Notes on Bonapartism, Fascism and Bolsonarism


By Bernardo Ricupero*

Notes on Bonapartism, Fascism and Bolsonarism

When trying to decipher the nature of what is called Bolsonarism – a phenomenon that goes beyond Jair Bolsonaro’s leadership – it might be wise to use already classic references. I believe that the interpretations that can most help us to meet the challenge are the explanations about Bonapartism and Fascism. Not by chance, analyzes have already appeared, with greater and lesser propriety, that have confronted the most recent case with these historical examples.

The 18th Brumaire

Marx, when analyzing the coup of December 02, 1851, which made Louis Bonaparte Emperor Napoleon III of France, highlighted how the development of the class struggle led the bourgeoisie to realize “that in order to preserve its social power intact, their political power must be shattered.” Or, in more direct terms, such a class noticed "that in order to save the purse it must give up the crown" (18 Brumaire, P. 63). The revolutionary crisis led to a veritable reversal, in which only an adventurer “can save bourgeois society; only theft can save property; perjury to religion; bastardy the family; disorder, order” (p. 124). In deeper terms, “under the second Bonaparte” the state seemed to “become completely autonomous” (p. 114), leaning directly on force.

The famous characterization of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte motivates a lively polemic as to whether Bonapartism should be understood as a specific historical phenomenon or the normal form of government of the bourgeoisie since the outcome of the Revolution of 1848.[I] In the first line, the book shows how, throughout the Second French Republic, the socialist proletariat, the democratic petty bourgeoisie, the republican bourgeoisie of the Le National, The Legitimist landowners and the Orleanist industrial and financial bourgeoisie united in the Party of Order, successively leaving the “political scene” – exhausted – until only Louis Bonaparte remains, supported by the lumpenproletariat of the 10th of December Society and the small parceled peasants, the class most numerous in the nation.

On the other hand, it is possible to argue, as Marx does, nearly twenty years later, in The Civil War in France, that Bonapartism is the “only possible form of government at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost the ability to govern the nation and the working class had not yet acquired it” (p. 239).[ii] That is, Bonapartism would be a phenomenon that would arise in situations of balance between the fundamental classes, related, according to Engels' characterization in The origin of the family, private property and the state (1894), to other historical developments such as absolutism and the German Empire under Bismark's chancellery.

In the 1920s and 1930s

The interpretation developed by Marx in the pages of Die Revolution, in 1852, is so suggestive that it inspired several other analyzes regarding a veritable plethora of historical phenomena. Especially interesting is how authors such as August Thalheimer, Leon Trotsky and Otto Bauer understood fascism, largely in dialogue with Marx's earlier discussion of Bonapartism.[iii] No less significant, unlike what was more common in the 1920s and 1930s, these authors did not underestimate the danger posed by the rise of the blackshirts.

Thalheimer, in an article from 1928, understands Bonapartism and fascism as part of the same family of political regimes, both being forms of direct dictatorships of capital. He highlights, thus, the coincident points of the two: “the growing independence of the executive authority, the political subjugation of all classes, including the bourgeoisie, the fascist control of the State, at the same time that power remains in the hands of the big bourgeoisie and of the large rural landowners” (On Fascism, P. 117). Both Bonapartism and Fascism would like to behave, moreover, as the beneficiaries of all classes, which would make them recurrently play class against class. The Fascist Party itself would have similarities with the 10th of December Society, as it was formed by the patchwork of different classes, which Marx identified with what the French would call la bohéme.

Even more importantly, the German dissident communist observes that Bonapartism and Fascism appeared after moments of advancing working-class mobilization had failed. In turn, the exhausted bourgeoisie would look for a savior who would guarantee the maintenance of its social power. But if Bonapartism and fascism promised bourgeois society peace and security, they also depended on a permanent sense of risk to justify their existence, which encouraged “a permanent state of disorder and insecurity” (p. 119). Beyond national borders, internal contradictions, added to the nationalist ideology, stimulated the search for war.

On the other hand, Thalheimer does not fail to highlight the differences between Bonapartism and Fascism. He indicates how they partly come from different national contexts, with varied histories, class relations, cultural traditions, etc. Thus, the appeal in France to the Napoleonic mask would be replaced in Italy by the reference to Caesar's mask, even more artificial and ridiculous.

However, more significant would be the changes that occurred in capitalism itself. While Napoleon III was still operating in the midst of competitive capitalism, Mussolini was operating in an undeniably imperialist context. The very similarity between the 10th of December Society and the Fascist Party would only be apparent, since the first would be the counterpart of the workers' secret societies of the XNUMXth century, while the second would clash with the Communist Party.

