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).