"The Eighteenth Brumaire": a masterpiece of Marxism

The fall of the short-lived Second French Republic in December 1851 marks one of the most rapid and complete reversals in modern political history. Born out of the February Revolution of 1848, the Republic appeared to promise a new era of progress and democracy for the whole of Europe. But this proved to be a false dawn. In less than four years the most democratic republic on Earth was transformed into its opposite: the naked dictatorship of Napoleon III.

This article was written as an introduction to Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire, published by Wellred Books

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte was originally written as a series of articles by Karl Marx in the immediate aftermath of these events. It remains not only a classic of Marxist theory but one of the greatest works of political analysis ever written.

In seven concise chapters Marx lays bare the anatomy of revolution and counter-revolution in the swirl of events, personalities and parties that characterised the period. Not only that, but in the course of this phenomenal work Marx addresses a number of theoretical questions that resonate far beyond the nineteenth century.

The role of the individual in history, the nature of Bonapartism and of the bourgeois state, the nature of the peasantry and its relationship with the working class, even the nature of social democracy, are all formulated with remarkable clarity considering the relatively early stage of working-class struggle in which this work was written.

Today, the publication of this new edition of Marx’s great work is taking place in an even more volatile period than that of the mid-nineteenth-century. A firm grasp of the lessons drawn out in The Eighteenth Brumaire has never been more necessary. It is therefore hoped that the following introduction will serve to familiarise the reader with the key areas of Marx’s analysis, and relate his conclusions to the modern world.

Historical Materialism

The revolution of 1848 provided the first opportunity for Marx to apply the materialist approach to history that he had developed and refined with his close collaborator, Friedrich Engels, to living events.

Bonaparte’s coup in 1851 represented a decisive defeat, which posed new theoretical as well as political challenges for the revolutionary workers’ movement. The first and arguably the most fundamental challenges related to the apparent ease with which Bonaparte had been able to rise to power and restore the Empire.

Many sought refuge in the ‘Great Man’ theory of history, explaining the fall of the Republic as the product of Bonaparte’s own unstoppable will. Others, by contrast, sought to deprive Bonaparte of his triumph by claiming that the Republic had been doomed from the beginning, and that the rise of Bonaparte had been built into the foundations of French society.

Ironically, this view was not necessarily incompatible with the worship of ‘great’ individuals either. Bonaparte himself effectively subscribed to this view, considering the restoration of the Empire as preordained by ‘Providence’, and that it was his own destiny to bring it into being. And, superficially at least, events seemed to confirm his hypothesis.

Both explanations are equal in that they both ultimately explain nothing. If events are determined by certain historical ‘free agents’ who defy all prediction and control, or if they are in fact only the unfurling of a predetermined destiny, then what difference does it make? Neither interpretation allows us to learn from events in order to intervene and change history ourselves.

What these essentially fatalistic views did provide however was a theoretical cover for those who had found themselves at the head of the republican and workers’ movements in 1848-51. If they had foreseen nothing, they explained, it was because nothing could have been foreseen; if they did nothing, it was because nothing could have been done. Marx’s response is contained in the following famous lines:

“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 foundation of the Marxist view of history is the materialist principle that these circumstances can be understood scientifically by human beings. It is therefore necessary to enquire into those circumstances in order to place the ideas and actions of individuals in their proper context. Only then can we grasp the real logic of events and guide our own attempts to make history. And it was precisely this that Marx achieved in The Eighteenth Brumaire.

The Class Struggle

In February 1848, on the eve of the revolution in France, Marx and Engels had declared to the world, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” And prime among the social conditions which Marx dissects in The Eighteenth Brumaire were the various classes present in French society in 1848, as well as how the interests and struggles of those classes shaped political events.

The dominant class in French society at the time of the Revolution of 1848 was without doubt the bourgeoisie, that is, the possessors of capital in the form of industry, land and the machinery of high finance.

The Great French Revolution swept away the old absolutist state and eliminated the last vestiges of feudal land ownership throughout the country. In the process, the revolution cemented ‘free’ bourgeois property, unencumbered by feudal dues or privileges, at the foundations of the state, whether in the form of the Republic (1792-1804), the Empire (1804-1815), the restored Bourbon, or ‘Legitimate’, Monarchy (1815-1830), or the Orleanist, or ‘July’ Monarchy (1830-48).

Proclamation of the republic Image public domainThe Great French Revolution swept away the old absolutist state / Image: public domain

The development of capitalist production not only strengthened the still relatively weak industrial bourgeoisie in the towns, but also rendered the great landowning class “thoroughly bourgeois” in character. Even the old nobles, the former ‘First Estate’ of the Old Regime who returned from exile after the defeat of Napoleon, were reduced to a mere faction of the bourgeoisie. Those landowners who did not move into capitalist agriculture themselves subsisted on leaching off a proportion of the surplus value produced by the workers and peasants of the country in the form of ground rent.

This ‘aristocracy of the soil’ was intimately connected to the ‘aristocracy of finance’, which enriched itself at the expense of all classes. Through the mortgages crushing the peasants, the rampant speculation on the Paris stock exchange, or ‘Bourse’, and the interest on the ever-expanding national debt, this ‘bankocracy’, as Marx termed it, placed its tentacles at all levels of the economy.

It is worthy of note that the overwhelming majority of the French bourgeoisie in 1848 favoured a constitutional monarchy, along British lines, and not a republic of any kind. Under such a regime the bourgeoisie rules just as surely as under a republic, but the presence of an unelected head of state, hallowed by the tradition of centuries and seemingly standing ‘above the fray’ not only mystifies the real class nature of the state, but also offers a useful distraction for the masses when they do begin to move.

During the February Revolution, the respectable Liberal opposition desperately sought to avoid the fall of the monarchy by engineering the abdication of the king in favour of his nine-year-old grandson. This offers an instructive example of the way in which a mere change of monarch can be used to maintain the state, and with it bourgeois rule, almost intact. Likewise, if the monarch should intervene to undermine or even overthrow an elected government that proves itself untrustworthy to the ruling class, the blame for such a move would apparently fall on the Crown, not on the class on whose behalf it had acted.

