The Worst of Marx: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

For one of my sociology classes I had to read, and write about, Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’This is the essay I wrote. Due to the constraints of writing to the course subject-matter, it’s not exactly what I would produce if I was writing for this blog. For one thing, the analysis is economistic, not particularly intersectional, and somewhat constrained to sociological problematics, rather than being specifically written with social transformation in mind. It also, due to the pressure of writing to a deadline, doesn’t cohere quite as well as I would like. In particular, the section on reification feels tacked-on and underdeveloped.

‘The  Eighteenth Brumaire’, in my opinion, exhibits some of the worst of Marx – class essentialism, economic determinism, the fetishisation of the urban proletariat – and demonstrates why an exegetical reading of Marx leads to an impoverished analysis of the world. No doubt some will feel that my reading of Marx is uncharitable, or perhaps insufficiently dialectical, but I think it is true to the text, which feels to me like a rather awkward and difficult attempt at analysing a real historical event, in which real human subjectivities were at play.

Behind every political force lies a coalition of class interests.” Discuss with reference to Marx’s conception of the links between social class and political struggle as presented in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

The concept of class is undoubtedly central to Marx’s analyses of history, social change and political economy. At the beginning of The Communist Manifesto, Marx tell us that “[t]he history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. (Marx, 2008, p.33) In this formulation, the juxtaposition of the word “struggles” with “class” is key: Marx’s conception of class is explicitly political and indissociable from real-world political struggles. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx applies his analysis of class struggle, and his methodology of dialectical and historical materialism, to the French coup d’etat of 1851 in which the nephew of Napoleon I, Louis Napoleon, assumed dictatorial powers, demonstrating “how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.” (Marx, 1994, p.8)

This essay, taking The Eighteenth Brumaire as a point of departure, offers a critical account of Marx’s conception of the relationship between class and political struggle from a broadly Marxist perspective. I will begin by attempting to define what is meant by class, in the course of which I will question a particularly problematic concept in Marx’s writing and in The Eighteenth Brumaire specifically – that of the “lumpenproletariat”. Next, I will discuss the relationship of class to political subjectivity, through discussions on the validity of Marx’s base-superstructure model, and on the phenomenon of reification and its relationship to class consciousness.

The word “class” has, broadly speaking, two distinct meanings. The first sense is the taxonomical sense of the term: class as a system of categorisation of individuals on the basis of socio-economic inequalities, most likely distributive, whose problematic is social stratification. The taxonomical approach to class analysis is primarily concerned with discovering which classes exist in society, and only secondarily, if at all, with the relations between them. (Therborn, 1983, pp.161-7) The second sense see class as relational. This view of class is perhaps best summarised by E.P. Thompson:

I do not see class as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact happens… in human relationships… [W]e cannot have two distinct classes, each with an independent being, and then bring them into relationship with each other… [C]lass happens when some… as a result of common experiences… feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves and as against other[s] whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. (Thompson, 1966, p.9)

Moreover, this relational view of class necessarily is also a dynamic one. “If we stop history at a given point, then there are no classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of experiences.” (Ibid., p.11) In the taxonomical view, class becomes an object, a thing-in-itself, an identity category, from which necessarily follows the question of who belongs to which class and how do we decide? The latter view requires that we see class as embodied in processes in which we participate which produce our relations to ourselves, to the means of production and to one-another. Thus, “[c]lass struggle does not take place within the constituted forms of capitalist social relations: rather the constitution of those forms is itself class struggle.” (Holloway, 2011) It is precisely the centrality of these elements of time, movement and struggle which gives the relational conception of class its critical force.

It is tempting to identify the taxonomical approach with functionalists and positivists, and the relational with Marxism, as Therborn (1983, pp.162-3) does, but in reality Marx’s own writings often equivocate between the two. This is particularly true of The Eighteenth Brumaire, where classes appear here and there as discrete definite objects with fixed and determinate relations to particular material situations. To give one example, in describing the June Insurrection, Marx tells us:

On [the side of the bourgeois republic] stood the aristocracy of finance, the industrial bourgeoisie, the middle class, the petty bourgeois, the army, the lumpenproletariat organized as the Mobile Guard, the intellectual lights, the clergy and the rural population. On the side of the Paris proletariat stood none but itself. (Marx, 1994, p.23)

