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Coat of Arms of Bonaparte

Bonapartism is a political ideology that was held by Napoleon Bonaparte, who inspired later forms of it. Initially, it referred to Napoleon and the French politicians who succeeded in the eighteenth Brumaire ruling in the French Consulate and subsequently in the First and Second French Empire under the House of Bonaparte (the family of Bonaparte and his nephew Louis). The political movement advocates the idea of a dictatorship or authoritarian centralized state, with a strongman charismatic leader based on anti-elitist rhetoric, army support, and conservatism.

It is often defined as a political expression in the vocabulary of Marxism and Leninism, deriving from the career of Napoleon Bonaparte. Karl Marx was a student of Jacobinism and the French Revolution as well as a contemporary critic of the Second Republic and Second Empire. The term Bonapartism is often used to refer to a situation in which counter-revolutionary military officers seize power from revolutionaries, and then use selective reformism to co-opt the radicalism of the popular classes. Marx argued that in the process Bonapartists preserve and mask the power of a narrower ruling class.

Marx saw both Bonaparte and his nephew Napoleon III as having corrupted revolutions in France in this way. Marx offered this definition and analysis of Bonapartism in "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte," in 1852. In this document, he drew attention to what he calls the phenomenon's repetitive history with one of his most well known quotes : "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce."

More generally "Bonapartism" may be used to describe the replacement of civilian leadership by military leadership within revolutionary movements or governments. Many modern-day Trotskyists and other leftists use the phrase "left Bonapartist" to describe those like Stalin and Mao who controlled 20th century bureaucratic socialist regimes. The term could just as easily apply to Leon Trotsky himself, since he was accused of using his position as commander of the Red Army to lever himself into power after Lenin's death.

However, the complexity of Bonapartism is reflected in the literature of many notable political scientists and historians who themselves greatly differ on what its actual definition may be. Sudhir Hazareesingh's widely revered book The Legend of Napoleon points out the plethora of interpretations regarding its usage. His own scholarship sees the term as reference to a "popular national leader confirmed by popular election, above party politics, promoting equality, progress, and social change, with a belief in religion as an adjunct to the State, a belief that the central authority can transform society and a belief in the 'nation' and its glory and a fundamental belief in national unity." Indeed, as Hazareesingh shows, the idea that Napoleon co-opted the revolution's principles and duped the masses runs contradictory to historical documents turned up in more recent research. It is difficult to believe that, even with those elements of forced conscription, thousands would have fought and fallen across Europe for a man without absolute certainty in his own conviction for those aforementioned principles. Hence, co-optation vis-a-vis Bonapartism exhibits the Marxist perspective of false consciousness: the idea that the masses can be manipulated by a few determined leaders in the pursuit of ends. Such dichotomies are rarely so clear-cut, however.

To be sure, a comprehensive understanding of the term, whatever one's viewpoint, would be remiss without adequate study of its popular, liberal, and conservative facets. Raymond Hinnebusch, taking a conservative stance, has characterized Hafez al-Asad's regime in Syria as Bonapartist.


  • Ideology 1
  • Origins 2
  • Bonapartist claimants 3
  • 'Bonapartist' as a communist epithet 4
  • Bonapartism in the French political spectrum 5
  • Modern Bonapartism 6
    • List of Bonapartist claimants to the French throne since 1814 6.1
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8


Philosophically, Bonapartism was the adaptation of principles of the French Revolution to suit Napoleon's imperial form of rule. Desires for public order and French national glory had combined to create a Caesarist coup d'etat for General Bonaparte on 18 Brumaire. Though he espoused obeisance to revolutionary precedents, he himself "styled his direct and personal rule on the Old Regime monarchs."[1] For Bonapartists, the most significant lesson of the Revolution was that unity of government and governed was paramount. The honey bee was a prominent political emblem for both the First and Second Empires,[2] representing the Bonapartist ideal of devoted service, self-sacrifice and social loyalty.[3]

