Part 1: the second Bonaparte (and the first)
In 1848 the continent of Europe was engulfed in the flames of revolution. Absolute monarchies, princes and dukes were overthrown in Denmark, Bavaria, Austria, Piedmont and Parma (Italy), and Wallachia (Romania). In Poland and Hungary, nations oppressed by their powerful neighbours launched insurrectionary struggles for national self-determination and for an end to serfdom. Mass uprisings in the states of the German confederation pressed for national unification and democratic freedoms. Across Europe, feudal fetters on capitalist development were shattered by direct action of the popular masses. The young revolutionaries Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were active participants in these revolutions, Marx as a proletarian propagandist, Engels as a military officer of the revolutionary forces in Germany.
In France, where the absolute monarchy had been overthrown six decades earlier in the great French Revolution, mass demonstrations brought down the bourgeois monarchy of Louis Philippe. A democratic republic, with universal suffrage, was proclaimed in February 1848. But the democratic bourgeoisie, in mobilising the masses for the republic, cast an anxious eye over its shoulder at the proletariat, which emerged in the course of the revolutionary turmoil as an independent force with its own distinct class interests. When in May the proletariat of Paris, reduced to conditions of starvation by the economic crisis, demanded that the republic enact social legislation and enshrine in law the right to work, the bourgeoisie turned on its democratic ally with a vengeance.
Marx takes up the story in his pamphlet The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
“The demands of the Paris proletariat are utopian nonsense” [replied the bourgeois forces of the Constituent Assembly] “to which an end must be put. To this declaration of the Constituent National Assembly the Paris proletariat replied with the June insurrection, the most colossal event in the history of European civil wars. The bourgeois republic triumphed. On its side stood the aristocracy of finance, the industrial bourgeoisie, the middle class, the petty bourgeois, the army, the lumpen proletariat organized as the Mobile Guard, the intellectual lights, the clergy, and the rural population. On the side of the Paris proletariat stood none but itself. More than three thousand insurgents were butchered after the victory, and fifteen thousand were deported without trial. With this defeat the proletariat passes into the background on the revolutionary stage… [The June bloodletting] had revealed that here “bourgeois republic” signifies the unlimited despotism of one class over other classes” [Marx 18th Brumaire]
Thus began a counter-revolution, which culminated three years later in a coup d’état by the elected President, Louis Bonaparte, in December 1851, which overthrew the republic, dispersed the National Assembly, and ushered in the Second Empire.
Louis Bonaparte himself was a minor military officer and political adventurer, who had led two failed coups in the time of Louis Philippe. He was an outstanding mediocrity, who profited by the association with his illustrious uncle, the general Napoleon Bonaparte, without sharing any of the uncle’s abilities. A common reaction from those opposed to his coup was one of ridicule and derision (not unlike the reaction of many of those opposed to the election of Donald Trump, who like to ridicule his hair, complexion, and the size of his hands.) To his critics, it was the height of impudence for this upstart and pretender to overthrow the great French republic, and it seemed only a matter of time before he was rudely put in his place.
But it was the upstart who prevailed; in fact, his regime lasted the best part of two decades. It was Marx’s task (in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and later writings) to lay bare the alignment of class forces and the relentless political logic which compelled the bourgeoisie, over the months following their suppression of the Paris proletariat, to dismantle, then abolish, the organs of its own political rule, and allow Bonaparte to triumph.
The Eighteenth Brumaire is not an easy pamphlet to read today: it discusses royal houses, political factions and individuals long extinct and forgotten. But the pamphlet rewards the effort. This is Marx’s first description of the anatomy of the form of government he termed ‘Bonapartism.’ It is also one of his most brilliant writings in the field of politics and the state.
Marx explains that in suppressing the Parisian proletariat, all the various bourgeois factions, monarchist and republican, united under the banner of the ‘party of order’, “against the proletarian class as the party of Anarchy, of socialism, of communism.”
