In UPB's "Exploring the Classics" group we've recently been reading Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Balzac's Lost Illusions, and Flaubert's Madame Bovary, all of which present scathing pictures of French society during the early nineteenth century. Now we're about to see what another observer had to say about that same society at the point when its distresses and contradictions came to a head in the revolution of 1848. We will be reading Karl Marx's short book The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which analyzes the revolution and its aftermath from 1848 through the 1851 coup d'état by Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew, Louis (one of the earliest "celebrity politicians").
If you are among the many who are under the erroneous impression that Marx had something to do with twentieth-century "Communist" regimes and that his writings are dull economic rants, you may be in for a pleasant surprise. Marx strove to encourage humanity's self-liberation from all forms of oppression and authority, and though no one has ever accused him of being light reading, when he has a mind to he can be as pithy and dramatic as any literary author. The opening chapter of The Eighteenth Brumaire is a vivid example:
"Hegel remarks somewhere that all the great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. . . . Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered and transmitted from the past. The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living. . . .
The social revolution of the nineteenth century can only create its poetry from the future, not from the past. . . . Bourgeois revolutions, such as those of the eighteenth century, storm swiftly from success to success. They outdo each other in dramatic effects; men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds and each day's spirit is ecstatic. But they are short-lived; they soon reach their zenith, and society then has to undergo a long period of discontent until it has learned to soberly assimilate the results of its period of storm and stress.
In contrast, proletarian revolutions, such as those of the nineteenth century, constantly criticize themselves and interrupt themselves. They return to what has apparently already been accomplished in order to begin the task anew; they pitilessly mock the weaknesses, hesitations, and inadequacies of their first attempts; they seem to throw down their adversary only to see him draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more colossal than ever; confronted with the unclear immensity of their own goals, they shrink back again and again, until at last a situation is created that makes all turning back impossible and the conditions themselves cry out: 'Here is the rose, dance here!' "
Our discussions of Marx's work has been taking take place every other Sunday at 4:30-7:00 p.m. around the Big Table in the back room of University Press Books. This meeting on September 15th is the last of four. Participation is free, but donations of $10 to $20 per meeting are suggested to help support the bookstore, which provides us with a pleasant meeting space and complimentary wine, sandwiches, and cookies.