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The Eighteenth Brumaire as Disengagement from History: A Parody of the Old Mole

Bernie Moss

THE CHAPTER I’ve written for Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire: Modern Interpretations (Mark Cowling and James Martin, eds, forthcoming) is an extension of an article I published in 1985 in the Journal of the History of Ideas on Marx and Engels and French social democracy. Its context is my own reinterpretation of the history of the French Left – republican, socialist, syndicalist and communist – as continuity: ideological, programmatic, social, geographical and anti-clerical. A summary of my thesis can be found in Socialist History No.18 (2000).

In working on this project I became aware of Marx’s indebtedness – both through Hegel and directly – to the French Revolution and the republican movement, an indebtedness that Marx and Marxists have always refused to acknowledge. Almost all of Marx’s politics can be derived from the Revolution and republicanism – both in the parliamentary form of social democracy and in the insurrectionary form of Blanquism.

Whereas Marxists have always debated whether Marx was a parliamentary social democrat or an insurrectionary Blanquist-Leninist, I found that he was both, depending on circumstances. To say that Marx tried out different strategies according to shifting circumstances – much like Lenin, for whom tactics were almost everything – is not to deny the constancy of his method of analysis and goal of communism. Thus, my circumstantial reading differs from the contextual one suggested by Alan Gilbert in Marx’s Politics. It should be applied not only to Marx’s day-to-day writings but also to his more literary or theoretical ones like the Eighteenth Brumaire and Capital.

Indeed, I see the Eighteenth Brumaire as a work that resulted from Marx’s disengagement from active politics after the failure of both his social democratic and Leninist strategies and the beginning of a turn to Hegel (not a return, because the young Marx as far as I’m aware was always a critic of Hegel) that would culminate in Capital. Of all Marx’s writings on the French revolution of mid-century, which mark different strategic options, the Eighteenth Brumaire is the least engaged, the most self-consciously literary, emotionally arid and, from a historical viewpoint, distorted. This may explain why it finds graces among academics searching for “objectivity”, who would not be caught dead reading the Manifesto, which even as a crude party pamphlet is much richer because it is an engaged text (I always find new angles each time I read it, whereas in the former I find only more sophisticated historical errors).

It is not generally realised that Marx was closely engaged with social democracy in both its parliamentary and insurrectionary versions. From the beginnings of their collaboration in 1845, Marx and Engels held the democratic movement of the working classes – the Chartists in Britain, the republicans in France – to be synonymous with communism. Engels, who collaborated on Ledru-Rollin’s La Réforme, regarded the French republicans as "communists without knowing it". When the revolution broke out in 1848, Marx was invited by a member of the government to Paris where he participated in one of the prominent working men’s clubs alongside Blanqui’s. Marx’s politics closely mirrored those of Blanqui, who by organising and arming the workers hoped to push the democratic republic toward socialism.

Reflecting the failure of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Germany, Marx broke with the parliamentary democrats in France after the abortive uprisings of June 1848 and 1849, and formed the Universal Alliance of Revolutionary Communists together with the Blanquists. Thus, Marx and Engels supported the Blanquist plan to reply to the restriction working class suffrage in May 1850 with a mass insurrection establishing an extended political dictatorship, which was necessary to win both the national and international class war that would result. The transition to communism and the abolition of the state dictatorship could only occur on a world scale by bringing the revolution to Britain, which dominated the world market. This strategy of permanent revolution was far too advanced for the working class movement of the time, but it prophetically adumbrated the main lines of the Soviet revolution and dictatorship in the twentieth century. Hal Draper, the noted exegete of Marx, who was a Shachtmanite Trotskyist (Draper left the Shachtmanites in the 1960s when they became ferocious cold warriors), was quite wrong to deny Marx’s embrace of a coercive dictatorship in the context of his strategy of permanent revolution.

Marx and Engels abandoned their strategy of permanent revolution in September 1850, ostensibly on economic grounds, arguing that the return to prosperity in Britain ended prospects for revolution, but the reality was that they had isolated themselves from the working class movement, which remained largely social democratic and loyal to figures like Louis Blanc. They dabbled for a while in refugee politics, but forswore responsibilities and devoted themselves to study and the publication of books that would make them reputations and possibly money. They viewed the unfolding struggle in France between Napoleon, the monarchists and the republicans as spectators rather than participants.The Eighteenth Brumaire was written according to the specifications of Engels. It was directed as much against social democracy as against Louis Napoleon. It ignored the reality of a mass insurrection of workers and peasants organised in secret societies – one-tenth of the people in the Drome, largely proto-industrialised peasants, for example, were organised in such societies – that lacked effective national leadership and was overtaken by Louis Napoleon’s initiative on the use of military force.

Disappointed by the performance of the workers and peasants, Marx and Engels found solace in the thought that by clearing away the parliamentary regime and social democracy Louis Napoleon would open the way to an ideologically pure proletarian revolution, much as Hitler would do in the view of some ultra-left communists in 1933. Marx correctly predicted that the statue of Napoleon would come crashing down in the Paris Commune, which was a workers’ revolution inspired by socialist republicans rather than Marx. It was not until the bolshevisation of the Communist Party in 1924 that Marxism really came to the French labour movement.

The retreat from activism in the Eighteenth Brumaire takes the traditional German dramatic form of the Haupt and Staatsactionen, of potentially world-historic events that end up in buffoonery and low farce. The text is full of appearances, shams, illusions and spectres, ridiculous postures, repetition in reversal and the spirit of paradox. The repetition in reversal and overarching determinism of the world spirit is Hegelian. It anticipates the turn to Hegel to provide the methodology for Capital, which, as Rosdolsky and lately Chris Arthur have confirmed, is about capital as world spirit, an ideal form derived from the successive approximation to the concrete via abstraction, rather than capitalism in any temporal historical context, in a process from which the active proletariat, which was at the beginning of Marx’s critique of Hegel, is largely absent.

This is the summary of a paper presented to the Political Studies Association Marxism Specialist Group at Goldsmiths’ College, London, on 12 September 2001.