The period we have before us comprises the most motley accumulation of screaming contradictions: constitutionalists who conspire openly against the Constitution; revolutionaries who are avowedly constitutional; a National Assembly that wants to be all-powerful and yet remains parliamentarian; a Montagnard faction that finds its calling in tolerance and uses prophesies of future victory to parry its present defeat; Royalists who serve as the patres conscripti of the Republic and are compelled by the situation to keep the rival royal houses, on which they depend, abroad, and the Republic, which they hate, in France; an executive power that finds its strength in its very weakness and its respectability in the very contempt with which it is covered; a Republic that is nothing but the infamy of two monarchies, the Restoration and the July Monarchy, combined with an imperial etiquette;--connections of which the first principle is schism, wars of which the first law is indecisiveness, destruction in the name of peace, meaningless agitation, celebratory predictions of peace made in the name of revolution, passions without truth, truths without passion, heroes without deeds, history without events; developments whose driving force seems to be the calendar, the tiresome and tedious repetition of the same tensions and releases; contradictions that seem periodically to drive themselves upwards, only to stumble and fall together, without being able to meet; pretentious displays of exertion and bourgeois fears of apocalyptic peril, and at the same time, on the part of the world-savers, petty intrigues and high comedies that recall less the "Youngest Day" than the times of the Fronde;--the collected official geniuses of France brought to shame by the elegant stupidity of a single individual; the collected will of the nation, that searches, whenever it holds a general election, for its corresponding effect in the outlawed enemies of the interests of the masses, until finally it finds it in the individual will of a pirate. If ever there was a chapter of history written in gray on gray, it was this one. Men and events appear as schlemihls in reverse, as shadows whose bodies have gotten lost. The revolution itself paralyses its own bearers and passionately empowers only its enemies. When the "red specter," invariably summoned up and exorcised away by the counterrevolutionaries, finally emerges, it does not emerge in the Phrygian cap of an anarchist, but in the uniform of order, in red trousers.- Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
You don't have to be a Marxist--or even a leftist--to appreciate a passage like this one. This was the first book I ever managed to read, a few weeks ago, in German, and my crude translation does a poor job of evoking the magnificent thunder of Marx's periods, but hopefully some small bit remains. (To convey the meaning I had to slip in a few eighteenth-century ";--"s, because in few places are they more needed.) How unexpected it is to find something so stunning in the third chapter of a history book! Stylistically, at least, the presentation here surpasses all of its modern successors, especially the Marxists.
This suggests a question which is perhaps obvious: are we "allowed" to like Marx as a historian, but not as a politician or political activist? Finding an answer is a bit more complicated than it looks. Because so much of the academic talk around Marx has been driven by political questions, we simply have no coherent context in which to understand Marx simply as a writer (or a historian). In other words, any attempt to compartmentalize these aspects of his historical persona will inevitably meet with the charge that one is ignoring a vital context or neglecting the interpenetration of politics with everything else in Marx's life. (And indeed, the Eighteenth Brumaire can hardly be read as an apolitical text. If it were not for revolutionary politics, it would never have even been written.)
The response that comes to my mind is this: not only can we now compartmentalize Marx in this way, we must do so if Marx is to present any continuing interest to us at all. Like it or not, the historical career of Marxism as a cluster of ideas connected tightly to the man himself is now over. (More importantly, it has become increasingly common to admit it.) That does not mean that retrospectively, politics has become less important for studying Marx--but it does mean that it has become less interesting. We are not obliged any longer, when reading James Boswell or Spinoza or Rimbaud, to keep one eye unceasingly fixed on their political identities, even though we may think it necessary to be aware of them. If we like interesting and thought-provoking ideas, we will naturally range a little wider in the biography.
The inspiration for this can come, in fact, from Marx himself. His historical texts, much more than his programmatic ones, are driven by the comedy and incongruity of contradiction. His best lines are reserved for moments when the pieces of a historical puzzle fit together loosely, when philosophically superseded strata rise up again to churn the soup of social development. When he is, in these moments, uncertain, unportentous, he seems to bring into play much more of his acute analytical skill. In the Eighteenth Brumaire, it's never quite clear what a "contradiction" betokens; for most political Marxists, clarity is an inevitable condition.
I don't mean to keep making the "post-Marxist" point. The revolution will not be won on the comment pages (in fact, there it has long ago been lost). But it does seem to me that the historical legacy of Marxism is not only one of grand politics and equally grand failure, or, for that matter, the transformation of weighty debates into idle in-crowd burbling, but also of interesting adaptations and contexts. Marx and his followers, like anyone else, lived in a complicated intellectual ecosystem in which The Struggle was far from the leading component. As historians or readers of history, we'd do well to listen to the din more closely.