In French political history, Bonapartism has two meanings. In a strict sense, this term refers to people who aimed to restore the French Empire under the House of Bonaparte, the Corsican family of Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon I of France) and his nephew Louis (Napoleon III of France). In a wider sense, it refers to a political movement that advocates the idea of a strong and centralized state, where populist rhetoric supports a strongman or caudillo.
Philosophically, Bonapartism was the adaptation of principles of the French Revolution to suit Napoleon's imperial form of rule. Desires for public order and French national glory had combined to create a Caesarist coup d'etat for General Bonaparte on 18 Brumaire. Though he espoused obeisance to revolutionary precedents, he himself "styled his direct and personal rule on the Old Regime monarchs." For Bonapartists, the most significant lesson of the Revolution was that unity of government and governed was paramount. The honey bee was a prominent political emblem for both the First and Second Empires, representing the Bonapartist ideal of devoted service, self-sacrifice and social loyalty.
The defining characteristics of political Bonapartism, however, were flexibility and adaptability. Napoleon III once made a sardonic comment on the diversity of the members of his cabinet, united under the single banner of Bonapartism. Referring to the leading figures in the government of the Second Empire, he remarked: "The Empress is a Legitimist, Morny is an Orléanist, Prince Napoleon is a Republican, and I myself am a Socialist. There is only one Bonapartist, Persigny – and he is mad!"
Bonapartism came about after Napoleon I was exiled to Elba. The Bonapartists helped him regain his power, leading to the Hundred Days period. Some of his acolytes could not accept his defeat in 1815 at Waterloo or the Congress of Vienna and continued to push the Bonapart ideology forward. Napoleon I's death in exile on Saint Helena in 1821 only transferred the allegiance of many of these persons to other members of his family; however, particularly after the death of Napoleon's son, the Duke of Reichstadt (known to Bonapartists as Napoleon II), there were several different members of the family on whom the Bonapartist hopes rested.
The disturbances of 1848 gave the nascent political undercurrent hope. Bonapartism, as an ideology of politically neutral French peasants and workers (EJ Hobsbawm), was essential in the election of Napoleon I's nephew Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte as President of the Second Republic, and gave him the political support necessary for his 1852 discarding of the constitution and proclaiming the Second Empire. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte assumed the title Napoleon III to acknowledge the brief reign of Napoleon's son Napoleon II at the end of the Hundred Days in 1815.
In 1870, the French National Assembly forced Napoleon III to sign a declaration of war that led France to a disastrous defeat at the hands of Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War. The emperor surrendered himself to the Prussians and their German allies to avoid further bloodshed at the Battle of Sedan (1870), and went into exile after a parliamentary coup created the Third Republic.
Afterwards, Bonapartists continued to aspire and to agitate for another member of the family to be placed on the throne. However, from 1871 forward, they competed with Monarchist groups that favoured the restoration of the family of Louis-Philippe, King of the French (1830–1848) (the Orléanists), and with those who favoured the restoration of the House of Bourbon, the traditional French royal family (Legitimists). The strength of these three factions combined was almost undoubtedly greater than that of the Republicans of the era, but as the three proved to be irreconcilable on the choice of who should be the new French monarch, Monarchist fervor eventually waned and the French Republic became more or less a permanent facet of French life; Bonapartism was slowly relegated to being the civic faith of a few romantics as more of a hobby than a practical political philosophy. The death knell for Bonapartism was probably sounded when Eugène Bonaparte, the only son of Napoleon III, was killed in action while serving as a British Army officer in Zululand in 1879. Thereafter Bonapartism ceased to be a significant political force.
The current head of the family is the Prince Napoleon great-great-great-grandson of Napoleon I's brother Jérôme Bonaparte, Jean-Christophe Napoléon (born 1986). There are no remaining descendants in male line from any other of Napoleon's brothers, and no serious political movement that aims to restore any of these men to the imperial throne of France.
The Bonapartist claimants
The "Law of Succession" Napoleon I established on becoming Emperor in 1804 provided that the Bonapartist claim to the throne should pass firstly to Napoleon's own legitimate male descendants through the male line. At that time he had no legitimate sons, and it seemed unlikely he would have any due to the age of his wife Joséphine. His eventual response was the unacceptable one, in Catholic eyes, of engineering a dubious annulment, without Papal approval, of his marriage to Josephine and undertaking a second marriage to the younger Marie Louise, with whom he had one son. The law of succession provided that if Napoleon's own direct line died out, the claim passed first to his older brother Joseph and his legitimate male descendants through the male line, then to his younger brother Louis and his legitimate male descendants through the male line. His other brothers, Lucien and Jerome, and their descendants, were omitted from the succession (even though Lucien was older than Louis) because they had either politically opposed the Emperor or made marriages of which he disapproved. By Marie Louise Napoleon had one son, in whose favour he abdicated after his final defeat in 1815. Although the Bonapartes were now deposed and the old Bourbon monarchy restored, Bonapartists recognized this child as Napoleon II. However, he was sickly, virtually imprisoned in Austria, and died young and unmarried, without leaving any further direct descendants of Napoleon I. When the Bonaparte Empire was restored to power in France in 1852, the Emperor was Napoleon III, Louis Bonaparte's only living legitimate son (Joseph having died in 1844 without ever having had a legitimate son, only daughters).
