The Return of Napoleon Bonaparte

What Should Never Be

In the latest edition of Smithsonian Magazine, biographer Andrew Roberts fashions a lengthy redemption of Napoleon Bonaparte as leader, lover, and much-admired administrator. There is a reason to appreciate Roberts’s approach to writing the life of a great conqueror—for instance, his attention to detail. As Plutarch writes in his Life of Alexander, “a man’s most brilliant actions prove nothing as to his true character, while some trifling incident, some casual remark or jest, will throw more light upon what manner of man he was than the bloodiest battle, the greatest array of armies, or the most important siege. Therefore, just as portrait painters pay most attention to those peculiarities of the face and eyes, in which the likeness consists, and care but little for the rest of the figure, so it is my duty to dwell especially upon those actions which reveal the workings of my heroes’ minds, and from these to construct the portraits of their respective lives, leaving their battles and their great deeds to be recorded by others.”

Roberts uncovers episodes often passed over, scenes of Napoleon as an everyman, a friend of the people, and suggests a difference between the “imperial period” and the return of a trustworthy Napoleon who had learned from exile. Because of this transformation, Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo precluded great advances in the timeline of history: “The reactionary Holy Alliance of Russia, Prussia and Austria would not have been able to crush liberal constitutionalist movements in Spain, Greece, Eastern Europe and elsewhere; pressure to join France in abolishing slavery in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean would have grown; the benefits of meritocracy over feudalism would have had time to become more widely appreciated; Jews would not have been forced back into their ghettos in the Papal States and made to wear the yellow star again; encouragement of the arts and sciences would have been better understood and copied; and the plans to rebuild Paris would have been implemented, making it the most gorgeous city in the world.”

The key to understanding Roberts’s perspective lies in the form of the article, the overwhelming majority of which is dedicated to Napoleon’s accomplishments, his feats on the battlefield, and his complicated love life. Only in the second-to-last paragraph do we find that list of hypothetical “would-have-happened”s without any attempt at elucidation beyond the foregoing encomium. This is where the sfumato of old-school Bonapartism takes on a new airbrushed quality in Roberts’s picture—the question is not whether Napoleon had won or whether the battle had not been fought, but, as the title of the article suggests, “Why we’d be better off if Napoleon had never lost at Waterloo.” This sort of vagueness lends itself to bad analysis that lays the way for a blurry approach to history. If he had not fought at all, he would have been Emperor over only France; if he had fought and won, he would have ruled over Europe again—that this distinction is left out by Roberts is confounding. It was England and Prussia who “made the Waterloo campaign as inevitable as it was ultimately unnecessary,” Roberts claims. Waterloo “did not need to be fought—and the world would have been better off if it hadn’t been,” says Roberts. Never mind the rivers of blood that flowed from the highly avoidable wars Emperor Napoleon waged before being sent to Elba—the British and Prussians did not have the right to remind him, “you can’t be emperor anymore.”

The Person and His Politics

The list of Napoleon’s achievements is, indeed, profound. He overthrew the hated Directory, established a modern school system, delivered a new legal code, financed the arts and theaters, and formalized the bestowal private property onto the rural people of France Profonde. But there is a depth to Napoleon’s reign that is left out of Roberts’s article.

For instance, what about that time when Napoleon kidnapped the pope for nearly five years, beginning in 1809, and culminating in forcing him to declare Bonaparte Supreme Pontiff after dragging his ailing and elderly body over the Alps to the Castle Fontainebleau after plying him with heavy doses of drugs? What if the reactionary regimes that took power after his downfall manifested just that—violent reactions to the ideas of Republicanism to which Emperor Napoleon discredited by laying false claim? He was a fickle, jealous man, according to onlookers from other courts, and his desire to prove his power by disposing of hundreds of thousands of soldiers proved his own undoing.

