Karl Marx on Comedy

"Poor Boniface! You are constipated with your holy thoughts and reflections, since you can no longer relieve yourself in speech and writing!
O admirable victim of profundity! O pious constipation!"

— Karl Marx, Scorpion and Felix: A Humoristic Novel (1837)

[. . . .] I am humorous, but the law bids me write seriously. I am audacious, but the law commands that my style be modest. [. . . .] The universal modesty of the mind is reason, that universal liberality of thought which reacts to each thing according to the latter's essential nature.

Further, if seriousness is not to come under Tristram Shandy's definition according to which it is a hypocritical behaviour of the body in order to conceal defects of the soul, but signifies seriousness in substance, then the entire prescription falls to the ground. For I treat the ludicrous seriously when I treat it ludicrously, and the most serious immodesty of the mind is to be modest in the face of immodesty.

Serious and modest! What fluctuating, relative concepts! Where does seriousness cease and jocularity begin? Where does modesty cease and immodesty begin? We are dependent on the temperament of the censor. It would be as wrong to prescribe temperament for the censor as to prescribe style for the writer. If you want to be consistent in your aesthetic criticism, then forbid also a too serious and too modest investigation of the truth, for too great seriousness is the most ludicrous thing of all, and too great modesty is the bitterest irony.

— Karl Marx, "Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction" [written between January 15 & February 10, 1842], Anekdota zur neuesten deutschen Philosophie und Publicistik, Bd. I, 1843; translation published in Marx Engels Collected Works, Volume 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), p. 113. *

There are, not surprisingly, numerous uses of the trope of "comedy" in the writings of Marx and Engels. Marx's most famous use of the concept occurs at the beginning of 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), and he comes back to it later in the book. 

The famous opener to Chapter I:

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.

The footnote suggests that Marx got this notion from Engels’ letter to Marx of 3 December 1851. The footnote suggests some other possible sources in Hegel.

The other significant quote comes from Chapter V:

This Bonaparte, who constitutes himself chief of the lumpenproletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in this scum, offal, refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally, is the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrase. An old, crafty roué, he conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade in which the grand costumes, words, and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery. Thus his expedition to Strasbourg, where the trained Swiss vulture played the part of the Napoleonic eagle. For his irruption into Boulogne he puts some London lackeys into French uniforms. They represent the army.  In his Society of December 10 he assembles ten thousand rascals who are to play the part of the people as Nick Bottom [A character in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.—Ed.] that of the lion. At a moment when the bourgeoisie itself played the most complete comedy, but in the most serious manner in the world, without infringing any of the pedantic conditions of French dramatic etiquette, and was itself half deceived, half convinced of the solemnity of its own performance of state, the adventurer, who took the comedy as plain comedy, was bound to win. Only when he has eliminated his solemn opponent, when he himself now takes his imperial role seriously and under the Napoleonic mask imagines he is the real Napoleon, does he become the victim of his own conception of the world, the serious buffoon who no longer takes world history for a comedy but his comedy for world history.

Another revealing remark on comedy from Marx comes from, surprisingly, the very same famous essay with remarks on religion as the opium of the people—A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction (1843-4):

This struggle against the limited content of the German status quo cannot be without interest even for the modern nations, for the German status quo is the open completion of the ancien régime and the ancien régime is the concealed deficiency of the modern state. The struggle against the German political present is the struggle against the past of the modern nations, and they are still burdened with reminders of that past. It is instructive for them to see the ancien régime, which has been through its tragedy with them, playing its comedy as a German revenant. Tragic indeed was the pre-existing power of the world, and freedom, on the other hand, was a personal notion; in short, as long as it believed and had to believe in its own justification. As long as the ancien régime, as an existing world order, struggled against a world that was only coming into being, there was on its side a historical error, not a personal one. That is why its downfall was tragic.

On the other hand, the present German regime, an anachronism, a flagrant contradiction of generally recognized axioms, the nothingness of the ancien régime exhibited to the world, only imagines that it believes in itself and demands that the world should imagine the same thing. If it believed in its own essence, would it try to hide that essence under the semblance of an alien essence and seek refuge in hypocrisy and sophism? The modern ancien régime is rather only the comedian of a world order whose true heroes are dead. History is thorough and goes through many phases when carrying an old form to the grave. The last phases of a world-historical form is its comedy. The gods of Greece, already tragically wounded to death in Aeschylus’s tragedy Prometheus Bound, had to re-die a comic death in Lucian’s Dialogues. Why this course of history? So that humanity should part with its past cheerfully. This cheerful historical destiny is what we vindicate for the political authorities of Germany.

A footnote to the MECW edition of 18th Brumaire says:

65. Hegel expressed this idea in his work Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte (its first edition came out in Berlin in 1837). In the third part of this work, at the end of Section 2, entitled “Vom der zweiten punischen Krieg bis zum Kaiserthum,” Hegel wrote in particular that “A coup d’état is sanctioned as it were in the opinion of people if it is repeated. Thus, Napoleon was defeated twice and twice the Bourbons were driven out. Through repetition, what at the beginning seemed to be merely accidental and possible becomes real and established.” Hegel also repeatedly expressed the idea that in the process of dialectical development there is bound to be a transition from the stage of formation and efflorescence to that of disintegration and ruin (see, in particular, G.W.F.Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, Th. 3, Abt. 3, §347). Developing this thought and Hegel’s idea about the recurrence of historical phenomena Marx wrote in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction (end of 1843 - beginning of 1844): “History is thorough and goes through many phases when carrying an old form to the grave. The last phase of a world-historical form is its comedy.” A similar interpretation of Hegel’s idea, albeit in the form of a vague hint, can be found in Marx’s article “The Deeds of the Hohenzollern Dynasty written in 1849.”

In The Deeds of the Hohenzollern Dynasty, Neue Rheinische Zeitung, no. 294, May 9, 1849, we find this one-liner summing up a political development:

Shall we prove from Hegel that it takes a comedian to see the end of the Hohenzollern line?

There are occasional additional contrasts between comedy and tragedy in various writings.  More substantial are a couple of references to Hegel's notion of comedy specifically in Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics. For example:

Hegel once observed that comedy is in act superior to tragedy and humourous reasoning superior to grandiloquent reasoning. [Lectures on Aesthetics] Although Lincoln does not possess the grandiloquence of historical action, as an average man of the people he has its humour. 

Comments on the North American Events [October 7, 1862], Die Presse, October 12, 1862.  In MECW, Volume 19, p. 248.



* Alternate translation of a key phrase:

"I treat the ridiculous seriously when I treat it with ridicule."

— Karl Marx, On Freedom of the Press and Censorship, edited by Saul K. Padover (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company), pp. 89-108. (Karl Marx Library; vol. 4)



"On the Comic" by Tatyana Lyubimova

"The Marxist-Leninist Theory of Humor" by Tom McLaughlin

Irony, Humor, & Cynicism Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide


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