“They had given out the watchwords of the old society ‘property, family, religion, order’, to their army as passwords and had proclaimed to the counterrevolutionary crusaders: In this sign thou shalt conquer! From that moment, as soon as one of the numerous parties which gathered under this sign against the June insurgents seeks to hold the revolutionary battlefield in its own class interest, it goes down before the cry: ‘property, family, religion, order.’ Society is saved just as often as the circle of its rulers contracts, as a more exclusive interest is maintained against a wider one. Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most shallow democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an ‘attempt on society’ and stigmatized as ‘socialism’. [Marx 18th Brumaire]
In the Presidential election of 10 December 1848, Louis Bonaparte was elected overwhelmingly, against the other principal candidate, Cavaignac, the republican general hated by the Paris proletariat on account of his responsibility for the massacre in June.
“December 10 was the coup d’état of the peasants, which overthrew the existing government…The other classes helped to complete the election victory of the peasants. To the proletariat, the election of Napoleon meant the deposition of Cavaignac, the overthrow of the Constituent Assembly, the dismissal of bourgeois republicanism, the cassation of the June victory [of the republican bourgeoisie over the proletariat.] To the petty bourgeoisie, Napoleon meant the rule of the debtor over the creditor. For the majority of the big bourgeoisie, the election of Napoleon meant … the beginning of the royalist restoration… Lastly, the army voted for Napoleon against the Mobile Guard, against the peace idyll, for war…
“Thus it happened… that the most simple-minded man in France acquired the most multifarious significance. Just because he was nothing, he could signify everything save himself. Meanwhile, different as the meaning of the name Napoleon might be in the mouths of the different classes, with this name each wrote on his ballot: Down with the party of the National, [press organ of the democratic bourgeoisie] down with Cavaignac, down with the Constituent Assembly, down with the bourgeois republic.” [Marx Class struggles in France]
Bonaparte’s election accelerated the transfer of power from the National Assembly to the executive, at the head of the state bureaucracy, “an army of officials numbering more than half a million individuals… an immense mass of interests and livelihoods in the most absolute dependence.”
“But it is precisely with the maintenance of that extensive state machine in its numerous ramifications that the material interests of the French bourgeoisie are interwoven in the closest fashion. Here it finds posts for its surplus population and makes up in the form of state salaries for what it cannot pocket in the form of profit, interest, rents, and honorariums. On the other hand, its political interests compelled it to increase daily the repressive measures and therefore the resources and the personnel of the state power, while at the same time it had to wage an uninterrupted war against public opinion and mistrustfully mutilate, cripple, the independent organs of the social movement, where it did not succeed in amputating them entirely. Thus the French bourgeoisie was compelled by its class position to annihilate, on the one hand, the vital conditions of all parliamentary power, and therefore, likewise, of its own, and to render irresistible, on the other hand, the executive power hostile to it.” [Marx 18th Brumaire]
The important thing is that this was accomplished “of its own,” not by the president Bonaparte but by decisions of the National Assembly itself. In fact, Marx comments, at this time Bonaparte “behaved like an unrecognized genius, whom all the world takes for a simpleton. Never did he enjoy the contempt of all classes in fuller measure than during this period. Never did the bourgeoisie rule more absolutely, never did it display more ostentatiously the insignia of domination.” Among such ‘ostentatious displays of the insignia of its domination’ were a new tax on wine and a law effectively placing education under the control of the clergy.
