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From An Historian’s Notebook: The 18th Brumaire of Isaac Asimov

A back-to-back rereading of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and Karl Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in terms of their political visions is not as
Coup of 18th Brumaire Napoloen Bonaparte
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Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which made its first appearance in the 1950s, introduced a version of the telos of history that Marxists of the time would have found both familiar and disturbing. Hari Seldon, the founder of psychohistory, which claims to be a predictive science of history for the future, charts out the paths of human history for generations to come. But his science does not work if people know what has been calculated to be in store for the world beforehand. Seldon therefore decides that his findings for the future be held back, to be broadcast (with himself appearing in the form of a hologram) at the opportune moment at which it is relevant to explain to humanity where it now is, and where it is likely to go. 

foundation trilogy isaac asimov
Foundation Trilogy made its first appearance in 1950s.

Told at the wrong moment, in too much detail and over too large a time-frame, the prediction could disrupt itself by affecting its own variables (a version, more sophisticated, of the time-travel argument in which one travels back in time and kills one’s own father). As it is also a statistical science, psychohistory isn’t very comfortable with large-scale exceptions to the rule either. And this is where the Mule appears: a mutant, able to feel and control the emotions of others, not predicted by Seldon in his scheme, whose evil ambitions to empire interrupt the progressive scheme of Seldon and his Foundation so much that Seldon’s broadcasts make no sense in the time of the Mule: he is neither accurate about where the universe is, nor, as a consequence, do his predictions make any sense. The Galaxy panics and therefore, society has to rise and stop the bastard without the helpful predictions of the psychohistorians. But when the Mule is indeed stopped and Seldon’s next broadcast is awaited with scepticism, when it appears, it seems (to everyone’s surprise) that psychohistorical equilibrium has been re-established– humanity is where Seldon thought it should be and could begin to take his predictions seriously again.

Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov was suspected to be a Communist in the US.

This is an interpretation that made sense to me over time. When it was written, the allegory of the Foundation trilogy was too close to recent history for anyone to miss, soon after the Second World War and the defeat of Hitler. The books were written originally as interconnected short stories between 1942 and 1949. With the Mule being a mutant and an aberration, the restoration of the trajectories of psychohistory was to be expected thereafter. The similarities to a Marxian telos, or at least a Stalinised version thereof, where fascism and Nazism were aberrations, and the progressive path of a soon-to-be-Soviet Man in the socialist fatherland (whence Progress would migrate to the rest of the world), were there for the reading. At any rate, this was a reading that Americans were likely to take seriously and respond to with a less-than-welcoming cry: the 1950s were McCarthyist times, and a Russian-Jewish émigré to the United States, of which there were many, was a suspicious figure in the contemporary history of his adopted country, even if in the case of Isaac Asimov, his knowledge of the old empire was limited by the fact that he had moved across continents when he was three years old and the Russian Revolution only three years older. But the Foundation books (whose inspiration Asimov himself attributed not to Marx, but to Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) duly got him into trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee as a suspected communist, and Asimov wrote a short story, ‘The Martian Way’, as a critique of McCarthyism, only to discover, as he recalled later, that no one understood the allegory. The uncomfortable question that remained and still remains for the few people who have concerned themselves with Asimov and Marx(ism), was whether Asimov believed that there were laws of history that could have predictive purposes, or whether Marx, or Marxists did. This was a relatively normal way of shooting the messenger, because Hari Seldon’s optimism about the predictability of mankind’s future is constantly called into question by Asimov’s narrative.

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Perhaps, therefore, a back-to-back rereading of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and Karl Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in terms of their political visions is not as far-fetched as it seems: the retrospective readings of Marx as providing a teleological history of progress, if they can be found in a quasi-Biblical hermeneutics of reading some of Marx’s texts, certainly cannot be found in the 18th Brumaire. Marx, in his 1869 Preface to the 2nd edition (which is his own assessment of the value and meaning, in retrospect, of his 1852 text), seems keen to make the disclaimer that the text was very much of the times, relating to his journalistic work for Joseph Weydemeyer, his German-American socialist friend, rather than serious political philosophy; after his death, Engels claimed, in his Preface to the 3rd edition of 1885, that it was a ‘work of genius’. For trained historians, a hundred and seventy years later, even if the intimate details of the coup d’état and the three years of politics that preceded it might have lost their currency, there are lessons to be learned about the importance of attention to detail that need to be accommodated into their interpretations, not silenced or looked away from.

18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
The 18th Brumaire of Marx looks firmly at historical details.

If Marx’s more theoretical work looked for ‘essences’, the 18th Brumaire looks firmly at historical details; Marx has much to say about how not to compare historical phenomena across times and spaces (in the 1869 Preface, opposing the contemporaneous coinage ‘Caesarism’, Marx suggests that a comparison that relies on Roman precedent and the widely differing material and economic conditions of the two periods could not work for the respective political figures, who could have ‘no more in common with one another than the Archbishop of Canterbury has with the High Priest Samuel). The 18th Brumaire is not an optimistic text and as with many texts of the left or of Marxism drawn from the experiences of defeat, might have more to say to us today than optimistic texts. It is a tale of the defeat of ordinary working people, their exhaustion and their subordination to the authority of the state.

