The rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte - Part two

In the second part of his series on Napoleon Bonaparte, Alan Woods looks at how Napoleon came to prominence as the embodiment of the bourgeoisie's desire for "order" and an end to the "excesses" of the revolution which had brought it to power.

A Republic of Money

With the final defeat of the Left wing the process of differentiation between rich and poor reached an extreme expression. All restraint was thrown to the wind. In the last years of the 18th century the whole atmosphere of French society changed. The wealthy classes ruled the roost, unopposed and triumphant. Their class outlook, morality and values were suddenly dominant. The old austerity and seriousness were replaced with a flowering of luxury, corruption and hedonism. In his perceptive biography of Fouché, Stefan Zweig describes the change:

"A new lord is rising to power […]. The new lord is: Money. Hardly have Robespierre and the other terrorists been laid to rest, when money undergoes a resurrection, becomes all-powerful, and once more has numberless toadies and thralls. As before the revolution, the streets are full of fine carriages drawn by well-groomed horses resplendent in new harness; and on the cushioned seats are charming women in costly silks and muslins - dresses so scanty that some of the wearers seem almost as naked as Greek goddesses. Gilded youths ride in the Bois, wearing yellow, brown or scarlet frockcoats and tight-fitting white nankeens. In their right hands they carry elegant gold-knobbed riding whips, which they are glad to use now and again to belabour the once so dreaded terrorists. The perfumers and the jewellers do a roaring trade. Five hundred, a thousand dancing-halls and coffeehouses appear like magic. Villas are built, houses bought and sold; theatres are packed; speculation and betting are rife; gambling for high stakes goes on behind the damask curtains of the Palais Royal. Money, money is afoot once more, autocratic, bold, defiant." (Stefan Zweig, Fouché, p. 87.)

Under the Jacobin terror the wealthy classes were compelled to conceal their wealth. Now they flaunted it openly. Moreover, now a rapid redistribution of property was taking place. The slogan of the moment was "enrich yourselves!" It was a slogan that the Thermidoreans took very seriously:

"Estates were changing hands, and money stuck to the fingers. The possessions of the émigrés were being brought under the hammer, and here were further chances of acquiring wealth. The assignats [paper money issued by the Revolution] were depreciating in value from day to day, as inflation ran its frenzied course; and speculation in the currency was often lucrative. People with nimble fingers and clutching hands could, if they had a pull with the government, find abundant scope for amassing a store." (ibid., p. 88.)

The new rich who now ruled the roost were parvenus and had the usual features of wealthy parvenus: vulgar in tastes and unscrupulous in politics, they wished above all to make their gains safe from the danger of restoration or confiscation. Equally opposed to a royalist restoration and to the demands of the masses, they looked around for a saviour, and found one in the person of Napoleon. The grateful Thermidoreans showered their Saviour with decorations and rewards. He was lionised at all the Paris salons and balls, where he was presented as Barras' most intimate friend and comrade.

But behind the scenes they were uneasy. Someone said to Barras: "Promote this man, or he will promote himself without you." As a reward for his services to the Directory, Bonaparte was placed in control of the police - a very important post. On the surface he was the faithful functionary of the Directory, but in fact he was slowly beginning to gather the reins of power into his hands. Now 26 years of age, Napoleon had "arrived". He was a youth from a humble family with few advantages, and now all France lay at his feet.

He even got possession of Josephine Beauharnais, Barras' mistress (though it is more probable that she got possession of him). They were married in 1796. What Napoleon did not know was that she was one of Fouchés's spies. It was not too difficult to bribe such a woman, who was typical of the breed of aristocratic and semi-aristocratic courtesans and semi-courtesans who played a not insignificant role in Thermidor. This light-minded Creole lady wanted three hundred hats and seven hundred dresses a year and consequently always needed money. According to Fouché's memoirs, he paid her a thousand louis d'or to pay her bills and pass on everything her husband told her in the privacy of the marriage bed. This detail gives us a fairly accurate idea of the morality of the regime of Reaction.

The Italian campaign

In this mad whirl of profiteering and speculation, the most splendid opportunities were opened up by the wars that the Convention had to fight against its foreign enemies. If war was a necessity, it was also big business. It was a simple matter to get rich by selling bad food and leaky boots to the army, provided one was acquainted with the right people in government who could open the door to profitable army contracts. It was also war that made Napoleon. When the Austrians moved into northern Italy in support of the Bourbons, France was forced to act, and Napoleon took another step up the ladder.

The Italian war was not only good for business: it also served other objectives. The Directory was notoriously corrupt and increasingly unpopular. It had abolished the "maximum" and as a result prices soared. Poverty and inequality increased. War in Italy was a way of distracting public attention from problems at home. In a situation where the classes were deadlocked, the army became the deciding force. Napoleon presented himself as a "simple soldier". His popularity was increasing as that of the Directory was decreasing. By sending him to fight in Italy, the Directory hoped he would be defeated and lose some of his popular appeal. Moreover, the chances of defeat seemed excellent. The army was as demoralised and hungry as the rest of the population. But Napoleon was aided by his skill and a large dose of luck.

