True Bonapartism

James Lawler phijiml at
Sat Feb 3 16:12:51 MST 1996

Louis Proyect mentions having recently re-read Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire
of Louis Bonaparte. Some time ago, Louis gave us an informative submission
on Trotsky's analysis of Naziism as close to the Bonapartism described by
Marx..  As I recall, Louis reported that for Trotsky, Hitler, while
demogogically appealing to the petty bourgeoisie, was really a
representative of the big bourgeoisie, that Naziism was an expression of
the naked power of the steel companies, or something to this effect. 
Trotsky appeals to Marx's writing on Louis Bonaparte to support this line
of thought.  Now there is discussion of Colin Powell and other alleged

The texts I have selected from Marx's work do not support this approach. 
Marx is quite explicit that Bonaparte was *not* a representative of the
bourgeoisie.  The Bonapartist erection of the state as an
all-econompassing, "totalitarian" institution, did not have the
bourgeoisie for its social base but at best the ruined, declassed
bourgeoisie, the precariously situated petit-bourgeosie, and the
peasantry.  The essence of the argument is that individuals whose mode of
life involves isolation, lack of practical ties with others of like
situation, and so feeling impotence in the face of social developments
that threaten to overwhelm them, look to a strong state as the means of
their salvation.  Under certain circumstances the bourgeoise finds it in
its interests to accept the protective sword of such a state, but this is
a sword that hangs over its own head as well as over the heads of its
class enemies. 

Applying this concept to 20th century events, we should not see political
leaders who merely appeal to the petit-bourgeoisie while in fact being
hand in glove with the bourgeoisie (Margaret Thatcher?), as true
Bonapartists, in the sense described by Marx.  At best one could speak of
a precarious *alliance* of Bonaparte with the bourgeoisie, but he did not
represent them.  His was instead the state of the petit-bourgeosie, in the
process of being squeezed out by the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and
the peasantry.  The notion of "representation" needs to be amended in this
case, for the representative is regarded as dominating over those whom he
fundamentally represents.  The representative might therefore behave
tyrannically to his constituency without inconsistency. 

It has been pointed out here that Eric Hobsbaum has denied the idea that
fascism was "the expression of monopoly capitalism' or big business" (The
Age of Extremes, 127).  Hobsbaum argues that "The common cement of these
movements was the resentment of little men in a society that crushed them
between the rock of big business on one side and the hard place of rising
mass labour movements on the other." (119) His position is close to that
of Marx in the passages cited below.  In this connection, I think that
Kagarlitski argued, in another posting, that Zhirinovski could not be a
fascist because there is not such a great petty-bourgeoisie left in
Russia, and Zhirinovski does not attempt to mobilize this class.  Hobsbaum
enumerates the benefits the big bourgeosie derived from Hitler's rule,
above all in stemming the tide of social revolution, but also increasing
the incomes of the top 5% of the population.  But this does not make
Naziism the "political expression" of the big bourgeoisie.  He puts the
matter this way: "...the point about really big business is that it can
come to terms with any regime that does not actually expropriate it, and
any regime must come to terms with it." (129)

--Jim Lawler
phijiml at

Marx on Bonapartism, from the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

     "Thus, by now stigmatizing as "socialistic" what it had previously
extolled as "liberal", the bourgeoisie confesses that its own interests
dictate that it should be delivered from the danger of its *own* rule;
that, in order to restore tranquillity in the country, its bourgeois
parliament must, first of all, be given its quietus; that in order to
preserve its social power intact, its political power must be broken; that
the individual bourgeois can continue to exploit the other classes and to
enjoy undisturbed property, family, religion and order only on condition
that their class be condemned along with the other classes to like
political nullity; that in order to save its purse, it must forfeit the
crown, and the sword that is to safeguard it must at the same time be hung
over its head as a sword of Damocles.... (142-3, MECW, Vol. 11.)