This account is almost laughable in its contraposition of an absurdly heterogeneous rag-bag of sub-classes on one side to the singular unity of the proletariat on the other. One cannot help but sense that Marx’s schema of classes here is motivated at least in part by the theoretical necessity that the proletariat is necessarily and uniquely the revolutionary force in any given political conflict, particularly given the rather protean role the figure of the “lumpenproletariat” plays at various locations in Marx’s oeuvre, allowing Marx to “explain away parts of the proletariat which failed to behave in a proper revolutionary fashion” (Cowling, 2002, p.230) and thus to “[fit] events to theory” (Hayes, 1988, p.448), while at the same time privileging certain forms of resistance to capital as properly revolutionary, and positioning others, such as the refusal of work, as merely lumpenproletarian, and thus external to the dialectical conflict between classes. (Denning, 2010)

While we thus have cause to question Marx’s particular taxonomy of classes, nevertheless, class antagonisms are clearly operative in situations of political conflict such as the coup of 1851. To argue otherwise would require either the endorsement of a hard separation between the spheres of political and economic conflict, or the outright denial of the reality of class struggle. We therefore encounter the problem of understanding the relationship between class and political subjectivity. In The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx tells us that:

Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives them through tradition and upbringing, may imagine that they form the real motives and the starting point of his activity… And as in private life one differentiates between what a man thinks and says of himself and what he really is and does, so in historical struggles one must distinguish still more the phrases and fancies of parties from their real organism and their real interests, their conception of themselves, from their reality. (Ibid, p.47)

Two important points should be noted here. First, Marx does not imagine that all political actors self-consciously pursue their own naked class interests; rather, class interests are embedded in ideological formations, which may render the underlying class interests mysterious to the subject herself. Second, the conception of the relationship between economic relations and subjectivity here presages Marx’s formulation of his base-superstructure model in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Here Marx tells us that:

[T]he economic structure of society [is] the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. (Marx, 1992, p.425)

The evident economic determinism here is one of the more problematic of Marx’s claims. It would seem to suggest that, ontologically, economic relations are both in some sense separate from and prior to politics, culture and subjectivity. Moreover, there is, from the perspective of Marx’s methodological materialism a problematic conflation of the material with the economic, and a concomitant denial of the materiality of culture. However, in reality, no such distinctions can be made. Economic production is dependent on the existence of appropriate forms of culture and modes of subjectification as much as cultural forms are possible only in conjunction with economic production, and indeed the two are inseparably bound together in the activity of production itself. The appearance of the economic and the cultural as separate spheres is an effect of an operation of abstraction specific to capitalist production. (Butler, 1997 , pp.42-3) Instead the economic and the cultural must be seen as two terms of a dialectical contradiction within the social totality, which is entirely material. Put another way, rather than endorse a thoroughly undialectical model of linear causation between base and superstructure, we should instead understand that particular economic forms and cultural forms constitute the conditions of one-another’s existence, and thus both codetermine one-another. (Althusser, 1963) Marx’s over-emphasis of the economic here is perhaps explained if we understand it not merely as an attempt to understand society but as a political intervention. Much of Marx’s theoretical work exists in dialogue with the idealist philosophy of the Hegelians, for whom it was consciousness itself that moved history. Moreover, Marx makes explicit that The Eighteenth Brumaire was written in part as a riposte to those such as Victor Hugo and, to a lesser extent, Proudhon whose accounts of Louis Napoleon’s coup occluded the crucial role of economic interests in events. (Marx, 1994, p.8)

The question remains as to how class relations relate to political subjectivity. While Marx’s analysis in The Eighteenth Brumaire is compromised by economic determinism, the basic point that political actions both take impetus from and advance particular class interests remains salient. The concept of reification – i.e. that through the alienation of the worker from their activity at the point of production, “the social form of labour appears as a form of development of capital, and hence the productive forces of social labour… appear as the productive forces of capitalism” (Marx, 1976, p.1054) – is crucial in understanding class-conscious. The process of reification invests fetishised forms of social relations with “a ‘phantom objectivity’… that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.” (Lukacs, 1972, p.83) The world comes to appear as a fragmented world of definite and natural things (objects, identities, etc.) separated from their social origins, thus giving the world of capitalist production a natural appearance. (Holloway, 2010, pp.62-4)

For bourgeois and proletarian alike, the world appears reified. (Lukacs, 1972, p.149) However the former “feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own powerand has in it the semblanceof a human existence” (Marx & Engels, 1845) and thus there is nothing to impel the bourgeois towards the perspective of totality, which would denaturalise its class position and reveal its transience. (Holloway, 2010, p.81) Thus, the bourgeois comes to believe that “the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within the frame of which alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided” (Marx, 1994, p.50) (Marx is speaking here of the petit bourgeois, but it is equally applicable, mutatis mutandis, to the bourgeois proper). Consequently, bourgeois political subjectivity may aim towards a vision of universal freedom, but it remains trapped within the reified world and thus within modes of thought which ensure the reproduction of the class system.

