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The rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte - Part One

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In a new series Alan Woods looks at the specific historical role of Napoleon Bonaparte. He looks into the characteristics of this man that fitted the needs of the reactionary bourgeoisie as it attempted to consolidate its grip on French society and sweep to one side the most revolutionary elements who had played a key role in guaranteeing the victory of the revolution.

Marxism has never denied the role of the individual in history but has demonstrated how specific personal traits reflect a given historical and social context. The personality of those who did make history - for good or ill - certainly has a bearing on their actions. But to attribute a decisive quality to this would be to fall into gross subjectivism. What is necessary is to show the dialectical relationship between the subjective and objective factors. In this equation, the objective factor is the most fundamental.

Psychological studies of "great men and women" frequently serve as a fig leaf to disguise the absence of an understanding of broad socio-historical processes. The study of history is replaced by trivial personal observations. Instead of science we have gossip. The negative traits and peculiarities of a great person are related in detail, as in the memoirs of a valet. But as Hegel remarked, the valet who recalls this trivia never made history.

A careful study of the character and background of Napoleon Bonaparte can furnish us with many useful insights into his behaviour, just as similar information concerning Hitler and Stalin can cast some light upon theirs. In his biography of Stalin - a wonderfully profound work of historical materialism, Trotsky dedicates the first chapter to Stalin's childhood and upbringing - a necessary component of any biography. He carefully excludes the kind of sensational exaggerations and the conclusions that are read into a man's past on the basis of what he later became. But having sifted the source material carefully, we are left with a small amount of useful information that can help us to attain a deeper understanding of Stalin's subsequent evolution.

Men and women make their own history, but they do not make it freely, in the sense that the scope and results of their actions are strictly limited by the given socio-economic context that is prepared independently of their will. Different personalities are required by different historical periods. There are times when history demands a Lenin or a Trotsky, and others when a Stalin can come to the fore. It is the historical context that provides the individual with the necessary field of action. But there are certain circumstances when the actions of an individual, or group of individuals, can exercise a decisive influence, inclining the balance in one sense or another.

Of course, personal characteristics cannot determine the course of great historical events. But they can and do influence the specific forms taken by events. They do not create the ebb and flow of broad historical processes, but they can create the very complicated patterns, cross-currents and eddies that affect the short and medium term. Thus, Stalin's personality was not the cause of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution. That was the result of the isolation of the first workers' state in the world in conditions of terrible backwardness. But Stalin's character certainly gave the bureaucratic reaction against October its particularly ferocious and "Asiatic" colouring.

Every analogy has its limitations and is only useful within the boundaries of these limitations. However, it is striking to anyone who takes history seriously that certain personal characteristics constantly reappear in a given historical context, just as certain animal morphologies reappear at different stages of evolution. The similarities between, for example, Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin have been commented upon many times. In the same way, there are close similarities between the character of Tsar Nicholas and his German wife and that of Louis XVI and the "Austrian woman" Marie Antoinette and even Charles I of England and his French wife. These are usually regarded as historical accidents, to be placed under the category of extraordinary coincidences.

The French Revolution offers very rich material for a study of how different individuals relate to the historical process. The characteristics of Danton and Robespierre enabled them to flourish and find an echo in the period of revolutionary ascent. These were men of vision, heroes who believed passionately in principles and ideals. In the period of descent, when the Revolution had exhausted its potential and entered into a downward spiral, everything seems to go into reverse. The type of individuals who succeeded in this period have nothing in common with those who rose with the revolutionary high tide.

Here we find men and women of a very different type. These people had a definite character and personality that was well adapted to the changing fortunes of the Revolution- the unprincipled opportunist, the conformist toady and the self-seeking bureaucrat, the male and female money-grubbing fortune hunters. The name of Joseph Fouché adequately sums up the character of the creatures that passed with consummate ease from one camp to the other, jettisoning principles and ideology like so much useless ballast.

Napoleon's formative years

The name of Napoleon is surrounded by such a vast amount of legends that it is quite difficult to separate fact from fiction. It is said that he displayed outstanding leadership qualities while still at school, even leading the charge in a snowball fight. This is undoubtedly the product of the school of Napoleonic mythology that was systematically promoted for political reasons in 19th century France. It hardly squares with the general picture of the reserved and taciturn child that has come down to us.

