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Commentary :: Politics
Book Review: "The New Bonapartists)
16 Apr 2018
In the figure of Bonaparte, the state made itself independent over society at a time when the bourgeoisie lost the capacity to rule the nation and the working class had not yet gained that ability. Marx traced how the class struggle in France created conditions that enabled mediocre and grotesque persons to play the hero's role.

Book Review of "The New Bonapartists"

By Martin Beck and Ingo Stutzle (ed)

[This reading sample of the 2018 book is translated from the German on the Internet,]

["These forces are powerful even where they do not (yet) govern. They all represent a revival of nationalism as an ideological pillar and an authoritarian style of government."]

Ten years after the beginning of the global financial crisis, all hopes for an end of neoliberalism and a breakthrough to better times are disappointed. Instead, a bitter conflict rages between those who hold to the status quo and propagate a continuation and the advocates of nationalist, racist, and anti-modern positions. At present, the left obviously has only a spectator role in the social struggle around the future of capitalism. No one talks about its overcoming anymore.

In Europe and elsewhere, authoritarian and nationalist parties and movements are strengthening: US President Trump, Chancellor Kurtz in Austria and Turkish head of state Erdogan since 2014. In Eastern Europe, Putin governs in Russia, Orban in Hungary and Kacynski's Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland. In France, every third voter in the last presidential election supported the Front National and in Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is the third strongest party in the Bundestag.

Even where these forces do not (yet) govern, they are powerful and change the social conditions and political discourse. In Central- and Eastern Europe, a series of right-wing governments have become established in the last years and have several outward things in common with all their differences. They all stand for a revival of nationalism as an ideological pillar and for an authoritarian style of government, mostly embodied by (charismatic) leaders. Their goal is the anti-democratic reconstruction of the state – particularly, restricting the separation of powers – as a basis of democratic legitimation by elections. All this is coupled with a right-wing claim of exclusive representation where the supposed will of the people is executed by politics. The "simple people" are pitted against "intellectuals, elites, and the establishment." That is the constant theme.

In the meantime, a hectic search for explanations for this rise of political currents is underway. Isolated attempts were made to fathom this phenomenon with the help of Karl Mark and his Bonapartism analysis in his 1852 treatise "The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte" [1].Fragmentation of the classes, deadlock in the social hierarchy of power, renunciation of the middle class on political rule (and even on democratic achievements) in favor of economic power, independence of the executive, and mediated rule of the masses – are the central catchwords of Marx' "exemplary analysis of plebiscite dictatorship" (Herbert Marcuse). [2]

In the "18th Brumaire," one of his most important political writings, Marx described in detail how and why the February revolution of 1848 in France ended in a counter-revolution. After the worker rebellion was crushed in June 1848, Louis Bonaparte, popular among the people, was chosen president the same year. On December 2, 1851, Bonaparte revolted and awarded himself dictatorial powers. A year later, he was appointed emperor after a plebiscite as Napoleon III. "In the figure of Bonaparte, the state made itself independent over society at a time when the bourgeoisie lost the capacity to rule the nation [3] and the working class had not yet gained this ability" without putting in question the social rule of the bourgeoisie. Bonaparte's government supported itself on the "lumpen-proletariat," the "waste of all the classes," [4] and a large part of the conservative farmers who - isolated from one another – did not form any class and therefore their interests could not be represented. Aren't conditions similar nowadays in the many de-industrialized regions of the US, England, Germany or Poland where people either fear for their jobs or hire themselves out in jobs that do not allow more than survival? Do charismatic figures exploit this situation to establish authoritarian regimes under their leadership?

Micha Brumlik sees Louis Bonaparte's ghost of the past in Donald Trump and draws parallels between the situations and the classes that brought both to power, not only parallels between the characters and works of the persons. In the age of globalization and digitalization, the industrial working class of the West seeks its salvation in a "semi-fascist Bonapartism." "Referring Bonapartism as a specific form of authoritarian rule legitimated in a social-demagogic way to regimes like those of Victor Orban or Vladimir Putin seems discussable. The Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller and the former president of the Academy of Arts in Berlin, Klaus Staeck, explicitly describe Orban as a new Bonaparte. [5]

For Wolfgang Michel, "the cause for the rise of autocratic rulers is the self-disembodiment of democratic systems" which, as Marx described in "18th Brumaire," is a "process of self-surrender of the parties to the autocratic ruler who transformed the Second Republic `very legally' into a monarchist dictatorship." [6]

Can the return of authoritarian regimes nowadays be understood with an appeal to the "18th Brumaire"? This question is discussed in this anthology. This ambitious project is marked by one peculiarity. The texts do not simply present the authoritarian forms of rule in the different countries. Rather the authors analyze the social reasons for the developments and explain them with a common theoretical approach, Marx' Bonapartism analysis.

