Structure and Agency in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire

This essay forms part of an assessment I completed for a prerequisite course on class in political economy, and is reproduced below. It should be noted I am in no way interested in Marx’s social theories, only his economic ones, so have imposed on The Eighteenth Brumaire my own interest in structure and agency, and have analysed it only to the extent it provides some insight on such themes germane to complex systems theory, the school of thought I identify with.

Karl Marx’s 1852 historical essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte explores many issues in historical political economy. One of the more interesting aspects of the work is its treatment of structure and agency, particularly with regard to the question of which of the two drives change. At face value, Marx appears to argue the case for both: that is, that structure and agency both compel change, as when it is stated that ‘men make their own history, but not as they please’ (Tucker 1978: 595). This paper seeks to fill a gap in the literature by proffering an alternative view, namely, that it might be the case that sometimes neither structure nor agency compel change. The main proposition is that the divergence of political and economic interests drives this behaviour. The paper begins by revisiting Marx’s analysis of the events that led up to the coup d’état of 1851. This is followed by an evaluation of his argument that in the EB class interests diverge. The analysis concludes with a critical analysis of the dynamics of structure and agency in the light of their inversion.

Marx disentangles the events that led up to Louis Bonaparte’s ascendancy by pointing out a number of determining factors. The foremost salient of these are: the bourgeoisie’s lack of confidence; the persecution of the proletariat; and the peasantry’s inability to represent itself. These factors in turn aid Marx in illuminating the role of structure and agency. But they also pose difficulties for him. According to the theory of historical materialism, the trajectories of the major industrialised economies of the world should follow a defined path, from feudalism, through capitalism, to communism. Yet what occurred in France between 1789 and 1851, was an eclectic rotation of socio-political change that also featured a premature attempt by the proletariat to overthrow the bourgeoisie’s National Assembly in the form the ‘Democratic and Social Republic’, stylised in Figure 1 as a communist turn in the historical-dialectical terminology. Marx’s task, then, is to explain which of structure and agency brought this perverse history about.

FIGURE 1 French history 1589-1851. Socio-political changes are stylised to fit broadly feudal, fascist, capitalist, and communist lines.

Instinctively, Marx would say this task is irrelevant. These events could never be taken as seriously challenging his model because they comprise merely a blip on the long arc of history. Louis Bonaparte’s conduct attests to this impermanence, writes Marx, for the hapless nephew ‘sought his model not in the annals of world history but in the annals of the Society of December 10’ (Marx [1852] 2003: 199). This crazed fit, designed for its time, is forever condemned to its time. It serves no higher purpose, certainly not the class struggles of historical materialism, and so is more a minor convulsion than a long-lasting shift. However, it is not enough to say that the forces of society will march inexorably forward toward the realisation of the materialist conception of history. This would privilege structure—crudely. Marx knows this, and so sets out to explain how agency fits into the picture.

Human beings are distinct from the animals in two respects. Firstly, they can override nature by instantiating ideas into matter (‘metabolic rifts’ (Marx [1894] 1981: 949), like climate change, are classic examples). Secondly, they differ in that they are conscious of this power—the capacity to change these reifications for better or worse. However, agency is constrained once these instantiations harden. At such times, the matter, that is, the material, they call forth from nature, governs them. This is the sense in which, for Marx, the material, rather than ideational, conditions of existence drive change. Agency assumes precedence when this consensus between the modes and social relations of production breaks down, and the situation becomes fluid. In this way the issue then becomes a question of consciousness; that is, why the bourgeoisie, in the fluidity of the moment, injured its own interests, did not seize the pangs of revolution, and instead welcomed the feudal Legitimists and Orleanists into the fray.

