The living death of the body politic
Platypus Review 127 | June 2020
“The inferior race has spread everywhere – we the people, as one says, reason: the nation and science.
Oh! Science! They’ve altered everything. For the body and the soul – the Eucharist – we’ve medicine and philosophy – old wives’ remedies and arrangements of popular songs. And the diversions of princes and the games they prohibited! Geography, cosmography, physics, chemistry! ...
Science! The new nobility! Progress. The world progresses! Why shouldn’t it turn as well?”Arthur Rimbaud 1873
The omnipotence of impotence
“Lost are we and are only so far punished,
That without hope we live on in desire."
WE LIVE IN RELIGIOUS TIMES. The stories we tell ourselves have become imbued with supernatural qualities. Often this superstition manifests as the desperate and melancholic faith in the permanence of the present or the obliteration of our petrified conditions by environmental (or economic, etc.) catastrophe. These superstitions rest in a faith in the omnipotence (or impotence) of the will of the heteronomous political sphere. The moribund Left seem particularly susceptible to the misapprehension of capitalist politics as necessarily tied to “the compelling force of anarchy in the production of society.”
As this mystified political will possesses the minds of the self-avowed Left so too are they haunted by the derangement of the general public. This begs the question posed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: is the role of politics to change individuals or is it the role of individuals to change politics?
Thomas Hobbes famously posited that without the mediation of society through an inalienable state authority "we are in a war of all against all." Hobbes was lamenting the political and social unrest of the English Civil War of the mid-17th century which foreshadowed the Glorious English Revolution of 1688. John Locke writing in support of the revolution, attacked the divine right of authority, which he suggested arose from wrongheaded assumptions of natural inequality and the divine right of patriarchal power. Locke proposed that the state of nature actually rests upon our God given capacity for reason, from which an enlightened self-interest in common naturally blossoms once mankind acts upon nature to produce useful items for exchange, through which property rights come into being. In turn, by the consent of the majority, the body politic should be charged with the protection and mediation of property rights. Just less than a century later in 1776-as the cacophonous first steps of a free and independent America echoed across the world-Adam Smith elaborated on the historically unprecedented revolutionary productive potential of modern commercial society, made possible by the apotheosis of labor as the universal measure of value.
As the industrial revolution developed, it brought into existence a class of people who sold the only property they owned — their labor-power. This working class fell into an increasingly contradictory existence as their commodity was rendered increasingly superfluous by technological progress in production. Indeed, the worker’s own social demands for shorter hours and higher wages accelerated this process, which in turn defined the political character of nation states as they took to the international stage. As David Ricardo wrote in 1817, “if machinery is not allowed to get the greatest net revenue” in a state, “it will be carried abroad...by investing part of a capital in improved machinery, there will be a diminution in the progressive demand for labour; by exporting it to another country, the demand will be wholly annihilated.” This moving contradiction of capitalism revealed itself in its “true, unadulterated and prosaic expression” in 1848.
The inferior race
“Race of Cain your appointed task has not been adequately done”Charles Baudelaire
In France the sluggish progress of the political sphere; the withholding of universal suffrage and a general policy of protectionism under the political influence of the landowning class and the emerging financial aristocracy resulted in a convergence of interests of sections of the industrial bourgeoisie and the working class. The socialist movement found themselves on the crucible of history in the years leading up to 1848 as economies fell into a generalized depression. This depression deepened in France in 1846 following a particularly poor domestic grain harvest when the price of food and wages rose to levels which escalated the unemployment crisis on a mass scale. The revolutionary uprisings of February 1848 were successful in deposing King Louis Phillip and declaring the second Republic of France. The resulting political formation held in an uneasy and increasingly divided form until, following the forced closure of the newly established “right to work" National workshops, this uneasy fraternity collapsed.
The working class revolted in June but they were abandoned by their February allies. As Marx put it; “this fraternity found its true, unadulterated and prosaic expression in civil war, civil war in its most terrible aspect, the war of labor against capital.” The resulting power vacuum was filled, after the writing of a new constitution by the “Party of Order", in December when Louis Bonaparte was elected by a wide margin. Three years later, following a coup d’état, Louis Bonaparte declared himself president for life.