However, one major point of conflict within the monarchist bourgeoisie was over which dynasty was to rule over France. Marx found the basis for this Quixotic struggle of the competing royalist parties, the ‘Legitimists’ and the ‘Orleanists’ in the different material conditions and interests of those factions.

While the industrial, landowning and financial bourgeois all form parts of the same class in that they all live off the surplus value produced by the exploited masses, this certainly does not mean they have identical interests. Under the restored Bourbons, the electoral franchise was restricted to the richest 50,000 landowners in France. The top positions in the state were occupied by nobles and high-ranking representatives of the Catholic Church.

Under Charles X (1824-1830), those aristocratic families who had lost lands in the Revolution were compensated handsomely, but even this did not satisfy the ‘Ultras’ in his parliament, who demanded nothing less than the full restitution of their lands and the restoration of Divine Right. Such a prospect was intolerable not only to the mass of the population but even to the bulk of the French bourgeoisie, which formed a Liberal opposition to the king in the 1820s.

At last, the inevitable confrontation came to a head in July 1830, and not for the first nor last time in France, the monarchy came out the loser. But what emerged out of the “Three Glorious Days” of July was not a democratic republic but a mere change of dynasty, similar in nature to England’s so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688.

As Marx explains in The Eighteenth Brumaire:

“The Legitimate Monarchy was merely the political expression of the hereditary rule of the lords of the soil, as the July Monarchy was only the political expression of the usurped rule of the bourgeois parvenus. What kept the two factions apart, therefore, was not any so-called principles, it was their material conditions of existence…”

Individuals born into these conditions also inherited the traditions and ideological baggage which had formed over the course of the development of their class. And these ideas themselves formed a significant part of the circumstances in which these individuals made history.

Similarly, the titanic struggles between the British Liberal and Tory parties of the nineteenth century were at root the political expression of the clashing interests of the industrial and landlord factions of the British ruling class. For all their high-flown parliamentary rhetoric, the fundamental division between these two parties ultimately came down to a dispute over how to share the loot plundered from the workers and peasants of the world.

But while the various individuals and factions of the bourgeoisie may be engaged in a constant struggle with one and another, this does not prevent them from acting almost unanimously as a class when threatened by other classes in society. Such was the basis for the ‘Party of Order’, the name given to the unholy alliance of the two royalist factions under the Second Republic.

Judging by their stated aims and principles such a fusion should be impossible, and yet when faced by the revolt of the working class, their common interests as a class trumped all other considerations. This contains a lesson for class-conscious workers today: No matter how bitter the apparent hostilities between two bourgeois parties, such as the Republicans and Democrats in the USA, they will form a solid united front against the working class when faced with a serious challenge to their rule.

The Working Class

Confronting the French bourgeoisie in 1848 was a young and relatively small working class, or proletariat. This class of wage workers, who had no means of securing a livelihood other than selling their ability to work by the day or the week, had barely existed in France at all during the Great Revolution of 1789-93. Only with the growth of capitalist industry made possible by that revolution did the modern working class begin to take form.

Financed by enormous state loans, the 1840s saw a boom in railway construction. The construction of railways increased demand for the coal and metallurgical industry. This necessarily produced a growing demand for workers, who began to concentrate in the major cities. In 1851, 1,331,260 individuals were classed as working in ‘grande industrie’ out of a total population of roughly 36 million.

The working and living conditions faced by this young French working class were horrendous, comparable to the horrors described by Engels in his Conditions of the working class in England. Workers often worked fourteen or even eighteen hours a day to earn barely enough to survive.

The lack of housing meant that workers and their families were crammed into tiny rooms and forced to live in the most squalid conditions imaginable. The overcrowded and filthy living conditions imposed on the working class facilitated the spread of disease, such as cholera, which claimed the lives of 18,400 people in Paris alone during 1831-32.

Chartism Image public domainIn a very similar fashion to the British Chartist movement, the workers were at the forefront of the struggle for universal suffrage / Image: public domain

It was in this period of suffering and insecurity that the first organisations of the French working class were forged, along with an explicitly working-class consciousness. During the mighty Lyon uprising of 1834, the silk weavers addressed their slogans to a specific class - the “workers” - quite possibly for the first time in French history. This marked a qualitative break with previous radical traditions in France, such as Jacobinism, which tended to address itself to “the people” in general.

As the working class continued to grow under the July Monarchy, the workers began to form friendly societies, trades unions, co-operatives and even revolutionary secret societies. Educational societies were also set up to discuss political and economic theory. This movement provided fertile ground for the rising influence of various socialist and communist theories, which would have a significant impact on the revolution of 1848. Not for nothing did Marx and Engels declare in 1848: “A spectre is haunting Europe: The spectre of Communism.”

In a very similar fashion to the British Chartist movement, the workers were at the forefront of the struggle for universal suffrage, although in France this took a much more explicitly republican form. But again, just like the Chartists and workers’ movements around the world ever since, they also combined this programme of democratic demands with their own social demands.

The ten hour day, the ‘right to work’ – that is, the right to fairly paid, decent employment for all – and the “organisation of labour”, in effect the planning of the economy to eliminate poverty, were all raised by the workers the moment the monarchy fell. For the working class, political democracy was always a means to achieve their social emancipation, not an end in itself. This fact would have extremely important consequences for the revolution of 1848, and beyond.

The workers quickly realised that without a political organisation of some kind it would not be possible to realise any programme, and this gave rise to the inspiring ‘club movement’ that flourished between March and June 1848. On 1 March there were around five clubs known to be meeting in Paris; on 15 March there were fifty-nine. By mid-April there were 203 clubs, of which 149 were united in a single federation.

