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The Rule of the Pretorians

Karl Marx

Paris, Feb. 22, 1858

"When is Gérard the lion-killer to be named Minister of Public Instruction?" Such is the cant phrase current in the faubourgs of Paris since the appointment of Gen. Espinasse of Dobrudja memory[475] as Minister of the Interior and Public Safety. In Russia, it is well known, a general of cavalry presides over the Holy Synod[a]. Why not Espinasse over the French Home-Ministry, since France has become the home of Pretorians only?[476] By such apparent incongruities the rule of the naked sword is proclaimed in most unmistakable terms, and Bonaparte wants France to clearly understand that the imperial rule does rest not on her will but on 600,000 bayonets. Hence the Pretorian addresses cut out by the colonels of the different regiments, after a pattern supplied from the Tuileries—addresses in which the slightest allusion to the so-called "will of the people" is anxiously shunned; hence the parceling out of France into five pashalics[477]; hence the transformation of the Home-Ministry into an appendage of the Army. Here the change is not to stop. About 60 prefects are said to be on the eve of being disgraced, and to be replaced, for the most part, by military men. Prefectorial administration is to devolve upon half-pay colonels and lieutenant-colonels. The antagonism between the Army and the population is to, be organized as the guarantee of "Public Safety," viz: the safety of the hero of Satory[478] and his dynasty.

A great modern historian has told us that, disguise the fact as you like, France, since the days of the Great Revolution, has been always disposed of by the army. There have certainly ruled different classes under the Empire, the Restoration, Louis Philippe, and the Republic of 1848. Under the first the peasantry, the offspring of the revolution of 1789, predominated; under the second, the great landed property; under the third, the bourgeoisie; and the last, not in the intention of its founders but in fact, proved an abortive attempt at dividing dominion equal shares among the men of the legitimate monarchy and the men of the monarchy of July. Still, all these regimes rested alike on the army. Has not even the Constitution of the Republic of 1848 been elaborated and proclaimed under a state of siege—that is, the rule of the bayonet? Was that Republic not personated by Gen. Cavaignac? Was it not saved by the army in June, 1848, and again saved in June, 1849, to be finally dropped by the same army in December, 1851? What then forms the novelty in the regime now openly inaugurated by Tows Bonaparte? That he rules by the instrumentality of the army? So did all his predecessors since the days of Thermidor[479]. Yet, if in all the bygone epochs the ruling class, the ascendency of which corresponded to a specific development of French society, rested its ultima ratio[b] against its adversaries upon the army, it was nevertheless a specific social interest that predominated. Under the second Empire the interest of the army itself is to predominate. The army is no longer to maintain the rule of one part of the people over another part of the people. The army is to maintain its own rule, personated by its own dynasty, over the French people in general.

It is to represent the State in antagonism to the society. It must not be imagined that Bonaparte is not aware of the dangerous character of the experiment he tries, In proclaiming himself the chief of the Pretorians, he declares every Pretorian chief his competitor. His own partisans, with Gen. Vaillant at their head, demurred against the division of the French Army into five Marshalships, saying that if it was good for the cause of order, it was not so for that of the Empire, and would one day end in civil war. The treacheries of Napoleon's Marshals, with Berthier at their head, were ransacked by the Palais Royal[480], which feels extremely vexed at the new turn of Imperial policy.

