Gingrich and the 18th Brumaire

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Fri Mar 24 12:58:19 MST 1995


Perhaps the best way to understand the Contract on America is in
terms of the 18th Brumaire.

A lot of the liberal elements of the US ruling class are perplexed by the
undemocratic nature of the new Congressional right-wing. They
wonder why Gingrich and company would want to undermine such
respectable institutions as the National Endowment for the Humanities
or Public Broadcasting. They also are mystified by the unwillingness
of the reactionaries to allow them to help decide the fate of welfare,
affirmative action, etc. The complaint, basically, is that Gingrich is
acting like a petty dictator.

Marx examined another petty dictator, Louis Bonaparte, in rather
close detail in the pages of the 18th Brumaire. Marx commented, "If
by its clamour for tranquillity the parliamentary Party of Order..
committed itself to quiescence, if it declared the political rule of the
bourgeoisie to be incompatible with the safety and stability of the
bourgeoisie, by destroying with its own hands in the struggle against
all other classes of society the conditions for its own regime, the
parliamentary regime, then the extra-parliamentary mass of the
bourgeoisie, on the other hand, by its servility toward the President, by
its vilification of parliament, by the brutal maltreatment of its own
press, invited Bonaparte to suppress and annihilate its speaking and
writing section, its politicians and its literati, its platform and its press,
in order that it might then be able to pursue its private affairs with full
confidence in the protection of a strong and unrestricted government.
It declared unequivocally that it longed to get rid of its own political
rule in order to get rid of the troubles and dangers of ruling."

The similarities are striking. Finance capital in 19th century France
and late 20th century America relies on buffoons to help consolidate
and centralize its rule while at the same time appearing superficially to
undermine its own power and interests. Bonaparte attacks parliament,
while Gingrich attacks the executive branch, and both assume the
guise of middle-class "revolutionaries" all the while acting on behalf of
big capital. Marx notes that Bonaparte suppresses and annihilates the
speaking and writing section of the bourgeoisie; Gingrich and his
network of right-wing radio and TV allies also go on the attack against
symbols of Eastern, old-money elite rule: the NY Times, PBS, Ivy
League universities, etc.

Bonaparte and Gingrich both wear the colors of the petty-bourgeoisie.
Bonaparte relied on the peasantry while Gingrich and his ilk appeal to
frightened, insecure middle managers at Fortune 500 corporations.
Marx observed that "the small peasants form a vast mass, the members
of which live in similar conditions, but without entering into manifold
relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them
from one another, instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse."
Furthermore, they are consequently incapable of enforcing their class
interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or through a
convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be
represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their
master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited government power
that protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and
sunshine from above. The political influence of the small peasants,
therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power
subordinating society to itself."

Substitute the word "middle-manager" for peasant and you will understand
the process that is unfolding today. It explains the popularity of
figures such as Perot as well as the ascendancy of Gingrich.

Of course the difference between the period Marx is discussing
and today is that it is the legislative branch, rather than the executive
branch, that is "subordinating society to itself". A Republican victory in
1996, with Phil Gramm as President, will signal a shift back to
concentrated executive power such as that typified by the Reagan
"imperial" presidency.

Gingrich, like Bonaparte, would like "to appear as the patriarchal
benefactor of all classes. But he cannot give to one class without
taking from another." So you will eventually see a counter-reaction to
Bonapartist rule. Gingrich's plummeting popularity is understandable
in these terms. The middle-class, as well as the working-class, is now
waking up to the brutal reality of the Contract on America. 10,000
students marched on City Hall in New York yesterday, protesting
budget cuts enacted by our Gingrichian governor George Pataki.
Politics may turn out to be interesting over the next few years. Re-read
your Marx but also dust off your marching boots. The mass movement,
as well as Marxist literature, can also be a great educator.

Louis Proyect


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