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Leon Trotsky 19350300 Again on the Question of Bonapartism

Leon Trotsky: Again on the Question of Bonapartism

Bourgeois Bonapartism and Soviet Bonapartism

March 1935

[Writings of Leon Trotsky, Vol 7, 1934-1935, New York 1971, p. 206-209]

Some critics complain that we use the term Bonapartism very broadly and very differently. Those critics don't notice that the same holds good for our use of other terms in the vocabulary of politics, such as "democracy" and "dictatorship," not to speak of "state," "society," "governments," etc. We speak of the democracy of the past (based on slavery), democracy of the medieval corporations, bourgeois democracy, proletarian democracy (in the sense of the state), as well as of democracy in the parties, the trade unions, guilds, etc., etc. Marxism cannot renounce such established, economical notions and cannot refuse to apply them to new phenomena; otherwise the transmission of human thought would, in general, be impossible. Marxism has, under pain of error, to define in every case the social content of the notion and the direction of its evolution. Let us recall that Marx and Engels characterized not only the regime of Napoleon III but also that of Bismarck as Bonapartist On April 12, 1890, Engels wrote to Sorge, "Every government today is becoming Bonapartist, nolens volens." That was more or less true for a long period when agriculture was in crisis and industry depressed. The new upsurge of capitalism from about 1895 on weakened the Bonapartist tendencies; the decline of capitalism after the [First World] War strengthened them considerably.

In his History of the Great Russian Revolution, Chernov brings forward statements by Lenin and Trotsky describing the Kerensky regime as embryonic Bonapartism and, rejecting this characterization, he notes sententiously, "Bonapartism takes flight with wings of glory.” This "flight" of theory is Chernov's manner completely; but Marx and Engels and Lenin defined Bonapartism not by wings but by a specific class relationship.

By Bonapartism we mean a regime in which the economically dominant class, having the qualities necessary for democratic methods of government, finds itself compelled to tolerate — in order to preserve its possessions — the uncontrolled command of a military and police apparatus over it, of a crowned "savior." This kind of situation is created in periods when the class contradictions have become particularly acute; the aim of Bonapartism is to prevent explosions. Bourgeois society has gone through such periods more than once, but these were, so to speak, only rehearsals. The present decline of capitalism not only has definitively undermined democracy but also has disclosed the total inadequacy of Bonapartism of the old type; in its place has come fascism. However, as a bridge between democracy and fascism (in Russia, 1917, as a "bridge" between democracy and Bolshevism), there appears a "personal regime" that rises above democracy and tacks between the two camps — while safeguarding, at the same time, the interests of the ruling class; it is sufficient to give this definition for the term Bonapartism to be fully settled.

In any case, we observe:

1. Not one of our critics has taken the trouble to demonstrate the specific character of prefascist governments: Giolitti and Facta in Italy; Brüning, Papen and Schleicher in Germany; Dollfuss in Austria; and Doumergue and Flandin in France;

2. No one to date has proposed another term. We, for our part, see no need for one; the term employed by Marx, Engels and Lenin is completely satisfactory to us.

Why do we insist on this question? Because it has colossal importance for both theory and policy. It can be said that a prerevolutionary (or prefascist) period officially opens in the country from the moment when the conflict between classes separated into two hostile camps removes the axis of power outside parliament Therefore, Bonapartism is the characterization of the last period in which the proletarian vanguard can gather its momentum for the conquest of power. Not understanding the nature of a Bonapartist regime, the Stalinists are led to give the following diagnosis: "It is not a revolutionary situation and they ignore a prerevolutionary situation.

Things become complicated when we use the term Bonapartism for the Stalin regime and speak of "Soviet Bonapartism." "No," exclaim our critics, "you have too many 'Bonapartisms'; the word is being extended in inadmissible fashion," etc. Usually, objections of this kind — abstract, formal and grammatical — are made when people have nothing to say on the subject.

There is no doubt at all that neither Marx, Engels nor Lenin used the term Bonapartist for a workers' state; there's nothing astonishing about this: they had no occasion to (that Lenin did not hesitate at all to use, with the necessary reservations, for the workers' state terms used for the bourgeois regime is demonstrated, for example, by his expression "capitalism of the Soviet state”). But what are we to do when the good old books do not give the needed indications? Try to manage with one's own head.

What does Stalin's "personal regime" mean and what is its origin? In the last analysis it is the product of a sharp class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. With the help of the bureaucratic and police apparatuses, the power of the "savior" of the people and the arbiter of the bureaucracy as the ruling caste rose above Soviet democracy, reducing it to a shadow of itself The objective function of the "savior" is to safeguard the new property forms, by usurping the political functions of the ruling class. Is not this precise characterization of the socialist regime at the same time the scientific sociological definition of Bonapartism?

The incomparable value of the term is that it allows us immediately to discover extremely instructive historical affinities and to determine what it is that forms their social roots. This comes out: the offensive of plebeian or proletarian forces against the ruling bourgeoisie, like the offensive of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces against a ruling proletariat, can end up in political regimes that are completely analogous (symmetrical). This is the incontestable fact that the term Bonapartist best allows us to bring out

When Engels wrote " Every government is becoming Bonapartist, nolens volens," he had in mind, certainly, only the tendency of the development In this sphere as elsewhere, quantity changes into quality. Every bourgeois democracy bears the features of Bonapartism. One can also discover, with good reasons, elements of Bonapartism in the Soviet regime under Stalin. But the art in scientific thinking is to determine where precisely quantity changes into a new quality. In the era of Lenin, Soviet Bonapartism was a possibility, in the era of Stalin, it has become a reality.

The term Bonapartism misleads naive thinkers (a la Chernov), because it evokes in the mind the historical model of Napoleon in the same way as the term Caesarism evokes the model of Julius Caesar. In actual fact, these two terms have long been detached from the historical figures who gave them their names. When we speak of Bonapartism, without qualification, we have in mind not historical analogies but sociological definition. In the same way, the term chauvinism has a character as general as nationalism, although the first word comes from the name of the French bourgeois Chauvin and the second from nation.

However, in certain cases, speaking of Bonapartism, we have in mind a more concrete historical affinity. Thus, the Stalin regime, which is the translation of Bonapartism in the language of the Soviet state, reveals, at the same time, a certain number of supplementary features resembling the regime of the Consulate (or of the empire, but still without a crown); and this is not by chance; these two regimes followed on great revolutions and usurped them.

We see that a correct use, that is to say, a dialectical use, of the term Bonapartism not only does not lead us to schematism — that ulcer of thought — but, on the contrary, allows us to characterize the phenomena that interest us in as concrete a fashion as is necessary, the phenomenon being taken not in isolation as a "thing in itself," but in historical connection with numerous other phenomena connected with it. What more can we ask of a scientific term?