Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx

"Hegel says somewhere that great historic facts and personages recur twice.  He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

"Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand."
This is old Karl's take on the 1851 coup that brought France's Second Republic to an end and opened the door to the re-establishment of the Napoleonic Empire.  It consists in large part of a tendentious blow-by-blow account of the events leading up to the coup, which he presents as something of a comedy of errors.

The story is fairly simple in its outlines.  France experienced a revolution in 1848 which established a republic. The first parliamentary elections, in 1849, were won by the right-wing Party of Order, while the presidency was won by Louis Napoleon, the champion of the peasant farmers.  Louis Napoleon was the nephew of the Emperor Napoleon.  Marx portrays him as something of an adventurer who hung out with some distinctly unsavoury people.

Napoleon fell out with the Party of Order, and the Party made the mistake of underestimating him.  Marx does not hesitate to draw attention to the irony that the Party of Order was itself an unstable coalition of two mutually antagonistic factions of the Right: the Legitimists, who represented the old landed aristocracy, and the Orleanists, who represented the new industrial and commercial √©lite.  The Legitimists and the Orleanists attempted to bury their differences, but without success.  Amid deteriorating economic conditions, the bourgeoisie outside parliament abandoned the Party of Order and went over to Napoleon.  The parliament lapsed into impotence.  Following repeated rumours of a coup, Napoleon seized power in December 1851 and established an authoritarian dictatorship.

Marx writes in a journalistic rather than an academic style.  His prose is distinctive, somewhat polemical, and leavened with some sarcasm and wit.  His conceptual framework is - obviously - dominated by the notion of class conflict.  For him, the big picture was that the French Revolution of 1789 had overthrown the old landed aristocracy and paved the way for the creation of the modern bourgeois state, ruled by business interests.  The old order had staged a surprise comeback in 1815, but a further revolution in 1830 had overthrown it once and for all, replacing it with a bourgeois constitutional regime known as the "July monarchy".  This is why the Right was divided between Legitimists and Orleanists - the former were the representatives of the pre-1789 order, the latter the representatives of the July monarchy, which had been deposed in the 1848 revolution.  As for the workers - well, their day was not yet at hand, but the bourgeoisie had by now discovered that their liberal freedoms could be turned against their own interests by the socialist movement.  It was only a matter of time before the final, socialist revolution came.

Marx equated political movements squarely with class-based economic interests.  In each case, those economic interests were covered by a "superstructure" of ideology, belief and culture, but in the final analysis it was always the underlying class interests that counted:
[Before 1789], large landed property ruled together with its parsons and lackeys; under the Orleanists, it was high finance, large industry, large commerce, i.e. capital, with its retinue of lawyers, professors and orators. The Legitimate kingdom was but the political expression for the hereditary rule of the landlords, as the July monarchy was but the political expression for the usurped rule of the bourgeois upstarts. What, accordingly, kept these two factions apart was no so-called set of principles, it was their material conditions for life - two different sorts of property.... Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, a whole superstructure is reared of various and peculiarly shaped feelings, illusions, habits of thought and conceptions of life.... The individual to whom they flow through tradition and education may fancy that they constitute the true reasons for and premises of his conduct.... As, in private life, the distinction is made between what a man thinks of himself and says, and that which he really is and does, so, all the more, must the phrases and notions of parties in historic struggles be distinguished from the real organism, and their real interests, their notions and their reality. Orleanists and Legitimists found themselves in the republic beside each other with equal claims. Each side wishing, in opposition to the other, to carry out the restoration of its own royal House, meant nothing else than that each of the two great interests into which the bourgeoisie is divided - land and capital - sought to restore its own supremacy and the subordinacy of the other.... Thus did the Tories of England long fancy that they were enthusiastic for the Kingdom, the Church and the beauties of the old English Constitution, until the day of danger wrung from them the admission that their enthusiasm was only for Ground Rent.
Marx paints a picture of a bourgeoisie which was so stupid that it had allowed itself to be dominated by a chancer like Louis Napoleon, who was now visiting on it the same political repression which the bourgeoisie itself had tried to visit on the working class.  Not that he approved of the coup - "France seems to have escaped the despotism of a class only in order to fall under the despotism of an individual".  But at least the bourgeois parliament had been destroyed - now all that remained for the working class to do was to focus their energies on overthrowing the dictator.  Marx also thought that Napoleon's peasant supporters were going to be radicalised, as the "slaves of capital".  None of this happened, of course - Louis Napoleon went on to have himself proclaimed Emperor like his uncle, the peasants did not revolt, capitalism did not collapse, and France has ultimately ended up being ruled by a succession of bourgeois republics.  Marx should have stuck to the journalism - he wasn't cut out to be a prophet.