Particularly interesting is Thalheimer's observation that fascism is not inevitable. Similarly, he notes that contrary to what Marx had imagined, Bonapartism was not succeeded by the government of the working class, but a bourgeois government, the Third Republic, a truth that was preceded by the very brief experience of the Paris Commune. Such a development would have occurred because the labor movement did not have the capacity to take the political direction of the nation. But if fascism ruled in 1928 in backward countries such as Italy, Poland, Bulgaria and Spain, the bourgeoisie, in advanced capitalist countries such as Germany, already demonstrated its readiness to give up the parliamentary system.

Trotsky, when dealing with fascism, also highlighted similarities with Bonapartism at the same time that he emphasized that they would be different political phenomena, not least because he would find himself in the presence not of “inflexible logical categories”, but of “living social formations” (The struggle against fascism in Germany, P. 442). In other words, expressions such as “Bonapartism” are generalizations that do not fully correspond to reality, not least because “historical phenomena are never completely repeated” (p. 330). In more specific terms, the Ukrainian revolutionary deals mainly with two types of Bonapartism: preventive and fascist in origin. The first would prepare the fascist dictatorship, which would have happened, for example, with successive German governments shortly before 1933, the second would be a much more stable and dangerous regime.

As well as to The Civil War in France and for Engels, the most decisive characteristic of Bonapartism, according to Trotsky, would be such a government taking place in a situation of relative balance between counter-revolution and revolution, which would momentarily place political power above classes. Consequently, Bonapartism would seem to behave as a judge between the contending camps, despite not being suspended in the air.

In fact, the Bonapartist government would be based on “the police, the bureaucracy, the military clique”, functioning as a “saber government”. On the other hand, the creator of the Red Army points out that force does not exist independently: “the saber itself has no program. He is the instrument of order.” Bonapartism, like the previous Caesarism, would therefore be “the government of the strongest part of the exploiters” (p. 439), a position then occupied by finance capital.

In this sense, Bonapartism could not be distinguished from fascism or from parliamentary democracy. However, the difference between these governments would not be social, but in relation to the “political form”, a distinction that the Stalinists did not perceive. Such myopia would, according to Trotsky, prevent them from taking advantage of revolutionary opportunities, such as would have appeared in France during the Second Republic and which would be even more promising in the 1930s.

In Brazil

In addition to fascism, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte has continued to inspire some of the most interesting Marxist analysis of politics. In Brazil, in particular, the category of “Bonapartism” already has a considerable history.[iv] On the pages of Labor Policy, publication of the organization that became known as POLOP and that had Trotsky and Thalheimer among its inspirers, the concept had already appeared to deal with the political situation prior to 1964.

After the coup, the theorist and leader of that organization, Ruy Mauro Marini, developed the argument in an article published in the Chilean magazine Arauca, suggesting that we would be facing a military Bonapartism. He pointed out that in a context where “social tensions had reached a critical point” (Contradictions and conflicts in contemporary Brazil, P. 540), the strong government that the bourgeoisie would have wanted would have been facilitated by the increase, from the second half of the 1950s, on the presence of foreign capital in the country.[v]

In turn, USP professor Francisco Weffort praises Marini's text and concedes that Bonapartism is the category related to the European experience most similar to the Brazilian phenomenon he intended to describe. However, he makes a caveat: “in any case, it seemed convenient to us to avoid using this expression, which would have forced us to make comparisons, which are outside the scope of this article, between countries with different capitalist formations” (Populism in Brazilian politics, P. 70).

Even so, it is not difficult to see that much of the political scientist's inspiration in dealing with what he calls populism comes from The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. He considers, in terms very similar to France after the Revolution of 1848, that in Brazil after the Revolution of 1930 “the lords of political power do not directly represent the groups that dominate the basic spheres of the economy” (p. 49). Also because, similarly to the balance between the fundamental classes in the first situation, in the second a state of compromise between the different classes and class fractions, incapable of replacing the coffee bourgeoisie as the hegemonic group, would prevail in the second. In this context, a “new character”, the urban popular masses, would enter the scene, endowing the State with greater legitimacy. Such a situation would, in turn, make it possible for the head of state to behave as an arbiter between classes.