Napoleon was the son of a middle class Corsican family, at a time when Corsica had not even been French for long. Being formerly subject to Genoa, the Corsican people did not speak French but a dialect of Italian. They were, and are, a fiercely independent Mediterranean people, with a Mediterranean temperament. Napoleon was always self-conscious about his humble origins and provincial background. He came from a mediocre family and went to a mediocre military academy, where his schoolmates made fun of his thick Corsican accent.

By all accounts his schooldays were not the happiest period of his life. The result was not difficult to predict. He was a difficult and reserved child, resentful of his peers. He sank himself in his studies. He was considered by his teachers to be "very regular in his conduct" but "poor at dancing and drawing". The reason why Napoleon lacked what are called the social graces (which was the case all his life) was that he felt his social inferiority, an inferiority that was constantly emphasised by his wealthier French schoolmates. A very clear picture emerges of this child - and leading his schoolmates in a snowball battle is definitely not part of it. He was, in a few words, an introverted misfit. On the other hand he excelled at maths - a qualification that determined his specialisation as an artillery officer.

This was a stroke of luck - one of many that he benefited from - inasmuch as the artillery was the most prestigious branch of the army under the old regime. But the biggest stroke of luck Napoleon had was to be born when he was - in the age of the French Revolution. Napoleon, like many others, was made by the Revolution. The Revolution turned the whole world upside down and presented an ambitious young man (he was always ambitious - a consequence of his resentment at his inferior status) with new and vast opportunities

Things were no better for him in the school of artillery, which, as the most prestigious part of the army, was full of the sons of noble families, placed there by influence irrespective of their ability or lack of it. The taciturn and moody lieutenant from a middle class family in Corsica continued to feel inferior and resentful at the superior airs and graces of the snobbish young aristocrats who were his fellow officers. The antiquated world of hierarchy and rank repelled and disgusted him. Therefore the Revolution came as a godsend, and he welcomed it with open arms. There is no need to doubt the sincerity of his revolutionary feelings at this time. He was merely settling accounts with those who had refused to recognise him and held him back.

At this stage Napoleon still saw himself very much as a Corsican. In fact, the racial discrimination suffered at school would have exacerbated his national sentiment and caused a deep feeling of resentment against all things French. But life can play some strange tricks. And it is well known that love that is spurned can turn into hate. He dreamed about putting himself at the head of the Corsican nationalist movement. At this stage his horizon was no larger than the desire to make a name for himself on the island of Corsica. But he miscalculated. They say a prophet has no honour in his native land, and that was very true in his case. The Corsican nationalists were inclined to reactionary and monarchist ideas and distrustful of the ideals of the Revolution. They were also distrustful of Napoleon, who had the misfortune of being seen as a Corsican provincial to the French and a French interloper to the Corsicans.

Rejected by his compatriots, Napoleon abandoned all his nationalist ideals. He later became transformed from an ardent Corsican patriot to a fervent advocate of French centralism. The Corsican nationalist leader Pascal Paoli supported the royalist cause and organised an insurrection that was put down by Bonaparte. Such things are not forgotten or forgiven in a small island where the blood feud was an accepted part of life. Napoleon Bonaparte was forced to flee Corsica with his family and from then on became an implacable French nationalist. There are quite remarkable parallels here with Hitler, who was Austrian, but turned into a fanatical advocate of German racial superiority and Stalin, the Georgian, who spoke Russian with a thick accent all his life, but became an equally fanatical supporter of Great Russian centralism.

There is nothing surprising about this sudden turnabout. Napoleon never had any fixed principles about anything, except his own advancement. His early Republican sympathies may have been genuine but they were certainly tempered with a heavy dose of opportunism. He specialised in currying favour with his superiors in order to climb the ladder of careerist advancement. When it was advantageous to appear as a Jacobin, he donned the tricolour, but later he swung against the Jacobins with equal alacrity when their star waned.

