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The War Prospect in France

Karl Marx

Paris, March 9, 1859

At the time when the war alarm had seized upon all the Bourses of Europe, I wrote that Bonaparte was far from having definitively decided upon war; but that whatever his real intentions might be, the control of circumstances was likely to slip from his hands[a]. At the present moment, when the greater part of the European press seems inclined to believe in peace, I feel sure that there will be war, unless some happy combination lead to a sudden overthrow of the usurper and his dynasty. This much the most superficial observer must admit, that the prospects of peace being circumscribed within the limits of talk, the prospects of war, on the contrary, are based upon material facts. War preparations are being carried on, both in France and Austria, on a scale unprecedented; and if one considers the desperate state of the two Imperial treasuries, no long chain of arguments is wanted to lead to the conclusion that fighting is meant, and at no distant period, too. Let me remark that Austria is pursued by a merciless fate, whose threads you might perhaps trace to St. Petersburg, which, whenever her finances seem on the point of recovering, flings her back into an abyss of financial distress as certainly as the malignant marble painfully rolled up the mountain by Sisyphus was darted down by unseen hands, whenever the doomed martyr approached the summit. Thus Austria, after years of incessant efforts, had in 1845 succeeded in approaching the point where income and expense meet each other; when the Cracovian revolution[215] broke out, and necessitated an extra expenditure on her part, which led to the catastrophe of 1848[216]. Again, in 1858, she was announcing to the world the resumption of cash payments by the Bank of Vienna, when all at once the New-Year's congratulation[217] sent over from Paris roughly cut short all plans of economy, and doomed her to a waste of treasure and an exhaustion of resources which, even in the eyes of the most sober Austrian statesmen, makes war appear the last chance of salvation.

Of all journals which boast a more than local influence, the Tribune is, perhaps, the only one that has never condescended to share in the common slang—I will not say of praising Louis Bonaparte's character, because that would have been too bad—but of crediting him with genius and superior force of will. You analyzed his political, military and financial exploits, and, in my opinion, proved incontrovertibly that his success, so overwhelming in the estimation of the vulgar, was due to a concatenation of circumstances which he had not created, and in using which he never rose beyond the mediocrity of the professional gambler, gifted with a keen eye for expedients, for surprises and coups de main, but always remaining the humble servant of hazard, and anxiously concealing beneath a mask of iron a soul of gutta-percha. Now, this is exactly the view which from the first all the great powers of Europe have silently consented .to take of the grand saltimbanque[b], as Russian diplomatists called him. Under-standing that he was dangerous because he had placed himself in a dangerous position, they agreed to allow him to play the successor of Napoleon, on the express, although tacit condition, that he should always content himself with the mere appearance of influence, and never overstep the boundaries which separate the actor from the hero he personates. This game went on successfully for some time, but the diplomatists, as is their habit, had, in their wise calculations, overlooked one important item, the people. When Orsini's grenades exploded, the hero of Satory feigned to assume an attitude of dictation against England, and the British Government proved quite willing to allow him to do so; but popular clamor exercised so violent a pressure on Parliament, that Palmerston was not only thrown out[218], but an anti-Bonapartist policy became a vital condition for the tenancy of Downing street. Bonaparte gave way, and from that moment his foreign policy has proved one uninterrupted chain of blunders, humiliations and failures. I need only allude to his Free-Negro Immigration scheme and his Portuguese adventures[219]. Meanwhile, Orsini's attempt had created a recrudescence of despotism in the interior of France, while the commercial crisis, converted by empirical quackery from an acute fever into a chronic malady, withdrew from beneath the parvenu throne the only real basis upon which it rested, material prosperity. Signs of disaffection showed themselves in the ranks of the army; signals of mutiny became audible in the camp of the bourgeoisie; menaces of personal vengeance on the part of Orsini's countrymen poisoned the sleep of the usurper; when all of a sudden he tried to create for himself a new position, by repeating, mutatis mutandis, Napoleon's rough apostrophe, after the peace of Lunéville[220], to the English Embassador[c], and by throwing, in the name of Italy, the gauntlet into the face of Austria. It was not from his free will, but from the force of circumstances, that he, the representative of reserve, the field marshal of expedients, the hero of nocturnal surprises, undertook such a desperately bold step.

There is no doubt that he was pushed on by false friends. Palmerston, who, at Compiègne, had flattered him with the sympathies of the English Liberals, ostensibly turned against him[d] on the opening of Parliament[221]. Russia, which had urged him on by secret notes and public newspaper articles, entered seemingly into diplomatic pourparlers[e] with her Austrian neighbor. But the die was cast—the war trumpet had sounded; and Europe was, so to say, forced to reconsider the past, the present and the future, of the successful blackleg who had at last arrived at the Italian campaign with which his uncle had begun his career. By the days of December, he had restored Napoleonism in France; but by an Italian campaign he seemed determined upon restoring it all over Europe. What he meant was not an Italian war, but an Austrian humiliation without a war. Successes which his namesake had bought at the mouth of the cannon, he was to wring from the fear of revolution. That he meant no war, but only a succès d'estime[f], is evident. Otherwise, he would have commenced with diplomatic negotiations and ended with war, instead of following the opposite course. He would have prepared for war before talking war. He would, in one word, not have put the carriage before the horses.

