Revisiting Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire

Dylan Riley

In The Eighteenth Brumaire, Karl Marx analyzes revolution and reaction in mid-19th-century France to blistering effect. His appraisals offer enduring lessons on revolution, class dynamics, and the perpetual tussle with the bonds of history.

Study of an 1879 illustration, “Oath of Louis Bonaparte,” by Emile Bayard, for a printing of Victor Hugo’s 1852 Napoleon le Petit. (Pierre Pitrou / Photo12 / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Denvir

As Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “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.” A nightmare indeed — and one that speaks to our moment as we grapple with the weight of historical legacies.

What’s particularly striking about the present moment is how the accumulated contradictions of American political economy have reached an impasse. The old order remains in place, but it has lost its trappings of naturalness, inevitability, and permanence.

In an interview on Jacobin Radio’s podcast the Dig, Daniel Denvir talks with political sociologist Dylan Riley. They delve into Marx’s analysis in The Eighteenth Brumaire, exploring his take on revolution and reaction in mid-nineteenth century France, as well as the broader theories he develops about history. They also examine the intricate relationship between politics and the class struggle, and how Marx’s insights in the Brumaire can illuminate contemporary political dynamics in the United States.

The following has been edited for clarity and length.

The July Monarchy and the June Days

Daniel Denvir

Let’s start just by laying out the general history that Marx is analyzing in mid-nineteenth century France and the key groups and personalities. We have Louis Bonaparte, the royalists of the party of Order, the social democrats of the Mountain, the Paris proletariat, the peasants, and so on. Please set the stage, introduce the characters, and give a general sense of what this book is about and trying to argue.

Dylan Riley

I’ll give my sense of what I think is going on in the book, but I should start with a disclaimer. I’m neither a historian of nineteenth-century France nor really an expert on this text in particular, which is maybe the most challenging of all of Marx’s writings — even more so than Capital in a lot of ways.

Having said that, let me just give you a sort of a general sense of what I think is important to keep in mind in approaching the Eighteenth Brumaire. It’s useful to begin with describing the early part of the long nineteenth century. The general context of the Brumaire is the half-century period that follows the French Revolution of 1789 — the period from 1789 to 1848 that Eric Hobsbawm calls the Age of Revolution. It was an era marked by upheaval and turbulence.

Before the 1848 uprisings there are three notable periods. Firstly, there’s the revolutionary era spanning from 1789 to 1815 — encompassing the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars — which disseminated revolutionary ideas across Europe. Then there’s the restoration, in which the old regime comes roaring back in the period between 1815 to 1830 — marked by the Congress of Vienna to the establishment of the so-called July Monarchy. Lastly, there’s the July Monarchy itself from 1830 to 1848 — a classical liberal constitutional monarchy replacing the preceding conservative monarchy.

Marx interprets those last two periods in terms of class dynamics. He sees the restoration itself as a revenge of the landed aristocracy. And he interprets the July Monarchy as a bourgeois monarchy, with its social basis rooted in high finance.

The other thing to consider is the immediate background of the 1840s — which is the first big railway boom. The European railway network is being built out, and toward the end of the 1840s, there’s a classic crisis of overproduction and a sharp cyclical downturn with deteriorating conditions of wages and employment. It’s what sets the stage for the 1848 uprising itself. Marx’s own political evolution was deeply influenced by the social misery of the period. In February of 1848, amid escalating levels of this popular suffering, a widespread uprising against the July Monarchy erupted.

Daniel Denvir

And this sparks off in Paris, but it erupts all across Europe.

Dylan Riley

It actually begins first in Palermo. But, yes, it’s European wide. It’s the springtime of people — it’s a European-wide series of uprisings. The movement encompasses various iterations, including Italian, Hungarian, Polish, and German versions, with France taking central stage with the revolution of February 1848. Interestingly the February revolution is, in some ways, predicted by the Communist Manifesto, which is written right in that period.

So, looking at the leadership in France during that time, it’s essential to note that the situation wasn’t the same everywhere else in Europe. The social background of 1848 is quite heterogeneous across Europe. In France, particularly in Paris, the working class played a significant role, driven by figures like Louis Blanc and Auguste Blanqui. However, unlike the situation in 1789, the peasantry largely remained passive during the uprising of 1848.

This sets the stage for understanding the complexities discussed in The Eighteenth Brumaire, which blends detailed narrative with broader theoretical reflections.

Here’s the basic time line: in April of 1848, just after the February uprising, there’s this emergence of what we can call a constitutional republic. It’s no longer a monarchical regime, and it’s dominated by a group called the Moderate Republicans. But then, things take a more radical turn come June 1848, with another uprising. Marx calls this period the June Days, and it sets an important backdrop for The Eighteenth Brumaire.

This uprising — of tens of thousands of workers — is ferociously repressed by one of the central characters in The Eighteenth Brumaire, a man named Louis-Eugène Cavaignac. He’s a general who honed his skills repressing colonials in Algeria, and he comes back to Paris in 1848 to use the same techniques on the working class. In some ways, the situation is reminiscent of Francisco Franco in Spain, who made his mark first in North Africa before unleashing reactionary violence against the Spanish working class during the Spanish Civil War.

