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James T. Farrell

Historical Image of Napoleon

The Essence of Bonapartism

(August 1945)

From The New International, Vol. XI No. 5, August 1945, pp. 148–152.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

(This is the second article on Napoleon by James T. Farrell, from a work in progress on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. [Copyright, 1945 – James T. Farrell] – Editor)

Here, it is pertinent for us to go back and to examine the idea of glory. The men who Were the leaders of the Revolution in its great, its heroic, its democratic days, idealized the republicans of antiquity and they sought to emulate them. Robespierre and his contemporaries, for instance, cited, as models of emulation, such ancient figures as Solon and Brutus. They repeatedly used the phrase, “the Tarpeian rock,” and proclaimed, in the eloquent style of their times, that they feared not to go to it: to it, most of them did go. Napoleon, also, thought often and spoke of the ancient world. But, in it he found different models, Alexander and Caesar. He appreciated Homer, largely because of the Homeric accounts of war and of heroes. He thought of legions and eagles. He wanted, himself, to surpass Caesar in deeds and for his legions to surpass the achievements of the legions of Caesar. Even his style differs from that of the early men of the Revolution. They were more rhetorical, more eloquent: there is more of the language of persuasion in their writings: its appeal is to the people, not to soldiers and underlings. Napoleon – an excellent writer – wrote and spoke in a style that was crisp, clear, terse: it is a style of command. As a speaker, he was best when talking to soldiers. Among the many comparisons that can be made between Napoleon and Julius Caesar, one is that of style. Caesar, also, wrote in a crisp, clear and economical style. The early leaders of the Revolution, no less than Napoleon, dreamed of glory. But theirs was not precisely the same glory as was that of Napoleon.

“Revolutions,” wrote Kropotkin, “are never the result of despair ... On the contrary, the people of 1789, had caught a glimpse of the light of approaching freedom, and for that reason, they rose with great heart.”

Formally, the consciousness of freedom is expressed in such documents as the Bill of the Rights of Man. Among other things, it proclaimed that men have the right to think, the right to express opinions freely. This right is cognate with a real consciousness of freedom, and with human dignity. Man, in his ascent from the Kingdom of the ape, has had to – as must every child – discover that he has a mind, a consciousness. He had had to discover the very means which could even permit him to know that he has such a consciousness. The Great French Revolution was one of the mightiest steps in history aiding man in this discovery, in his further conquest of freedom. The ideas of glory of the early Revolution are intimately associated with these facts.

In those days, new men rose on the stage of history, nursing their new dreams of glory. The most extreme, the most enthusiastic, of these men dreamed of glory for all men, glory for all men in freedom. Anarcharsis Cloots visioned a universal republic. Yes, glory was then different from what it became in the era of la gloire. Parenthetically, I might remark that Stendhal, novelist of the tragedy of glory, recognized and commented on this. In his biography, Memoires Sur Napoléon, he described the enthusiasm of the first days of the revolution: he stated that the Napoleon, the great man he admired was General Bonaparte, and not the Emperor Napoleon I. He stressed the use of the former name, not the latter. In the first and heroic days of the Revolution, glory was associated with the ideals of liberty, fraternity, equality. Saint-Just, while still too young to be admitted to the Legislative Assembly, was intensely absorbed in the life of the times, and wrote an agitated letter to a friend which has been preserved. He stated: “I feel that I could ride the crest of this century. Companions of liberty and glory, preach them in your Sections: may danger encompass you!” Also, he spoke of “the audacity of magnanimous virtue,” and added: “Adieu! I stand above misfortune. I will bear everything but I will tell the truth.” To achieve glory then was to work self-sacrificingly and devotedly in the effort to create a great republic of freedom and virtue. Yes, in those days to scale the crests of that century was to avenge justice and virtue, and to cut down tyrants. To win everlasting glory was to help in he establishment of liberty. Personal ambition did not stir these men as it did those in the day of la gloire. Saint-Just, for instance, also said: “Let those who are ambitious go and walk for an hour in the cemetery, where the tyrant and the conspirator sleep together.”