In 1852, Napoleon III, having restored the Bonapartes to power in France, enacted a new decree on the succession. The claim first went to his own male legitimate descendants in the male line (though at that time he had none; he would later have one legitimate son, Eugène Bonaparte, who would be recognized by Bonapartists as "Napoleon IV" before dying young and unmarried). If his own line died out, the new decree allowed the claim to pass to Jerome, Napoleon's youngest brother who had previously been excluded, and his male descendants by Princess Catharina of Württemberg in the male line (but not his descendants by his original marriage to the American commoner Elizabeth Patterson, which Napoleon I had greatly disapproved). The only remaining Bonapartist claimants since 1879, and today, have been the descendants of Jerome and Catherine of Württemberg in the male line.
In their willingness to ignore primogeniture (the exclusion of Lucien Bonaparte and his descendants) and their cavalier approach to the Catholic belief in the indissolubility of marriage and to the Pope's rights as final arbiter on the validity of marriages, the Bonapartist laws of succession were far from traditional; but then, the whole claim of the Bonaparte family to rule France was far from traditional.
List of Bonapartist claimants to the French throne since 1814
- Napoleon I, Emperor of the French (1804–1814 and 1815), Claimant (1814–1815)
- Napoleon II, Emperor of the French (1815), Claimant (1815–1832), son of Napoleon I. Briefly reigned as Emperor in France for a fortnight in June–July 1815, after his father's abdication following the defeat at Waterloo. Died 1832, unmarried, no children.
- Joseph Bonaparte, Claimant (1832–1844), Napoleon I's oldest brother, former King of Spain, Died 1844, two daughters but no legitimate male children.
- Louis Bonaparte, Claimant (1844–1846), Napoleon I's second youngest brother, former King of Holland. Died 1846.
- Napoleon III, Emperor of the French 1852-1870, Claimant (1846–1852 and 1870–1873), the only living legitimate child of Louis Bonaparte. He was President of France 1849-1852.
- Napoléon Eugène, Prince Imperial (Napoleon IV), Claimant (1873–1879), the only legitimate child of Napoleon III. Died 1879, unmarried, no children.
- Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte, nicknamed 'Plon-plon', Claimant (1879–1891); however, Eugène Bonapartes' will excluded him from the succession in favor of his son Napoleon Victor, leading to fierce disputes. The only male child of Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon I's youngest brother, with Catharina of Württemberg (though Jerome had had another son earlier with Elizabeth Patterson). Died 1891.
- Napoléon Victor Jérôme Frédéric Bonaparte (Napoleon V), Claimant (1879–1926) (though many Bonapartists preferred his younger brother Louis). Until his father's death in 1891, he and his father both put themselves as rightful claimant. Died 1926.
- Louis Jerome Victor Emmanuel Leopold Marie Bonaparte (Napoleon VI), Claimant (1926–1997), son of Napoleon Victor. Died 1997.
- Charles Marie Jérôme Victor Napoléon Bonaparte (Napoleon VII), Claimant (1997–present), son of Louis.
- Jean-Christophe Napoléon, Claimant (1997–present), son of Charles, appointed heir by his grandfather Louis.
'Bonapartist' as a Marxist epithet
Karl Marx was a student of Jacobinism and the French Revolution as well as a contemporary critic of the Second Republic and Second Empire. He used the term Bonapartism to refer to a situation in which counterrevolutionary military officers seize power from revolutionaries, and then use selective reformism to co-opt the radicalism of the popular classes. In the process, Marx argued, Bonapartists preserve and mask the power of a narrower ruling class. He saw Napoleon I and Napoleon III as having both corrupted revolutions in France in this way. Marx offered this definition of and analysis of Bonapartism in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, written in 1852. In this document, he drew attention to what he calls the phenomenon's repetitive history with one of his most quoted lines, typically condensed aphoristically as: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce."
A Bonapartist regime for Marx appears to have great power, but only because there is no class with enough confidence or power to firmly establish its authority in its own name, so a leader who appears to stand above the struggle can take the mantle of power. It is an inherently unstable situation where the apparently all-powerful leader is swept aside once the struggle is resolved one way or the other.
The term was used by Leon Trotsky to refer to Joseph Stalin's regime, which Trotsky believed was balanced between the proletariat, victorious but shattered by war, and the bourgeoisie, broken by the revolution but struggling to re-emerge. However the failure of Stalin's regime to disintegrate under the shock of the Second World War, and indeed its expansion into Eastern Europe, challenged this analysis. Many Trotskyists thus rejected the idea that Stalin's regime was Bonapartist, and some went further—notably Tony Cliff who described such regimes as state capitalist and not deformed workers' states at all. In the last year of his life, Trotsky responded to these elements with the example of Napoleon's expanding empire, which brought about the abolition of serfdom in Poland and other French holdings, yet was still unarguably "Bonapartist."