The flood tide of the Revolution

For a number of years the pendulum of the Revolution swung sharply to the Left. The more revolutionary tendency constantly replaced the more moderate wing. And at every stage the driving force of the Revolution was the masses. In August 1792, in the middle of the war with Austria, there was a ferment in the working class quarters of Paris. The masses rose up against the Assembly and stormed the Tuileries palace. They established a revolutionary municipal council or Commune and demanded the election, with universal male suffrage, of a new National Assembly. This movement of the masses impelled the Revolution further to the Left, and created a situation of dual power. The Jacobins, the most radical wing of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie, grew rapidly at the expense of the moderate wing, the Girondins. In response to the demands of the Commune, a new Assembly was elected in the autumn of 1792, on the basis of universal male suffrage. Naturally, power in the Assembly passed into the hands of the Left Wing.

From 1792 the destinies of the Revolution were inseparably linked to war. As early as 1791 a counterrevolutionary émigré army was formed in the Rhineland. The Compte d'Artois set up headquarters at Coblenz and his agents roamed France seeking recruits for the "liberation" of France. It was this threat that caused the Revolution to launch the Terror. King Louis and Marie Antoinette were constantly engaged in plots and conspiracies and were in correspondence with Coblenz. Many royalist officers deserted to join the counterrevolutionaries. The Revolution was in danger.

The monarchies of Europe could never tolerate the French Revolution and combined to crush it. The First Coalition of Austria, Prussia, Britain, the Netherlands and Spain, was formed in 1793. As David Thomson remarks: "The immediate causes of war included the intrigues of the court and the émigrés, the war clamour of the Girondins in the Assembly, the aggressive self-confidence of the revolutionaries, the discredit of the King, and the diplomacy of Prussia. But its basic cause lay deeper. It was, in more modern terms, the issue of whether two forms of society based on totally different principles could peacefully coexist. France within her own territories had ended feudalism, destroyed the pretensions of royal absolutism, and founded new institutions on the principles of sovereignty of the people and personal liberty and equality. The old institutions, which had been overthrown in France, remained established in her continental neighbours. The influence of the Revolution was spreading, undermining the position of other rulers and implicitly challenging the survivals of serfdom, feudalism and absolutism everywhere. The revolutionary ideals were too dynamic to be ignored by the established order." (David Thomson, Europe Since Napoleon, p. 35.)

The Duke of Brunswick issued his famous manifesto declaring that his armies were intervening in France to suppress anarchy and to restore the king's lawful authority, threatening the lives of the revolutionary leaders. The reply of the Revolution was the manifesto of 27 July 1792. After the first victories of the revolutionary armies, France offered "fraternity and assistance" to all peoples who wished to follow the example of the French and assert their freedom against the old order. This was followed in December by a new declaration of the Assembly that France would enforce revolutionary social principles everywhere the French armies were present. The revolutionary armies would abolish feudal obligations and confiscate the property of the clergy and the aristocracy. France answered the threat of counterrevolution with a revolutionary war against monarchist Europe.

The war had the effect of accelerating the revolutionary process. The recently elected Assembly met on 21 September 1792 - one day after the Prussian army had been routed by the revolutionary forces - and announced the abolition of the monarchy. After the victory at Jenappes, when the French occupied Brussels, the Republic put Louis on trial. On 21 January 1793, it threw the king's head at a horrified Europe. By executing the king, the Republic had burnt its bridges. No turning back was now possible.

Under conditions of war and foreign invasion, the Revolution was obliged to resort to drastic measures in order to defend itself. The establishment of the Committee of Public Safety and the Jacobin Terror were intended to strike blows against the counterrevolution. This was the high tide of the Revolution, but also the point when the mass movement had reached its limits, and even gone beyond them. It was impossible to go further without breaking through the bounds of a bourgeois revolution, something that was objectively ruled out. The masses in Paris had swept all before them and even began to take measures against private property. At this point, the bourgeois and its middle class allies recoiled from the Revolution and the pendulum began to swing in the opposite direction.

Despite his apparent Jacobinism, Napoleon always looked at the masses with distrust. He hated the Paris "mob". When they forced the king to wear the red bonnet in the summer of 1792, Bonaparte did not join in the celebrations. His outlook was typical of the petit bourgeois of all epochs - hatred of the upper classes, fear of the masses. His real inclination was always towards "Order" and discipline - and opposition to "factionalism". But in 1793, when the Revolution was still in full flood, the 23 year-old Bonaparte was still swimming with the tide. Without the Revolution, Napoleon would never have risen as he did. The Revolution rewarded talent, and he was undoubtedly talented.