“Whether it was a question of the right of petition or the tax on wine, freedom of the press or free trade, the clubs or the municipal charter, protection of personal liberty or regulation of the state budget, the watchword constantly recurs, the theme remains always the same, the verdict is ever ready and invariably reads: ‘Socialism!’ Even bourgeois liberalism is declared socialistic, bourgeois enlightenment socialistic, bourgeois financial reform socialistic…
“This was not merely a figure of speech, fashion, or party tactics. The bourgeoisie had a true insight into the fact that all the weapons it had forged against feudalism turned their points against itself, that all the means of education it had produced rebelled against its own civilization, that all the gods it had created had fallen away from it. It understood that all the so-called bourgeois liberties and organs of progress attacked and menaced its class rule at its social foundation and its political summit simultaneously, and had therefore become ‘socialistic.’ In this menace and this attack, it rightly discerned the secret of socialism…
“What the bourgeoisie did not grasp, however, was the logical conclusion that its own parliamentary regime, its political rule in general, was now also bound to meet with the general verdict of condemnation as being socialistic. …If in every stirring of life in society it saw ‘tranquillity’ imperilled, how could it want to maintain at the head of society a regime of unrest, its own regime, the parliamentary regime, this regime that, according to the expression of one of its spokesmen, lives in struggle and by struggle? The parliamentary regime lives by discussion, how shall it forbid discussion?… The struggle of the orators on the platform evokes the struggle of the scribblers of the press; the debating club in parliament is necessarily supplemented by debating clubs in the salons and the bistros; the representatives, who constantly appeal to public opinion, give public opinion the right to speak its real mind in petitions. The parliamentary regime leaves everything to the decision of majorities; how shall the great majorities outside parliament not want to decide?…
“Thus by now stigmatizing as ‘socialistic’ what it had previously extolled as ‘liberal,’ the bourgeoisie confesses that its own interests dictate that it should be delivered from the danger of its own rule; that to restore tranquillity in the country its bourgeois parliament must, first of all, be given its quietus; that to preserve its social power intact its political power must be broken; that the individual bourgeois can continue to exploit the other classes and to enjoy undisturbed property, family, religion, and order only on condition that their class be condemned along with the other classes to like political nullity; that in order to save its purse it must forfeit the crown, and the sword that is to safeguard it must at the same time be hung over its own head as a sword of Damocles.” [Marx 18th Brumaire]
In May, 1850, the National Assembly passed a law overturning the universal suffrage that had been won through the 1848 revolution, effectively excluding the working class from the political arena. The electoral law was followed by a new press law, by which the revolutionary newspaper press was entirely suppressed. Marx writes:
“The law of May 31, 1850, was the coup d’état of the bourgeoisie. All its conquests over the revolution hitherto had only a provisional character and were endangered as soon as the existing National Assembly retired from the stage. They depended on the hazards of a new general election, and the history of elections since 1848 irrefutably proved that the bourgeoisie‘s moral sway over the mass of the people was lost in the same measure as its actual domination developed. On March 10 universal suffrage declared itself directly against the domination of the bourgeoisie; the bourgeoisie answered by outlawing universal suffrage.”
By its own decisions and indecisions, the Assembly surrendered to Bonaparte, one by one, control over the ministries, police, and army. “Surrendering the army irrevocably to the President, the party of Order declares that the bourgeoisie has forfeited its vocation to rule.” [Marx 18th Brumaire]
Bonaparte finally carried out his coup on 2 December 1851, dispersing the National Assembly, arresting tens of thousands of his opponents, and instituting strict press censorship. Thousands were exiled to penal colonies in the Caribbean and Algeria. Confident that the threads of control were firmly in his grasp, Bonaparte even restored the universal suffrage abolished by the National Assembly. Within weeks of the coup, he had organised a referendum, asking the populace if they agreed with the coup. The vote was overwhelmingly in favour. “He showed that, under favourable circumstances, universal suffrage could be turned into an instrument for the oppression of the masses.” [Engels, Role of Force in history]
Marx later summarised the process this way in “The Civil War in France”:
“In their uninterrupted crusade against the producing masses, they [the bourgeoisie] were, however, bound not only to invest the executive with continually increased powers of repression, but at the same time to divest their own parliamentary stronghold – the National Assembly – one by one, of all its own means of defence against the Executive. The Executive, in the person of Louis Bonaparte, turned them out. The natural offspring of the “Party of Order” republic was the Second Empire.
