Karl Marx wrote The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon as a history of the French Revolution of 1848 in terms of class warfare. Its oft quoted first two sentences read, “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 refers here to the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1848. The first is a tragedy because, according to Marx, power changed hands from the old aristocracy to the rising bourgeoisie. The second is a farce because power fell into the hands of the buffoon, Louis Napoleon but means of production did not change hands from one class to another. For although the Paris proletariat did hold power for a brief time in February, 1848, a counterrevolution involving almost all classes against the proletariat, allowed Louis Napoleon, the representative of the lumpen proletariat, to take power and rule for many years. Though different in kind both revolutions are stage plays, but, Marx hopes, the real revolution, the “social revolution of the nineteenth century, won't be.
Marx chuckles at the bourgeoisie for being so afraid of the proletariat that it allows itself to fall into barbarism, demolishing what Marx thinks of as the bourgeois goal, the bourgeois republic. “The French bourgeoisie had long ago found the solution to Napoleon’s dilemma: 'In fifty years Europe will be republican or Cossack.' It solved it in the “Cossack republic.” No Circe using black magic has distorted that work of art, the bourgeois republic, into a monstrous shape. That republic has lost nothing but the semblance of respectability.” Marx expects this monstrous specter to inspire the “social revolution of the nineteenth century.” He explains that the proletariat didn't revolt after Dec 2 when Louis Napoleon overthrew the vestiges of the bourgeois republic because the whole remainder of the nation ganged up against it— including the peasantry. But also, he asserts, the proletariat will not be able to replay a past stage play, but must invent itself as it goes along. In spite of this hiccup, the history fits neatly into Hegelian terms. Contradictions within the bourgeois republic lead it to throw itself into the arms of Louis Napoleon, described as what most of us would see as a proto-Nazi. With the Bourgeois Republic now revealed as a monstrosity, the social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot be far off.
Marx adopted the word “proletariat” to identify the working class and with it he describes history as, not a story about political actors, but class warfare. Aristocracy, bourgeoisie, proletariat, and lumpen proletariat—these are the actors on the world historical stage. Since then, this description has been persuasive both to the “left” and to the “right.” It is class war that allows Marx to describe the revolution of 1789 as tragedy and that of 1848 as farce. The idea that the first French Revolution, that of 1789, was the “Bourgeois Revolution,” as Marx described it, has taken root. Most on the left now think of that revolution as something of a preliminary revolution, with the final revolution, the proletarian revolution, still to be accomplished. To be sure, with Marx's demonization, the word “proletariat” can no longer be used, but the idea remains. “The people” or “the 99%” now substitute for it. The distinction is one of class.
But those who actually participated in the French Revolution did not think of it in class terms. The Marquis de Lafayette wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man with the help of Thomas Jefferson. Neither could be accused of membership in the bourgeoisie. The Declaration of the Rights of Man spoke of universal human equality. Marx comments that classes, such as the landed peasantry, who supported the first revolution, turned against the Paris proletariat in the second because they had benefited from the “bourgeois republic.” “While the Paris proletariat still reveled in the vision of the wide prospects that had opened before it and indulged in seriously meant discussions of social problems, the old powers of society had grouped themselves, assembled, reflected, and found unexpected support in the mass of the nation, the peasants and petty bourgeois, who all at once stormed onto the political stage after the barriers of the July Monarchy had fallen.” Is this an alliance between classes or a counter revolution that is classless?
What is perhaps forgotten now is the considerable sympathy the original French Revolution had within the European aristocracy, supposedly its enemy. Lafayette was of the aristocracy. Lord Stanhope, chairman of “The Revolution Society” founded in honor of the English Revolution of 1688 expressed support for the French Revolution, as did the other members of the society in 1790. To be sure he was later ostracized for his sympathies, but their early acceptance reflects some aristocratic sympathy with the original idealism of the Revolution.
The French Revolution of 1789 did abolish privileges of the aristocracy and thus opened the way for freer commercial flow. In that sense it was a bourgeois revolution. But it also deprived the nobles of property, one of Burke's major objections, and thus was a peasant revolution. The sentiments expressed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man were of universal human equality, not class war. Even Burke admitted sympathy for these sentiments.”Those who cultivate the memory of our Revolution [the English Revolution of 1688] and those who are attached to the constitution of this kingdom will take good care how they are involved with persons who, under the pretext of zeal toward the Revolution and constitution, too frequently wander from their true principles and are ready on every occasion to depart from the firm but cautious and deliberate spirit which produced the one, and which presides in the other.”
