In two letters to the editor a reader asked World-Outlook to clarify our use of the term “Bonapartism” in the December 15, 2022, article “What Do U.S. Midterm Elections Reveal?” Below is the first letter and our reply.
Letter to the editor
December 16, 2022
I appreciate your recent article on the US midterms. What I don’t understand is why you use the term “Bonapartist” to describe “Trumpism” and his coup attempt. I think neo-fascist is more correct.
December 26, 2022
Thanks for giving us the opportunity to explain our choice of terms. “Bonapartism” is one with a long history in the Marxist movement. We first used the term in the article on the January 6, 2021, rightist riot at the U.S. Capitol that inaugurated World-Outlook, titled “Radicalism, Bonapartism, and the Aftermath of the 2020 U.S. Elections.”
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That article explained:
More than 50 years ago Marxist scholar and working-class leader George Novack explained the essential meaning of Bonapartism. In an essay titled, “Bonapartism, Military Dictatorship and Fascism,” which appears in his book Democracy & Revolution, Novack said, “Parliamentary government…becomes a liability to big capital when the middle classes are radicalized, the workers take the offensive, and the country seems to be slipping out of its control.”
He continued, “when social tensions tighten to the breaking point, parliament is less and less able either to settle the disputes at the top or act as a buffer between the power of property and the wrath of the masses. General disappointment with its performance plunges bourgeois parliamentarism together with its parties into a period of acute crisis.”
Bonapartism, Novack explained, “carries to an extreme the concentration of power in the head of the state already discernible in the contemporary imperialist democracies. All important policy decisions are centralized in a single individual equipped with extraordinary emergency powers. He speaks and acts not as the servant of parliament… but in his own right as ‘the man of destiny’ who has been called upon to rescue the nation in its hour of mortal peril.”From Radicalism, Bonapartism, and the Aftermath of the 2020 U.S. Elections
In a second letter you wrote, “I always thought a ‘Bonapartist’ state was one that abolished feudalism, was anti-Monarchist, and often a term applied to a supposedly ‘more benevolent’ early center-right capitalist/imperialist states.”
A possibility not a reality
First, we should clarify that we never characterized the U.S. government under Trump as a “Bonapartist” state. Rather we argued that Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election results, and the support it received, “indicate that a not insignificant minority of the privileged classes at least considered sidestepping the legislative and judicial branches of government and handing all important policy decisions to the executive, run by an individual with extraordinary powers.” Those efforts failed but the specter of Bonapartism was seriously raised.
The term itself does arise from the example of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte who took power in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789 and the subsequent reaction against it. “Since the French Revolution that country has been the classic home of bourgeois Bonapartism,” Novack wrote.
Novack then cited Russian revolutionist Leon Trotsky who wrote that the “man on horseback” enters the scene “in those moments of history when the sharp struggle of two camps raises the state power, so to speak, above the nation, and guarantees it, in appearance, a complete independence of classes — in reality only the freedom necessary for the defense of the privileged.”
Novack added, “The dictatorship of Napoleon the First fulfilled these requirements.” He continued, “The legend of his triumphs helped make his far less talented nephew president and then emperor,” decades later. Karl Marx wrote about that later experience in “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.”
Novack asserted the term was not restricted to the historical period of the abolition of feudalism. “The role of a Bonapartist regime in the epoch of imperialism and the decline of capitalism,” he wrote, “is no different from that in the period of its rise. It intervenes to head off a potential state of civil war in a divided nation by referring all disputed issues to a supreme arbiter invested with exorbitant power.”
Trotsky made use of the term in describing the Stalinist regime in the USSR in the 1930s. He knew of course that the circumstances were quite different. In a 1931 article titled “Thermidor and Bonapartism,” Trotsky noted: “The danger in this question, as well as in every other historic question, consists of the fact that we are too apt to draw analogies too formally, no matter how important and fruitful they may be, and that we are wont to reduce the concrete process to abstractions.”
Returning to the United States today, we do not draw an exact analogy in our use of the term “Bonapartism.” We do believe, however, that “Bonapartism” is the best term describing the dangerous direction posed by the unprecedented post-2020 election events.
In an earlier chapter of Democracy and Revolution titled “Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis,” Novack raised another lesson of history that we believe makes use of the term “Bonapartism” even more apt today. “The maintenance of a democratic regime,” he wrote, “requires a prosperous economy, a docile working class, a more or less contented petty bourgeoisie and a successful foreign policy. It can be placed in jeopardy in the absence of any one or more of these decisive factors.”
We would argue that all of those factors are absent to one degree or another today in the United States.
“The democratic order is placed in jeopardy,” Novack continued, “when the reformist parties become bogged down in hopeless difficulties, are manifestly impotent to cope with the most urgent problems, and appear to be leading the nation to disaster.”
We would also suggest this is exactly how millions of workers and middle-class people see the situation in the United States today.
To be sure, this situation has not led to the outcome that Novack suggested is possible. “The precarious state of a parliamentary regime is the mark of a revolutionary situation where the conquest of power by the workers and fascist reaction are counterposed,” he wrote.
