Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Marx's lesson from history

As I've remarked elsewhere (1), one of my favourite quotes from Marx is the opening line of his characteristically bracing eviseration of the regime of Louis Napoleon, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (2):
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. Caussidiere for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire. (3)
That first line catches the whole idea, but the paragraph that follows it builds upon it:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. 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. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. (4)
This is great stuff. It pinpoints the failure of communist revolutions of the 20th century, where Stalin conjured up the shades of Tsarism and Mao recreated Imperial China with himself as emperor. It captures the essence of the (non-revolutionary) 20th century left's obssessions with situationism and post-modernism in one paragraph. Would that all who followed have been so succinct! But Marx had a practical purpose, and wasn't at all interested in the squishy world of post-modern discourse.

(Discourse is one of these words that makes me want to pick up a heavy object and hurl it at the utterer. Whenever I use it, I'm being spitefully ironic. One reason I chave never been able to read Chomsky is his incessant use of phrases like "The racist discourse of American imperialism.")

The view of history he sketched can be deomnstrated as true by brief reflection on our own times. When the Twin Towers fell, Geroge Bush could find no words of his own, so mumbled some stuff Rooseveld wrote about Pearl Harbour. Now the hysterical cant about the evil meance of the reds, the Nazis, then the reds again, is regurgitated and called Islam, this time round. In place of a Cold War, we get a War on Terror. Anyone who doubted the wisdom of bombarding Afghanistan in pursuit of terrorists (who weren't near the areas we were bombarding, generally) was decried as the sort of peacenik fools who would have surrendered to Hitler in 1939. A few months later, faced with Saddam Hussein's pathetic little thug regime, we were assured he was akin to Hitler. Colin Powell delivered a powerpoint presentation to the U.N., in what was described as an Adlai Stevenson moment. Only he was being disingenuous and deceitful. Now the wail goes up again, this time directed at Tehran.

Meanwhile, the same people - or at least, their comic recrudescences - are issuing the same warnings and demanding the same sacrifices. A little bit of liberty here, a whole stack of young lives ("But not ours or our children's, only yours and your children's, citizen.") and a mountain of anonymous (to us) people who, we are assured, are "The enemy." And this, of course, is the biggest lie of all, perpetrated by all leaders on all sides, and which has reoccurred so many times that even a mind as remarkable as Marx's would have struggled to trace t back to its original manifestation. Cain and Abel, perhaps?

History doesn't so much repeat, as regurgitate, spewing up half digested fragments for our consideration and - though it isn't half as nice the second tiem around - or consumption.
1 - as described previosuly on lefthandpalm. (http://lefthandpalm.blogspot.com/2007/10/dick-scott-on-urewera.html)
2 - 'The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,' by Karl Marx,
1852. Reporoduced on marxists.org (
3 From the first chapter of 'The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,'
by Karl Marx, 1852. Reproduced on marxists.org (
4 - ibid.

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