In addressing such a problematic situation, it will be helpful to review the far more intuitive account enumerated in the Communist Manifesto. There, the state is a clear instrument of class domination. The political and economic interests of the bourgeoisie, and of the proletariat, align. For the former, the political sponsorship of industry aligns with the economic accumulation of surplus value from the productive forces. As for the proletariat, the parasitic tendencies of the bourgeoisie align with labour’s class formations, helping its communist economic vision ferment. This causally sound system sees its hidden asymmetries reawaken with Prometheusian intensity in the EB. The root of the problem is the bourgeoise’s lack of confidence. Fearing for its future, it exercises its agency, and forms an independent state.

To be sure, such an account exempts Marx from conceding that his theory of the state cannot accommodate the rogue alliances struck between the bourgeoisie and feudal aristocracy. Yet this runs the risk of isolating as a special case the reciprocal interaction of structure and agency, when in the Manifesto, the two assume mutual supremacy (as modes of production antagonise prevailing social relations). The bourgeoisie by contrast ‘conjures up the spirits of the past’ (Tucker 1978: 595) in order that it may avoid the wrath of the future, but this does not ‘repeat’ history—it only delays it. When, therefore, the bourgeoisie comes to its senses, and its interests once more converge, the various parties can resume their respective world-historical roles. But what guarantee there exists to prevent such interests from diverging again Marx does not say: one can only assume he takes their enduring alignment for granted. Given this, the model must be recast. Marx, anticipating this complication, provides us with a glimpse of the reworked hypothesis—that in such circumstances neither structure nor agency compel change.

It is worth recalling that class struggle is central to an understanding of history for Marx. The agents of history are classes, and it is through class struggle that human societies attain progress and change. ‘Upon the social conditions of existence’, writes Marx, ‘rises an entire superstructure’ ([1852] 2003: 150). But rather than comprise a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, the small-holding peasantry ‘is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes’ (Tucker 1978: 608). In this way they compel a strange inversion of the Marxian reading of history. They steward the integration, as opposed to division, of labour; their material conditions do not revolutionise them but numb them; and most frustrating of all for Marx, they do not lampoon the illusions of ‘heroes’ but endow them with a mandate to mess about with history. This frustration hangs on the crucial insight that when given free rein, such individuals brew ‘slight confusions of cause and effect’ and ensure ‘in their interaction’ both structure and agency ‘lose their distinguishing features’ (Tucker 1978: 615). With a complicit peasantry, dormant bourgeoisie, and isolated proletariat, the ‘struggle seems to be settled in such a way that all classes, equally impotent and equally mute, fall on their knees before the club’ (Tucker 1978: 606). Where the Manifesto depends on interaction, the EB depends on its negation.

Marx’s writings are highly valued for their piercing insights into the underlying currents and subterranean worlds that animate contemporary relations. Marx stresses the power of abdication in precipitating disastrous socio-political outcomes, characterised by a situation in which there is no worse ‘apparent harmony of the whole of society and more profound estrangement of its elements’ (Tucker 1978: 600). Classes are the agents of history for Marx. When a group which does not comprise a class contributes to the national discussion, they effectively negate agency. But they do not advance structure in its place. Rather, their actions blur the correspondence between the causes and effects of structure and agency, which lose their distinguishing features. But none of this could have ever occurred, if the class of the hour, the bourgeoisie, had not suffered a divergence of its political and economic interests.

Reference List

Marx, K. (1978), ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, in Tucker, R. (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader, New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 594 – 617.

———(1981), Capital: Critique of Political Economy, vol. III. New York: Vintage.

———(2003), ‘The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, in Lorimer, D. (ed.), The Class Struggles in France: From the February Revolution to the Paris Commune, Sydney: Resistance Books, pp. 129-137.

Further readingviewing


2 thoughts on “Structure and Agency in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire

  1. Finally got around to reading this fully and I really appreciated your presentation of Marx’s materialism. “In this way the issue then becomes a question of consciousness;” this is spot-on and a great primer for the concept of praxis. Keep them coming, JP!


    1. J P

      Hi Bernard, thanks for reading my paper. I have another major paper on Marx coming out in the next few weeks that extends on these themes so that is one that should illuminate on these issues in greater depth.


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