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International Socialism, Summer 1979


Mauro Volpe

Bonapartism and the Capitalist State

(March 1978)


From International Socialism, 2:5, Summer 1979, pp. 124–128.
Translated by Roberta Barbati.
This article is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the Italian journal Praxis, March 1978.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up for by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


We publish this article, as a contribution to our discussion of the strong state, begun by Tim Potter in IS 2:4

The full value of discussing Bonapartism today is both theoretical and political. From the theoretical point of view, what we are interested in doing is building up or rebuilding a marxist theory of the state capable of dealing with the new problems thrown up by the development of capitalism, and demonstrating the validity of the marxist method and its scientific categories which are all too easily taken for granted. From the political point of view, particularly now when there is so much talk of the ‘Fascistization’, ‘Criminalization’ and ‘Germanization’, etc., of whole areas of society, it is very important to analyse the effect of the authoritarian tendencies emerging within all western capitalist countries, without lapsing into impressionism and superficial comparisons.

Bearing this in mind, we can summarize the marxist conception of Bonapartism in six points:

  1. There exists an acute social crisis in which the bourgeoisie can neither impose its rule as before nor guarantee its internal unity, and the proletariat, even if it has not suffered any definitive defeat, lacks the strength necessary to take power and appears divided and disoriented, while the petit bourgeoise, impoverished by the crisis but unable to provide any solution to it, is keen to support any strong government that can control the working class and the different fractions of the bourgeoisie.
  2. The acquisition of a greater degree of independence from the ruling class and its traditional political representatives by the state, by virtue of which it can assume the role of arbitrator between the classes and so avoid a head-on conflict.
  3. The emergence of a charismatic figure who appears not to be compromised by the discredited traditional bourgeois political order and who can be the demagogic interpreter of the confused aspirations and fears of the different social classes.
  4. Reinforcement of the repressive apparatus, army and police, which comes to have a far more important influence on fundamental political decisions than in ‘normal’ times.
  5. The adoption of an ‘inter-class’ programme that aims to preserve the capitalist mode of production and re-establish ‘order’ by means of a populist phraseology and the allowance of minor concessions to the working class.
  6. Crisis of the traditional structure of the bourgeois-democratic order, which means the weakening of parliament and its dependence on the executive, restriction of formerly recognized democratic freedoms, the use of the popular vote through referenda, and the reinforcement of the bureaucratic-technocratic stratum which develops in the administrative organs of the state, that substitute itself for the traditional, elected political personnel.

The Bonapartist experience which, without going too far back can be found in de Gaulle’s regime in France in 1958, shows that the forms of bourgeois rule cannot be reduced to democracy and fascism. It is important to distinguish Bonapartism from the process of fascistization, with which a significant section of the Italian far left has chosen to explain the authoritarian tendencies exhibited within advanced capitalist countries. Undoubtedly some analogies do exist between the fascist movement and Bonapartism: both of them are based upon the petit-bourgeoisie, they use an antibourgeois phraseology, and find in a charismatic figure their own political expression. But here the analogy stops. The process of fascistization, in fact, has the possibility of imposing itself only at the moment of the culmination of a destructive crisis, when the bourgeoisie has no other instrument to use; but Bonapartism is the solution typical of a phase of the decline of the revolutionary energy of the masses in which the premisses for a restoration of authority do not include the physical liquidation of the working class movement. On the contrary, the fascist movement must place the workers’ organizations outside of the law and must utilize the petit-bourgeoisie to this aim not only as the simple base of manoeuvre for military and police operations, but also as an armed assault force outside the repressive bodies of the state. From this very important differences can be derived regarding institutional questions and the line the working class movement should adopt in each case. There is, of course, a big difference between an authoritarian regime, which, even though it restricts the power of parliament and formal freedoms, does retain elections, and leaves a series of spaces for working class organizations, part of which it tries to integrate, and on the other hand, fascism, which repeatedly liquidates democratic freedoms and tries to eliminate workers’ parties and unions.

