels also believed in the "Big Lie" theory. In Mein Kampf (1925) Hitler argued: "In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously." (53)

Hans Schweitzer, Our Last Hope - Hitler (1932)
Hans Schweitzer, Our Last Hope - Hitler (1932)

It has been claimed that Goebbels adapted this theory to use as Nazi propaganda: "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State." (54)

Cummings was of course responsible for the claim on the side of a big red bus: “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let's fund our NHS instead.” It was also ran in targeted internet adverts aimed at swing voters, turning the Brexit vote into a referendum on austerity. While that figure has been debunked, a survey carried out in October, 2018, found that 42 per cent of people who had heard of the claim still believe it is true, while just 36 per cent thought it was false and 22 per cent were unsure. (55) As one psychologist pointed out: "just hearing about it will precipitate an ‘anchoring effect', where voters forget the details but remember an approximate factoid about EU membership being very costly." (56)

Dominic Cummings is credited with penning the "Take Back Control" slogan during the European Referendum campaign. The phrase is meaningless. Cummings says this played into what the behavioural psychologists call the strong human impulse towards loss aversion. "That is, we’re more anxious about losing things than gaining them. 'Taking back control” answers that anxiety at a primal level - and leaves the field open for a whole variety of 'lost' things that might be 'regained'. These could mean everything from a financial cost on the side of a red bus, to an inchoate sense of national (even civilisational) glory." (57)

This strategy was repeated with the slogan "Get Brexit Done" in the 2019 General Election. The slogan is based on the fact, that emotional voting comes more naturally than rational voting. Therefore the political system that we have rewards superficial persuasion, and punishes careful exactitude. Boris Johnson urged people to vote Conservative because it is the only party that can “get Brexit done now.” In one speech he said that delivering Brexit is “the best thing for our politics and our psychological health,” he said. “We have a great deal, it’s ready to go - just add water, stir in pot.” (58)

Brian M. Hughes, the author of The Psychology of Brexit: From Psychodrama to Behavioural Science (2019) has explained why this slogan was so effective: "For democracies, the concept of ‘rational ignorance’ applies and is very powerful. In short, it means that it is rational to remain ignorant about politics, because ultimately your single vote will be far outnumbered by the millions of votes cast by other people. For the vast majority of voters, there is no compelling motivation to spend time and energy on exhaustive research. In fact, to become fully educated on issues would be downright irrational, because the personal benefits of doing so would be far outweighed by the personal costs. As a result, it is logical to predict that most political decisions are shaped by uninformed viewpoints."

Hughes goes on to explain that is also true of politicians in the House of Commons: "You could tentatively argue that voting might work as a way to elect individuals, but it is clear that voting is a terrible way to crowd-source opinion on complex decisions. That said, largely the same issues apply to the way politicians make choices about Brexit in parliament and, no doubt, at the negotiating table. I think the way Brexit has proceeded through parliament has highlighted a real problem with rational ignorance. There is little reward to being factually correct or logically sound in a system where all that matters is who can whip a majority into line." (59)

As Joseph Goebbels explained: "Success is the important thing. Propaganda is not a matter for average minds, but rather a matter for practitioners. It is not supposed to be lovely or theoretically correct. I do not care if I give wonderful, aesthetically elegant speeches, or speak so that women cry. The point of a political speech is to persuade people of what we think right. I speak differently in the provinces than I do in Berlin, and when I speak in Bayreuth, I say different things from what I say in the Pharus Hall. That is a matter of practice, not of theory. We do not want to be a movement of a few straw brains, but rather a movement that can conquer the broad masses." (60)

During the 2019 General Election campaign, at every opportunity government ministers would say vote for the Conservatives and you will "Get Brexit Done". This was always a ridiculous statement as it ignored the reason why there had been a stalemate in Parliament since the referendum. If the Withdrawal Agreement was passed by Parliament after the election, Boris Johnson's had 11 months to negotiate a new trade deal. This was not going to happen as the terms the EU were willing to offer would never be acceptable to Johnson. In other words, "Get Brexit Done" meant crashing out of the EU without a deal, something only 11 per cent of voters wanted to happen. (61)

As Adolf Hitler pointed out, the truth of the statement did not matter as long as it was repeated enough: "It would never come into their heads (the masses) to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying." (62)

