I think that position Jim takes here is an interesting one, and worthy of further exploration, especially as it exposes a real weakness in the approach of the British left in general. The Gramsci quote I posted only suggested that establishing something is Bonapartist is not the end of the matter, as it does not stop the need for further enquiry. Denham seems to be insisting that ‘Bonapartist formations’ are a basic concept of Marxist thought, and they tell us that the regime can have ‘nothing to do with socialism’.
The first point to note is that I am not a Trotskyist and I don’t really know that much about the Trotskyist position. This made it hard for me to even think of Bonapartism as a ‘basic concept’ of Marxist thought (I know it gets mentioned in the 18th Brumaire but still). But even if it is a basic element in Marxist thought, calling it a concept really doesn’t seem to help anyone, in fact Jim seems to have become an ideologist, for whom:
[R]elations become concepts; since they do not go beyond these relations, the concepts of the relations also become fixed concepts in their mind.
So, against Jim I raise Lenin, who refuses to acknowledge that Marxism is about ‘basic concepts’ that allow us to pre-judge a given situation. Against such positions Lenin insisted that the ‘very gist, the living soul, of Marxism [is] a concrete analysis of a concrete situation’. So in this respect I think that Gramsci is right and Jim is wrong, just establishing that a given social formation is Bonapartist tells us nothing about its relation to socialism or the emancipation of the working class – instead we have to ask the Marxist question – who benefits?
The Old man himself
The thing is, it seems to me that Trotsky himself realised this when he did his work on Bonapartism. I just randomly skimmed Trotsky’s article The Workers State, Thermidor and Bonapartism and came up with the following extracts:
The overturn of the Ninth Thermidor did not liquidate the basic conquests of the bourgeois revolution, but it did transfer the power into the hands of the more moderate and conservative Jacobins, the better-to-do elements of bourgeois society.
, the prolonged stabilization of the Thermidorean-Bonapartist regime was made possible only thanks to the development of the productive forces that had been freed from the fetters of feudalism. France
And perhaps the kicker is:
Without historical analogies we cannot learn from history. But the analogy must be concrete; behind the traits of resemblance, we must not overlook the traits of dissimilarity.
Essentially what these quotes tell us is that although Napoleon was not the most advanced representative of the bourgeois revolution, he nonetheless preserved and stabilised the growth of the bourgeois revolution in
So, even for the paradigm case of Bonapartism, Napoleon himself, it is possible to say that he served a progressive role, in consolidating the gains of the bourgeois revolution, spreading it, and generally not liking feudalism. Of course, Louis didn’t play such a role, but this shouldn’t blind us to the fact that it is entirely possible that Bonapartism can play a historically progressive role.
But of course this is all well and good when we’re talking about bourgeois revolutions (although I seem to remember hear some Trots talking about spreading the gains of October etc.) but the typical response to what I have said is – ‘the emancipation of the working must be the act of the working class itself’ or ‘socialism from below’(!!!). Now, although I think these slogans themselves have to properly put into context, I do agree that the proletarian revolution is always one that will be qualitatively different from every revolution that has preceded it.
So, agreeing with Jim here, I still don’t think it’s the end of the matter. At the very least we need to ask – has Chavez opened a space for the emancipation of the working class? So, rather than just shout ‘Bonapartist (!!!!)’ we need to ask ‘who benefits’ from the Bolivarian revolution, and we need to enquire if it has benefited the working class.
And surely on this level we can say (at the very least) ‘yes’. Chavez has firstly put socialism and the working class on the agenda in
He has opened up the political process to the working class, and indigenous people so that it does not lie solely with the oligarchs and its representatives. The ideas of co-management, no matter how limited their application, help smash the myth that the workers cannot do without he bourgeoisie. The barrio healthcare initiatives are helping the Venezuelan workers get back their confidence and dignity.
I think the confidence and dignity argument is and important one, which ought not to be overlooked. In
It is Jim's prerogative to disagree with my characterisation of Chavez (which was obviously provisional and sketchy), but I hope I have at least shown how a Bonapartist regime might be characterised as 'progressive'. Hopefully this will at least stop the pointless screams of "Bonapartist!!!!!!!!!" at the mention of Chavez' name.