The Attempt upon the Life of Bonaparte

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written 5 February 1858


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First published in the New York Daily Tribune, No. 5254, February 22, 1858 as a leading article
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 15 (pp.453-458), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
Collection(s): New York Tribune
Keywords : France, Coup d'Etat

This title is given according to the entry made by Marx in his notebook on February 5, 1858: "Bonaparte Attempt".

Quos deus vult perdere prius dementat[1] seems the judgment pretty generally passed in Europe on the French usurper, whom, but a few weeks ago, the numberless sycophants of success in all countries, and of all languages, concurred to magnify into a kind of sublunary providence. Now, all at once, on the first approach of real danger, the demi-god is supposed to have run mad. To those, however, who are not to be carried away by first impressions, nothing will appear more evident than that the hero of Boulogne[2] is to-day what he was yesterday—simply a gambler. If he stakes his last card and risks all, it is not the man that has changed, but the chances of the game. There had been attempts on Bonaparte's life before without producing any visible effect on the economy of the Empire. Why did the quicksilver which exploded on the 14th of January[3] not only kill persons, but a state of things? It is with the hand-grenades of the Rue Lepelletier as it was with the greased cartridges dealt out at Barrackpore[4]. They have not metamorphosed an empire, but only rent the veil which concealed a metamorphosis already accomplished. The secret of Bonaparte's elevation is to be found on the one hand in the mutual prostration of the antagonist parties, and on the other in the coincidence of his coup d'état with the entrance of the commercial world upon a period of prosperity. The commercial crisis, therefore, has necessarily sapped the material basis of the Empire, which never possessed any moral basis, save the temporary demoralization of all classes and all parties. The working classes reassumed their hostile attitude to the existing Government the very moment they were thrown out of employment. A great part of the commercial and industrial middle classes were placed by the crisis in. exactly the same position which spurred Napoleon to hasten his coup d'état; it being well known that the fear of the debtors' prison at Clichy put an end to his vacillations. The same motive hurried the Paris bourgeois to the barricades in 1848, and would make him regard a political convulsion at this moment as a godsend. It is now perfectly understood that, at the hight of the panic, the Bank of France, on Government order, renewed all bills due—an accommodation which, by the by, it was again compelled to afford on the 3 1st of January; but this suspense in the liquidation of debts, instead of restoring commercial activity, has only imparted a chronic character to panic. Another very large portion of the Paris middle classes, and a very influential one too—the petits rentiers, or men of small fixed incomes—have met. with wholesale ruin, consequent upon the enormous fluctuations of the Bourse, which were fostered by, and contributed to enrich, the Imperial dynasty and its adventurous retainers. That portion, at least, of the French higher classes .which pretends to represent what is called French civilization never accepted the Empire, except as a necessary makeshift, never concealed their profound hostility to the "nephew of his uncle[5], and of late have seized upon every pretext to show their anger at the attempt to transform a mere expedient, as they considered it, into a lasting institution. Such was the general state of feeling to which the attempt of the Rue Lepelletier afforded an occasion of manifesting itself. This manifestation, on the other hand, has roused the pseudo Bonaparte to a sense of the gathering storm, and compelled him to play out his last card. Much has been said in the Moniteur as to the shouts and cries and the "public enthusiasm"[6] lavished on the Imperial party at their exit from the Opera. The value of this street enthusiasm is shown by the following anecdote emanating from a chief actor in the scene and the authenticity of which is vouched for by a highly respectable English paper:

"On the night of the 14th a person high in the Imperial household, but not. that night on service, was crossing the Boulevards, when he heard the explosions, and saw people running toward the Opera. He ran thither also, and was present at the whole scene. Being recognized directly, one of the persons most nearly concerned in all that had occurred said, 'Oh, Mr.—, for God's sake, find some one belonging to the Tuileries, and send off for fresh carriages. If you can find none, go yourself.' The person thus addressed set to work immediately to find some of the household servants, which was no easy task—all, from high to low, chamberlains to footmen, having, with one or two admirable exceptions, taken to their heels with incredible alacrity. However, at the end of a quarter of an hour, he laid hands on a messenger, and sent him post-haste to the palace with the necessary orders. About five and twenty minutes or half an hour had elapsed, when he returned to the Rue Lepelletier, and made his way back to the peristyle of the theater with great difficulty, on account of the crowd. The wounded were still lying about on all sides, and apparently disorder reigned everywhere. At a little distance the gentleman alluded to espied M. Pietri, the Prefect of Police, and called to him, in order to attract his attention, and prevent him from going away until he could rejoin him. When he did so, he instantly exclaimed, 'Let me implore of you to get the street closed without loss of time. The fresh carriages will be here soon, and they cannot drive up to the door Besides, see what confusion ensues. Let me entreat of you, get the streets cleared.' M Pietri looked at him with surprise. 'The street cleared!' he echoed; 'why, the street is cleared; it was cleared in five minutes.' His interlocutor stared at him. 'But, then, what is all that crowd? What is that dense mass of men that one cannot elbow one's way through?' 'Those are all my people,' was M. Pietri's reply; 'There is not a stranger at this moment in this portion of the Rue Lepelletier; all those you see belong to me.'"

