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Beyond Bonapartism: Breaking statephobic thought taboos

Benjamin M. Studebaker

Platypus Review 166 | May 2024

AT THE PLATYPUS European Conference, I suggested that there is a modern theory of crisis that is no longer fit for purpose.[1] It belongs to modern political theory in general. It is not exclusively Marxist. You’ll find it in Lenin and Adorno, but also in Jürgen Habermas and Reinhart Koselleck. Indeed, you’ll even find it in Robert Dahl, if you know where to look.[2] I’m working on a book about all this, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. But that book — Legitimacy in Liberal Democracies —won’t be able to say certain things that I believe you need to hear. It certainly won’t be able to say these things in the way I believe you need to hear them.

You see, if my critique of the modern theory of crisis is right, this has implications for you. Insofar as you are a Marxist, it changes what you ought to be doing with your life. Academic books can no longer be written principally for Marxists, because there aren’t enough of you around anymore to buy them. But I do want to give you some advice. So, members of Platypus, I’ve written this just for you. Sometimes I do this sort of thing. The pieces I write for Isonomia are for them; this one is for you.

The modern theory of crisis supposes that society can be organized in such a way that it can meaningfully challenge the state. In Marxist theories, the focus is on the party. But in non-Marxist socialism and liberalism, you’ll see other organizations given the same task. Alone or in combination, the trade unions, the churches, the guilds, and the salons have been assigned this role. More recently, you’ll see abstract references to “community organizers” or “social movements.” In these theories it’s less clear who is meant to do the work, but it is the same work that is to be done — society is to be organized for the purposes of challenging the state.

Depending on what sort of modernist you are, the challenge to the state is meant to produce reform, revolution, or some synthesis of the two. The state must make concessions to society, it must be overcome by society, it must make concessions that lead to its overcoming, or it must be overcome in a way that leads to the making of concessions. Marxists have traditionally insisted this process must terminate in the state’s overcoming.[3] Anarchists agree that the state must be overcome, but Marxists think this overcoming requires the dictatorship of the proletariat, while anarchists entertain other ways of reaching this goal. Social democrats do not want to overcome the bourgeois state; they want concessions from it. Democratic socialists act like social democrats but ostensibly for Marxist or anarchist reasons. You members of Platypus have read all of this stuff and are well-versed in it. You just need me to explain enough of it to demonstrate my awareness.

The historical evidence for the modern theory of crisis lies in the bourgeois revolutions, in 1776 and 1789. It clearly used to be possible to organize society in such a way that you could get this kind of confrontation. The people who developed the modern theory were not stupid; they were responding to their situations intelligently. The modern theory was very effective for bourgeois purposes. You certainly could use it to overcome a traditional monarchy and replace it with the modern state. But modern theorists suppose it can also be used against the modern state itself. The modern state is not like the ancien régime. It does not produce the kind of society a degenerating traditional monarchy produces. As the modern state consolidated, developed, and then began to degenerate in its own, unique way, the modern theory of crisis became ever more estranged from the kind of crisis that actually takes place in modern states.

The kingdom of France

Imagine 18th century France.[4] You have an absolutist monarchy that is at once enormously repressive and yet at the same time increasingly incapable of repression. As power concentrates around the king, the organs of the state that traditionally mediated the king and his subjects — the nobility and the church — degenerate and lose effectiveness. The king’s power is strengthened, but these other essential parts of the state wither away. So, the subjects confront the center of power in an unmediated way. This produces a uniform subjectivity. It unites society around the conviction that the king must be confronted. The stronger the king becomes, and the weaker the nobles and the priests, the clearer it is to the subjects that they must confront the king.