The future conduct of the five Marshals, who hate each other cordially, at a critical juncture, may be best judged from their past. Magnan betrayed Louis Philippe; Baraguay d'Hilliers betrayed Napoleon; Bosquet betrayed the Republic, to which he owed his advancement, and to the principles of which he is known to be partial. Castellane has not even awaited a real catastrophe to betray Louis Bonaparte himself. During the Russian War[c] a telegraphic dispatch reached him to this effect: "The Emperor is dead." He instantly drew up a proclamation in favor of Henri V. and sent it to be printed. The Préfet of Lyons had received the real dispatch, which ran thus: "The Emperor of Russia[d] is dead." The proclamation was hushed, but the story got abroad. As to Canrobert, he may be an Imperialist, but then he is but a fraction, and, above all, lacks the capability of being a whole number. The five Marshals themselves, feeling the arduous task they were called upon to undertake, hesitated so considerably at accepting their respective commands that nothing could be settled with their consent; which seeing, Bonaparte wrote out himself the names of their separate destinations, gave the note to Mr. Fould to be filled up and sent to the Moniteur, and thus they were all gazetted at last, whether they would or not[e]. Bonaparte, on the other hand, dared not complete his plan by Pelissier's nomination of Marshal-General. Of his pentarchy of Marshals, we may say what Prince Jérôme Napoleon is stated to have answered to Fould, sent by Bonaparte to present his uncle with his nomination to the first place in the Council of Regency. After having declined the offer in most impolite terms, the ex-King of Westphalia, as Paris gossip has it, bowed Mr. Fould out with the words, "Du reste[f], your Council of Regency is so framed as for you all to have but one object; that, namely, of arresting each other as promptly as possible." We repeat that it is impossible to suppose Louis Bonaparte ignorant of the dangers with which his new-fangled system is fraught. But he has no choice left. He understands his own situation and the impatience of French society to get rid of him and his Imperial mummeries. He knows that the different parties have recovered from their paralysis, and that the material basis of his stock-jobbing regime has been blown up by the commercial earthquake. Consequently, he is not only preparing for war against French society, but loudly proclaims the fact. It tallies with his resolution to take up a warlike attitude against France that he confounds the most heterogeneous parties. Thus, when Cassagnac, in the Constitutionnel[g], denounced Mr. Villemain as a "provoker of hatred" to the Empire, and accused the Journal des Débats of "complicity" in the attentat "through its silence," this was at first considered to be an act of foolish zeal on the part of the man whom Guizot has described as the roi des drôles[h]. Soon, however, it oozed out that the article had been imposed upon the Constitutionnel by Mr. Rouland, the Minister of Public Instruction, who had himself corrected the proofs of it. This explanation, by the by, was given to Mr. De Sacy of the Débats by Mr. Mires, the proprietor of the Constitutionnel, who did not choose to bear the responsibility of the article. The denunciation of all parties as his personal enemies enters, therefore, into the game of Bonaparte. It forms part of his system. He tells them, in so many words, that he indulges no delusion as to the general aversion his rule is the subject of, but that he is ready to encounter it with grape and musketry.

Written on February 22, 1858
First published unsigned in he New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5270, March 12, 1858


[a] A. P. Tolstoi.—Ed.

[b] Final reason or argument.—Ed.

[c] The Crimean war, 1853-56.—Ed.

[d] Nicholas I.—Ed.

[e] Napoleon III's decree on the nomination of the five Marshals, February 13, 1858, Le Moniteur universel, No. 45, February 14, 1858.—Ed.

[f] However.—Ed.

[g] A. Granier de Cassagnac, "La palinodie des honnêtes gens", Le Constitutionnel, No. 31, January 31, 1858.—Ed.

[h] King of fools. The description has been cited by E. Dupont in "Chronique de l'Intérieur", La Voix du Proscrit, No. 8, December 15, 1850.—Ed.

[476] 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.

[477] 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.

[478] On October 10, 1850 Louis Bonaparte, then President of the French Republic, held a general review of troops on the plain of Satory (near Versailles). During this review Bonaparte, who was preparing a coup d'état, treated the soldiers and officers to sausages in order to win their support.

[479] A counter-revolutionary coup d'état of the Ninth Thermidor (July 27-28, 1794) overthrew the Jacobin government and established the rule of the big bourgeoisie.

[480] The Palais-Royal in Paris was the residence of Louis XIV from 1643; in 1692 it became the property of the Orlean branch of the Bourbons. During the Second Empire it was the residence of Napoleon III's uncle, ex-King of Westphalia Jérôme, and his son Joseph Bonaparte, hereditary Prince until the birth of Napoleon III's son.
Here Marx hints at the strained relations between Jérôme and Louis Bonaparte.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 15 (pp.464-467), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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