If such was the secret of the street enthusiasm paraded by the Moniteur, its paragraphs on the "spontaneous illuminations of the Boulevards after the attempt"[7] could certainly not mislead the Parisians who had witnessed that illumination, which was limited to the shops of the tradespeople employed by the Emperor and the Empress. Even these individuals were not backward in saying that half an hour after the explosion of the "infernal machine," police agents paid them a visit, to suggest the propriety of instantly illuminating, in order to prove how enchanted they were at the Emperor's escape. Still more the character of the congratulatory addresses and the public protestations of devotion to the Emperor bears witness to his complete isolation. There is not a single man who signed them who does not, one way or the other, belong to the Administration, that ubiquitous parasite feeding on the vitals of France, and put in motion like a mannikin by the touch of the Minister of the Interior[8]. The Moniteur was obliged, day after day, to register these monotonous congratulations, addressed by the Emperor to the Emperor, as so many proofs of the unbounded love of the people for the coup d'état[9]. Some efforts were, indeed, made to obtain an address from the Paris population, and for that purpose an address was carried about by the agents of the police; but as it was found that the mass of signatures would not be sufficiently imposing, the plan was abandoned. Even the Paris shopkeepers dared to decline signing the address, on the pretext that the police was not the proper source for it to emanate from. The attitude of the Paris press, as far as it depends on the public, and not on the public purse, entirely responded to the attitude of the people. Either, like the unfortunate Spectateur, it muttered some half-suppressed words on hereditary rights, or, like the Phare de la Loire, quoted semi-official papers as its authorities for the reported enthusiasm, or, like the Journal des Débats, kept its congratulations within the rigid bounds of conventional courtesy, or limited itself to reprinting the articles of the Moniteur. In one word, it became evident that if France was not just yet prepared to take up arms against the Empire, it was certainly resolved to get rid of it on the first occasion.

"According to my informants," writes the Vienna correspondent of The London Times, "who have recently arrived from Paris, the general opinion in that city is, that the present dynasty is nodding to its fall."[10][11]

Bonaparte himself, till then the only man in France believing in the final victory of the coup d'état, became at once aware of the hollowness of his delusions. While all public bodies and the press were swearing that the crime of the Rue Lepelletier, perpetrated as it was by Italians solely, but served to put in relief the love of France for Louis Napoleon, Louis Napoleon himself hastened to the Corps Législatif[12], there publicly to declare that the conspiracy was a national one, and that France consequently wanted new "repressive laws" to keep her down[13]. Those laws already proposed, at the head of which figure the lois des suspects,[14] are nothing but a repetition of the identical measures employed in the first days of the coup d'état. Then, however, they were announced as temporary expedients, while they are now pro-claimed as organic laws. Thus it is declared by Louis Napoleon himself, that the Empire can be perpetuated only by the very infamies through which it was produced; that all its pretensions to the more or less respectable forms of a regular Government must be dropped, and that the time of the sullen acquiescence of the nation in the rule of the Society of the perjured usurper[15] has definitively passed away.

Shortly before the execution of the coup d'état, Louis Napoleon contrived to gather from all departments, and principally from the rural districts, addresses leveled at the National Assembly, and expressive of unlimited confidence in the President. This source being now exhausted there remained nothing but to appeal to the army. The military addresses, in one of which the Zouaves[16] "almost regret not to have had an opportunity to manifest in a striking manner their devotion to the Emperor[17], are simply the undisguised proclamation of pretorian rule[18] in France. The division of France into five great military pashalics, with five marshals at their head, under the supreme control of Pelissier as marshal general[19], is a simple consequence of that premise. On the other hand, the installation of a Privy Council, which is at the same time to act as Council during the eventual Regency of a Montijo, composed of such grotesque fellows as Fould, Morny, Persigny, Baroche and the like, shows France at the same time what sort of regime the newly-installed statesmen have in store for her. The installation of this Council, together with the family reconciliation, denoted to the astounded world by Louis Napoleon's letter in the Moniteur, by virtue of which Jerome, the ex-King of Westphalia, is nominated President of the State Councils in the Emperor's absence[20]—all this, it has been justly remarked, "looks like the pilgrim about to set out on a perilous journey."[21] On what new adventure is the hero of Strasbourg then to embark?[22] Some say that he means to relieve himself by a campaign in Africa; others that he intends an invasion of England. As to the first plan, it reminds one of his former notion of going to Sevastopol[23]; but now, as then, his discretion might prove the better part of his valor[24]. As to any hostility against England, it would only reveal to Bonaparte his isolation in Europe, as the attempt of the Rue Lepelletier revealed his isolation in France. Already the threats held out to England in the addresses of the soldiery have put the final extinguisher upon the Anglo-French alliance, long since struggling in articuio mortis[25]. Pahnerston's Alien bill[26] will only contribute to exasperate the already wounded pride of John Bull. Whatever step Bonaparte may take—and he must try to restore his prestige in some way or other will only precipitate his ruin. He approaches the end of his strange, wicked and pernicious career.

