Review - Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Karl Marx

Emrah GÖKER Karl Marx's book, consisting of seven articles and published first in a monthly journal titled Revolution in the spring of 1852, is perhaps one of the finest theoretical texts produced by him. Eighteenth Brumaire contains many different and exciting layers of meaning, offering the historian, the journalist, the sociologist or the militant politician accustomed to the "religiosity" of the Marxist-Leninist Church (be they pro or con) something hard to swallow. Written a few months after the December 1851 coup d'etat of Louis Bonaparte in France, this text even today is a beacon to the debate on the relations between state and society. We learn that the book is contemporary with two other texts concerning Bonaparte's coup, Victor Hugo's Little Napoleon and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's Coup d'Etat (Proudhon was jailed for that pamphlet). However, these works, according to Marx's 1869 foreword (second edition of the German original) to Eighteenth Brumaire, are not sophisticated and cannot handle the event properly. Marx's book is also marked by a sarcastic sense of humor and a relaxed use of language compared to his other works (which bear the signature of Marx the politician or Marx the theorist, rather than Marx the journalist). The title is an allusion to Napoleon Bonaparte's coup d'etat, whose date was 18 Brumaire (which corresponds to November 9, 1799), the second month of the unsuccessful calendary system created by the Revolutionary Government. In fact, throughout the whole book, Marx holds that Bonaparte's (whom Marx sometimes calls Nephew, for his familial bonds with Napoleon Bonaparte) coup is discursively haunted by the ghost of the Uncle's "original" coup realized 52 years before his. The Nephew, Marx thinks, very cleverly exploited the memory of the first Napoleon and clouded the minds of the French people. Thus, "[the French] have not only a caricature of the old Napoleon, they have the old Napoleon himself, caricatured as he must appear in the middle of the nineteenth century" (302). 1 Marx goes on to interpret the Nephew's military intervention as a backward step in French history, where "the liberal concessions that were wrung from [the monarchy] by centuries of struggle" are overthrown (302). Curiously, compared to the poetic narration of the revolutionizing effects of capitalism in Communist Manifesto (remembering the famous phrase "all that is solid melts into air"), Marx recognizes the discontinuities in history through his views on the coup. Thinking that all classes and interest groups in France were caught unawares, Marx draws attention to the false myths created by the 1789 Revolution and the Napoleon regime. Most people believed that after the crushing of the 1848 rebels, and the return of the status quo, France would leap forward with each of her steps. There were deeper concerns of course, especially there was an unrest about the date 2 May 1852, the date Louis Bonaparte's presidency expired. What if, especially the upper classes worried, the stability cannot be held? So Marx analyzes the fears of finance aristocracy, the industrial bourgeoisie and the commercial bourgeoisie about the stability of the regime, and those classes were largely representing an extra-party force, and in the end supported the Nephew's cause against the weak Parliament, which proved inefficient in governing France.
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All references are from the summarized version of the text, from McLellan's collection. This brief review will also be confined with this shorter version, rather than reflecting on the whole of the book.

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however. Although Marx himself mentions the absurdity and complexity of the whole period. With the army and other executive apparatus lost to the parliament. discharged jailbirds. and he does this in a sarcastic way: Alongside aging roues with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin. Where Marx analyzes the condition of peasantry-state relations is the most climacteric part of Eighteenth Brumaire. Other than the lumpenproletariat. thrown hither and thither. where the republic and the national assembly are constituted. tinkers. there was the threat of a general trade crisis and a national one. escaped galley-slaves. within that year. pickpockets. bureaucracy and the rest of the state apparatus was employed as a means of "preparing the class rule of the bourgeoisie" (316). He divides the second period. literati. 2) Until December 1848. and its alliances outside of the bourgeoisie? Marx first draws attention to the organization of the lumpenproletariat under the organization Society of 10 December (which is the date Bonaparte is elected president). the Order Party of Bonaparte rises more in power. assembly-bonapartist struggles. extra-party bourgeoisie forms a consensus. tricksters. Marx concludes that the bourgeoisie sacrificed its own immediate liberties for its long-term interests and bowed before the might of the state: "Rather an end with terror than a terror without end!" (309) According to Marx. The third period until the coup is more complicated. Bonaparte understood this feeling of the bourgeoisie well. While tracking the chronology from 1848 to 1851 is easy. winning against the parliamentary bourgeoisie? 2) From the scope of capitalist class struggle. were vagabonds. its struggle with the parliament continues. Marx points out a second and a more important ally. his main purpose is to find an answer to two questions: 1) After the defeat of the Revolution. the whole indefinite. alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie. army is won by the President until January 1851. 3) From December 1848 to May 1849. disintegrated mass. The first period. let us briefly examine his ideas on Bonaparte's alliance with the French peasantry. gamblers. against the assembly.in short. The events from 1848 to 1851 are best summarized by him under three periods. the Bonapartist rumors (mostly pronounced in papers supporting the President) about a coup beginning from 1849. 2 . it dies and Bonaparte's dictatorship rules by 2 December 1851. until the control of the army by Bonaparte. mountebanks. organ-grinders. porters. he continues. and his analysis here had later been subject to many debates within Marxist theory. and the fall of bourgeois-republicans from power. Next (and this point was later taken up by Poulantzas in his debate with Miliband about the relative autonomy of the state). how do we explain the independence of state from bourgeoisie. beggars . brothel-keepers. This gang. rogues. to three: 1) Total defeat of the Revolution by June 1848. how did Bonaparte come to power. which is the mass of small-holding peasants.Furthermore. knife-grinders. formed the crux of his propaganda/agitation/intimidation apparatus of the Nephew's totalitarianism. After that. rag-pickers. and the end of republicans' rule with the election of Bonaparte as president. which the French term la boheme: from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the Society of 10 December. and the trade crisis. Before these debates. he does not think that the events are unexplainable and untheorizable. So as a result of the threat of instability. from 24 February to 4 May 1848 covers the rise and fall of the proletarian government. where firstly the petty-bourgeois democratic forces are defeated. we witness state making itself completely independent. discharged soldiers. while intra-parliamentary struggles between the Montagne and Order go on. However. the drafting of the Constitution. the rule of bourgeois-republicans. Marx claims that beginning with the 1789 Revolution. in the person of Louis Bonaparte. supported by the press.