Louis Bonaparte’s approach was centered on ostensibly bringing to heel all the competing interests in society. As Efraim Carlebach writes this was achieved by “expanding state institutions of welfare and police as tools for controlling contradictions in society. So Bonapartism led the discontents of the masses to politically reconstitute capital through the state.” As Carlebach notes, “This was an international phenomenon, affecting all the major capitalist countries.” As such, without an independent, coherent political expression, the horizons of the working class shrunk back into the limitations of the state. This past may appear to us as a remote light that has long since burnt out however the fires lit in 1848 we still carry with us. Before returning to the present it might serve us well to consider exactly what the historical aims of the socialist movement were.
Riding the Leviathan
"Who can open the doors of his face? his teeth are terrible round about.”Job 41:14
In 1843 Marx asserted that, “the people must be startled by their own appearance as to give them courage.” What Marx is proposing here is that capitalism might become tangible by the potential sluggishness of the political sphere to manage the social contradictions of capitalist society during periods of historical crisis. But does capitalist crisis lead to socialism?
Chris Cutrone addresses this question, in his article “Robots and sweatshops,” when he writes, “Disparities and imbalances between capitalist profits and workers’ wages lead to periodic crises in which there is money that cannot find profitable investment and workers who cannot find employment. But eventually balance is restored through the cheapening of money-capital — and the cheapening of labor. New forms of work are developed to serve new technologies of production. — Until the next crisis begins the cycle all over again.” As such crisis is the mechanism by which capitalism sustains itself, breathing in out, in boom and bust cycles. But is this a stable or contradictory process?
As Hegel notes, civil society is both subordinate to and dependent on the state. Marx proposes that this reveals an unresolved contradiction; social interests find their universal end in the state and if individuals in Hegel's words, “have duties to the state in proportion as they have rights against it,” then it would follow, for example, that private property protections would coincide with a right (or guarantee) to property. Of course, the only guaranteed property individuals supposedly have in bourgeois society is the property that dwells in the flesh: the commodity labor-power.
The contradiction and indeed crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism did not invalidate bourgeois rights for Marx but rather rendered them in need of salvation. Marx shared Immanuel Kant's practical concern with freedom as an ongoing task. Indeed, Kant suggests that the unsocial sociability made possible by the civic freedom enshrined in modern political constitutions lifted mankind out of barbarism, a step made possible by the development of “the social worth of man.” Kant does not posit this as an end but rather as a beginning: that the world historic graduation out of barbarism sets bourgeois society a task, as Kant puts it, “a perfectly just civic constitution, is the highest problem Nature assigns to the human race; for Nature can achieve her other purposes for mankind only upon the solution and completion of this assignment.”
The socialist movement that emerged in the 19th century took up this task in earnest, consciously building on the optimism of the time. Marx and Engels wrote, “free activity for the Communists is the creative manifestation of life arising from the free development of all abilities of the whole person.” A fulfilment of the potential for the good life, or a world beyond the social relation of labour, would seem to haunt us today rather than fill us with hope. As such, today, divorced from the hope that blossomed into courageous activity we are left with our religious melancholy in much the same way that Adorno describes Soren Kierkegaard’s conception of consciousness. “He prefers to let consciousness circle about in the self's own dark labyrinth and communicating passageways without the beginning or aim, hopelessly expecting hope to flare up at the end of the most distant tunnel as the distant light of escape...” But for those who still hold to the bourgeois utopianism of socialism, is this hopeless expectation of hope the best that we can hope for? Is it merely a matter of having faith that the working class will one day ride the real movement of history through a portal to the future?
Marx asserted that in elaborating the historical specificity of the social contradiction of class society, his only other new contribution to socialism was that, “the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat,” and crucially, “that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.” Put another way: establishing a state that is born to die. What is thus revealed is that this process ultimately requires political action.
The battle of democracy would bring to fruition the fulfilment of the contradicted historic potential of representative liberal democracy. In other words, as with the withheld potential of humanity and technology under capitalism, the supersession of the principle of state power can only appear to us from our present standpoint negatively, as an apparition of withheld potentiality. In this sense the dictatorship of the proletariat is not yet socialism but rather self-conscious capitalism. As Cutrone puts it, “The goal of socialism is to realize capital as well as labor — to negate labor as well as capital. It is to realize as well as negate — overcome — capitalist necessity.”
