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.”
DISCUSSION WITH OUR READERS
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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