The clubs took their name and inspiration from the Great French Revolution of 1789-93, but they had a very different class content. Unlike the original clubs, they were made up of tens of thousands of workers, meeting regularly, sometimes nightly, to debate the tasks of the revolution. Marx described the clubs as “the centres of the revolutionary proletariat”, and even “the formation of a workers’ state against the bourgeois state”.

The rise of the clubs was sadly short-lived. After the elections in April the government began to move decisively against them and on 23 June they were provoked into an insurrection in which at least 50,000 armed insurgents took part and thousands were killed. In many ways it was a precursor to the infamous ‘bloody week’ of 21-28 May 1871, when the Paris Commune was crushed by the army of Versailles.

The Petty Bourgeoisie

The working class may have been at the forefront of the revolutionary movement in 1848, but it was by no means the only class in French society which had an interest in toppling the July Monarchy, and it was far from the majority of the republican movement.

In fact, the vast majority of the urban population of France in 1848 formed part of what Marx called the “petty bourgeoisie”: small proprietors who owned means of production of their own but worked for themselves. Artisans in possession of their own workshops, shopkeepers and the lower ranks of journalists, lawyers, doctors and other professionals formed the bulk of this class.

It had been the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie that had led the French Revolution in its most radical phase, under the Jacobin Convention of 1793. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, issued in 1793 under the pressure of the Paris sans-culottes, supplemented the formal, legal and political equality of the original declaration of 1789 with further social demands, such as maintenance for the unemployed and secular education for all, which were extremely progressive at the time.

What is significant about even the most radical layers of the petty bourgeoisie and its republican traditions, however, is that unlike the workers’ movement, the representatives of the petty bourgeoisie never went so far as to challenge private property. After all, the petty bourgeois were property owners themselves. The priority of the ‘Mountain’ for example, which represented petty bourgeois republicanism under the Second Republic, prioritised the utmost political democracy and legal equality in order to attack the privileges and corruption of big property and provide succour for the poorest.

The position adopted by the political representatives of the petty bourgeoisie ultimately reflected its class position, as Marx explains. Interestingly Marx describes the petty bourgeoisie as a “transition class”, because it forms a middle layer between the capitalists and the working class, and its members are continually rising into the ranks of the capitalists or “sink gradually into the proletariat” as they are ruined by competition with big business.

As a result of this intermediate position in the class struggle, the mutually exclusive interests of big property and the proletariat are, in Marx’s words, “simultaneously mutually blunted” in the form of general appeal to “the people” as a whole, and demands which aim to do away with the worst excesses of capitalism whilst preserving its economic relations intact.

A prime example of this kind of thinking can be found in Bernie Sanders’ demand to break up the big banks into smaller banks which remain under capitalist control. Likewise, the fiery ‘populist’ rhetoric of Pablo Iglesias and Podemos in Spain tended to be levelled not at the capitalist class, or any class in particular, but ‘la casta’, which sat at the top of the establishment and swindles the people as a whole, presumably including some of the capitalists as well.

The blunting of the class struggle in theory also leads to the blunting of the struggle in practice. None of the members of the Mountain supported the workers’ insurrection in June 1848, but when they stumbled into their own a year later they did so without arms, without preparation, and without a clear idea of what they were asking people to fight for beyond a vague call to “defend the constitution”.

The ‘insurrection’ of 1849 inevitably went down to defeat, and this defeat further weakened both the workers and petty bourgeois democrats, as well as strengthening the position of Bonaparte.

From the experience of 1848-51 in France and Germany, Marx and Engels both concluded that the petty bourgeois was the class least capable of achieving even the most basic democratic revolutionary tasks, let alone lead a struggle against capital. Marx reserves perhaps his most withering criticism in The 18th Brumaire for the petty bourgeois ‘democrats’, writing:

“No party exaggerates its means more than the democratic, none deludes itself more light-mindedly over the situation… Accordingly, when a struggle is impending they do not need to examine the interests and positions of the different classes… They have merely to give the signal and the people, with all its inexhaustible resources, will fall upon the oppressors.”

The modern class struggle abounds with examples of this self-delusion, which was personified by the self-described “erratic Marxist”, Yanis Varoufakis, in Greece. Raised to the finance ministry in the context of an insurrectionary mood against the brutal austerity being imposed on the masses by the EU and their own ruling class, Varoufakis submitted a “modest proposal” for debt relief that was immediately rejected by the ‘troika’ of the IMF, ECB and European Commission. When this proposal was flatly rejected Varoufakis prevaricated and eventually resigned.

From this experience he concluded that what was needed was “more democracy” in the EU and today leads the tiny Democracy in Europe Movement 2025. With three years left to go, it looks doubtful that he will reach his target. This is unlikely to concern Varoufakis himself, however. As Marx writes in The 18th Brumaire:

“In any case, the democrat comes out of the most disgraceful defeat just as immaculate as he was innocent when he went into it, with the newly won conviction that he is bound to win…”

It is worth pointing out that Marx considered it possible for individuals to adopt a class standpoint without necessarily belonging to that class in their immediate material conditions. As he explains:

“What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically.”

In theory, a millionaire industrialist could take up a petty bourgeoisie standpoint just as much as a unionised worker. Presumably therefore, even individuals from bourgeois backgrounds can adopt a proletarian political standpoint if they express and fight in accordance with the material interests and social position of the working class. Marx and Engels themselves are a famous example of this phenomenon.

The ideology and actions of individuals are clearly not automatically and mechanically determined by their class background, either in terms of their working and living conditions, or those of their family historically. How many politicians have we seen talking up their “working class” credentials whilst voting for cuts to wages and social services?

However, the organisations and traditions of the various classes in society, which have grown and continue to grow out of their material conditions, clearly do confront the individual as important pre-existing conditions of their social existence. On a mass scale, this has a powerful influence on the ideas and actions of millions.

