Karl Marx’s prose style

My daughter is studying sociology and I get to help her with her homework and read her textbooks. The flat, dull tone of would-be scientific writing is enough to drive you mad.

The prose style of Karl Marx, according to some people the founder of modern sociology, is the exact opposite.

It is a constant surprise how rhetorical Marx is: pithy poetic phrases, bombastic generalisations, baggy lists, nifty antitheses, classical references, all these are deployed in a tone dominated by sarcasm and satire – Marx constantly expects the ‘bourgeoisie’ to do its worst and is rarely disappointed.

This blog post simply aims to highlight the importance of techniques of rhetorical persuasion in Marx’s writings.

It’s based on a close reading of Karl Marx Political Writings Volume 2: Surveys from Exile edited by David Fernbach – specifically from Marx’s two long essays about the political turmoil in France between 1848 and 1852, The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Page numbers refer to the 1973 Pelican paperback edition.

Insults 

For a start Marx is not respectful. He doesn’t feel any inhibitions about abusing and insulting all his enemies, from the bourgeoisie in general to the hollow trickster, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who he calls

  • a grotesque mediocrity
  • a ludicrous, vulgar and hated person
  • the adventurer who hides his trivial and repulsive features behind the iron death mask of Napoleon

The Provisional Assembly which replaced the French king in February 1848, had the bright idea of declaring universal male suffrage i.e. all adult men were empowered to vote, most importantly in the election for a new president to replace the abdicated king. 1. The urban liberals in their idealism overlooked the fact that by far the biggest single part of the electorate was the millions of peasants, who outnumbered the populations of all French cities and towns several times over. 2. By the time the presidential election was held in December 1848, the political landscape had changed out of all recognition. The result was an overwhelming victory for the buffoonish figure of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte.

Thus Marx not only doesn’t like Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, he actively despises the backward, clumsy, ignorant peasants who voted for him.

The symbol that expressed the peasants’ entry into the revolutionary movement, clumsily cunning, knavishly naive, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism, a world-historic piece of buffoonery and an indecipherable hieroglyphic for the understanding of the civilized – this symbol bore the unmistakable physiognomy of the class that represents barbarism within civilization.

But his strongest vituperation is, of course, reserved for the hated ‘bourgeoisie’.

The mortgage debt burdening the soil of France imposes on the French peasantry an amount of interest equal to the annual interest on the entire British national debt. Small-holding property, in this enslavement by capital toward which its development pushes it unavoidably, has transformed the mass of the French nation into troglodytes. Sixteen million peasants (including women and children) dwell in caves, a large number of which have but one opening, others only two and the most favored only three. Windows are to a house what the five senses are to the head. The bourgeois order, which at the beginning of the century set the state to stand guard over the newly emerged small holdings and fertilized them with laurels, has become a vampire that sucks the blood from their hearts and brains and casts them into the alchemist’s cauldron of capital. (p.242)

Note how solid factual analysis (of the results of debt on French peasants) is inextricably entwined with highly alarmist and exaggerated similes and metaphors – of enslavement, troglodytes and vampires. Abuse and insults are an intrinsic part of Marx’s analysis, not an accident, not a removeable element – bitter hatred of the bourgeois enemy is a key part of Marx’s worldview.

Rhetorical repetition 

Marx uses rhetorical repetition, often in the time-honoured form of the three clauses trick.

Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not of fleeing from its solution in reality; of finding the spirit of revolution once more, not of making its ghost walk about again.

Bonaparte represented the peasant’s superstition, not his enlightenment; his prejudice, not his judgement; his past, not his future.

Antitheses 

He likes antithesis, or the repetition of an idea with variations – ideally a straight inversion – to produce a snappy phrase.

The republic had announced itself to the peasantry with the tax collector; it announced itself to the republic with the emperor.

The December 10 Society was to remain Bonaparte’s private army until he succeeded in transforming the public army into a December 10 Society.

This tendency is more important than it seems because it indicates the underlying fondness for neat patterns of Marx’s thought. He thinks that History moves in neat antitheses, just like his prose (just like the neatly antithetical prose he learned as a student at the feet of the classically trained Idealist philosopher, Hegel).

Repetition of phrases

Sometimes Marx uses repetition with variation (as above). On other occasions he uses simple repetition, its flatness and bathos indicating the batheticness of the actors he attributes it to, in this case the charlatan, Louis-Napoléon. The use of deadpan repetition reminded me of modern stand-up comedy.

As a fatalist, [Louis-Napoléon] lives by the conviction that there are certain higher powers which man, and the soldier in particular, cannot withstand. Among these powers he counts, first and foremost, cigars and champagne, cold poultry and garlic sausage. With this in mind, to begin with, he treats officers and non-commissioned officers in his Elysée apartments to cigars and champagne, to cold poultry and garlic sausage.

