The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte


I have started to study for my general exams, which take place at the end of May. As part of my study process I am writing notes on all of the books on my reading lists. I plan to post the notes on a few books that I think people I am in regular dialogue with might be particularly interested. Here’s this morning’s notes on Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, translated by Terrell Carver in Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’: (post)modern interpretations, ed. Mark Cowling and James Martin (London: Pluto Press, 2002)

This is Marx’s analysis of the rise of Louis Bonaparte in the wake of the 1848 February revolution and abdication of King Louis-Philippe. It covers the period of 1848 to 1852, when Bonaparte assumed dictatorial powers. Marx divides the era into three periods:

1. The February period or the overthrow of Louis-Philippe, which ran from February 24 1848 to 4 May 1848;
2. The Constituent Assembly period, May 4, 1848 to May 28, 1851;
3. The Constitutional Republic, May 28, 1851 to December 2, 1851.

He identifies these periods largely with the classes who held power in the country during them. Only in the first period was the proletariat in charge. After that various bourgeois parties held power. Louis Bonaparte skillfully manipulated them until he was able to consolidate his own power at the end of 1851, beginning of 1852.

In the text Marx lays out a theory of revolution and political transformation. It is summarized in the first two sentences of text: “Hegel observes somewhere that all the great events and characters of world history occur twice, so to speak. He forgot to add: the first time as high tragedy, the second time as low farce” (19). By this he means that during times of revolutionary struggle revolutionaries always look to the past for inspiration. They begin by imitating the past but only succeed in creating revolutionary change when they move beyond imitation. The first example he gives of this is the way in which revolutionaries during the French Revolution looked back to the Roman Republic for inspiration. The second example he offers is the way that the revolutionaries of 1848 and Louis Bonaparte both looked to earlier struggles and figures, in the revolutionaries case it was the French Revolution and Louis Bonaparte is was that of his uncle.

Another important theme that Marx takes up is how during revolutionary times people, particularly, the bourgeoise, prioritize order above progress. People are not often aware of this tendency within themselves which leads Marx to observe, “Just as in private life one distinguishes between what a man thinks and says, and what he really is and does, so one must all the more in historical conflicts make the distinction between the fine words and aspirations of the parties from their real organization and their real interests, their image from their reality” (43). What’s really going on is always class struggle. That struggle may be veiled, from the participants themselves, by words.

Towards the end of the book Marx provides a description of class in relation to his discussion of the French peasantry. It is worth quoting in whole:

Thus the great bulk of the French nation is formed by simple accretion, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. In so far as millions of families get a living under economic conditions of existence that divide their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of other classes and counterpose them as enemies, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection amongst peasant proprietors, the similarity of their interests produces no community, no national linkage and no political organization, they do not form a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interests in their own name, whether through a parliament or constitutional convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. (100-101).

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