At the start of The Lord of the Rings (1954), when the Hobbits are in the Shire, and they look in the direction of Mordor, what do they see? They see forests, villages, the realms of elves, men, and dwarves. There are all sorts of beautiful things between them and Mordor; there is no need to worry. But what happens when the Hobbits peek their heads into Mordor and look at the great eye?[5] Their purpose becomes clear. They must put aside whatever differences they have and do what is necessary to overcome Sauron. In the Shire, it is necessary for Gandalf to force the Hobbits to go on the journey. But when they see Mordor for themselves, they no longer need to be told what to do. They organize themselves for what very clearly must be done.[6]

Moderns think the state presides over free society, in which they might possibly organize for revolution or reform. But the kind of society that can actually be organized for revolution is not a free society. It is a society that is unfree and conscious of its unfreedom. A degenerating monarchy is much better at producing this kind of society. It is, quite frankly, the one thing that degenerating monarchies do very well.[7]

Modern states outcompete traditional monarchies by finding new ways of mediating between the state and the subject. These new forms of mediation reinstate the confusion that prevailed in the heyday of the traditional monarchies. When most people picture the state, they do not see a king, alone, atop a foreboding tower of doom. They see the democratic procedures and the multilayered bureaucracy they instantiate. They see the civil society organizations themselves. Some try to participate in unions and political parties, thinking they allow them to organize against the state, but they discover too late that these organizations are themselves now playing the mediating roles that the nobles and the priests used to play. The very places to which one once went to make the revolution are now where the confusion has reached its highest level of intensity.

In this web of mediation, one has no idea what to do, which way to go. Worse, one and one’s would-be comrades all develop different opinions, disagreeing on which organizations are emancipatory and which have been co-opted. When they do join the same organization, they can’t agree on what it should do, what tactics it should adopt. Whenever one tries to confront any particular capitalist politician, that politician tells them that they, the politician, are not the true face of the state. The princess is in some other castle.

In truth, under the modern state there is no longer a single princess, no great eye, and so even if one could unite to confront “the state,” one would only succeed in confronting some part of it. When the state cannot be summed up in “L’état c’est moi,”[8] attempts to confront the state often serve to strengthen one part of the state against another. Seemingly “radical” movements facilitate the state’s consolidation. Savvy political actors use these movements to advance their own careers, while most people are increasingly confused and frustrated.

This very clearly happened in the traditional monarchies, back in the day. Is there not enough food in the village? Well, whose fault is that? Is it the king’s fault? Maybe — but maybe it is the fault of the church. Or perhaps it is the fault of the regional duke, or the local count. Maybe it’s the bishop’s fault, or maybe the fault lies with the parish priest. The human brain cannot make sense of all this. Fuck it. Let’s blame that black rat over there.[9] It looks upsetting. Maybe it’s evil?

There’s a film called The Devils (1971),in which Cardinal Richelieu is looking to increase the power of the monarchy.[10] To do this, he wants to pull down the walls of the French cities, so that they cannot rebel effectively. In Loudun, there is a priest who refuses to go along with this. The priest is popular and friendly with the king. So, the cardinal contrives to destroy this priest by having a group of nuns accuse him of bewitching them. The legal process degenerates into an absurd show trial, in which “experts” make pseudoscientific arguments. Eventually, the priest is executed and the walls are pulled down. You might think this film depicts medieval subjects who need to be enlightened, and in one sense it does. But it also depicts elites who are very aware of what they are doing. Premodern elites knew how to make their political systems work. They created gaps in consciousness between themselves and their subjects and they exploited these gaps self-consciously.[11]

The trouble with traditional monarchies was not that the elites did not understand how they worked. The trouble is that the layers of mediation created divisions within the state itself. Mediation is necessary to keep the subjects confused about what’s going on, but it also creates conflict within the state, between the church and the monarchy, between the nobility and the church, and between the monarchy and the nobility. These conflicts are highly functional when you are trying to keep the peasants confused, but they can lead to civil conflict. Internal divisions can be exploited by rival states. Foreign states can choose sides within these divisions. They can use moments of internal weakness to invade.

Concentrating power around the monarchy reduces civil conflict and increases the competitiveness of the state. By centralizing, France became more stable and more able to brush off its rivals. It could eject the English; it could invade Italy. It could even dream of uniting with Spain. But this came at a cost to the French state’s capacity to legitimate itself internally. France ate itself internally so as to overcome its external foes. In the course of overcoming other states, the French state lost control of French society.

American democracy is not degenerating in that kind of way. Instead of destroying the mediators, the American political system is hard at work proliferating them. It creates so many mediators that both the state and society are now riven with internal conflicts. There is now so much mediation that even the rulers themselves are increasingly confused about how to make the state operate. Among the elites, there is a lower level of consciousness of this now than there was in antiquity or in the Middle Ages.