The June Days are really a key moment in European history itself, because they mark the final, irrevocable break between the bourgeoisie and the working class. For Marx, this signals the beginning of what we could think of as the modern class struggle from that era onward. The working class sort of fades into the background as the rest of The Eighteenth Brumaire homes in on the dwindling social support for the parliamentary regime in France, leading up to its eventual demise in December 1851 with Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup.

The first part of the story is the election of Bonaparte, which happens on December 10, 1848. It’s quite a striking event. Bonaparte is actually the first popularly elected head of state in the world, discounting the United States’ Electoral College system. So, he begins to garner substantial popular backing. However, most of The Eighteenth Brumaire revolves around the power struggle between Bonaparte and his various bourgeois adversaries. Essentially, all opponents, witnessing their potential allies crushed, find themselves increasingly isolated in their confrontation with Bonaparte, until he emerges as the last man standing in this three-year saga after 1848.

Deferral of the Revolutionary Break

Daniel Denvir

Before we dive in further, can you say a little bit about what this book is about beyond the specific historical events that Marx is analyzing?

Dylan Riley

The way I understand the book is in terms of Marx’s own intellectual and political development. It is really important to realize that The Eighteenth Brumaire is written just a few years after the Communist Manifesto. The fundamental puzzle that Marx is dealing with is simple enough: Marx predicts a revolutionary break — although, he’s not the only one to do so — in 1848. It seems that his prediction is immediately confirmed by historical events. But then we get the ascendance of Bonaparte. And that, of course, presents both a political but also a theoretical challenge to Marx.

Daniel Denvir

Because the workers of France united and they got Louis Bonaparte.

Dylan Riley

Right. Why? Why is history running in reverse?

The question is: Why is the scheme of social development that was so brilliantly and laconically expounded on in the Communist Manifesto, why does it seem not to apply in this case? That’s the puzzle that he’s dealing with here. In answering that question, I think that The Eighteenth Brumaire is not fully coherent, but it does provide a couple of different sorts of suggestions about what the process is. I think there are two main things that you can kind of draw out from these suggestions.

One of them is easy to miss on a quick reading. If you closely read Marx’s analysis, it’s not so clear exactly how he understands the French political economy. Maybe the problem, from Marx’s perspective, is that French society, in some important respects, is underdeveloped. There’s this large peasantry. Even the bourgeoisie itself is a state-dependent, rent-seeking stratum. This is not quite the bourgeoisie of the Communist Manifesto. This divergence from the bourgeoisie depicted in the Communist Manifesto isolates the working class and makes the French bourgeoisie susceptible to betraying its historical mission of establishing a representative state. These historical factors lead to an isolation of the French working class.

Another lesson is the importance of class alliances. By The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx is thinking much more strategically about politics than he is in the Communist Manifesto. And he’s thinking about the problem posed by the fact that, in order for the working class to emerge as an effective political force, it must articulate its interests as the interests of the nation. And, in a sense, to use a Gramscian term, that’s the way that the working class can make a claim to hegemony.

The third thing that’s going on is the reality of the state. And that is something that I think will continue to haunt Marx through his writings on the civil wars in France as well. That is to say that, when we think about the predicted revolutionary break, we must remember that there is this ultimate backstop to the social order that can’t be wished away. In the case of The Eighteenth Brumaire, the reality of the state comes forward as the final guarantor, we could say, of the existing order. And this is something that you get a sense of that you really don’t get in earlier versions of Marx’s analysis.

Daniel Denvir

I want to turn to the intellectual milieu that Marx is debating within. He takes liberal assessments of the French situation to task, as well as that of anarchist Proudhon. He writes that

Victor Hugo confines himself to bitter and witty invective against the responsible producer of the coup d’etat. The event itself appears in his work like a bolt from the blue. He sees in it only the violent act of a single individual. He does not notice that he makes this individual great instead of little by ascribing to him a personal power of initiative unparalleled in world history. Proudhon, for his part, seeks to represent the coup d’etat as the result of an antecedent historical development. Inadvertently, however, his historical construction of the coup d’etat becomes a historical apologia for its hero. Thus he falls into the error of our so-called objective historians. I, on the contrary, demonstrate how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.

What is Marx taking issue with in these two approaches, and what does he offer as an alternative?

Dylan Riley

There was some parallel between this and liberal discussions about Trump. It’s true — it’s just a monstrosity; a kind of black swan event that comes out of nowhere. And if you don’t have an explanation, then you can’t develop a rational politics in response.

There’s a connection, obviously, in Marx’s mind, between developing an actual explanation of events and thinking about what to do about them. Whereas with Proudhon, it’s the other side of the coin. It’s a kind of objectivist account. And I think one of Marx’s really central points in The Eighteenth Brumaire — in a sense, the central point — is the necessity in thinking through future revolutionary possibilities; the necessity of the working class forming an alliance with those social actors with whom alliances are possible. And in the nineteenth-century French case, that’s the peasantry. Of course, that would take a different form today.