We would not characterize the working class in the United States today as “docile.” However, the deepening capitalist economic, social, and political crisis has not yet led to a genuine working-class radicalization and an explosion of working-class struggle. This is one reason Bonapartism appeared as a specter but was rejected by the ruling class as an unnecessary step today.
Different types of antidemocratic regimes
The title of the chapter of the Novack book we cited specifically distinguishes between different forms of repression and antidemocratic regimes that can arise. Novack was not the only working-class leader to do so. In 1975 Farrell Dobbs explained:
“The ruling class always comes to the point where it seeks to pass from bourgeois democracy through interim stages like Bonapartism or military dictatorship to fascism. The whole period between now and then is one of mobilizations and counter-mobilizations leading to the final showdown.”From Counter-mobilization: A Strategy to Fight Racist and Fascist Attacks
Dobbs’ full explanation can be found here.
Dobbs’ reference to “interim stages” echoes another salient point made by Novack. “The various forms of antidemocratic rule in the era of imperialism,” he wrote, “are not separated by impassable partitions. The lines of demarcation between them are often blurred and one can in the course of time grow over into the other.”
In distinguishing Bonapartism from military dictatorship or fascism, Novack explains: “Whether the ‘man on horseback’ usurps authority through extraparliamentary force or under a legal cover, he exercises it by decree. His regime need not immediately dismantle or wholly discard parliamentary institutions or parties; it renders them powerless. These may be permitted to survive, provided they play merely supernumerary and decorative roles. Whether they rubber-stamp or resist the mandates from on high, these prevail as the law of the land.”
In this sense, a Bonapartist regime does not deal as complete or definitive blow to bourgeois democracy as does a military dictatorship or fascism — a distinction of importance for working people.
As Novack explains, among the various modes of capitalist domination “some are more dangerous than others because they hold out greater immediate threat to the existing rights and organizations of the working class. Some offer wider latitude for action and reaction by the masses. From this standpoint a bourgeois democracy is preferable to any dictatorship — and certain milder forms of Bonapartism retain better conditions for the recuperation of lost ground by the workers than fascism.”
You don’t explain why you think “neo-fascism” is a more accurate term to use to describe Trump and the January 6, 2021, events.
The term “fascism” has been thrown around loosely by many on the left in the United States since at least the 1960s. It is often used as an epithet, not an accurate characterization of a regime or movement.
Novack accurately calls fascism “the most terroristic system of monopoly-capitalist domination.” He continues, “Unlike other forms of antidemocratic rule, which represent differing degrees of bourgeois reaction, fascism spearheads a political counterrevolution. It thoroughly extirpates all institutions of both bourgeois and proletarian democracy and all independent forces.” (Emphasis added. W-O)
There may well have been some fascist-minded forces — far short of the mass organizations a rising fascist movement creates — involved in the January 6, 2021, rightist riot. But to call Trumpism — and that riot — fascism of any kind does not seem accurate to us.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term “neo” as “new and different period or form of.” World-Outlook does not use “neo-fascism” because we don’t have evidence showing that Trumpism — at this time — represents a new or different form of fascism.
Geoff Mirelowitz & Argiris Malapanis
for the editors of World-Outlook
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Categories: Marxism, US Politics
I agree with the political orientation of the World Outlook article on Bonapartism versus fascism. My disagreement with the article is not political but semantical. My disagreement centers on the usage of the words Bonapartism, democracy, and democratic rights.
Clearly most people have no idea what the word Bonapartism means. As was stated in the article, the word Bonapartism has a long history in the Marxist movement. The article does give a clear definition of this word, but my question is: Why use the word Bonapartism at all?
In my opinion using words that most people don’t understand is a clear example of the word jargon. So, what would be a better way of explaining what this article is about?
Lenin argued that the state was invented for capitalism as a “special instrument of repression.” He also argued that the word “democracy” in capitalism is about “capitalism of the rich.”
Armed with that perspective, in my opinion the state in capitalism has always been a ruthless and brutal repressive force. Saying that, in the history of capitalism workers won many democratic rights that we didn’t have in feudalism. All these democratic rights were won through struggle. However, as Lenin argued workers have little, if any control over the environment at work or away from work.
The article pointed out how there are different periods in the history of capitalism. In those periods, the democratic rights of workers varies. As the article argued, when there is a crisis of capitalism, there is a tendency to give more power to an individual. Why not just say that without using the term Bonapartism, a term most people aren’t familiar with?
Ultimately, under fascism workers have no rights and it becomes much more difficult to advance workers rights. Clearly, we aren’t living in that environment today. However, if workers fail to take power, fascism will become a real threat.
This I found useful because of the recognition that each historical case has its particular context and line of development. In other words – Bonapartism opens up a period where the future of bourgeois democracy is in peril – a period of class struggle which will lead to either a return to bourgeois democracy in some form, or its reduction into a symbolic role, or even its total destruction, a la fascism. This makes me wonder if perhaps the earliest stages of HItler’s power, before and for a time after the death of HIndenburg – could be referred to as Bonapartism. There was still another, “leftist” tendency in the Nazi party that he had to deal with, and still a functioning Parlaiment with elected Socialists and Communist Party politicians. Up until the burning down of the Reichstag – could it be said that Germany was in a phase of Bonapartism as it rapidly moved toward fascism ?
