The rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte - Part four

In this, the fourth and final part of his series on Napoleon, Alan Woods looks at the final demise of the Emperor, as he outstretched himself in one war after another, finally being betrayed by the same bourgeoisie that had earlier fawned on him.

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.

Napoleon's miscalculations

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.