“The Principles of Political Morality”

This ideal of glory was formally expressed in the Jacobin ideal of the Republic of Virtue. On February 5th, 1794. Robespierre delivered in the Convention, a report on les principes de morale politique. I quote from it:

“But what is our aim? ... the peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality, and the reign of eternal justice whose laws are engraved not on marble or stone, but in the hearts of every man – whether of the slave who forgets them, or of the tyrants who denies their truth. We desire an order of things in which all base and cruel feelings will be suppressed and all beneficient and generous sentiments evoked by the laws: in which ambition means the desire to merit honour, and to serve one’s country, in which rank is the offspring of equality; in which the citizen obeys the magistrate, the magistrate the people, and the people the rule of justice; in which the country guarantees the well-being of every citizen, and every citizen is proud to share in the glory and prosperity of the country; in which every soul grows greater by the constant sharing of republican sentiments, and by the endeavor to win the respect of great people; in which liberty is adorned by the arts it ennobles; and commerce is a source of public wealth, not merely of the monstrous opulence of a few households. We want to substitute in our country, morality for egotism, honesty for love of honour, principles for conventions, duties for decorum, the empire of reason for the tyranny of fashion, the fear of vice for the dread of unimportance: we want to substitute pride for insolence, magnanimity for vanity, the love of glory for the love of gold: we want to replace ‘good company’ by good characters. intrigue by merit, wit by genius, brilliance by truth, and the dullness of debauch by the charm of happiness. For the pettiness of the so-called great we would substitute the full stature of humanity; in place of an easy-going, frivolous and discontented people create one that is happy, powerful, and stout-hearted; and replace the vices and follies of the monarchy by the virtue and amazing achievements of the Republic.”

From Meneval, Bourrienne and other sources, the private life of Napoleon can be glimpsed. Both in his private life, and in his public career, we find that he illustrates many of the precise opposites of that which Robespierre affirmed in his ideal conception of the Republic of Virtue. The pomp of the festival of the coronation here can suffice to suggest this to the reader. (2) The English scholar J.M. Thompson attempts to reconstruct Robespierre’s private life during the time when he lived in the house of the carpenter, Duplay. (3) Some evenings there was singing from his favorite Italian operas, and Buonarroti played the piano. Or Robesspierre read aloud from Racine or Corneille, and then, he would go to his room and work. All present sometimes would together take part in declaiming from the professional speakers. A few evenings a year, he would take Madame Duplay and her daughter to see classical dramas at the Théatre Français. The family would walk on the Champs Elysees or go on excursions into the country. They would enjoy quiet sports and Robespierre would watch the Savoyard children dance, give them money, and exclaim: “it etait bon.” (Thompson here, while giving this detail cautions that it might be borrowed from the life of Rousseau, Robespierre’s master.) At this point, Thompson continues: “he was never so gay and happy as on these occasions, and it was generally on these evenings, when they got home, that he recited his favorite poetry.” Or Robespierre would go on solitary walks with his dog. These recreations, says the same biographer, “were exceptional.” Usually, there was the Assembly from 10 to 3 or 4 in the afternoon: the Jacobin Club from 6 or earlier until 10. Around five, he ate a hurried dinner, and Madame Duplay tried to have oranges and coffee for him. And reports to read; letters, speeches to compose; interviews: “Robespierre’s was a regular, temperate, and laborious life.” And: “His hosts were simple, honest patriots of the lower middle classthe backbone of the Revolution; and the house in the rue Saint-Honoré was a perfect setting for the public life of ‘the Incorruptible’.” (Italics mine – J.T.F.) A similar reconstruction of the private life, say, of Marat would add additional emphasis here to the contrast. (4) Now, suffice it to say that the differences in the days when there was something glorious from those of the days of glory exist on every level of experience. Elsewhere in this book, I shall have other observations to offer in this respect.

Corruption and the Directory

The period between the fall of the Jacobins on the 9th Thermidor and the 18th of Brumaire, when Napoleon’s coup d’état lifted him to power, is almost uniformly described by historians as seamy. Mathiez quotes the writer, M. Thureau-Dangin:

“In the general histories, once one has passed the 9th Thermidor and arrived at the years which follow one another, colorless and desolate, agitated and sterile, up to the 18th Brumaire, the writers seem to be seized with weariness and disgust ... Everything, both events and men, is, on a smaller scale ... The stage is given over to minor characters, and things have reached such a pass that Tallien, Barrasand their like become leading characters.”