The Peasantry

Napoleon Image public domainMarx traces the support for Bonaparte amongst the peasantry from the material conditions of its existence / Image: public domain

In addition to the petty bourgeois in the towns, another class of small proprietors is that of the peasantry, which constituted the absolute majority of the French population in 1848. This class would also provide Bonaparte with an important base of support. Marx comments that his “fixed idea” of the imperial restoration was realised because it coincided with the “fixed idea” of the peasantry.

When Bonaparte sought to legalise the result of his coup in a referendum on 20 December 1851 the result was, of course, a foregone conclusion. The entire country was effectively under martial law, all opposition parties had been liquidated, and just to be on the safe side, the government informed all state officials that their continued employment depended on their enthusiastic support.

However, the fact remains that millions of genuine votes were cast in favour of Bonaparte. The majority of these undoubtedly came from the peasantry. It could be said that if the peasant in uniform had ended the republic with the bayonet on 2-4 December 1851, the peasant in the provinces established the empire with the ballot on 20 December.

In an important passage of The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx traces the support for Bonaparte amongst the peasantry from the material conditions of its existence. The isolated and inherently conservative way of life of the smallholding peasantry made it both a class and not a class in the eyes of Marx. The peasants lived in broadly similar material conditions but their relations with one another tended to be limited to the local village. No national peasant organisation or political parties existed to any meaningful degree, for example.

Out of this atomised condition, Marx concluded that the peasantry was incapable of exerting an independent class position by itself. It cannot rule directly, in its own right. Marx concludes therefore that the “political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself”.

But it would be a grave mistake to assume from this that the peasantry as a whole only ever forms a solid block of reaction. If that were the case the social revolution in majority peasant countries would be ruled out, including the Russian Revolution of 1917. In fact, the resistance to Bonaparte’s coup was more fierce in the countryside than in the towns. The historian, Roger Price, recorded that “as many as 70,000 from at least 775 communes actually took up arms and over 27,000 participated in acts of violence”. Marx himself explained that what Bonaparte represented therefore was “the conservative, not the revolutionary peasant”.

Just as the bourgeois republic had disarmed the same workers who were called upon to defend it on 2 December 1851, it had waged a constant war against the spread of socialism in the countryside. It had made the peasantry Bonapartist. Meanwhile, neither the petty bourgeoisie nor the working class provided another way out of the crisis.

As Trotsky explained in the 1930s the petty bourgeois and peasants can find a leader in the proletariat, but:

“To bring the petty bourgeoisie to its side, the proletariat must win its confidence. And for that it must have confidence in its own strength.

"It must have a clear program of action and must be ready to struggle for power by all possible means. Tempered by its revolutionary party for a decisive and pitiless struggle, the proletariat says to the peasants and petty bourgeoisie of the cities:

“We are struggling for power. Here is our program. We are ready to discuss with you changes in this program. We will employ violence only against big capital and its lackeys, but with you toilers, we desire to conclude an alliance on the basis of a given program.

"The peasants will understand such language. Only, they must have faith in the capacity of the proletariat to seize power.”

Tragically, the French peasantry began to move only after the most advanced and determined section of the working class had been crushed in June 1848. When a section of the peasantry did move in the direction of revolution in the following years, it turned to the radical republicans and socialists of the “Red”, or social-democratic party for a lead, but time and time again this opportunity was squandered by the social-democratic leaders.

As the struggle in the countryside reached a fever pitch, with several areas under martial law, the social-democratic leaders kept the struggle of the workers within safe, legal channels at all times, urging their followers to depose Bonaparte at the ballot box. As a result, the most revolutionary peasants were isolated and the fury of the peasantry was directed along reactionary lines in the form of Bonaparte.

Today in Europe the question of the peasantry and its role in politics has largely been resolved by the urbanisation of society and the industrialisation of agriculture. However, there still remain many countries where the peasantry remains an important factor in the situation, prime among which is India, the second most populous country in the world.

The inspiring movement of the Indian farmers, which exploded onto the scene in 2020, gives a striking modern example of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry. Crushed by debts on the one hand and by the world market on the other, millions of small farmers rose up in opposition to a series of laws enacted by the BJP government in order to ‘liberalise’ agriculture. The movement even reached insurrectionary proportions on 26 January 2021, India’s Republic Day, when tens of thousands of farmers marched to the centre of Delhi, sweeping the police out of their way, and occupied the famous Red Fort.

The experience of the Indian farmers shows that far from being a permanent obstacle to the struggle for socialism, an important section of the peasantry can swing radically to the left and even in a revolutionary direction, forming a natural and powerful ally for the working class. The potential for such an alliance clearly exists in India, as shown by the historic general strike of 26 November 2020, which saw 250 million workers stop work at the same time that the farmers began their march to Delhi. But this potential has not been fully realised.

Marx’s analysis in The Eighteenth Brumaire also contains a warning for the workers of India and for the world. We cannot complacently assume that a large section of the Indian peasantry could not also swing violently to the right if no solution to the crisis can be found on a working class basis. And as in France in 1848-51, the responsibility for this historic task will ultimately fall to the leadership of the working class and its organisations.

Social Democracy

After the defeat of the workers in June 1848, the club movement was driven underground. But the remaining clubs and secret societies united with the radical republican faction of the ‘Mountain’ to form the ‘social-democratic party’, which put forward a common list of candidates on a common programme across the whole country.

In the conditions of social instability and disillusionment that affected all classes under the Second Republic, the social democrats succeeded in winning millions of votes in both the countryside and the towns. The rise of the French social democracy and its suppression by Bonaparte in 1851 thus gave Marx the opportunity to analyse a political phenomenon which continues to have enormous significance today.

In the creation of a genuinely national party, leading a broad layer of all oppressed classes in French society, with its own sizeable parliamentary faction and even support within the national guard and the army, the birth of the social-democratic party represented an enormous step forward for the workers’ movement.

