The Forms of Bonapartism

The second and third article by Peter Taaffe on the state in the Militant Newspaper: —518 (5 September 1980), 523 (10 October 1980), and 524 (17 October 1980)

In the words of Frederick Engels, the state “is as a rule the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class which through the medium of the state becomes also the politically dominant class.” There are periods in history and in the development of society, however, when the struggle between the classes reaches such a pitch that they almost balance each other out. In this situation, as Engels explained, the state “acquires for the moment a certain degree of independence of both of the warring classes.” Such regimes are characterised by Marxists as Bonapartist regimes, or military-police dictatorships.

Such were the regimes of the absolute monarchies at the end of the feudal era. The struggle between the old feudal classes and the rising capitalist class reached such an intensity that the monarchies were able to play off one against the other, thereby attaining a certain independence and only in the last analysis representing the interests of the dominant feudal class.

Similar features were possessed by Napoleon Bonaparte’s regime in France from which the term ‘Bonapartism’ derives. Karl Marx wrote that “rule by the sword” was one of the essential features of Bonapartism. The mutual antagonism and the struggles between the classes which had made the French revolution resulted in the exhaustion of the classes and a virtual stalemate which allowed the bonapartist regime of Napoleon to take form. Napoleon allied himself with the dominant capitalist class and in particular with the banks which represented the most decisive section of the ruling class.

The idea of bonapartism is a closed book so far as capitalist commentators are concerned. Workers can also be confused by the nature of bonapartism. There appear to be a dizzying array of bonapartist regimes. For instance, there were the bonapartist regimes, military-police dictatorships, which took shape in the era of the ascendancy of capitalism throughout the 19th century. Bismarck’s state in Germany also possessed some features of bonapartism. Despite the fact that these regimes ruled by the sword, they were relatively tranquil in character in comparison to the bloody bonapartist regimes that we have witnessed in capitalism’s decline. Compare, for instance, the violence of Napoleon to the present military-police dictatorship in Chile. After Pinochet’s coup against the Popular Unity government in September 1973, the military waded through the blood of more than 50,000 workers in order to consolidate its position.

Another feature of bonapartism which can sometimes confuse workers is the fact that a bonapartist regime, in rising above the classes, can attain a certain independence and even strike blows against the class which it represents. Marx himself pointed out that in France in 1851 the “drunken soldiery” of Louis Bonaparte went on the rampage shooting down some of the capitalists. Yet they had brought to an end the revolution on behalf of those same capitalists. In China at the time of the revolution of 1925-27, Chiang Kai-shek, having crushed the insurrection of the Shanghai working class in April 1927, then immediately turned on the bankers, arrested them, placed them in jail—only freeing them on payment of a ransom of $12 million. They must have ruminated on the fact, while languishing in jail, that they paid a heavy price to Chiang and his state which was ‘defending’ them. Nevertheless, his state was a capitalist state, a bonapartist regime, which had just defeated the Shanghai working class on behalf of the bankers.

In the modern era we have witnessed all kinds of peculiar variants of bonapartist regimes, particularly in the colonial and semi-colonial countries. Take for instance the bonapartist regime of Peron which was in power in Argentina from 1945 to 1955. Peron was a capitalist Bonaparte: in the final analysis he represented the capitalists and the big landowners. Nevertheless, he came to power by leaning on the powerful Argentinean working class and granting them big concessions such as the formation of powerful trade unions, wage increases, and other reforms. Peron was able to do this because of the favourable market in Europe for Argentinean beef with the beginning of the post-war boom. Resting on the working class he also struck against the class upon which his regime ultimately rested, the big ranchers and capitalists. Despite the balancing between the classes—a feature of all bonapartist states—and the support enjoyed by Peron amongst the working class right up to his return from exile— his regime defended Argentinean capitalism.

