The rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte - Part three

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In the third part of his series, Alan Woods looks at Napoleon Bonaparte as he concentrated all power in his hands striking blows against the Left and reintroducing many of the trappings of the old regime, while maintaining the essential social aspects of the revolution, the abolition of feudalism and the establishment of bourgeois property relations.

What is Bonapartism?

The tendency towards the rule of a single man - towards dictatorship - was asserting itself irresistibly. In a situation where the contending forces have exhausted themselves, the army (that is, the state) lifts itself above society. What emerges is rule by the sword - the essential feature of Bonapartism. But at the head of the army stands the commander, the generalissimo, the supreme chief. Not by chance the word Emperor comes from the Latin word imperator, which means simply an army commander. The head of the army now presents himself as the supreme head of the Nation, the personification of the nation. He presents himself as someone above all petty class interests, parties and factions. He claims to represent the whole People, and speaks in its name. From his final exile in St. Helena Napoleon protested that his sole motivation was his love of "la France". But since he identified France with his own person, his will and his caprices, there is no contradiction here. Louis XIV said "I am the state", and every Bonapartist in history says "I am the Nation".

However, rule by the sword does not exhaust the definition of Bonapartism. There are many kinds of rule that are based on the sword. Bonapartism has certain peculiar features that flow from the fact that it expresses a specific state of affairs where the antagonistic class forces are in a state of unstable equilibrium. In such a position, the Bonapartist ruler tends to balance between the classes. Napoleon leaned at one time on the Left to strike blows at the Right, and at another he leaned on the Right to strike blows at the Left. And all the time he was increasing his own power.

Napoleon was "all things to all men". This enabled him to win the support of many left wing opponents of the Directory - old Jacobins who wished to restore the Revolution to its original principles and imagined (quite wrongly) that Napoleon was the man to perform this task. In his language and conduct in the first period, he did nothing to discourage this naïve belief. But in realty, while talking "Left" he was steering a steady course to the Right, which inevitably ended in the coronation of a new Emperor, the restoration of the nobility and the Concordat with the Pope. The mistake of those Jacobins who supported Napoleon was the same as the mistake of those Old Bolsheviks like Kamenev and Zinoviev who capitulated to Stalin in the period 1927-31, believing that his break with Bukharin and the Right wing and the introduction of collectivisation and five year plans heralded a return to Leninism. They were soon undeceived.

Every usurping regime must pay lip service to the regime it has overthrown. Despite its reactionary essence, Bonapartism had emerged from the soil of the Revolution, and those who usurped power still felt obliged to pay lip service to it. In the same way the Emperor Augustus continued to maintain the outward forms of the Roman Republic long after he had destroyed it, whilst Stalin, the executioner of the Bolshevik Party, continued to speak in the name of Leninism and the October Revolution. Although the counterrevolution had already liquidated the political regime of 1793, it continued to speak the language of Revolution.

The Bonapartist regime in France loudly proclaimed republican values, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity - especially outside France. Thus, it got an echo among the progressive and Liberal middle class and working class in other countries. In the same way Stalin in Russia received the enthusiastic support of workers in other countries who imagined that he stood for Communism and the ideals of October, even when he was trampling these ideals underfoot in Russia and internationally. In both cases, the counterrevolution continued to speak the language of the Revolution, and this was an important source of strength in the international arena.

The reality was that Bonapartism dealt the political regime established by the Revolution a final coup de grace. Under the pretext of "eliminating excesses" and "abolishing the Terror", Napoleon was really saying "the Revolution is over". His class base was the large layer of people who had done well out of the Revolution and who now wished to live in peace and quiet to enjoy the fruits of their success. Napoleon promised to defend the Revolution both against the royalists who wished to put the clock back to 1788 and against the plebeian and semi-proletarian masses who had lost political power in 1794.

"He always treated the working men as inferiors," writes Alphonse Aulard. "By a law of Year XI and a decree of Year XII [1803 and 1804] he placed them under police supervision, prescribed for them the possession of an identity book without which they were liable to arrest as vagabonds, once more prohibited unions and strikes on pain of imprisonment, and charged the Prefect of Police with the settlement of wage disputes. It was a relapse into the ancien régime when the Code Napoleon laid down that in such disputes the word of the employer was to be taken. The plebiscite might be the foundation of a new regime, but here as in other cases, Bonaparte gave evidence of an inclination to destroy equality and to divide French society into a politically and socially privileged bourgeois class and a subordinate plebeian class." (See P. Geyl, p. 321.)