As always, his "luck" derived from the Revolution. The revolutionary armies defeated the invaders because they were organised on revolutionary lines and fired by revolutionary enthusiasm. The credit for organising these armies lies not with Napoleon but with men like Lazare Carnot, who developed the idea of the "levée en masse" - universal conscription, which created a citizen's army. This gave France a tremendous advantage over her enemies. Only Prussia could rival her, since it had introduced a standing army early.

Napoleon's main tactic was simple: concentrate forces on one shattering blow against the enemy's weakest point - preferably the centre. At the battle of Lodi he personally directed the French advance across a narrow bridge, which defeated the Austrian rearguard. In itself the action was not decisive: the Austrian army escaped. But it seems to have convinced Napoleon that he possessed special powers to inspire men in battle. There was some truth in this, as the Duke of Wellington confirmed when he remarked that Napoleon's hat on the battlefield was worth 40,000 men.

Napoleon's victory led to the collapse of the Austrian power all over the north of Italy. This was an event of great historical and political significance. The tricolour flew over Milan and all the cities of Lombardy. For the first time the French tried to export revolution as a weapon against their royalist enemies. They took advantage of the situation to base themselves on the anti-Austrian nationalist movement. The presence of the French army undoubtedly gave an impetus to the national movement - at least in the initial stages. But as Robespierre once remarked: nobody likes missionaries armed with bayonets. The French had no money to finance the Italian campaign and the army had to live off the land - that meant, to live off the Italian peasants. At the beginning of the campaign he addressed the troops in the following terms: "Soldiers, you are ill-fed and almost naked […] I shall lead you into the most fertile plains of the world, where you will find big cities and rich lands. You will gather honour, glory and riches."

At first the Italians greeted the French as liberators. They were ready for a change. But when they had a little experience of French robbery and plunder, their attitude changed. The radical elements of the educated Italian middle class in the cities were mainly pro-French. But for most Italians the French were exploiters and occupiers, engaged in pillage, murder and rape. There were outbursts of popular anger, which were put down brutally.

Napoleon was responsible for all this. If he was not so popular with the Italian peasants, he was very popular with his soldiers. For the first time in years the French army was being paid. True, this was at the cost of the Italian people, but this little detail did not diminish the real enthusiasm for Napoleon among the French soldiers. They were now completely loyal to their general, or at any rate they were far more attached to him than to the government in Paris. He at least paid them and allowed them to plunder.

But the plunder carried out by Napoleon's soldiers was trifling in comparison to what was seized by France itself. In October 1797, Austria signed the Treaty of Campo Formio by which she abandoned Belgium to France and recognized its annexation; recognized the new French creation of a Cisalpine republic in northern Italy; surrendered the Ionian islands off the coast of Greece, but kept Venice and all her territories in Italy and the Adriatic. Under secret treaties, the Austrian Emperor furthermore promised to cede to France large tracts of the Rhineland and in return was promised parts of Bavaria, and the exclusion of her rival Prussia from any territorial gains. The historian Pierre Lanfrey wrote:

"Our national self-love has generally cast a veil over those motives of shameless rapacity which characterised our first occupation of Italy […] People prefer to let themselves be beguiled by the fine-sounding phrases and rhetorical commonplaces intended to befog the crowd […] But in that way the true meaning of events remains hidden, and there is surprise when so much alleged heroism and virtue result in so cynical a peace treaty as Campo Formio. People do not understand why our work in Italy was so quickly undone, nor why in the end our own Republic was doomed to suffer extinction at the hands of its own republican soldiers." (In P. Geyl, Napoleon - For or Against? p. 87.)

Napoleon versus the Directory

News of Napoleon's victories was not greeted with scenes of joy in the Directorate, which was now thoroughly alarmed. In a transparent manoeuvre, Paris tried to force Napoleon to share his command with general Kellermann, but he was a sufficiently astute intriguer to refuse. He had built his own propaganda machine, complete with his private newssheet, The Courier of Italy, that was sold in Paris and gave glowing reports of his military exploits. He was becoming a force to reckon with. The Directorate, grinding its teeth, was forced to retreat. Napoleon had won the first trial of strength with his "masters" in Paris. Inch by inch the balance of forces was moving his way.