Out of context this comes over as a bit flat, but in the warmth of his ongoing text this little trick comes as a moment of comic relief. Boom, boom.

Lists

There is nothing so glorious as a long, ragbag, rollercoaster of a list.

On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpenproletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section being led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole organization. Decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, rubbed shoulders with vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel keepers, portes, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole of the nebulous, disintegrated mass, scattered hither and thither, which the French call la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the December 10 Society…

Having conjured up this vivid Dickensian mob, Marx proceeds in his characteristic tone of High Sarcasm to reveal the ‘real’ motives of such bourgeois shams, and uses a panoply of rhetorical tricks to ram home his contempt for Louis.

… A ‘benevolent society’ – in so far as, like Bonaparte, all its members felt the need to benefit themselves at the expense of the labouring nation. This Bonaparte, who constitutes himself chief of the lumpenproletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in the scum, offal and refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally, is the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrase. An old crafty roué, he conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade where the grand costumes, words and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery.

Note the use of three clauses to build rhetorical power. Note the insult words (scum, refuse). Note the ad hominem attack on Louis-Napoléon (a crafty old roué with a vulgar sense of theatre). Rhetoric and insults are central.

Conjuring ghosts and spectres

The word ‘conjure’ appears five times in the Brumaire, ‘ghost’ eight times, ‘spirit’ 16 times. Circe and her ‘black magic’ are mentioned.

The opening sentence of The Communist Manifesto is bold and memorable – ‘A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of communism’ – but reading further into Marx, you realise that the use of imagery connected to ghosts, spirits, conjurors and magicians is not that exceptional. It is a routine fixture of his imagination and his rhetoric.

Even a mere Vaisse [a deputy in the national assembly] could conjure up the red spectre… (p.212)

The social republic appeared as a phrase, as a prophecy, on the threshold of the February Revolution. In the June days of 1848, it was drowned in the blood of the Paris proletariat, but it haunts the subsequent acts of the drama like a ghost… (p.234)

All the ‘Napoleonic ideas’ are ideas of the undeveloped small holding in the freshness of its youth; they are a contradiction to the outlived holdings. They are only the hallucinations of its death struggle, words transformed into phrases, spirits transformed into ghosts. (p.244)

1. The frequency of ghost imagery reminds you that Marx the writer grew to maturity in the 1830s, the heyday of High Romantic writing, of plays and operas about the supernatural, especially in Germany, and so it’s no surprise that there is a certain Gothic quality to his imagination, teeming as it is with ghosts and spectres.

2. It worryingly reminds you that Marx was above all a writer, given to conjuring up words, classes, nations, conflicts with the stroke of a pen, without a second thought. Historical eras, sociological classes, leading politicians, can all be made to appear or disappear in a puff of smoke by Marx, the political prestidigitator.

The constitution, the National Assembly, the dynastic parties, the blue and red republicans, the
heroes of Africa, the thunder from the platform, the sheet lightning of the daily press, all the other publications, the political names and the intellectual reputations, the civil law and the penal code, liberté, egalité, fraternité, and the second Sunday in May, 1852 – all have vanished like a series of optical illusions before the spell of a man whom even his enemies do not claim to be a magician. (p.151)

So we find his compadre, Engels, writing in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions with the optimistic hope that all the reactionary types who had helped to crush the uprisings (specifically, in the Austrian empire) would be swept away.

The Austrian Germans and Magyars will be set free and wreak a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians. The general war which will then break out will smash this Slav Sonderbund and wipe out all these petty hidebound nations, down to their very names. The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward. (The Magyar Struggle in Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 13 January 1849).

Unfortunately, their descendants in the Marxist-Leninist line of ideology would take them at their word and, instead of merely textual flourishes, would make real people in the real world and – in Stalin and Mao’s cases – entire groups of people (the kulaks, the urban intelligentsia), disappear with the stroke of a pen into freezing gulags or mass graves.

The language of theatre

The language of magic and conjuring is intimately linked with the lexicon of drama, theatre, comedy, masquerades, costumes and stage with which these texts are drenched.

Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to
success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds,
ecstasy is the order of the day. (p.152)

The opening pages of the Brumaire are famous for stating an enormous theory of history, which is that current political actors always clothe themselves in the names and values of previous ones. This allows Marx to compare all of the actors, throughout the book, with their predecessors in everywhere from ancient Israel to the Jacobin Revolution via the Rome of the Caesars.

Whether Marx’s theory that history repeats itself with modern political pygmies dressing up in the clothes of Great Men of the Past has any factual validity, as an imaginative and rhetorical trope it creates a vast sense of a) historical knowledgeableness, and of b) intellectual spaciousness – we feel we are privy to a mind which understands all of human history.

