Ten Quotes from Marx’s “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” that Might Make You Think It Was Written for 2017

As a distraction from grading, lesson planning, or working on any of my own projects last week, I sat down with a beer and started rereading Karl Marx’s “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” I knew it began with the famous revision of Hegel, but I was shocked to find so much of the piece resonate with the contemporary political situation. If – to misquote #1 – history repeats itself, I wonder what genres we might use to characterize subsequent iterations after the farcical. I offer the following quotations from parts I and VII without further comment.

  1. Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add:  the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.
  2. Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given, and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something entirely new, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them the names, battle slogans and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language.
  3. The awakening of the dead in those revolutions therefore served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given tasks in imagination, not of taking flight from their solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not of making its ghost walk again.
  4. The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future…In order to arrive at its content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead.
  5. Proletarian revolutions, on the other hand, like those of the nineteenth century, criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again more gigantic before them, recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until the situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible…
  6. The parliamentary republic, finally, in its struggle against the revolution, found itself compelled to strengthen, along with the repressive measures, the resources and centralization of governmental power. All the revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it.
  7. The small peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions, but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another, instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is increased by France’s bad means of communication and by the poverty of the peasants… In this way, the great mass of the French nation is formed by simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sackful of potatoes. In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that divide their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile contrast to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no national union and no political organization, they do not form a class. They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.
  8. But let there be no misunderstanding. The Bonaparte dynasty represents not the revolutionary, but the conservative peasant; not the peasant that strikes out beyond the condition of his social existence, the small holding, but rather the peasant who wants to consolidate it; not the country folk who want to overthrow the old order through their own energies linked up with the towns, but on the contrary those who, in stupefied bondage to this old order, want to see themselves with their small holding saved and favored by the ghost of the empire.
  9. The bourgeoisie, to be sure, is bound to fear the stupidity of the masses, as long as they remain conservative, and the insight of the masses, as soon as they become revolutionary.
  10. This contradictory task of the man explains the contradictions of his government, the confused groping hither and thither which seeks now to win, now to humiliate first one class and then another and arrays all of them uniformly against him, whose practical uncertainty forms a highly comical contrast to the imperious categorical style of the government decrees…

 

(Text taken from Robert C. Tucker, Ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd Ed. NY: Norton Publishing, 1978)

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