The workers, worn out by the exertions of the previous period, offered no resistance to the Bonapartist regime, though they cursed it under their breath. The town workers were kept quiet by a policy of cheap bread and meat. For this purpose bakers and butchers in Paris were placed under control. Industry revived and wages rose, a tendency that was boosted still further by labour shortages caused by military conscription.

On the other hand, Napoleon had a powerful ally in the peasantry - the millions who had obtained land as a result of the Revolution and who saw in Napoleon the best guarantee of their title to the land. It just so happened that the peasantry was also the basis of Napoleon's army, which worshipped him. As long as Napoleon maintained the loyalty of the peasantry and the peasant army, his position was secure. He was able to fashion a state in his own image. If we examine this state in isolation, it seems to represent a return to the royalist past. We detect not a single trace of the old revolutionary Republic of 1793. The power-hungry despot systematically liquidated the last remnants of the revolutionary regime and restored all the old forms: hierarchy, rank, nobility, titles, and finally even the Catholic Church.

Pursuing his usual course of action, Napoleon launched his second Italian campaign in order to boost his prestige and consolidate his regime through foreign conquest. Napoleon followed his gambler's instinct and it did not deceive him. He was lucky - but this "luck" had an objective basis. The armies that faced him were the armies of degenerate monarchist feudal regimes. On paper they were formidable fighting machines, but on the battlefield they were no match for the French army, which despite everything was still the child of the Revolution and inspired to fight by its ideals. Napoleon's soldiers were battle-hardened and accustomed to win. By contrast, the Austrian army was demoralised and lacked the will to fight, especially on foreign soil.

As First Consul, Napoleon built a formidable bureaucratic apparatus complete with secret police and an ubiquitous network of spies under the control of the renegade Jacobin and former terrorist Fouché. All dissent was ruthlessly suppressed. The press was subject to rigid censorship. Of 70 Paris journals only three remained. Surely we have the right to say that with Napoleon the French Revolution was finally liquidated? This question, however, is more complicated than it seems. What Napoleon destroyed - and he destroyed it utterly and completely - was the political regime established by the Revolution. But what he did not and could not destroy were the new property relations established by the Revolution.

Blows against the Left

The forces of monarchist reaction were delighted at first, believing that Napoleon would reintroduce the monarchy. In the same way in the 1920s some Russian monarchists welcomed the victory of Stalin over Trotsky, hoping that the Bureaucracy would re-establish capitalism. Deceived by outward appearances, Louis XVIII wrote to Napoleon, offering to return and all would be forgiven. The First Consul wrote back politely declining His Majesty's generous offer. For all the external resemblances with the ancien régime, the new state had nothing in common with the old regime because it rested on entirely different class foundations and property relations. In the last analysis, these are decisive, not the forms under which they appear.

When the reactionaries realised their error, they prepared to wage a life-and-death struggle against Napoleonic France. All Europe united in this crusade. They used every possible method, including attempted assassination, to destroy their enemy. In 1800 royalist plotters attempted to kill Napoleon with the aid of what was known as an "infernal machine". On Christmas Eve, when Napoleon was on his way to the first Paris performance of Hayden's oratorio The Creation, as his carriage passed through the narrow Rue Nicaise, there was a shattering explosion. The events surrounding this incident is described in Balzac's novel A Murky Affair (Une Affaire Tenebreuse ), which depicts the period with unerring exactness, carefully distinguishing between the different classes and factions in French society and laying bare their interests and psychology.

After 1799 the regime was faced with opposition from both the Right and the Left. In reality the Jacobins were already a spent force - a mere shadow of their former selves. The real danger came from the Right, from the royalists who believed that their hour had come. The police were convinced (correctly) that the attack was the work of royalist Chouans. But Napoleon would hear none of it. He chose to blame the Left for the 1800 attempt: 130 Republicans were accused of being terrorists and, without even the pretence of a trial, were sent to the "dry guillotine" of exile in Guyana, from whence few returned alive.

Just as Stalin used the Kirov assassination as a pretext to strike at the Old Bolsheviks, so Napoleon took advantage of the 1800 incident to strike blows at the left opposition. His main thrust was consistently to the Right. His victims were all left wingers - men of principle who had opposed him or resisted the coup of 18th Brumaire, or had incurred his anger in other ways. A few days afterwards, Fouché, the Minister of Police, exposed the real terrorists - right wing royalist Chouans. They were found guilty and guillotined, but the old Jacobins were not set free. Bonaparte was determined to get rid of them and had made sure that the decree of proscription was made in the name of "state security" in general, not the December assassination attempt.