On a number of occasions in the stormy period of 1848-1851, the strategists of the ruling class even feared that the social democrats might take power. Take the British Economist, for example, which published an article dated 21 March 1850, reporting:

It is true that the progress that socialism is making every day in France is threatening for the future. The moderates apprehend that before the end of next year, that party will have obtained an overwhelming majority, and be able to proclaim a democratic and social republic.

Fortunately for The Economist’s ‘moderates’, the great potential indicated by the party’s electoral successes was squandered.

Second Republic assembly Image public domainThe social democrats succeeded in winning millions of votes in both the countryside and the towns / Image: public domain

After the revision of the Constitution was blocked by the republicans in parliament, it became clear to all parties that a decisive clash was imminent. Bonaparte openly prepared his coup, while the respectable bourgeois press clamoured against the Constitution, with one paper complaining:

Demagogues assert that: We must remain within the bounds of legality… But this legality - everybody replies that that is where the danger lies… Indeed, what good does this legality do us?

Meanwhile, the leaders of the social-democratic, or ‘Red’, party complacently declared to their supporters that all they needed to do was wait until the second Sunday of May 1852, the date of new elections, when they would conquer at the ballot box.

Sadly, that joyful day would never arrive. In November Bonaparte began a campaign of pre-emptive arrests against known republicans and socialist, and on 2 December 1851 he filled the streets with soldiers and dissolved what remained of parliament. It was this coup that Marx refers to as the “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, in reference to the date of the French republican calendar on which Napoleon I seized power in 1799.

In spite of all the means at its disposal, at every turn the social democracy had proved incapable of leading the masses to power. Marx identified the most important reason for this failure not only in the flawed ideas or character of the social-democratic leaders, but the class contradiction at the heart of the social democracy itself: the subordination of the proletarian party to the leadership of the petty bourgeoisie and the limitation of its fight to transform society “within the bounds of the petty bourgeoisie”.

Considering the defeat of the Mountain in June 1849, Marx explains:

“The peculiar character of social-democracy is epitomised in the fact that democratic-republican institutions are demanded as a means, not of doing away with two extremes, capital and wage labour, but of weakening their antagonism and transforming it into harmony.”

The “revolutionary point” was broken off the social demands of the workers and instead they were directed along safer, more ‘constitutional’ channels. Thus whenever the possibility of a decisive clash between the bourgeois republic and the masses presented itself, the so-called ‘Red’ leaders managed to do everything in their power to hold the struggle back, whether they intended to or not.

Such a statement could be applied to any of the modern social-democratic parties of Europe, their younger, more left-wing rivals, such as Syriza in Greece, or indeed the ‘Democratic Socialist’ movement in the United States, which rose to prominence during Bernie Sanders’ first campaign for President.

What unites this huge variety of political formations, each with their own programme, history and national character, is identical to what Marx identified 170 years ago: namely, the combination of ‘socialist’ reforms with the preservation of capitalist relations of production and the bourgeois state. Beyond this holiest of holies, the reformists will not pass.

When the conquest or even the defence of gains for the working class cannot be carried out without threatening the capitalist system itself, even the most radical reformist leaders will either lead the workers to defeat or worse, turn against them. It was for this reason that Trotsky warned, “Betrayal is inherent in reformism.”

At such an early stage in the development of the French working class, and following the arrest and exile of the most outstanding leaders of the proletariat after the June Days, it was inevitable that the leadership of the movement would fall to the representatives of the petty bourgeoisie.

Out of the experience of further struggles and harsh lessons, Marx confidently expected that a “really revolutionary party” would be forged by the working class. But he insisted that such a party must maintain its class independence at all times, rejecting any “unity” under which “the definite demands of the proletariat must not be brought forward for the sake of beloved peace”.

A common struggle with radical layers of the petty bourgeois and peasantry was by no means rejected by Marx. In fact he considered these absolutely necessary for the victory of the working class in any country where those classes predominate. But he remained convinced that so long as the workers’ movement remained “an appendage of official bourgeois democracy”, it would never succeed in taking power.

The need for a strong, independent and genuinely socialist party of the working class remains one of the most pressing struggles of our era. This task is especially urgent in the United States of America, the most powerful of all capitalist countries, where the workers’ movement remains gagged and bound to the cynical and corrupt Democratic Party machine. Indeed it would be no exaggeration to say that the struggle of the American working class for its own party will shape the fate of the whole world.

The State

In The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx also extends his class analysis to the nature of the state. Already in 1848 the Communist Manifesto had explained that the state was in general an instrument of class rule and that the working class must “win the battle of democracy” to seize political power and use it to make “despotic inroads on the rights of property”. But the question of what this political power was exactly and how it was to be used was necessarily vague and abstract.

Within the French socialist movement of the time, the dominant trend saw the Democratic Republic as the instrument by which socialism could be built. The 1848 revolution proved an unforgiving test of this theory in practice.

Marx explained that even the most democratic republic remained “the unlimited despotism of one class over other classes”. Beneath the abstract political equality of universal suffrage was a gigantic bureaucracy and military, which is in no way answerable to ‘the people’ and which has been built up and refined continuously alongside the development of bourgeois rule itself. These things cannot be separated by any election.

What Marx concluded therefore was that the seizure of political power by the working class would have to involve the overthrow of the bourgeois republic itself, and the dismantling of the pre-existing state at all levels. In the final chapter of Eighteenth Brumaire, he writes:

“But the revolution is thoroughgoing. It is still travelling through purgatory. It does its work methodically… It first completed the parliamentary power in order to be able to overthrow it. Now that it has achieved this, it completes the executive power, reduces it to its purest expression, isolates it, sets it up against itself as the sole target, in order to concentrate all its forces of destruction against it.”

What exactly was to follow this destruction of the bourgeois state could not be set out concretely, as the workers’ attempts to establish their own state had been defeated. Marx put forward the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as opposed to the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie as his general notion of a workers’ state, and indicated that the workers’ clubs had been an embryonic form, perhaps more an indication of the potential for this form of state. This prognosis was realised in full on 18 March 1871, when the workers of Paris seized control of the city and were forced by events to create their own organs for running society in the space of only a few weeks.

