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Farce, Conservative Marxism, and "The Eighteenth Brumaire"

Some contemporary Marxists have responded to their perceived anachronism by advocating substantially more conservative positions, especially with respect to that undefinable phenomenon we define as "postmodernism."
Bill Freind

Issue #45, October 1999

Marxism now occupies an essentially ambivalent position in the North American left. If the collapse (or implosion) of the Soviet Union seemed to undermine Marxism's power as a valid political force and to produce a corresponding drop in actual adherents, Marxism also became somewhat more palatable on a theoretical level to left-leaning non-believers, since one could now cite it without stammering apologies for the gulag, Cultural Revolution, or Khmer Rouge. Additionally, Marxism offers some of the only positions from which to critique global capitalism, which presents a pretty vicious irony: it was the failure of the Soviet Union (and, implicitly, the failure of the Marxist theory of history) which has made the Marxist analysis of capital more vital. In this view, Marx's analysis of the problem has become more relevant because he was so obviously wrong on the solution.

Some contemporary Marxists have responded to their perceived anachronism by advocating substantially more conservative positions, especially with respect to that undefinable phenomenon we define as "postmodernism." With its post-Marxist French thinkers, its indifferent or even chummy attitude toward capitalist commodification, its embrace of popular culture, postmodernism has been a bugbear to Marxists for some time. As a result, many Marxists have found themselves in the bizarre position of endorsing cultural theories almost identical to those promoted by right-wing thinkers. For instance, Fredric Jameson, one of the leading Marxist cultural critics, admits that part of his project is what he calls an "appropriation" of the right-wing critic Hilton Kramer's dismissal of postmodernism as fundamentally trivial and pernicious. Jameson turns to the two manifestos Kramer wrote in the first issue of The New Criterion, noting they contrast "the moral responsibility of the masterpieces and monuments of classical modernism with the fundamental irresponsibility and superficiality of a postmodernism associated with camp."

Jameson recognizes that Kramer's project is an attempt to eradicate the progressive and radical legacy of the 1960's, and notes that to do this Kramer needs to elide the strong anti-bourgeois tendency in modernism. Yet Jameson himself has to perform his own elision, since what he calls the "moral responsibility" of modernism was a complete and unmitigated disaster. On its most harmless level, architects such as Le Corbusier (for whom Jameson has a special affinity) designed "workers' housing" that workers loathed. At its worst, artists and thinkers including Ezra Pound, Martin Heidegger, Paul de Man and F.T. Marinetti praised Mussolini and/or Hitler; Vladimir Mayakovsky, Jean-Paul Sartre, Sergei Eisenstein and others supported the Soviet government and sometimes even Stalin himself. Many of these men retreated from those positions when the atrocities of those governments became apparent, which is perhaps the most important point: their "moral responsibility" wound up supporting, usually inadvertently, the worst carnage the world had seen. No wonder the next generations of writers would seem a little skittish about political affiliations, especially after the failures of the 1960s. All of this should be painfully obvious to Jameson, since as he himself is well aware since he has written a book on Wyndham Lewis, the writer and painter who praised Hitler shortly after the Fuhrer's rise to power.

Given these two problems, a conservative aesthetic swing among contemporary Marxists, and the inability of classical Marxist theory to predict the victory (whether temporary or not) of global capital, the one saving grace might be Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. A little historical context is helpful here. In 1848, Louis Bonaparte, nephew of Napoléon, was elected president of France, promising stability and economic growth to the middle classes, assistance for the agrarian poor, and perhaps most importantly, the peace and national honor which supposedly characterized his uncle's reign. Because the constitution limited the president's rule to a single four-year term, and because he could not secure the three-fourths majority necessary to amend the constitution, he staged a coup d'état on December 2, or the Eighteenth Brumaire of the French revolutionary calendar. This coup provides the occasion of Marx's essay.

The implicit question to which Marx is responding is how, given his theory of a movement of history by which the "weaker" working classes consistently overcome the "stronger" bourgeoisie and ruling classes, could the revolution of 1848 be nullified by such a regressive seizure of power. Marx gives the answer in the famous opening lines of The Eighteenth Brumaire: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: 'the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.'" Marx's theory, in other words, is that the reign of Napoléon le pétit, as Victor Hugo called him, is not "real" history: instead, it is a parody of events which have been relegated to the dustbin of history. Although Marx is often a witty and even funny writer, his style in this essay goes beyond that, seeming to reflect the farcical character of his subject: it is exuberant, mocking, fragmented. For instance, describing the supporters of the Nephew, Marx writes:

Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley-slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaus [procurers], brothel-keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, rag-pickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars -- in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la bohéme; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the Society of December 10.

Although Marx suggests that Bonaparte has claimed the title of "chief of the Lumpenproletariat," the list also includes groups who elude class interests, as well as those from a variety of classes. As a result, some postmodern thinkers, especially those who have been called "post-Marxist," see the discontinuities in this section as calling into question the linear movement of dialectical history, and perhaps even suggesting that farce is an inherent part of the process. For them, this is Marx arguing against Marx.

On the other hand, Christopher Norris has taken issue with the poststructuralist claims that Enlightenment philosophy's reliance on reason has become antiquated in our postmodern era, and suggests that in The Eighteenth Brumaire "Marx anticipates just about everything that [Jean-François] Lyotard and [Jean] Baudrillard will have to say about the collapse of Enlightenment meta-narratives, the breakdown of theory - 'classic' Marxist theory -- in the face of contingent historical events." Norris not only notes that Marx is perfectly willing to admit that class conflict, dialectical materialism, etc. are inapplicable in such a parodic situation, but also claims this is a strength of Marxist theory. It is at this point that Norris' argument gets shaky.