This was no accident. Napoleon was determined to eliminate the last vestiges of Jacobinism that remained like a silent rebuke to his plans for imperial aggrandisement. Just as Stalin could not tolerate the Old Bolsheviks even after they had capitulated to him and abased themselves before him, so Napoleon could not tolerate the survival of people who, however powerless, could still serve as a reminder of what the French Revolution was all about. Shortly afterwards he demanded, and got, Consulship for life.

The Church

A clear indication of the nature of the regime was Napoleon's Concordat with the Pope. The French Revolution had effectively swept religion away. The stranglehold of the Church on social life was shattered. In any case, the Catholicism of the French peasant was very superficial. George Lefebvre comments:

"One must not measure the Church's influence upon the population by its material progress. In many regions indifference was considerable, and in the towns a public could always be found to applaud Oedipe or Tartuffe." (P. Geyl, p. 394.) Oedipe, Voltaire's first tragedy was an attack on priestly arrogance, while Moliere's Tartuffe was an attack on the Church and religious hypocrisy. The Church was too identified with the upper classes and the monarchy to hold much appeal to most of the population, although there were exceptions, such as the strongly religious and backward area known as the Vendée, which was the heartland of the counterrevolution. Most of the people, however, looked on with indifference at the destruction of the Church, or else enthusiastically applauded it. The restoration of the Catholic Church under Napoleon was therefore a qualitative turning point in the degeneration of the Revolution.

The relation between Church and state established by the Concordat was mutually profitable. The regime got an air of respectability and the property rights of the newly rich were strengthened. The Church recovered some, if not all, its lost power and privileges. The state paid the priests' wages. But Napoleon remained the Boss, and he appointed the bishops. On Easter Day 1802 a special Mass to celebrate the Concordat was celebrated in Notre Dame. Not everyone was happy about it, even in Napoleon's inner circle. One of his generals, when asked by the First Consul how he liked it, replied: "Pretty monkish mummery! The only thing that is missing is the blood of the million men who died trying to overturn what you are restoring."

The restoration of the Church was almost the last act in the dismantling of the political edifice built by the Revolution. It was a deliberate act to convince everybody that the Revolution was over, and that the present regime was a regime of Order, in which private property, the family and the state were sacrosanct. It was also designed to keep the working class in check. To quote Napoleon himself:

"For my part, I do not see in religion the mystery of transubstantiation but the mystery of social order.

"Society cannot exist without inequality of property, an inequality which cannot be maintained without religion […] It must be possible to tell the poor: ‘It is God's will. There must be rich and poor in this world, but hereafter and for all eternity there will be a different distribution.'" (See P. Geyl, p. 323.)

Has the attitude of the ruling class to religion ever been expressed with greater clarity, or more devastating cynicism? The masses rallied to the Revolution because they believed it would usher in a new world of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. As long as the bourgeoisie needed them as the shock troops in the struggle against its enemies, it permitted them to continue to believe that the kingdom of the bourgeoisie would usher in this golden age. But once it was comfortably installed in power, the bourgeoisie rewrote the rules, explaining to the masses that the goal of equality and a "different distribution" was slightly postponed - until after they were dead - when they would be free to enjoy these things for all eternity. The rich, of course, could enjoy them right now. But the poor had to be convinced of the need for patience and submission, and in order to achieve this miracle, the bourgeoisie called on the services of Mother Church. They have been doing so ever since.

Napoleon used religion for the purpose of strengthening his power. He even dictated a new catechism, the seventh lesson of which reads:

" - Christians owe to the princes who rule them, and we in particular owe to Napoleon I, our Emperor, love, respect, obedience, loyalty, military service, the dues laid down for the conservation and the defence of the empire and of his throne; we also owe him fervent prayers for his safety and for the temporal and spiritual prosperity of the State.

" - Why do we owe all these duties towards our Emperor?

" - Firstly, because God […] plentifully bestowing gifts upon our Emperor, whether for peace or for war, has made him the minister of his power and his image upon earth. Secondly, because Our Lord Jesus Christ, both by his teaching and his example, has taught us himself what we owe to our Sovereign […]". And so on and so forth.

Nobody uttered a word of complaint about the new catechism. Rome kept silent. The French bishops welcomed it with transports of joy. Napoleon was now the master of France - Consul for Life - a title confirmed by plebiscite. The Church was back but under his firm control. Alphonse Aulard regarded the Concordat correctly as "the counterrevolutionary act par excellence".

The Code Napoleon

Napoleon was careful to endorse all his main seizures of power by holding a plebiscite afterwards. But in reality his real power derived not from plebiscites (the classical method of Bonapartism) but the army. The new legal system, the Code Napoleon, sanctified the new property relations. The peasantry believed long after this that Napoleon had given them the right to the land. In fact this was not true. The feudal rights had been abolished by the Revolution in the period of its ascent in 1792-3. Napoleon merely took over the existing state of affairs and wrote it into the legal framework.

