In Issue 27 in March 2007, Colm Breathnach discussed the relevance of one of Marx’s key works.
On rereading The Eighteenth Brumaire, what is most striking is that it is packed with insights that are relevant to contemporary struggles. The pamphlet describes and analyses the events spanning the period from the overthrow of France’s Orleanist monarchy in February 1848 to the coup d’état of Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew, in December 1851. What is there to learn from a study of such a distant historical period, one might ask. The American socialist Hal Draper wrote of The Eighteenth Brumaire that “an outstanding characteristic is its painstaking dissection of the complexity of the historical situation”, and it certainly reveals Marx at his best, teasing out the intricate interaction of the individuals, parties, classes and class fractions operating within the overall socio-economic context of a capitalist society.
In fact Marx sees politics as complicated and constantly changing in its relationship with the economic base. As Draper noted, he pays particular attention to the state, never abstracting it from its roots in the socio-economic structure of society but recognising that it can have a certain degree of autonomy, a certain dynamism that cannot be reduced solely to bending to the will of one class or another. Marx realised that this was a complex relationship, and rather than hide behind simplifications, he attempted to tackle this complexity.
So he grapples with the question of the state, for example locating the origin of the centralised and bureaucratic structures of the French state, what he calls “this appalling parasitic body”, in the development of absolutism and the original French Revolution. In relation to the state bureaucracy, Marx implies on the one hand that this is an outgrowth of the bourgeoisie, a means to absorb its surplus members and to line its pockets with state salaries: an explanation that might well account for the senior ranks of the bureaucracy but not the vast army of petty officials and clerical workers that staff most states’ civil service. On the other hand, in a later reference to the bureaucracy under the second Bonaparte, he seems to suggest differently, seeing it as an “artificial caste” conjured up to maintain the Imperial regime, formed alongside the ‘normal’ class structure, arising out of a preponderance of small property owners and a surplus population of unemployed. In a similar vein, the question of the army acting autonomously of the ruling class is considered, and Marx comes to the conclusion that “barracks and bivouac” sometimes tire of rescuing the bourgeoisie and suppressing popular revolt, and decide to “play state of siege in their own interest and for their own benefit and at the same time besiege the citizens’ purses”. It’s obvious that Marx is not proposing total autonomy for the state apparatus, but that he is of the opinion that, although these institutions generally serve the interests of the current ruling class, there are complicating factors which tug at that connection and sometimes sever it, if only temporarily.
There have always been two Marxisms: Marxism as faith, and Marxism as method of analysis. Marxism as faith is more Marxist than the man himself, because it allows for no flaws or weaknesses in his writings and thought. Marx, like all humans, was fallible, and while the thrust of his analysis and methodology are an invaluable starting point, there are some points on which he got things wrong. One of these was an occasional lapse into determinism (along the lines of “the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat”), evident here in the expectation that the replacement of the political rule of the bourgeoisie by an authoritarian regime would inevitably clear the way for a successful proletarian revolution. Yet before we get carried away with the idea that Marx saw history as a gigantic conveyor belt leading in one direction, let us pause to look at what he actually writes.
When describing proletarian revolution, Marx makes it clear that it is not a linear process always heading onwards and upwards, but one that often faces setbacks and forced retreats as the workers ”throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again”. Now he does conclude that this erratic path to victory continues “until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible”, but this is not the same as saying ‘when a situation has been created’. In other words, the final destination is left somewhat open. Marx acknowledges the possibility of defeat, and even gets around to discussing what happens to the workers’ movement in those circumstances: “In part it throws itself into doctrinaire experiments, exchange banks and workers’ associations… and seeks, rather, to achieve its salvation behind society’s back, in private fashion, within its limited circumstances, and hence necessarily suffers shipwreck.” How reminiscent of the many private salvations, including the ‘community development’ sector, the ‘alternative lifestyle’ scene etc., on which many a good activist has ended up shipwrecked!
“Men make their own history,” Marx writes, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” Yet generations of both fans and critics have simply ignored the first five words of that statement, inventing a pseudo-Marx who sees humans as puppets dangling on the strings of structure. What he’s actually saying is just common sense: that we have some room for manoeuvre in our lives but that this room is constrained by the structures of the society we exist in. Indeed, few could doubt that this was Marx’s approach after reading this account of the rise of the arch-opportunist Louis Bonaparte, manoeuvring his way through the structures of French society until he stood at its head—for here, if ever, was a man making his own history, but not exactly as he pleased.
If The Eighteenth Brumaire is about the relationship between state and class, it also has a lot to say about the related matter of party and class. Obviously, political parties are not what we are taught to believe in our civics classes, that is, simply free-floating associations of people joined together on the basis of adherence to a common ideology or policies. Even bourgeois political scientists will acknowledge that parties represent different interests than just their membership or voters. Marxists on the other hand try to look deeper: What class, classes or class fraction does a party represent? Does its voting base or membership reflect its class orientation? How do other factors, such as the individual party leaders, gender, ethnicity or relationship with the state, interact with this class orientation and base? Marx’s portrayal of political parties (in the looser nineteenth century sense of the word) in the pamphlet is certainly centred on their location in the class structure, but it does not follow that he reduces everything to a simple formula of Party A = Class B, though that may sometimes be the case.
Indeed, he posits the general theory that, far from always belonging to the class they represent, politicians “according to their education and their individual position may be as far apart as heaven from earth” from that class. “What makes them representatives…” Marx tells us, “is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter [class] do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically.” Sometimes it is even the politics that loops back and influences the class: “instead of gaining an accession of strength from it, the democratic party had infected the proletariat with its own weakness”. Yet he also reiterates (when explaining the division of monarchists into two factions) that there really is a binding and ever-present relation between politics and class:
That at the same time old memories, personal enmities, fears and hopes, prejudices and illusions, sympathies and antipathies, convictions, articles of faith and principles bound them to one or the other royal house, who denies this? Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundation and out of the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives them through tradition and upbringing, may imagine that they form the real motives and the starting point of his activity.