Duplicity is the active word to characterize the regime of Napoleon Bonaparte, which is why Bonapartism has that strange distinction of being synonymous with the plebiscite and authoritarian rule simultaneously. Perforce, there could not have been a greater conceit than Napoleon’s faith in the “perfect homogeneity” between himself and the empire (as quoted by Austrian Prince and diplomat, Klaus Metternich). Although his regime is characterized by advocates like Roberts as an enlightened empire built on Republican ideals of meritocracy and democracy, Napoleon obtained “plebiscitary democracy” through censorship and deep surveillance. Napoleon’s “police bulletins” kept him up to date on a daily basis from 1804 until the year of his downfall in 1814, describing for him in detail the quotidian operations of French life, from businesses to the Church to quotidian society (rumors, riots, rebellions, strikes). Leaning heavily on some five or six different police forces, Napoleon made heavy use of spies to maintain his sense of public opinion. The anxiety that effected would even take its toll on the Ministry of Police, Joseph Fouché, who first wrote in his memoires, “I was certainly shrewd to spread it about and have people believe that wherever four people met together, there were present and in my pay eyes to see and ears to hear,” and then, “This odious and secret militia was inherent to the system put in place and maintained by perhaps the most easily offended and most mistrustful man who ever lived.” It stands to reason that this, one of the most discussed matters of Napoleon’s biography, would be left out of Roberts’s panegyric, which assumes at face value the credibility of Napoleon’s claims to peaceful intentions upon returning to the head of France after being whopped out of Russia.

We see in Ludwig’s biography of Bonaparte how the populist roots of Bonaparte’s regime—a man “ever on the watch for indications of public opinion; always listening to the voice of the people, a voice which defies calculation”—helped shape contemporary democracy (if you can call it that). To believe that this assiduous attention to public opinion through police spies reflected anything but a manipulative duplicity is to forget a quote relayed to us by Metternich from the emperor, himself: “a man such as I am does not concern himself much about the lives of a million men.” This sentiment, alone, would lead to the abandonment of entire armies in Egypt and Russia (forget Waterloo!).

The “genius” of surveiling and policing the volunté générale would go on to influence the worst strains of modern thought, such as the institution of public relations forwarded by Edward Bernays, that Napoleon of the marketplace who struck out in his decisive book Propaganda to “explain the structure of the mechanism which controls the public mind, and to tell how it is manipulated by the special leader who seeks to create public acceptance for a particular idea or commodity.” From his arrival on the scene to the cusp of the Nazi rise to power when Bernays wrote his notorious paper, Bonaparte the Ideal name would become the mere subject of propaganda of the cheapest form—a monadic type, poster-boy of poster-boys, to be worshiped with adolescent naïveté.

Seeds of Reaction?

Another important fact left out of Roberts’s testimony is the duplicitous nature with which Napoleon treated the Jews of France. After the revolution emancipated the Jews, the rumors among reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries were that the Republic was a conspiracy of Freemastons and Jews. In order to maintain order and compensate for his Imperial swagger, Napoleon swung to the right, placating the conservative traditionalists of rural France with restrictive measures against Jewry. Similarly, there is no mention of the fact that Napoleon would saddle the new nation of Haiti with onerous debt, stunting its rise. If these aspects of his biography is lost, history is returned to a vulgar simulation of Bonapartism, but perhaps that is where today’s trends are pulling us.

When Napoleon returned from Elba to seize power from the Bourbons, he may have been unseating a dynasty whose very name “was at no time anything more than a brand wherewith to terrify the masses,” according to Metternich. However, he was replacing that brand with his own, better-curated brand, which post-structuralist thinker Jean-François Lyotard would identify as the “Ideal name.” The name of Bonaparte has been deployed throughout history to signify a world of good things. But to what ends? To paraphrase the emperor, one has only to set history into motion, and then let it pull you along with it, and certainly, his legacy continues to influence the course of politics.

