Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte


a work by K. Marx in which he developed major propositions of historical materialism and the theory and tactics of a class struggle of the proletariat, based on the experience of the class struggle in France during 1848-51. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte was written in London between December 1851 and March 1852 under the immediate impact of Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’etat in France on Dec. 2, 1851. (Marx considered this coup d’etat a caricature of Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’etat of Nov. 9, 1799 [18th Brumaire]; hence the title of the book.) The work was published in May 1852 in New York in the magazine Revolution, which was published by Marx’ supporter J. Weydemeyer.

In the work Marx continued an examination of the history of the Revolution of 1848 in France, which he had begun in his preceding work, The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850. He presented a precise periodization of the history of the revolution and analyzed all sudden reversals in political life in France during the revolutionary years from the point of view of the final outcome—the Bonapartist coup d’etat. Marx viewed the Bonapartist coup d’etat as a consequence of a sharp intensification of class antagonisms in bourgeois society and an increasingly counterrevolutionary attitude of the bourgeoisie. Fearing the proletariat, the bourgeoisie renounced so immeditate a form of its own rule as a bourgeois republic and, in order to save the exploitative system, handed power over to a reactionary clique of adventurers. Showing that Bonapartism is a dictatorship of the most counterrevolutionary elements of the bourgeoisie, Marx revealed its distinctive features: a policy of maneuver between different classes, an apparent independence of state authority, and a crude demagoguery that covered up the defense of the interests of the exploiting elite and that was combined with political terror. According to Marx, other features of Bonapartism were the omnipotence of the military, venality and corruption, and the use of the criminal world, blackmail, bribery, and other corrupt methods. Analyzing only the first few months of the Bonapartist regime, Marx revealed its inherent inner contradictions and predicted the inevitability of its collapse.

Marx devoted much attention to the conditions of the most numerous class in French society at that time, the peasantry, and he analyzed the reasons why the peasants voted for Louis Bonaparte. He showed the dual social nature of the peasants, emphasizing that in addition to the conservative aspirations that Bonaparte could temporarily take advantage of, the peasants also showed revolutionary tendencies and a desire to break out of the traditional conditions of their existence. The peasant was pushed over to Bonaparte by prejudices, but reason and the awareness of his interests would bring him eventually to united actions with the working class. Marx wrote: “Therefore, the peasants find their natural ally and leader in the urban proletariat, which is called upon to tear down the bourgeois order” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 8, p. 211). Marx further emphasized that in the peasant “the proletarian revolution will find the chorus, without which its solo in all peasant countries will become a swan song” (ibid., p. 607). This conclusion was a further elaboration of the idea of an alliance between the working class and peasantry under the leadership of the working class, which Marx had already formulated in the Class Struggles in France (1850).

Emphasizing that a revolution is a powerful accelerator of social processes, Marx showed in his work some essential differences between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions. While bourgeois revolutions are “transient and quickly reach their climax,” proletarian revolutions are not short-lived explosions but lengthy periods of radical transformations. They are “constantly self-critical” and are characterized by a desire to reveal their mistakes fearlessly and correct them by an irrepressible drive to move forward.

Marx’s proposition on the relationship of the proletarian revolution to the bourgeois state has immense theoretical importance. In this work Marx—on the basis of the experience of the revolutions of 1848-49—formulated for the first time the conclusion that the victorious proletariat must smash the old state machine. Examining the emergence and development of the military and bureaucratic state apparatus on the basis of France, Marx showed that “all coups d’etat have refined this machine instead of smashing it” (ibid., p. 206). V. I. Lenin pointed out that “this conclusion is the chief and fundamental point in Marxist teaching about the state” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 33, p. 28).

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx also substantiated several other propositions of historical materialism, including those on the relations between the base and superstructure and between the ideological and political representatives of a particular class and the class itself, as well as propositions on the role of the political party and the individual in history.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Ideological conflict over the relative autonomy of the state and capital has been raging since Marx's own time, when, for instance, he attempted to theorize that very tension in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The debate continued with Lenin and Gramsci, who insisted on the importance of party leadership, on the one hand, and Karl Kautsky and the Second Internationalists, who emphasized the decisiveness of deteriorating material conditions, on the other.
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