Thursday, September 27, 2018

The first time as tragedy

Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the more famous Napoleon Bonaparte, was ruler of France from 1848 to 1870, first as president and then (from 1852) as emperor under the name Napoleon III. Many have heard Karl Marx' famous quip about world history always repeating itself twice, the first time as tragedy (Napoleon) and the second time as farce (Louis Bonaparte). If you search for “Louis Bonaparte”, Marx' book on his “18th Brumaire” coup d'etat is the first thing that comes up. But how many have read Louis Bonaparte's own writings? If you haven't, they are available in English translation in this two-volume work, of which I have so far only seen the first volume.

The main item in this collection is “Des idées napoléniennes”, here called “Ideas of Napoleonism”. First published in 1839, it's ostensibly an analysis of Napoleon's reign and its guiding ideas, but actually represents the program of Louis Bonaparte himself. This is obvious if the text is compared with “Political Reveries”, another text in this volume where Louis Bonaparte explicitly proposes a new constitution for France (then a republic). Or is it just the old Napoleonic constitution…?

The Napoleonic ideas turn out to be contradictory, but nothing else is to be expected. After all, Napoleon's policies were “contradictory” (in a way), since he combined a monarchical restoration and strongman rule with politics considered “revolutionary” at the time, such as equality before the law and religious freedom. Marx would have called it a “bourgeois revolution”, although one hiding behind the mask of an ostensible “Roman” empire. Louis Bonaparte promises a return to the glory days of his uncle. Order must be restored in France by doing away with competing political groups and factions. This can only be done by a strong executive, more specifically an emperor for life, although one that periodically asks the people for their support in national referenda. (This is, of course, the system often derogatorily called “Bonapartism”. Another term popular among Marxists!) Louis Bonaparte believes that the firm rule of his uncle was necessary to guide the people to liberty since, alas, the people weren't yet ready for it. He praises Napoleon for safeguarding the real gains of the French revolution: anti-feudalism, equality before the law, meritocracy, abolition of economic monopolies, etc. The future Napoleon III promises to ameliorate the situation of the poor by a massive program of public works, again like his famous uncle.

Louis Bonaparte claims that the foreign policy of Napoleon was at bottom benign. Forced into wars he never wanted, Napoleon liberated Poland, the Rhineland and southern Germany from the Prussians. He spread democracy and liberty to Italy, Switzerland and others. He also tried to spread the blessings of civilization to Spain, but the uncomprehending Spanish rejected the offer. Ultimately, Napoleon wanted to create a free federation of European nations – presumably, Louis Bonaparte's future goal as well…

There *are* obvious similarities between the Napoleonist ideas outlined in the nephew's exposition and his actual policies as emperor. And equally obvious differences! I suppose Napoleon III did some positive things in Italy (barely!), but I doubt you could call the Mexicans uncomprehending for rejecting the French imperialist adventure in the New World. And in one of those historical ironies only a Hegel could appreciate, Marx ended up on the same side as Napoleon III (and Herr Vogt?) during the Crimean War…

But that is another story, as they say.

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