The Second Time As Farce

Theatrical Metaphors in Marx's "Eighteenth Brumaire"

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

So begins Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, a work of political reporting that sought to apply the writer’s historical materialist lens to a recent set of strange political developments in France between 1848 and 1851. 

18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Marx 1852

You should go read the Eighteenth Brumaire - it’s really good!

In that reading group I got roasted for nerding out on one specific passage of the essay, and since this is my dumping ground for writing that I’m not getting paid to do I figured I’d dive a bit deeper into the topic that got me excited: the use of theatrical metaphors within the Eighteenth Brumaire and how they can help us understand the core points Marx is making with his essay. (I’m just writing this and posting it without too much editing so it may be a bit disjointed!)

In the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx tells the story of an increasingly complicated political struggle within the French state over three years. This struggle eventually ends with Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the buffoonish nephew of Napoleon I who was then the elected president of the French Republic, performing a coup d’etat and declaring himself emperor of France.

The comparison between “tragedy” and “farce” makes sense on its own as two abstract genres of work that we have certain associations with — “tragedy” is stuffy, high-stakes, and serious, and “farce” is manic, chaotic, and comical. The argument Marx seems to be making opening with this observation is that the history he is here going to analyze is accordingly manic, chaotic, and comical — and Marx’s depiction of the historical process is full of insane and absurd moments. But we must remember that “genres” don’t get created from nowhere, but rather are generated through a real history of creative works that cohere into patterns and themes. So what can we learn by looking at the Eighteenth Brumaire through the the lens that takes “farce” not simply as a way of describing a type of feeling, but actually literally a form of theater?

In the Eighteenth Brumaire’s introduction, Marx reflects on the way that many movements attempt to lionize themselves by anxiously calling attention to prior struggles in a process which mirrors a theatrical performance:

And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

In Marx’s use of “costume” and “scene” in order to analyze the history he describes, we see a core tension that runs through the Eighteenth Brumaire. As Marx describes the conflicts between the progressive Montagnards, the pure republicans, the Party of Order, and Louis Bonaparte himself, he works to unmask these political struggles as being the way the class struggle in France happened to be playing out. The use of borrowed phrases and false appearance is core to Marx’s arguments, as he describes the way that core class differences within the bourgeois “Party of Order” stand in for distinctions within the two types of property ownership that were in struggle:

Legitimists and Orleanists, as we have said, formed the two great factions of the party of Order. Was what held these factions fast to their pretenders and kept them apart from each other nothing but fleur-de-lis and tricolor, House of Bourbon and House of Orleans, different shades of royalism – was it at all the confession of faith of royalism? Under the Bourbons, big landed property had governed, with its priests and lackeys; under Orleans, high finance, large-scale industry, large-scale trade, that is, capital, with its retinue of lawyers, professors, and smooth-tongued orators. The Legitimate Monarchy was merely the political expression of the hereditary rule of the lords of the soil, as the July Monarchy was only the political expression of the usurped rule of the bourgeois parvenus. What kept the two factions apart, therefore, was not any so-called principles, it was their material conditions of existence, two different kinds of property; it was the old contrast between town and country, the rivalry between capital and landed property.

As Marx describes the political struggles on display with respect to the French state, we see repeated several times the realm of the political as a “stage” in which class struggle is fought in hidden form. For example, Marx describes the sudden eruption of popular support to end the July Monarchy as “the mass of the nation, the peasants and petty bourgeois, who all at once stormed onto the political stage after the barriers of the July Monarchy had fallen.”

Marx also calls attention to position within the stage of political life as significant several times, including the “removing” of some proletarian leaders “from the public stage”, and the National Assembly which holds public status at the expense of real bureaucratic power as a body which “by its permanence, perpetually holds the front of the stage.”

So if, as Marx says, the 1848-1851 period is to be thought of as a play, where some public performance stands in for real struggles underneath, what are we to make of Marx’s opening line that what he is describing is not “tragedy”, but rather “farce”?

Here we return to Marx’s early argument about revolutionaries calling attention to the spirits of the past in order to lionize their modern struggles. But whereas in prior revolutionary periods, the classes which came to power called upon the history of the Roman Republic and other struggles in order to find “the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions, that they needed to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles and to keep their passion on the high plane of great historic tragedy,” the events of 1848-1851 seem to be of a different type of play. Here is a performance where men are not performing roles as people greater and more elevated than they truly are as in Aristotle’s tragedy, but rather of a lower type than they truly are. The Party of Order is utterly incapable of taking decisive action, the Montagnards refuse to do anything more than shout that they’re being oppressed, and Louis Bonaparte spends his time drinking with army buddies and forging lottery tickets.