Superficial capitalist commentators—and echoing them some on the periphery of the labour movement too—have used examples like this and that of Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy to try and show that bonapartist and fascist regimes were not capitalist in character, but were new types of states. After all, in Hitler’s Germany the capitalists were “politically expropriated,” that is they did not exercise direct control over the state machine which was in the iron grip of the Nazis. Moreover, individual capitalists were imprisoned and in some cases murdered. By pointing to these actions of the Nazis the capitalists hope to throw dust in the eyes of the advanced workers on the nature of fascism and bonapartism. It is also an attempt to absolve the capitalists from the financing and support of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco in the pre-war period.

Fascism differs from bonapartism in the sense that it represents the complete triumph of the counter-revolution, the destruction of all the democratic rights and organisations of the working class in the face of the power of capital. But it retains some of the features of bonapartism, and once in power fascism quickly undermines its support amongst the middle class. It therefore loses its mass basis and becomes a bonapartist regime.

Throughout the post-war period, threats of military-police dictatorships, at least in the advanced capitalist countries, seemed very remote indeed. But with the onset of the world economic crisis, some people within the labour movement, particularly the ultra-left sects and even some of the Tribune left, have raised the possibility of the imminent establishment of “the corporate state”. Such a perspective is entirely false at the present time. The relationship between the classes in Britain and indeed throughout the whole of the advanced capitalist world is decisively weighted in favour of the working class. Moreover, the former middle layers in society—civil servants, teachers, technicians etc—have been drawn more and more towards the trade unions and the labour movement itself. Membership of the trade unions in Britain is more than 50 per cent of the working population, and is even higher in some of the other countries of Western Europe.

For the first time in history, there are no outright military police dictatorships in Western Europe. In Spain, in Greece and Portugal, the 1970s witnessed the dismantling of the last remnants of military-police dictatorships. And this is not a reflection of the strength of the capitalists. Normally the capitalists prefer to rule through ‘democracy’. It is the cheapest form of rule as far as they are concerned, without the overheads of a bloated military and civilian bureaucracy—at least not to the same extent as military-police dictatorships. Capitalism can also afford the ‘luxury’ of democracy when the system is going ahead. Such was the case towards the end of the 19th century, the beginning of this century, and since the end of the second world war, at least in the advanced capitalist world. In any capitalist country, the real power in society is exercised not by parliament nor by the cabinet, but in the board-rooms of the big capitalist monopolies. To paraphrase Trotsky, capitalist democracy is where everyone can say what they want…so long as the monopolies decide.

But the fact that the capitalists have been forced to dismantle the military-police dictatorships is a sign of weakness and not of strength. Failure to end the Franco regime threatened them with an insurrection of the Spanish working class. So too in Greece. An inordinate delay, given the fact that support for the military-police dictatorship of the Colonels had completely evaporated, meant that dictatorship was suspended in mid-air. This was dramatically shown in July 1974 when representatives of the Greek Junta themselves described their government as “ridiculous”. If the Greek capitalists had not moved then to remove the dictatorship, they faced the prospect of a revolutionary explosion of the Greek working class. It is false to argue, therefore, that military dictatorships are on the horizon.

The Communist Party, on the other hand, commit the mistake of an opposite and even worse character. In so far as they recognise the danger of bonapartist states being established, this is relegated to the dim and distant future. Moreover, as the example of Chile has demonstrated, they are utterly incapable of arming the working class and the labour movement with a programme and a perspective capable of eliminating such a danger.

A Marxist Programme – the Vital Guard Against Reaction

It is not accidental that the British capitalists have posed the question—however seemingly remote at this stage—of the eventual use of the army against the working class. As early as 1975, as Jack Jones pointed out, the generals and some strategists of capital were issuing dark threats about a coup unless the working class was brought to heel by the trade union leaders. This threat was quickly withdrawn when the capitalists pondered on the developments in Portugal and Greece. It is one thing to resort to a bonapartist regime: but the removal of that regime can open the floodgates to revolution.