The uncomfortable question that remained and still remains for the few people who have concerned themselves with Asimov and Marx(ism), was whether Asimov believed that there were laws of history that could have predictive purposes, or whether Marx, or Marxists did. This was a relatively normal way of shooting the messenger, because Hari Seldon’s optimism about the predictability of mankind’s future is constantly called into question by Asimov’s narrative.

But was Louis Napoleon Marx’s Mule? Human beings make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing, nor from free-floating pieces of history. Marx was clear that Louis Bonaparte was not exceptional, neither a man of talent. On the contrary, ‘the class struggle in France created the circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part’ (also from the 1869 Preface). The Mule’s power derives from his capacity to manipulate opinion; Louis Bonaparte, in manipulating the memory of his famous uncle, might be seen to be doing something similar. Historical comparison, if not the comparison of science fiction and history (with science fiction claiming to read from history and to postulate its lessons as generative of and motivative in future worlds) proceeds from analogy and disanalogy, not from absolute symmetry. Marx’s own disclaimer about future relevance notwithstanding, if we should like to postulate the history of something we might now call ‘populism’ from his observations in the 18th Brumaire, they would not be completely misplaced; the tendency of people to act against their own interests, convinced by a legend. Hence Marx’s comments on the French ‘conservative peasantry’ as the beneficiary of Louis Bonaparte’s coup, and the now-famous remark about the French peasantry displaying as much class consciousness as a potato in a sack of potatoes: we are, perhaps, reading an early version of Marx’s chapter in Capital on workers’ consciousness being derived from the common experience of the production process and the infinitely fragmenting experience of the same. Outcomes, in other words, cannot be safely predicted.

Jared Harris
Jared Harris plays Hari Seldon in the Foundation series.

At least, then, the 18th Brumaire is testimony to the fact that Marx (and Engels) wrote not only texts of sociological prediction based on history; they were astute and involved commentators on history in the past and in its contemporary dimensions. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is emphatically not a predictive text: it is born of disappointment. If it gives us the term ‘Bonapartism’, and is, I suspect, an influential background presence in various debates among Marxian-educated leftists on the nature of fascism, it also presents the conditions of failure of class consciousness and a case study of a class acting against itself (a class in itself not for itself but against itself?). Perhaps at least it is a predecessor to some of Antonio Gramsci’s writings on ‘the southern question’ and the role of the Italian peasantry in sustaining Fascist power. Bonapartism is not Fascism, we know already, though perhaps we need to return to the 18th Brumaire and ask whether there is more to be learned from this text than we thought, and why exactly it is not. 

The nineteenth century is also not the twentieth century; and the debates within Marxism on the nature of fascism were truncated and distorted by Stalinism and the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1938, and we cannot in all honesty glean the theoretical or methodological foundations of the Dimitrov Line on fascism from anything other than a late realisation of ‘facts on the ground’, given the mysteriously self-censored nature of Comintern discussions at the time, in a context in which Stalin’s great purges were around the corner, and expulsions, assassinations and (self-)denunciations were on the rise. In Cold War retrospect, Fascism had taken its place as the self-justificatory counter-ideology to both ‘freedom’ in the Western Bloc, and ‘democratic socialism’ in the Eastern Bloc, with both sides finding a rhetoric, if not a respectable intellectual genealogy for these positions: ‘totalitarianism’ and ‘fascism’ were reductive name-calling ventures with a few footnotes that did not amount to much of a foundation for the names called.

Louis Bonaparte Napoleon III
Portrait of Louis Bonaparte by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

It was perhaps Leon Trotsky who made most use of the concept of Bonapartism in the twentieth century. Writing in 1934, he saw Bonapartism as an ‘intermediary’ stage on the way to fascism. For Trotsky, the basis of fascist power and Bonapartist power was the mobilisation of the petty bourgeoisie in the interest of the ruling class and was imbued with a hatred of the proletariat (echoes of Engels’ observations about the petty bourgeoisie and upper working class fear of falling below their current status?) ‘Just as Bonapartism begins by combining the parliamentary regime with fascism, so triumphant fascism finds itself forced not only to enter into a bloc with the Bonapartists, but what is more, to draw closer internally to the Bonapartist system’. There was a preventive aspect to Bonapartism, to return to ‘order’ in a situation of intense class conflict, creating a ‘military-police dictatorship’ that is ‘barely concealed with the decorations of parliamentarianism’. But it has no programme of its own. The bourgeoisie’s resort to Bonapartism was to discipline the extreme wings of the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie: they needed the threat of fascism, but in the last analysis, the disorder created by the fascists was more than they wanted. Once fascism came to power, however, it had to discipline its followers, and would revert to Bonapartism. Thus, Bonapartism and fascism were related and not incompatible forms: ‘Having arrived in power, the fascist chiefs are forced to muzzle the masses who follow them by means of the state apparatus. But while losing its social mass base, by resting upon the bureaucratic apparatus and oscillating between the classes, fascism is regenerated into Bonapartism’. There is thus a pre-fascist and a fascist Bonapartism; fascism, once it captures state power, must become the party of order against itself, and against its own movement. 

