Swans Commentary » swans.com November 16, 2009  



The First Time As Tragedy


by Michael Doliner





(Swans - November 16, 2009)   It seems to have become fashionable to quote Marx's famous line from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Grazing on the Web I came upon others using these bons mots to refer to a political battle in Hungary over the legacy of 1956. Then there's one comparing Obama's Nobel to Carter's. Lot's of people like to crack wise about "the third time" with a frisson of clever self-congratulation. Some guy on the Democraticunderground.com, a blog, conjectures that what Marx meant by this is that things keep changing all the time.

Although many use this expression, no one seems to have bothered actually to have read The Eighteenth Brumaire. Marx was not merely coining bons mots, he actually meant something when he wrote this. The two events Marx was talking about were first, the French Revolution, which he took to extend from 1789 to 1814, and second, the French Revolution of 1848-1852, of which The Eighteenth Brumaire is a history.

Marx follows this famous line about tragedy and farce with one almost equally famous: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please." This also used to be quoted often, but now isn't, I suspect because it makes some people uneasy to suggest that men make their own history. After all, if they get the idea that they can do something, they might decide to make something other than what the rulers have in mind. Marx is not treating history as a scientific phenomenon worthy of observation. Science is a discipline that postulates the impossibility of acting with a purpose. It expunges purposes from the pantheon of causes. Marx, a firm believer in human action, that is action with a purpose, is trying to explain its difficulties. People often take the farce line to mean that the first time, the tragic one, is serious, and the second, farcical one, is a kind of joke. But Marx is making the point that whenever people want to act they usually can only act in a pattern taken from the past. People act in a way that they know. Thus the first French Revolution took on the trappings of Rome to bring about the Bourgeois Revolution. Once the revolutionaries overthrew the ancien régime, the Roman garb came off and they settled down to moneymaking in a world free of the complicated obligations and ties of the ancien régime. The Revolution of 1848 imitated the Revolution of 1789 precisely because it was not a "real" revolution. For whereas the Revolution of 1789 threw off its Roman costume once it had accomplished itself in the abolition of the ancien régime, the Revolution of 1848 continued to imitate the earlier revolution because it had so little to accomplish: it was a farcical revolution. In the end it all vanished behind Louis Napoleon's conjurer's handkerchief.

Marx insists that the next revolution, he calls it the "social revolution of the nineteenth century," cannot, like previous revolutions, cloth itself in the costumes of the past, but must "take its poetry from the future." If it tries to cloak itself in past glories it will fail. Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire is a study of just why the Revolution of 1848 was not, and could not be, the nineteenth century revolution, the revolution to end social class. Marx claims that bourgeois revolutions are like storms, violent and exciting. They blow themselves out, revealing that what they are really about is the humdrum bourgeois life. But having eliminated the ancien régime with a violent storm, they accomplish their goal. They have no need of self consciousness during the turmoil, or after it for that matter. The life built upon greed just falls into place.

Proletarian revolutions -- the revolutions Marx expected in the nineteenth century -- cannot proceed in the same way. They must "constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew..." This self-critical attitude is essential for the nineteenth century proletarian revolutions. Because they are trying to reify an idea that can only be formulated in the midst of the revolution itself, these revolutionaries must know what they are doing, as far as that is possible in a revolutionary situation. They must accomplish their revolution consciously, otherwise they will not know how to proceed. They must tear away all the costuming the bourgeois revolution needs to whip up its tempest if they are to be able to act. The Revolution of 1848 failed, as it had to, precisely because no one had torn away the costuming of the 1789 Revolution and they tried to proceed under this disguise.

