‘Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely’, Marx wrote in the opening chapter of Capital, ‘and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form’.footnote1 That question—why that content in this form—succinctly resumes what we might think of as a specific Marxist ‘formalism’, founded on the dialectic of material content and the curious inverted social and political forms that Marx called, in the Denglish of his notebooks, ‘diese Religion of every day’s life.’footnote2

Consider, as an example of such curious social forms, two failed impeachments: that of Donald Trump in early 2020, and that of Louis Bonaparte, a key moment in Marx’s account of the revolutions of 1848 and the political struggles that followed. The impeachment of Trump figures the two great ideologemes of our moment: on the one hand, the resurgence of the label ‘populism’ to name movements and regimes across the globe, with Trump among its avatars; on the other, the triumph of a global fire capitalism—finance, insurance, real estate.footnote3 Since the rise of populists is often explained by the depredations of global finance, Trump—both ‘populist’ and real-estate developer—is as enigmatic as Bonaparte—who, Marx wrote, ‘violates everything that seemed inviolable’, and ‘creates anarchy itself in the name of order, and at the same time strips the halo from the state machine, profaning it and making it both disgusting and ridiculous.’footnote4 What is this relation between populism and real estate? Is populism actually the politics of ‘the people’, as we are told both by defenders of populist reason (Ernesto Laclau) and by adversaries of the populist temptation (Slavoj Žižek)?footnote5

The impeachment of Louis Bonaparte in June 1849 came about when the democrats and the socialists united into a Democratic-Socialist party, a ‘new Mountain’, a ‘Red party’, around a call for impeachment. On June 11, Ledru-Rollin, their parliamentary leader, brought a bill of impeachment against Bonaparte for his military intervention against the elected Roman Republic, established in early 1849 after the flight of Pope Pius ix; the French siege of Rome aimed at the restoration of papal rule, to help shore up Bonaparte’s conservative support at home. Ledru-Rollin, Marx tells us, made no speech: just an indictment, ‘naked, unadorned, factual, concentrated, forceful . . . Ledru-Rollin thus called the Constitution itself as a witness for the prosecution against Bonaparte’.footnote6 This ‘parliamentary insurrection’ was voted down, and the ‘state of impeachment’ was followed by a ‘state of siege’, as Bonaparte ordered the closing of radical newspapers and disbanding of the republican National Guard, soon followed by the imprisonment and exile of the social-democrats.

The attempt to impeach President Bonaparte is a fascinating, if little remarked-on, moment in this history for three reasons. First, it was an episode that Marx witnessed directly, having arrived in Paris in June 1849 as a representative of the Rhineland democrats after the defeat of the revolution in Cologne; one biographer suggests that Marx took part in the June 13 street demonstration.footnote7 By the end of the summer Marx had been expelled from France, and ended up, like Ledru-Rollin, in exile in London. Second, the failed impeachment was one of the two turning points—along with the suppression and massacre of Parisian workers during the June Days uprising of 1848 (‘the most colossal event in the history of European civil wars’footnote8)—in a major cluster of Marx’s political writings: the essays he wrote on ‘1848–1849’ in London for his short-lived bi-monthly magazine, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Politisch-Ökonomische Revue, in 1850 (which, a half-century later, were published as The Class Struggles in France, 1848–1850, a book that did not follow Marx’s intended plan);footnote9 and the subsequent pamphlet, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, first published in New York in 1852, just months after Bonaparte’s coup d’état in December 1851.footnote10

Above all, the failed attempt to impeach Bonaparte stands at the centre of Marx’s pioneering reflections on what we have come to call ‘populism’, the contradictory political form at the heart of modern regimes of ‘universal suffrage’. Bonaparte’s impeachment is thus particularly resonant for the contemporary crises of extended-suffrage, parliamentary-presidential regimes—not only the impeachment of Trump, but the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and the subsequent election of Bolsonaro in Brazil. For Marx’s two central questions in The Eighteenth Brumaire continue to haunt us: one on Bonaparte’s success: ‘it remains to be explained’, he writes, ‘how a nation of thirty-six millions could be taken by surprise by three swindlers and delivered without resistance into captivity’; and a second on the failure of the labour movement: ‘why did the Paris proletariat not rise in revolt after [the 1851 coup d’état]?’footnote11

Though Marx’s three classic answers remain debated by historians—that the republic destroyed itself for fear of the proletarian masses; that the financial bourgeoisie allied with the industrial bourgeoisie to choose Bonaparte’s ‘order’ over ‘anarchy’; and that Bonaparte was able to represent the peasants (‘the situation of the French peasantry reveals the solution to the riddle’footnote12)—Marx’s questions remain at the heart of what we might call the populist antinomy. First, there is the question of the populist ‘swindler’, the authoritarian demagogue within the constitutional republic, reverberating from Gramsci’s prison notes on ‘movement[s] of the Boulangist type’, to W. E. B. Du Bois’s account of the failed impeachment in 1868 of the ‘poor white’ president Andrew Johnson (‘the most pitiful figure of American history’), to Stuart Hall’s account of the ‘authoritarian populism’ of Margaret Thatcher.footnote13 Second, there is the question of a popular-democratic social movement that could challenge the capitalist order, from its nineteenth-century origins—the Narodniks of the post-serf emancipation in the 1860s–70s; the us Farmers’ Alliance and People’s Party of the post-slave emancipation in the 1880s–90s—to the post-2008 ‘populisms’ figured by Ecuador’s Alianza pais, Bolivia’s Movement for Socialism, Spain’s Podemos, the uk’s Momentum, and the us’s Our Revolution. I will begin by briefly considering Marx’s account of the political form that came to be called ‘populism’; I will then argue that his account of the ‘forms of exploitation’—first articulated in the same set of essays—offers a powerful way of understanding the political forms that we call ‘populism’, and the relation between populism, finance and real estate.

The politics of ‘the people’ enters The Eighteenth Brumaire in three places: first, to identify the contradictions of France’s extended-suffrage, parliamentary-presidential constitution; second, to illuminate ‘the struggle between republicans and royalists’; and third, to explain the failed impeachment of Bonaparte. In the first passage, Marx sounds like one of the authors of the us Federalist Papers—or more accurately the looser body of writings we now call the Anti-Federalist Papers—exploring the political dynamics of constitutions, representation, suffrage, and the division of state powers. Marx identifies the fundamental contradiction of the emerging parliamentary-presidential states not only in the ‘game of constitutional powers’ between the National Assembly and the President, but in their distinct relations to the nation’s people in the new regime of ‘universal suffrage’.