You also see there the way in which Marx sees this and recognizes this as a fundamental challenge for his own theory. “How can your account, based on class struggles and objective historical forces, explain this event, which seems so idiosyncratic and so dependent on the individual personality?” And Marx’s argument, of course, is that it’s precisely the class struggle that can explain why an individual suddenly emerges as decisive in a particular historical moment.

Illusion and Disjuncture

Daniel Denvir

As you just said, bad analysis makes for bad politics, and Marx writes that Hugo’s sort of thinking made the French opponents of Bonaparte unable to clearly understand and counter his rise. It reminded me of all of this liberal certainty ahead of November 2016 — the certainty that orthodoxy would triumph over Trump’s grotesqueness.

Marx writes:

As always, weakness had taken refuge in a belief in miracles, believed the enemy to be overcome when he was only conjured away in imagination, and lost all understanding of the present in an inactive glorification of the future that was in store for it and the deeds it had in mind but did not want to carry out yet. Those heroes who seek to disprove their demonstrated incapacity — by offering each other their sympathy and getting together in a crowd — had tied up their bundles, collected their laurel wreaths in advance, and occupied themselves with discounting on the exchange market the republics in partibus for which they had already providently organized the government personnel with all the calm of their unassuming disposition.

What is Marx saying here about these French politicians who were prematurely rushing to measure the drapes?

Dylan Riley

In my view, the thing that Marx sees here is that there is a connection between a historical character’s inability to understand the historical process and their political blindness in the immediate moment in which they are acting. And that’s a connection that he will insist on throughout the book.

Daniel Denvir

And along those lines, in another passage he writes:

In no period, therefore, do we find a more confused mixture of high-flown phrases and actual uncertainty and clumsiness, of more enthusiastic striving for innovation and more deeply rooted domination of the old routine, of more apparent harmony of the whole of society; and more profound estrangement of its elements.

The first thing I thought of when I read that was of the early Obama years, when it seemed that all of these profound contradictions — political, economic, social, whatever — of American society had somehow been pacified in the very persona and person of the new president.

Dylan Riley

I think there’s a parallel in the sense that the actual historical function of Obama and his own self-awareness and self-understanding massively diverged from one another. I actually think the same thing may be true of Trump in an opposite sense.

One of the reasons that The Eighteenth Brumaire has an evergreen character is that Marx acutely identifies the systematic disjuncture between the roles that political actors appear to be playing, the roles that they understand themselves to be playing, and the actual functions that they fulfill. In the political process, Obama’s actual function was to save the banks, to be very crude about it. But, it was presented as transcendence of all of these deep-seated problems in American society — obviously, most centrally, the issue of race. The mythology in which he was wrapped is completely a part of understanding that historical moment. And you could say further that it was precisely that mythology that allowed him to act in the way that he did.

Daniel Denvir

Along those lines, Marx makes the point that it’s that sort of mythology that can make any given order seem so solid. As he wrote elsewhere, “All that is solid melts into air.” He makes the argument in The Eighteenth Brumaire that any given order, no matter how solid it seems, can actually be quite fragile because it is always contingent on a set of conditions that underpin it.

And he writes that

The constitution, the National Assembly, the dynastic parties, the blue and red republicans, the heroes of Africa, the thunder from the platform, the sheet lightning of the daily press, the entire literature, the political names and the intellectual reputations, the civil law and the penal code, liberté, egalité, fraternité, and the second Sunday in May, 1852 — all have vanished like a phantasmagoria before the spell of a man whom even his enemies do not make out to be a sorcerer. Universal suffrage seems to have survived only for the moment, so that with its own hand it may make its last will and testament before the eyes of all the world and declare in the name of the people itself: “All that exists deserves to perish.”

What argument is Marx making here? And how do you think it might be applied to our own order, which certainly hasn’t descended into dictatorship, but is undergoing a profound crisis that people didn’t even foresee taking place, even amid the most intense days of the financial crisis?

Dylan Riley

I guess the way that I would think about it is to say that the political life that unfolds in a capitalist democracy is full of high drama. I would say that Marx is trying to penetrate into the sort of pyrotechnic conflict that constitutes the political scene in a bourgeois capitalist democracy (although to apply the term “democracy” to the situation in France that he’s writing about is a little anachronistic). The point being that, in one sense, the problem is that in this world of the political, people have this illusion of solidity and fixity. This illusion manifests in hallowed routines and norms that we can see in contemporary contexts, such as in the United States.

While these aspects of political life may seem stable, they can swiftly vanish when class issues, as Marx perceives them, come to the fore. The political landscape serves as a vital element in reproducing capitalist society, but it also has an ephemeral character, susceptible to rapid alterations. This phenomenon is more extreme in countries like the United States, with its veneration of the Constitution and other institutional features.

Tragedy and Farce

Daniel Denvir

On that point about the fixity and power given institutions and a particular historical moment, Marx writes some of his most famous lines. He writes: “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.”

He continues,

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 revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of 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-honored disguise and borrowed language.