The political legacy of Napoleon as Bonapartism has existed not merely as a political but an ideological trend, suggesting that, while Napoleon may have lost at Waterloo, only his name stood triumphant. When the Orléonists took power in 1830, they invited Napoleonic officials to serve in the administration of Louis-Philippe. Though his family was opposed to the re-establishment of the Bonapartes, Louis-Philippe claimed the legacy of Napoleon to the extent that Marx would call “Louis Bonaparte” the “real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrase.” Marx’s point is not merely that Louis-Philippe applied the Bonapartist ideology, but that he represented a disorganized French monarchy ruling over a nationalist public unconscious of class divisions.

As Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr would write the year after the unseating of Louis Bonaparte, “plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.” In came the Second Republic, which finally lifted the anti-Jewish restrictions, and then out it went. Napoleon’s nephew, Louis-Napoleon III, re-established the Empire—thanks, in no small part, to certain “errors” in vote-counting attributed to a certain minister of the interior, Lucien Bonaparte. Though his reputation would benefit from the lifting of the restrictive laws against Jews, Napoleon III deployed strong-handed censors, as his uncle Napoleon I had done, to repress the republican sentiment expressed in the café-concerts of the peripheral barrière of Paris.

Purging the ranks of the liberal Orléanists, Napoleon III ruled by the “masses” like his uncle, gaining support from left and right with the careful elision of class difference in favor of nationalist reconciliation, lavish new infrastructure (which Roberts somehow denies), and, of course, war mongering. The heart of Bonapartist success lay again in France Profonde, the rural conservatives who would become the francs-tireurs, isolated and politically abandoned by liberals, whose Catholicism recalled not only Napoleon’s coronation as the Supreme Pontiff, but the overtones of the Avignon Papacy that it carried.

Napoleon III would make Marx’s point of social reconstitution incontrovertible in 1840, before the latter would have a chance to turn pen, ink, and paper into the Eighteenth Brumaire: “The Napoleonic idea consists of reconstituting French society—turned on its head by fifty years of revolution—and of reconciling order and freedom, the rights of the people and the principles of authority.” The “reconstitution of French society,” the “Party of Order,” the “principles of authority” and counter-revolution, these slogans all contained within them the objective of eliding class difference and proposing a national community of collaboration and submission to the great leader.

But Napoleon III would fall to Bismarck at Sedan in 1870, repeating the legacy of his uncle, Napoleon I. In the words of esteemed historian of the French radical right Michel Winock, “it is as if the regime in place betrayed itself when it did not seek glory under cannon fire. It is as if it were pushed toward Austerlitz or Magenta; and finally, toward Waterloo and Sedan.” After the Commune that took hold of Paris to establish direct democracy was laid to waste by the former-Orléanist, Thiers, the resurgence of Bonapartism would occur between the lines and ranks of Boulangism. Led by a General Boulanger, who took part in the Versailles campaign against the Commune, Boulangism reconstituted French society against the Third Republic established after the fall of “little Napoleon”—from the old tripartite division of the right (Orléanism, Bonapartism, traditionalism) toward a plebiscitary nationalism with strong anti-Semitic overtones emerging from that myth of France Profonde that Napoleon had humbled himself before with his restrictive laws.

Origins of Fascism

Another shuffling of the deck, another false revolution, Bonapartism was more ingrained in Boulangism than it would appear on the surface; although he was led through the first stages of his political career by the Radical Party’s Clemenceau, Boulanger would switch out the support of his mentor for other connections. On New Years Day of 1888, Boulanger met secretly with Prince Napoleon in Switzerland, assuring the renewed place of the Ideal name in the aftermath of war and revolution.