The defining characteristics of political Bonapartism, however, were flexibility and adaptability. Napoleon III once made a sardonic comment on the diversity of the members of his cabinet, united under the single banner of Bonapartism. Referring to the leading figures in the government of the Second Empire, he remarked: "The Empress is a Legitimist, Morny is an Orléanist, Prince Napoleon is a Republican, and I myself am a Socialist. There is only one Bonapartist, Persigny – and he is mad!"[4]


On his exile to Elbe (1814–1815) Napoleon Bonaparte announced the would return in the spring. The violet became a symbol of this and of Bonapartism.[5]

In French political history, Bonapartistes were monarchists who desired a French Empire under the House of Bonaparte, the Corsican family of Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon I of France) and his nephew Louis (Napoleon III of France).

Bonapartism came about after Napoleon I was exiled to Elba. The Bonapartists helped him regain his power, leading to the Hundred Days period. Some of his acolytes could not accept his defeat in 1815 at Waterloo or the Congress of Vienna and continued to push the Bonapart ideology forward. Napoleon I's death in exile on Saint Helena in 1821 only transferred the allegiance of many of these persons to other members of his family; however, particularly after the death of Napoleon's son, the Duke of Reichstadt (known to Bonapartists as Napoleon II), there were several different members of the family on whom the Bonapartist hopes rested.[6]

The disturbances of 1848 gave the nascent political undercurrent hope. Bonapartism, as an ideology of politically neutral French peasants and workers (EJ Hobsbawm), was essential in the election of Napoleon I's nephew Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte as President of the Second Republic, and gave him the political support necessary for his 1852 discarding of the constitution and proclaiming the Second Empire. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte assumed the title Napoleon III to acknowledge the brief reign of Napoleon's son Napoleon II at the end of the Hundred Days in 1815 (see the abdication of Napoleon I in 1815).

In 1870, the French National Assembly forced Napoleon III to sign a declaration of war that led France to a disastrous defeat at the hands of Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War. The emperor surrendered himself to the Prussians and their German allies to avoid further bloodshed at the Battle of Sedan (1870), and went into exile after a parliamentary coup created the Third Republic.[7]

Afterwards, Bonapartists continued to aspire and to agitate for another member of the family to be placed on the throne. However, from 1871 forward, they competed with Monarchist groups that favoured the restoration of the family of Louis-Philippe, King of the French (1830–1848) (the Orléanists), and with those who favoured the restoration of the House of Bourbon, the traditional French royal family (Legitimists). The strength of these three factions combined was almost undoubtedly greater than that of the Republicans of the era, but as the three proved to be irreconcilable on the choice of who should be the new French monarch, Monarchist fervor eventually waned and the French Republic became more or less a permanent facet of French life; Bonapartism was slowly relegated to being the civic faith of a few romantics as more of a hobby than a practical political philosophy. The death knell for Bonapartism was probably sounded when Eugène Bonaparte, the only son of Napoleon III, was killed in action while serving as a British Army officer in Zululand in 1879. Thereafter Bonapartism ceased to be a significant political force.

The current head of the family is the Prince Napoleon great-great-great-grandson of Napoleon I's brother Jérôme Bonaparte, Jean-Christophe Napoléon (born 1986). There are no remaining descendants in male line from any other of Napoleon's brothers, and no serious political movement that aims to restore any of these men to the imperial throne of France.

