George Walford: The Napolionics of Marxism

The socialist movement (the phrase to include communists and most anarchists) claims to represent the interests of the poor, the oppressed, the exploited, the interests of the majority. On this ground it expects to receive mass support, but over a century and more this has not been forthcoming. There seems to be something wrong somewhere; could the fault lie with the theory that social existence, with class position as its dominant feature, fundamentally determines political attachment? Not all socialists would call themselves Marxists, but Marx’s work provides the main support for class theory. To examine a study by him is to tackle that theory at one of its strong points.

On the 18th Brumaire in the Year VIII (1799) a whiff of grapeshot raised Napoleon Buonaparte to become ruler of France (at first as one of three Consuls, but it did not take him long to dispose of his colleagues). On the 10th December 1848 Louis Napoleon was elected President, and on the 2nd December 1851 he emulated his forebear’s coup d’etat to become emperor as Napoleon III. Karl Marx wrote an account of the events of 1848-51 under the title: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1], and in his Author’s Preface to the second edition, 1869, he claims that the book demonstrates ‘how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part’ (emphasis in original). Engels’ Preface to the third German edition, 1885, supports this, crediting Marx with having demonstrated in this book the validity of the law which he himself had discovered, ‘the great law of motion of history, the law according to which all historical struggles… are in fact only the more or less clear expression of struggles of social classes… ‘ The book does not justify these claims.

In principle at least the undertaking would not seem to be a specially difficult one. In the mid-19th Century France remained largely a country of peasants, so a Marxist interpretation has to allow for the presence of this class complicating the capitalist struggle between workers and bourgeoisie, but apart from that things would seem to be straightforward. After all, Marxism tells us clearly enough what a class is: a body of people standing in a common relation to the means of production. Also, that a class achieves political expression of its interests through a party; thus the Communist Manifesto assured its readers that the proletariat, being a class, would become a political party. Establish a link between each party and ‘its’ class, show how the activity of the party furthered the interests of the class, and voila! Q.E.D.

The book does not do this. It recounts the events of 1848-51 in France while asserting, repeatedly, that the behaviour of the participant groups, movements and parties can be ascribed to class interests, but without demonstrating any connection. Even worse, it calls in question the very concept whose validity it is intended to support, by suggesting that not only a common relation to the means of production but also political organisation is required before a class can be held to exist. Speaking of the peasants, Marx says: ‘In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond and no political organisation among them, they do not form a class.’ (p. 106, emphases added)

That the events in question arose from interaction between social groups is clear enough. Commenting on Victor Hugo’s ascription of the coup d’etat to the violent act of a single individual, Marx says this is to credit him with a personal power of initiative without parallel in world history, and he is clearly right. Marx perceived, more clearly than anybody before him, that the significant actors in the historical drama are social groups, but he believed those groups to be, or to be representing the interests of, classes in his definition of the term. The limited validity of this view goes far to explain the persistence with which the course of social development has diverged from Marxist predictions.

Through this pretended demonstration of the validity of Marxist class theory there runs a counterpoint: what Marx liked to call ‘the party of the proletariat’ acted in one way while the general body of the proletariat acted in another. The straightforward explanation of this is that the party saw their interests in one way while the majority saw them differently, but to accept that would be to admit the unsoundness of class theory, acknowledging that not class interest but interpretation of it – an ideological factor – operates as the crucial determinant of political action. Marx avoids this exposure by setting up the ‘lumpen’ proletariat, making a moral judgment which, he believes, entitles him to disregard the behaviour of that section of the proletariat – commonly a large section – which did not act as his theory required. Thus the unsuccessful insurrectionists of June 1849 were ‘the Paris proletariat,’ those who opposed them ‘the lumpenproletariat organised as the Mobile Guard.’

Having told us that the events he studies are to be ascribed to conflicts of interest between classes, and that a class consists of people living ‘under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter’ (emphasis added), Marx goes on to contradict himself, ascribing the survival of the bourgeois republic to an alliance between ‘the aristocracy of finance, the industrial bourgeoisie, the middle class, the petty bourgeois, the army, the lumpenproletariat organised as the Mobile Guard, the intellectual lights, the clergy and the rural population.’ On the next page he contradicts his self-contradiction, declaring this same republic to be ‘the unlimited despotism of one class over all other classes.’ Do the economic conditions of existence set the classes in hostile opposition, induce them to form alliances, or enable one to achieve unlimited despotism over the others? The answer is simple: They do whatever Marx’s argument requires.