For the proletarian, however, her social existence “is far more powerfully affected by the dialectical character of the historical process”. (Lukacs, 1972, p.164) In the process of producing capital, the proletarian must transform herself into a commodity, an object, but yet navigates their own social reality as a subject, and thus encounters the central contradiction of capitalist society as an immediate aspect of her reality. (Ibid., pp.165-6) The proletarian is thus, unlike the bourgeois, driven beyond the reified world; her experience is “at once fethishising and de-fetishising”. (Holloway, 2010, p.81-2) While Thompson insists it is meaningless to talk of “the class-consciousness which [the working class] ought to have… if ‘it’ was properly aware of its own position and real interests” (Thompson, 1966, p.10), for Lukacs the immediate self-awareness of the proletarian is insufficient to produce a revolutionary subjectivity, and requires mediation, since “the unmediated [self-]consciousness of the commodity is… precisely an awareness of abstract isolation and of the merely abstract relationship – external to consciousness – to those factors that create it socially”. (Lukacs, 1972, p.173) Lukacs therefore introduces a distinction between the empirical psychological consciousness of the proletariat and the “appropriate and rational reactions ‘imputed’” to a particular class situation (Ibid., p.51), which therefore requires the Communist Party as a “deus ex machina” (Holloway, 2010, p.83) bearing correct class-consciousness. Holloway argues instead that no individual nor party is capable of fully transcending the reified world and fully apprehending the social totality. Rather it is the fact that proletarian consciousness may “aspire towards totality” which gives it its revolutionary potential. (Ibid., pp.83-8) I suggest it is this immanent contradiction of proletarian consciousness – the tension between fetishising and de-fetishising tendencies – together with the heterogeneity of lived experience within the social world, rather than the insufficiency of organised forms of political mediation, or the existence of the “lumpenproletariat”, which explains the contradictory roles played by sections of the proletariat in situations of political struggle.

To summarise, I have argued that Marx’s central contention – that class antagonisms underlie situations of political conflict – is essentially correct, and that moreover the class perspective is essential to a critical theory of political struggle in capitalist society. At the same time, the specific analytical framework of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, along with several other of Marx’s theoretical claims reflect specific prejudices and blindspots in Marx’s thinking, and therefore must be treated carefully rather than merely adopted at face value. In particular, it is essential to avoid an operation of reification which would reduce the antagonism of class to constituted classes, as well as an economic determinism which would reduce political subjectivity to a merely superstructural effect of economic relations, which combined would lead us to a reductive and deterministic understanding of political struggle.


Althusser, L. (1963) “On the Materialist Dialectic”. Available at: (Accessed: 5 November 2013)

Butler, J. (1997) “Merely Cultural?”. Social Text, 52/53 pp. 265-77.

Cowling, M. (2002) “Marx’s Lumpenproletariat and Murray’s Underclass: Concepts Best Abandoned?” in Cowling, M. and Martin, J. eds. Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire: (Post)modern Interpretations. UK: Pluto Press.

Denning, M. (2010) ‘Wageless Life’. New Left Review 66, Nov-Dec 2010. Available from: (Accessed: 22 October 2013)

Hayes, P. (1988) “Utopia and the Lumpenproletariat: Marx’s Reasoning in ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’”. The Review of Politics, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Summer), pp. 445-465.

Holloway, J. (2010) Change The World Without Taking Power. UK: Pluto Press.

Holloway, J. (2011) “Class and Classification”. Available at: (Accessed: 25 October 2013)

Lukacs, G. (1972) History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. US: MIT Press.

Marx, K. (1976) Capital: Volume 1. UK: Penguin.

Marx, K. (1992) Karl Marx: Early Writings. UK: Penguin.

Marx, K. (1994) The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. US: International Publishers.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (2008) The Communist Manifesto. UK: Pluto Press.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1845) “The Holy Family: Chapter IV”. Available at: (Accessed: 9 November 2013)

Therborn, G. (1983) “Problems of Class Analysis” in Matthews, B. ed. Marx – A Hundred Years On. UK: Lawrence and Wishart.

Thompson, E.P. (1966) The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage

  1. Patrick jennings said:

    Stumbled here by accident (maybe?) A lot of the issues you raise are too complex to address in a comment and some beyond my level of knowledge (where there’s life there’s hope, though). Anyway thanks for this and many other interesting posts, and for the links which might go a way to undoing some of my ignorance (especially the link to Holloway’s blog which seems choc-a-block with intellectual goodies!)

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