In this in depth article 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Spanish and Russian adventures
Under Napoleon the imperialist tendencies of France became ever more pronounced. Whereas in the earlier phase of the French revolutionary wars the French were often seen as liberators, they were now increasingly seen as oppressors and robbers. Napoleon's policy of financing wars by treating them as a business had its disadvantages. The army was expected to live off the land, levying supplies from the local population. Bonaparte's insistence that war should be profitable led to ever heavier exactions and taxes on the occupied lands. This created an increasingly anti-French feeling. In the period of the Revolution, France exported liberalism, now it unwittingly exported nationalism.
Napoleon answered British naval superiority with the Continental System, which aimed at strangling Britain economically by excluding her goods from Europe. However, the plan hurt the economies of the European states far more than it hurt Britain. Moreover it was full of holes and difficult to enforce. This policy, more than anything else, aroused deep resentment against Napoleon among the nations of Europe and led to a strengthening of nationalist sentiment in Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia. The economic question caused bitter resentment in Holland and Italy. But there were other, more intangible factors, such as hurt national pride and a growing awareness of the contrast between the liberal sentiments that emanated from Paris and the reality of an oppressive and exploitative rule.
This in turn gave even greater scope for English intrigues. Though others may have acted as the main actors in the drama, London always pulled the strings from behind the scenes. In 1806 Prussia declared war on France, and within a few weeks England and Russia had joined in to form the Fourth Coalition. In practice, England was always the moving power behind these Coalitions. The English sent military aid to the Spanish who were waging a ferocious guerrilla war against the French forces that were occupying the country.
The Spanish adventure was a major blunder that cost Napoleon dearly. In pursuit of his dynastic ambitions, Napoleon attempted to install his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne. He forced Spain into a war with Portugal in order to deny Britain access to its harbours and strengthen the Continental System. Using this as an excuse he sent an army into Spain and billeted it on an unwilling population. Napoleon's real aim, however, was to place his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne. To do his dirty business he sent his faithful stooge Savary to Madrid. Of him Napoleon said: "If I ordered Savary to murder his wife and children, I know he would do it without a moment's hesitation." Savary's task was to entice the royal family to Bayonne where they would be the prisoners of Napoleon.
The result was a bloody uprising in Madrid on May 2, 1808, which was put down by the French with frightful slaughter, as depicted in two of Goya's greatest masterpieces. Napoleon did not doubt that this "good lesson" would keep the Spanish quiet. He was mistaken. The Second of May became a battle cry of the Spanish people who everywhere rose up against the French invaders, led by the aristocracy and inspired by fanatical priests. The result was a long and exhausting guerrilla war that cost the French half a million men. The "Spanish ulcer", as Napoleon called it, slowly sapped the strength and finances of France in the same way that the Vietnam War exhausted the strength of US imperialism in the 20th century.
From this point on, Napoleon's fortunes seemed to change. It was as if his celebrated "luck" had deserted him. But "luck" in politics is a relative affair. In general one makes one's own luck, or at least one acts in such a way in a given situation that is conducive to a fortunate outcome. And it is self-evident that a fortunate outcome is always more likely in a favourable situation than in an unfavourable one. In the great drama of history there are situations that are conducive to certain results and others that are not conducive. In the period of upswing of the French Revolution, the Left wing seemed to enjoy an irresistible rise. The reason for this was objective: the mass movement had a colossal sweep and constantly pushed the Revolution forward.
It is true that in the leadership there were individuals of great talent and ability. But in such a situation even less talented people can achieve great results. Their mistakes do not have serious consequences and their successes are magnified a thousand-fold. This creates a kind of optical illusion that "Fortune smiles upon them". But Fortune is a fickle goddess. Her smiles can turn to frowns in an instant. An individual who apparently can do no wrong suddenly can do nothing right. This fact is reflected in the popular wisdom in proverbs like "misfortunes seldom come singly" (in English) or "to a skinny dog everything turns into fleas" (in Spanish).
The idea of "luck" is a very superficial way of presenting things. Of course, both in everyday life and in history, there are many accidents. These are contingencies - occurrences that obey no particular law and therefore can be considered random events. A truly random event cannot be explained, and therefore can give rise to all kind of mystical interpretations. That is why gamblers always tend to be superstitious. But even in gambling, all is not left to chance. A gambler can be dealt a good hand of cards or a bad hand. He has no control over this (unless he cheats, which is always possible), but the way in which he plays his hand is also important. But when the cards dealt to him are consistently bad, even the most skilful player will lose.