And Mathiez closed his study, After Robespierre: The Thermidorean Reaction, by pointing the moral to be found in this period:

“The profound unpopularity of the Convention in its latter days, which was also to weigh upon the government which followed it was well deserved. Since the 9th Thermidor the men who had overthrown Robespierre had identified themselves and their private interests with the Republic. They had constantly violated the principles of democracy. They had been even more arbitrary than the government whose place they had taken. Their policy had neither cohesion nor consistency, and, being inspired by nothing but the needs of the moment, alienated every party in turn – both the Jacobins, whom they imprisoned and allowed to be massacred, and the constitutional royalists, whose road to power they had finally barred ...”

The great majority of Frenchmen despised these men who made politics a profession and a source of profit. The Perpetuals had nobody behind them but the purchasers of national property and the army-contractors, a narrow phalanx, but bold and well disciplined. This, with the aid of the army, sufficed to enable them to maintain themselves in power in opposition to the wishes of the great majority. But it was a serious matter that the regime of parliamentary government which was now inaugurated should be vitiated from the outset at its sources and in its activities, and that so early as this the representatives of the people no longer represented anyone but themselves. This was an undoubted sign that the Republic which they exploited as though it were their own property would not last.

With the fall of Robespierre, no real reign of order was established, let alone one of liberty. The White Terror was ushered in. The ruling deputies “literally formed a new nobility, placed by the Constitution outside the common law,” as Mathiez further remarked. Step by step, the democratic gains of the Revolution were destroyed. Step by step, reaction proceeded insidiously. Robespierre had held that only the superfluities of commerce should be sold. But the Jacobins had not had the strength to achieve any such aim: they were sufficiently strong only to save France at the head of the most revolutionary class of their times. Their fall initiated the triumph of the middle class.

This dreary period is describable as a Roman middle class holiday. With the increase and intensification of reaction, the Convention broke up, and the Directory supplanted it. Kropotkin, who significantly closed his history with Thermidor, remarked in his conclusion:

“The Directory was a terrible orgy of the middle classes, in which fortunes acquired during the Revolution, especially during the Thermidorean reaction, were squandered in unbridled luxury.”

And the evidence substantiating such remarks is overwhelming. Mathiez opened his work, Le Directoire, by characterizing this period as one in which were violated “every day the principles of the Republic, under the pretext of saving the Republic.” The Directory was a government of a minority, a coup d’état government maintaining itself by exceptional measures. Here was, in fact, a seamy middle class regime of profit taking and spending, made possible as a consequence of the Revolution. The revolutionary war which France fought to defend herself became more than a war of defense. It, also, became one of loot. Pillage of one kind or another was on the order of the day. In fact, Mathiez called France of this time, “The Republic of pillage.” At the same time there was observable the phenomenon of personal government. And again as also said Mathiez, such a republic accumulated all of the vices of the old and the new society. Patriotism was either decadent or an excuse for such a regime, a reign of “order.” The real signs of patriotism, when they did flare in France, were crushed. The population became more and more indifferent to the suffrage and the election laws. émigrés marched in troops, sword in hand, singing counter-revolutionary songs. There was inflation with all of its inevitable concomitants, all of the misery which it brought to the weak and the poor. The great ideal of the nation gradually changed into the ideal of the Great Nation. And with this, foreign war became the war of the Great Nation: it became, among other things, a means of loot.

“It is not Bonaparte,” said Mathiez, “... who habituated the French army to marauding and pillaging ... The evil was before him. The miserable army that Bonaparte commanded lived on pillage for a long time: conquest was for it essentially a means to subsist.”

