Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Bonapartism For The Workers?

Earlier this year I wrote a post defending Bonapartism as preferable to neoliberal plutocracy. Of course, my defense of Bonapartism was a relative one. The actual record of authoritarian democracy has been decidedly mixed. The history of the House of Bonaparte is a good example of this problem. For example, while Napoleon III built a good deal of infrastructure (including his famous modernization of Paris) and gave French workers the right to strike and form unions, among other social reforms, his intervention in Mexico and a disastrous war with Prussia would prove to be the Emperor's undoing.

Following the collapse of the Second French Empire, while most Bonapartists would take a fairly right-wing approach to France's pressing socio-economic issues, a few others would move in a different, more populist direction. For example, Albert Richard (1846-1925) was a French anarchist and a member of the International, rubbing shoulders with men such as Mikhail Bakunin, who would later write a letter to Richard opposing his recent conversion to Bonapartism. Following the failure of the Lyon uprising and the Paris Commune, Richard abandoned his revolutionary ideology in favor of worker self-help and solidarity within a fairer economic system. Apparently, Richard even visited Napoleon III while the latter was in exile at Chislehurst in Great Britain.

More important than Richard was Jules Amigues (1829-1883). Amigues was an interesting man with many unsuccessful business ventures to his name, but he also had a strong social conscience. Amigues made his pilgrimage to Chislehurst in 1872 and apparently made a good impression on Napoleon III. After his meeting with the Emperor, Amigues set up a Bonapartist newspaper, the L'Esperance nationale. When Napoleon III died in 1873, Amigues led a delegation of working-class Bonapartists from the poorer sections of Paris to attend the Emperor's funeral.

As far as economic theories were concerned, Amigues supported the organization of workers into guilds and guild federations with the power to deal with employers on an equal basis. Amigues also supported more recognizable social reforms such as universal, free education, public provision for the care of the elderly, and an income tax as opposed to regressive taxes on consumption.

Amigues never received much support from the Bonapartist mainstream, and after the death of Napoleon III, he received few subsidies from the regular Bonapartist party. Undaunted, Amigues continued to campaign for the House of Bonaparte in the working-class districts of France, despite the indifference and sometimes outright hostility of the Bonapartist mainstream. In 1877, however, Amigues, running on his own and without any support from the official Bonapartist party, won a shocking victory over his Republican opponent, a wealthy industrialist, in one of the electoral districts in Cambrai. Amigues owed his victory to the struggling weavers of the region. As John Rothney wrote:
"What seems to have tipped the balance [in favor of Amigues] was his poster. In it, he quoted his opponent's speeches urging workers to be thrifty and temperate and pointed out that in fact workers had no clothes for their children and only water to drink." (Rothney 1969: 93).
Unfortunately for Amigues, the Republicans would later invalidate his election and by and large the Bonapartists failed to take up his crusade to win over France's workers to the cause of the Empire. It is interesting to note, however, that the turn of official Bonapartism to a more conventionally right-wing orientation occurred after the death of Napoleon III, who continued to be interested in reformist and even socialist ideas, despite the many failures and compromises of his reign. Indeed, the fact that the Emperor himself was much more populist than most of the politicians who fought for his dynasty after his death reveals the kernel of truth in the Napoleonic Idea.


Rothney, John. Bonapartism after Sedan (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1969).


  1. What to make of René Rémond’s theory of the three French right wings? Of course, Orléanism as bourgeois and economically liberal is the Franco-Whiggery against which stand both the populist traditionalism of the Legitimists and the populist authoritarianism of the Bonapartists. But the only continuation of Legitimism is not in the more-or-less Lefebvrist wing of the FN and its electorate. Although Gaullism does have obvious Bonapartist roots, just as Boulangism did, yet the popular followings for either and both were and are at least as much Legitimist, especially deep in the countryside.

    Especially there, the anti-Gaullist Right is not entirely Orléanist, either; not for nothing did it most recently rally to a man whose name was not merely Giscard, but Giscard d'Estaing. Not for nothing did Philippe de Villers withdraw from the UDF over Maastricht as surely as Charles Pasqua withdrew first internally and then externally from the RPR. And where does anyone think that the popular constituency for an anti-Marxist Socialist Party first came from, or very largely still does come from?

    Mitterrand could never decide whether he wanted to be Louis XIV or Napoleon. But he certainly wanted to be one or the other. Deep down, at least, one or the other was what huge numbers of his voters wanted him to be, too. Otherwise, he would never have won. And when he did win, he gave a job to Poujade, in whom the Legitimist and Bonapartist populisms of the Right met, who had endorsed him and who did so again.

    To all of which, what says François Hollande?

  2. Another good post on Bonapartism!

    As autocratic as it was, Bonapartism was still a very revolutionary form of monarchy; it was very much one of the first, if not the first, European monarchy that was not based on the "grace of God". Instead, the people were to give their unquestioned loyalty to the absolute ruler, who ruled not by divine right but by social loyalty, self-sacrifice, and service to the people. Very unorthodox at the time, but this could very well be the right mix of traditionalism and populism that we could use today.

  3. Mr. Lindsay,

    Thank you for the enlightening comment.


    Bonapartism is a strange ideology, but I would agree that it might be the right mix of populism and traditionalism for the modern world. I am not sure how a "divine right" monarch with actual power would be received in the secular West.