Eighteenth Brumaire Of Lois Bonaparte

Remembering Karl Marx, the Historian

Anjan Basu

[Written less like formal history and more like a journalist's despatch, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is yet a triumph of historical writing]

Perhaps no one exerted greater influence on historical thinking, also history writing, in the 20th century than Karl Marx. This is remarkable, considering that Marx was not a practising historian. There are of course some who like to think of his magnum opus, Capital, as a history of capitalism. But, though Marx's study of capitalism contains an enormous amount of historical material and historical illustration, it cannot properly be considered as history for a variety of reasons, not least because the socio-economic system it documents is still evolving today, a full one-hundred-and-fifty-three years after Capital made its first appearance. Of course it is impossible to miss the fact that nearly everything that Marx wrote is suffused with a sense of history, or that the materialist conception of history is the core of Marxism. But there is little in what Marx wrote that can be described as history, as historians commonly understand it.

That said, there are two monographs of Marx's which come closest to historical treatises, though they were not written as history, in that they do not study periods or events from the past. Both were written during 1850-1852, in the wake of the European revolution of 1848-49, and both focussed on France, more particularly on the developments leading to, and later undermining, the Second Republic. The first of these two books, The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850, Marx wrote between January and October 1850, for the Neue Rhenische Zeitung of Berlin while The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte was written during December, 1851 March, 1852 and published in the New York monthly The Revolution. Each book can be—indeed, should be—read as a companion volume to the other, and together they illuminate the complex web of social relations in France which first brought the revolution about and later made way for the counterrevolution, eventually installing Louis Napoleon as Emperor. Though both these books revolve around the same broad theme, the Brumaire is much the fuller treatment. It also explores, perhaps for the first time by any analyst, the phenomenon which later came to be identified as Bonapartism—a process of the co-opting/hijacking of a revolution by a leader who eventually derails the revolution and turns it around to serve his own special needs. And the Brumaire not only pictures Bonapartism in action; it also foregrounds the matrix of class relations that makes this parasitic overgrowth a possibility. Engels called the Brumaire "a work of genius". "This eminent understanding of the living history of the day", he wrote, "this clear-sighted appreciation of events at the moment of happening, is indeed without parallel". Apart from the rigour of its analysis of mid-19th century French political economy and the felicity with which it lays bare, in a mere fifty-odd printed pages, the inter-connectedness of the bewilderingly many strands of recent French history, the Brumaire also remains an outstanding example of epigrammatic prose-crisp, sharp and witty. Here one takes a somewhat closer look at this nineteenth-century classic.

The words "eighteenth Brumaire" mean very little to people today, but in Marx's time, they were laden with symbolism for the revolutionary movement. The great French Revolution of 1789 had dispensed with the traditional Roman calendar in favour of a new republican calendar, with all the months of the year finding new names on that calendar. 'Brumaire' was the second month on that calendar, and the eighteenth of Brumaire corresponded to the 9th of November on the Roman calendar, the date on which Napoleon Bonaparte—in 1799—overthrew the Directory and himself became the First Consul, thus effectively killing the revolution. Fifty-two years later, in December, 1851, Louis Napoleon, the great Bonaparte's nephew, jockeyed into position as the emperor of France on the ruins of the Second Republic. In the title of his book, Marx is referring to this very act of usurpation. In his preface to the 1869 edition, he writes about his intent to show "how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero's part". Indeed, Marx's portrait of Louis Napoleon drips with frank contempt. He looks at the nephew as no more than a petty adventurer who, by virtue of his ability to be all things to all men, managed to anoint himself as the emperor. "Hegel remarks somewhere", thus begins chapter one of the Braumaire, "that all great world-historic facts and personages appear twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidiere for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montaigne of 1848-1851 for the Montaigne of 1793-1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire".

But how did the caricature transmute into the Emperor? How did he lord it over greater men than himself for more than twenty years, holding seismic pressures of social change in check with apparent ease? Why did the European revolution of 1848-49 with its epicentre in France spend itself so quickly and apparently so fully? What accounted for the comprehensive defeat of the French working class by forces that had aligned with it in the revolution's first flush? The Brumaire addresses these questions with stunning lucidity and a breathtakingly sure grasp of the personalities and forces at play in the drama. The failed revolution did indeed give Marx his first real chance of testing the basic tenet of historical materialism (developed in such mid-1840s texts as The Holy Family and The German Ideology), which (as Engels paraphrased it in the preface to the Brumaire's 1885 edition) is that

(A)ll historical struggles...are in fact only the more or less clear expression of struggles of social classes, and...the existence and thereby the collisions, too, between these classes are in turn conditioned by the degree of development of their economic position, by the mode of their production, and of their exchange determined by it.