The significance of the Commune was not lost on Marx himself. Writing while the heroic workers of Paris were still fighting for their lives and their class in May 1871, Marx built upon his analysis in The Eighteenth Brumaire, explaining that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”. Further, he wrote:

“The cry of ‘social republic,’ with which the February Revolution was ushered in by the Paris proletariat, did but express a vague aspiration after a republic that was not only to supercede the monarchical form of class rule, but class rule itself. The Commune was the positive form of that republic.”


The state, as Marx explained, is ultimately an instrument of repression – armed bodies of men, courts, prisons etc. – which defends the property and privilege of the ruling class, and keeps the class struggle within the bounds of order. But there can be periods in history in which this repressive force, the army, police and state bureaucracy gains a degree of independence from the ruling class in whose interest it ultimately rules.

There have been a number of such instances in the history of class society, each with their own distinct social foundation, such as Caesarism for example. Engels identified the absolutism of the late Middle Ages as another example. In bourgeois society this phenomenon has acquired the name of ‘Bonapartism’, after the rise of Napoleon I and the First French Empire.

One of the most important theoretical contributions of The Eighteenth Brumaire is that Marx subjects this important historical phenomenon to a rigorous analysis, drawing on the rise of Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III, or Louis Bonaparte.

Cavaignac Image public domainWhen Cavaignac crushed the Paris workers, he did so at the behest of the whole of parliament and in the name of the whole of bourgeois “civilisation” / Image: public domain

The most obvious characteristic of a Bonapartist regime is political repression: police or military rule. But repression alone does not constitute Bonapartism. After all, every state in history has ultimately been an instrument of repression, as Marx notes in relation to the Second Republic.

During wartime for example, even the most democratic bourgeois state can suspend elections, place limitations on the right of assembly and the right to strike, and will often censor the entire press, all in the interests of the “war effort”. Likewise, the state of siege imposed by General Cavaignac from June to October 1848 placed an unelected general at the head of the executive, arrested workers leaders and placed severe limitations on the freedom of assembly and the socialist press.

Marx draws an important distinction between this regime, as repressive as it was, and that of Bonaparte, commenting at the time:

“Cavaignac was not the dictatorship of the sabre over bourgeois society; he was the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie by the sabre.”

When Cavaignac crushed the Paris workers, he did so at the behest of the whole of parliament and in the name of the whole of bourgeois “civilisation”. For this service he was greeted by the representatives of the bourgeois in the press and parliament as the “saviour of society”. In this the dictatorship of Cavaignac did not fundamentally differ from any capitalist state, which in the last analysis is little more than an instrument of repression in the hands of the ruling class.

By contrast, on 4 December 1851, Bonaparte’s troops deliberately fired upon the houses of respectable bourgeois on the Boulevard Montmartre. Engels reported that Bonaparte had even ordered the soldiers to target “the gentlemen in broad-cloth” as opposed to the workers’ blouses. Not only socialist deputies but even Liberals were arrested, and all of the press was either shut down or censored by the state.

How could the executive arm of the state acquire such a degree of independence from the ruling class and its representatives in parliament? The answer to this question is of course to be found in the class struggle itself. In conditions of great social instability, intense class struggle and revolution, the normal functioning of the parliamentary regime becomes increasingly difficult. With every rising of the masses the ruling class and its political representatives have no choice but to turn to the repressive arms of the state for their salvation, as we saw in the Cavaignac regime.

Further, with every step forward of the radicalised masses within parliament, the bourgeois deliberately restrict and undermine the power of the legislative arm of the state, and any other institutions which have been ‘corrupted’ by the revolution. In the case of the Second Republic, it was not in fact Bonaparte but the parliamentary majority of the Party of Order that voted to arrest Red deputies, dissolve the National Guard, and eventually abolish universal suffrage itself. With each of these steps the bourgeois deputies weakened their own position in relation to the executive, and its head, Bonaparte.

In the meantime, Bonaparte had begun to organise his own private fighting force out of what Marx called the “refuse of all classes”, or “lumpenproletariat”, under the name of the “Society of 10 December”. This “benevolent society” was effectively a private army of hired thugs, who were frequently used to violently break up republican meetings, often under police protection. In many respects they were a precursor to the Hitler’s brownshirts.

With the police and the army increasingly under Bonapartist control, little resistance could be expected from the ‘respectable’ bourgeois state. The only force capable of driving these thugs from the streets was the revolutionary masses, but with workers’ clubs banned and the democratic National Guard dispersed, all of the organisations capable of carrying out this fight had been disarmed by the republic itself in the name of “order”.

Eventually Bonaparte felt himself so secure that he could effectively blackmail the parliamentary majority and appoint ministries with no parliamentary support whatsoever. And yet in the face of these clear provocations the Party of Order did nothing. The reason for this is that while they may have been parliamentarians they were above all bourgeois, and they recognised that the only way to stop Bonaparte would have been to have rallied the masses around itself in a fighting force opposed to the army.

Such a course of action would have meant nothing other than arming the same Red workers, petty bourgeois and peasants they had just spent two years disarming and arresting. Faced with such a prospect, it is not surprising that at every turn the Party of Order considered Bonaparte the lesser evil.

Trotsky described a similar phenomenon in Germany under the Brüning and Schleicher governments prior to the rise of Hitler, and in France under the government of Gaston Doumergue in 1934. He writes:

“It is true that the Doumergue government, like the Brüning-Schleicher governments in their day, appears at first glance to govern with the assent of parliament. But it is a parliament which has abdicated, a parliament which knows that in case of resistance the government would dispense with it. Thanks to the relative equilibrium between the camp of counter-revolution which attacks and the camp of the revolution which defends itself, thanks to their temporary mutual neutralisation, the axis of power has been raised above the classes and above their parliamentary representation.”