"On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the *lumpenproletariat"
of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section being led
by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the
whole.  Alongside decayed rou‚s with dubious means of subsistence and of
dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the
bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds,
escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets,
tricksters, gamblers, maquereaus [procurers], brothel keepers, porters,
literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars --
in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and
thither, which the French term la boheme; from this kindred element
Bonaparte formed the core of the society of December 10.  A "benevolent
society" -- in so far as, like Bonaparte, all its members felt the need of
benefiting themselves at the expense of the labouring nation.  This
Bonaparte, who constitutes himself *chief of the lumpenproletariat*, who
here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally
pursues, who recognizes in this scum, offal, refuse of all classes the
only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally, is the real
Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrase.  An old crafty rou‚, he conceives
the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as
comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade where the grand costumes,
words and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery... At the
moment when the bourgeoisie itself played the most complete comedy, but in
the most serious manner in the world, without infringing any of the
pedantic conditions of French dramatic etiquette, and was itself half
deceived, half convinced of the solemnity of its own performance of state,
the adventurer, who took the comedy as plain comedy, was bound to win. 
Only when he has eliminated his solemn opponent, when he himself now takes
his imperial role seriously and under the Napoleonic mask imagines he is
the real Napoleon, does he become the victim of his own conception of the
world, the serious buffoon who no longer takes world history for a comedy
but his comedy for world history... (148-150)

"...Every *common* interest was straightaway severed from society,
counterposed to it as a higher, *general* interest, snatched from the
activity of society's members themselves and made an object of government
activity, from a bridge, a schoolhouse and the communal property of a
village community to the railways, the national wealth and the national
university of France.  Finally, in its struggle against the revolution,
the parliamentary republic found itself compelled to strengthen, along
with the repressive measures, the resources and centralization of
governmental power.  All revolutions perfected this machine instead of
smashing it.  The parties that contended in turn for domination regarded
the possession of this huge state edifice as the principal spoils of the

     "But under the absolute monarchy, during the first Revolution, under
Napoleon, bureaucracy was only the means of preparing the class rule of
the bourgeoisie.  Under the Restoration, under Louis Philippe, under the
parliamentary republic, it was the instrument of the ruling class, however
much it strove for power of its own. 

     "Only under the second Bonaparte does the state seem to have made
itself completely independent.  As against civil society, the state
machine has consolidated its position so thoroughly that the chief of the
Society of December 10 suffices for its head, an adventurer blown in from
abroad, raised on the shield by a drunken soldiery, which he has bought
with liquor and sausages, and which he must continually ply with sausage
anew.  Hence the downcast despair, the feeling of most dreadful
humiliation and degradation that oppresses the breast of France and makes
her catch her breath.  She feels dishonoured. 

     "And yet the state power is not suspended in midair.  Bonaparte
represents a class, and the most numerous class of French society at that,
the *small-holding [Parzellen] peasants*.... 

     "The small-holding peasants form a vast mass, the members of which
live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations
with one another.  Their mode of production isolates them from one another
instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse.  The isolation is
increased by France's bad means of communication and by the poverty of the
peasants.  Their field of production, the small holding, admits of no
division of labour in its cultivation, no application of science and,
therefore, no diversity of development, no variety of talent, no wealth of
social relationships.  Each individual peasant family is almost
self-sufficient; it itself directly produces the major part of its
consumption and thus acquires its means of life more through exchange with
nature than in intercourse with society.  A small holding, a peasant and
his family; alongside them another small holding, another peasant and
another family.  A few score of these make up a village, and a few score
of villages make up a Department.  In this way, the great mass of the
French nation is formed by simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much
as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.  In so far as millions of
families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their
mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other
classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a
class.  In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these
small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interest begets no
community, no national bond and no political organization among them, they
do not form a class.  They are consequently incapable of enforcing their
class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or through
a convention.  They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. 
Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an
authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power that protects them
against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. 
The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds
its final expression in the executive power subordinating society to
itself." (186-188)

Best wishes,

Jim Lawler  

Philosophy Department
SUNY Buffalo                          
Buffalo, N.Y.  14260
Tel: 716-645-2444x770
Fax: 716-645-6139 
phijiml at

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