The real class basis of the Napoleonic regime was the wealthy middle classes who had made their fortune out of the Revolution. They wanted to defend the new property relations that guaranteed their fortunes, but they also wanted the Revolution to stop. They wanted a line to be drawn and for Order to be established that would protect them against the threat both from royalist restoration and the "excessive" demands of the masses. They were tired of the years of storm and stress and wished to enjoy their newfound privileges and incomes. These were exactly the same considerations that motivated the Russian Bureaucracy and the Stalin faction in the period after Lenin's death.

The Code Napoleon was a legal expression of the interests of this class. It was the codification of the political counterrevolution that liquidated the democratic character of the Revolution and confirmed its bourgeois content:

"The Code confirmed the rights of private property and the land settlement of the Revolution, and reassured all who had acquired the former lands of Church and nobility that their existing rights would be preserved. Bonaparte ensured, above all, that there would be no counter-revolution - and this rallied middle classes and peasants alike behind the Consulate." (David Thomson, Europe Since Napoleon, p. 58.)

The reactionary nature of this document is nowhere clearer than in the section that deals with the family: "The authority of the father over his wife, his children, and the property of the family was strengthened, as against the revolutionary tendency towards equality of persons and equal division of property. Under the Code wives were subjected to husbands, divorce was made more difficult, and property up to a quarter of the whole could be bequeathed away from the family." (ibid.)

In order to strengthen the state power and increase his control over the population, Napoleon set up a centralised bureaucracy that has characterised France ever since. He established the system of Prefects. Charles Seignobles comments:

"A centralized system of government agents, opposed to the regime of elective self-government created by the Revolution. The nation had no longer any share in the conduct of its affairs or in the choice of its local leaders. The French ceased to be citizens, to become once more subjects, no longer of the king, but of the government." (See P. Geyl, p. 333.)

The Bonapartist regime was a repressive police state. The Ministry of Police, suppressed in 1802, was revived in 1804 under Joseph Fouché. The lettres de cachet, the hated system of anonymous denunciations and arbitrary arrests of the ancien régime, were revived by a decree of 1810, which established state prisons and allowed arrest and detention without trial on the authority of the Council of State. An army of spies infested France, so that the Emperor was kept informed of any opposition and could crush it immediately.

Napoleon created a hierarchy based on rank, medals, including the Legion of Honour (with four grades), open to all ranks for bravery on the field of battle. These gaudy baubles were deeply resented by the old revolutionary veterans whose only badge of honour were the wounds they acquired in the struggle to defend the Revolution and the Patrie. By such means Napoleon abolished the old egalitarianism and established an elite - a new aristocracy that imitated all the forms of the old regime but which was entirely bourgeois in character.

The new nobility enjoyed not only high-sounding titles and gaudy uniforms but also generous official salaries and perks. In the end Pope Pius crowned Napoleon Emperor, and thereafter he insisted on being addressed as "Sire" or "Your Majesty". From all this it would seem that the Revolution had been thrown right back to the beginning. Here we had the Emperor, the nobility, an honours system, the Church, and all the trappings of the old regime. But appearances are deceptive. On the surface nothing had changed since Louis XVI had sat on the throne. Beneath the surface everything had. The outward forms of the state and government were the same, but the class system was entirely different.

This fact was well understood by the other European powers, which combined to defeat Napoleonic France. In 1805 the Third Coalition was formed, consisting of England, Austria, Russia and Sweden. The driving force, as always, was England. This island power always maintained a consistent policy, based on the balance of power in Europe. England's power depended on two things: naval power and a divided and weak Europe. The rise of French power made it imperative for England to weaken France. Its naval power was again demonstrated at the battle of Trafalgar, when the English fleet under Nelson destroyed the combined fleets of France and Spain.

The reason for Napoleon's wars

In 1789 there was a rough balance of power in Europe: a tolerable equilibrium between Bourbons and Hapsburgs, Austria and Russia, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. But the French Revolution completely destroyed the equilibrium and ushered in a long period of wars. France found herself opposed by a series of unstable coalitions that held together for a time, mainly as a result of British strategy and British gold. The Revolution radically rearranged the map of Europe, creating the basis for the emergence of the modern European states in the next hundred years.

