Bonaparte's Present Position

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written 18 March 1858


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First published unsigned in the New York Daily Tribune, No. 5287, April, 1858
Reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1341, April 2, 1858
and in the New York Weekly Tribune, No. 864, April 3, 1858
Reproduced from the New York Daily Tribune
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 15 (pp.477-481), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
Collection(s): New York Tribune

In this article Marx made use of Engels' letter to him of March 17, 1858.

Paris, March 18, 1858

"Risorgero nemico ognor piu crudo
Cenere anco sepolto e spirto ignudo,"


(I shall revive from the dead a still more cruel foe, though but buried ash and a. naked spirit.) These two lines of Tasso's Jerusalem[1], which Orsini, after Favre's speech[2], with a strange smile, whispered to his defender, are already beginning to be fulfilled. The attitude of the crowd witnessing the death of the Italian patriot is thus described by an eye-witness:

"Such had been the alarm of the Government that an entire division was had out, under the personal command of a general officer, who assisted at the execution. Fifteen thousand soldiers were ready to act on the slightest signal, and every issue and outlet was guarded as in times of insurrection. In my estimation, between 90,000 and 100,000 men of the Faubourgs, workmen in blouses, were assembled in the spaces and in the streets near the Place de la Roquette; but they were so grouped by the way in which the troops were stationed, that they could see little or nothing. When the dead dull sound of the falling of the knife upon Orsini was heard, it was responded to by an immense but smothered reply of 'Vive la République'. I cannot properly describe this; it was like a gigantic mutter; it was not a cry or a shout, but it sounded like the breath or the sigh of thousands of human beings. It was well appreciated by the authorities, for, on the instant, the soldiers raised the most disorderly clatter imaginable, struck their horses, so as to make them plunge and kick, shook their arms, and contrived that the popular whisper should be stifled without being literally put down. But the words 'Vive la Republique' must have been clearly audible to every one. I purposely went home on foot, threading my way slowly through the groups wherever I found them thickest. I am bound to admit that everywhere I' heard expressions of sympathy and admiration for Orsini, whose crime seems utterly forgotten, while only the effect produced by his courage and generosity toward his associates remains. Pieri's name I did not hear once. The attitude of the populace was, I should say, extremely menacing, for it had the marks of a hate and a thirst for vengeance seated too deep for words. All the remarks I heard were made in an undertone, as though a police spy were dreaded at every instant."

It seems, then, that the measures of "general safety" intended to weed out the Republican element, the wholesale imprisonments and transportation, prove no more successful than the cites ouvrières[3], the newly-established workshops, and other attempts to purchase the conscience of the French working classes. The circumstances dwelt upon on a former occasion[4], which accompanied Orsini's trial, have now become the general topic of Paris conversation. It has even oozed out that when the voluminous correspondence of Orsini and Pieri came to be examined, letters written by Louis Napoleon, and signed by himself, dated many years ago, came to light. If the French Constitutionnel was still in the agreeable position it held in Mr. Guizot's time, we should, day after day, be treated with the solemn phrase, "L'horizon politique s'obscurcit."[5][6] And so it does, indeed. Great was the consternation at the Tuileries on ascertaining the conduct of the officers of the garrison at Chalons, and excessive the anger at the näiveté of the Moniteur informing France and Europe that, instead of on the instant laughing at the whole affair, ordering out their men, or declaring that, even were the Republic proclaimed in Paris, they would fight against it for the Empire, the officers at Chalons first ran to the sub-prefect[7] and declined to risk their skins and their commissions for the Emperor, before having made sure whether or not the Republic was proclaimed. The fact proves that the mass of the army cannot be relied upon. Save its heads, which are too deeply compromised or have received too brilliant rewards to separate their destinies from that of the Empire, there is perhaps but one single portion of it altogether trustworthy, namely, the Guards. This corps is indeed very strong, and must be aware that, under any other government, it would be merged into the line, or altogether disbanded. Its infantry force consists of four regiments of grenadiers, two regiments of voltigeurs, one regiment of gens d'armes, one regiment of Zouaves[8] and one battalion of chasseurs—altogether seventeen battalions of infantry. It musters, besides, two regiments of cuirassiers, two regiments of dragoons, one regiment of mounted grenadiers, one regiment of hussars, and one regiment of chasseurs, or twenty-one squadrons of cavalry; its artillery, too, being rather strong. Its whole numerical force amounts to about 20,000 men, with 40 to 50 cannons, a nucleus sufficiently powerful to counteract the tendencies to vacillation which might prevail in the line in the case of a serious struggle with the Paris people. Moreover, everything is provided for a sudden concentration of the troops from the provinces, as the most superficial glance at a railway map of France will prove, so that a movement which should not take the Government by surprise is sure to find arrayed against it the formidable force of from 60,000 to 80,000 men. But the very measures Bonaparte has taken to suppress an armed revolt make it quite improbable that it should occur except on some great unforeseen occasion, when the decidedly anti-Bonapartist attitude of the bourgeoisie, the secret societies undermining the lower strata of the army, the petty jealousies, venal treacheries and Orleanist or Legitimist[9] leanings dividing its superior layers, are likely to turn the scale in favor of the revolutionary masses. The worst thing that could happen to the latter would be a successfull attempt on Bonaparte's life. In that case the answer given by Morny, at the beginning of the Russian war, to Bonaparte's question, what they intended doing on his sudden death:

