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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

the 18th brumaire

One of the more discouraging things about Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon is how much its famous opening lines, about tragedy and farce, have absorbed interest in the entire work. (Hegel observed somewhere that all great world historical facts and persons occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce). Those lines weren’t meant as toss offs, any more than the individual witticisms in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest are written to be relished solely outside of their place in the play. Rather, the tragedy/farce duality initiates a series of complex and beautiful inversions which operate, on the literary level, to make this account of the long ago doings of half forgotten Frenchmen still a fast paced read, and on the political level, to give us perhaps the first analysis of the kind of reactionary politics that, it turns out, is the ever-recurring counterpart, in modernity, to modernization itself. The convergence of a literary trope and a political truth is quite astonishing – it is like being able to use a poem as a household cleaner. In other words, the literary and the political ought to come from completely separate conceptual domains. That they don’t is one of the surprises of the text. It is a surprise that destabilizes our ideas of genre, journalism, history, politics and philosophy. In this sense, Marx’s work is close to Swift’s Drapier Letters, Burke’s Reflections, and Paine’s The Rights of Man.

Terell Carver, in a brief intro to the work in Strategies (2003), gives us its publication history:

“Put through the mill of the Selected or Collected Marx and Engels, the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is just another text, falling at 1852 in the lineup. Compared to its usual neighbors, The Class Struggles in France and The Cologne Communist Trial, it is more famous and more widely read. In Marx’s own time, matters were rather different: The Class Struggles appeared in the Neue Rheinische
Zeitung-Revue with a reasonable circulation in Germany and amongst the e´migre ´s, and The Cologne Communist Trial became a notorious pamphlet smuggled over borders and past censors. The Eighteenth Brumaire was supposed to appear in installments in a functioning periodical (Die Revolution), published in the USA, but the plans for a periodical fell through. The text eventually appeared as a whole in May 1852 in something more like a pamphlet than a periodical (there were no other works in it), though styling itself an “occasional” publication. Excerpts appeared in English in the Chartist People’s Paper from September through December. While the Eighteenth Brumaire was distributed in the US (20¢ wholesale, 25¢ retail), Marx and his associates had little luck getting it re-imported (in any language) back into Europe, and it is safe to assume that its existence was known to but a select few. It was also not the only pamphlet circulating that satirized the deadly funny Louis Bonaparte, nor the only one that recalled the original 18th Brumaire of Year VIII of the revolution. In Prussia Marx’s brother-in-law the Interior Minister Friedrich von Westphalen was informed by his police that an embarrassing relation had published a work entitled Revolution, but there is no evidence that many others of any political persuasion were taking such a keen interest. In short, its contemporary impact was disproportionate to its later fame, even as one of Marx’s second-rank texts.”

Carver has an anachronistic suggestion as to the pamphlet’s genre:

“I have suggested that the Eighteenth Brumaire was the closest Marx could get to the movies, and that the genre is that of the docu-drama, in which factual reportage merges with political performance.10 While Marx did not have access to the drama as such (stage, screen, television), he did his best through his vivid
characterizations and colorful language. If metaphors could murder, he would have gone to prison or the scaffold, and there is no doubt that he was a master of character assassination. The colorful language of the Eighteenth Brumaire should have made it performative as a pamphlet, if anything could, that is,
rallying democratic forces in several countries against the principle and practice of authoritarianism and gangsterism, as practiced by Louis Bonaparte in his politics of constitutional subversion. Moreover, what Marx says in the Eighteenth Brumaire reflects his view of politics as a performance in an astonishingly subtle and complex way.”

LI has been re-reading the Eighteenth B. with a lot of pleasure, in our off moments – since we are thinking a lot, at the moment, of the political pamphleteering. Marx put his finger on the way the reactionary moment is structured in this pamphlet – with the structure of that moment being in contradiction with the very premise of the modern version of history. That version, codified in the eighteenth century, made history the story of progress. Ranke, in the 19th century, famously objected that all moments are ‘equally distant’ from God – but he didn’t actually believe this, as his treatment of Asian history shows (Asian history, for Ranke, was ‘stagnant’). Progress operates as the Anankê of history – its necessity. That progress happens through people, behind their backs, so to speak, is the condition for the tragic opposition between the hero and the story in which he figures -- at least for the modern hero. While I don’t want to press this too hard, obviously one of the differences between tragedy and farce is the difference between a story in which necessity conditions the general trajectory of discoveries (both by agents in the narrative and by observers outside of it) and a story in which necessity continually dissolves into contingency – into lovers hiding in closets, policemen chasing funny crooks, banana peels getting under the heels of harlequins.

The masterly design into which Marx presses the highly resistible but curiously unresisted rise of the very louche Louis Napoleon is to make all accidents happen under the sign of inversion. Now, it is true that Marx does a little cheating to get his inversions. The French revolution, as he presents it, progresses by moving from a bourgeois revolution to a popular one – from the fall of the Bastille to Robespierre. He makes a little cut there, although we know that isn’t the end of the story. The reactionary sequence of 1848 to 1851 is the inverse of this: it moves from a popular revolution through a bourgeois reaction to a dictatorial conclusion.

“Men and events appear as inverted Schlemihls, as shadows who have mislaid their bodies.”

LI will return to this notion in another post.

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