There’s a bit of a tension, maybe a complementary one, from what we were just discussing — how Marx argues that every political-economic system is fragile, dependent on swiftly changing circumstances that can lead to its collapse or rapid transformation. But in these passages, he’s arguing about the constraints of history and structure. What is his argument here?

Dylan Riley

I think this links to what we were saying earlier about the relationship between having an adequate politics and having an actual understanding of the historical situation that a group or a class faces. And what I think Marx is saying in those famous passages is actually that there’s a paradoxical way in which the actors in the historical drama that he’s describing, in order to act, must, in a sense, not fully grasp the nature of their own action.

And that means they must misunderstand — in some fundamental way — their own role in the historical process. Marx’s project, which is both a political project and a theoretical project, is to overcome that. His project is, in fact, to endow the working class with a real understanding of its role in history. This class consciousness entails an understanding of the genuine historical dynamics and challenges faced by the class itself. All previous classes, in some respects, have been able to act only through a misunderstanding of their own role in the historical process — thus the invocation of Hegel.

Marx is referring here to Hegel’s understanding of historical development, which is, of course, also an understanding of a self-understanding of the agent of historical change in history. And Hegel’s point is that these two things, that is to say, self-understanding and reality, have been split apart but are gradually merging. And there’s a similar thing going on here with what Marx has to say — the reason that classes wear blinders is because in order to fulfill their own role in history, they must in some way fail to understand this, and behave as if they were actors in the past.

Daniel Denvir

But then Marx argues that to be successful they have to look toward the future.

Dylan Riley

This is particularly about the working class. I think that’s the point. The working class has to learn its own language. What is that language? It’s the language that socialists are trying to construct. It’s the new language. This suggests a shift in historical agency, where actors no longer merely mimic the past but possess a genuine grasp of the historical moment. I think that science and politics are very closely linked in these lines, albeit implicitly.

Daniel Denvir

His passage on precisely that is:

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.

Dylan Riley

Marx points out how the French revolutionaries adopted the garb of the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire. But this is not the Roman Republican, not the Roman Empire. However, in order to carry out their historical task, which is to establish the modern representative state — to undertake the bourgeois revolution — they must misunderstand their own role in history.

For the bourgeoisie and pre–working class societies, there’s a necessary link between their class actions and their misunderstanding of their historical role. However, the working class operates differently. To effectively act as a class, the working class must comprehend its role in history without mystification. This is why it has a special form of historical agency. It is no longer the case that the working class dresses up in the costumes of the past. It must learn the poetry of the future. I think that’s the difference that he’s talking about.

When he says “the phrase went beyond the content,” he’s referring to how bourgeois revolutionaries historically dressed up in the symbolic costumes of classical antiquity to establish bourgeois society. The content here represents the prosaic reality of bourgeois society, while the phrase refers to these symbolic costumes.

However, for the working class, the situation is different. The content is human emancipation, while the phrase represents the self-understanding of the historical situation — which aligns with scientific or historical materialism. This distinction underscores a fundamental difference in approach between the bourgeoisie and the working class.

Dialectics of Success and Failure

Daniel Denvir

Is it fair to say that what Marx is getting at is the reactionary tendency to constantly reinterpret tradition?

Dylan Riley

It’s possible. And I think there’s something fascinating about the nature of the cult of Napoleon. I guess it’s like, “make France Great again.” It’s also very much about this particular way in which Marx understands the way that class consciousness is supposed to work in different historical epochs and for different classes. And it’s probably the most challenging part in trying to understand what it is that Marx is trying to say — to put it really simply, we need to think about why it is that the bourgeoisie has to act in these ways. Why is it that the bourgeoisie must don the costumes of the past? And that’s never quite clarified in The Eighteenth Brumaire itself.

Daniel Denvir

One thing that I want to discuss on this point is Marx’s argument as to how a proletariat gets to the point at which it is firmly forward-looking. And it seems like he’s making both an analytical and a prescriptive argument. He’s both giving revolutionaries advice, but also arguing that the dynamics of any revolutionary moment are heavily shaped by contingent historical dynamics.

He writes,

Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds, ecstasy is the order of the day — but they are short-lived, soon they have reached their zenith, and a long Katzenjammer takes hold of society before it learns to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period soberly. On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals — until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible . . .

What is Marx’s argument here about how history creates moments that are more or less ripe for transformational politics? Is that the correct way to read it?

Dylan Riley

I think what he’s after here is the whole fraught question about what the future revolution will look like. And he is unsure. There’s an attempt to break out of the Procrustean bed of 1789 and its sequels. That is to say that it’s not necessarily going to mirror the storming of the Bastille. But as the real nature of future revolution, this is something that I think is going to occupy Marx, in his political writings, for the rest of his life. And to a certain extent, it is still the key question that people on the Left need to grapple with.

So, I don’t know exactly how to answer that, other than to say that it’s clear that whatever revolution is coming is going to take a different form than the seizing of the Bastille and the great days of the French Revolution. Furthermore, constant criticism will play a significant role. It will be a self-aware revolution that incorporates an understanding of itself and its societal role to drive change forward. There’s a cognitive component to this revolutionary struggle that’s very important to emphasize for Marx.