Marx shows that the revolution of February,1848 reflected the disenchantment of vast swathes of the Parisian population- workers, artisans, the petty-bourgeoisie (shopkeepers and small business-owners), the republican-minded bourgeoisie, and even sections of the liberal bourgeoisie—with the regime of the 'July monarchy' of Louis Phillippe. Europe was then experiencing a series of economic crises triggered, variously, by the potato crop blight of 1846, the devastating famines of 1847, the precipitous slowdown in some hitherto-vibrant business sectors (like the British railroads) and rising business failures and bankruptcies. Unemployment soared, Paris being among the hardest-hit, with probably one Parisian in every three facing loss of livelihood. The regime was increasingly shedding all its pretensions of a constitutional monarchy—as it was supposed to be—and embracing steadily more authoritarian practices such as the banning of all dissent. Protests escalated even to the smaller French cities. And when the army opened fire on a crowd of protesters in Paris in the afternoon of 23 February, killing fifty-two protesters, that proved to be the proverbial last straw. Paris erupted in violent resistance. The king abdicated and fled and the Second Republic was announced, its two major goals being the expansion of democracy and providing work to the unemployed. Universal male suffrage was instituted and censorship significantly relaxed. National Workshops subsidised by the state were set up to employ tens of thousands of workers. However, a push-back began almost immediately, with the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie demanding a roll-back of the concessions to workers and of the taxes levied to finance subsidies. The elections in April gave the mandate to conservative and moderate candidates and the government started drifting steadily to the right, cutting back on workers' aid and scaling down the National Workshops. When, on 23 June, the government announced the winding-down of the National Workshops, the workers rose in rebellion, erecting barricades on Paris streets and fighting pitched battles with the National Guard. All their allies of the February days had deserted them by now, however, including the petty-bourgeoisie, and soon the insurrection was drowned in blood and put down.

The defeat of the workers' insurrection left the forces Marx described as 'pure bourgeois Republicans'—i.e., liberals—in charge. Now was the time for a true bourgeois democracy, embodying the interests of the whole bourgeoisie as a class, to take shape. However, the dynamics of class relations charted out a different course for France. Two major branches of the bourgeoisie—the 'aristocracy of finance' (bankers and financiers) aligned with the big landlords, and the industrial bourgeoisie—vied endlessly for a greater share of state power, and were locked in a permanent state of intrigue against one another, destabilising the government and torpedoing the project of democratic reforms repeatedly. As a result, the government swung from republican fervour to undemocratic prejudice. Universal suffrage was annulled, and the church's primacy in the area of education was ceded in large measure. The bourgeoisie was additionally sceptical of democracy for fear that working class mobilisations would thrive in a truly democratic set-up.

 Thus, busy keeping the radical elements of society down, and fighting bitter internecine battles with its own components, the bourgeoisie made it possible for Louis Napoleon—with no allegiance to any of these feuding classes -- to enter the stage as it were unannounced. He won the Presidential elections of December 1848, projecting himself as the legatee of his great uncle, with the support of the small-holding peasantry, who owed a debt of gratitude to the uncle because he had broken up the large noble estates and given the land away to the peasants. The President then set about systematically dismantling the institutions of democracy and centralising all power in his hands. On 2 December,1851, when his term as President was running out after three years in office, he staged a neat coup, suspended all organs of democracy, and slipped into the emperor's robes, giving himself the grand title of Napoleon III. The Second Empire was thus born out of the womb of the Second Republic.

Marx sums up the bourgeoisie's perverse abdication of political power with devastating irony:
The bourgeoisie confesses that its own interests dictate that it should be delivered from the danger of its own rule; that to restore tranquillity in the country its bourgeois parliament must first be given its quietus; that to preserve its social power intact, its political power must be broken...; that in order to save its purse, it must forfeit the crown...

Marx suggests that the French working class had fought valiantly, but it was not yet numerous enough—nor strong enough—to emerge as a real challenger for political power. Unlike in 1789, again, the bourgeoisie was not a revolutionary force any longer and had no reason to stand by the working class in its struggles. Squeezed by economic slow-down and crises, the petty-bourgeoisie was disintegrating as a force to reckon with and it vacillated perpetually between the propertied classes and the have-nots. Into this precarious balance of class relations, Louis Napoleon stepped in, as it were as disembodied, but all-powerful and independent, state power. The class that propped him up—the peasantry—was of course too fractured and disoriented to be a potent power in itself.

The Brumaire showed that the revolution failed because the protagonists had either not reached their revolutionary potential yet (the working class), or had exhausted that potential by then (the bourgeoisie). And the dialectic of historical change implicit in this demonstration is also posited brilliantly in the Brumaire's pages, for example in this celebrated sentence from chapter one:

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.

 This was a triumph of historical writing, even if its immediate object was not the writing of history.

[Anjan Basu freelances as literary critic and commentator. He can be reached at]

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Vol. 52, No. 39, Mar 29 - April 4, 2020