This was the period of the profit taking of the glory of the days from 1789 to 1794. And a study of this period makes it clear that it was not the democracy, the dictatorial democracy of the Terror that destroyed the Republic. Those armed citizens of 1789, they did not destroy the democracy. And neither did the license of popular will destroy the democracy. Those who profited most from the Revolution destroyed the democratic aspects of the same Revolution. In this early day, before the bourgeoisie had exhausted its progressive historical role, the contradictions between democracy and the rule of the bourgeoisie were already revealed. The rule of wealth and the reign of freedom were not compatible. Some writers on democratic theory, such as Harold Laski, formalize this by discussing the contradictions between the ideal of liberty and the ideal of equality. But this formality usually conceals the real contradiction: that is between the rule of wealth and the rule of the masses, the rule of the bourgeoisie, and the establishment of a real democracy.

Revolutions are periods of civil war. The French Revolution was civil war. Dual power was created in France in 1789. Dictatorship was ushered in then. The most revolutionary class, the sans-culottes, did not have a sufficient separation of interests, a sufficiently independent program, a sufficient power and force to push the Revolution further. This class – pushing its Jacobin leaders to the left, driving some of them into republicanism and regicide – saved the Revolution, assured its basic gains. Once this was done, once the victories of Fleurus finally assured defense against the foreign foe, the fall of the Jacobins was on the order of the day. Reaction took the form of the rule of wealth. And this period of middle class orgy created all of the conditions for the man on horseback. Just prior to the 18th Brumaire, there was a revival of the Jacobins: the clubs seemed to be springing back to life. Fear of the people was revivified. And, at the same time, concessions had been made to monarchy, to the defeated class. Politically, economically, the new ruling class needed order in its house, and it needed a man of order. The bourgeois man of order is, in the final analysis, the man on horseback. Between Thermidor and Brumaire, the conditions for the rise of this man were created. He came to power by the coup d’état of the 18th Brumaire. He breathed the very ideas of eighteenth century individualism, identified his own interests with those of the French nation and, in fact, Napoleonic egotism can even be described as a dramatization and super-extension of individualism.

Bonaparte: Child of the Revolution

Bonaparte was a “child of the Revolution,” not only in the sense that it created the conditions for his rise, his glories, his rule. He was, also, as a man of his century, fed by the ideas of the Enlightenment. In other portions of this book, when we consider and evaluate Tolstoy’s characterization of him,this will be considered in detail. Napoleon, who fathered the slogan that careers are open to all men of talent, was himself a young man of talent looking for a career. The Revolution opened the road to him for his career. It provided him with his Toulon. His fate was tied to that of the middle class. From the Bourbons he could expect nothing. The young men of Toulon and Vendemaire, in fact, could expect worse than nothing. He was, in the period just prior to his coup d’état, but one of the generals aspiring for that seat on horseback. We know how he maneuvered, plotted and succeeded.

No one ruler does all that is attributed to him. Napoleon was the administrator, the executive, the military leader, the man who forged and coordinated the policy of the French middle class. More than anything else, what is to be said of him was that he was adequate to his tasks. When his greatness is regarded, it can, most properly, be seen in contrast to the figures who immediately preceded him, rather than in connection with the leaders of the Revolution during its early stages. He seems so overwhelmingly superior because these men were so petty. It was under his rule that the economic gains of the Revolution were secured. It was under his rule of a grandiose policeman that order was put in the house of the bourgeoisie and that the populace was, as a whole, bribed and forced into its proper place at the bottom of society. It was under his direction and with his cooperation that the Code was written, ordering the law of France, establishing the changes of property rights which were effected in the Revolution. It was under his rule that the last democratic gains of the Revolution of a political character were erased: for instance, he ended local autonomy. His great administrative contribution was that of establishing a centralized system which made more easily, more orderly, more sure, the rule of the middle class. His work, his role was not to bring liberty. He was the hangman of liberty. Instead, he offered some equality, and order. This fact is suggestive, showing more decisively the nature of the incompatibility of equality and liberty as a consequence of class rule. Under Napoleon, the potentialities released by the Revolution, those potentialities which seemed so dormant in the post-Thermidorean period, were utilized. French arms were carried across the continent of Europe. The army, originally forged as the patriot army of Carnot, became the basis for the Grand Army, instrument of Napoleonic policy. Then, feudal thrones shook. The crowned heads of Europe received blows, blows from which they never recovered. Looking back at Napoleon today we must see him against the background of such an age, and as the product of conditions such as those outlined in this analysis.

