Historians Repeat Each Other:  Marx and Engels 1851 CE – 1852 CE

Why would anyone want to read about some seemingly obscure points of history?

One solid reason is that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” [George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Vol. I, Reason in Common Sense, 1905 CE].

Or as Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1852], “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.”

That maxim is suspiciously stylish for Marx, who usually relied on Engels to improve his readability.

About the time Marx began to write The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Engels sent a letter to him that reads in part: “…. it really seems as though old Hegel, in the guise of the World Spirit, were directing history from the grave and, with the greatest conscientiousness, causing everything to be re-enacted twice over, once as grand tragedy and the second time as rotten farce” [December 3, 1851].

What began with Engels as an aphorism consistent with Hegel quickly became with Marx a spurious attribution to Hegel. The nuanced implications and subjunctive constructs of Engels have given way to the vigorous indicative simplicity of Marx.

Hegel seems to have written no such thing, though he is guilty of enough other shortcomings that absolving him in this instance does not materially affect his reputation one way or another. And compared to the uncountable reams of incoherent student essays prompted by Engels’ Dialektik der Natur [1883], his witticism regarding the repetitive nature of history is merely a peccadillo.

Though broad patterns of social behavior may appear to repeat themselves as old solutions are brought to bear on new instances of unresolved problems, history is quintessentially a contingent process.  It is as inconsistent, complex, debased, noble and ridiculous as the human beings who make it.  Attempts to hammer the messy facts into the rigid shapes of an ideology may be good politics, but such efforts do not guaranty the production of first rate history.

Further Reading:

  • Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History [1940] offers a detailed and interesting study of the European revolutionary tradition from France in 1789 to Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917. His reading of Marx and Engels is intelligent and well-informed.  It seems a pity that he essentially ignored the English Revolution [1640 – 1660] and its consequences.  His brief summary of the suicides of Marx’s daughters is as instructive as it is uncomfortable to read.
  • For the English Revolution, see Austin Woolrych’s Britain in Revolution 1625 – 1660 and Christopher Hill’s many volumes on the subject, including The Century of Revolution: 1603 – 1714  and The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution.
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