If we consider this conjuring up of the dead of world history, a salient difference is revealed immediately. Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases, the task of unchaining and setting up modern bourgeois society.

The first ones smashed the feudal basis to pieces and mowed down the feudal heads which had grown on it. The other created inside France the only conditions under which free competition could be developed, parcelled landed property exploited and the unchained industrial productive power of the nation employed; and everywhere beyond the French borders he swept the feudal institutions away, to the extent necessary to provide bourgeois society in France with a suitable up-to-date environment on the European Continent. Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian Colossi disappeared and with them resurrected Romanity – the Brutuses, Gracchi, Publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself.

This long quote demonstrates the way Marx thought of politics as intrinsically theatrical, and the way his imagination constantly recurs to Great Men of the (real or legendary) past.

But he is not only pointing out the way that modern political actors often invoke the shades of the Great Protagonists of the past to bolster their authority – there is also a deeper reference in this idea to Marx’s fundamentally Hegelian worldview: the worldview that History is moving through inevitable phases to an inevitable conclusion. The Jacobins ‘performed the task of their time’; Napoleon ‘swept the feudal institutions away’: both prepared the way for the triumph of ‘free competition’. Marx’s view of History is profoundly teleological; the basis of his entire position is that human History is moving along a pre-determined course towards a pre-determined end.

And if History is heading towards an inevitable conclusion, it must follow that we are all to some extent actors on a stage, playing parts in a drama which is already written. This premise maybe explains Marx’s fondness for theatrical metaphors.

The first act of his ministry was the restoration of the old royalist administration. The official scene was at once transformed – scenery, costumes, speech, actors, supers, mutes, prompters, the position of the parties, the theme of the drama, the content of the conflict, the whole situation.

The revolution made progress, forged ahead, not by its immediate tragicomic achievements but, on the contrary, by the creation of a powerful, united counterrevolution…

Marie’s ateliers, devised in direct antagonism to the Luxembourg, offered occasion, thanks to the common label, for a comedy of errors worthy of the Spanish servant farce…

Instead of only a few factions of the bourgeoisie, all classes of French society were suddenly hurled into the orbit of political power, forced to leave the boxes, the stalls, and the gallery and to act in person upon the revolutionary stage!

The people cried: À bas les grands voleurs! À bas les assassins! when in 1847, on the most prominent stages of bourgeois society, the same scenes were publicly enacted that regularly lead the lumpenproletariat to brothels, to workhouses and lunatic asylums, to the bar of justice, to the dungeon, and to the scaffold.

The terrible attempt of April 16 furnished the excuse for recalling the army to Paris – the real purpose of the clumsily staged comedy and for the reactionary federalist demonstrations in the provinces.

In the many places where Marx invokes the theatre, we join him in the audience watching a political drama which has already been written, assimilated and analysed: while the poor political actors take their parts in the farce or tragedy totally seriously, we, the privileged spectators, understand what is really going on behind the sham of bourgeois rhetoric and in the drama of History.

The rhetoric of both these long essays encourage in the reader a sense of superiority to other commentators and analysts, to the politicians and moralists who are taken in by the play. We are not taken in. We know what is really going on. We are the only ones who understand that all human existence, all human history and all political events are based on class conflict, that this dizzying vaudeville of political acts are all combinations on the theme of the ‘bourgeois’ control of power – and that the entire giddy play will one day come tumbling down when we, the clever ones, and the workers, rise up in revolution.

It is in the opening lines of the Brumaire that he expresses most pithily the idea that History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

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. (p.147)

Taken in isolation this has the crisp appeal of an Oscar Wilde witticism. But I hope I have provided enough context to show that it is just one among many examples of Marx’s highly theatrical way of thinking about history, and of his very dramatic and rhetorical way of writing.

It isn’t, in other words, the one-off insight it is so often painted as being.

On the contrary, this pithy quote is a key which opens up Marx’s entire imaginative worldview of the world as being a stage, a platform on which a pre-scripted drama is unfolding towards its preordained end and we, his readers and the members of his ‘party’ – sitting by his side – are privileged to be in on the secret of the plot, we are the cognoscenti, we have a front row seat at the great drama of History.

Summary

There are plenty more examples, and I could have elaborated a bit more on the connection between rhetorical tropes and his actual ideas – but I wanted to keep this blog post short and sweet.

The point is simply that, whenever you read that Marx founded a form of ‘scientific’ socialism, invented the objective ‘scientific’ analysis of society, of its economic and class basis and so on – you should also remember that he did so in texts notable for their sustained irony, ad hominem abuse, rhetorical play and theatrical melodrama.


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