After Rousseau

You need wisdom to operate a state that features a lot of mediation. You need political virtues. The modern state was designed to operate in commercial society, in a society where most people are too busy with their private business to develop a fully political consciousness. In the Phaedrus, Plato ranks different sorts of people by their level of consciousness of the good.[12] At the top, there’s the philosopher, who loves the good in itself, for its own sake. Then you have kings, who are concerned with the good of the whole realm. Then there are the statesmen, who are concerned with the public good, but also with their political careers, along with the householders and financiers who are concerned with the good of their houses, but not of the whole city.[13]

It is very difficult to create people who can be philosophers or kings, who are in position to reach beyond their particular positions and grasp the universal. But for Plato, you must try to generate them, because a city that is run by the householders degenerates into an oligarchy, then a democracy, and finally a tyranny. The householders do not operate at a high enough level of consciousness to maintain the polity in the form in which they receive it.

In the 18th century, when the French state was centralizing, you did not need to be a philosopher or a king to grasp the situation. You could be a Hobbit. It became possible to imagine a form of polity in which a society of householders manages itself without much need for special bodies of armed men. Some of these images were pastoral and agrarian, like Rousseau’s. Other images were more overtly commercial and maritime, like those of Adam Smith.

But by the time of Benjamin Constant, it was already beginning to be clear that if there were a moment when this was possible, that moment had passed. It is for this reason that Constant argues that the modern state will operate by reducing the need for the citizens to be politically involved. It will not produce fully conscious subjects, but new forms of mediation that make this lack of consciousness functional. It will bestow the highest level of consciousness it can produce with the name “freedom,” but this will be the freedom of the bourgeois householder. Tocqueville celebrates the success of this in the United States. Somehow, the Americans found a way to replace the nobility and the church with new forms of mediation. This is what is exciting about American democracy for the 19th century French liberal, who is now concerned not just with overcoming kings, but with generating a new kind of French state that can yield stability and order.

Tocqueville nonetheless worried that eventually the Americans would destroy their mediating structures, that eventually the federal state would become like the French kings, and history would repeat itself. Conservative Americans love Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835)in large part because they love these warnings. But their fear that the United States will become the ancien régime is misplaced. For while the federal government in the United States has grown stronger over the years, it has also generated even more forms of mediation. It has privatized mediation, relying on corporations like Disney and Tesla to keep its citizens dreaming about alternate worlds and exciting futures.

This has created a federal state that is more powerful but also more divided against itself than any other state in human history. Its enormous theoretical capacities are constantly thwarted by the reality of its internal divisions. These capacities appear again and again to new generations of Americans as something they might somehow find a way to wield. But each generation is caught in the web of mediation. For a while, there is some futile struggling, but eventually, political energy is exhausted and they make peace with the fact that they are stuck in a new place.

Insofar as they remain with us, the Marxists are quick to point out that American democracy is a trap. They are right to do so. But if they think that the 18th century in France revealed to us a truth to which we can “RETVRN,” they have not grasped history. The image of a united society overcoming the state was only ever briefly appropriate. Its appropriateness has been in continuous decline for over two centuries. Rousseau did not grasp the human condition; he grasped the condition of 18th century France.[14] Insofar as Marxism has been an attempt to realize Rousseau’s dream in historical contexts from which that dream is increasingly alienated, it has always already been in decline.

But Marxism does not need to be reduced to that. More fundamentally, Marxism is the idea that every human being can and ought to achieve the highest forms of consciousness possible for that human being. For most of human history, limits on consciousness have been imposed by the needs of the economic system and of the state that maintains that system. By going through capitalism, we generate the possibility of overcoming those limits. Crucially, we not only generate a possibility of overcoming the limits, but also discover that in many cases people can do more than we thought they could do. We overcome our tendency to naturalize and reify what we see before us. We even realize that what we thought was the highest form of consciousness, the highest kind of freedom, was itself a misapprehension of what can be done.[15]

On Bonapartism

Too many Marxists have argued that insofar as we have capitalism, we are in the same situation as those who lived under capitalism before us. We need to pay more attention to the kind of state we have, to the possibilities that state opens and those it forecloses. The modern bourgeois nation-state is a problem in its own right. Marxists have often pointed out that the form the state currently takes blocks things other people try to do, but they are reluctant to heed this advice themselves.