Military Genius and Bourgeois Emperor

Napoleon Bonaparte was, in reality, the last great martial captain of the bourgeoisie, as Cromwell was the first. The tasks which he inherited were not merely military. He was well aware of this. With all of his apparent love of war, he did not make war for mere love. It was Clausewitz, military theoretician of the Napoleonic era, who declared that war is an instrument of policy. This was no mere speculation. It was concrete observation based on Napoleon and the Napoleonic period. Napoleon was the man of his times with grasp, policy. He neither invented nor visioned this policy out of his own head. He coordinated it, attempted to implement it in and by war. Before him, the mercantilist economists conceived war as an instrument of policy, a means of securing and increasing the wealth of the nation. Napoleon did likewise: he acted on the principle that war is an instrument of policy. His continental system was not merely a means of loot: it was the expression of this policy. It expressed the idea of a unified Europe under the aegis of a bourgeois France: with this, it embodied a Europe free of tariff barriers, free of all feudal fetters and one vast era for expansion. In a sense this was a vision parallel to that of Alexander Hamilton in America. Negatively, this system was a form of economic warfare aimed to bring England to her knees. But had this been accomplished, the positive aim of the system would also have been achieved.

Napoleon often spoke proudly of his work. There can be no doubt but that he was proud of his own glory. With success, victories, power, his egotism became exaggerated. He dreamed of mastery of the world. But, at the same time, if we interpret him subjectively, if we see him merely as the embodiment of a spirit of war and egotism, we will not understand either him or his times. He was a bourgeois emperor and acutely conscious of this fact, Thus, in Moscow, he posed the question of freeing the Russian serfs. He did not issue an emancipation proclamation. He knew that he was a man who ended revolutions, not one who began them. Aware of this he knew that he was based on the middle class. He was, thereby, the man of order. He was, equally, aware that in the period of his rule, the power of the middle class had been secured: the Revolution was, in this sense, made irreversible. Thus, when he was dethroned, he remarked that all that Louis XVIII needed to do was to change the bed linen at the Tuileries: also, at Elba, he said that if Louis XVIII did nothing more for commerce, he was doomed to failure. Just like his immediate predecessors in the Directory, Napoleon identified his own interest with that of the nation. But in his case, the juncture of his own interests, and that of the middle class masters of the nation, coincided. When this juncture was gradually severed as a consequence of recurrent war, then his fall became certain. The fall of Napoleon was not a mere military event, determined in the Russian snows and at the Battle of Leipzig. The task of unifying Europe was beyond the means of France. The correlations of power of the period indicate this. France faced the combination of absolutist Russia and mercantilist England, the latter in command of the seas. The Revolution stimulated a hunger for liberty all over the continent of Europe. It generated this same hunger in the countries which France invaded. Napoleon, unable to appease it in France, could not appease it outside of her borders. His role was twofold. He became judge and policeman in France, and he became the organizer and executor of French policy in Europe. Trotsky, in The History of the Russian Revolution, aptly summarized that role:

”Napoleon guaranteed to the big bourgeoisie the possibility to get rich, to the peasants their pieces of lands, to the sons of peasants and hoboes a chance for looting in the wars. The judge held a sword in his hand and himself also fulfilled the duties of bailiff. The Bonapartism of the first Bonaparte was solidly founded.”

But that solid foundation did not permit Napoleon to succeed in his continental system. Robespierre, years before Napoleon’s period of glory, said in opposing the Girondin agitation for the foreign war, that mankind does not love armed liberators. The armed liberator looked too much like the policeman. Outside of France, especially in Germany, the ideals of the Revolution stimulated opposition. And with this the separation of the interests of Napoleon and those of the nation – especially those of the big bourgeoisie – were evidenced. During the Hundred Days, he did not have the support of the French middle class. And when news of the Battle of Waterloo reached Paris, French government bonds rose on the Paris Bourse; they rose still further when Napoleon abdicated in 1815.

