George Novack

Plebeian Caesar

(April 1938)

First Published: New International, New York City, Volume IV No.4, April 1938, pp. 125-126.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

By Eugène Tarlé
431 pp. New York. Knight Publications. $4.50.

The rebirth of Bonapartism in diverse forms and phases is the most striking political phenomenon of postwar Europe. Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union have already produced rulers of the Napoleonic stamp; candidates for the crown are grooming themselves in France and other crisis-torn countries. From whatever angle we inspect them, these contemporary dictators are puny specimens compared to the great Napoleon, possessing all his vices and none of his virtues. Coined from baser metal, they nevertheless belong to the same category and are faced with similar problems. Ought we not to find in the fateful career of the master portents of the destiny awaiting his twentieth-century epigones?

The latest European events give greater timeliness to the English publication of Professor Tarlé’s biography. Professor Tarlé is a Russian Marxist and world-renowned authority on the Napoleonic epoch. His life of Bonaparte, the ripe fruit of two decades and a half of scrupulous scholarly investigation, is a concise, well-paced and well-proportioned, dramatic narrative.

While proper consideration is accorded Napoleon’s genius as an administrator, general, and statesman, he is consistently viewed in his social and political setting at the center of the vortex of the bourgeois revolution. Napoleon rose to the throne by exploiting the otherwise insoluble antagonism between the conflicting social forces in revolutionary France. The successive stages by which the little Corsican conquered and consolidated power are excellently delineated by Professor Tarlé, but the finest chapters in his work deal with the downfall of Napoleon.

In 1810-1811 Napoleon stood at the height of his power. He was absolute monarch of France and unchallenged master of Europe. He had defeated all his foes, save for the indomitable Spaniards, who waged an annoyingly persistent guerrilla warfare against his army of occupation. The Emperor, however, could not halt at this point in his progress. He aspired to rule the world, driven forward not only by his limitless ambition but by the insatiable demands of the class he most directly and consistently represented, the French bourgeoisie. In replacing the Directory by his own absolute personal regime, Napoleon had expropriated political power from the corrupt and incompetent upper middle classes only to serve their social and economic interests more energetically and efficiently thereafter. The savior of the French bourgeoisie found his chief social support and supply of cannon fodder among the peasantry, the secondary beneficiaries of the Revolution. At moments of acute danger, he also received aid from the proletarian masses of Paris and other industrial centers, who saw in him “Général Vendémiaire”, the destroyer of the royalist rebellion of 1795.

In defending the interests of these three classes of revolutionary France against the Bourbon counterrevolution, Napoleon acted as champion of the new bourgeois order against the decadent forces of feudal and semi-feudal reaction throughout Europe. At the same time Napoleon conducted from the outset on behalf of the ruling French bourgeoisie a relentless diplomatic and military struggle against the English for control of the backward continental countries and the world market. In order to complete his conquest of Europe and dominate the world, Napoleon was faced with the double task of subordinating the feudal order embodied and sustained by Czarist Russia on the one hand, and of strangling capitalist England on the other.

Accordingly, in 1812, Napoleon set forth to humble his former Russian ally as the first step in the realization of his cosmic aims. By crushing Russia, he hoped to tighten the continental blockade around England and strike later at her most precious possession in India. The strategic failure of the Russian campaign, despite his military successes, followed by the disastrous retreat from Moscow, marked the collapse of this grandiose plan and the beginning of the end.

This first decisive check revived the morale of Bonaparte’s adversaries. All the enemies and victims of the Corsican conqueror prepared for revenge. Under England’s direction, Prussia, Austria, and other European vassals of Bonaparte revolted and pounced upon the wounded lion. The second chapter was terminated with the defeat inflicted upon Napoleon by the Allied powers at the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig in October 1813. The Empire crashed.

Napoleon withdrew to France. But the most brilliant military victories could not save him. The twenty year epics inaugurated in February 1793 at Toulon, ended with Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814 at Fontainebleau. The epilogue of the Hundred Days served only to emphasize his military genius and his political impotence.

Thus each step forward was at the same time a step toward his ultimate ruin. Will not this inescapable dialectic of history apply with full force to the lesser Bonaparte of our own time?

Professor Tarlé makes clear that is main causes of Napoleon’s downfall lay less in his overreaching aims and in the coalition of forces against him than in his social situation. The same policies that had first created extended, and fortified his rule finally sapped his social support. The endless wars, the blockade, the arbitrary administrative methods crippled French commerce and alienated part of the bourgeoisie upon whom he primarily depended; the peasants were bled white by his levies of troops and taxes; the laboring masses were increasingly impoverished. The growing economic crisis transformed itself into a political crisis of the regime. The moral and political ties binding his state disintegrated. The intelligentsia detested his despotism; the bourgeoisie split and left him in the lurch; the lower classes became restless and discontented. In the hour of need, even his marshals, bound to him not by common principle, but by personal fealty and ambition, betrayed him. Napoleon, in the last analysis, was not so much overthrown from without as undermined from within.

Napoleon fell a victim to his own policies. The strangler of the revolution could not and dared not, in his extremity, arouse the revolutionary spirit and masses he had crushed, which alone might have rescued him and France from the Bourbons.

“It has often been claimed for Napoleon”, concludes Professor Tarlé, “that he consolidated the victory of the French Revolution. This of course is not the case. He borrowed from the Revolution those reforms designed to further the economic development of the French bourgeoisie, but in so doing he extinguished the revolutionary flame which had been burning so fiercely for ten years. He did not so much ’complete’ the Revolution as ’liquidate’ it.” The forces of counter-revolution only completed what Napoleon had begun.

These and similar observations made by Professor Tarlé apply, mutatis mutandis, with such telling accuracy to the present Russian regime that it is not surprising that he has himself been a prisoner of the Stalinist Fouchés. His work, however, bears no imprints of the iron heels of Stalin’s totalitarian regime. It can be unreservedly recommended as an introduction to the life and times of the first and foremost of modern dictators.


Last updated on: 4.2.2006