The current political usefulness of this term, though – is another discussion. Going back 175 years to explain the terms used makes folks think of the past, and how long this struggle has gone on, and how many defeats and how few victories are there to point to in the time since. I think it makes the person explaining the term sound dogmatic and old fashioned to radicalizing and independent young folks. That should be a concern for serious propagandists.
Lastly, I must disagree seriously with the characterization, a la Faux News, that 1/6/2021 was a “riot”, a term used by the bourgeois media to refer to a peaceful demonstration when someone threw a rock at somebody. That was the most serious attempt at a coup that an idiot like Trump could muster. They defeated the cops, entered the building looking to kill politicians, and almost succeeded in enabling Trump to persist in office, possibly seeking to use military force to remain indefinitely, and creating the conditions necessary for a new Civil War. To call it a riot is just silly. It seriously detracts from this article, as it is seeking to explain the importance of the terms we choose to use. William Rayson
Thank you for your well-reasoned analysis of what the MAGA crowd represents, what it might lead to, and what to call it. It brought memories of things I used to know but had forgotten back to the surface. Your case for Bonapartism as the more apposite analogy seems unassailable. However, although it can help to orient discussions between people who have already spent lifetimes thinking about these matters, it will be of less value in the public discourse, where “fascism” is by many orders of magnitude a more familiar word than “Bonapartism.” Most people of a certain age believe they know what fascism is because they have seen it (at least in the movies), whereas Bonapartism is at best a nebulous theoretical concept. The familiarity, of course, brings with it at least as much confusion as clarity. How best to discuss and explain these issues is a many-layered problem that we will all be struggling with for a long time to come.
Fact and Concepts vs. Jargon: Reply to Comments on “Why Bonapartist, not Neo-Fascist”
The gist of the issue raised by all three comments on the article above is that the term “Bonapartism” is not well understood today. We don’t dispute that. It is precisely why we have taken the time to explain the concept the word captures.
Beginning with the very first use of the term in the article that inaugurated this website in January 2021, we have called readers’ attention to a book we consider politically valuable today, Democracy & Revolution, by Marxist scholar and working-class leader George Novack. We cited a specific chapter in that book titled, “Bonapartism, Military Dictatorship and Fascism.” Those who read the book will see that chapter follows another titled, “Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis.”
We did not do so as an academic exercise. We are not seeking to teach “jargon.” We have recommended the book because we consider it of immediate interest and value to anyone trying to understand recent developments in U.S. politics. The system of parliamentary democracy in the United States today is increasingly in crisis, which poses the danger of efforts to institute more repressive forms of capitalist rule.
The article by Novack aims to explain the nature of such regimes, why they arise, and how they differ from one another. Understanding the differences is not an abstract issue or an incomprehensible matter of Marxist theory. As Farrell Dobbs taught us in his writing that we shared above, effective strategy and tactics, as well as accurate political analysis, require knowing what time it is. Politically, what time it is.
Neither Novack nor Dobbs relied on jargon. They used the clearest possible explanation to educate fighters so we can arm ourselves with a better understanding of the world. Again, what is central are the concepts, the ideas that help us understand, and fight to change, our current reality.
One of the primary purposes of World-Outlook is to maintain and defend the continuity — including the political ideas, concepts and perspectives — the revolutionary socialist movement has fought for and advanced for many decades. Thus, we have often recommended to our readers books and writings by Novack, Dobbs, James P. Cannon, Evelyn Reed, Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, Ernesto Che Guevara, and many others. We have also cited pertinent passages from these books that sometimes use accurate terminology that may not be immediately understood by today’s readers.
In each case, we have tried to explain the concepts behind such terms, the historical context in which they were first used, and their applicability today. We took the same approach in the column under discussion now.
Reader Steven Halpern appears to take his argument to the conclusion that we should also shy away from using such terms as “democracy” and “democratic rights.” He cites Lenin, who never made such an argument. Why stop there? What about “communism”? How well is that understood? Or “Marxism”? Or “socialism” for that matter, especially in light of the fact that many if not most who consider themselves socialists today deny the revolutionary character of socialism and view is as a strictly a series of reforms.
“Fascism,” as reader Cliff Conner wrote accurately, is a term many people use and believe they understand. But many who use the term don’t agree on what fascism is. It is often used in a way that has nothing in common with how revolutionary socialists have used the term, since fascism first appeared on the scene in the early 20th century. Some use it as an epithet for any kind of rightwing or repressive activity. We agree with Conner when he writes, “The familiarity, of course, brings with it at least as much confusion as clarity. How best to discuss and explain these issues is a many-layered problem that we will all be struggling with for a long time to come.”
Our column above is one more effort to do that. It is not intended as the “last word” in such a discussion. Quite to the contrary.