At the same time, any premature attempt to use the army against the working class could result in an explosion that would place the system itself in danger. It is not at all accidental that in the discussion pages of The Times on this issue, the experience of the Kapp Putsch in Germany in 1920 was discussed in some detail. That attempt to overthrow the government resulted in a general strike which utterly paralysed the generals. But as the recent TV programme War School showed, officers are already being trained for “urban guerrillaism” and “riots” in Britain. In effect the army is being perfected for use against the working class in Britain at a certain stage in the future. In 1972, the Tories, in a pamphlet misnamed In Defence of Peace were already taking on board the lessons and writings of Brigadier Kitson.

At the same time, the police are being beefed up to meet the social upheavals which will be a consequence of the ruthless attacks on the working class by capitalism, particularly through the medium of this present Tory government. For example more policemen were injured in training for “riots” last year than in the pursuit of crime itself! The ruling class are already flirting with the idea of using volunteers, that is scabs, in the event of big upheavals in the coming period. All of this demonstrates that the British capitalists, if the situation permits them, would not hesitate to protect themselves and their system.

Sir Ian Gilmour, on the so-called ‘Wet’ wing of the Tory government, stated in his book Inside Right: “Conservatives do not worship democracy. For them majority rule is a device…majorities do not always see where their best interests lie and then act upon their understanding. For Conservatives, therefore, democracy, is a means to an end and not an end in itself. In Dr Hayek’s words, democracy ‘is not an ultimate or absolute value and must be judged by what it will achieve.’ And if it is leading to an end that is undesirable or is inconsistent with itself, then there is a theoretical case for ending it.” In other words, if it no longer suits them the capitalists will move to replace democracy with a regime more suited to their interests. If the labour movement fails, therefore, to carry through, the socialist transformation of society, the capitalists will undoubtedly consider resorting to a royalist bonapartist regime, that is, to a military-police dictatorship, as a means of checking the movement of the working class.

As experience has demonstrated, if it were left to the present leaders of the labour movement, particularly the Communist Party leaders, this task of the capitalists would be enormously facilitated. This is shown most clearly in the writings of Santiago Carrillo, leader of the Spanish Communist Party. Carrillo is a guiding light of Euro-Communism, upon which the British Communist Party bases itself. Many of the ideas of the reformist left of the labour movement throughout Europe are also akin to Carrillo’s ideas. His book Euro-Communism and the State is, on the one side, an attempt to convince the capitalists of the Communist Party leaders’ ‘democratic’ credentials; and on the other, an attempt to give a theoretical justification for the abandonment of the traditional Marxist approach towards the state. In contradistinction to Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, who advocated the formation of a new state machine as a precondition for the transition towards socialism, Carrillo proposes “the transformation of the state apparatus by democratic means.” This is at one with the Communist Party’s conception of a piecemeal transformation of capitalism into socialism. Carrillo accompanies this with the idea of the democratic and peaceful transformation of society.

The Marxists are also of the opinion that it would be possible for the labour movement, with the correct programme, perspective and leadership, to carry through the socialist transformation of society in a peaceful fashion. But one thing is certain: such a development is out of the question on the basis of the road chosen by the Communist Party leaders themselves. Their conception of the capitalist state is completely Utopian. They seek to educate the advanced workers, not on the basis of clear understanding of the nature of the capitalist state and the dangers which are posed to the labour movement in the future on the basis of the continuation of capitalism, but with sugary illusions about the possibility of the reform of the capitalist state.

Yet the living experience of Chile is a complete refutation of all their ideas. But none are so blind as those who refuse to see! The Chilean experience is a book sealed with seven seals, so far as these gentlemen are concerned. For instance, a past leader of the British Communist Party, the late Jack Woddis, in his book Armies and Politics, outlines the measures taken by the Allende government to ‘democratise’ the Chilean armed forces. This took the form of measures “to improve the pay and conditions of officers and soldiers in order to avoid any grievances which could be exploited by the counter revolution. Army pay was increased by some 40%, flats were built for army personnel, the children of a number of officers were granted scholarships to universities and colleges.” The way to influence the officers to the side of the revolution, according to the Communist Party leaders, was to offer financial inducements. Moreover, these efforts were directed in the main towards the summits of the army, and not at all to drawing the rank and file within the army over to the side of the working class and the peasants. As to the possibility of influencing the army, Woddis writes: “It was not possible for the political parties to be the main instrument in bringing about changes in the outlook of the armed forces.” And the reasons for this? “Not only would this have created acute tensions between officers and parties, and presented other difficult technical questions, but the constitution itself to which the Popular Unity was pledged strictly forbade it.”

