Marx does Historical Materialism: The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte


Marx and Engels viewed historical research and analysis as a dimension of their wider revolutionary science. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is often cited as a rare example of a piece of genuine historical materialism. Ironically though, it's barely what we think of as a historical work at all. The events Marx was analysing had only just transpired and it was composed in part as political commentary. Nevertheless, the Eighteenth Brumaireis a consummate demonstration of much of what we have surveyed above as historical materialism. In the text we find the relationship between the basis and the superstructure, the analysis of the relative development of forces and relations of production and, most of all the explanation of political events and ideologies as rooted in social being, mediated through class relations and class struggles.

The Eighteenth Brumaireanalyses the events surrounding and leading up to the coup d'etatof Louis Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon I, in December 1851. Marx asks the question, how was it that the overthrow of the constitutional monarch Louis Phillippe in 1848 resolved itself within three short years into the dictatorship of Louis Bonaparte, against all expectation? Marx rejects explanations like that of Victor Hugo, who is fixated with the actions of the individual. He rejects also vague and contentless concepts like a return of 'caesarism'. ‘I show how, on the contrary, the class struggle in France created circumstances and conditions which allowed a mediocre and grotesque individual to play a hero’s role.’[i]What lessons must the international working class learn from this episode in its history?

The first lesson is that beneath the statements, manifestos, proclamations of high principle and the actions of the various political actors of the years between 1849 and 1851, lie the deeper movements and actions of classes and their fractions. The Eighteenth Brumaireis rooted in a highly sophisticated and nuanced analysis of the class relations of mid-19thcentury France, an analysis that is itself rooted itself in an understanding of the level of development of the productive forces and relations of production in that country. Because the analysis of the Eighteenth Brumaireis primarily concerned with understanding the flow of political events and not entire 'epochs of social revolution', the concepts of the forces and relations of production remain very much in the background, but they are there nevertheless, shaping Marx's judgments on the movements of classes. For example, Marx is critical of the French working class and its political representatives for their failure to understand how weak they are as a force in society. The forces of the Parisian working class proclaim the existence of a 'social republic' far in advance of any ability to secure one. 'The general content of the modern [proletarian] revolution was indicated but this content stood in the strangest contradiction with everything which could immediately and directly be put into practice in the given circumstances and conditions, with the material available and the level of education attained by the mass of the people'. Its defeat against all the other classes, allied under the banner of the bourgeois republic, was inevitable and, importantly, it lapses under the ideological and political control of the social democrats. In this role, the French working class became 'a movement which renounces the hope of overturning the old world by using the huge combination of means provided by the latter and seeks rather to achieve its salvation in a private manner, behind the back of society, within its own limited conditions of existence'.[ii]

Similarly, Marx recognises that the numerically overwhelming French peasantry play a decisive role at key points in the struggles, providing the mass base for Bonaparte. This is rooted in a precise analysis of the conditions of the massive French peasantry as they are shaped by the profound changes of the bourgeois revolution. Freed from slavery to feudal dues and emancipated as small property owners by the Revolution and the rule of Napoleon I, the French peasantry now find themselves increasingly enslaved to capital through mortgage debt, denuded of markets they enjoyed under Napoleon I and feeling the burden of taxation from a growing executive state power. The development of bourgeois relations of production has placed new pressures on the small property-owning peasantry and created new pressures which must find political expression.

The particular mode of production of the peasantry also shapes exactly how their drive to political engagement is expressed. Marx argues that the material separation and isolation of the peasantry leaves them peculiarly vulnerable to what we might call authoritarian political representation:
"Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself."[iii] 