Another political scientist from USP, André Singer, when analyzing the recent experience of PT governments, also makes use of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In the phenomenon he baptizes Lulism, the leader would once again behave as an arbitrator before the classes. However, just as Luís Bonaparte would identify with the most numerous class in France in the mid-XNUMXth century, the peasantry, Lula would identify with the most numerous class in Brazil at the beginning of the XNUMXst century, the subproletariat.[vi] But both the peasantry and the subproletariat would be unable to represent themselves politically, thus linking themselves to Bonapartism and Lulism. Such a situation would pave the way for leaders to present themselves as beneficiaries of all classes, in the most recent Brazilian case combining, for example, the reduction of poverty, through the increase in the minimum wage and social policies, with unprecedented possibilities of gains for financial capital.

From the non-exhaustive sample of cases presented in the preceding pages, it is not difficult to see how very varied situations can be interpreted under the inspiration of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. They contain both analyzes that emphasize the dynamics between the various classes and fractions of classes present in the book – such as those by Thalheimer and Singer – and those that emphasize the balance between fundamental classes – such as Engels, Trotsky and Weffort. One can also highlight how the government authority behaves as an arbitrator between classes, as Brazilian authors do, how it is possible to insist that it acts as a gendarme of the ruling classes, as pointed out by authors who deal with fascism. Furthermore, the number of national situations and historical moments studied is enormous.

In short, the wide variety of cases could lead one to ask whether it is worth treating them under the same inspiration. On the other hand, Marx's interpretation of Bonapartism should not be viewed rigidly, as a kind of formula into which all situations must be fitted. On the contrary, it should inspire analyzes that can help make sense of the enormous richness of reality.

Bolsonaro's government

This is what we will try to indicate when dealing with the unlikely government of Jair Bolsonaro. Significantly, his election, in 2018, took place at a time of heightened class struggle, which can be attested by a cyclical reduction in the aggregate profit rate of the economy and an increase in the number of strikes (Marcelino, 2017; Martins and Rugitsky, 2018 ). It is not by chance that the 2013 “Jornadas de Junho” took place in this context, which marked the beginning of the crisis of the PT governments. The presidential election, the following year, took place in a climate of intense polarization, in which the opposition candidate Aécio Neves (PSDB) did not recognize the result of the election. Dilma Rousseff's short second term took place in the midst of economic deterioration, sabotage by the bourgeoisie and massive demonstrations, led especially by the middle classes, who mobilized against the corruption revealed by Operation Lava Jato.

This scenario paved the way for the parliamentary coup that removed, in 2016, Dilma from the presidency. She was replaced by her deputy, Michel Temer (PMDB), a traditional politician who, by promising to intensify economic liberalization, secured support from the so-called market, but was unable to stem the wave of political contestation. The campaign for the 2018 presidential elections thus followed a frantic climate, amidst gunfire. fake news, the bombastic revelations of Lava Jato, the arrest and banning of the candidacy of the first place in the polls, former President Lula, the knife attack on Bolsonaro, etc. On October 29, in the midst of a generalized feeling of exhaustion, a result was produced that a little earlier seemed unlikely: Bolsonaro was elected president with 55% of the votes, against 45% for the PT candidate, Fernando Haddad.

In fact, the intensification of the class struggle made the extreme right occupy, in a short time, the space that was before the center right, its candidate, Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB), receiving less than 5% of the votes in the first shift. Out of the blue, an obscure deputy who in his 28 years in the Chamber had become notable only for initiatives such as praising the torturer Brilhante Ustra became a “myth”. In a curious way, his insignificance became quality, supposed proof that he would not have sold himself to the corrupt “system”.

Even a party was produced for Bolsonaro, bringing together, in the manner of the 10th of December Society, a former porn actor, an heir to the house of Bragança and a legion of captains and majors from our forces of order. Elected president, he appointed a cabinet that sought to combine a conservative orientation in morals with a program of liberal economic reforms.

In broader terms, Bolsonaro's election takes place amidst a picture of the international rise of the extreme right in countries as diverse as Hungary, Poland, India, the Philippines and the US and which can be related to the economic crisis of 2008. Since then, the association that had developed, since the second post-war period, between capitalism and democracy has become less certain, and one can even imagine that a different moment of capitalism is opening.

In Brazil, the bourgeoisie hegemonized by finance capital has reacted enthusiastically to the liberal agenda proposed by the Bolsonaro government. To make it move forward, it has the help of the presidents of the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia, and of the Senate, Davi Alcolumbre. There is even talk, with a certain relief, of a “white parliamentarism”, an odd situation in which, despite the presidential system, Congress would govern. The center-right consequently developed a schizophrenic relationship with the government: it defends the economic program, but shows reticence with the customs agenda.