Bonapartist claimants

Jérôme Bonaparte, founder of the legitimate line

The "Law of Succession" Napoleon I established on becoming Emperor in 1804 provided that the Bonapartist claim to the throne should pass firstly to Napoleon's own legitimate male descendants through the male line. At that time he had no legitimate sons, and it seemed unlikely he would have any due to the age of his wife Joséphine. His eventual response was the unacceptable one, in Catholic eyes, of engineering a dubious annulment, without Papal approval, of his marriage to Josephine and undertaking a second marriage to the younger Marie Louise, with whom he had one son. The law of succession provided that if Napoleon's own direct line died out, the claim passed first to his older brother Joseph and his legitimate male descendants through the male line, then to his younger brother Louis and his legitimate male descendants through the male line. His other brothers, Lucien and Jerome, and their descendants, were omitted from the succession (even though Lucien was older than Louis) because they had either politically opposed the Emperor or made marriages of which he disapproved. By Marie Louise Napoleon had one son, in whose favour he abdicated after his final defeat in 1815. Although the Bonapartes were now deposed and the old Bourbon monarchy restored, Bonapartists recognized this child as Napoleon II. However, he was sickly, virtually imprisoned in Austria, and died young and unmarried, without leaving any further direct descendants of Napoleon I. When the Bonaparte Empire was restored to power in France in 1852, the Emperor was Napoleon III, Louis Bonaparte's only living legitimate son (Joseph having died in 1844 without ever having had a legitimate son, only daughters).

In 1852, Napoleon III, having restored the Bonapartes to power in France, enacted a new decree on the succession. The claim first went to his own male legitimate descendants in the male line (though at that time he had none; he would later have one legitimate son, Eugène Bonaparte, who would be recognized by Bonapartists as "Napoleon IV" before dying young and unmarried). If his own line died out, the new decree allowed the claim to pass to Jerome, Napoleon's youngest brother who had previously been excluded, and his male descendants by Princess Catharina of Württemberg in the male line (but not his descendants by his original marriage to the American commoner Elizabeth Patterson, which Napoleon I had greatly disapproved). The only remaining Bonapartist claimants since 1879, and today, have been the descendants of Jerome and Catherine of Württemberg in the male line.

In their willingness to ignore primogeniture (the exclusion of Lucien Bonaparte and his descendants) and their cavalier approach to the Catholic belief in the indissolubility of marriage and to the Pope's rights as final arbiter on the validity of marriages, the Bonapartist laws of succession were far from traditional; but then, the whole claim of the Bonaparte family to rule France was far from traditional.

'Bonapartist' as a communist epithet

Bonapartism is often defined as a political expression in the vocabulary of Marxism and Leninism, deriving from the career of Louis Bonaparte.[8] Karl Marx was a student of Jacobinism and the French Revolution as well as a contemporary critic of the Second Republic and Second Empire. He used the term Bonapartism to refer to a situation in which counterrevolutionary military officers seize power from revolutionaries, and then use selective reformism to co-opt the radicalism of the popular classes. In the process, Marx argued, Bonapartists preserve and mask the power of a narrower ruling class. He saw Napoleon I and Napoleon III as having both corrupted revolutions in France in this way. Marx offered this definition of and analysis of Bonapartism in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, written in 1852. In this document, he drew attention to what he calls the phenomenon's repetitive history with one of his most quoted lines, typically condensed aphoristically as: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce."[9]

A Bonapartist regime for Marx appears to have great power, but only because there is no class with enough confidence or power to firmly establish its authority in its own name, so a leader who appears to stand above the struggle can take the mantle of power. It is an inherently unstable situation where the apparently all-powerful leader is swept aside once the struggle is resolved one way or the other.

The term was used by Leon Trotsky to refer to Joseph Stalin's regime, which Trotsky believed was balanced between the proletariat, victorious but shattered by war, and the bourgeoisie, broken by the revolution but struggling to re-emerge. However the failure of Stalin's regime to disintegrate under the shock of the Second World War, and indeed its expansion into Eastern Europe, challenged this analysis. Many Trotskyists thus rejected the idea that Stalin's regime was Bonapartist, and some went further—notably Tony Cliff who described such regimes as state capitalist and not deformed workers' states at all. In the last year of his life, Trotsky responded to these elements with the example of Napoleon's expanding empire, which brought about the abolition of serfdom in Poland and other French holdings, yet was still unarguably "Bonapartist."