In the first case, the possibilities for legal mass actions remain and a number of institutional spaces can be tactically utilized – it is even possible to rebuild a mass movement using the unions. In a situation of advanced fascism, all this is completely impossible: here, it is necessary to prioritize clandestine struggle, infiltrate one’s militants into the corporative unions controlled by the regime and patiently rebuild the organization, basing it upon experienced cadres, before starting any significant mass mobilization. In saying this, we do not want to exclude the fact that the differences between these two phenomena are reduced in certain historical circumstances: this happens, for instance, when Bonapartist governments are merely transitional between a democratic and a fascist regime, or vice versa, when a prolonged crisis of a fascist regime results in a semi-Bonapartist form of rule.

Germany before Hitler’s accession to power is an example of the first case, whilst Franco’s Spain, from the ’50s can be seen as an example of the second case. But we should note that these are transitory moments which should not be allowed to lead us to telescope the two phenomena in any way. The distinction between them is, on the contrary, fundamental; in fact, to assert that we are facing a process of fascistization of the state, when the reality is otherwise, inevitably leads to extremist deviations (abandoning mass intervention in favour of clandestine struggle) or opportunist ones (alliances with ‘democratic’ sections of the bourgeoisie), or to a mixture of these two attitudes, so that (in Italy) it is possible to oscillate between flirting with the Radical Party and the justification of adventurist substitutionism.

Here comes the central point of the discussion: can what is happening in several advanced capitalist countries, Italy included, be a process of fascistization? In my opinion, absolutely not. In no European country have the fascist movements grown significantly or won the support of large sections of the petit-bourgeoisie; and even in the residual fascist countries and those widely considered fascist there has been an evolution towards liberalism in the face of the joint pressure from the stronger European bourgeoisies and the threat of uncontrollable social explosions. In no European country does there exist today a generalized repression sufficient to attack any of the fundamental rights of the workers or their organizations – the unions. The working class has acquired sufficient strength to discourage, for the time being, any fascist adventures, but it is still not powerful enough to drive the bourgeoisie into the mire, especially since a large part of the labour movement, we can even say the majority of it, is integrated into the system and acts as a buffer for social conflicts.

Finally the installation of fascist regimes would cause such an economic, social, and political regression that it would deprive the European economy of its competitiveness vis-a-vis its American and Japanese rivals.

What, then, is happening in Europe? The German episodes, the repression of the youth movement and far left in Italy, etc., are certainly not hallucinations. We can even use the term ‘strong-state’ to indicate the authoritarian process in progress. However, we should clarify straight away what we mean by this, because, generally speaking, even a bourgeois democratic state, which is able to base itself on a consensus of the majority of the oppressed classes, and can strongly and selectively repress certain marginal social and political forces, without, for this reason, repressing the trade union and political freedoms of workers ... even such a state can be considered a strong state. Let’s leave the myth of the non-repressive democratic state to the reformists! When we discuss what is happening in Germany and in other capitalist countries we allude to something quite different from the ‘normal’ level of repression operating in any bourgeois society. We are referring to much more profound tendencies, which run far deeper eroding the institutional structure of bourgeois power.

To understand this better we should firstly bear in mind that the situation is incomprehensible when abstracted from the new balance of forces between the classes within each country. To discuss ‘Germanization’ in connection with a country such as Italy is not too wrong if it is rooted in institutional tendencies manifesting themselves in our society, but it is wrong, very gravely wrong, if we abstract from what the working class represents in Italy, with its high level of political consciousness, that, even if it is reformist, is still deeply conscious of its class identity and opposed to all the repressive operations of the bourgeois state. In other words, the level of consciousness and the level of strength reached by the Italian working class is such as to oblige the institutions of the state to a certain kind of mediation which precludes any mechanical copy of the German model.