The Eighteenth Brumaire is at its most brilliant when exposing how these class conditions are reflected in ideology and action and fought out in the battle of ideas and political struggles. Here once again we find the phrase that 'Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.' But because the analysis is being conducted at the level of politics and ideas, the phrase is immediately followed by a point about ideology. It's not simply material conditions that are transmitted from the past. Ideas and language themselves are inherited and they are activated as ways of navigating new and stressful circumstance. And whatever the intentions of the actors, it's through these ideas inherited from the past that historical agents play a role in creating new conditions:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied in the revolutionary transformation of themselves and their material surroundings, in the creation of something which does not yet exist, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they timidly conjure up the spirits of the past to help them; they borrow their names, slogans, and costumes so as to stage the new world-historical scene in this venerable disguise and borrowed language. Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, at some points1789, and at others the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In the same way, the beginner who has learned a new language always retranslates it into his mother tongue. He can only be said to have appropriated the spirit of the new language and to be able to express himself in it freely when he can manipulate it without reference to the old and when he forgets his original language while using the new one.”[iv]

Take the peasantry again as an illustration. The allure of Louis Bonaparte for the peasantry rises from his ability to project himself as the heir to Napoleon I, who is associated with the legal emancipation of the peasantry and their former prosperity, before capitalist social relations had properly penetrated the countryside. Bonaparte represents the nostalgic promise of a return of properity for the smallholding peasant.

"The Bonaparte dynasty represents not the revolutionary, but the conservative peasant; not the peasant who strikes out beyond the condition of his social existence, the small holding, but rather one who wants to consolidate his holding; not the countryfolk who in alliance with the towns want to overthrow the old order through their own energies, but on the contrary those who, in solid seclusion within this old order, want to see themselves and their small holdings saved and favored by the ghost of the Empire. It represents not the enlightenment but the superstition of the peasant; not his judgment but his prejudice; not his future but his past"[v]

Similarly, this interaction of material class conditions and the ideologies that arise on their basis lies behind the inability of the bourgeois parties to settle political rule between themselves. In a particularly brilliant passage, Marx explains the basis of the two monarchist parties, the Orleanists and the Legitimists, in two different forms of property that have arisen in the French social formation: finance and land, both now entangled with capital. The inability of these two parties to settle on who should be their constitutional monarch stems ultimately from ideas, prejudices and feelings transmitted from the past that reflect their basis in different property forms more than their stance in relation to any monarchical candidate:

"What kept the two factions apart, therefore, was not any so-called principles, it was their material conditions of existence, two different kinds of property; it was the old contrast between town and country, the rivalry between capital and landed property. That at the same time old memories, personal enmities, fears and hopes, prejudices and illusions, sympathies and antipathies, convictions, articles of faith and principles bound them to one or the other royal house, who denies this? Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought, and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives them through tradition and upbringing, may imagine that they form the real motives and the starting point of his activity. While each faction, Orleanists and Legitimists, sought to make itself and the other believe that it was loyalty to the two royal houses which separated them, facts later proved that it was rather their divided interests which forbade the uniting of the two royal houses. And as in private life one differentiates between what a man thinks and says of himself and what he really is and does, so in historical struggles one must distinguish still more the phrases and fancies of parties from their real organism and their real interests, their conception of themselves from their reality."[vi]

So one clear lesson of the Eighteenth Brumaireand its historical materialism is the need to look beneath the surface to make sense of the dizzying succession of seemingly confusing events and the need to seek class interests to make sense of seemingly paradoxical statements and reversals of position that accompany intense periods of political change. For example, we need to unpick the class alliances that underpin the period of so-called 'reaction' to understand what's going on in the increasing repression of working class and petty bourgeois parties. We need to listen to how the same phrases can be made to carry a subtly different class content when uttered at different points in the development of the political struggle. ‘France desires above all tranquillity’ was the cry of the monarchist parties in repressing the democrats and the socialists. It became the justification for Bonaparte's actions as he sought support in suppressing the parliamentary struggles of the monarchists.[vii]

[i]Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, in D. Fernbach (ed), Marx: Surveys from Exile (Pelican, London, 1973), p. 144.

[ii]Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, pp. 153-155.

[iii]Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire, p. 239.

[iv]Ibid., pp. 146-147.

[v]Ibid., p. 240.

[vi]Ibid., pp. 173-174.

[vii]This is a point made brilliantly by John Foster in ‘On Marx’s Method and the Study of History’, Theory and Struggle: Journal of the Marx Memorial Library, Number 116 (2015), pp. 56-58.


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