The theatrical styling of farce has been around in some capacity for almost the whole history of performance - with comedy developing alongside tragedy as two symbolic representations of the theatrical form.

Both comedy and tragedy were seen by Greek philosophers as developing their artistic spark from a similar place - the antagonistic conflict of two opposing forces which, through their contradiction, produces something new. The difference, according to Aristotle, was in the way that Tragedy portrays characters as better than they are in real life in order to achieve these results, where Comedy portrays characters as worse. From Poetics:

Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type, not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the Ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.

So we see farce and tragedy as two ways in which false appearances can help us see through to the truth underneath. The historical role of farce has often been to serve an illuminating role within societies where outright criticism would be far too transgressive to allow on its face. A useful example here is the Italian Renaissance form of Commedia Dell’ Arte, where traveling troupes would portray stock characters, all of which had clear class relations to one another — an evil landlord and his dimwitted servant reveal the contradictions of their class roles through the comedic situation created when the servant accidentally loses the eviction notice his master asked him to deliver to the farmer next door and it’s carried away by a bird. (This form is alive and well in modern political theater, including the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which has a development process heavily informed by Commedia)

We might, therefore, see Marx’s work as applying the lens of farce on the French political struggle to reveal the real class relationships hidden by these comedic characters. The inability of the Party of Order to effectively hold political power reflects the real recognition of the bourgeoisie that holding power makes it more difficult to maintain its economic rule over the emerging proletariat, and the fragmented political formation that emerges as a result is therefore a reflection of this antipathy. Then enter Bonaparte who is able to utilize this disarray for his own purposes, justifying a coup based on the total ineffectiveness of the bourgeoisie to hold political power.

If Donald Trump is said to be a unique product of the medium of television, one could see Bonaparte as a unique product of the medium of theatrical farce. Marx’s description of Bonaparte’s emergence as a major force is the most explicitly theatrical to be found within the whole work — it is here where Marx calls upon the genre convention of comedy most directly:

An old, crafty roué, he conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade in which the grand costumes, words, and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery.

At a moment when the bourgeoisie itself played the most complete comedy, but in the most serious manner in the world, without infringing any of the pedantic conditions of French dramatic etiquette, and was itself half deceived, half convinced of the solemnity of its own performance of state, the adventurer, who took the comedy as plain comedy, was bound to win.

Bonaparte’s rise to power happens through the creation of the Society of December 10, a strange astroturfed Bonapartist organization of “vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni,[105] pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.”

Marx remarks that “in [Bonaparte’s] Society of December 10 he assembles ten thousand rascals who are to play the part of the people as Nick Bottom that of the lion,” a reference to the comically-bad play-within-a-play from Midsummer Night’s Dream, where a character who is tasked with playing a lion remarks that having a lion onstage would scare all the women:


Will not the ladies be afeard of the lion?


I fear it, I promise you.


Masters, you ought to consider with yourselves: to
bring in--God shield us!--a lion among ladies, is a
most dreadful thing; for there is not a more fearful
wild-fowl than your lion living; and we ought to
look to 't.


Therefore another prologue must tell he is not a lion.


Nay, you must name his name, and half his face must
be seen through the lion's neck: and he himself
must speak through, saying thus, or to the same
defect,--'Ladies,'--or 'Fair-ladies--I would wish
You,'--or 'I would request you,'--or 'I would
entreat you,--not to fear, not to tremble: my life
for yours. If you think I come hither as a lion, it
were pity of my life: no I am no such thing; I am a
man as other men are;' and there indeed let him name
his name, and tell them plainly he is Snug the joiner.

The result, then, is an actor onstage wearing a costume of a lion, apologizing profusely if the audience is to think for even one moment that he is not actually the actor Snug but a real lion. In the style of Surkov’s “political theater” of the Russian state, the fact that the Society of December 10 is obviously false in their appearance is no matter, and in fact the point. Bonaparte can point to them and say “the people are on my side” just as convincingly as the bourgeois Party of Order can point to the history they parody and say: “history, Mr. President, sir, is on my side.”

I’m mostly writing this as a joke for my friends so I don’t need to like really wrap this up cleanly! I think taking this look at the Eighteenth Brumaire as theater has helped me understand its core arguments so I’m glad I did this. Interested to hear from anyone who’s read this if there’s anything that I didn’t catch in my cursory analysis that might be useful. I don’t have that much background in performance studies so that could always be useful too.