Even for non-Marxists, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is considered one of the most profound analyses of revolution. Marx’s imagery is taken from the coup of Napoleon Bonaparte on November 9, 1799 (the Eighteenth of Brumaire in the revolutionary calendar), but his seminal analysis is about the reign of the general’s nephew, Louis Bonaparte, who was brought to power by a coup against the Second French Republic on December 2, 1851.
The work is most commonly known for its play on Hegel’s aphorism that history repeats itself. But what is commonly overlooked is Marx’s addition to Hegel’s adage: for Marx, history didn’t just repeat itself, it manifested itself first as tragedy and then as farce.
Louis Bonaparte’s presence on the stage of history was a farce. By culture he was a foreigner. By political inclination he was a pretender, a man who was all things to all people, and a man who was carried into political life by plying the outcasts of society with sausages. Then, as Marx so aptly put it, he plied them with sausages anew. Bonaparte represented no class interest and no transcendent interest except his own.
To Marx’s disgust, Bonaparte ruled by creating dependency on the state, by expanding the machinery of government. The organs of the state, the bureaucracy, and their ever-growing tentacles expanding into private life were Bonaparte’s substitution for a class or transcendent interest. Remember, the young Marx is the Marx of revolution who was appalled by the state as the corruption of humanity. Marx himself was a participant in the revolutionary skirmishes of 1848 and proclaimed the wrecking of the state — not its extension — as the road to the emancipation of humanity.
Confronting Marx was a political situation where no one class could achieve power. The bourgeois had failed to consummate its revolution, and the proletariat had marched too quickly on the bourgeois’ heels. This situation was ripe for exploitation by the foreigner, the pretender, who was all things to all people. To some scholars of this period, this was a description of what would later become known as fascism. The template for Hitler, Mussolini, and Peron is to be found in an examination of the reign of Louis Bonaparte.
So too, in a sense, is the presidency of Barack Obama.
As I have argued elsewhere, Obama is not a communist, even in the twentieth century meaning of the term. Communism is about state ownership of the means of production. The Obama administration does not seek ownership. In fact, where it acquired ownership through the bailout, the administration now works to divest itself. What Obama is building is a large government bureaucracy whose expanding limbs find their way into every facet of human existence, a government that does not own the means of production but controls them by increased and oppressive regulation and taxation. Obama’s political inspiration is more likely to be Mussolini or Peron, even Hugo Chavez, than Lenin or Stalin.
Obama has successfully done what few American presidential candidates have been able to do. He has mobilized the electoral periphery — the previously uninvolved youth, the apathetic poor, and the marginalized minorities. In politics, the agenda of the previous non-participants seldom resembles that of those traditionally involved in political struggles. This was one of Marx’s central considerations in his analysis of the Eighteenth Brumaire, and the one leftist political theorist Antonio Gramsci drew upon in comparing the rise of Mussolini to the rise of Louis Bonaparte.