In his great political drama Julius Caesar, Shakespeare puts the following words in the mouth of Brutus:
"There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures." (Act iv, scene iii.)
This is true of history in general. Amidst all the myriad small random events it is possible to discern broad currents and tendencies - the "tide of affairs" that Shakespeare refers to in such a masterly way. Engels was expressing the same idea when he said that there are periods in history in which twenty years are as a single day but there are other periods in which the history of twenty years can be summed up in twenty-four hours. We see the same thing in evolution where long periods of stasis are interrupted periodically by cataclysms characterised by the mass extinction of some species and the rise of others.
At such critical moments of history, when quantity becomes transformed into quality, the actions of a relatively small number of people, or even a single individual, can produce effects of all proportion to their apparent possibilities. In the same way, a factory that has not experienced a strike in ten or twenty years, and in which the militants seem to be completely isolated and powerless, suddenly enters into a phase of militancy that is completely unexpected both to the bosses and the advanced guard. Over some trivial incident (that comes under the heading of "accident"), the anger of the workers that has been slowly accumulating over a long period, suddenly erupts. The whole situation is instantly transformed into its opposite. People who were apparently backward are now open to the most radical and militant ideas. The militants who were isolated are now eagerly listened to by the masses.
Such transformations can be seen many times in history. They are called revolutions. But a revolution, by definition, is an exceptional situation. It cannot last indefinitely. Either it will lead to a fundamental transformation of the lives of the masse, or else at a certain stage they will get tired and fall back into the old apathy and indifference. In such circumstances, the revolutionary wing will no longer find an echo and the initiative will pass back to the counterrevolutionary forces. No matter what skill, intelligence or other personal qualities the advanced guard possess, it will not make much difference to the outcome. At best it may postpone the result, or modify this or that aspect, but the outcome will be substantially the same.
In the period after Lenin's death, when the Russian Revolution was isolated in conditions of the most frightful backwardness, Stalin rose to power as the representative of the Bureaucracy - the caste of privileged officials that had done well out of the October Revolution and wished to enjoy the fruits of office undisturbed by the demands of the masses. Here we see the same tendencies that we saw in France once the revolutionary tide began to ebb. We see the same tendency of the state to escape from the control of the working class and raise itself above society. This is precisely what Marxists call Bonapartism, only of a peculiar character: Bonapartism on the basis of the new nationalised property relations established by the October Revolution, or, to use the term coined by Trotsky, proletarian Bonapartism.
We will return to the question of proletarian Bonapartism in future. For the present, it is sufficient to state that Stalin's personal mediocrity and theoretical crudeness were no obstacle to his rise to power - in the given circumstances, they were actually an asset. The writings of vulgar "Marxists" like Isaac Deutscher, for whom "nothing succeeds like success" have absolutely nothing in common with the scientific method of historical materialism. For Deutscher, the fact that Stalin defeated Trotsky automatically means that he must have been "cleverer", that Trotsky made mistakes, allowed himself to be outmanoeuvred, and so on and so forth.
History of this sort boils down to superficialities that can explain nothing. The conclusion we are invited to draw is that if only Trotsky had been as clever as Isaac Deutscher, he would not have made these mistakes and he would have outmanoeuvred Stalin instead of the other way round! In reality, the defeat of the Left Opposition was rooted in the objective situation, the exhaustion of the working class after years of war, revolution and civil war, the conditions of hunger, poverty, illiteracy and crushing backwardness, the death of a large number of advanced workers in the Civil War - all these facts led to the isolation of the proletarian advanced guard, the Bolshevik-Leninists led by Leon Trotsky. In fact, Trotsky knew very well that the Opposition would be defeated. He was trying to lay down traditions for the future generations of revolutionaries to build upon, and in that he succeeded, while Stalin, Bukharin, Kamenev and Zinoviev left nothing behind.
All this had occurred before, albeit on a different class basis and in a different historical context. Great individuals, as Hegel explains, are those who express the nature of their historical period better and more consistently than anyone else. To use his exact phrase, they embody the "World Spirit". When Hegel saw Napoleon he is said to have exclaimed "I have just seen the World Spirit riding on a horse!" Napoleon certainly expressed the nature of his times better than most. His "luck" can be reduced to the fact that he rose with the Revolution and then went on to embody the spirit of Thermidorean reaction more clearly and consistently than anyone else. His military victories certainly reveal his personal talent as a general. But above all they reveal the inability of degenerate feudal-monarchic armies to fight against the army that emerged from the Revolution and still embodied its fighting spirit and missionary zeal, albeit in a caricatured form.