"Nous commencerions de jeler lous les Jerômes par la fenêtre, et puis nous tâcherions de nous arranger tant bien que mal avec les Orléans," [We shall begin by throwing all the Jerornes out of the window, and then we shall arrange matters as well as we can with the Orleans family,]

would perhaps turn out a prophecy. Before the men of the faubourgs could have decided upon the course to take, Morny might execute his palace-revolution, proclaim the Orleans, and thus draw over the middle classes to the anti-revolutionary camp.

Meanwhile Bonaparte's disappointments in the field of foreign policy vastly contribute to urge him on in his system of domestic terrorism. Every check he sustains from without, by betraying the weakness of his position, and giving new life to the aspirations of his antagonists, is necessarily followed up by new displays of what is called "governmental vigor." And these foreign miscarriages have rapidly accumulated during the last weeks. There was first the great failure with regard to England[10]. Then even Switzer-land, although she had made very cowardly concessions, took courage to demur at the further steps urged upon her in the most unceremonious manner. It was formally declared to the Confederation that, if necessary, regiments of French infantry would enter and perform those police duties which the police of Switzerland could not do for themselves. At this point even Mr. Kern found it necessary to demand his passports, and the French Government to draw off. Belgium, having altered its law at Bonaparte's dictation[11], declined to comply with the demand for Gen. Changarnier's expulsion. The Commission of the Piedmontese Chamber charged with the duty of examining the bill[12] to assimilate the Sardinian institutions to the Idées Napoléoniennes[13], by a majority of five against two, proposed the pure and simple rejection of the Bonapartist project. Austria, fully aware that Orsini's execution has bound over to her, hand and foot, the hero of Strasbourg[14], and that he can no longer alarm her through Italy, shows him the cold shoulder.

To expose itself to ridicule is the surest way for a French Government to annihilate itself. Bonaparte is conscious of the grotesque luster which his last baffled attempts at playing the dictator of Europe have shed upon him. The more contemptible his European position grows, the more keenly he feels the necessity of appearing formidable to France. Consequently, the reign of terror is progressively extending. Gen. Espinasse, at the head of the Ministry of the Interior, is now backed by Mr. Boitelle, a former colonel in the hussars, at the head of the Prefecture of Police. The system adopted by these military myrmidons of the second Empire is thus described in The Continental Review:

"They have taken the old lists of individuals who, after the troubles of 1848 and 1851, were designated by the police as dangerous, and they have arrested these persons en masse, both in Paris and in the departments. All this was clone without the slightest inquiry being made as to whether or not these persons had since that period given ground of complaint, and the most cruel effects have ensued, thus, honest citizens, who, being carried away in 1848 by the whirlwind which agitated the whole nation, professed advanced ideas, but who have since abandoned politics, and many of whom are now fathers of families and industrious tradesmen, were carried off by the police from the midst of their affairs and from their families.. These are known facts which show how little ground there was for the arrests, and with what an absence of even the semblance of legality or necessity these measures of terrorism were carried out. Among the persons whom the agents of the police attempted to arrest, there were some individuals who had been no less than six years out of France, and who consequently could not have committed any offense, but who, if they had been in France at the present moment, would inevitably have been thrown into prison on pretense of 'public safety'. Nay, more, the police went to the houses of several persons who had been dead for some years, for the purpose of arresting them. Their names figured on the lists of persons formerly arrested (and many of these simply because they were among the crowd in the streets, and that was their only crime). It is therefore clear that it is not against the guilty that the police war, but against the suspected; and the manner in which the law is executed is of itself a justification of the title conferred upon it by public opinion. In the departments matters proceed pretty much as in Paris. The lists of the suspected were drawn up by the administrative authorities, and woe to those who, in the elections of June last, ventured to oppose the candidates supported by the Prefect, and who, looking on the Constitution, the electoral law and the circulars of the Minister of the Interior as serious realities, have believed that they might take measures for the election of the candidates of their choice. These latter are considered as the worst of culprits, and they must be either very rich, very influential, or very well protected by their friends, to escape the vengeance of those officials whose paths they had crossed. Among the persons arrested in the provinces appears the name of Gen. Courtais, who, after having played a part in 1848 as Commander-in-Chief of the National Guard of Paris, lived for the last nine years in the greatest retirement in a country house in the department of the Allier, removed from society, and altogether a stranger to politics or public affairs."