But Trotsky also saw Stalinism as a form of Bonapartism, drawing on the first Napoleon, his original coup of 18th Brumaire 1799 and the post-‘Thermidorian’ consolidation of bourgeois power from 1794 rather than on the third Napoleon’s reprise in Marx’s tersely phrased historical palimpsest of tragedy and farce: the turn of events that led to the French Revolution’s consolidation of authority and of the gains of the bourgeoisie after 1794. The question of Bonapartism, Trotsky wrote in 1935, was one ‘not of historical identity but of historical analogy, which always has as its limits the different social structures and epochs’. And ‘The present-day Kremlin Bonapartism we juxtapose, of course, to the Bonapartism of bourgeois rise and not decay: with the Consulate and the First Empire and not with Napoleon III’. 

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

By his calculations, Soviet Bonapartism was based on protecting the state and its regime not only from ‘feudal-bourgeois counterrevolution’ but also, crucially, from the working masses themselves. It followed for him that if its overthrow did not come from the masses themselves, ‘as the conscious act of the proletarian vanguard’, then ‘in place of Stalinism there could only come the fascist-capitalist counterrevolution’. And while Trotsky takes ‘forces of production’ seriously in analyzing what sort of regime could be supported in given conditions, he took political forms very seriously. Stalinism, then, was a pre-fascist Bonapartism. The question of the family resemblances of opposing ideologies can be raised from these discussions, in a subtler manner than any theory of ‘totalitarianism’ can provide.

The insight worth repeatedly returning to from Marx’s 18th Brumaire, in a number of contexts, is this: the desire of a group, a class or a ‘nation’, ‘to return from the perils of revolution to the flesh-pots of Egypt’ – the renunciation of the possibilities of freedom and liberation, and to return to the safety of unfreedoms. The repeated message of the 18th Brumaire is that of the bourgeoisie’s fear of the freedoms it has given itself, lest they be used by others – or by themselves. This might indeed foreshadow the psychoanalytic Marxism of Wilhelm Reich, or of Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse later on, or the insistence, earlier on, by Alexandra Kollontai, that modes of production do not in any automatic sense change social relations. As human society develops to a stage where new freedoms are possible, it is the dead hand of previous generations whose weight on the shoulders of the new stops them in their tracks, afraid of the freedoms they can exercise, sending them scurrying for the shelter of forms of unfreedom that they feel safer in. 

Alexandra Kollontai
Alexandra Kollontai, Soviet feminist.

Kollontai in the Soviet 1920s was less than sanguine that the changes experienced by the young Soviet Union would automatically remove old prejudices about the role of women in society; Reich in the Weimar 1930s would struggle to merge psychoanalytic insights about self-repression with Marxian concerns about alienation. By the time Fromm wrote in 1941 about the escape from freedom, and Marcuse in the 1960s about the Revolution restoring the father figure and thereby destroying itself, a mechanistic view of the revolutionary proletariat was only the official window-dressing of Stalinised communist parties. But these are longer stories; and perhaps these are stories that do not need to relate back to Marx and the 18th Brumaire, because they do not require a myth of origins, or a foundation. 

The Marx of the 18th Brumaire did not, unlike Lenin after him, imagine a vanguard who could see better and quicker than most– he could only see clearly in retrospect. The two Foundations postulated by Isaac Asimov or Hari Seldon, comprising two separate vanguards of intellectuals who are expected to preserve and guide human civilisation into the future, are fallible entities that fail to do what they are set up to do, eventually coming into conflict with one another. The two Foundations, in finding out about one another, in fact, damage the Seldon Plan, which has to be restored by the Second Foundation allowing the first Foundation to imagine the destruction of the Second: two vanguards are one too many. But the first vanguards suspects the continued existence of the other because the Seldon Plan, which is postulated upon both Foundations, appears to continue to hold: the telos of psychohistory continues, in the vanguards’ readings, and they must decide whether this is because of or despite them. In his later years, as he continued his imaginary journey with the Foundation, Asimov turned to the myth of Gaia, a planet named after a collective consciousness, which unites the First and Second Foundations, imagines an entire galaxy with a single consciousness, and merges the separate strands into a united collective consciousness. That idea of human life as an organic and coordinated whole is either an environmentalist’s fantasy or a fascist’s dream.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of or its editorial team members. 

Images courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin Zachariah works at the Georg Eckert Institute for Educational Media in Braunschweig, and with the project on the contemporary history of historiography at the University of Trier. He was trained in the discipline of history in the last decade of the previous century. After an uneventful beginning to a perfectly normal academic career, he began to take an interest in the importance of history outside the circle of professional historians, and the destruction of the profession by the profession. He is interested in the writing and teaching of history and the place of history in the public domain.

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