A similar scenario could be seen in the latter years of the Second Republic, particularly after the abolition of universal suffrage. The parliament had effectively abdicated. In opposition to Bonaparte the best parliament could muster was another ‘strongman’, Changarnier. But Bonaparte, the strongman already in possession of the army, and with a mandate of over 5 million votes, was easily the favourite in the contest.

But it must also be asked, if Changarnier had won, what would have been the result? Most likely, it would have just paved the way for another form of military rule, perhaps not the restoration of the Empire, but a reactionary dictatorship with the aim of eventually restoring the monarchy, which would hardly have been an appealing choice for the masses.

Marx describes in some detail the process by which in his skirmishes with parliament, Bonaparte became more and more sure of himself. Like a good gambler he saw through the bluffs of the deputies, their speeches and protests without action. With the proposal to revise the constitution he raised the stakes. And when the republican minority in parliament vetoed revision, the dominant wing of the bourgeoisie outside of parliament turned to Bonaparte in disgust. Only then did Bonaparte feel able to proceed with his coup.

The rise of Bonaparte therefore appears not simply as the product of his own acts but as the necessary outcome of the struggle of the Party of Order on the one hand, and the resistance of the masses on the other. His confidence and freedom of action rose in direct proportion to the isolation of the parliamentary majority and its fear of the masses.

Could Bonaparte Have Been Stopped?

Looking at the rise of Bonaparte from start to finish, it becomes clear that the opposition between ‘democracy’ and ‘dictatorship’ was and is not an absolute one.

To Liberal commentators, Bonapartism, or ‘authoritarianism’, appears as an external threat to democracy, emanating from unscrupulous individuals who fail to respect ‘democratic norms’, such as Donald Trump. The advice usually given by these Liberal defenders of democracy is therefore to support the existing establishment over the ‘nasty’ populists and stick religiously to ‘the constitution’. Bizarrely, similar advice was given by the stalinist leadership of the Communist International under the auspices of fighting fascism, which they called the “Popular Front”. But such a policy would have done little to prevent the rise of Bonapartism under the Second Republic.

Many of the deputies who were arrested chanting, “Long live the Republic!” on 2 December had themselves made the coup inevitable. As Marx brilliantly lays bare in The 18th Brumaire, it was precisely the ‘moderate’ parliamentary majority that prepared the fall of the Republic.

The question therefore arises: Could the victory of Bonaparte have been prevented, or was it inevitable as soon as he won his landslide victory in the election of 1848? Had he attempted to take power in December 1848 rather than 1851 he would have come up against not only the parliament but the National Guard and an important section of the army. Even in 1850 the support enjoyed by the social democrats within the army, as demonstrated in the elections in March, made a military coup a risky prospect.

This highlights a crucial feature in the rise of Bonapartism in general: that the executive raises itself above the contending class in society in direct proportion to the extent that they exhaust themselves in a deadlock without resolution either way. The victory of the revolutionary masses would certainly have cut across Bonaparte’s plans, but with every defeat and missed opportunity the forces of revolution grew weaker and weaker.

However, just because the workers could not seize power, this did not mean the bourgeois were any more able to wield it directly. The longer the Party of Order ruled the more isolated and despised it became. And the more its social base shrank the more necessary it became to dismantle the very organs of bourgeois democracy in its own defence. But as Marx explains, society cannot be kept in a state of white hot fever indefinitely, with the constant threat of revolution over its head: “Better an end with terror than terror without end!”

Eventually, a way out will be found, either by the revolution or the reaction. Either the workers will succeed in toppling bourgeois rule and breaking the resistance of the old ruling class, or the more or less democratic form of the state will be stripped away in order to protect its real class content. To defend just ‘the republic’ and nothing else in such a period is the purest utopia, as the so-called “pure republicans” learned the hard way in December 1851.


For all the apparent power and freedom of action the state appears to acquire under conditions of Bonapartism, it still does not become completely independent of the rest of society. It still rests on bourgeois property, on capitalist relations, and ultimately, like any state it must defend the property and exploitation upon which it is based.

In fact, what the Empire signified above all was that the bourgeoisie was at last relieved of political rule in order to all the more surely secure its economic dominion over the working class, which had been gagged, liquified, reduced to raw material for exploitation. Under these conditions, France experienced a historic economic upswing.

The relative independence of the Bonapartist state consists in the fact that the regime balances between the contending classes, making promises and striking blows in all directions. As Marx comments in relation to Bonaparte:

“This contradictory task of the man explains the contradictions of his government, the confused groping which tries now to win, now to humiliate, first one class and then another, and uniformly arrays all of them against him…”

We can see such a phenomenon in Russia today. The French politician, Adolphe Thiers, once said of Bonaparte that he would be “a cretin, whom we will lead”. Perhaps the architects of Putin’s rise had similar hopes. But it rapidly proved otherwise when their “neutral man” of the bureaucracy began to arrest and expropriate individual oligarchs, all the while leaving the oligarchy and Russian capitalism as a whole intact.

Ukrain conflict Image In defence of MarxismThe military adventurism of most Bonapartist regimes in history can serve as a useful distraction / Image: own work

Marx draws out another important lesson from the rise of Louis Bonaparte: that Bonapartist rule is unstable by nature. In conditions of economic boom it can stabilise itself for a period, but without a solid base of support in any particular class the regime can rapidly unravel in conditions of crisis.

The military adventurism of most Bonapartist regimes in history can be linked to this fact: They can serve as a useful distraction which, if the war goes well, can rally support around the beleaguered leader. The present military adventure in Ukraine and the Western sanctions that have followed it have also had the effect of rallying a section of the Russian population behind the regime, for now. But things can turn rapidly into their opposite.

Marx predicted that precisely one of Bonaparte’s military adventures would be his downfall. Facing growing protests and instability at home, Bonaparte declared war on Prussia on 15 July 1870. By 2 September he was a prisoner of Bismark and the Second Empire was no more.

