Francesca Antonini on Caesarism

My research focuses on the concept of Caesarism. Linguistically speaking, Caesarism is a neologism closely connected to the political situation of mid-nineteenth-century France. In the words of the conservative pamphleteer Auguste Romieu (1800-1855), it describes the “domain of the sabre” which he hoped would be realised in the country. While referring to contextualised historical events, it also represents a more general label for a certain type of political rule, an autocratic system of government in which the figure of the leader looms large. As such, it has enjoyed a great success across nineteenth and twentieth-century political thought.

As a fellow of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg, I am pursuing two strands of research connected to this multi-layered political category.

On the one hand, I am working on a book manuscript on The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) by Karl Marx. The scope of my research is to provide a new reading of Marx’s historical masterpiece, combining a ‘targeted’ historico-textual analysis with an encompassing interpretation of the text. I plan, in particular, to put forward a careful reconstruction of the historical and political situation in which Marx conceived and wrote the book, that means the aftermath of the failed European revolutions of 1848 and, notably, the coup d’état of 2 December 1851 of Louis-Napoleon in France. Moreover I aim to investigate the troubled editorial history of this work. With regard to the understanding of the Eighteenth Brumaire, I aim to offer a multi-layered reading, which highlights the co-existence of different levels of interpretation: a ‘historiographical’ one; a ‘conceptual-theoretical’ one; a ‘teleological’ one. These three approaches fruitfully reinforce each other and stress the richness of Marx’s work.

This book project capitalises on my previous, unpublished research in Italian on Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, which I am translating and updating (especially from the biographical point of view). I have already secured a contract with Palgrave Macmillan and the book will appear in the “Marx, Engels, and Marxism” book series.

The second strand of my work on Caesarism is represented by my new postdoctoral research project on the history of the category of Caesarism in the twentieth century. I aim to examine the reception of the caesarist-bonapartist model on a transnational level in the first half of the century (when the concept was mostly used). Moreover, I wish to investigate the legacy of these categories in the following decades, while also exploring their relevance to contemporary political challenges.

Currently, I am working on the general historical and theoretical coordinates of my analysis, and I am gathering the primary and secondary bibliography available on the topic (planning future trips to libraries and archives, as soon as the Covid-crisis will allow!).

Moreover, I am reflecting on how to organise the first section of my project, which aims to investigate the debates on Caesarism from the beginning of the century up to the end of WWI. In particular, I am considering a specific focus on two aspects.

First, I wish to study how the sociologico-political analyses of the phenomenon intersect with its historiographical dimensions, i.e. with a reflection on its ancient model (Caesar). I would like to show how the historiography concerning the Roman Republic and the creation of the Empire provided useful material to reflect on the early twentieth-century context.

Second, I wish to investigate the role played by elitist thinkers such as Mosca, Pareto and Michels in the spread of the category of Caesarism within the debates on mass politics and on the prominent role of modern political parties on the one hand, and on the deepening crisis of representative institutions in European liberal democracies on the other.

Of course, this is only a provisional programme, which may be expanded or modified according to further readings. However, it seems to me a good starting point, which could help me to demonstrate how the category of Caesarism is linked to a critical reassessment of some touchstone issues in modern political thought, such as those of political leadership and political legitimacy. This would further represent an excellent basis on which to investigate the role of this concept during the interwar period, when autocratic tendencies clearly emerged and the role of “charismatic” figures became prominent (I will devote the second and third sections of my project to the analysis of this period).

During these first months at the Kolleg I have had the opportunity to discuss my new postdoctoral project with many colleagues, from whom I have received valuable feedback and suggestions – I am very grateful to all of them! Thanks to these discussions I have also discovered fascinating connections between Caesarism and other political issues belonging to other historical periods.

This suggested to me the idea to organise an interdisciplinary conference on the “long history” of Caesarism, where this category is conceived as a part of an uninterrupted reflection on political leadership and sovereignty that unfolds from antiquity up to the present. I’ll keep you updated about developments!