What with this system of "general safety," what with the pangs of a commercial crisis that has become chronic, the French middle classes will soon be worked up to the point where they will consider a revolution necessary for the "restoration of confidence."

  1. Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme liberata, canto nono; stanza XCIX.—Ed.
  2. J, Favre's speech before the jury on February 26, 1858, Le Moniteur universel, No. 58, February 27, 1858.—Ed.
  3. Workers' settlements.—Ed.
  4. See Portents of the day—Ed.
  5. The political horizon darkens.—Ed.
  6. The phrase "L'horizon politique s'obscurcit" (the political horizon is darkening) appeared daily in Le Constitutionnel on the eve of the revolution in France in 1848.
  7. "À Châlon-sur-Saône, dans la soirée...", Le Moniteur universel, No. 68, March 9, 1858. See Portents of the day—Ed.
  8. "The Groats of Radetzky"—a reference to the Croatian border regiments stationed in the Military Border Area, a special militarily organised region of the Austrian Empire along the frontier with Turkey. They were used by the Austrian command to suppress the national liberation movements in the provinces, in Northern Italy in particular.

    By the "Africans of Bonaparte" Marx means the Zouaves—French colonial troops first formed in 1830. Originally they were composed of Algerians and French colonists and later of Frenchmen only, while Algerians were formed into special - regiments of riflemen. They were notorious for their atrocities during the colonial wars in Algeria.
  9. The Legitimists, supporters of the main branch of the Bourbon dynasty overthrown in 1830, expressed the interests of the big hereditary landowners and upheld the claim to the French throne of the Count of Chambord, King Charles X's grandson, who called himself Henry V. Some of the Legitimists remained outside the bloc of monarchist groups.
  10. A reference to the rejection of the Alien Bill in the House of Commons in February 1858 and the resignation of the Palmerston Government that followed. After Orsini's attempt on the life of Napoleon III, Count Walewski, the French Foreign Minister, sent a dispatch to the British Government on January. 20, 1858 expressing dissatisfaction that England should be giving asylum to French political refugees. The dispatch served as a pretext for Palmerston to move a new Alien Bill (also called Conspiracy to Murder Bill) on February 8, 1858. It stipulated that any Englishman or foreigner living in the United Kingdom who became party to a conspiracy to murder a person in Britain or any other country, was to be tried by an English court and severely punished. During the second reading of the new Alien Bill on February 19, 1858 the radicals Milner Gibson and John Bright moved an amendment censuring the Palmerston Government for not giving a fitting reply to Walewski's dispatch. By a majority vote, the House of Commons adopted the amendment and rejected the Bill. The Palmerston Government was compelled to resign.
  11. Marx is referring to the convention signed between France and Belgium on September 22 and ratified on October 11, 1856. It restricted Belgium's right to give asylum to political emigrants accused of the attempt on the life or of assassination of foreign sovereigns or members of their family.
  12. The bill submitted to the Turin Chamber of Deputies on February 17, 1858, Le Moniteur universel, No. 54, February 23, 1858.—Ed.
  13. An allusion to Louis Bonaparte's book Des idées napoléoniennes.—Ed.
  14. Marx is referring to Louis Bonaparte who, during the July monarchy, attempted to stage a coup d'état by means of a military mutiny. On October 30, 1836 he succeeded, with the help of several Bonapartist officers, in inciting two artillery regiments of the Strasbourg garrison to mutiny, but they were disarmed within a few hours. Louis Bonaparte was arrested and deported to America.