caused still further disagreements about the "leadership" of the revolutionary movement. no variety of talent. this benevolent "Father" cannot distribute everything equally. should peasants lead. do not form a class as long as they do not constitute common interests and a common organization for some targeted end. Yet Marx adds that Bonaparte can only represent the obedient mass of the peasantry. Marx also states that unlike under Napoleon. in the history of socialist struggles. no application of science. its uniforms. Marx talks about five important links established between the totalitarian state and the peasantry during Napoleon's radical reforms. and. influencing and subjecting the peasants in line with the interests of the state which was then fighting against feudalism. Lastly. no wealth of social relationships (317). Marx tells us that "the peasants find their natural ally and leader in the urban proletariat. which exists under similar living conditions but where peasants do not have extensive relations among themselves other than some local connections. he argues. * * * Eighteenth Brumaire is a brilliant source of speculation for the Marxologist. Bonaparte has successfully exploited the conservative peasantry's traditional ties to the empire. population). the very foundation of the Nephew's dictatorship is built upon an anachronic ideology which has fulfilled its mission during Napoleon's reign. Second. Third. They. and this was generally neglected by the professional revolutionaries. On the other hand. the small holding. Marx finally points out the contradictions in this and predicts the fall of this "absurd" rule. when Bonaparte tried to resurrect these spectres which would no longer work under a defeated feudalism and dominating capitalism.First. it both educates and amuses even the less-talented reader. Because. through its priests. and the return of the parliamentary republic where things operate more under the control of the bourgeoisie. should workers be in front. or should they march side to side? Most importantly. admits of no division of labour in its cultivation. so in the end the state (in its autonomous condition) is supporting the interests of the bourgeoisie. dominated the religiosity of the small holding. who is talking about this "leadership"? Who is "speaking for" the oppressed class(es)? But aside that old debate. not feudalism. the distribution of land among poor peasants created a small-holding type of property ownership which. The machinery forged by Napoleon thus cannot be expected to work against the mid-nineteenth-century French rural structure marked by commercial capitalism. bureaucratic mechanisms found a fertile soil among the peasantry. rather than a scholarly. whose task is the overthrow of the bourgeois order" (320). his dictatorship is bound to fail. the Church. the army. therefore. Unlike the heavy political-agitative language of the Communist Manifesto (which was targeting an ordinary. Marx ends the discussion with adding that Bonaparte also claims to represent the middle class. the earthly police organization of the state. eventually. After that. However. its image of 1789 and of the victories in Europe. enchanting the peasantry with its patriotism. Marx warns us. and his lumpenproletariat allies would also want their shares from the pie. had to be defended by Bonaparte. no diversity of development. of course. Marx sees the French peasantry of mid-nineteenth century as a mass. Fourth comes. They cannot represent themselves and thus are represented through their connection to the executive power. Their field of production. in fact "the people" as a patriarchal figure. 3 . first. This last point had. According to that. not the revolutionary crux of it which is against going back to old times. in close relation with this heavenly police. the peasants' interests under Bonaparte (although they themselves are unaware of them) are against those of bourgeoisie. quite wrongly (because of the whole economic burden it brought to the peasant).