The next year, his entourage, who boasted of their support for him by wearing red carnations threaded through their buttonholes, churned out five million posters, thousands of busts; newspapers like Intransigeant trumpeted his success, and revanchist concert hall tunes like the Big Sweep and “En revenant de la revue” took the dance halls. Post cards with nostalgic photographs of territories lost to the Prussians, Alsace and Lorraine, stocked the shops. (It was all pastiche, of course—a farce of Napoleon’s rural populism played out by the urban crowds and audiences of the ersatz café-concerts and gougettes whose subversively bawdy and boisterous quality had been moralized out of existence after the fall of the Second Republic). A mass culture reasserted itself against parliamentarianism and the Third Republic; Boulanger celebrated a status not unlike the rising figure of a “pop star” brought into apartments by the gramophone, mocking the barrière with odes to the prestige of the nation, bourgeois and proletarian united against the inutile impotency and corruption of parliamentarism. Nevertheless, whispers surrounded and haunted the man: that he was a kind of imposter—“The weakest thing about Boulangism is Boulanger.”

After the peak of his romantic and political life, Général Revanche would shock France by committing suicide, leaving in his tracks a band of military rabble that would go on to prosecute the most vulgar nationalism via the Dreyfus Affair. To measure the spite against him, the only mention made of Boulanger by Marx or Engels appears in a letter dated December 31, 1892, from Engels to Sorge in which the former comments on the Panama Affair, which galvanized the “whole of the opportunist and the majority of the radical gang” to stand “shamefully compromised”—“if that ass Boulanger had not shot himself,” Engels vituperates, “he would now be master of the situation.”

The legacy of Napoleon ultimately does not settle with that famous revolver shot in the Ixelles Cemetery. Boulangism had its desired impact: the Ideal name of Bonaparte was deployed in a transition of the political structure of France through jingoism and the language of order and authority. With the man to whom historian Venita Datta refers as the “would-be Napoleon,” the idea of the nation had taken hold as a populist phenomenon again, reassembling the old factions into a renewed military establishment. Général Revanche could cast aspersions at the financial elites while avoiding the more subtle workings of class struggle, and reactionaries would become experts in the co-optation of leftist vocabulary. Ernest Renan, among nationalism’s loudest barkers, would insist, “A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past; it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life.”

The unsavory gang of national populists like Paul Déroulède, Francis Laur, and Marquis de Morès reassembled the new right that Boulanger created by blaming Jews for the Panama Affair and unjustly prosecuting Dreyfus, sending mobs through the streets of Paris chanting “Death to the Jews!” When Dreyfus was acknowledged as innocent, this petulant mob would throw their support behind the newly founded Action Française, who would make up the bulwark of fascist sentiment over the coming decades. The same France Profonde that supported Bonaparte would become the launching pad for Action Français and its newspaper, directed by Charles Maurras, whose followers would create Je suis partout (I am everywhere), a newspaper circulated in the hundreds of thousands under the ideology of “anti-antifascism.”

Vichy and Beyond

As we have seen, far from defending the Jews and liberating the colonized, as Roberts implies, the legacy of Bonapartism would have a hand in the growth of anti-Semitic reaction, and its development in the birth of fascism. In the works of Zeev Sternhell, August Thalheimer, and Nicos Poulantzas, we can find a substantial weight of information revealing the inner-workings of proto-fascism within Napoleon’s indisputably Caesarist regime and its progeny. While Napoleon compared his own rise to that of Julius Caesar (“When I placed myself at the head of affairs, France was in the same state as Rome when it declared that a dictator was necessary to save the republic”), others have compared it to Mussolini, a man whose imperial ambitions were always on display, and who also compared his rise to that of Julius Caesar. But the point was perhaps best articulated by Raymond Aaron in his article, “L’ombre des Bonaparte” (The Shadow of Bonaparte), which the Free French published in 1943 amidst the Vichy occupation government of Marshal Pétain: “Bonapartism is… at once the anticipation and the French version of fascism. It is an anticipation because the political instability, national humiliation, and concern for social achievements—combined with a certain indifference toward political achievements—characteristic of the revolution created a plebiscitary situation in the country on various occasions, at the very time of ascendant capitalism. And it is a French version because millions of French people compensated for their customary hostility toward their political leaders with a passionate enthusiasm crystallizing around one person designated by the events. It is also a French version because an authoritarian regime in France inevitably lays claim to the great Revolution, pays verbal tribute to the national will, adopts a leftist vocabulary, professes to address itself o the people as a whole, beyond parties.”

