Gregory Sadler's Reviews > The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Karl Marx
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's review
Mar 14, 12

bookshelves: philosophy, changed-me
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I'd like to specify before launching into my review of this excellent work of analysis that I'm neither a Marxist nor even someone on the Left (though I once was). I do still grant and appreciate the role of economic conditions and relations in conditioning what occurs in politics, culture, law, and religion, but I don't see the economic sphere as determining, or even as predominating, the other dimensions of human existence.

That's actually one of the lessons that comes through in this brilliant little text: economics, class interests, and class consciousness play roles in - but don't fully explain or predict - what happens in politics. What I particularly like about the mind of Marx seen in this essay is that history, economics, struggle, etc. are NOT deterministic. There is some room for individual decisions and motivations, for the person just as much as a political community to be a place of competing interests which have to make their claims.

In fact, you could say that there's three main lessons Marx teaches here. If the first is the one just noted, the second is that it is inherent to human beings and culture that when they are launching forth into something new, something radical, something revolutionary, they inevitably grope around for historical analogies, idealized precedents, dramatic roles, as it were, within which to locate themselves, their own actions and intentions, their rivals, allies, or enemies, even the basic situation being faced.

The third lesson is one about liberal democracies, the workings of politics in them, and a particular danger always lurking unrealized (or in our own time, usually misfigured) in the play of power and ideology. Put very succinctly, it is that when ideologically-driven interests are fully engaged in the sort of conflict that pulls at the very fabric of society, becoming plays and ploys for power, carried out to implement this or that set of goals beyond mere power, all of the competing factions are at a disadvantage with respect to the party or person which fundamentally just aims after power.

The story that Marx narrates exemplifies these lessons. A word of warning, though: without some understanding of post-Revolutionary French politics and culture, it can be quite difficult to make sense out of some of the developments and parties within the story. For example, the "Radicals" in French parlance are really those who are still trying to continue the several-decades-past program of the French Revolution, essentially a party of bourgeois interests, looking for political change, but focused on rights of property, commerce, production, anti-clerical and anti-monarchic, but certainly not "radical" in the sense that an American reader might expect.

The situation as Marx depicts it is one in which competing parties, each driven by their own class-interests and class-consciousness -- which will keep them, of course, from engaging in anything more than alliances of expediency, unable to seek any genuinely common good together -- are engaged in struggle with each other, carried out partly through elections and the power that electoral victories bring, through their involvements with important institutions or significant portions of French society, through public opinion and at times through force.

Each group is willing -- indeed at times eager -- to use what power they have against their perceived opponents and for the remaking of a society in clear crisis along their ideal lines. Put very bluntly, each group wants to gain power, in order to use power to attain ends which are themselves beyond power. They regard power instrumentally. And, this struggle opens the door for someone who sees things quite differently, Napoleon III -- who Marx depicts as interested in power for its own sake, not laboring under the sorts of restraints or illusions holding back the other players on the political stage.

Gaining the support of the Army, itself an venerable French institution with multiple roles, different ideological resonances, but also a keen conception of the need for some social order in the face of external threats, Bonaparte steers the different political factions against each other -- none of them realizing that what he intends not only does not align with their interests but ultimately entirely negates them -- preparing the way for his rise to complete power, a military-backed autocracy.

Bonaparte and the Army themselves were not immune to the temptation of historical mimesis Marx points out -- numerous enough parallels suggested themselves. You might say that one of the ways the various competing parties went wrong was in not seeing what historical analogy they were actually acting within -- they thought they were involved in a very different game than the one it turned out they were in fact playing.

A last note: One of my areas of work is study of totalitarian movements. The standard Marxist interpretation of Fascism and National Socialism -- long acknowledged as oversimplistic and on some counts just dead-wrong -- has been to see the Facist/NS organizations as coming from the "naturally conservative" petit bourgeoisie and as being essentially tools of big capital, tools which then turned on their makers or handlers. When reading the 18th Brumiare, it is hard not to see parallels that could have led to a much better, more accurate understanding of Fascism/NS if orthodox Marxists had thought through this rich work.

But this is, and has been, one of those works by Marx that does present problems for Marxists and Marxism -- perhaps that's why it's one of his best.
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