At a certain stage, Napoleon's "luck" deserted him. He began to make mistakes - like the disastrous Spanish campaign and the even more catastrophic 1812 invasion of Russia. But these mistakes reflect the fact that the impulse had gone out of his strategy, which was really no strategy at all. One campaign of plunder merely led to another, and so on ad infinitum. He was constantly overreaching himself, and this was increasingly obvious even to his collaborators. The inveterate opportunist Fouché commented ironically to someone who asked where all this would stop: "Oh, don't worry. After this there will be Russia and after Russia, there is always China!"
These wars had an increasingly predatory character, although the French always presented them as wars of liberation. Thus Jules Michelet in 1851 rebuked the Belgians for their complaints about the onerous burdens imposed upon them by the French occupiers:
"When France undertook, for the Belgians and for the world, the war that cost her from 1792 to 1815 ten million of her children, it did not, in the face of that terrible effusion of French blood, become them to grumble about a little Belgian money."
But neither the Belgians, nor any of the other countries occupied by France, saw things in the same way. Every imperialist aggressor in history (with the possible exception of Gengis Khan, who, to be fair, was always very frank) has tried to justify robbery by reference to the loftiest principles. That was true of Napoleon and it is true today of George W. Bush in relation to the predatory invasion of Iraq.
The ruthlessness of Napoleon towards conquered peoples is well documented. When he received news of an insignificant revolt in Hesse, he wrote to the commander-in-chief in January 1807:
"My intention is that the main village where the insurrection started shall be burnt and that thirty of the ringleaders shall be shot; an impressive example is needed to contain the hatred of the peasantry and of that soldiery. If you have not yet made an example, let there be one without delay […] Let not the month pass without the principal village, borough or small town which gave the signal for the insurrection being burned, and a large number of individuals being shot […] Traces must be left in the cantons which have rebelled." (P. Geyl, p. 161.)
In warfare as in the class struggle people learn. Napoleon used to say that defeated armies learn well. Under the hammer-blows of defeat, France's enemies learned to imitate the methods of the French. The Austrians, for example, carried out reforms such that in the 1809 war, although Napoleon won, his army suffered terrible losses at the battle of Wagram. This sent a signal to the rest of Europe that the French army was perhaps not invulnerable after all. Undeterred, Napoleon decided to pick a fight with Russia, although it was supposed to be an ally of France. In reality, this was just a temporary marriage of convenience. Ultimately the interests of France and Russia were in conflict: both wished to dominate the Mediterranean and the Middle East and to seize Constantinople.
The ostensible reason for the conflict was the Tsar's refusal to accept the Continental System and support the blockade of Britain. Napoleon provoked the Tsar by creating the Duchy of Warsaw, uniting most of the former Polish territories of Prussia and Austria - a clear threat to Russia's Polish territories. But the real reason was the rivalry between France and Russia over Constantinople and the Middle East. In 1812-13, Britain and Sweden quietly established contacts with St. Petersburg with a view to intervening the moment the French attacked.
The 1812 campaign was Napoleon's biggest miscalculation. It was similar to the miscalculation made 130 years later by Hitler. To embark on such a huge undertaking in the trackless wastes of Russia while Britain remained undefeated in his rear was a reckless adventure. The battle of Borodino cost Napoleon heavy and irreplaceable losses. He advanced further than he had intended, as the Russians utilised the tactic of a defence in depth, making use of the vast spaces of Russia and a scorched earth policy. Though he occupied Moscow, which the Russians then burnt, he was forced to retreat, with the loss of 250,000 killed and 100,000 taken prisoner.
The Fourth Coalition drove Napoleon back across the Elbe, as a nationalist revival swept through Germany. In October 1813 he suffered one of his greatest defeats when he lost 50,000 men in the battle of Leipzig against the Prussians. Losses on such a scale drained the manpower of France and emptied its treasury. While French troops were being driven out of the Rhineland, the British entered France from Spain. Napoleon was being caught in a pincer movement. Divisions opened up in the regime. When Paris capitulated, he signed his abdication as Emperor of the French on April 7, 1814. The brother of Louis XVI entered France and was put back on the throne as Louis XVIII, having grudgingly agreed to a charter granting certain rights and liberties.
The rest of the story is quickly told. After only ten months of exile on the tiny island of Elba in the Mediterranean, Napoleon escaped and entered France for a last confrontation with his enemies. To the last, his gambler's spirit had not deserted him. But this was really a desperate gamble against all the odds. He relied on the persistence of the Napoleonic legend among the peasantry, and in this he was not mistaken.