Writing in late 1989, Norris attempts to connect The Eighteenth Brumaire to the then-current political situation in Britain:

The present day parallels are obvious enough, with politicians like Thatcher promoting a return to so-called "Victorian values," busily undoing all the social advances of the past quarter century and more, and reducing the currency of political debate to the level of knockabout farcical exchange that Marx so brilliantly captures in the Eighteenth Brumaire. In fact one could envisage an updated version of the text that substituted Thatcher for Louis Bonaparte and discovered all manner of living representatives -- self-made Tory grandees, ex-politicians-turned-best-selling novelists, advertising agents dictating party policy, City whiz-kids, yuppies, insider-dealers, kowtowing civil servants 'economical with the truth,' etc. to match Marx's catalogue of the déclassé rabble that accompanied the Nephew in his rise to power.

guitar marx It's definitely an entertaining list, but it's also absolutely central to Norris' argument, as he admits when he suggests that it would probably explain the popularity of Thatcher more than any class-based or economic analysis. But is the comparison of the Nephew and the Iron Lady really accurate? Marx goes out of his way to suggest that Louis Napoléon is driven only by self-interest and that his rule rests on a ludicrous aping of his uncle. Would even the most dedicated Thatcher hater claim that her primary ideological motivation was an imitation of late 19th century English values?

Cutting to the chase, Norris' argument is that Thatcherism and Reaganism (along with the latter's continuation in the Bush administration) is not "real" history but merely a farce, a dusting off of long-dead historical forms. It is a claim that is both enormous and absolutely necessary, since without it Marx's theory of history goes out the window. The problem is that if it were a somewhat slippery argument in 1989, it's an almost impossible claim ten years later. The Labour and Democratic victories in Britain and the US have not overturned Thatcherism or Reaganism; instead, they have consolidated many of the major free-market tenets of their predecessors. At the same time, by eschewing the authoritarian overtones of their predecessors, they have put a kinder, gentler face (or mask) on laissez-faire capitalism. If Norris' claim is right, then the entire global economic system is quite literally a farce. But a farce of what? If the Nephew aped the Uncle, whom are Tony Blair and Bill Clinton aping? More to the point, what would the EU, ASEAN and NAFTA simulate? What about Microsoft, Philips, and Exxon?

Ironically, if any political system is recurring as farce now it is Marxism. This is particularly evident in the Taco Bell commercials in which a chihuahua dons a Che Guevara beret and addresses the masses from a balcony. 'Farce' may be too gentle a word here: Che, the man who gave Latin American revolutionary movements a sexy street credibility in the US and Europe is now used in an unmistakably racist way to sell faux-Mexican food for chain restaurants owned by Pepsico. Similarly, both the film Rushmore and the cover of the new Pretenders album 'Viva El Amor!' use Soviet-style iconography. Not far from where I used to live in Seattle is an enormous statue of Lenin which was imported after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A video store down the street from it has painted its logo in fake Cyrillic letters, apparently in a nod to the statue. All of these farcical recurrences are used in precisely the opposite way that Napoléon le petit used his uncle: they are not an attempt to borrow or claim political power, but a testimony to its absence. When Taco Bell imitates Che, it is clear indication that in the eyes of the American public Marxism is worse than dead: it is irrelevant.

At this point neither dismissing global capitalism as farce nor returning to a more conservative aesthetic position (which is probably impossible anyway) is a valid option. Instead, one of the best ways to critique global capitalism is through the satire, parody and outright derision that Marx employs in the Eighteenth Brumaire. While many Marxists associate those techniques with postmodernism and therefore see them as suspect, a number of groups and organizations have already taken that route. In the UK, the Festivals of Plagiarism took the do-it-yourself ethos of the punk movement and used it to attack both the commodification of global capitalism and the esoteric realm of culture. At one show in the festival, all artists produced plagiarized imagery and texts under the name of Karen Eliot as a way of commenting on the false individualization of consumer culture. The sound collagists in Negativland have also radically interrogated the commodification of culture. Their CD "The Letter U and the Numeral 2" sampled both the band U2 and outtakes from the DJ Casey Kasem's radio show. For their efforts, Negativland - who sometimes operate under the motto "copyright infringement is your best entertainment value" -- were sued by Island Records, ordered to surrender all copies of the recording, and pay $25,000 in legal fees.

Likewise, the group (r)(tm)ark has worked to fund projects that "benignly sabotage" mass-produced products; that is, they do so in a way that neither causes physical injury nor a substantial threat to profits. For instance, they sponsored the work of Decadent Action's Phone-In Sick day, as well as that of the Barbie Liberation Organization, the group that switched the voice boxes of Barbie dolls with those of G.I. Joes. While noting they are not "Communists," nor "anything else," (r)(tm)ark adds

[l]ike the Communists, however, we do not believe that our system will be a permanent fixture. It will, if it is successful, fall away. In the capitalist world, this falling-away will take the form of co-opting.

Since it is entirely impossible to control corporate sabotage, the only solution the market has is to accept it. And the market, like a virus or a body responding to a virus, mutates to encompass whatever is irresistible -- in (r)tmark's dreams this would mean encompassing social conscience and a concern for beauty. The market will come to respond, aesthetically and philosophically, to the artistic impulses of the people.

Of course, none of these efforts presents any immediate threat to the structure of global capitalism; then again, neither does Marxism. But their success lies in their ability to use irony, parody and humor to unmask the absurdities and contradictions of contemporary capitalism. That, at least, is a start.

Bill Freind has published essays, reviews and poems in a variety of journals. He is currently teaching in the English Department at the University of Toledo. You can reach him by e-mail.

Copyright © 1999 by Bill Freind. Drawing: Youth Liberation News Service (1972). All rights reserved.