Clarification on Marx’s 18th Brumaire

Quoting Marx

Recently I took the opportunity to include the following quote by Karl Marx in an opinion piece on Bernews:

“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.” 

The edition I have.

The edition I have.

This is one of Marx’s most famous quotes, and comes from the opening line of Marx’s ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapoart’ written in 1852 – and an excellent read, analysing a precursor to the fascism of the 20th Century, amongst other things.

Allspice Interjects

Now, amongst the various comments resulting from that opinion piece one individual, posting as ‘Allspice’ made the following statement:

“Let’s just have the rest of the quote from Marx shall we?  Mr Starling kinda bends the meaning a bit.  Let’s get back to what Marx was really saying, the the meanings of events are rehsaped by those who need to deliver a message.  There seem to be pertinent parallels within this text as well.”

The poster then provides another excerpt from the same work by Karl Marx:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.  The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.  And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs off revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language.”

I should note here that Allspice also provided – very kindly – in their post a link to that wonderful online resource of Marxist works the Marxist Internet Archive – more particularly the link to the very work of Marx in question.

A Response to Allspice

Quite honestly, I’m not really sure what to make of Allspice’s criticism of my use of the initial quote.  S/he indicates that I’ve bent the meaning of the quote, and then argues, based on a reading of the additional excerpt, that the initial quote should be read as ‘the meanings of events are reshaped by those who need to deliver a message’.

Now, that’s not actually what I understand from the subsequent passage that Allspice quoted – although I admit it’s been about seven years now since I last read the 18th Brumaire in its entirety.  I’ll get to my understanding of the quote shortly.

I do want to commend her/him for raising this though – whatever little I can do to get more people reading Marx is certainly something good I reckon!

Allspice has, however, actually misquoted, be it by design or by accident.  S/he implies that the quote s/he provides directly follows from the quote I made.  This is not strictly true.  There are actually two sentences that directly follow from my quote, with his/her quote being the first half of the following paragraph.

So, let’s look at what follows my initial quote:

“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.  Caussidiere for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle.  And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire.”

I won’t bore readers with the minutiae of 19th Century French political history (as interesting as it is and as relevant as it is for fully understanding Marx’s work in question – in the printed work I have a lot of the detail can be found in footnotes).

However, Marx was basically saying that the events of the 1851 coup that brought Napoleon III to power (Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte), and his subsequent regime (1852-1870) was a caricature and farce compared to the coup (on Brumaire 18th, year 8 of the revolutionary calendar of revolutionary France – November 9th, 1799) that brought his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, to power.

This 1799 coup itself marked the counter-revolution – the defeat of the French revolution – from reactionary forces within itself, hence the tragedy.  The 1851 coup followed the defeats of the revolutionary wave of 1848.

I used the quote to criticise the tragedy of the PLP’s years in power and the farce of the OBA repeating, almost as a caricature, some of the more glaring mistakes of the PLP.  To me the quote lended itself to that and was quite fitting.  Read in that context, one could paraphrase the subsequent sentences by Marx, rendered into updated Bermudian politics, thus:

“Cannonier for Brown (reference to BHC, Uighers, etc), Scott, Gibbons and Brangman for Smith, James and Horton (some PLP Education Ministers), the Jet Gate scandal for the BHC scandal.”

Of course, it’s not a direct one-to-one thing, but I think one gets the gist of it.

Essentially, I dispute the charge that I was misconstruing the meaning and context of the quote in question.  I think my use of the quote was apt.  I’ll leave that, of course, to the readers.

Looking at Allspice’s Quote

I’ll take a brief look at Allspice’s quote now.

The first sentence of this quote from Marx, I read it as a look at the question of structure and agency.  As in, to what degree do we have ‘free will’ and to what degree are we prisoner to circumstance.  My reading is that we do have free will, but that freedom is circumscribed and determined by our particular circumstances.

In other words, someone born into poverty has as much free will as someone born into the top 1% of wealth.  However, the latter has a greater ability to exercise their free will than the former; the ‘reality’ of both will be radically different, and this will lead to different world-views; the choices that present themselves to one will be radically different than to the other and, based on their radically different experiences (which help inform decision-making) even when exercising free will on the same issue could make radically different decisions.

It is perhaps worthwhile providing the second half of the paragraph that Allspice has quoted to better understand the other aspects of this quote.  And so, directly following on from where Allspice stopped, and thus finishing the paragraph in question:

“Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-1795.  In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.”

There’s a couple of paragraphs that follow, before what I think is a key paragraph for understanding this eddy of Marx’s writing:

“Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not recoiling from its solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not making its ghost walk again.”

Two paragraphs after that are is a particularly interesting quote:

“The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future.  It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past.  The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content.  The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content.  There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.”

As I read Marx’s work, he was arguing that the 1851 coup was draping itself in the guise of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era in an attempt to (a) gain legitimacy; and (b) distract from the reality of the coup and what it meant for the French people (or, more specifically, the working classes).

Poetry of the Future?

The last passage I quoted refers to the communist revolution that Marx hoped to see in the 19th Century.  And, indeed, there was the Paris Commune of 1871 prefigured the potential of a democratic communist society.  And in this, the Paris Commune did not seek legitimacy so much in the past as it did in a radical rupture with the past and developing a new way of social and economic organisation – the content goes beyond the phrase.

I think it also speaks of the need for articulating a clear, positive and liberating vision of a better world as an animating revolutionary force.  Or, as a recent Marxist writer opines:

“Marxism has a prodigious magical power to invent, to create its own values and ethics – an ethics higher, better and more durable than the hollow values that insist upon the sacrosanctity of free market individualism.  Marxism, in short, has the power of struggle, of struggling to invent what Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire deemed a new poetry of the future.”


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