Michael Doliner in Swans Commentary (via bookforum):
It seems to have become fashionable to quote Marx's famous line from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: “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.” Grazing on the Web I came upon others using these bons mots to refer to a political battle in Hungary over the legacy of 1956. Then there's one comparing Obama's Nobel to Carter's. Lot's of people like to crack wise about “the third time” with a frisson of clever self-congratulation. Some guy on the Democraticunderground.com, a blog, conjectures that what Marx meant by this is that things keep changing all the time.
Although many use this expression, no one seems to have bothered actually to have read The Eighteenth Brumaire. Marx was not merely coining bons mots, he actually meant something when he wrote this. The two events Marx was talking about were first, the French Revolution, which he took to extend from 1789 to 1814, and second, the French Revolution of 1848-1852, of which The Eighteenth Brumaire is a history.
Marx follows this famous line about tragedy and farce with one almost equally famous: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” This also used to be quoted often, but now isn't, I suspect because it makes some people uneasy to suggest that men make their own history. After all, if they get the idea that they can do something, they might decide to make something other than what the rulers have in mind. Marx is not treating history as a scientific phenomenon worthy of observation. Science is a discipline that postulates the impossibility of acting with a purpose. It expunges purposes from the pantheon of causes. Marx, a firm believer in human action, that is action with a purpose, is trying to explain its difficulties. People often take the farce line to mean that the first time, the tragic one, is serious, and the second, farcical one, is a kind of joke. But Marx is making the point that whenever people want to act they usually can only act in a pattern taken from the past. People act in a way that they know. Thus the first French Revolution took on the trappings of Rome to bring about the Bourgeois Revolution. Once the revolutionaries overthrew the ancien régime, the Roman garb came off and they settled down to moneymaking in a world free of the complicated obligations and ties of the ancien régime. The Revolution of 1848 imitated the Revolution of 1789 precisely because it was not a “real” revolution. For whereas the Revolution of 1789 threw off its Roman costume once it had accomplished itself in the abolition of the ancien régime, the Revolution of 1848 continued to imitate the earlier revolution because it had so little to accomplish: it was a farcical revolution. In the end it all vanished behind Louis Napoleon's conjurer's handkerchief.