When in 1848 the monarchy collapsed, the proletariat declared the social revolution. But without the class consciousness necessary, it was impossible to actually achieve it. The Revolution of 1848 was not originally a socialist revolution. What impelled it in the first place was a desire to expand the segment of the bourgeoisie who had political influence, and the consequent profit that can bring. The revolutionaries wanted to replace the bourgeois monarchy of Louis-Phillipe with a bourgeois Republic. But when Louis-Phillipe abruptly decamped, the Paris proletariat, who had manned the barricades, were suddenly left victorious. Things happened so fast that the proletarian leaders, to their own surprise, found they were in charge. But they didn't know what came next! They declared a social democracy. But then what to do? Without class consciousness the proletariat could not become political. Everything went into suspended animation in what must have been something like holding your breath politically. The social democracy was not a dictatorship of the proletariat, for during this period not only the proletariat, but every other strata, had its share of power in the National Assembly. The proletariat was only the Paris proletariat -- a tiny minority of the nation. "While the Paris proletariat still reveled in the vision of the wide prospects that had opened before it and indulged in seriously meant discussions of social problems, the old powers of society had grouped themselves, assembled, reflected, and found unexpected support in the mass of the nation, the peasants and petty bourgeois, who all at once stormed onto the political stage after the barriers of the July Monarchy had fallen." All the high-flown rhetoric of the Bourgeois Revolution returned. To draw back from the abyss that the February Revolution had suddenly opened up, the bourgeoisie grasped at the rhetoric of the old revolution. The old revolution was a tragedy because a king, the ancien régime with its beheaded aristocrats, actually fell. The second time, 1848 is farce because it is merely a pretend revolution whose rhetoric and costume conceal only that nothing of real importance is happening.

By May 4 the National Assembly declared the pretensions of the February Revolution utopian nonsense. Here is how Marx describes what happened:

It [the National Assembly] was a living protest against the pretensions of the February days and was to reduce the results of the revolution to the bourgeois scale. In vain the Paris proletariat, which immediately grasped the character of this National Assembly, attempted on May 15, a few days after it met, to negate its existence forcibly, to dissolve it, to disintegrate again into its constituent parts the organic form in which the proletariat was threatened by the reacting spirit of the nation. As is known, May 15 had no other result but that of removing Blanqui and his comrades -- that is, the real leaders of the proletarian party -- from the public stage for the entire duration of the cycle we are considering.

The proletariat responded with the June insurrection, "the most colossal event in the history of European civil wars." After this insurrection failed, the proletariat exhausted itself in parliamentary alliances, which divert it with side issues, drain its energy, and allow its exposed leaders to be picked off. The June insurrection is so important, not because the proletariat won, which they didn't, but because it exposed the Bourgeois Republic as a despotism of one class over another. For the first time, but certainly not the last, the bourgeoisie butchered prisoners wholesale, fifteen thousand according to Marx. This historical event, Marx believes, is a revelation that the bourgeois republic is a despotism, and hence not the proper outcome of the French Revolution. Marx restricts this revelation to Europe and expressly exempts the Republic of the United States from the effects of this insight. Because it had no fixed social classes as of yet, the United States would not see the June insurrection as a revelation of the necessary exploitation of one class by another.

The remaining strata of society, terrified of the classless vision the June insurrection opened up to them, fell over themselves in a series of farcical pratfalls as they rushed in retreat. Marx chronicles how the Revolution of 1848-51 reenacted the revolution of 1789-1814 in reverse, finally collapsing into the arms of Louis Napoleon, whose buffoonery hid a society of the most primitive kind, ruled by force.

It is the reverse with the Revolution of 1848. The proletarian party appears as an appendage of the petty-bourgeois-democratic party. It is betrayed and dropped by the latter on April 16, May 15, [90] and in the June days. The democratic party, in its turn, leans on the shoulders of the bourgeois-republican party. The bourgeois republicans no sooner believe themselves well established than they shake off the troublesome comrade and support themselves on the shoulders of the party of Order. The party of Order hunches its shoulders, lets the bourgeois republicans tumble, and throws itself on the shoulders of armed force. It fancies it is still sitting on those shoulders when one fine morning it perceives that the shoulders have transformed themselves into bayonets. Each party kicks from behind at the one driving forward, and leans over in front toward the party that presses backward. No wonder that in this ridiculous posture it loses its balance and, having made the inevitable grimaces, collapses with curious gyrations. The revolution thus moves in a descending line. It finds itself in this state of retrogressive motion before the last February barricade has been cleared away and the first revolutionary authority constituted.

Marx, as almost everybody knows, followed Hegel, who saw history as a dialectic between ideas and their realization. New ideas sprang from the realization of the old ones. The contemporary ideas Marx saw were those of the Enlightenment. They were embodied in the Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité of the French Revolution. The June insurrection revealed that the National Assembly, while draping itself with these sentiments, was acting as a tyrant. Being in contradiction to itself, it was naturally playing a farce. Napoleon III's coup d'état conjured away all the high-flown sentiments of the revolution as if they were a card trick. It also abolished the bourgeois republic.