There is a specific strategic recommendation, I think, in The Eighteenth Brumaire. And, basically, it’s that, if the working class is isolated, it will not be able to seize power. It must establish class alliances. It must establish alliances with those groups that are outside of the core manufacturing working class. That’s very clear. And this will be true all the way through the Russian Revolution and beyond — that other actor is the peasantry.

On the broader question of how to think about the proletarian revolution, I don’t think there’s a clear answer in The Eighteenth Brumaire. And I don’t think that Marx ever really adequately addresses this question.

Daniel Denvir

It does seem that he’s arguing that there are certain limitations and possibilities that particular historical moments provide. While he’s not presenting a completely deterministic argument, Marx seems to imply that the French proletariat, given its circumstances — both internally and in relation to broader political-economic structures and class dynamics — had somewhat predictable outcomes. And it makes me think of something like Occupy Wall Street, often labeled a failure. But considering the historical context in which it emerged, it did the most that it could do and then laid the groundwork for bigger and bolder and more systematic left politics that would follow in its wake.

Dylan Riley

I think this is really a key question. On the first point that you made, I completely agree with you, and it echoes my summary of The Eighteenth Brumaire. There are two lines of argument — and they’re not actually fully compatible with one another — that run through this book. One suggests that the events described are a kind of backward projection from the civil wars in France. According to one Marxist interpretation, The Eighteenth Brumaire illustrates that the bourgeoisie has essentially lost its ability to rule, while the proletariat hasn’t yet stepped into its role of governance. In this interregnum, we witness the emergence of this very weird figure — a kind of transitional figure between the old and the new. This implies a society that, in some sense, is overripe. It has reached its historical limit, with the bourgeoisie having exhausted its time in power. But the proletariat, for whatever reason, hasn’t quite caught up to the situation.

The other argument, of course, threading through this piece is that mid-nineteenth-century France is not a fully developed capitalist society. With its huge peasant population and a bourgeoisie largely dependent on the state, the isolation of the working class isn’t merely coincidental but rooted in the structural dynamics of French society. The reader gets the sense that it’s never entirely clear whether France is being presented as the last word in development or whether this is a theory of political and economic backwardness.

Regarding the complexities of success, failure, contingency, and necessity, it’s indeed very difficult to navigate. Contingency needs to be understood in relation to the actual objective possibilities inherent in any historical moment. For contingency to matter, you have to have a strong sense of necessity — you must acknowledge certain structures in place that could have enabled or hindered various outcomes, thereby emphasizing the significance of political action in shaping the eventual result. As for your interpretation of Occupy Wall Street, we could say, well, we don’t really know whether it was a success or a failure yet. It’s too early to tell. We don’t know whether the French Revolution was a success or failure yet. It’s too early for the Russian Revolution, for that matter.

Contradictions of the Bourgeois Republic

Daniel Denvir

Marx does have words of praise for the Parisian working class, even though they were brutally defeated in a narrow, short-term sense. He writes, “it had shown at the same time that in Europe the questions at issue are other than that of ‘republic or monarchy.’ It had revealed that here ‘bourgeois republic’ signifies the unlimited despotism of one class over other classes.”

Dylan Riley

Yes, that’s exactly right. And that’s precisely what I was suggesting earlier. For Marx, the class struggles surrounding 1848 mark a pivotal transition. It’s no longer merely a contest between republic and monarchy; rather, it’s a broader clash between socialism and capitalism. Or to put it differently, this is the moment of the final break between the working class and the bourgeoisie. Marx thinks that after 1848, the bourgeoisie can no longer fulfill a historically progressive role.

Daniel Denvir

And it seems like as though he’s praising the French working class.

Dylan Riley

Yes, for revealing and demystifying that. That’s right. For shattering the bourgeoisie’s hegemony and their legitimacy.

It’s as if the stakes are clear after this. Right? That’s essentially how he interprets the entire historical trajectory leading to the ascent of Bonapartism in France.

Daniel Denvir

Let’s talk a little bit more about Marx’s take on the bourgeois republic. He writes that it is

a domination which, in general, was possible only under the form of the parliamentary republic, for only under this form could the two great divisions of the French bourgeoisie unite, and thus put the rule of their class instead of the regime of a privileged faction of it on the order of the day.

But he continues that there’s a contradiction inherent to this:

Instinct taught them that the republic, true enough, makes their political rule complete, but at the same time undermines its social foundation, since they must now confront the subjugated classes and contend against them without mediation, without the concealment afforded by the crown, without being able to divert the national interest by their subordinate struggles among themselves and with the monarchy.

He’s arguing that a bourgeois republic is the perfect highly contradictory vehicle for capitalist class rule. But is he arguing against electoral democracy as such, or just a particular sort?