Here is an example of the “parliamentary cretinism” (idiocy) which Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky never ceased to denounce when it was practised by the reformist leaders of the socialist parties. It is an example of the cringing policy of the Socialist Party and Communist Party leaders in Chile before the officer caste. Their conception of winning the army officers over to the side of the workers and peasants was by concessions, by discussions, addresses from Allende, and even by the inclusion of generals within the cabinet—but in no sense to attempt to win over the ranks of the army, navy and air force to the side of the working people. Woddis comments, in view of the catastrophe of September 1973: “It might be argued that all this was a wasted exercise”—at which most thinking workers in Britain and Chile, on the basis of their harsh experience, would agree. But on no account can we assume that the Communist Party leaders have learnt the lessons of Chile.

In his book, Santiago Carrillo put forward a similar position for Spain, and indeed for the advanced capitalist countries as a whole. Carrillo asked the question: “Is it realistic by an act of violence to smash the coercive apparatus of the state?” Carrillo falsely draws in by the hair the possibility of “an act of violence” in relation to the destruction of the apparatus of the capitalist state machine. On the basis of a peaceful socialist transformation of society, it would be entirely possible to reconstruct the new state machine. Moreover, Carrillo correctly points to the changes within the state apparatus itself; in particular, to the radicalisation of civil servants, particularly the lower levels, of some sections of the judiciary, and the army. However, the decisive levers of state power, the summits of the civil service, judiciary, army, police, etc, in their overwhelming majority, remain on the standpoint of capitalism. Rather than these sections being won over to the labour movement and the working class, through Carrillo’s methods they will be driven further and further into the arms of the capitalists.

There are examples of where the capitalist state machine, under the pressure of enormous radicalisation, has split, with a big section of the officers coming over to the side of the working class. Such was the case in Portugal in the recent period. Not just sergeants and captains, but even admirals and generals formally adopted the ideas of Marxism and socialism. However, this was not achieved by the methods of Carrillo or of his counterparts in Portugal. It was the movement of the Portuguese working class following the events of the attempted coup of March 1975 which compelled the leaders of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party to nationalise the greater part of the Portuguese economy. It was this movement of the working class, not the fact that the CP leaders whispered into the ears of the admirals and generals, which exercised an enormous effect on the outlook of even the summits of the Portuguese army, navy and air force.

Only by opening up new possibilities for the further development of society is it possible to exercise a powerful influence on the ranks of the army. These layers are part of the intermediary strata within society as a whole. Experience has shown that prevarication and half measures, as was the case in Chile, will drive them into the arms of reaction. Carrillo’s methods will have the same effect. For instance, imitating Allende’s courtship of the generals Schneider and Pratz, Carrillo writes of the Spanish army: “everything leads one to think that the military leaders Lieutenant-general Diez Allegrea and Lieutenant-general Mulado have broader and more modern, though not widely expressed views of defence.” It is not by attempting to influence one or two isolated figures, but by offering the perspective of a new society, that the officer caste can either be neutralised, or sections—even a majority—won over to the side of working people.

Piecemeal measures, attempts to “merely reform the state machine,” and seek “further inroads into capitalism,” without completely shattering the basis of capitalism, would give all the possibilities for the capitalists to use the state machine to smash the workers’ organisations when the time is right. The issue of the state which was pushed to the background in the post-war period, will more and more come to the fore in the stormy period that is opening up throughout Britain, and indeed throughout the capitalist world. It is necessary for the advanced workers to grasp fully the essentials of the state, to see the changes that have taken place, and in that way prepare themselves, the working class, and the labour movement, to carry through the socialist transformation of society.