Louis Napoleon, a member of the lumpen proletariat, that is, the flotsam and jetsam of all classes, was also the representative of the class of conservative peasants. Although the first French Revolution had radicalized some of the peasants, a large group of them, having obtained land in small holdings in the first revolution, remained loyal to the bourgeoisie. In the meantime capitalism had transformed the social conditions.

The peasant's small holding is now only the pretext that allows the capitalist to draw profits, interest, and rent from the soil, while leaving it to the agriculturist himself to see to it how he can extract his wages. The mortgage debt burdening the soil of France imposes on the French peasantry an amount of interest equal to the annual interest on the entire British national debt...The bourgeois order, which at the beginning of the century set the state to stand guard over the newly emerged small holdings and fertilized them with laurels, has become a vampire that sucks the blood from their hearts and brains and casts them into the alchemist's caldron of capital. The Code Napoléon is now nothing but the codex of distraints, of forced sales and compulsory auctions.

Marx recounts how other idées napoléonienne that had once favored the peasants now served only to disinherit them. For example, the army they once proudly joined now turned its bayonets on them. History is the story of ideas -- Christianity, the divine right of kings, free trade, universal human equality -- acted upon, or in Marxist terms, reified. Hegel's world historical spirit is a series of ideas, each of which seems right at the time, the way things are or ought to be. What seems perfectly normal at one time seems absurd at another. Universal human equality would have seemed absurd during the reign of Louis XIV just as the divine right of kings seems absurd to us today.

Marx is often criticized for predicting an "inevitable" revolution. "See, he was wrong!" But Marx never predicted any such thing, though Engels did. With Eighteenth Brumaire staring him in the face, Marx knew all too well just how ferocious and uncompromising the bourgeois reaction to the proletarian revolution would be. He saw them, in hysterical panic, choose to destroy everything rather than allow the idea of universal human equality to, as it were, be realized. We should also realize that Marx did not have any romantic idea about the proletariat being the salt of the earth. For Marx the proletarian revolution lead not to the workers state, but to the state of universal human equality.

The idea of universal human equality has never been realized. When people disparage communism they never talk about this idea, which even today exerts a powerful force over people, except to dismiss it with contempt as utopian nonsense. Instead they talk of the terror, the show trials, the Cultural Revolution, totalitarianism, Pol Pot. Communism fails, not because of its idea, but because this idea is utopian and all attempts to realize it will only produce horrors. They seem to forget other vastly larger horrors, such as two world wars, ongoing worldwide butchery, and a planet rapidly turning into a garbage heap, which bourgeois democracy has produced. But just as the bourgeois non-revolution of 1848 garbed itself in the clothing of the revolution of 1789, so many other storms can garb themselves in Marxist clothing. Marx, clearly, was not imagining a top-down hierarchical state.

Bourgeois democracy has attempted to substitute its own idea -- that of free trade, for the idea of universal human equality. But this idea, like the clothing of bourgeois revolutions, is the costume of a farce. The true capitalist wants nothing to do with free trade. Obsessed with obtaining profits by any means necessary, he will take any advantage he can get. Our present financial predicament shows this, once again, only too well. It also shows how governments will become ever less able to stop chicanery. For governments can always be bought. Hobbes has shown that the real idea behind the bourgeois republic is the state of nature where all is against all.

Marx did think that the urban proletariat would be the instrument to realize that idea, for, since they were the ones oppressed, the ideas realization was in their interest. But he knew well just how ruthless the bourgeoisie and their allies could be. Without morals it will kill, torture, brutalize, corrupt -- anything to keep power. The weakness of the bourgeoisie is that it is farcical. Not only does it need a costume to ennoble lives spent in front of ledgers or computers, but its war with the party of universal human equality is a war with an idea. Without a real idea to hold up as a standard, the bourgeois technique is to turn the entire realm of ideas into a farce. Ideas become silly playthings, not to be taken seriously. Since they have no idea with which to contend with universal human equality, they will destroy the entire realm of ideas itself. To preserve their way of life they would happily extinguish the species homo sapiens and replace it with homo dittohead.