Dylan Riley

There’s no sense in which he would be arguing against electoral democracy as such. Look at his writings on the Paris Commune; he praises electoral democracy of a certain sort. Not representative democracy, mind you, but obviously elections were extensive. From my perspective, Marx’s historical context plays a crucial role here. It’s not evident to Marx, given his historical experience, that universal or broad suffrage could coexist with the preservation of capitalist property in the mid-nineteenth century. After all, there were scarcely any examples of this outside the unique case of the United States.

Daniel Denvir

And even then it’s limited in a variety of ways in 1848.

Dylan Riley

It’s not clear to him that capitalism and democracy are compatible with one another. However, he also makes a crucial point: capital as a class is inherently divided by economic conflicts, with internal factions. In the scenario he’s discussing, it’s land versus finance.

There are numerous specific economic interests within the capitalist class, particular to its various factions. For this class to function as a unified entity, there must be an institution to reconcile and articulate these conflicts in economic interest as a general interest of the class. Marx assigns this role to parliament. However, what he didn’t anticipate is the modern electoral democracy’s ability to operate without bringing forth the fundamental class divisions inherent in every capitalist society into the political arena. This modern representative state, in a sense, enables politics to encompass everything except class, facilitating the political reproduction of capital. That’s my take on it.

Daniel Denvir

Marx would have predicted that universal suffrage would eventually lead to all of the contradictions of capitalism coming to the fore and lead to some sort of transition to socialism.

Dylan Riley

I think so, yes. Marx likely couldn’t envision it otherwise. The prospect of granting effective suffrage in the face of a militant working class posed a significant threat, in his view. He highlighted a contradiction: the bourgeoisie needed representative democracy to articulate its interests as a class, yet granting such democracy risked empowering the working class and creating a threat from below. The Eighteenth Brumaire, in a sense, reflects the outcome of this contradiction. But we could say that the trick of modern representative democracy is that it proved not to be such a difficult contradiction to resolve — or it was at least resolvable in some respects.

Base and Superstructure

Daniel Denvir

It’s on this issue of the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the state that Marx makes his classic and forever debated and discussed argument about the relationship of a material base to an ideological and political superstructure.

Specifically, he argues that the two monarchist factions who sought a restoration of two different royal houses, the Bourbon and the Orleans, are not fundamentally divided by a difference in their principled allegiance to one crown or another. He writes, “Here, in the bourgeois republic, which bore neither the name Bourbon nor the name Orleans, but the name capital, they had found the form of state in which they could rule conjointly.” He continues:

What kept the two factions apart, therefore, was not any so-called principles, it was their material conditions of existence, two different kinds of property; it was the old contrast between town and country, the rivalry between capital and landed property. . . . 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.

He goes on: “They do their real business as the party of Order, that is, under a social, not under a political title; as representatives of the bourgeois world order, not as knights of errant princesses; as the bourgeois class against other classes, not as royalists against the republicans.” Explain what Marx is arguing here, and to touch on some of the debates over this argument: Do you think it allows for sufficient autonomy for things like ideology, politics, culture? And to that we could add racism, sexism, colonialism vis-à-vis economics.

Dylan Riley

To unpack what’s being conveyed there, let’s consider the historical context you’ve outlined — the conflict between two royalist factions, interpreted by Marx as a clash between land and finance capital. When Marx mentions that they conduct their true business as the party of Order, he seems to suggest that class affiliations don’t always align neatly with political party structures in a one-to-one correlation. In some respects, the articulation of class interests requires a kind of intraclass political party struggle.

The politics of a capitalist democracy encompasses a broad spectrum of issues — public debates about current events to discussions on various rights and social injustices. However, the core class interests tend to remain unaddressed within this political theater. It operates beneath the surface. This concept ties into Marx’s notion of the party of Order, which highlights a fundamental class interest underlying surface-level political squabbles.

This may be a bit of a forced reading, but in a way, that’s what Marx is thinking about with this idea of the party of Order — that there’s a fundamental kind of class interest that somehow underlies all of these surface squabbles that are carried out in the name of political party labels or whatever else you want to call them. Regarding the other foundations of political life — such as ideology, politics, and culture — it’s uncertain how Marx would approach them. But we can consider this issue in a straightforward manner. Politics in a capitalist democracy encompasses various factors beyond class — class is just one element among many. In fact, it’s mostly not about class. And that’s kind of the point, because . . .

Daniel Denvir

Capitalism is the systemic consensus point. It’s the premise.

Dylan Riley

Exactly. The other thing to say about it is that the elimination of class differences would not eliminate the other bases of social difference, and therefore wouldn’t eliminate politics either. In a socialist society, I think there would be all sorts of political conflict. But it would not be warped by the kind of underlying magnetic field of class polarization.

Daniel Denvir

Social reproduction theorists would argue that you need to tackle all of these things at once, because capitalist accumulation and exploitation fundamentally rely on these other spheres of exploitation and expropriation.

Dylan Riley

Yes. I think that Nancy Fraser’s work has been really important in this regard — questioning how to think about the conditions of reproduction for capitalism.