The Directory was right to be alarmed. Napoleon was not acting like a victorious general but like a government in exile. He carried on negotiations with the Pope and the king of Naples without permission. Little by little a regime of dual power was taking shape. On the military front, the Austrian armies counterattacked and were defeated repeatedly. At Tivoli 8,000 Austrians were killed. Then Mantua fell. Napoleon was undoubtedly a better general than his Austrian foes. He thought faster than they did and moved faster than they did. Above all, the French troops were confident and aggressive. Napoleon had the ability - essential in warfare - to grasp the essence of a situation, to analyse all the factors in the equation and act decisively. He immediately saw the weak points in the enemy's defences and concentrated on these points.

Despite the predatory conduct of his army, Napoleon gave Italy back to the Italians. His role is therefore a contradictory one. Many Italians consider this period to be the beginning of the Italian national liberation struggle. He now returned to Paris where his arrival was awaited with dread by the enfeebled and decrepit Directory. In order to get rid of this troublesome general, they directed his attention to England. He began to plan an invasion, but it came to nothing.

Britain was France's main enemy. It was the leading commercial and maritime power. It was led by an oligarchy under William Pitt, an implacable foe of the Revolution. England's great wealth and naval power represented a constant threat to France. Paradoxically, England gained from the war with France. It seized French and Dutch colonies. It still controlled the seas. It therefore had no interest in peace, and remained a sizeable thorn in the side of France. Objectively, England had every reason to try to throttle the rising power of France before it was in a position to challenge it.

Unlike the island power of England, which relied on its navy, France's power was in its land armies, constantly supplied with a seemingly inexhaustible stream of recruits from the peasantry. This dictated the tactics pursued by both sides. To strike blows against the enemy, Napoleon attempted to wage a semi-revolutionary war against England by appealing to the Irish to rise against English rule. In 1797-8, preparations were made for a joint uprising and invasion, but in the end the French let the United Irishmen down, and they were mercilessly crushed. English sea power, underlined by the naval victory at Cape Vincent, proved sufficient to abort plans for a French invasion.

The Egyptian campaign

Thwarted on the English-Irish front, Napoleon had to look around for another military front in order to consolidate his grip on the army. This was always a key element in his plans - he needed to go from victory to victory, to keep his soldiers happy with the prospect of plunder and glory. It also fitted in well with his character as an adventurer and a gambler. He devised a plan for an invasion of Egypt. This was also aimed at England, since Egypt was the key to India and control of the Eastern Mediterranean. It also flattered his vanity to compare himself to Alexander the Great. Recalling that the latter had taken Aristotle and other learned men with him on his campaigns, he decided to bring a small army of archaeologists, artists, engineers and scientists, who made some important discoveries. The science of Egyptology really begins with the discovery of the Rosetta stone leading to the decipherment of the hieroglyphic script.

The Egyptian campaign started well. He took Alexandria easily. Then came the terrible march on Cairo, which revealed a total lack of understanding of the terrain. The men died like flies from the heat and lack of water. This was an army accustomed to living off the land, but in these trackless wastes there was nothing to live off. Conditions were so bad that men committed suicide, driven mad by heat and thirst. At Giza they were faced by an army of Mamelukes and Turks. But in the battle of the Pyramids Napoleon showed once more his ability to inspire his soldiers. He made his famous speech: "Soldiers! From the tops of these pyramids forty centuries look down on you."

The Egyptians were no match for a modern European army, and the French army was the finest in Europe. In Anti-Duhring Engels pointed out the dialectics of quantity and quality in relation to the relative strength of the Mameluke and French soldiers. The battle lasted only two hours and ended in a total rout for the Egyptian forces. But the British navy immediately annulled the effects of this victory. Led by Nelson, a military leader who was Napoleon's equal in daring, energy and enterprise, the British destroyed the French fleet at Aboukir Bay. Napoleon was trapped in Egypt.

He marched overland to Syria, towards Acre, the ancient centre of the Crusaders. He showed utter ruthlessness in the massacre of over 1,000 Turkish prisoners in Gaza. And why not, he must have thought? The same man did not hesitate to shoot down fellow Frenchmen on the streets of Paris. Why should he spare the lives of an "inferior race"? Here we have the true face of European colonialism that has since become so familiar to us in one colonial war after another, from the British conquest of India, passing through Belgian Congo, French Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam, and now Iraq. Napoleon established the precedent for all this. At the battle of Aboukir, he killed thousands more Turks. This slaughter added to his prestige at home, though to tell the truth there was not much merit in such an unequal conflict.

The 18th Brumaire

Back home in Paris, the Directory was in serious trouble. The French armies had been defeated. The finances were in disorder. The masses were restless. The weak government was fractured by splits and factional and clique struggles. It was tottering on the edge of the abyss: one good push would make it fall. Probably many of its members were rather pleased at the news of Nelson's victory at Aboukir Bay. True, thousands of French sailors had been killed, but it was far more important to them that Napoleon be humbled. However, nothing could now stop the internal disintegration of the Directory. The time was ripe for a coup d'état. Barras and Sieyès drew the necessary conclusion. They had betrayed Robespierre, and were now preparing to betray the Directory. But they required a little help. By sending Napoleon abroad the Directory had hoped to get rid of him. Instead they increased his popularity and prestige. Now Sieyès invited him to restore Order - Napoleon's speciality.