The real bourgeois idea is no idea; the notion that to try to realize any idea only leads to disaster. Men cannot, must not, make history. Only the invisible hand can do that. In Hegelian terms it is the end of history, and indeed Francis Fukuyama posited that liberal democracy marked just such a Hegelian end of history. But what is liberal democracy other than the notion that nobody really knows what to do and that therefore we should do what, not even most people, but the representatives of most people can be pushed into voting for? As we all know, money talks, especially to the so-called representatives of the people, so liberal democracy favors guess who? It enshrines the notion of no idea. Those who object to big government object that the government can't know what to do. What they really mean is that no one can know what to do, except, of course, in the pursuit of self interest. Political thought, that is thought that implies action, is verboten.

In its terror the bourgeoisie not only throws a pall of stupidity over the realm of ideas, it also needs to discredit human action. They try to use social-scientific ideas and methods to manipulate human desires and actions. Obviously, people can be made to want and buy stupid things. Advertising and public relations work. People don't really want universal human equality, they want wide screen TVs and Air Jordan shoes. News can be "spun," debates "framed." All desires are nothing more than responses to some stimulus. Because the desires of ordinary people are simply effects produced by amoral causes, we need not take seriously any of their desires, including that for universal human equality. What appears as human action is nothing of the kind, for it is nothing but stimulus-response. A person is no different at bottom from a billiard ball that another ball has struck. It moves without purpose, impelled by impersonal forces. Acting with a purpose is an illusion. All is without purpose and must be left to the invisible hand whose primary characteristic is that it acts without purpose.

Bourgeois society is a society of a subhuman population without ideas or the ability to act. They are "the consumers" or, alternately, "the taxpayers." Christina Stead, in her novel House of All Nations, has one of the characters remark that the bankers are "running a dairy." The population is reduced to a herd of cows who chew on their cuds all day and are milked every evening. But because the bankers and the rest of the bourgeoisie need the farcical cloak even to appear on the historical stage, they too are not able to act politically other than through force. The history of the February Revolution is the history of how the various segments of the bourgeoisie, all terrified by a first glimpse of a proletarian revolution, each threw itself back in the arms of another faction and finally upon the mercy of a tyrant. In the emergency they relied on force and meekly ceded their own rule to the government that they did not know how to manage anyway.

Marx did not think that the revolution for universal human equality could be won through violence, and his history of the February Revolution shows why. The real problem is to realize an entirely new idea, an idea that has only a vague content. The contents of the idea, unavailable in the past, must first be conceived before it is realized. Those contents can never be realized in the heat of battle where passions, especially fear, quickly overcome reason. The proletariat won in February, but because they had no idea what to do then, lost in May. They would only have had a chance if they had known what they were doing. The Russian Revolution, beset from the very beginning, succumbed to Stalin's paranoia. His tyranny, among other things, shut off the flow of ideas. The idea's enemies want to say that such things must happen if you try to realize an idea, that no one can realize an idea through politics. Utopian dreams lead to horrible realities. But is it so? The class consciousness that Marx insisted is necessary for this revolution cannot exist in a hierarchical structure, and the self-critical attitude Marx thought essential fails amidst power relationships. Hannah Arendt used to comment that Marx imagined his classless state as the Athenian assembly. That would be very difficult if not impossible to realize in a large nation-state. What is clear is that the Russian Revolution as it unfolded under Stalin, and the Chinese under Mao, did not allow for the development of the critical openness that Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire thinks is essential. Persuasion, not force, must rule in Marx's world of the future. Is it possible?

Marx's hope comes from the spectacle of the farcical conclusion to the Revolution of 1848. The palpable buffoonery will, he hopes, discredit the whole show, including the earlier revolution it is imitating. Here is how Marx ends The Eighteenth Brumaire.

Driven by the contradictory demands of his situation, and being at the same time, like a juggler, under the necessity of keeping the public gaze on himself, as Napoleon's successor, by springing constant surprises -- that is to say, under the necessity of arranging a coup d'état in miniature every day -- Bonaparte throws the whole bourgeois economy into confusion, violates everything that seemed inviolable to the Revolution of 1848, makes some tolerant of revolution and makes others lust for it, and produces anarchy in the name of order, while at the same time stripping the entire state machinery of its halo, profaning it and making it at once loathsome and ridiculous. The cult of the Holy Tunic of Trier [A Catholic relic, allegedly taken from Christ when he was dying, preserved in the cathedral of Marx's native city] he duplicates in Paris in the cult of the Napoleonic imperial mantle. But when the imperial mantle finally falls on the shoulders of Louis Bonaparte, the bronze statue of Napoleon will come crashing down from the top of the Vendôme Column.


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About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Published November 16, 2009