The Modern Bureaucratic State

Daniel Denvir

One of Marx’s key arguments in this book is about capitalists’ relationship to the state’s repressive apparatuses. During the period in France that Marx is describing, it was liberals, if I have this right, who mobilized with the hard right against the proletariat. But, in doing so, they also legitimated the forces of repression and reaction that would ultimately come for them, repress them, and eliminate them as independent political force.

He writes:

During the June days all classes and parties had united in the party of Order against the proletarian class as the party of anarchy, of socialism, of communism. They had “saved” society from “the enemies of society.” They had given out the watchwords of the old society, “property, family, religion, order,” to their army as passwords and had proclaimed to the counterrevolutionary crusaders: “In this sign thou shalt conquer!” From that moment, as soon as one of the numerous parties which gathered under this sign against the June insurgents seeks to hold the revolutionary battlefield in its own class interest, it goes down before the cry: “property, family, religion, order.”

He continues, “were not barrack and bivouac, saber and musket, mustache and uniform finally bound to hit upon the idea of instead saving society once and for all by proclaiming their own regime as the highest and freeing civil society completely from the trouble of governing itself?”

Explain the dynamic that Marx is describing in France.

Dylan Riley

The dynamic he’s describing is the same one that we were talking about before — where every political group is essentially prepared to resort to repression against its immediate adversary. In Marx’s thinking, this process gradually erodes the core of parliamentary rule, with the repressive apparatuses of the state stepping in to fill the vacuum at every turn. If you’re willing to use force against the working class and the petty bourgeoisie is willing to support it, then the big bourgeoisie is going to be willing to support it against the democratic petty bourgeoisie. And finally, the army is going to be willing to openly use force against the big bourgeoisie itself.

Daniel Denvir

Marx also analyzes the role that imperialism played in Bonaparte’s rise. His first cabinet was drawn from the party of Order, which again is comprised of these two royalist factions, and at their very first cabinet meeting, they resolved to undertake an unconstitutional expedition to Rome — behind the National Assembly’s back — to crush the Roman Republic in partnership with reactionary monarchies across the continent. What role did Marx see militarism and imperialism playing in the destruction of bourgeois democracy in France? And what does that tell us about the relationship between militarism and bourgeois democracy more generally?

Dylan Riley

The French Second Empire played a key role in shaping the concept of modern imperialism. It begins, as you’re saying, with the attempt to crush revolutionary regimes — particularly, the Roman Republic. I don’t think that Marx himself ever really fully fleshes out a theory of what we would think of as imperialism. When he uses the term, he’s really referring to the myth of the empire and its political utility. It’s obviously very important politically. It can be thought of as an early form of social imperialism, where militarism and imperialism are employed to assimilate subordinate classes, alongside notions of French national grandeur and all of that.

The rise of the second Napoleon in France is really the thing that sets off the beginnings of classic European interstate imperialism. His defeat at the Battle of Sedan in 1870, followed by the Paris Commune of 1871 and the German unification under Bismarck, initiated the interimperialist competition that will ultimately lead to World War I and its aftermath. Marx sees a domestic political use for national greatness, but I don’t think he has a fully developed analysis yet in The Eighteenth Brumaire of imperialism as a real economic dynamic.

Daniel Denvir

Marx’s focus extends beyond abstract notions of the state to a specific interest in the emergence of the modern bureaucratic state. He wrote:

. . . the state enmeshes, controls, regulates, superintends, and tutors civil society from its most comprehensive manifestations of life down to its most insignificant stirrings, from its most general modes of being to the private existence of individuals; where through the most extraordinary centralization this parasitic body acquires a ubiquity, an omniscience, a capacity for accelerated mobility, and an elasticity which finds a counterpart only in the helpless dependence, the loose shapelessness of the actual body politic — it is obvious that in such a country the National Assembly forfeits all real influence when it loses command of the ministerial posts, if it does not at the same time simplify the administration of the state, reduce the army of officials as far as possible, and, finally, let civil society and public opinion create organs of their own, independent of the governmental power. But 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, Marx seems to be making a complicated argument about one the role that a powerful centralized administrative state can play in assisting the bourgeoisie in their political domination and capital accumulation — and the contradictions therein. And he seems to be saying that true democracy would require that civil society maintain bases of power outside and independent of the state. What should we make of this passage?

Dylan Riley

One of the really interesting aspects of that passage is the use of the terms “civil society.” It’s one of the rare instances in Marx’s works where “civil society” isn’t employed in the context of bourgeois society but rather refers to society outside the state. It’s a very important distinction to note regarding the second point you raise. Marx’s political vision is profoundly critical of the state.

Marx’s perspective on the state traces back to his earliest Hegelian writings, where he views it as an embodiment of political alienation — a separation of human freedom into institutions removed from everyday life. And his initial articulation of the project — of what he calls human emancipation — is to reabsorb the state into civil society, by which he means a form of life that could be described as stateless. In his writings on the Commune, he’s very clear about it.

There’s another issue I think that might be worth thinking through here — while it’s tempting to interpret Marx’s analysis of the modern bureaucratic state as a little bit similar to Max Weber’s ideas, it’s essential to recognize that the Napoleonic regime also represents the latest iteration of a long-standing political order, echoing the traditions of the French absolutist state predating the Revolution.

