The New Worker

The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain


By Andy Brooks

MARX’S ‘EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE’, (POST) MODERN INTERPRETATIONS: Edited by Mark Cowling & James Martin, 256pp, pbk, £17.99, Pluto Press, London 2002.

ON 2nd December 1851 French President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, backed by the army, dissolved parliament and established his personal dictatorship. A year later he proclaimed himself Napoleon 111, Emperor of France.

Only a few years before, in 1848, the French people had again overthrown their monarchy. The Second Republic gave all French men the vote and many socialists had high hopes for its future. These hopes were soon to be dashed by Louis-Napoleon whose major strengths lay in his overwhelming ambition and the fact that he was the nephew of the great general Napoleon who built a short-lived empire on the ruins of the first French republic.

Marx wrote The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon between December 1851 and 1852. The "eighteenth brumaire" refers to 9 November 1799 in the French Revolutionary Calendar - the day Napoleon Bonaparte made himself dictator by a coup d’etat.

This book consists of a new translation of Marx’s work by Terrell Carver, first published by the Cambridge University Press in 1996, followed by nine academic essays on these dramatic events and Marx’s analysis of them.

As one of them puts it: "the central puzzle of the Eighteenth Brumaire is how a swindling nonentity managed to become President of France and to get rid of the National Assembly". Marx, writing as the events took place, concisely explains how Louis-Napoleon used the popular vote in his rise to power and the class politics which lay behind it.

But was Marx right and what is this work’s relevance today? This is discussed in depth in the rest of a book clearly aimed at students and the academic world. Some look at the historic value of Marx’s work which concluded that if a revolution is to survive it must eliminate the bourgeois machinery of the state. Others challenge Marx and Engels definition of the "lumpenproletariat", first mentioned in the Communist Manifesto, which Marx stressed, played an important part in Louis Napoleon’s coup. The Manifesto calls them "the ‘dangerous class’, the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue".

Who are these people and are they what the bourgeois social scientists call the "underclass" today? Or are they simply Marx and Engels’ attempt "to explain away parts of the proletariat which failed to behave in a proper revolutionary fashion?" These questions and many others are discussed in the specially commissioned articles that follow the text.

Marxists would certainly disagree with many of the conclusions drawn by the contributors to the lengthy discussion, which in fact forms the major part of its content. In style and content this book is not aimed at a communist or working class audience and this is reflected in the price. It can be bought from most high-street booksellers and readers can always order it from their local library.