“The empire, with the coup d’état for its birth certificate, universal suffrage for its sanction, and the sword for its sceptre, professed to rest upon the peasantry, the large mass of producers not directly involved in the struggle of capital and labour. It professed to save the working class by breaking down parliamentarism, and, with it, the undisguised subservience of government to the propertied classes. It professed to save the propertied classes by upholding their economic supremacy over the working class; and, finally, it professed to unite all classes by reviving for all the chimera of national glory.” [Marx, Civil War in France]
Marx identified this as a key element of Bonapartism: Bonapartist governments appear to rise above all classes, saving each from its enemy, temporarily neutralising the struggle between them. One element in Bonaparte’s appeal to the working class was a promise of massive public works to create jobs.
Bourgeois public opinion throughout Europe let out a howl of pain and incomprehension at the coup. Engels remarks on “the middle class press [in England] venting its virtuous indignation upon the military despot, the treacherous destroyer of the country’s liberties, the extinguisher of the press…”
Engels, “with every due contempt for Louis Napoleon,” cautioned the working class press against joining “this chorus of high-sounding vituperation.”
“…Whatever Louis Napoleon took from others, he took it not from the working classes, but from [the bourgeoisie]. Not that Louis Napoleon would not, quite as gladly, have robbed the working classes of anything that might appear desirable to him, but it is a fact that in December last the French working classes could not be robbed of anything, because everything worth taking had already been taken from them during the three years and a half of middle-class parliamentary government…The suffrage? They had been stripped of that by the Electoral Law of 1850. The right of meeting? That had long been confined to the ‘safe’ and ‘well-disposed’ classes of society. The freedom of the press? Why, the real proletarian press had been drowned in the blood of the insurgents of the great battle of June, and that shadow of it which survived for a time, had long since disappeared under the pressure of gagging laws, revised and improved upon every succeeding session of the National Assembly. Their arms? Every pretext had been taken profit of, in order to ensure the exclusion from the National Guard of all working-men, and to confine the possession of arms to the wealthier classes of society…
“On the other hand, the working classes, although they could no longer be deprived of any direct political privilege, were not at all disinterested in the question [of the coup. But] if they rose against the usurper, did they not virtually defend and prepare the dictatorship of that very parliament which had proved their most relentless enemy?…” [Engels, Real Cause why the French Proletarians Remained Comparatively Inactive in December Last, Marx-Engels Collected Works vol 11, p212]
Louis Bonaparte’s appeals to the proletariat did not go unrewarded: some currents within the working class movement were seduced. Disciples of utopian-socialist Henri de Saint-Simon became fervent supporters of the regime. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the ‘father of Anarchism,’ wrote an admiring pamphlet, before falling foul of the regime’s censors himself and being jailed.
Having analysed the rule of the nephew Bonaparte in this way, Marx and Engels saw many similarities in the military dictatorship of the uncle Napoleon Bonaparte. (The ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’ of the pamphlet’s title is the date – in the French revolutionary calendar which discarded the old Roman names of the months in favour of names based on the seasons – on which Napoleon Bonaparte I seized power by coup d’état in 1799.) They also described the military-bureaucratic regime of the Prussian Otto von Bismarck in Germany as Bonapartist.
In the twentieth century, Bonapartist dictatorships appeared in times of acute social crisis. The succession of short-lived Bonapartist governments of Bruning, von Papen and Schleicher in 1930s Germany paved the way for the rise to power of Hitler. Similar formations appeared in France, Austria and Poland in the 1930s. Trotsky analysed these formations in a 1934 article on Bonapartism and Fascism, which I will look at more closely in the second article.
Trotsky observed that if parliamentary democracy is the form of rule characteristic of the maturity of the bourgeoisie, Bonapartist rule was typical of its juvenile and senile phases, and that the juvenile and senile forms of Bonapartism are not identical. However, Marx’s summation of the essential condition for the rise of the Bonapartist regime in 1851 applies with even greater force to the Bonapartist regimes of decaying capitalism:
“In reality, it was the only form of government possible at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation.” [Marx, Civil War in France]