Napoleon's big opportunity came in 1794 at the siege of Toulon. This key Mediterranean port had declared for the English and allowed British forces to occupy it. England was the real bulwark of reaction and bankrolled the wars against revolutionary France that others fought. Napoleon saw his chance to make a mark and did so by conspicuous bravery and a high degree of skill in the use of artillery, which decided the battle in France's favour. His rapid rise to fame and success had begun.

Napoleon and Thermidor

Napoleon's advance was helped by his connections with the main Jacobin leaders. He was on excellent terms with Robespierre, who used his influence to get him promoted to the rank of Brigadier-general. His star was on the rise. But then everything seemed to unravel. In the summer of 1794 Robespierre was overthrown and executed by the Thermidorean reaction. The forces that were determined to halt the Revolution united in their condemnation of the "extremists" and "terrorists", although many who shouted loudest were themselves former extremists and terrorists.

As a matter of fact, the extent of the Terror has been greatly exaggerated. By modern standards it was a relatively mild affair. The Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris condemned 2,639 people to death, and revolutionary courts condemned in all about 17,000. The great majority who fell victim to the Terror were killed by summery executions in the violent civil war that raged in places like the Vendée and Lyon. The explanation for this violence was that the Revolution felt threatened by internal and above all external enemies. But Terror proved to be a blunt instrument and when it began to be turned against revolutionaries and working people it completely alienated the masses who were the base of the revolution and this eventually caused the downfall of the Jacobin regime.

The truth is that the Revolution had reached its zenith and exhausted itself. The middle class Jacobins could not satisfy the demands of the masses, who were pushing against the boundaries of bourgeois private property. Once the masses began to succumb to disillusionment and tiredness, Robespierre was lost. When he turned the instrument of Terror against the Left, he effectively destroyed his own base and handed the initiative over to the Right wing.

The long and painful decline had commenced. The Jacobin revolutionary Terror was replaced with the Thermidorean counterrevolutionary Terror. Thermidor led directly to reaction, but this drama did not take place in one act. This was initially not a swing back to monarchism but towards the moderate wing of Jacobinism that thought the Revolution had gone too far and wished to call a halt. The party strife in turn reflected a shift in the relation between different classes. The mass of urban poor, proletarians and semi-proletarians, were downcast and apathetic. Their voice was drowned out by a chorus of the well-to-do classes that were demanding Order.

The most general characteristic of the Thermidoreans was their extreme mediocrity. With the exception of Carnot, the military genius and great organizer, the rest were a bunch of self-serving and disreputable opportunists, men of limited intellect and no vision. The class basis of the new Convention consisted of businessmen, financial speculators, people who had grown rich out of swindling the army, and above all, the landowning peasantry that was now the biggest class in France and that later provided a solid base of support for Napoleon. These elements supported the Convention and sustained it.

It was the changed correlation of class forces that predetermined the victory of the Thermidoreans, despite their mediocrity. Though their Jacobin opponents were generally far more able, their ability availed them nothing in the changed circumstances. The masses, who had been the mainspring of the Revolution, the source of all its strength, were exhausted, hungry and disillusioned. On the contrary, the forces of reaction were increasingly confident. Disguised royalists crawled out of the woodwork and began to plot and intrigue. In place of Jacobin austerity, luxury, good taste and high society were back in fashion. The old revolutionary virtues of equality and fraternity were openly mocked, while freedom was only for the nouveaux riches who had made their fortunes out of the Revolution and now wished to enjoy life in peace and quiet.

The changes ushered in by Thermidor were many and largely unforeseen by the leadership. The Convention gave up all attempts to enforce the Maximum, the law that attempted to limit price increases. This was a measure that hit the masses and further increased their alienation from the Revolution. Demoralisation and apathy grew, together with an indifference towards politics in general. The masses were exhausted by years of storm and stress. Their rebellions now had a desperate character, with no real perspective.

In the spring of 1795, the dislocation of trade and the high price of bread led to acute social distress. There were riots in Paris, where the people demanded "bread and the Constitution of 1793." But they were swiftly crushed by the troops of general Pichegru. In May a group of insurgents led by Jacobin rebels seized the hall of the Convention until they were driven out by regular troops under Murat and Menou. The barricades erected in working class districts were easily demolished. The National Guard, the traditional ally of the revolutionaries, was reorganised into a purely middle class institution.