This is largely because of a thought taboo created by the role the concept of Bonapartism has historically played in Marxist thought. If you think that society is meant to overcome the state, and then the state is meant to wither away, the state can only be preserved if the revolution has been incomplete. In this conceptual scheme, a person who argues that the state remains necessary has made an objective concession to the Right. They have argued for, at the very least, a “retreat.”

In the 20th century, the scale of the revolutionary task became enormous. The party organized society, but the modern state consolidated even faster. It proliferated mediators, and these mediators subverted social organizations and turned them against themselves and one another. It was the presence of these mediators that induced Althusser to speak of “ideological state apparatuses.” But in thinking of the state as unitary and implacable, he failed to grasp the internal divisions that were already being born within it.

This is not to say that Bonapartism is an entirely outmoded concept. There are many kinds of states that restrain consciousness, and we do need to identify them and avoid replicating or reinventing them. But today, states rarely operate in the orthodox Bonapartist way, i.e., by putting generals in between the workers and the capitalists. Instead, they operate by proliferating confusing forms of mediation. The critical difference between these total states and the Bonapartist state is that the latter rests on a contingent class compromise that is highly visible and, given the alternatives, relatively easy to grasp. Fully-fledged modern states operate in a confused way, in a way that befuddles even their operators.

This lack of consciousness can be used to turn the modern state against itself. Rather than try in vain to unite society or to wield the modern state’s hypothetical capacities ourselves, we can exacerbate the impasses to the point of implosion.

While we cannot unite society for a confrontation with the state, we can create “perches” in the detritus of modern society. From these perches, we can study the state, grasp the dynamics of its malaise, formulate alternative political forms, and find ways to use the malaise to move toward the alternative forms. These alternative forms must unlock consciousness. Ideally, they should create conditions under which the working class can be reawakened. But this may not involve going straight to the end all in one go. There may be a series of political forms that are necessary. If we make better kinds of polities, future generations born into future polities will grasp things that we do not grasp. We do not, therefore, need to solve the whole problem ourselves. We need only make a start.

The universities are gradually losing their capacity to function as perches. We will need new social organizations that can perform this role. These organizations may provide a pedagogical function, they may offer advice to state actors, they may dress themselves up as non-political organizations dedicated to religious asceticism or to historical preservation. But above all else, they are perches from which to observe the modern state, to look for opportunities to turn it against itself for the purposes of transforming it into some superior political form.

The special task

In antiquity, it was rarely assumed that states fetter consciousness. On the contrary, it was often argued that a well-ordered state created the conditions necessary for consciousness. Aristotle describes the possibility of a highly conscious, cooperative society, but this cooperation is made possible by the state:

individuals while owning their property privately put their own possessions at the service of their friends and make use of their friends’ possessions as common property; for instance in Sparta people use one another’s slaves as virtually their own, as well as horses and hounds, and also use the produce in the fields throughout the country if they need provisions on a journey. It is clear therefore that it is better for possessions to be privately owned, but to make them common property in use; and to train the citizens to this is the special task of the legislator.[16]

Please do not read this as an exhortation to rebuild the polis. I do not stand before you espousing the politics of Nietzsche or Arendt. My aim here is to get you to think about how we can use the state to do Marxism, to expand consciousness, to overcome the structural domination of capital, today, in our circumstances. The purpose of raising Aristotle is to shake you out of a set of modernist assumptions that have become a straightjacket. It is not to make a scholastic out of you.

As we think about this, it will be helpful to keep in mind that there may be more causes of conflict among people than we would like to think. While scarcity and competition have, historically, played an enormously important role in causing us to kill each other, Hobbes does point to another problem. This is the problem of “diffidence” and it stems from the separation of persons. Because you and I inhabit separate bodies, I do not have direct access to your consciousness, nor you to mine. To communicate with you, I must use words, like the ones I’m using here. There are several ways we can make a mess of this together:

1. I can lie to you; I can deliberately misrepresent what is in my mind.
2. I can be inarticulate; I can try earnestly to express myself, but fail to get my point across.
3. You can misunderstand me; you can be uncharitable and mischaracterize my position.

