Bonapartism (epithet)

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For supporters of the dynastic claims of the Bonaparte family, see Bonapartist.

Bonapartism is often defined as a political expression in the vocabulary of Marxism and Leninism, deriving from the career of Napoleon Bonaparte. Karl Marx was a student of Jacobinism and the French Revolution as well as a contemporary critic of the Second Republic and Second Empire. The term Bonapartism is often used to refer to a situation in which counter-revolutionary 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.

Marx saw both Bonaparte and his nephew Napoleon III as having 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: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce."

A Bonapartist regime 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 workers' states at all.

More generally "Bonapartism" may be used to describe the replacement of civilian leadership by military leadership within revolutionary movements or governments. Some modern-day Trotskyists and others on the left use the phrase left Bonapartist to describe those like Stalin and Mao Zedong who control left wing or populist authoritarian regimes.

Yet, the complexity of Bonapartism is reflected in the literature of many notable political scientists and historians who, themselves, greatly differ on what its actual definition may be. Sudhir Hazareesingh's widely-revered book The Legend of Napoleon (a staple text in some of the world's most prestigious political science academies [1]) points out the virtual minefield of interpretations regarding its usage. His own scholarship sees the term as reference to a "popular national leader confirmed by popular election, above party politics, promoting equality, progress and social change, with a belief in religion as an adjunct to the State, a belief that the central authority can transform society and a belief in the 'nation' and its glory and a fundamental belief in national unity." Indeed, as Hazareesingh shows, the idea that Napoleon co-opted the revolution's principles and duped the masses runs contradictory to historical documents turned up in more recent research. It is difficult to believe that, even with those elements of forced conscription, thousands would have fought and fallen across Europe for a man without absolute certainty in his own conviction for those aforementioned principles. Hence, co-optation vis-a-vis Bonapartism exhibits the Marxist perspective of false consciousness: the idea that the masses can be manipulated by a few determined leaders in the pursuit of ends. Such dichotomies are rarely so clear-cut, however.

To be sure, a comprehensive understanding of the term, whatever one's viewpoint, would be remiss without adequate study of its popular, liberal, and conservative facets.

Raymond Hinnebusch, taking a conservative stance, has characterized Hafez al-Asad's regime in Syria as Bonapartist.