We can further the narrative strategies Marx employed in understanding the "why" and "how" of the 1851 coup by doing brain gymnastics on the Turkish political history. Furthermore. that the state's doings are relatively autonomous from class interests. because the coup implied the actuality of state's independence. and this book was an important element of the debate. pp.. He did not see the coup as essentially an anomaly ("Men make their own history. aside other classes. thinking how the generals of 1980 coup tried to resurrect Turco-Sunni values and Kemalist values in legitimizing their "restoration" of unity and of the Turkish national corpus. etc. For example. etc. the second as farce [1971? 1980?]" (300). or 'story' and 'plot') is at best just a handy heuristic device. and hence liable to summary disconfirmation at each new turn of the story so far (Norris. it does not see the state as a mere committee of bourgeois politicians governing for the benefit of the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie. different than Grundrisse or Capital. As I mentioned earlier. (2) that this distinction (like the formalist categories of recit and discours. 4 .. educational connections. implies that Marx does not use theory to construct the reality itself.. Poulantzas also argued that. meaning the loss of the liberties won by bourgeoisie. Furthermore. the conservative part of the French peasantry constituted a class. Norris states: For readers willing to heed its message this text spells out the following lessons: (1) that the narration of historical events cannot be subject to higher ('metanarrative') forms of explanatory comment or control. immediate historical facts which were fresh in his mind..). Eighteenth Brumaire directly engages with actualities. because he saw class as essentially a "relation" not only formed within the political domain (by being represented). However.") in the "teleological march" of capitalism. a widely-known debate of the 1970s on the conceptualization of the state in Marxist theory was between Miliband and Poulantzas. let us not label it "fascist". allying with the coup d'etat be called a "sack of potatoes"? 2 Christopher Norris (1990) What is Wrong With Postmodernism? Critical Theory and the Ends of Philosophy.And very different than this latter text. as postmodernists like to call). He forgot to add the first time as tragedy [1922? I960?]. This text. at least in the short and medium term. While Miliband held that the contemporary capitalist state (with respect to the occupational positions within the state organs) had very close and complex ties with the bourgeoisie (personal relationships. he held that Bonaparte's dictatorship should even be disliked by the bourgeoisie. against Marx. following Christopher Norris’ 2alternative reading of Eighteenth Brumaire. commercial ties. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf. as it were.30-45. However. in which Marx begins from the most abstract and then comes down to the workings of actual capitalism. let me ask: can the over 90 percent majority who voted for the anti-democratic (to prevent symbolic violence.). because he recognizes this period between 1848 and 1851 in its strangeness. expanding on Eighteenth Brumaire. Poulantzas argued.) Constitution. a religion. and (3) that we should therefore give up thinking in these typecast theoreticist terms and accept the plain fact that all our sense-making strategies are provisional constructions out of the chaos of history. 34). one can reject criticisms of Marxist attempts to establish theoretical frameworks (grand narratives. I find this opening passage of Brumaire more meaningful: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur. twice. subject to all manner of complicating tensions as soon as one actually begins to read. but also within the economic (and Marx also accepts that peasants live under similar conditions) and cultural domains (surely they shared a tradition. Norris himself uses this insight to reflect upon Thatcherism. according to Norris. a language.

a regime which in fact guards the interests of capital speaks for them. in Nelson. his accusation of "sack of potatoes" is part of his Ideologiekritik of Bonapartist alliances. So Spivak reminds us that it is futile to deny the possibility of representation understood only as darstellen (in philosophical terms. but what Marx tries to do cannot be undermined by saying that the conservative peasantry supporting the Nephew was in fact a class. They are silenced. their potentia of struggle is dislocated by the spectre of idee napoleonienne and the physical force of a state "gone independent". Perhaps Poulantzas did a useful job on drawing our attention to the constitution of a peasant class in other domains. Rejecting the micrological logic to subject formations. I would argue that the distinction between two levels of representation and being careful not to efface political representation for the fear of essentialism encourages a reading of the "defeated" Turkish civil society of post-1980 as a "sack of potatoes". University of Illinois Press. if we follow the logic of inquiry suggested by Spivak. This is clear in his critique of the collectivity of peasants mobilized and manipulated by Bonapartist totalitarianism. distorting the sign-structure. we can understand Marx's hostility toward the French peasantry: it was that "their identity of interests" was dispersed by the Bonapartist ideology. Urbana and Chicago. agents with different class habituses managed to "heal" and "restore" and even "develop" some parts of their classes' sign-structure. like "x" representing an unknown. It is not that. we become disarmed against the critique of macrological processes. Marx holds that. Marx tells us that there is still a fraction of the French peasantry which is a class. (eds. Politically. On the other hand. 3 class consciousness does not emerge from the intersection of desire and interest. L. It is not that the traditionalist peasants cannot ever form a class. (1988) "Can the Subaltern Speak?". Marx thinks about political representation. vertreten. we lose the critique of ideology. as Poulantzas seems to believe. 279). carrying the spirit of 1789. As time passed. Thus. agents of power. and Grossberg. 3 Spivak. rendering them unable to speak for themselves. but they have lost the crucial moment of awareness of their homologous economic conditions. political representation which are in fact operated by what goes on among agents in the micro-level. or value representing labor power). which is revolutionary. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. there are groups who learn to speak for themselves as long as they situate themselves against certain dominating elements of the state. Finally.This last point brings me to the question of representation.). C. Gayatri C. class in Brumaire is "made" in only the political domain. 5 . which only brings us to that there is no "sign-structure to experience" (Spivak.

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