The motorcade of the objective tendency
“It hither, thither, downward, upward, drives them;
No hope doth comfort them for evermore,
Not of repose, but even of lesser pain.”
Today, in the advanced economies, the decay of the major parties’ ties to what were their traditional social bases represents politics at an impasse. The political scientists Richard S. Katz and Peter Mair posit this political impasse as resulting from the cartelization of the major parties, the political elites, and their satellites into a single amorphous party where the blurring of the government and the opposition is almost total. The historical account they give, which predates neoliberalism by a number of decades, is tied to the hollowing out of the major parties and the decline of the industrial working class in the advanced economies, beginning in the post-World War 2 period.
As Peter Mair emphasizes, this decline in active political participation was not just confined to political parties but also other related civil society institutions, such as unions, that wielded diminishing political influence. As active social participation waned politics became an increasingly specialized profession and as such election campaigns became de-politicized vote-grabbing mass media spectacles with the real content of politics carried out by specialists. Importantly, as Peter Mair notes, the resulting general public attitude is not necessarily that of negative attitudes to politics but rather it often manifests as a mass passive indifference.
Tad Tietze and Elizabeth Humphrys seemingly take the implications of Katz and Mair's account a step further, with their “anti-politics” analysis when they write, “crucially, this detachment is not caused by the political class being less ‘representative’ of their social base than in some previous era; rather, its lack of a social base makes the political class’s actual role in representing the interests of the state within civil society more apparent.”
However, as we will further examine, this is not a wholly linear secular tendency (any more than unemployment or underemployment) but rather the reconstitution of politics emerges out of capitalist transition and crisis, which is, in turn, defined in the present by the historically constituted social requirements and relations of production. In this sense the present cannot only be understood by what is past but also the “dead” past is “alive” in making the present.
Thus the progress implied by the Hegelian notion of freedom as necessity does not just blossom and fall into the lap of modern society but rather history necessarily continues to task us. As such, to revel in what appears as given is to affirm what Theodor Adorno described as “the primacy of the whole,” a charge he levels at Hegel himself. The question thus raised for us today is, what does progress mean in the absence of the struggle for the political independence of the working class?
First as tragedy then as farce and farce and farce, the 1970s
“Paul McCartney once said that the Sex Pistols were another band playing Chuck Berry. At the time I thought — you boring old wanker — but now I think it's downright scary.”TISM
The economic crisis of the early 1970s brought with it a brief eruption of industrial militancy. In Australia, the self-avowed socialist Left, which had never been able to excise itself from those two magnetic giants, the Australian Labour Party (ALP) and Stalinism, but which still had an influence within the trade union movement, buckled under the weight of the ALP, which of course, was in the process of buckling under the weight of international politics. The Prices and Incomes Accord represented an ostensible win for the labor movement in Australia — a compromise to cease industrial action in return for a living wage and certain welfare state provisions. What it represented however was the last gasp of an already politically weakened social base. This was an international trend, the economic crisis of the 1970s served as impetus for governments to finally do away with aspects of an already weakening political and economic order. As the sociologist Colin Crouch writes, by the 1980s union officials “had been replaced as leaders in industrial militancy by public employees, with whom governments could deal directly without disturbing the market economy much. The main growth sectors of the new economy, private services, were usually not organized and had developed no autonomous political agenda, no organizations to articulate their specific grievances.”
The resulting political economic context Crouch describes is a move from public Keynesianism to private Keynesianism; government debt and interventionist policy has continued, but in the neoliberal period public debt has been shifted, in part, onto households. In the absence of organized labor, the relation of wages to consumer spending is a static fire that requires periodic technocratic tinkering. Governments themselves, from Crouch’s account, are on a trajectory towards “post-democracy” where the facilitation of global capitalism is the pre-requisite for maintaining national consumer society. But is this a new development?