Above all, it should not escape our notice that the downfall of Bonaparte did not lead peacefully to stable, democratic rule. Instead it triggered an inspiring revolutionary movement, which produced the first workers’ state in history: the Paris Commune. The fall of the Estado Novo regime in Portugal and of fascist rule in Spain also gave rise to immense revolutionary movements that could have overthrown capitalism.

Today there are many bonapartist regimes that are beginning to quake under the blows of the capitalist crisis, and the resentment of the workers. Marxists around the world should follow them closely.

The Logic of Revolution

Looking back on the events described in The Eighteenth Brumaire, it is perhaps tempting to assume that they belong to an era far removed from our own. After all, the main democratic demands of the 1848 revolution – universal suffrage, freedom of assembly and the press, etc. – have all been achieved by the workers’ struggle in the dominant capitalist countries at least for some time. But this would be to miss the much deeper importance of the rise and fall of the republic and its lessons for today.

In many ways 1848 was the first modern revolution. In spite of its small size, the working class took centre stage from the very beginning, and at every stage the fortunes of the revolution were bound up with the advance or retreat of the workers’ movement. The revolution’s early gains were entirely driven by the pressure of the armed working class. But, having secured the democratic republic, the workers immediately put forward their own, social demands.

Terrified by the power of the workers, the bourgeois quickly abandoned all of the democratic gains of the revolution and leapt into the arms of reaction. By this fact the fate of the republic was sealed: either it would be overthrown by the workers or it would be overthrown by the bourgeoisie. This process is in no way unique to France in 1848. A similar logic of revolution and counter-revolution can arguably be traced in every revolution in the last 170 years to a greater or lesser degree.

That this logic had been grasped by Marx and Engels can be seen in their writings of the time. Drawing directly from the experience of the Paris workers, Marx issued an address to his organisation, the Communist League, in 1850. In it, he insisted that in a future revolution:

“Alongside the new official governments [the workers] must simultaneously establish their own revolutionary workers’ governments, either in the form of local executive committees and councils or through workers’ clubs or committees…”

Further, he explained that the aim of these councils or clubs should not be to support the official government, but to expose and eventually overthrow it, establishing what he termed “the dictatorship of the proletariat” – the class rule of the workers.

“Their battle-cry”, he concluded, “must be: The Permanent Revolution.”

This programme could not have been realised in 1848. The workers, entering into the direct struggle for power for the first time, with no party or even well-developed trade union organisations, made gigantic steps forward but were not yet capable of leading the masses to victory. But what the insurrection of June 1848 had only decreed was carried out in 1871, if only for a few weeks, and again in 1917.

Marx and Engels Image public domainThat the logic of revolution had been grasped by Marx and Engels can be seen in their writings of the time / Image: public domain

It may have taken the genius of Marx to lay out the logic of permanent revolution at such an early stage but his insight provided the pre-existing material for generations of later Marxists to grasp the meaning and trajectory of their own revolutions and make history themselves.

In Russia, where no proletariat existed in 1848, Leon Trotsky's analysis of the revolution of 1905 would lead him to put forward his own theory of permanent revolution, which undoubtedly drew heavily from Marx's writings on 1848. Trotsky summarised this theory as follows:

“[T]he Revolution, having begun as a bourgeois revolution as regards its first tasks, will soon call forth powerful class conflicts and will gain final victory only by transferring power to the only class capable of standing at the head of the oppressed masses, namely, to the proletariat. Once in power, the proletariat not only will not want, but will not be able to limit itself to a bourgeois democratic programme. It will be able to carry through the Revolution to the end only in the event of the Russian Revolution being converted into a Revolution of the European proletariat... But should Europe remain inert the bourgeois counter-revolution will not tolerate the government of the toiling masses in Russia and will throw the country back – far back from a democratic workers’ and peasants’ republic. Therefore, once having won power, the proletariat cannot keep within the limits of bourgeois democracy. It must adopt the tactics of permanent revolution [emphasis in original]”.

This perspective, which Lenin would adopt himself in his April Theses, was key to the arming of the Bolsheviks, and without drawing the lessons they contained, the party would most likely not have seized power.

Later, Trotsky would draw on the lessons of The Eighteenth Brumaire once again, in his peerless analysis of the period of revolution and counterrevolution between the two world wars. Writing in 1934, he explained:

“After the war a series of brilliantly victorious revolutions occurred in Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and later in Spain. But it was only in Russia that the proletariat took full power into its hands, expropriated its exploiters, and knew how to create and maintain a workers’ state. Everywhere else the proletariat, despite its victory, stopped halfway because of the mistakes of its leadership. As a result, power slipped from its hands, shifted from left to right, and fell prey to fascism. In a series of other countries power passed into the hands of a military dictatorship. Nowhere were the parliaments capable of reconciling class contradictions and assuring the peaceful development of events. Conflicts were solved arms in hand.”

As this introduction is being written, the capitalist system faces the deepest crisis in its history. Already, across the globe the masses have toppled one government after another in search of a better life. And this is only the beginning. In Europe and the so-called advanced capitalist countries a level of corruption and malaise comparable to the last days of the July Monarchy can be felt at all layers of society. At the same time, the crisis of capitalism offers only further instability and suffering to humanity.

As the working class seek a way out we will undoubtedly encounter our own Cavaignacs, our Barrots, our Napoleons but also our Montagne. The future of humanity lies in our ability to absorb the lessons of those that came before us.

The Communist Manifesto, published on the eve of the 1848 Revolution, concludes with the inspiring words:

“The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”

Today, as in 1848, the workers have nothing to lose but their chains. Today, as in 1848, they have a world to win. But the modern proletariat is incomparably stronger than it was in 1848 and the possibility of the socialist transformation of society has never been greater. Armed with the lessons of history, its victory is assured.

Workers of the world unite!

London July 2022

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