The French peasantry was the backbone of Bonapartism at all times. They believed that the Emperor had given them the land, and many were still prepared to fight to defend both it and him. Among the peasant soldiers there still smouldered a sense of pride in the victories of the past and the hope for new ones in the future, thanks to l'empereur. The Napoleonic myth was surprisingly persistent among the peasants, as we saw in the period 1848-51 and even later.
However, all this was not enough to prevent his defeat on the field of Waterloo. Napoleon was Emperor once more - but Emperor in name only. He issued proclamations, order, sent letters to foreign courts, but to no avail. The pendulum of reaction had swung so far to the right that it made the restoration of the monarchy inevitable. Even among the peasantry there was a sense of weariness after years of wars and everlasting requisitions. Mocking posters appeared on the walls, ostensibly signed by the Emperor:
"Article 1: Every year there must be delivered over to me 300,000 men as cannon fodder.
"Article 2: If necessary, this number will be increased to 3 million.
"Article 3: All these victims will be sent post-haste to the great slaughter-house."
If this mood existed among even sections of the peasantry, how much more was the scepticism among the moneyed classes, whose only desire was to be left in peace to make more money! The big bourgeois who had fawned on Napoleon and acted in the most servile manner whilst he held undisputed power, now deserted him in droves to the side of the English and the restored Bourbons who offered them greater security. Stefan Zweig conveys very well the mentality of these layers:
"The worthy citizens, anxious about the stability of their incomes, are by no means inclined to share the enthusiasm of the half-pay officers and professional cock-fighters to whom peace only means an interruption of business; and when, perforce, Napoleon grants them the suffrage, they will give him a slap in the face by electing the very men whom fifteen years earlier he had persecuted and driven into obscurity, the revolutionists of 1792, Lafayette and Lanjuinais." (Fouché, p. 183.)
The French bourgeoisie capitulated to the Bourbons in 1814, just as the English bourgeoisie invited Charles II back from France after the death of Cromwell. In both cases, the bourgeoisie saw the monarchy as a bulwark against Revolution, a pillar of property and Order. They deserted Napoleon who in the moment of truth had only the shadow of power. The military defeat at Waterloo was only a last bloody footnote to a text already written by history. Napoleon ended his days on a barren rock in the middle of the ocean, and on 8 July 1815 Louis XVIII was restored for a second time.
If we examine the political regimes that existed in France from 1789 to 1815 we see the most incredible transformations: from the Jacobin revolutionary Republic to the Thermidorean reaction, passing through the Directory to the Consulate, then the Bonapartist Empire, and finally to the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy on English and Prussian bayonets in 1815. One might draw the conclusion that the wheel of history had simply turned full circle: the Revolution returned to its starting point. But such a conclusion would be entirely erroneous. The error consists in approaching society from the top down, examining changes in the political superstructure, and not understanding the processes at work in the foundations of the social edifice - the productive forces and property relations. The main task of the bourgeois revolution in France was the agrarian revolution. The essence of the French Revolution consisted in the abolition of the old landed relationships, the break-up of the big feudal estates and the distribution of land to the peasantry. And despite all the changes that occurred in the political regime, the social relations of production in France remained basically the same throughout. Even the restoration of the Bourbons was unable to undo this.
In the end the Great French Revolution disappointed the hopes of the masses and the whole process went into reverse. But the wheel of history did not return to the staring point. The Revolution carried out a profound transformation of the economic and class relations in France. It radically abolished feudalism and laid the basis for the rise of capitalism and therefore of the working class, the vehicle for the establishment of socialism.
Moreover, the experience of the French Revolution left behind a valuable tradition upon which later generations have built. The revolution of 1848 and above all the Paris Commune of 1870-71 took as their starting point the revolutionary traditions of 1789-93. Even today, as we stroll down the streets and squares of Paris it is possible to see revolutionary history written on every brick and paving stone. The ghosts of the past have never been exorcised. They stare down on us from every street sign. The past lights the way to the future.
In the first decade of the 21st century the capitalist system that was born in the throes of Revolution has become old and decrepit. Its leaders resemble the pathetic senile representatives of the ancien régime. There is a general ferment of discontent and a questioning of the values and morality of a system that has outlived its reason to exist and become a monstrous fetter on human progress.
The new generation will eagerly search for and rediscover the ideas and traditions of the Russian revolution, the Paris Commune and the French Revolution. Bonapartism and Stalinism will be consigned to the dustbin of history. The dreams of the past will become the reality of future generations in a socialist world that will embrace the ideas of Gracchus Babeuf and the Communards as its own.