Tad Tietze resurrects the specter of the 1970s in an essay on the controversy surrounding Todd Phillip's recent Joker movie. According to Tietze the hysterical response to the movie by a large swath of the commentariat concerning its depiction of white, male violence is a symptomatic expression of the growing detachment between the political and social spheres. Tietze, contrary to his anti-social enemies in the commentariat, asserts that civil society is actually becoming more socially progressive and not regressing as these hand-wringing media and political elites suggest. However, what both Tietze and the putrid neoliberal media miss is that progress or regress in capitalist society does not blossom in a linear sense, but rather it appears as a symptomatic expression of the dialectic between the forces and relations of production. As Chris Cutrone writes, “The contradiction of capital is not external but internal.” In this sense civil society is as much an expression of capitalist society as the political sphere, workers as much capitalist as the capitalists themselves.
The crisis of profitability of the 1970s brought with it its own symptomatic expressions, be they social, cultural, political, etc. Indeed, it was the beginning of what is called the participation economy. As such, in capitalism progress serves not to move society forward on a linear path but more accurately subsumes it to an altered mode of production. A concrete example would be new forms of labor discipline. The political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. described this process aptly at the end of 1970s: “Ironically, while U.S. radicals in the late 1960s fantasized about a "new man" in the abstract, capital was in the process of concretely putting the finishing touches on its new individual. Beneath the current black-female-student-chicano-homosexual-old-young-handicapped, etc., etc., ad nauseum, "struggles" lies a simple truth: there is no coherent opposition to the present administrative apparatus.”
Indeed, Colin Crouch writes that by the 1970s it becomes “impossible to imagine anything as vast as the global proletariat producing organizational forms that could express a shared interest. In reality the proletariat appeared on the stage of political history in national packages, oriented towards the political possibilities presented by individual nation states.”
The impoverishment of our imagination points us forcefully to the most stifling symptom of our time — the subsequent institutionalization of the failure of world socialist revolution in the years immediately following World War 1 and the collapse of socialism into Stalinism, socialism in one country. As the realities of Stalinism became apparent in the 1920s, the socialist left the world over found itself in a desperate predicament, how best to (not) surrender to history?
The so-called French turn, the attempt to continue to heighten the contradictions of capitalism by entering the mass social democratic and socialist parties is today institutionalized as self-avowed socialists desperately tail after and seek to influence what they assume is the progressive side of the political sphere. The misapprehension of progressivism as pointing to socialism was historically much less ubiquitous among those who had participated in this strategy. But this misapprehension is indeed ubiquitous today.
While the 1930s had been haunted by the impending specter of fascism, today “fascism” and pale renditions of “socialism or barbarism” are used to justify any and all pseudo-activities. As such, we are doomed to repeat the past in the ever-diminishing treadmill of politics of perpetual impasse. Indeed, this leaves us not on a linear path of progress, but rather we remain locked in the same regress within progress that historical Marxism identified. As Cutrone puts it, “The spiral development through which Lenin, among other Second International radicals such as Luxemburg and Trotsky, thought that history in the modern era had regressed through the “progress” since Marx and Engels’s time in 1848, the moment of the Communist Manifesto, showed how and why the subsequent development of Marxism sought to re-attain 1848. Was history since 1848 progress or regress? In a certain sense, it was both. In this history, bourgeois society appeared to both fulfill and negate itself.”
The social and political consequences of parasitism
“We are all Keynesians now.”Milton Friedman (1965)
“Whoever cannot seek the unforeseen sees nothing for the known way is an impasse.”
John Maynard Keynes himself did not foresee the degradation of the social basis for mass politics and the cartelization of the political sphere as an emergent feature of an increasingly monopolized capitalism. A contemporary of Keynes who did see this emergent phenomenon was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. As Lenin wrote during World War 1 on the emerging ideological homogeneity of the political elites in the advanced economies, “the most pronounced political distinction diminishes to an extreme degree in the epoch of imperialism — not because it is unimportant in general, but because in all these cases we are talking about a bourgeoisie which has definite features of parasitism.” This parasitism is a symptom of the imperial stage of capitalism, which is marked by the concentration of money capital in a few creditor countries who through foreign investment, and occasionally military might, make those debtor countries politically dependent on the very process their by which their own exploitation or client status is maintained. The new financial oligarchy emerging out of this phase of capitalism provides an increasingly interdependent bridge between industrial and financial capital and acts as the technical overseer of the ebbs and flows of vast superprofits.