Bonapartism in the French political spectrum
According to historian René Rémond's famous 1954 book, Les Droites en France, Bonapartism constitutes one of the three French right-wing families; the latest one after far-right Legitimism and center-right Orleanism. Both Boulangisme and Gaullism would be forms of Bonapartism.
However, Bonapartists have consistently disagreed with this classification, as one of the fundamentals of Bonapartism as an ideology is the refusal to adhere to the left-right divide, which they see as an obstacle to the welfare and unity of the nation. Martin S Alexander, in his book "French History since Napoleon" (London, Arnold, New York, Oxford University Press, 1999) notes that Bonapartism as an idea would not have made a significant impact if it had been either classifiable as left-wing or as right-wing. The historian Jean Sagnes in "The roots of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte's Socialism" notes that the future Emperor of the French edited his political works through far-left publishers (Jean Sagnes, Les racines du socialisme de Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Toulouse, Privat, 2006). Today the Bonapartist philosophy would fit into the space occupied by the Parti Socialiste, the Mouvement Démocrate, the Nouveau Centre and the left wing of the conservative Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, as these parties occupy the ideological space between parties advocating class struggle and race-based politics, both of which are anathema to Bonapartists, as contrary to the ideal of national unity and religious and ethnic tolerance. This is demonstrated by Napoleonic policy towards industrial disputes, one expression of which – as Frank McLynn writes – is that strikes were forbidden by Napoleon I in exchange for a guarantee by employers that wages would remain high (Frank McLynn, Napoleon, Pimlico 1998 Ch 21, p482), while another is the assimilation and protection of the Jews.
The Marxist theory of "Left" and "Right" Bonapartism can be considered an illustration of what McLynn (Napoleon, Pimlico, 1998, Conclusion, p667) refers to as Napoleon I's appeal in equal measure "to both the Right and the Left", and what Vincent Cronin describes as "middle of the way", or "moderate" government (Napoleon, 1994, HarperCollins, Ch 19, p301). Napoleon III situated Bonapartism (or the "Napoleonic Idea") between the radicals and conservatives (respectively the Left and the Right) in "Des Idées Napoléoniennes, published in 1839. He expounded on this point to explain that Bonapartism, as practiced by his uncle Napoleon the Great (and represented by himself) was in the middle of "two hostile parties, one of which looks only to the past, and the other only to the future" and combined "the old forms" of the one and the "new principles" of the other.
In the modern era, the term "Bonapartism" has been used in a general sense to describe "autocratic, highly centralized regimes dominated by the military."
An official Mouvement Bonapartiste survives in France, headed by Paul-Napoléon Pierre Calland with an unknown number of members. Its official mission statement is as follows: "[T]o defend, make known and to spread the principles and values of Bonapartism. [The movement] is based on popular support for a policy of recovery combining the efforts of individuals, associations and State services. The movement defends the Bonapartist principles on which it is founded, and which govern its internal organisation. It also defends the memory of Napoleon the Great, as well as those of Napoleon III and their sons, Napoleon II and Napoleon IV. It recognises Napoleon IV as having reigned without governing, by virtue of the plebiscite of May 1870. The movement recognises no emperor after 1879, because of the absence of a plebiscite. Republican, it gives priority to the happiness, interest and glory of peoples, and envisages the restoration of the Empire only if the foundations of the regime are republican and approved by referendum."
- Truesdell, Matthew (1997). Spectacular Politics: Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte and the Fête impériale, 1849-1870. Oxford University Press. p. 58. ISBN 978-0-19-510689-3. Retrieved 18 September 2011.
- "History of the Two Empires: The Symbols of Empire". Fondation Napoléon. 2008. Retrieved 17 September 2011.
- Englund, Steven (2005). Napoleon: A Political Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 240. ISBN 978-0-674-01803-7. Retrieved 18 September 2011.
- Jerrold, Blanchard (1882). The Life of Napoleon III. London: Longmans, Green. p. 378. Retrieved 18 September 2011.
- Riff, Michael A. (1990). Dictionary of Modern Political Ideologies. Manchester University Press. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-7190-3289-9. Retrieved 18 September 2011.
- Acton, Lord (1909). The Cambridge Modern History. New York: Macmillan Co. p. 495ff. Retrieved 18 September 2011.
- Marx, Karl (1973). David Fernbach, ed. Surveys in Exile. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin. p. 146. ISBN 0-14-021603-0. "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."
- Calhoun, Craig J. (2002). Dictionary of the Social Sciences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. p. 47. ISBN 978-0-19-512371-5. Retrieved 18 September 2011.
- "Bonapartist Movement". Mouvement Bonapartiste. 2011. Retrieved 18 September 2011.
- Bonapartism After Sedan, by John Alexander Murray Rothney (Cornell University Press, 1969)