More generally "Bonapartism" may be used to describe the replacement of civilian leadership by military leadership within revolutionary movements or governments. Some modern-day Trotskyists and others on the left use the phrase left Bonapartist to describe those like Stalin and Mao Zedong who controlled left-wing or populist totalitarian regimes. Hence, co-optation vis-a-vis Bonapartism exhibits the Marxist perspective of false consciousness: the idea that the masses can be manipulated by a few determined leaders in the pursuit of ends. Such dichotomies are rarely so clear-cut, however.

Bonapartism in the French political spectrum

According to historian René Rémond's famous 1954 book, Les Droites en France, Bonapartism constitutes one of the three French right-wing families; the latest one after far-right Legitimism and center-right Orleanism. Both Boulangisme and Gaullism would be forms of Bonapartism.

However, Bonapartists have consistently disagreed with this classification, as one of the fundamentals of Bonapartism as an ideology is the refusal to adhere to the left-right divide, which they see as an obstacle to the welfare and unity of the nation. Martin S Alexander, in his book "French History since Napoleon" (London, Arnold, New York, Oxford University Press, 1999) notes that Bonapartism as an idea would not have made a significant impact if it had been either classifiable as left-wing or as right-wing. The historian Jean Sagnes in "The roots of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte's Socialism" notes that the future Emperor of the French edited his political works through far-left publishers (Jean Sagnes, Les racines du socialisme de Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Toulouse, Privat, 2006). Today the Bonapartist philosophy would fit into the space occupied by the Parti Socialiste, the Mouvement Démocrate, the Nouveau Centre and the left wing of the conservative Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, as these parties occupy the ideological space between parties advocating class struggle and race-based politics, both of which are anathema to Bonapartists, as contrary to the ideal of national unity and religious and ethnic tolerance. This is demonstrated by Napoleonic policy towards industrial disputes, one expression of which – as Frank McLynn writes – is that strikes were forbidden by Napoleon I but in exchange the police sometimes prevented wages from being lowered too much (Frank McLynn, Napoleon, Pimlico 1998 Ch 21, p482), while another is the assimilation and protection of the Jews.

The Marxist theory of "Left" and "Right" Bonapartism can be considered an illustration of what McLynn (Napoleon, Pimlico, 1998, Conclusion, p667) refers to as Napoleon I's appeal in equal measure "to both the Right and the Left", and what Vincent Cronin describes as "middle of the way", or "moderate" government (Napoleon, 1994, HarperCollins, Ch 19, p301). Napoleon III situated Bonapartism (or the "Napoleonic Idea") between the radicals and conservatives (respectively the Left and the Right) in "Des Idées Napoléoniennes, published in 1839. He expounded on this point to explain that Bonapartism, as practiced by his uncle Napoleon the Great (and represented by himself) was in the middle of "two hostile parties, one of which looks only to the past, and the other only to the future" and combined "the old forms" of the one and the "new principles" of the other.

Modern Bonapartism

In the modern era, the term "Bonapartism" has been used in a general sense to describe "autocratic, highly centralized regimes dominated by the military."[10]

An official Mouvement Bonapartiste survives in France, headed by Paul-Napoléon Pierre Calland with an unknown number of members. Its official mission statement is as follows: "[T]o defend, make known and to spread the principles and values of Bonapartism. [The movement] is based on popular support for a policy of recovery combining the efforts of individuals, associations and State services. The movement defends the Bonapartist principles on which it is founded, and which govern its internal organisation. It also defends the memory of Napoleon the Great, as well as those of Napoleon III and their sons, Napoleon II and Napoleon IV. It recognises Napoleon IV as having reigned without governing, by virtue of the plebiscite of May 1870. The movement recognises no emperor after 1879, because of the absence of a plebiscite. Republican, it gives priority to the happiness, interest and glory of peoples, and envisages the restoration of the Empire only if the foundations of the regime are republican and approved by referendum."[11]

