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The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

by Karl Marx

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736823,918 (3.87)15
Marx's account of the rise of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte is one of his most important texts. Written after the defeat of the 1848 revolution in France and Bonaparte's subsequent coup, it is a concrete analysis that raises enduring theoretical questions about the state, class conflict and ideology.Unlike his earlier analyses, Marx develops a nuanced argument concerning the independence of the state from class interests, the different types of classes, and the determining power of ideas and imagery in politics. In the Eighteenth Brumaire he applies his 'materialist conception of history' to an actual historical event with extraordinary subtlety and an impressive, powerful command of language.This volume contains the most recent and widely acclaimed translation of the Eighteenth Brumaire by Terrell Carver, together with a series of specially commissioned essays on the importance of the Brumaire in Marx's canon. Contributors discuss its continuing significance and interest, the historical background and its contemporary relevance for political philosophy and history.… (more)
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The course of events in France after the fall of Louis Philippe seemed to confirm the truth of the Communist Manifesto’s definition of the “executive of the modern state” as a “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Though the Bonapartlst dictatorship after 1851 based itself directly on the army, and indirectly on the peasants, its principal social function plainly was the defense of property against the have-nots. The plaudits showered upon the regime throughout Europe left no doubt that it was precisely this feature which rendered it acceptable even to liberals, despite its militarism and the dubious character of its leading figures.

Marx formulated his doctrine of class conflict in four decisive texts: The Communist Manifesto (1847-8), the Class Struggles in France (1850), the Eighteenth Brumaire (1852), and the Civil War in France (1871). All four are based on French experience and French political thinking, yet they aim at something like a general theory of the state.

Basically, Marx regarded the bureaucracy as an artificial “caste” lacking a dynamic of its own -- apart from a tendency to swell in numbers -- and incapable of playing an independent and socially significant role (as would a class). If the state now and then appeared on the scene in the guise of mediator -- e.g., under Bonapartism, that was a temporary anomaly which could not long survive the contest of interests and ideas between the “true” classes of society. Marx’s contemptuous attitude towards the bureaucracy seems to have stemmed from his Rhineland background. Like other radical thinkers of his time he was more profoundly affected than he knew by the outlook of the liberal era, which is no longer very helpful in a post-bourgeois age. [1961]
1 vote GLArnold | Aug 27, 2020 |
Brilliant and beyond comprehensive. Every sentence, every clause is packed with information and revelation in that inexorable Marxist fashion. Not only does Marx portray the [in retrospect, inevitable] self-dissolution of the Parisian bourgeoisie and representative democracy, but he outlines the fundamental factors encouraging such a reflexive abrogation in a way that's eerily prescient. The specter of a class dictatorship outweighed the prospect of dictatorship in one man, and the result was Louis Napoleon (and if one chooses to unravel the ensuing historical thread, the creation of a unified Germany and the two world wars). Solely because the interests of the urban proletariat were deemed disruptive to the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie.

The enemies we face today wear new and disorienting masks, but the methods by which they coopt erstwhile allies are far from innovative. For leftists, liberals will inevitably betray them, and thus is as it ever was. Capitalize the "D" in the following passage, and you might as well be describing modern American politics:

[T]he democrat, because he represents the petty bourgeoisie – that is, a transition class, in which the interests of two classes are simultaneously mutually blunted – imagines himself elevated above class antagonism generally. The democrats concede that a privileged class confronts them, but they, along with all the rest of the nation, form the people. What they represent is the people’s rights; what interests them is the people’s interests. Accordingly, when a struggle is impending they do not need to examine the interests and positions of the different classes. They do not need to weigh their own resources too critically. They have merely to give the signal and the people, with all its inexhaustible resources, will fall upon the oppressors. Now if in the performance their interests prove to be uninteresting and their potency impotence, then either the fault lies with pernicious sophists, who split the indivisible people into different hostile camps, or the army was too brutalized and blinded to comprehend that the pure aims of democracy are the best thing for it, or the whole thing has been wrecked by a detail in its execution, or else an unforeseen accident has this time spoiled the game. In any case, the democrat comes out of the most disgraceful defeat just as immaculate as he was innocent when he went into it, with the newly won conviction that he is bound to win, not that he himself and his party have to give up the old standpoint, but, on the contrary, that conditions have to ripen to suit him.

