Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tragedy and Farce in 1852

Self-Styled Emperor

An analysis of the Revolution of 1917 necessarily involves retrospective treatment of other European revolutions. 1789 is the obvious point of departure, but 1848 shouldn’t be neglected since this revolutionary conflagration touched almost every corner of Europe and was therefore more universal than either 1789 or 1917, despite the glaring irony of its failure to gain even a foothold in autocratic Russia.

Portrait of Napoleon III

1848 was also an event that Karl Marx came to know first-hand and his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte deals brilliantly with its closing chapter, the triumph of the popular dictator and nephew to the original Bonaparte. Marx’s short treatise on contemporary France succeeds as political commentary as well as historical analysis. Its witty and sardonic treatment of Louis Bonaparte would make John Stewart and the Daily Show proud if it were written today. But the work has something important to say about the nature of revolution in the modern world, even apart from its careful depiction of class struggle, economic transformation, and the process of ideological mystification.

Brumaire Revolution

According to Marx, revolutions were becoming increasingly serious in the 19th century. “Early revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to drug themselves concerning their own content…. There the phrase went beyond the content. Here the content goes beyond the phrase.” For Marx, bourgeois revolutions were shallow, effervescent, ecstatic, but short-lived, while proletarian revolutions “criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts,” and so on, until society has been so utterly transformed by the experience that there is, quite simply, no turning back.

The deep nature of modern or proletarian revolution is contrasted with the superficial nature of bourgeois revolution. For instance, the bourgeois republic, even when it is ostensibly bound to a written constitution, recognizes only citizen rights and privileges that are effectively undermined and checked by the rights of the body politic.

The proletarian revolution, Marx rightly predicts, will recognize no checks on its own authority or prerogatives. It will, moreover, be decisive, passionate, and heroic. Most importantly, the modern revolution will not be cowardly. It will face down its critics and disregard “pretentiously paraded exertions and philistine terror” that the change it brings will represent the “end of the world.”

One can almost hear a communion between Marx and Lenin in lines like these. Wasn’t Marx telling his followers to embrace the future, at whatever the costs? What of the opponents of the modern revolution? In Marx’s disturbingly comic description, these were nothing more than “vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, procurers, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, rag pickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term La Boheme…”

Clearly, in a modern revolution, opponents could, in the words of Leon Trotsky half a century later, be safely “swept into the trash bin of history.”

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