Having told us that events in France are to be ascribed to struggle between classes Marx goes on to account for a major sequence as the outcome of struggles between sections of one class: ‘The history of the Constituent National Assembly since the June days is the history of the domination and the disintegration of the republican faction of the bourgeoisie, of that faction which is known by the names of tricolour republicans, pure republicans, political republicans, formalist republicans etc.’ (p. 20, emphases in original). (It is a practice still followed by many calling themselves Marxists. The SPGB, for example, while claiming to account for present society by reference to a struggle between classes, in fact explain major social phenomena, such as wars, as struggles between national sections of one class, the bourgeoisie).

Marx describes one period in particular as a time of crying contradictions, of anti-constitutional Constitutionalists, constitutional revolutionaries, a republic with an imperial label, agitation in the name of tranquility… The reason for all this emphasis upon confusion appears when he notes in passing that universal suffrage showed the ‘collective will of the nation’ to have sought ‘its appropriate expression through the inveterate enemies of the interests of the masses.’ When the interests ascribed by Marxism to the masses are found to be of interest only to a minority, then to claim confusion is one way of saving the theory.

Speaking of Legitimists and Orleanists Marx declares: ‘What kept the two factions apart, therefore, was not any so-called principles, it was… the rivalry between capital and landed property… That at the same time old memories, personal enmities… articles of faith and principles bound them to one or another royal house, who denies this? Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations.’ (p. 37)

The passage continues, but it is no more than a reiteration, without support or demonstration, of the familiar claim that the material conditions constitute the foundation upon which arises the superstructure of sentiments, modes of thought and so on. It does not seem to cross the mind, either of Marx or of his followers, that particular modes of thought constitute necessary conditions for the continued existence of particular kinds of property. Yet their own doctrine implies a particular mode of thought, namely the absence of widespread class consciousness, to be a condition for the continuance of bourgeois property relations.

Claiming that the class forms sentiments, views and so on, Marx yet scorns the idea that we should expect those expressing these to belong to the relevant class themselves. That would be a ‘narrow-minded’ notion: ‘What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life… ‘ (p. 40). He says, in effect, that not their class position but their mode of thought decides their political attachment and their historical actions.

Essential to Marxism’s account of capitalism are its definitions of the two great classes: the bourgeoisie, living on the profits derived from their ownership of the means of production; the workers, obliged to sell their labour-power because they do not own the means of production. To speak of workers living on profits, or the bourgeoisie living on wages or salaries, would be to reject the basics of the Marxist analysis. Yet Marx himself speaks of the material interests (his emphasis) of the bourgeoisie being ‘interwoven in the closest fashion’ with the receipt of salaries: ‘it is precisely with the maintenance of that extensive state machine in its numerous ramifications that the material interests of the French bourgeoisie are interwoven in the closest fashion. Here it finds posts for its surplus population and makes up in the form of state salaries for what it cannot pocket in the form of profit, interest, rents and honorariums.’ (p. 51)

The book is written with all the vigour of scorn and denunciation that Marx could bring to bear. It has drive, it carries the reader along. But when one pulls out of the torrent, pausing to look critically at the argument, it does not stand up. The final condemnation of the attempt to explain these events in terms of class struggle comes from Marx himself. Having said that Bonaparte represents the small holding peasants, he continues: ‘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 this holding… It represents not the enlightenment but the superstition of the peasant; not his judgment but his prejudice… ‘ (p. 107) Setting out to explain the new Bonapartism in terms of class struggle, Marx finds himself unable to sustain the argument. He ends by telling us that the dynasty did not represent, or express the interests of, a class defined by ‘the condition of [its] social existence, the small holding.’ It represented a section of such a class, a section defined by wants which it did not share with other members of the class, by superstition and prejudice. These are ideological features, and ones not restricted to the peasants; they cut across classes, all the way up to the emperor himself.

Marx tells us that one section of the peasantry was able to ‘strike out beyond the conditions of its social existence.’ So what becomes of the theory that social existence acts as the fundamental determinant?

[1] Marx K., 1977. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Moscow: Progress Publishers. All quotations are from this source.

from Ideological Commentary 58, November 1992.