Lenin, carrying on from the social scientist John Hobsons, who Keynes considered an important influence, predicted what is today called "post-industrial” society. If we reconsider Colin Crouch's account of the seemingly final and total subsumption of the labor movement into the state this points us to Lenin's often mischaracterized concept of the labor aristocracy.
Lenin describes the labor aristocracy arising as a "certain strata of the working class who have been bribed out of imperialist superprofits and converted to watchdogs of capitalism and corruptors of the labor movement." Both opponents and proponents of this theory have asserted that Lenin suggests this situation results from some moral failing on behalf of these bribed watchdogs: as if the political representatives of the working class were bribed “with” rather than “out of” superprofits. Some have even attempted to attack “superprofits” on empirical grounds (as if it were a static element of the object capital). These understandings posit imperialism as a certain distinct policy, “as the bad habit of a certain nation," rather than capitalism in a definite historical phase. From the historical account we have examined, this wrongheaded understanding arises out of a misapprehension of the self-generating logic of production for production’s sake. The great tame masses are not maintained by some moral deficiency but rather are subject to the abstract domination that compels the social and political production of society.
The heterodox Marxist Robert Kurz describes this false personification of capitalism, a charge he levels at Lenin and what he derides as “traditional Marxism," in his essay “Domination without a Subject” as such, “If there is an appropriation of the labor of “others”, if there is social repression, if there is open violence, it is for someone’s use and advantage. Cui bono — this is what the problem is reduced to. A consideration of this kind does not fit with reality. Not even the construction of the pyramids of the ancient Egyptians, which devoured a not-insignificant portion of the surplus product of that society, can be forcefully reduced to a perspective of (purely economic) benefit of a class or caste.” But did Lenin really see capitalism as something wielded by a definite “class or caste”? To examine this question a deeper investigation into the differing understandings of Keynes and Lenin is useful.
The seventh circle: imperialist war
Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth — there stands bourgeois society. This is it [in reality]. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law — but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form.”Rosa Luxemburg (1915)
Lenin was clear in his analysis that World War 1 was a conflict arising as the outgrowth of the ongoing partitioning and re-partitioning of the world by imperial capitalism. In a striking ideological inversion of Lenin's analysis, Keynes saw World War 1 as an illogical and pointless conflict of the “European family,” spurred on by both unsustainable population growth in Europe and the “the delusional and reckless self-regard” of the German people. His opposition to the Treaty of Versailles was motivated by a concern that it would undermine the arena of expansionary European capitalism which he viewed as a potentially stabilizing force in the world. Lenin also opposed the brutal conditions set forth in the Treaty of Versailles but for different political reasons.
Keynes and Lenin both accurately predicted that the brutal conditions of the Treaty set the stage for the resumption of hostilities. Keynes himself was, for a time, an adviser to the negotiations of the Treaty but resigned in protest. Lenin suggested writing Keynes a thank-you letter for arguing for the cancellation of debt in an already ravished Europe. The Bolsheviks had cancelled Russia's debt following the social and political revolutions of 1917.
A useful example of Keynes's understanding of the emerging economic order he was attempting to give direction to can be found in his Economic Consequences of the Peace when he writes, “The immense accumulations of fixed capital which, to the great benefit of mankind, were built up during the half century before the war, could never have come about in a Society where wealth was divided equitably. The railways of the world, which that age built as a monument to posterity, were, not less than the Pyramids of Egypt, the work of labor which was not free to consume in immediate enjoyment the full equivalent of its efforts.” Analogizing railways with pyramids provides an eerily accurate insight into the stasis of the relations of production which, emerging out of throws of economic crisis, abortive revolutions and the capitalist bloodletting of the great imperialist wars, seem today set in stone.
