In Karl Marx’s “Eighteenth Brumaire,” the prominent revolutionary and writer details the rise of Louise-Napoleon Bonaparte to power in 1849-1852 as a frenzied rise to power by a mediocre leader whose qualifications were built on lineage. But was Karl Marx portraying the 1849 revolution fairly and was it possible that Bonaparte was a stronger leader than Marx would give credit for? Certainly, Marx was not the only observer to be shocked at the rise of Bonaparte III as the leader of France. Alexis de Tocqueville was another well known writer who had troubles tying Bonaparte to the revolution that brought him to power. It was not a united force of like-minded workers and unemployed who brought the third edition of Napoleon to France; rather, it was a pragmatic hodgepodge of the lumpenproletariat (or the lowest class of society, including the mentally challenged and criminals), proletariat and petit bourgeoisie (lower and middle class workers and artisans) that were trying to usher in a more economically viable period for France. As Roger Price says of the “Eighteenth Brumaire,” Marx “demonstrates how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relations that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.”
The composition of the revolutionary forces in 1849 has indeed been downplayed but it is also unfair to totally eliminate the possibility that Karl Marx was wrong about Bonaparte’s popularity heading into the revolution. He promised economic modernization for a nation stuck in economic woe, with added incentive to someone with a pedigree for power. The fact that so many different factions worked together for this cause only demonstrates the abilities that Bonaparte brought to the leadership of France. He left conservatives and those friendly to the monarchy little choice, as he was the lesser of evils when the dust settled, while the electorate continued to support Bonaparte after the revolution and his modernization plan went through. As Geoff Watkins described the situation, Marx underestimated the appeal of Bonaparte’s government, even though it eventually collapsed and it was not the most democratic of institutions. Certainly, Bonaparte’s swing at governing France was not unique in its appeal to people power by authoritarian proxy, with many such examples throughout history.
Marx’s “Eighteenth Brumaire” is an interesting piece of political analysis from the rose colored lenses of a communist proponent. Bonaparte is portrayed as a bumbling and feeble minded figurehead but this only serves the purpose of easing the fall for readers when they looked later into history and discover the government eventually failed, with the end of the Franco-Prussian War. Bonaparte was successful early in his rain as Emperor Napoleon III and this is the scope of Karl Marx’s work, so it is fair to criticize the author on these grounds. But we should also be aware that Marx was not a historian nor a journalist, at least not in the mainstream sense. Karl Marx was an ideologically minded writer who was looking for an example of the communist structure in his “Manifesto” of 1848. In this sense, Karl Marx should be forgiven for taking liberties as he was writing this book for a revolutionary audience and could not understand the impact it had on radical politics in the future.