The rottenness of the government was shown by the fact that Barras was conducting secret negotiations with the exiled Louis XVIII, while other sections were looking for a deal with the Pretender to the throne Philippe Duke of Orleans. In September 1797 the Directory prevented the majority that now consisted mainly of royalists from staging a coup. For this they were forced to base themselves on Bonaparte, who helped them to expel the newly elected deputies from the chamber - the so-called coup d'état of Fructidor. By relying on armed force to solve problems in parliament, the Directory showed that it was not only financially but also politically bankrupt. This brought Bonaparte's coup one step nearer. The process was further accelerated by the annulment of the elections of 1798, the results of which were unsatisfactory to it (the coup d'état of Floreal).

In November 1799, the month of Brumaire according to the new calendar established by the Revolution, Napoleon carried out his coup. Sieyès at first saw him as the junior partner. He imagined that he was using Napoleon, but in reality it was the other way around. Just as Zinoviev underestimated Stalin, so Sieyès underestimated Napoleon. They thought that the key to politics was the ability to intrigue and manoeuvre. In reality, such things occupy a very minor role in the politics of great historical events: they are the small change of history. And they are important only to men and women with small minds.

Great historical transformations - whether revolutionary or counterrevolutionary - are not determined by diplomatic calculations, intrigues and manoeuvres, or by the "cleverness" of the participants. They are determined in the last analysis by great shifts in the class balance of forces. This is what establishes the ground rules and limitations within which the personal qualities, intelligence, initiative etc. of the leading characters are brought into play. Naturally, the foresight and personal abilities of the protagonists play a role. But their ability to determine the final outcome is strictly limited. In the period of the downswing of the revolution, the element of petty intrigue assumes a greater significance than in the period of revolutionary ascent, when the decisive role is played by the masses. But in any case, it cannot affect the final outcome in a decisive way.

By his character as an adventurer and an unprincipled opportunist who had come out of the Revolution, but was never really a revolutionary, Napoleon was admirably suited for the role of its executioner. Moreover, he had the immeasurable advantage over his rivals that he alone commanded the loyalty of the army - the peasant army that imagined that he alone was the embodiment of the Revolution that gave them the land and was now committed to spreading the ideals of the Revolution and the glory of France to every other country.

This was completely untrue, of course. The French peasants got the land by revolutionary means. After July 14, 1789, they rose up and burned the chateaux of the landowners, destroying feudal archives and asserting their freedom from feudal obligations. But with the passing of time, mythology replaced the facts and everything became mixed up in the minds of the politically untutored peasants. In history a myth can acquire a life of its own and become a powerful factor. That is shown by the persistence of the Napoleonic myth among the French peasants for generations.

Napoleon manoeuvred between the classes, appealing now to the Right, now to the Left, in order to strengthen his own position. To the bourgeoisie he promised Order and an end to revolutionary disturbances, while to the soldiers he demagogically spoke of saving the Revolution from royalist conspirators. He was neither logical nor consistent. He did not need to be. He had 80,000 excellent arguments in the shape of his soldiers. The army was a sword hanging over the heads of his enemies that he could wield at any time.

Napoleon's conduct in the coup d'état of 18th Brumaire did not reflect much credit on him. It was hardly his greatest hour. In the moment of truth he cut a ridiculous figure as he tried to address the Convention and was interrupted and shouted down by his opponents. Personally brave and decisive on the battlefield, his nerve failed him in the field of debate. He was reduced to stammering a few commonplaces about the "God of Battles" in the midst of the jeers of the hostile deputies. At one point it looked as if the whole thing was going to be aborted by a handful of parliamentary rowdies, despite the fact that most of the deputies had already been bought and the army was in his pocket. In the end, he had to be rescued by his friends who dragged him out of the Chamber. Only the bayonets of his soldiers saved him from a shameful rout.

Napoleon was made Consul along with two others, but soon elbowed them to one side. In effect he was the supreme ruler of France with monarchical powers. Yet even as he strangled the last vestiges of the Revolution, Napoleon spoke in its name. He did not wish to take power for himself, he insisted, but only to defend the revolutionary Order, to consolidate it, to purge it of scoundrels and enemies and lead it to victory. For this, discipline and unity were necessary. As in ancient Rome, in moments of great danger it was necessary for the Republic to hand power to men who knew how to defend it. On the eve of the coup Barras confided in the Police Chief Fouché: "We need a head and a sword", suggesting that Barras saw himself as the head. But in the end the roles were reversed. Barras and Sieyès thought they were using Napoleon but in fact it was they who were being used, and once their usefulness was over they were thrown into the dustbin of history.