List of Bonapartist claimants to the French throne since 1814

Claimant Portrait Birth Marriages Death
Napoleon I
15 August 1769, Ajaccio
son of Carlo Buonaparte
and Letizia Ramolino
Joséphine de Beauharnais
9 March 1796
No children
Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma
11 March 1810
1 child
5 May 1821
Longwood, Saint Helena
aged 51
Napoleon II
20 March 1811, Paris
son of Napoleon I
and Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma
never married 22 July 1832
aged 21
Joseph Bonaparte
7 January 1768, Corte
son of Carlo Buonaparte
and Letizia Ramolino
Julie Clary
1 August 1794
2 children
28 July 1844
aged 76
Louis Bonaparte
2 September 1778, Ajaccio
son of Carlo Buonaparte
and Letizia Ramolino
Hortense de Beauharnais
4 January 1802
3 children
25 July 1846
aged 67
Napoleon III
1846–1873 (President of France 1848–1852, Emperor of the French 1852–1870)
20 April 1808, Paris
son of Louis Bonaparte
and Hortense de Beauharnais
Eugénie de Montijo
30 January 1853
1 child
9 January 1873
aged 64
Napoléon, Prince Imperial
(Napoléon IV Eugène)
16 March 1856, Paris
son of Napoleon III
and Eugénie de Montijo
never married 1 June 1879
Zulu Kingdom
aged 23
Victor, Prince Napoléon
(Napoléon V Victor)
18 July 1862, Palais-Royal
son of Prince Napoléon Bonaparte
and Princess Maria Clotilde of Savoy
Princess Clémentine of Belgium
10/14 November 1910
2 children
3 May 1926
aged 63
Louis, Prince Napoléon
(Napoléon VI Louis)
23 January 1914, Brussels
son of Victor, Prince Napoléon
and Princess Clémentine of Belgium
Alix, Princess Napoléon
16 August 1949
4 children
3 May 1997
aged 83
Charles, Prince Napoléon
(Napoléon VII Charles)
19 October 1950, Boulogne-Billancourt
son of Louis, Prince Napoléon
and Alix, Princess Napoléon
Princess Béatrice of Bourbon-Two Sicilies
19 December 1978
2 children
Jeanne-Françoise Valliccioni
28 September 1996
1 child (adopted)
Jean-Christophe, Prince Napoléon
11 July 1986, Saint-Raphaël, Var
son of Charles, Prince Napoléon
and Princess Béatrice of Bourbon-Two Sicilies


  1. ^ Truesdell, Matthew (1997). Spectacular Politics: Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte and the Fête impériale, 1849-1870. Oxford University Press. p. 58.  
  2. ^ "History of the Two Empires: The Symbols of Empire". Fondation Napoléon. 2008. Retrieved 17 September 2011. 
  3. ^ Englund, Steven (2005). Napoleon: A Political Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 240.  
  4. ^ Jerrold, Blanchard (1882). The Life of Napoleon III. London: Longmans, Green. p. 378. Retrieved 18 September 2011. 
  5. ^ Lindsay, Suzanne G. (2012), Funerary Arts and Tomb Cult: Living with the Dead in France, 1750-1870, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., p. 172 (footnote 16),  
  6. ^ Riff, Michael A. (1990). Dictionary of Modern Political Ideologies. Manchester University Press. p. 33.  
  7. ^  
  8. ^
  9. ^  
  10. ^  
  11. ^ "Bonapartist Movement". Mouvement Bonapartiste. 2011. Retrieved 18 September 2011. 

Further reading

  • Alexander, Robert S. Bonapartism and revolutionary Tradition in France: the Fédérés of 1815 (Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  • Baehr, Peter R., and Melvin Richter, eds. Dictatorship in history and theory: Bonapartism, Caesarism, and totalitarianism (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
  • Dulffer, Jost. "Bonapartism, Fascism and National Socialism." Journal of Contemporary History (1976): 109-128. In JSTOR
  • Mitchell, Allan. "Bonapartism as a model for Bismarckian politics." Journal of Modern History (1977): 181-199. In JSTOR
  • Bluche, Frédéric, Le Bonapartisme, collection Que sais-je ?, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1981.
  • Choisel, Francis, Bonapartisme et gaullisme, Paris, Albatros, 1987.
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