But the word “equality” meant different things to different people. Burke's equality was what he called moral equality. He was convinced that the French Revolution betrayed the sentiments it professed to uphold. Burke understood, as anyone who thinks about it must, that an idea of universal equality in everything is a chimera. Nature bestows gifts unequally, including the gift for amassing property. Burke believed in another interpretation of these sentiments. With his “moral equality” “you would have had a protected, satisfied, laborious, and obedient people, taught to seek and to recognize the happiness that is to be found by virtue in all conditions; in which consists the true moral equality of mankind, and not in that monstrous fiction which, by inspiring false ideas and vain expectations into men destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life, serves only to aggravate and embitter that real inequality which it never can remove, and which the order of civil life establishes as much for the benefit of those whom it must leave in a humble state as those whom it is able to exalt to a condition more splendid, but not more happy.” Burke, it seems, hoped to convince the people that they were happy in their humble position, a sentiment that surely must have been impossible to inculcate in the bustling new-born entrepreneurial capitalism of the nineteenth century. Burke feared popular dissatisfaction and seems not to have anticipated the overweening ambition free enterprise inspired and through which the rising bourgeoisie must inevitably have destroyed the privileges of the nobility. Neither he nor Marx thought equality might mean equality of opportunity to develop one's talents.
Marx, of course, thought of these sentiments as costume.
The classic description of universal human equality is that in the American Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Were equality identified with equality of financial means, social position, or natural endowments the statement would be absurd, not “self evident.” The statement, couched as it is in the logical language of “self-evident truths” is clearly an expression of the Enlightenment. What it objects to is privileges bestowed upon the scions of certain families that give them unfair advantages. Those informed by the Enlightenment, as all of us now are, saw human beings as a collection of talents, the primary being that of reason. Self-evident equality at creation could only mean equality at naked birth, an equality of opportunity for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” that is, the development of these talents for one's own benefit. Given an image of man naked in the state of nature, these truths do, indeed, seem self-evident.
Marx saw the bourgeoisie's curious political incompetence that contrasted sharply with their rise in wealth. In spite of the nobility's apparent recovery of power after the Congress of Vienna and other similar congresses following Napoleon's defeat, the bourgeoisie retained their freedom of activity under the restored monarchy. Louis Philippe was known as the bourgeois monarch. Their riches continued to grow, but curiously, they remained politically clownish, as Marx saw so clearly in the Revolution of 1848.
The boredom and corruption Marx identifies with the bourgeois republic was something of a commonplace. Moliere's Bourgeois Gentilhomme, presented more than 100 years earlier, had satirized the bourgeois mercilessly. The well-known bourgeois passion for social climbing revealed the barren nature of bourgeois life and its bad conscience. The first thing the successful bourgeois wanted to do was escape being bourgeois. He aspired to imitate the decadent nobility unless he could, through his wealth, actually join them. His excursions into the demimonde to give life spice were also well known. Marx mocked the bourgeoisie for having virtually thrown power to Louis Napoleon in fear after the brief appearance the the Paris proletariat on the stage of history. But this also shows the enormous bourgeois political inferiority complex. Statesmen were subtle, unlike the fumbling bourgeois gentilhomme. The whole Romantic movement was an attempt to find an escape through imagination to a life more alive than what bourgeois society had to offer. The “bourgeois gentleman,” an oxymoron, hardly had the courage, let alone the imagination, to take political power in spite of his burgeoning wealth.
Hannah Arendt notes the bourgeoisie's political backwardness. She writes in Origins of Totalitarianism, “The central inner-European event of the imperialist period [1884-1914] was the political emancipation of the bourgeoisie, which up to then had been the first class in history to achieve economic pre-eminence without aspiring to political rule.” She attributes this sudden arrival on the political stage to the bourgeoisie's need to use the army to rule foreign countries, a project in direct contradiction to the raison d'être of the nation state. For the nation justifies its existence as protection for the particular way of life of a “volk” or nation, as Burke would have it. The English nation-state protects the rights and customs of Englishmen, not the universal rights of men. It has no business ruling others with other customs. She recounts the state's resistance to the “megalomania of imperialist aspirations.” But capitalism set free must expand and will soon reach the borders of the nation-state and need to go beyond them. Hence imperialism. Of course the true irony was that the nation state's imperial venture infected the subject countries with the passion for their own nation, inspiring inevitable revolution.
But where did this bourgeois megalomania come from? Arendt traces it to Hobbes, and she is undoubtedly right. But there is nothing further from Hobbes than the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Nothing could contrast more with Hobbes's “nasty, brutish, short” human life than that of a man in the state of nature developing his talents to achieve “happiness.” How did Europe get from the “new dawn” of the French Revolution to absolute nihilism of the imperial bourgeois period? Well, there is not much difference between nihilism and materialism. Arendt writes, “ For power left to itself can achieve nothing but more power, and violence administered for power's (and not for law's ) sake turns into a destructive principle that will not stop until there is nothing left to violate.” And so imperialism has proved in fact. But after Marx what else was there but power and more power, wealth and more wealth.