Poland was divided up between Russia, Prussia and Austria in 1793, terminating a process begun 20 years earlier. In fact in 1795 the monarchies of Russia and Austria did a deal for the carving up not just of Poland but also of Turkey, Venice and Bavaria. However, the astonishing successes of the French revolutionary armies immediately swept all these plans to one side. Initially, the French were received as liberators by many people, a fact that greatly facilitated their work. Although the French exacted a price, in most cases the native population found this no more burdensome than the rule of their feudal masters, and usually less.

The overriding concern of the monarchies of Europe was to defeat revolutionary France. The idea of the sovereignty of the people was anathema to all of them, and when the Revolution hurled down the head of a king at their feet, it was clear that there could only be one outcome. It was a question of conquer or die. Behind all the anti-French Coalitions stood the power of England. For Pitt and those he represented, hatred of the revolutionary-democratic principles that threatened to spread across the Channel was exacerbated by colonial and commercial rivalry with France.

Napoleon tried to reach a deal with England with the Treaty of Amiens. But everybody saw that this was just an uneasy truce. England did not want peace, but only to destroy the power of France. For his part, Napoleon merely used the truce to strengthen his navy. With the aim of rivalling British sea power, he pressed on with the expansion of ports and dockyards. He stepped up the programme of shipbuilding and prepared colonial expeditions to Mauritius and Madagascar - which, not by coincidence, were situated on the route to British India.

This truce, like all the others, was just a preparation for a new war. Realising that war was inevitable, Napoleon decided to attack first, thus preventing the Coalition powers from combining against him. He saw that the weakest link in the Coalition was Austria and fell upon the Austrian army before the Russians had a chance to come to its aid. It was a most audacious stroke. The French army marched from the French coast in total secrecy and surprised the Austrians near Ulm. The Austrian lines of communication were severed and "the unfortunate general Mach", as Napoleon ironically called him, was forced to surrender with 25,000 men. This masterpiece of military planning completely demoralised the Austrians and dealt a shattering blow against the Coalition.

In the next round of fighting the French were exhausted and outnumbered by a combined force of Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz. But Napoleon used the landscape to deploy his artillery to good effect. He deceived the enemy into believing that he was weaker than he was, and lured them into a trap. The Austrians and Russians were routed. Pitt, the real leader of the Coalition, was shattered. On hearing the news from Austerlitz, he is said to have remarked in despair: "Roll up that map of Europe: it will not be needed for ten years."

But Pitt was mistaken. Napoleon was being driven on to new wars that seriously stretched the real possibilities of his country. It has been argued that if Napoleon had halted at this point he might have succeeded in consolidating his victories and the whole history of Europe would have been different. The French historian Adolphe Thiers wrote: "had not more and more been heaped upon the groaning foundations" they need not have collapsed. Yet Napoleon pressed relentlessly on.

The reasons for this recklessness can be variously explained: by Napoleon's adventurous character, his dynastic pretensions and so on. This can explain part of the picture, but not all. We must seek the real reasons in the objective conditions in France and the peculiar nature of Napoleon's regime and the class interests behind it. War was the only means by which to distract the people's attention from that oligarchy's policy of disinheriting the peasant and sequestering the land. The money-grubbing middle class, caught by a fever of speculation, could be induced to see in war the means of conquering world markets. A genuine peace with England would have been possible only at the price of renunciation of all naval, colonial and industrial power. The surrender of Antwerp and Egypt, of San Domingo and Louisiana, of the merchant navy, of the French principles of maritime law (the principle that the flag protects the cargo) would hardly have sufficed to conciliate Britain.

For all these reasons, a lasting peace between France and England was impossible. Every truce was merely an interval between one war and another. In the first stage, the French won one brilliant victory after another, partly as a result of the superiority of the marvellous French military machine, partly to Napoleon's inspired generalship, but also because of the inherent defects of corrupt and degenerate feudal regimes and their armies. However, at a certain stage Napoleon overreached himself. This seems to be an inherent and fatal tendency on the part of all great empires - including the USA today. Big victories can lead to excessive self-confidence, leading eventually to big defeats.

There is another striking parallel between Napoleonic France and the USA of George W Bush. Clausewitz, the great Prussian military theoretician who was well acquainted with the writings of Hegel, explained that the purpose of war must be the achievement of limited aims. But Napoleon, like George W Bush in his "war against terror", had no such aims. Despite his tactical brilliance on the battlefield, Napoleon had no clearly discernable overall strategy, other than to take on and defeat every great power in Europe and force them to accept his dictates. This was a very tall agenda! In effect, he just stumbled from one war to another. The money derived from one expedition would go to preparing the next one, and so on ad infinitum. This really does not constitute a genuine strategy. It is merely the agenda of a large-scale plunderer, which was what Napoleon really was.

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