  1. Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad" (Sophocles, Antigone, 620).—Ed.
  2. Marx is referring here to Louis Bonaparte who attempted a coup d'état on August 6, 1840. Profiting by a certain revival of pro-Bonapartist sentiments in France, he landed with a handful of conspirators at Boulogne and tried to raise a mutiny among the local garrison. His attempt failed. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, but escaped to England in 1846.
  3. On January 14, 1858 the Italian revolutionary Felice Orsini made an attempt on the life of Napoleon III, thus hoping to provoke revolutionary actions in Europe and intense struggle for the national unification of Italy. His attempt failed, and Orsini was executed on March 13, 1858.
  4. See The Revolt in the Indian Army (1857)—Ed.
  5. Napoleon III, Napoleon I.—Ed.
  6. "Paris, le 14 janvier". Le Moniteur universel, No. 15. January 15, 1858.—Ed.
  7. "Paris, le 14 janvier", Le Moniteur universel, No, 15, January 15, 1858.—Ed.
  8. Adolphe Billault.—Ed.
  9. "Adresses présentées à l'Empereur", Le Moniteur universel, No. 17, January 17, 1858; see also the following issues.—Ed.
  10. See the report from Vienna of January 29 in The Times, No. 22906, February 2, 1858.—Ed.
  11. The editors of the New York Daily Tribune inserted the following paragraph here: "Or as an eminent American, now in France, writes in a letter received by the Africa: 'There is a frightful foreboding in the bosoms of the French themselves. I was talking with a friend the other day, a very devout and clear-headed woman, and she told me sotto voce that she talked with no one who did not feel a stifling fear of what was coming, of a day of vengeance too black to contemplate. She told me that the receipts of the mont-de-piété were falling off so much that the truth was becoming evident that the people had nothing left to dispose of, and this to her and her friends was a sure sign that the final crash was near.'"
  12. The Corps Législatif was established, alongside the State Council and the Senate, under the Constitution of February 14, 1852, after the Bonapartist coup d'état of 1851. Its powers were confined to endorsing bills drawn up by the State Council. The Corps Législatif was an elected body. However, the elections were supervised by state officials and the police, so that a majority obedient to the government was ensured. In fact it served as a screen for Napoleon III's unlimited powers.
  13. Napoleon III's speech at the opening of the Corps Législatif, January 18, 1858, published in Le Moniteur universel, No. 19, January 19, 1858.—Ed.
  14. A reference to La loi relatif à des mesures de sûreté générale (Law on Public Security Measures) known as La loi des suspects (Suspects Law) adopted by the Corps législatif on February 19 and promulgated on February 28, 1858. It gave the emperor and his government unlimited power to exile to different parts of France or Algeria or to banish altogether from French territory any person suspected of hostility to the Second Empire.
  15. A reference to the Society of December 10, a secret Bonapartist organisation founded in 1849 and consisting mainly of declassed elements, political adventurers and the military. For details see Marx's work The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (MECW, Vol. 11, pp. 148-51).
  16. "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. In November 1848 the troops commanded by Wrangel took part in the counter-revolutionary coup in Berlin and in the dissolution of the Prussian National Assembly. The troops included many men from Pomerania, Wrangel's homeland.
  17. "Le régiment de zouaves de la garde imperiale", Le Moniteur universel, No. 26, January 26, 1858.—Ed.
  18. In Ancient Rome Praetorians were privileged soldiers in the personal guard of a general or the emperor. Here Marx is referring to the French military on whom Napoleon III relied (see The Rule of the Pretorians).
  19. Under Napoleon III's decree of January 27, 1858 the whole of French territory was divided into five military districts, with Paris, Nancy, Lyons, Toulouse and Tours as their capitals and Marshals Magnan, Baraguay d'Hilliers, Bosquet, Castellane and Canrobert as their commanders. Marx calls these districts pashaliks (a comparison earlier used by the French republican press), to emphasise the similarity of the unlimited powers of the reactionary Marshals and the despotic power of the Turkish pashas. Pélissier's proposed appointment as marshal general in 1858 remained unrealised.
  20. Napoleon III's decree on the appointment of Prince Jerome President of the State Council, February 1, 1858, Le Moniteur universel, No. 34, February 3, 1858.—Ed.
  21. J. Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress.—Ed.
  22. 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.
  23. In March 1855 Napoleon III planned to go to the Crimea with the aim of suppressing the discontent in the army and the country, invigorating military actions and speeding up the capture of Sevastopol. His trip did not take place.
  24. Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part I, Act V, Scene IV.—Ed.
  25. At the point of death.—Ed.
  26. 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.