Despite the sheer density of prose, the innumerable factors that have led us to the dismal present can be traced back to the revolutions of 1848 and beyond. The common arc of the universe has yet to bend - can it really go without bending for much longer? It is in The Eighteenth Brumaire that Marx coined the idea that history repeats itself, "first as tragedy, then as farce." What does it mean to watch history being made on a daily basis, and to witness the same passages repeated over and over again? Given the nature of our reality, we're all living in a collective insane timeline - reading Marx's timeless insights can be one of the few ways to preserve our sanity. ( )
1 vote goliathonline | Jul 7, 2020 |
This book takes in some matters of great current relevance in its broad conceptual sweep, but--from a current perspective--too often douses them in the minutiae of the moment. Marx the political junkie certainly conveys to us his brilliance and his scorn--the tagline here is "history happens first as tragedy, then again as farce," after all--and he is not gentle in his treatment of the conservative "Party of Order," the liberal grandees, the social-democrat Montagnards, or the social revolutionaries like Louis Blanc. The men of 1848 were not the men of 1789. Unfortunately, all things fade, and our latter-day selves may not appreciate the exquisiteness of some of the finer barbs here.

Nevertheless, the central question is echoic of Hitler, who we have kept aliver in the intellectual folk-memory: how does a mediocrity like Louis Bonaparte (seen by his contemporaries largely as a clown after two embarrassing coup attempts, though to be fair also a daring escape from prison) become Napoleon III of France? The basic argument is that each of the competing power blocks thought they were using him as a front to tear down their opponents--a proxy and patsy president to keep their own hands clean--but then he himself was the last man standing who he hadn't been used to tear down, and who in fact had been built up by being the dude to hand out all the bread and sausages. Marx's fear of the lumpenproletariat, which he couches as caution about their counterrevolutionary potential, comes out in a major way here. And in general his class analysis is more sophisticated and more modern than in say the manifesto--our petty bourgeoisie, our magnates of industry and finance and agriculture and the tension between them, our deeply complicit intellectuals/gelded pantomime opposition, all are here. Interesting to me too is how this is certainly still the early Marx, historicist and Hegelian and without a complex economic theory (represented; I dunno to what degree it had been worked out), though with a keen sense of the role of economic crises in causing political crises; but then, compared to Engels's preface to the third edition written thirty years later that talks about things in terms of the historical law and the inevitable victory of socialism, what we have here is Marx the deeply ironical, fascinated and amused by the way a perfectly reasonable, unjust, workaday bourgeois polity can spin off into absurdity, with only a faint tang of social-justice rage bound up in the reminder that all class interests not rooted in the relations of production are illusory (so if you're on a daily wage, for fuck's sake don't think that the dictator is serving you and not the man with the millions, though of course in both cases ultimately serving only himself if the buffoon can get away with it, and again like Hitler Louis-N. B. did). I like this Marx and I'd read his inside-the-Beltway blog and I only wish that the political junkie stacks-of-newspapers-in-the-cafes stuff was easier to unpack after getting on for two centuries. ( )
1 vote MeditationesMartini | Mar 30, 2014 |
Of all Marx's political works, this is by far the most interesting and the one that most rewards a close reading.
  Fledgist | Sep 30, 2006 |
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Marx's account of the rise of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte is one of his most important texts. Written after the defeat of the 1848 revolution in France and Bonaparte's subsequent coup, it is a concrete analysis that raises enduring theoretical questions about the state, class conflict and ideology.Unlike his earlier analyses, Marx develops a nuanced argument concerning the independence of the state from class interests, the different types of classes, and the determining power of ideas and imagery in politics. In the Eighteenth Brumaire he applies his 'materialist conception of history' to an actual historical event with extraordinary subtlety and an impressive, powerful command of language.This volume contains the most recent and widely acclaimed translation of the Eighteenth Brumaire by Terrell Carver, together with a series of specially commissioned essays on the importance of the Brumaire in Marx's canon. Contributors discuss its continuing significance and interest, the historical background and its contemporary relevance for political philosophy and history.

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