Much of the consensus amongst Egyptologists around the specifics of the socio-economics of Ancient Egyptian society only emerged after Keynes's death. For example, contrary to common narratives, the Pyramids were not built by slaves but rather by relatively well-treated workers. These workers were provided with their means of subsistence, including regular portions of fish and other meat, and were generally worked in three-month shifts. While these workers had a relatively privileged existence, the work itself was arduous and many them were worked to death. After death some workers were rewarded with valorous funerals and even burials within the pyramids themselves. The Pyramids were of course the opulent tombs of the Pharaohs. In a strange sense you might say that the labor aristocracy in the epoch of imperial capitalism have been buried in a similar way. In the long-term absence of the struggle for the political independence of the working class, the state is their tomb. Crucially, the society of free labor, especially as it becomes increasing totalized under fully developed capitalism, points beyond a mere mass project (be it pyramids or railways). With mass production and consumption and the resulting standardization of labor, society itself is the mass project.
The apparent permanence of prehistory
“...the movement [of the antagonism immanent in the capitalist mode of production] becomes more and more a spiral, and must come to an end, like the movement of planets, by collision with the centre.”Friedrich Engels (1880)
“…wholly dead will be our knowledge from the moment when the portal of the future shall be closed.”
Lenin believed that the imperial stage of capitalism sets the foundation for world socialist revolution. In this we must be precise, as Lenin stressed: the historically unprecedented global logistical interlocking, or more exactly international socialization of production, sets the stage for the fight for the political independence of the working class on a global scale. This fight would be doomed from the start unless it was inextricably linked with the struggle against a politics merely bound to the capital reconstituting cycles of individual nation states. For Lenin, imperialism and opportunism were bound up together. As he wrote, “it becomes evident that we have socialization of production, and not mere “interlocking,” that private economic and private property relations constitute a shell which no longer fits its contents, a shell which must inevitably decay if its removal is artificially delayed, a shell which may remain in a state of decay for a fairly long period (if, at the worst, the cure of the opportunist abscess is protracted), but which will inevitably be removed.” If the birth pangs of the modern imperial stage of capitalism was indeed the eve of world revolution, then this eve has stretched into evening.
Keynes famously predicted that by 2030 the workers of advanced economies would be working 15-hour weeks. This would be achieved according to Keynes if the overseers of economic matters became specialists, rather like dentists. This analogy takes on a different character when we consider that the general intellect of society is automatically tasked with (and ultimately hindered by) managing the buying and selling of arbitrary sections of time rather than arbitrary sections of teeth. Moreover, crucially, the buying and selling of labor-power is ultimately overseen by the state. The potential for a world beyond labour seems at once both closer and further away than ever. This potential we still drag with us into the future, half formed, waiting to be birthed and take its world historic first steps.
What Marx identified was that unemployment is endemic, undercutting the very freedom by which it was brought about, and that the state itself is an expression of this endemic contradiction. However, it is not enough to merely recognize the inevitability of Bonapartism, we must not forget, as Lenin noted, to recognize the inevitability of its downfall. For to misrecognize this inevitability is to imbue the present with supernatural qualities. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, “If Sparta and Rome perished, what State can hope to endure forever? If we would set up a long-lived form of government, let us not even dream of making it eternal. If we are to succeed, we must not attempt the impossible, or flatter ourselves that we are endowing the work of man with a stability of which human conditions do not permit.”
This brings us to the specific historical juncture in which we languish. As Adorno wrote, “to recognize the catastrophic violence in the latest form of injustice, that is to say, the latent injustice contained in fair exchange, means to simply identify it with the pre-history it destroyed.” Coming back to our rather time-worn inversion of the Keynesian love of pyramid building, i.e. transposing wage slavery back onto prehistory, we have achieved a rather simple yet invaluable insight; as Adorno wrote, “all history is the history of the class struggle because it was always the same thing, namely, prehistory.”
But is there a pathway out of this long night and into a new dawn? Capitalism still breathes in and out and thus the footsteps of God will still periodically approach. It will not only be a matter of listening for his footfalls but most crucially of being organized in such a way that we might hasten his approach and “try and catch onto His coattails as He marches past.”| P
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 John M. Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1920)
 J. Shaw, “Who Built the Pyramids?” in Harvard Magazine (2003), <https://harvardmagazine.com/2003/07/who-built-the-pyramids-html>
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 Dante Alighieri, Inferno
 Lenin, Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916)
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 Lenin, The Beginning of Bonapartism (1917), <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/jul/29.htm>
 Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses (1761)
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 Sebag Montefiore, The Romanovs (2016).