Tuesday 8 January 2019

Weak Bonapartism

It's worthwhile thinking about the concepts that emerge from the analysis of politics, particularly when it is fraught and strained as per, well, now. And, after all, if commentators are doing their job properly they should be thinking about how to describe and explain what's going on. First up is weak Bonapartism, which is something used here loads of times to describe the situation in the Tory party and the position of Theresa May. It describes how her weakness vis the rest of the party paradoxically gives her room for manoeuvre and strength.

Bonapartism as a concept has a lengthy history among the grey beards. Coined by Marx himself in the articles collected in The Class Struggles in France, Bonapartism refers to the politics in France between the failed revolution of 1848 and 1850, when universal suffrage was abolished. This culminated in 1852 with the founding of the ill-fated Second Empire. Without getting bogged down into the historical detail, Louis Bonaparte (later Napoleon III), the nephew of the original Napoleon, was elected President in 1848. Having been shook by a failed plebeian revolt and thanks to fractiousness between the remnants of the aristocracy and different sections of the rising bourgeoisie, Marx argued the struggle of classes and class fractions had balanced out. The popular masses were no longer willing to be ruled in the old way, but were not capable of exercising power themselves, and likewise the ruling class were disorganised. Into the vacuum the state stepped and assumed political independence from landed interests and industrial capital. It became less a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie, as per The Manifesto, and more an organised power for stamping the authority of a single man. The state was strong, the contending classes were weak, and so state authority prevailed. Nevertheless, as Trotsky later observed it was still a bourgeois state because it preserved prevailing class relations and, later on, used government to drive economic development and participate in the European scramble for global markets and colonies.

There have been various adaptations of Marx's concept since. Most controversially in Marxist circles, Trotsky used it in his analysis of Stalinism. In a series of articles written in the 1930s, and most famously in his semi-holy screed (for some), The Revolution Betrayed, he argued what the Soviet Union had become following the October Revolution and its subsequent international isolation an example of 'proletarian Bonapartism'. Again, sparing the details, Trotsky argued that following the revolution and civil war the Russian working class were devastated, the country lay in ruins, and the party had effectively fused with the state as the only organised power in the land. Because the workers and peasants were ruined so were the chances of socialist democracy. And so the organs of direct democracy withered, followed by internal democratic norms in the party itself and the bureaucracy assumed power. However, because capitalism wasn't restored and, indeed, the power of the apparatus flowed from its command over a post-capitalist economy, this dictatorship over the proletariat nevertheless protected the nationalised property bequeathed by the revolution. Hence Stalin's Bonapartism was progressive and marked a gain over what existed previously.

Trotsky also employed Bonapartism in his analysis of fascism in Germany as overlapping categories. Here, fascism started as a mass movement of petit bourgeois reaction against a rising workers' movement, which propelled it to power. Once there, the Nazis turned the organs of the state against their political enemies without and, eventually, within their own movement. And once it was tamed/absorbed into the state it more or less settled into something akin to Bonapartism. Whether he'd have changed this assessment had he lived beyond the early years of the Second World War is a matter of speculation.

In the post-war period there were a number of permutations of Bonapartism. The expansion of Stalinism to Eastern Europe and South East Asia proved/disproved Trotsky's concept, depending on your view of the Soviet Union. For some Trotskyists, the coming to power of De Gaulle in 1958 and the founding of the Fifth Republic was a moment pregnant with Bonapartist dangers. With decolonisation often the only organised body in newly independent states was the military, and often found themselves in situations analogous to, but not as fortuitous as that of Napoleon III, and more recently the army played a Bonapartist role in Egypt's Arab Spring.

Bonapartism then has a pedigree of unpicking the relationship between classes and the state in rapidly moving historic movements and processes. What use could it have for understanding the predicament of Theresa May?

In what you might call the long June since May lost her majority at the 2017 general election, the Tory party has been in a state of stable instability, or permanent disarray. The membership are drifting away or dying, and at the top of the party May's shattered authority is beset by rival factions and ambitious individuals. I guess we've become habituated to it, but we should remember that the spectacle of cabinet members thinking aloud about Brexit is unprecedented and a symptom of May's weakness. Yet thanks to the disunity of the Tories, the awful mess May has on her plate, and leadership contenders balancing one another out, paradoxically the Prime Minister is safe from challenge. After all, if you were an ambitious MP and fancied a bite at Number 10, would you make your move now when Brexit is up in the air and there is still the drawn out process of a trade deal to come? Likewise, would you want it while the party is in the midst of tumult and you're unable to exercise your authority over it? No, and so May abides.

This is where the perverse character of weak Bonapartism is brought out. The central authority is weak, but none of May's would-be rivals have the strength to see her off and replace her. This gives May considerable strength and autonomy, something she only really cottoned on to over the summer. When the details of her Chequers Deal was made public, the likes of David Davis and Boris Johnson could have made a move. But they didn't, preferring to resign and grandstand from the back benches. May also realised that there was no need to appease the hard Brexiteers either, and that if they were able to force a no confidence vote in her leadership she would see them off - a calculation that proved correct. However, weak Bonapartism is an anomalous situation and one that, for May, can't less forever. Should her deal fall at next week's vote, what then? Will she soldier on, knowing no one's about to usurp her (indeed, under party rules this cannot happen until next December), apply for an Article 50 extension, which is the talk coming out of Brussels today, or throw in the towel - assuming she survives Labour's no-confidence vote?

And of weak Bonapartism itself, if May goes in short order her successor will be prey to the same pressures. But weak Bonapartism is so out of the ordinary that I can't think of any other examples or situations where it applies. Any suggestions?

1 comment:

keith said...

But weak Bonapartism is so out of the ordinary that I can't think of any other examples or situations where it applies. Any suggestions?

Kerensky? I'm pretty sure he was described as such.

But then that begs another question. What is the period/situation in the UK we are now living in? The ruling class is split and has difficulty finding away out of the current crisis, hence the crisis of government. There are talks of a new party but as of yet it looks like it would be a small affair.

A significant minority, if not majority, of the working class cannot bear the current situation. We have stagnating wages, lifespans decreasing, the DWP carry out attacks on millions of people and the Home Office harassing tens of thousands. The police are too weak to carry out the sorts of repressions that they did in the 80s (that's not to belittle the attacks they do make). It appears that the media, and the BBC especially, are the they key bulwarks of the government.

The one important missing element is mass mobilisations against the government and its policies. Not just demos, but strikes, occupations of governmental or Tory offices etc, even alternative forms of power such as campaigning LP or assemblies that can deliver action. A GE would partially break the impasse, and if Labour won give some respite to working people, but the attacks would continue albeit in a different form.

So how should we characterise the situation and what tasks should flow from that?