Right at the beginning, Marx in "18th Brumaire" wrote that people "make their own history" under given and traditioned circumstances but not of their own free will, not under self-chosen circumstances. Marx' analyses focused on the social conditions that constituted capitalism and flowed into an analysis of capital in his main work "Capital" (1867). At the time of his Bonapartism treatise, he knew politics was powerful and could not be reduced to will and "fixed ideas."

In "Eighteenth Brumaire," he revised a postulate formulated a few years earlier in the "Manifesto of the Communist Party" published by him and Friedrich Engels. There we read class struggles are the motor of history and the working class is the revolutionary subject. Now Marx recognized "the defeat of June 1848" made the workers "unable to fight for years"… Marx traced "how the class struggle in France created circumstances and conditions that enabled mediocre and grotesque persons to play the hero's role." [7] If a Marxist text is undogmatic, it is "Eighteenth Brumaire."

All temporal diagnoses are superficial without social analysis and criticism that emphasizes why something exists and why a revolution changes suddenly into an authoritarian coup d'etat supported from below. The attempt to understand present or past authoritarianism with Marx is more than a temporal diagnosis. He saw capitalist conditions as class conditions and cited "given and traditioned circumstances." In the "Eighteenth Brumaire," Marx reflected on the "structure of the political" [8], related "structure and the history of events" and connected "cultural- and theoretical action" considerations with "class-, economic-, democratic-, ideological-, organizational- and differentiation-theoretical perspectives." [9] Marx proved himself here as a social scientist in the best sense.

Bonapartism is more than an instrument. Rather, the social-theoretical approach is helpful. Marx developed his analysis with the help of a specific historical-social situation and did not only bring or force an interpretation of events. To apply the Marxian Bonapartism analysis as a universal key for authoritarian regimes would be dogmatic and bad social science. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the authors come to different conclusions. Societies with strong right-wing parties (Germany, France, Great Britain and Italy) and countries where the right-wing constitutes the government (Austria, Poland, Russia, Turkey and the US) are analyzed… Frank Deppe understands the rise of "authoritarian, anti-democratic movements and regimes after 2008" as an organic expression of a crisis." [10]

"The whole world cheered him as the deliverer of society," Marx wrote about Bonaparte's effect in his time. Our world has not come that far… Smashing the bureaucratic-military machine is the precondition of every real people's revolution on the continent." [11]

[1] Karl Marx: Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte, in: Karl Marx/Friedrich Engels: Werke [MEW], Berlin 1956ff., Bd. 8, S. 111–207; Seitenangaben in Klammern ohne weitere Angabe beziehen sich auf diese Ausgabe des Textes.
[2] Herbert Marcuse: Nachwort, in: Karl Marx: Der 18. Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte (1852), Frankfurt a.M. 1965, S. 143–150, hier 146.
[3] Karl Marx: Der Bürgerkrieg in Frankreich, in: MEW, Bd. 17, S. 313–365, hier 338f.
[4] Kritisch zum Begriff Lumpenproletariat vgl. Peter Bescherer: »Wo Schmutz und Blut zusammenfließen«. Problemzonen eines linken Klassenprojekts, in: Prokla 175, 2/2014, S. 255–270.
[5] Vgl. Michael Brumlik: Der 18. Brumaire des Donald Trump, in: Die Zeit, 2.3.2017, S. 19; »Eine Art Bonapartismus hat Einzug gehalten«. Interview mit Agnes Heller, 18.11.2011, unter:; Orbans Bonapartismus, 19.1.2012, unter:
[6] Vgl. Wolfgang Michal: Schulz, Karl Marx, Napoleon, Trump und die Verteidiger der Demokratie, 7.2.2017, unter:
[7] Karl Marx: Vorwort zur zweiten Ausgabe (1869) »Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte«, MEW, Bd. 16, 358–360, hier 359.
[8] Diethard Behrens: Perspektiven des »Historischen« oder der 18. Brumaire von Marx, in: Rolf Hecker u.a. (Hrsg.): Klassen – Revolution – Demokratie. Zum 150. Jahrestag der Erstveröffentlichung von Marx' »Der 18. Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte « (Beiträge zur Marx-Engels-Forschung. Neue Folge 2002), Hamburg 2003, S. 14–53, hier 53.
[9] Urs Lindner: Marx und die Philosophie. Wissenschaftlicher Realismus, ethischer Perfektionismus und kritische Sozialtheorie, Stuttgart 2013, S. 221f.
[10] Zu Letztgenannten vgl. Murzban Jal: On the Rise of Bonapartist-fascism in India, in: Mainstream, 55 (2017) 39; Wolfram Schaffar: Die Eiserne Seidenstraße. Chinas Politik der Hochgeschwindigkeitsbahnen und ihre Auswirkungen auf seine Nachbarländer, in: Prokla 181, 4/2015, S. 609–627, hier 611.
[11] MEW, Bd. 33, S. 205.
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