And of course, we can do two or even all three of these things at the same time. In fact, doing all three is not the exception — it’s the rule. Words are mediators, they are ways of trying to create an illusion that a gap in material reality can be bridged. When we are conscious of their role, we choose them carefully, and perhaps it is possible that one day we will achieve a level of consciousness that allows us to rule ourselves with words alone. But people get lost in mediation. They reify and naturalize their terms. They choose their words poorly, and their misunderstandings lead to conflict. These conflicts are especially sharp when we disagree about the meanings of the terms that gesture at that which is most precious to us — words like “God,” “Good,” “Truth,” or “Freedom.”

The modern state is a realm of mediation and thus one of confusion. It is a context in which words do not unite society, they create ever more numerous forms of conflict. But if some number of us can nonetheless grasp what is going on, we will have an advantage over the elites themselves, who are now completely lost in a maze of their own making. Instead of denying the confusion or waiting for the confusion to subside, we can tarry with it.

You need peace to think. Hobbes, in trying to come up with a political solution to the English Civil War, tried to create peace — he tried to help you think. He took the task of political theory seriously. The nation-state he helped to fashion has run its course. Now we must take up the special task once more, the task that belonged to John Adams, that drove him to write these lines:

The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other Sciences; the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain.[17] |P

[1] On January 25–27, 2024, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted its sixth annual European Conference in Berlin. See the panel “The legacy of Lenin” (January 27, 2024), available online at <>.

[2] Fine, I’ll tell you — the book you’re looking for is Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (1971).

[3] I use the term “traditionally” to deliberately suggest modernity has ossified into a tradition.

[4] If you need help, read Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856).

[5] See the scene in the film The Return of the King (2003), where Frodo and Sam turn a corner and see the Eye of Sauron: <>.

[6] People often read The Lord of the Rings in a conservative way, but c’mon, man — the Hobbits are bourgeois in the extreme. In the film The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), see Bilbo’s description of Hobbits: <>; Frodo saying, “our business is our own”: <>; Bilbo explaining why he took Frodo in: <>; and the routine of breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon, dinner, and supper: <>.

[7] Perhaps this has something to do with the reason Plato suggests tyranny is the regime that immediately precedes the wiping of the slate.

[8] [French] “I am the state”; literally, “the state, that’s me.”

[9] See Sonya Vatomsky, “When Societies Put Animals on Trial,” JSTOR Daily, September 13, 2017, available online at <>.

[10] There is an episode of my films podcast The Lack on The Devils: “The Devils and Repression” (May 20, 2021), available online at <>.

[11] The Devils is based on real events. As far as we understand what happened, the priest was indeed killed as part of a political plot by the cardinal.

[12] In the Republic, there are three kinds of souls, but in the Phaedrus, there are nine. The number is different because the typology of souls is not a dogma, but a metaphor. Its purpose is pedagogical; Plato wrote the dialogues to persuade you that thinking is cool and you should do it if you can.

[13] After this come the athletes and the medical doctors, who are concerned with the whole body, but not the soul. Then you have priests of the mysteries and the poets, who delight the senses, but not the whole body. Then you have poets and imitative artists, who focus more narrowly on specific senses. Then you have manual laborers and farmers, who satisfy specific appetites and physical needs. Then the sophists and demagogues, who deliberately create confusion in others, and finally the tyrants, who are themselves the most confused and the least happy.

[14] Or perhaps 18th century Geneva, depending on who you ask.

[15] Market socialists fail to grasp the degree to which markets fetter consciousness. The merchant is a long way from the philosopher, and a philosopher who must sell philosophy the way a merchant sells socks will find that in due course, the pitch degrades the product. But this is a digression — we’ll pick it back up again some other time.

[16] Aristotle, Politics, book II, section 1263a, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1944), 87–89, emphasis added, available online at <,0086,035:2>.

[17] John Adams to Abigail Adams (May 12, 1780), available online at <>.