Rights and Freedoms

Daniel Denvir

On this issue, Marx writes quite poignantly about how in bourgeois democracy, at least in the French case, purportedly universal freedoms, are to be enjoyed only in very limited, particular, and self-interested ways. He writes,

Where it forbids these liberties entirely to “the others,” or permits enjoyment of them under conditions that are just so many police traps, this always happens solely in the interest of “public safety” — that is, the safety of the bourgeoisie — as the constitution prescribes. . . . Thus so long as the name of freedom was respected and only its actual realization prevented, of course in a legal way, the constitutional existence of liberty remained intact, inviolate, however mortal the blows dealt to its existence in actual life.

My question is, what was Marx critiquing at the time? And how might we apply this analysis to the United States?

It makes me think of Aziz Rana’s concept of the “two faces of American freedom.” Throughout American history, there has been a paradoxical embrace of egalitarian liberty for insiders while perpetuating the brute subjugation and violence against those deemed outsiders or “others,” as Marx describes. And we see that in the opposition to King George’s restriction of white settlement on indigenous lands that fueled the revolution, or in the Jacksonian populism that celebrated the slaughter of natives and the enslavement of Africans. The pattern persists all the way to the present, when politicians of all stripes spout off about American liberty and freedom and, of course, about foisting those things on other countries at gunpoint, all while presiding over an historically unprecedented system of mass incarceration.

Dylan Riley

What Marx is thinking about is the class dimension of all this — the restriction of liberties to the circle of property. He’s also delving into the hypocrisy surrounding the adherence to constitutional rules and the fetishization of legal norms. You’re talking about these fundamental exclusions between racially identified insiders and outsiders in the citizen body, which I think is analogous in some way to what he’s discussing there.

Another aspect to consider is this idea that formal citizenship itself is a bit of a sham. Even for those who possess it, there’s a sense that citizenship functions primarily within an imagined public sphere — it lacks real substance. And this extends to the notion that in the factory, the working class loses all of its rights as citizens. I think Marx is trying to make both those points there.

Daniel Denvir

I see his observations as particularly germane in the American context. Marx’s descriptions align closely with historical instances such as the white settler’s claim to indigenous lands or the Jacksonian populist notion of freedom tied to white property for settlement and enslavement of Africans — certain individuals historically secured their primary protection from the state through property rights.

It seems to me that throughout American history, there’s a consistent theme of property rights serving as the core right, often within frameworks of secularism and racialized caste systems. It’s maybe different than Marx’s framework, but there’s a shared thread: the reduction of liberty to a specific type of property rights.

Dylan Riley

I think both you and The Eighteenth Brumaire are talking about the primacy of certain kinds of rights that are accorded to certain kinds of groups in civil society. Marx critiques the very notion of rights as we commonly understand them. There are two intertwined critiques: one addresses the privileging of certain rights for specific groups, and the other questions the concept of rights altogether. These critiques run parallel and complement each other in Marx’s analysis.

Daniel Denvir

I guess specifically what Marx is arguing that we might be able to apply more generally is that these nominally universal rights discourses obscure the class-interested particularity of their application.

Dylan Riley

Even universal rights, to the extent that they are formal, serve to secure inequalities in civil society. The most obvious case of that is property — having property rights. Not the right to property per se, but rather the assurance that the state will safeguard existing inequalities.

Daniel Denvir

I want to discuss Marx’s critique of social democracy and what you think we might learn from it. He writes:

The peculiar character of social-democracy is epitomized in the fact that democratic-republican institutions are demanded as a means, not of doing away with two extremes, capital and wage labor, but of weakening their antagonism and transforming it into harmony. However different the means proposed for the attainment of this end may be, however much it may be trimmed with more or less revolutionary notions, the content remains the same. This content is the transformation of society in a democratic way, but a transformation within the bounds of the petty bourgeoisie. Only one must not get the narrow-minded notion that the petty bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest. Rather, it believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within whose frame alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided.

The class compromises underlying any social democratic pact between labor and capital always have costs. My question is: What are the costs that Marx is describing in France and what are they or have they been in the United States?

Dylan Riley

The term “social democracy” as Marx uses it here differs slightly from what we typically understand as social democracy — especially in postwar Europe or in describing political movements within advanced capitalist nations and welfare states.

The central thing I would say — and that I think is very applicable to the current moment in the United States — is the notion of class compromise. From a Marxist perspective, much of the left-liberal critique of contemporary American politics can be viewed as essentially petty bourgeois. It revolves around moral arguments advocating for equal opportunities and less social division and conflict. And the problem with that — I think this is what Marx is saying — is not to say, you’re terrible; you’re a petty bourgeois and bad. The problem with this way of thinking about politics is its strategic blankness. It’s unclear who will implement the class compromise, on what terms, and through what means. I think that Marx’s central point on this is to emphasize the importance of class struggle as the mechanism through which any class compromise is actually imposed. And if you miss that point then your politics are disabled from the get go.