The great historical drama affected the lives of many individuals. Like many others, Napoleon now found himself in a delicate and dangerous position. His connections with Robespierre compromised him in the eyes of the reactionaries. He was investigated on charges of terrorism. Such charges often led to a close shave with the "national razor", as the guillotine was popularly known. But like many other careerists, he changed his shirt and adapted himself to the new regime. Once more, events acted in his favour.

The pendulum was now swinging sharply to the Right. But this alarmed the authorities, who wished to put an end to the Jacobin rule but by no means to return to the monarchy. The royalists imagined that the hour had come to settle accounts with the Revolution. They were mistaken. They were put down by force. In October the masses of Paris summoned up their remaining reserves of energy to make one last attempt to halt the slide to counterrevolution and set their stamp on events. The Convention was again besieged, and called upon general Barras for protection. His young subordinate was Napoleon Bonaparte. Barras used the services of Napoleon for help in putting down the uprising in Paris. This required the shooting down of French civilians. Many would have been reluctant to perform such a duty, but not Napoleon. He later made the famous remark that he had dispersed the mob with a "whiff of grapeshot." As a matter of fact, the crowd got rather more than a "whiff", since at least 200 people were killed.

This incident was significant because here for the first time the army intervened in internal French politics as the decisive force. Lenin explained that the state is, in the last analysis, armed bodies of men. Normally the state is a weapon in the hands of the ruling class, to be used to keep the masses down. However, there are certain periods when the class struggle reaches a deadlock in which the opposing forces balance each other out. In such circumstances, the state can raise itself above society and acquire a considerable degree of independence. This is the phenomenon that Marxists call Bonapartism. In different guises it has recurred throughout the history of class society. In the ancient world it existed as Caesarism, and Napoleon took Caesar as his historical role model. In 1809 in a conversation with Canova he remarked: "What a great people were these Romans, especially down to the Second Punic War. But Caesar! Ah Caesar! That was the great man!"

With every step back taken by the masses, the confidence and insolence of the reactionaries grew. Some of the exiled royalists began to return and raised their heads. Giving a legal form to the counterrevolution, the Convention abandoned the draft constitutions of both the Jacobins and Girondins and drew up a new constitution that stressed duties more than rights. This constitution came into force in October 1795 and remained in force until December 1799, when it was replaced by a Bonapartist one.

Even at the eleventh hour there were people prepared to fight against the counterrevolution. In October 1795 the Society of the Pantheon was formed to fight against the new Constitution of the Directorate. It published a newspaper called the Tribune, and the editor's name was François-Noël Babeuf, better known as Gracchus Babeuf. When the Directory decided to close the society it chose Napoleon to do the dirty work. Babeuf and Sylvain Maréchal replied by setting up an insurrectionary committee or "Secret Directory" of six to prepare a revolt.

The significance of Babeuf's conspiracy was that it revived the idea of equality under the banner of Communism. On the one hand they demanded the implementation of the Constitution of 1793, which had been approved but never implemented. On the other hand, they proclaimed a "Republic of Equals", based on the abolition of private property and the suppression of the difference between rich and poor. Very thorough preparations were made for the insurrection: arms and ammunitions were stockpiled. Revolutionary agents were to penetrate units of the army, police and administration. At a given signal, citizens from every district of Paris were to march behind banners to support the mutineers in the army. Public buildings and bakeries were to be seized.

The weakness of the whole thing was its conspiratorial nature. This itself was a reflection of the decline of the mass movement. A few years earlier it would not have been necessary to organise a conspiracy to get the people of Paris onto the streets. It had all the weaknesses of a conspiracy. The police infiltrated it from the start. On the eve of the uprising all the conspirators were arrested. The Directory turned the trial of Babeuf and the others into a show trial to intimidate the opposition. It lasted for three months, during which Babeuf, showing admirable courage, used it as a platform from which to propound his ideas and denounce the existing social order. He was executed - a victim of the White Terror. But his ideas survived long after his death, thanks to the work of his comrade Phillippe Buonarroti.

The Babeuf conspiracy was really the last gasp of the French Revolution, and at the same time pointed the way forward. His example served as an inspiration to the workers of France in the 19th century and his ideas had an influence over the young Marx and Engels.

History & Theory » Historical Analysis » Revolution and counter-revolution before 1900