Once again, we come across men and women making their own history but not as individuals floating free of the ties of class.
It is especially in describing the Party of Order, that conglomeration of monarchist politicians who attempted to rule France between the end of the revolutionary period of 1848 and the victory of Bonaparte, that Marx explores the complicated class/party relationship. He draws a picture of dissonance, of representatives being out of synch with those they represent, of various fractions of the bourgeoisie turning away from their political leaders, for very different reasons, to look to Bonaparte as their saviour. These reasons include the specific material interests of the various parts of the bourgeoisie, but also a plethora of inter-related factors, as is obvious from the depiction of the defection of a chunk of the conservative/monarchist majority in parliament to Bonaparte’s camp in early 1851. They deserted “out of fanaticism for conciliation, out of fear of the struggle, out of lassitude, out of family regard for the state salaries so near and dear to them, out of speculation on ministerial posts become vacant… out of sheer egoism, which makes the ordinary bourgeois always inclined to sacrifice the general interest of his class for this or that private motive”. The point here is not that Marx is saying that class isn’t the major factor in party politics, but that it plays itself out in a variety of ways, some of which are quite unpredictable. At the same time he is anxious to strip away the ideological veils that hide raw class struggle behind them, and he makes no bones about it that the great currents swirling under the surface of party politics are those of class struggle. What should not surprise anyone familiar with Marx’s writings is that he can see both the wood and the trees.
Marx’s cutting descriptions of Bonaparte and his populist antics may seem like some comic farce, but they show a solid grasp of the phenomena of authoritarian populism. Rereading these sections with an eye on modern Ireland, the late Charlie Haughey comes to mind again and again. Indeed, Haughey and Bonaparte had much in common as political outsiders who clawed their way to the centre of power, posing as men of the people but always intent on living the high life, courtesy of the state: “And in Bonaparte the imperial pretender was so intimately bound up with the adventurer down on his luck that the one great idea, that he was called to restore the empire, was always supplemented by the other, that it was the mission of the French people to pay his debts.” Marx’s characterisation of Bonaparte’s proposal to set up an ‘honour system loan bank’ for workers brings today’s SSIAs to mind: “Money as a gift and money as a loan, it was with prospects such as these that he hoped to allure the masses.” This type of populist mass bribery was Bonaparte’s speciality, something that obviously tickled Marx, as can be seen in this reference to the president (soon to be emperor) plying the troops with goodies: “As a fatalist, he lives in the conviction that there are certain higher powers which man, and the soldier in particular, cannot withstand. Among these powers he counts, first and foremost, cigars and champagne, cold poultry and garlic sausage.” Like Haughey, Bonaparte wanted to be seen as the “patriarchal benefactor of all classes”, but just like Haughey, he could not “give to one class without taking from another”.
In a passage at the end of the book Marx details the complicated relationship between Bonaparte and the various classes: he has broken the political power of the middle class, but he protects its material power. Yet, given his support base amongst the peasantry, he wants to, and needs to “make the lower classes of the people happy within the frame of bourgeois society”, but in the final analysis his true loyalty lies with himself, his clique and the army who keep him in power. Such is the shifting sand upon which populism bases itself and these glaring contradictions are its fatal weakness.
In chapter VII, Marx attempts to define class, not in an abstract way but in reference to the situation of the French peasantry. Although his entire works are imbued with the concept, he rarely gets as close to a precise definition of class as he does here:
In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among the small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond and no political organisation among them, they do not form a class.
Now most socialists will be familiar with the idea of a ‘class in itself’ versus a ‘class for itself’, with the implied importance of class-consciousness arising out of struggle as the key element of the transition from the former to the latter. Marx clearly had this idea in mind, since he goes on to state that, because of the lack of class consciousness and organisation, the peasants saw the “unlimited governmental power” imposed by Louis Bonaparte as their representative and saviour. But a closer glance will reveal a more layered view of class. Note that while class is firmly grounded in the economic base, what glues people together as a class, in the objective sense, is not only their relationship to the means of production but cultural factors that arise from the mode of production and the opposing interests of other classes. Marx rarely misses a chance to tease out the contradictions, to spell out the dialectic: it is not that classes are like popcorn lying inert in their kernels waiting to be popped by the heat of the struggle (or the all-knowing vanguard!) but that they exist and do not exist at the same time. What is stunting the maturity of the class, Marx contends, is a lack of awareness of a broader, as opposed to a local, commonality with people of the same class. They may well be an ‘identity of interests’ but it has not resulted in a sense of being part of a wider class community. Political organisation is clearly seen as an important factor in the emergence of a class, though not the sole one.
Traditional far-left organisations are notorious for the ‘education’ they force-feed their new members: usually a few unappetising morsels of Lenin and Trotsky taken with a large dollop of the truth according to the guru. They rarely prescribe raw Marx, as opposed to their authorised summaries. Derivative of Marx these tracts may be, but they bear little relation to the depth and breadth, the clarity and the contradictions, the incisiveness and complexity of the man’s work. Reading Marx is incompatible with the dictatorship of the leading few, because the ideas swirl round, the interpretations are manifold, the lessons varied, the party line missing, and most of all, the Holy Book dissolves into the grand messy multiple thought of a real human being, brilliant, flawed and committed as he was. Marx is still essential reading for serious socialists, and for those approaching his work for the first time, where better to start than with The Eighteenth Brumaire?