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The Political Scene and the Politics of Representation: Periodizing Class Struggle and the State in The Eighteenth Brumaire.

Research output: Contribution in Book/Report/ProceedingsChapter


Publication date2002
Host publicationMarx's 'Eighteenth Brumaire' : (Post)modern Interpretations
EditorsMark Cowling, James Martin
PublisherPluto Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)0745318304
<mark>Original language</mark>English


The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte has a key place in debates over Marx's theory of the state and his account of political representation. For some critics, this text provides evidence for two Marxian theories of the state: whereas Marx normally saw the state as the executive committee or direct instrument of the ruling class, in other contexts he argued that it can become relatively autonomous from the various classes in society even if it continues to perform a class function (e.g., Miliband 1965). For others, however, this same text reveals devastating inconsistencies in Marx's class-based account of the state, since it allows for an executive (apparatus) that wins autonomy for itself against the dominant class(es). This inconsistency is said to be especially clear in Marx's later remarks on the tendential rise of a praetorian state, in which the army led by Bonaparte III, starts to represent itself against society rather than acting on behalf of one part of society against other parts. According to Mehlman, for example, �the piquancy of Bonapartism lies entirely in the emergence of a State which has been emptied of its class contents� (cited by Stallybrass, 1990: 80; see also Hunt 1984: 47-56). Yet others suggest that Marx himself resolves these alleged inconsistencies 'by analysing the Bonapartist regime, if not as the organized rule of a class bloc, nevertheless as the determined product of the class struggle� (Fernbach 1983: 15; cf. Berberoglou 1986). For others again, the same text confirms the generic (rather than exceptional) tendency of the capitalist state to acquire relative autonomy in order the better to organize the interests of the dominant class(es) and to win the support of subordinate classes (e.g., Poulantzas 1973). The exceptional nature of state autonomy in the Bonapartist case merely serves to indicate the exceptional nature of the circumstances in which this role has to be played (see also Draper 1977). The Eighteenth Brumaire poses similar problems for the nature and significance of representation in the wider political system. For the complexity of the ideological and organizational forms in which Marx claims to discern class interests at work seems to undermine any attempt to show a one-to-one correlation between economic classes and political forces. For some commentators this indicates the need to take political identities, political discourses, and political forms of representation seriously in theoretical analysis and to explore the practical problems this poses in advancing economic interests (LaCapra 1987; Lefort 1978; Katz 1992; McLennan 1981). For others this simply confirms the radical disjunction between the economic and the political with no unilateral translation or relay mechanism that might ensure that politics reflects economic class interests (e.g., Hindess 1980, Hirst 1977). This highlights the problem of economic class reductionism that allegedly plagues Marxism and leads to the twin conclusions that political representation has its own dynamic and that it is invalid to look behind the political stage in order to discover hidden economic forces. And for yet others, this text illustrates the great extent to which Marx anticipated subsequent discourse-theoretical insights into the performative nature of language, the discursive constitution of identities and interests, and their role in shaping the forms and terms of political struggle. For Marx interpreted politics in The Eighteenth Brumaire as formative rather than superstructural, performative rather than reflective (Petrey 1988; Stallybrass 1990). For these and other reasons we can see The Eighteenth Brumaire as a key text for the interpretation of Marx's state and political theory. Thus its implications for state theory and class analysis are typically contrasted with a 'standard' Marxian position derived variously (and with quite different results) from The Communist Manifesto, the 1859 Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, or the three volumes of Capital. This is a highly dubious procedure since the Manifesto is a programmatic text, the status of the 1859 Preface as a canonical text is highly questionable, and Capital's class analysis is incomplete even in economic, let alone political or ideological, terms. There can be no innocent reading of a text such as The Eighteenth Brumaire but it could well be useful to read it initially without adopting preconceived views about Marx's theory of the state and class politics that have been derived from other studies that were not concerned with specific political conjunctures. In this sense the first question to ask is what does Marx set out to achieve in his history of The Eightieth Brumaire?