The French revolutions of 1830 and 1848 were again in the name of the principles of 1789. But Marx's characterization of the revolution of 1848 as a farce because it failed to transfer power to the Paris proletariat changed all that. For it is through this history that Marx changed the idea of revolution from a fight for universal human equality to class warfare. Behind this is Marx's materialist philosophy, the idea that all culture and value were but disguise for the real truth, namely, the identity of who controlled the means of production. High ideals were the costume of tragedy or farce depending upon which class ended up with the means of production at the end.
Such interpretation appealed to leftist historians who could push aside all that refinement of manners they were not heir to and look only at the cold hard material facts: who controls what. But what no one seems to have realized is just what a boon such interpretation was to the bourgeoisie. They too stumbled over their clumsy manners. This interpretation set them free from the self-doubt of the uncultured and the moral qualms that might arise from their possession of “dark satanic mills” while professing a belief in universal human equality. They were now warriors in a class war and all that could be pushed aside. All that was real was money and power, and that was what they had in spades. The bourgeois's clumsiness, his lack of style, the emptiness of his life, was irrelevant. Manners, honor, morals were but window dressing. They saw through it to the truth. Boredom evaporated in the frisson of unvarnished savagery that was class warfare. Their inferiority complex had kept them away from politics, but in the late nineteenth century they commandeered the machinery of the nation state for imperialist purposes with ruthless glee. For there was nothing to hold them back.
Since revolution was class war, not a fight for universal human dignity, all was fair. Since power and wealth was everything, why should the bourgeoisie relinquish it to another class? In a war for wealth and power neither side has the moral high ground. Marx's labor theory of value does not succeed in persuading anyone of the justice of the proletariat's cause. The Congresses that followed Napoleon's defeat, through which Metternich set up the nation state system that continues in a hollowed out way today, countered the revolutionary sentiments of the French Revolution by embracing, not rejecting them. Friedrich von Gentz, Metternich's secretary, was a Burkean, and had published a pamphlet, Die Historisches Journal which was nothing but a translation of Burke's works. The Burkean nation-state system countered the inflammatory Enlightenment sentiment for universal equality by claiming it could only be achieved through the nation state. Freedoms became “our” freedoms. The nation state, the bourgeois republic, proclaimed itself the protector of human (now English) rights. At the same time the parliamentary system exhausted the revolutionary energy in procedural wrangling. The courts, too, exhausted petitioners for justice as Dickens describes in Bleak House. Nationalists did not pretend that the revolutionary sentiment was nothing but a costume concealing the reality of class warfare, but fed hopes for realizing these ideals into a system that choked them with red tape. In such a system demands for equality, when they grew too hot, could not be so easily ignored. The American civil rights movement could succeed, if only in a limited way, because it's demand for equality of treatment repeated the noble hopes of the American and first French Revolutions that the United States still clung too, however precariously.
Once revolution became class war, and the bourgeoisie became political, it's embarrassment over the “monstrous nature” of the bourgeois republic vanished. Marx thought the exposure of this monstrous character would doom the republic. What he failed to note was that his own materialism made this monstrosity as much of a costume as were the high flown sentiments of the first French Revolution. Everything was but cover for power and wealth hunger. The bourgeoisie proved quite indifferent to the horrors they perpetrated. War was, after all, war. They pursued the ever more ghastly wars with aplomb, focusing entirely on the prize, their own power and wealth. The revolutionary cry, once “liberté, égalité, fraternité,,” had become “show me the money.”
One can only wonder what might have been had the revolutions that continued through the nineteenth century remained revolutions for universal human equality. Had equality been understood not as a requirement for dispossessing the bourgeoisie, but as rather assuring fairness of opportunity, the outcome might have been different. Marx was certainly not wrong in seeing class war in the social relationships mushrooming in the nineteenth century, but class war need not have become the central theme of revolution. Dickens, who saw all the horrors of capitalism better than almost anyone, to the surprise of many, was horrified by class warfare. In his report, “On Strike,” of the Preston strike in 1854 he wrote, “Masters right or men right masters wrong or men wrong both right or both wrong there is certain ruin to both in the continuance or frequent revival of this breach. And from the ever widening circle of their decay what drop in the social ocean shall be free?”
If equality of opportunity had remained the theme of revolution, it still would have required some redistribution of property, for no one can expect children growing up in poverty to “realize their potential.” Arendt attributes the bourgeois adaptation of their rapacious ethic to their political isolation, and this does seem plausible. But in the Canut revolts in Lyon, surely events that can be seen as class warfare, the mill owners claimed the workers were violating the principles of the French Revolution. That the bourgeoisie would have acquiesced to this lesser level of property redistribution seems doubtful from our perspective. But we are looking from the well armed turrets of post Marxist capitalist society and are primed to launch our own attacks in the war of all against all. Had the bourgeoisie retained their sense of the emptiness of bourgeois existence and the rightness of the principles of the first French Revolution they might have seen the state as more than just a police force and been more inclined to use some of their wealth for the furtherance of universal human equality, seen as equality of opportunity. After all it was because of the uprising in the name of this equality that they realized their power in the first place, and the talents thus fostered would have been in their service.