Even because with Bolsonaro the bourgeoisie does not govern directly. There is no doubt, however, that the captain does not behave as a referee between the classes as, in a certain way, were, in his time, Getúlio Vargas and Lula. He acts more like a gendarme of the ruling class, ready to impose the measures it advocates, at the same time that, to justify his presence as head of the nation, he favors permanent agitation. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, sees in the president someone capable of carrying out an agenda for which he would be incapable of getting votes at the polls. In short, the bourgeoisie uses Bolsonaro who, in turn, uses the bourgeoisie.

But when thinking about the relationship between the adventurer and the bourgeoisie, it might be a good idea to go back to the warnings of a virtually forgotten author. Thalheimer, already in 1928, indicated how the balance between the two elements is unstable, one act being enough to enter the dictatorship. He noted, however, that “in this act the bourgeoisie is only a passive element, since its role is limited to creating the conditions for it to be socially “saved” and politically violated. Rape, on the other hand, is carried out by the hero of the coup d'état” (p.122).

*Bernardo Ricupero Professor at the Department of Political Science at USP

Article originally published on the blog marxism21


CARDOSO, Fernando Henrique. Industrial entrepreneur and capitalist development. São Paulo: DIFEL, 1972.

DEMIER, Felipe A. The long Brazilian Bonapartism (1930-1964): relative autonomization of the State, populism, historiography and labor movement. Thesis presented to the History Department of the Fluminense Federal University, 2012.

DRAPER, Hal. Karl Marx´s theory of revolution. v. 1. State and bureaucracy. Delhi: Aakar Books, 2011.

DULFFER, Jost. “Bonapartism, Fascism and National Socialism”. Journal of Contemporary History, v. 11, no. 4, 1976.

LINTON, Derek S. “Bonapartism, fascism and the collapse of the Weimar Republic”. Radi. DOBBOWSKI, Michael; WALLIMAN, Isidor (eds.). cal Perspectives on the Rise of Fascism in Germany, 1919-1945. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989.

MARCELINO, Paula. “Trade unionism and neo-developmentalism: analyzing strikes between 2003 and 2013 in Brazil”. Social Time, v. 29, no. 3, 2017.

MARINI, Ruy Mauro. “Contradictions and conflicts in contemporary Brazil”. Arauco, 1966.

MARTINS, GK; RUGITSKY, F. “The commodities boom and the profit squeeze: output and profit cycles in Brazil (1996-2016).” Department of Economics FEA/USP Working Paper Series, no. 2018-09, 2018.

MARX, Carl. The 18th Brumaire and Letters to Kugelmann. Rio de Janeiro: Peace and Land, 1986.

___ The Civil War in France. Marx and Engels: Selected Works. v. II. Lisbon: Editions Avante!, 1982.

POULANTZAS, Nicos. Political power and social classes in the capitalist state. Mexico DF: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 2007.

___ Fascism and dictatorship. London: Verso, 1979.

RUBEL, Maximilien. Karl Marx before bonapartism. Paris: Mouton, 1960.

SINGER, Andrew. The senses of lulism. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2012.

THALHEIMER, August. “On Fascism”. telos, 20, 1979.

TROTSKY, Leon. The struggle against fascism in Germany. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977.

WEFFORT, Francis. Populism in Brazilian politics. Rio de Janeiro: Peace and Land, 1980.

[I] On Bonapartism, see, among others, Draper, 2011; Poulantzas, 2007; and Rubel, 1960.

[ii] As early as 1856, Engels, in a text written for the Chartists, indicated that the coup showed that “the two opposing forces had a third force in the field” (Engels, apud., Draper, 2011: 405).

[iii] I will not deal with Bauer's interpretation because of the greater attention he pays to economics, a dimension with which I will only deal laterally here. On the relationship between Bonapartism and fascism, see, among others, Dulfer, 1976; Linton, 1989; Poulantzas, 1974.

[iv] See: Demier, 2012.

[v] A sign that Bonapartism was on the Brazilian horizon before 1964 is the conclusion of Fernando Henrique Cardoso's Habilitation thesis, defended in November 1963, in which, when assessing the bourgeoisie's relationship with traditional sectors and foreign capital, he considers that “every time innovative pressures increase, expressing a break in the traditional equilibrium, Bonapartism appears as the solution” (Cardoso, 1972: 190).

[vi] Paul Singer defined the subproletariat as “those who 'offer their labor power on the labor market without finding anyone willing to acquire it at a price that ensures its reproduction under normal conditions'” (Singer, 2012: 77).

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