Napoleon: Bonapartist

Further changes can now be seen in our picture – uncomposed in 1789, composed in 1804. The scene becomes the Elysées Palace after the Battle of Waterloo. Outside on the streets are the descendants of those armed men and women of 1789, workmen, students, soldiers, young officers, the nondescript city rabble. Carnot, the old Jacobin, had spoken at the Assembly, calling for the armed nation to rise and to repulse the foreign invader, as it had done in the days of Danton. He received no encouragement. Caulaincourt was disturbed. Fouché, himself, sat unmoved, new plots spinning in his head. The fall of Napoleon meant more power for him and for Talleyrand. No one had seconded Carnot. But this waiting crowd was ready to follow Napoleon. Napoleon knew that he was not the man to drown Paris in blood. Napoleon could not speak as had Danton. Carnot had tried to do this. He failed. Napoleon, fat and over forty, had gone a long way since the days when he was a slim youth, friend and protégé of Augustin Robespierre. The little fat man walked alone in the gar den. The crowd outside saw him and cried out: “Vive la nation! Vive l’empereur!” But Bonaparte was no longer their leader. To lead them now he had to offer not loot, but liberty. And that would have meant no restoration of the glory of 1804.

The French bourgeoisie (led by the greatest military genius of the age, supported by the greatest army that had – up to that point – ever been assembled in human history) had proven insufficient to the task of mastering Europe. It was tired. It was ready, more than ready, to let its man of glory go into the shades. The solid foundation of the first Bonapartism left behind it a solidly founded French bourgeoisie. The returning Bourbons could not destroy that foundation. To have heeded the crowd outside, Napoleon would have had to try and undo that very foundation. In exile at St. Helena, he well could say that in the end he was only a Jacobin. But in June 1815, he could not be a Jacobin – he dared not be one.

Napoleon is disappearing from our picture. One of the last scenes as he fades out is that of old Carnot, in tears, embracing Napoleon in farewell. The men who helped forge the sans-culotte army of Valmy and the man of Austerlitz bid farewell. It is as if both were, at the same moment, bidding farewell to history. The period of glory symbolically ends, as it were, scenes like this one. An old man and a fat man in middle age say adieu – two children of the Revolution.

Napoleon’s memory is tied to that of the Revolution. But now we can see in what sense this is so. The legacy he left was real. We have seen what that was. From his name, the crisis form of bourgeois rule has been derived – Bonapartism. There is illumination in this fact. Bonapartism, as a form of bourgeois rule, is not a historical accident. It is a consequence of this contradiction of bourgeois society. In the histories, this is all implicitly recognized. For every bourgeois historian who condemns his memory there are scores who heap their scorn on the Jacobins. The tribute paid Napoleon is due not merely to his indubitable greatness and genius: far more than that, it can be seen as if an unconscious payment of respect for services rendered. He became a figure around whom legend grew. The old soldiers of his legions became part of the democratic movement in the Restoration. His influence was felt on every current of thought in the nineteenth century. His role in literature would be but a separate study. His name became a symbol of glory. Even his ashes, returned to Paris, were used by Louis Philippe as a democratic gesture. When they were returned to Paris on a cold and snowy day in December 1840, the forbidden Marseillaise was again sung in the streets.

But again let me emphasize that a major part of his historic contribution bears his name – Bonapartism, a word describing a form of personal and police rule in the interests of bourgeois society: this is a form of rule generally more adjustable to the conditions of bourgeois society as crises mount in intensity, and as the incompatibilities of this rule lead to a continual fettering of mankind in its long and blood-ridden struggle for freedom. In this sense, as well as in the more purely military one, he was the last great bourgeois captain. The next real man of iron was the reactionary Junker, Bismarck, the child of a revolution that failed rather than of one that succeeded. And after him, there came the more grandiose edition, Adolf Hitler, the child of a revolution that did not succeed on a whole continent. There were progressive elements in the work of Napoleon, as contrasted with the work of these men. And further, had Napoleon’s policy succeeded, had he unified Europe, his role would have been progressive in the same sense that the work of Alexander Hamilton, in America, had its historically progressive character. But we need not here discuss historical as ifs.

With this view of Napoleon in mind, we can discuss in more detail, Tolstoy’s characterization of him, his moral denunciation of Napoleon, his theory of history, and all of the real and seeming paradoxes which are to be found in these.

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