In saying this, I am not thinking so much about the impossibility of selectively repressing minorities, which is also occurring in Italy, albeit to a lesser extent than in Germany, since our minorities are much stronger and possess some real links with the working class. Rather I am thinking of repressive initiatives of broader scope, such as the Berufsverbot, which attacks sections of the traditional labour movement and democratic intellectuals. Something for which, today in Italy, the premisses and conditions do not exist.

Having said that, I think it is much more correct to assert that a whole series of Bonapartist mechanisms of the management of the state power, i.e., mechanisms characteristic of a particular form of bourgeois rule, are nowadays becoming a general feature of all advanced capitalist countries. This is due to the concentration of the fundamental decisions typical of monopoly capitalism, to the social and political crisis through which capitalist countries are passing, and to the growth of the workers’ struggles, which have determined a new balance of class forces on a continental level.

In particular, in some European countries, Italy for example, where a stable balance between the classes has existed for nearly ten years, the move towards the overcoming of the internal division of the bourgeoisie has grown, as has the move towards the integration of the reformist workers’ movement, with the result that the state appears to have taken on a function as arbitrator and the function of guarantor of the bourgeois social formation in its entirety.

At the institutional level we see everywhere a crisis of parliament as an instrument for the mediation of the internal conflicts of the bourgeoisie and for the integration of the workers movement. The tasks today given to the state, in fact, cannot be allowed to depend upon the changeable moods of electors, instead the mediation of the state towards various fractions of the bourgeoisie and towards the reformists themselves has shifted from parliament to other parts of the state apparatus. Thus, parliament is largely deprived of both its legislative function and its function as taker of fundamental political decisions to become, at most, an organ of control (but, very limited control) and of mere representation of the political currents in the country. More than before the important choices are being taken by the executive and various branches of the administrative apparatus, which, by means of direct consultations with the upper echelons of the parties, overcomes the elected assembly. More than this, the state tries to repress those sections which cannot be integrated; to do so it must prepare an arsenal of provisions limiting democratic liberties which, if they are used selectively, in some countries, e.g. Germany, can already be seen to be attacking sections of the traditional working class movement, and which, in some other countries, e.g. Italy, could in the future be used against the working class and all its organizations whenever the balance of forces is broken in favour of the bourgeoisie.

It is therefore correct to speak about authoritarian tendencies present in the functioning of all bourgeois states but it must be borne in mind that:

  1. They are not expressed everywhere with the same strength;
  2. They do not have a uniform impact upon the different social strata;
  3. The integration of the Bonapartist mechanisms into the management of the state does not mean that we are already facing an authoritarian form of bourgeois rule or a strong state;
  4. The danger in the installation of authoritarian regimes is a real one.

Another issue which appears important to me is whether or not the possibility exists for a left Bonapartism. Now, not to go too far back, it is only sufficient to consider the experience of the MFA in Portugal which, very mistakenly, a large part of the Italian left saw as a sort of substitution for the Leninist party, to be persuaded that it is a real possibility.

But the answer we are interested in is the one relating to the role of the reformist workers parties could have during the installation of strong and authoritarian regimes. It is beyond doubt that these parties with their politics can help or even actively collaborate to determine an authoritarian development of bourgeois power; the role played by social democracy in various countries and in different historical periods is a real confirmation of this. The problem is more complex for those countries in which the possibility for the CP to participate in government exists. In such cases, we cannot exclude that whenever there is a situation of conflict between big capital and the state apparatus, the CPs themselves or the governments of the left could find themselves asked to manage an authoritarian transformation of the bourgeois regime.

Nevertheless such an answer risks being abstract. Again, we cannot abstract from the balance of forces between the classes and from the level of consciousness and mobilization of the working class. If the working class is passive the reformist left could pay the price of its politics; its authoritarian turn could be used against itself. But where there is a wide mobilization of the workers, we could see a contradictory policy from the state with a continual oscillation between repression and concessions, leading, to a major clash between the classes. This crisis could lead to victory for the workers but only if there is a revolutionary party which has succeeded in breaking down the reformist domination of the working class and substituting its own hegemony.

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