We can find that tradition in the origins of French fascism by tracing back to its progenitor Georges Gressent (alias Valois), who pointed straight to the work of Bonapartist and dedicated Boulangist, Maurice Barrès, author of The Cult of the Self, as the cardinal influence. French fascism would be a movement accommodated by leftists like Georges Sorel who assisted le Cercle Proudhon, and insurrectionist Gustave Hervé, who would declare, C’est Pétain qu’il nous faut (It’s Pétain we need); “If, just between us, Boulanger was a fake, Pétain is no fake, he is pure and modest glory.”

After Hitler had taken his tour of the Parisian opera houses and the simple task of work fell upon the Vichy public, the trade unions held an answer, dictated by the Vichy State, to the question of left wing opposition. They were to be incorporated into the “national revolution,” forming the “transmission belt” that would allow the State to drive the engine of the people, as labor minister Louis Bertin put it. For collaborators in the labor movement who had to address the meaning of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in such circumstances, the natural tradition was to fall back on Bonapartism. As Vichy collaborator and leader of Le Rassemblement national populaire Georges Dumoulin declared, “When a law is unnatural it is isolated and circumvented, as Napoleon did with fortresses, and we advance. If the [famous collaboration document] Charte du Travail, in some of its provisions, is unnatural, its fate will be sealed by the development of life.” Vichy was not Bonapartist, it was fascist, but the legacy of Napoleon had become a necessary, recursive systematization maintaining the machinic order of everyday life, just as much as it had become a natural force to which all systems are suborned. Perhaps that’s all Hegel’s embodiment of the World Spirit, that great “concrete universal,” ever promised to do.

After the War, it was Poujade who helped to bring about the putsch that overthrew the Fourth Republic and set de Gaulle at the top of the Fifth Republic from which the emperor’s maxim would be enunciated: “I act only on the nation’s imagination; when that means fails me, I shall be nothing.” Another reshuffling of the cards. Discontented with the Fifth Republic’s acceptance of Algerian independence, the tradition of Poujad lives on in an even more vitriolic form with his former-associate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who dubbed Je suis partout’s most famous holocaust denier and admitted fascist Maurice Bardèche, “a prophet of a European renaissance for which he had long hoped.” (Bardèche is also the intellectual hero of “New Right” intellectual Alain de Benoist.) Although Jean-Marie Le Pen declares, “Je ne suis pas monarchiste,” Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Marine’s niece—arguably the second most popular person in the National Front and one of the most extreme—openly admires Bonaparte, and can rattle off the first lines of Bainville’s biography by heart. Simultaneous with the rise of Maréchal-Le Pen as the latest in the dynasty, Sarkozy, who has also drawn comparisons to Napoleon, was reelected president of the UMP, prompting Renée Kaplin to ask the question last December, “Is France’s repressed Bonapartism having a coming-out?”

And that’s the real point. The name of Bonaparte is thrown around with such frequency and lack of historical clarity in order to construct distorted class alliances and promote populist unities (Pétain’s “national revolution”), precisely because historians (and politicians) become more nostalgic than honest. It is an intellectual morass, and needs to be more clarity of assessment coming from intellectuals, perhaps using what Machiavelli called verità effettuale—the effectual truth of a group’s dynamics and intensions—as a heuristic. With what purpose do we ponder the hypothetical questions of empires succeeding other empires in glory and global dominance, if not to present a mystified ideological point? Whoever cannot entertain this notion has not stared deeply enough into the jaundiced eye of Imperium—and does not recognize that the legacy of Bonapartism never actually left France, but has only retrenched itself more deeply since his departure.

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.