John Simkin (19th July, 2020)


(1) Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1975) page 134

(2) Louis Althusser, Machiavelli and Us (2000) page 41

(3) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 491

(4) Cary Nederman, Niccolò Machiavelli: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (28th May, 2019)

(5) Donald Weinstein, Savonarola, Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet (2011) pages 87–96

(6) Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1532) Chapter VI

(7) Erica Benner, Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli's Lifelong Quest for Freedom (2017) page 94

(8) Anthony Grayling, The History of Philosophy (2019) page 188

(9) Erica Benner, The Guardian (3rd March, 2017)

(10) Peter Maxwell-Stuart, Chronicle of the Popes (1997) pages 158–159

(11) Richard Cavendish, History Today (3rd March 2007)

(12) Dragoș Moldoveanu, The Downfall and the Death of Cesare Borgia (11th March, 2017)

(13) Cary Nederman, Niccolò Machiavelli: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (28th May, 2019)

(14) Niccolò Machiavelli, letter to Francesco Vettori (10th December, 1513)

(15) Anthony Grayling, The History of Philosophy (2019) page 188

(16) Niccolò Machiavelli, letter to Francesco Vettori (10th December, 1513)

(17) Erica Benner, The Guardian (3rd March, 2017)

(18) George Bull, introduction The Prince (1961) page 20

(19) Erica Benner, Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli's Lifelong Quest for Freedom (2017) page 252

(20) Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1532) Chapter I

(21) Michael Abberton, Dominic Cummings and The Prince (25th May, 2020)

(22) Chris Hoar, Dominic Cummings has gone ‘too far’ insists ghost of Machiavelli (14 August 2019)

(23) Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1532) Chapter XXIII

(24) Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1532) Chapter XVII

(25) Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1532) Chapter IX

(26) Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1532) Chapter XV

(27) Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1532) Chapter XVIII

(28) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 496

(29) John Wright, Dominic Cummings - less political genius, more poundshop Machiavelli at the heart of a government of wolves (25th May, 2020)

(30) Michael Abberton, Dominic Cummings and The Prince (25th May, 2020)

(31) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 196

(32) Erica Benner, Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli's Lifelong Quest for Freedom (2017) page xiii-xiv

(33) Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (1990) page 271

(34) David Loades, Thomas Cromwell (2013) page 241

(35) Toby Thacker, Joseph Goebbels: Life and Death (2009) pages 49-53

(36) Joseph Goebbels, speech in Berlin (9th January, 1928)

(37) Joseph Goebbels, diary entry (12th July, 1925)

(38) Adolf Hitler, speech at the Krupp Armaments factory in Essen (7th March 1936)

(39) Joseph Goebbels, diary entry (5th April, 1929)

(40) Joseph Goebbels, Der Angriff (30th July, 1928)

(41) Henry Mance, The Financial Times (3rd June, 2016)

(42) Matt Reynolds, Wired Magazine (16th July, 2020)

(43) Tim Stanley, Daily Telegraph (13th July, 2020)

(44) John Crace, The Guardian (14th July, 2020)

(45) Solomon Hughes, The Morning Star (18th July, 2020)

(46) John Simkin, Hitler (1988) page 88

(47) Dominic Cummings, Piloting an Experiment Informed Programme for the Vote Leave Campaign (March, 2018)

(48) Dominic Cummings, The Spectator (9th January, 2017)

(49) Ralf Georg Reuth, Joseph Goebbels (1993) page 82

(50) Joseph Goebbels, diary entry (15th September 1929)

(51) Zbynek Zeman, Selling the War: Art and Propaganda in World War II (1987) page 37

(52) Anthony Rhodes, Propaganda: The Art of Persuasion: World War II (1987) page 24

(53) Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (1925) chapter 10

(54) Jewish Virtual Library (1998-2020)

(55) Jon Stone, The Independent (28th October, 2018)

(56) Brian M. Hughes, The Psychologist (December, 2019)

(57) Pat Kane, The Alternative (28 July 2019)

(58) Boris Johnson, speech (13th November, 2019)

(59) Brian M. Hughes, The Psychologist (December, 2019)

(60) Joseph Goebbels, speech in Berlin (9th January, 1928)

(61) Andrew Woodcock, The Independent (11th January, 2020) (52)

(62) Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (1925) chapter 10

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