But he had sadly mistaken the power with which he picked a quarrel. England, Russia, and the United States may go a great length in the way of apparent concession without losing one single atom of their real influence; but Austria—above all, with respect to Italy—cannot swerve from her path without endangering her empire itself. Accordingly, the only answers Bonaparte received from Austria, were preparations of war which compelled him to embark in the same waters. Quite independent of his will, and quite contrary to his expectation, the mock quarrel assumed, by and by, the dimensions of a deadly conflict. Moreover, everything went the wrong way. In France, he met with a passive but stubborn resistance, and the anxiety of his most interested friends to keep him back from mischief, left no doubt of their distrust in his Napoleonic faculties. In England, the liberal party turned on him the cold shoulder, and railed at his pretensions of treating liberty as a French article of export. In Germany, a unanimous shout of defiance proved to him that, whatever the stupid French peasantry might fancy in 1848, there existed on the other side of the Rhine a settled conviction that he was a spurious Napoleon only, and that the respect shown to him by their rulers was a mere conventionality; that, in one word, he was as much a Napoleon "by courtesy," as the younger sons of English dukes are "lords by courtesy."[222]

Now, do you think in earnest, that the necessity which in January, 1859, led the man into the Austrian complication, will be overcome by a ridiculous and shameful reculade[g], or that the hero of Satory himself thinks he has improved his desperate position by the greatest and most unmistakable defeat he ever underwent? He knows that the French officers do not even affect to conceal their desperate anger at his ridiculous lies told in the Moniteur[h] about the present war preparations; he knows that the Paris shop-keeper is already beginning to draw parallels between Louis Philippe's retreat before an European coalition in 1840[223], and Louis Bonaparte's grande retirade[i] in 1859; that the bourgeoisie are pervaded by an evident, although smothered rage at their subjection under an adventurer who turns out to be cowardly; that in Germany undisguised contempt for him rules supreme, and that a few more steps in the same direction will make him the laughing-stock of the world. N'est pas monstre qui veut[j], said Victor Hugo; but the Dutch adventurer cannot do without the reputation of being not only a Quasimodo, but a terrible one. The chances which he now reckons upon for beginning the war in earnest, and he knows that he must begin it, are these: Austria will not make the least concession during the diplomatic transactions pending, and will thus give him some respectable pretext for appealing to the sword. Prussia has shown herself very lukewarm in her answer[k] to the Austrian note of Feb. 22[224], and the antagonism between these two German powers may be widened. England's foreign policy will, on the downbreak of the Derby Cabinet, fall into the hands of Lord Palmerston. Russia will take her revenge upon Austria without herself risking a man or a rouble, and above all she will create European complications allowing her to take advantage of the meshes she has laid for the Sublime Porte in the Danubian Principalities, in Servia and Montenegro. Italy, at last, will commence burning while the diplomatic smoke envelopes the Conferences at Paris, and the people of Europe will yield to rising Italy what they refused to its self-constituted champion. Such are the chances which Louis Bonaparte hopes will once more launch his fortune on the high sea. The pangs of anxiety that he labors under now you may infer from the one fact that, at a recent Ministerial Council, he was overcome by a severe fit of vomiting. The horror of Italian vengeance is not the least powerful motive in urging him on to war at any price. That the judges of the Peninsular Feme[225] are watching over him, he again ascertained three weeks ago. A man was seized in the garden of the Tuileries, searched, and found to be the bearer of a revolver and of two or three hand grenades, with nipples like Orsini's. He was, of course, arrested and carried to prison. He gave an Italian name, and had an Italian accent. He said he could give the police a great deal of information, for he was connected with a secret society. For two or three days, however, he was very silent, and at last he petitioned for a companion, saying he could not, and would not, tell anything so long as he should be kept in solitary confinement. A companion was given him in the shape of one of the prison functionaries, a sort of archivist or librarian. The Italian then revealed, or appeared to reveal, many things. But, at the end of another day or two, his questioners returned and informed him that, on inquiry, all he had uttered was found to be unsupported by facts, and that he must make up his mind to act frankly. He said he would the next day. He was left to himself for the night. About 4 o'clock, however, in the morning he rose, borrowed his companion's razor and cut his throat. The doctor called in gave as his opinion that the cut was so energetically made that life must have been extinguished on the instant.

Written about March 11, 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5598, March 31, 1859


[a] See this volume, pp. 162-66.—Ed.

[b] Great charlatan.—Ed.

[c] Charles Whitworth.—Ed.

[d] Lord Palmerston's speech in the House of Commons on February 3, 1859, The Times, No. 23221, February 4, 1859.—Ed.

[e] Negotiations.—Ed.

[f] Limited success.—Ed.

[g] Retreat.—Ed.

[h] Le Moniteur universel, No. 64, March 5, 1859.See also this volume, p. 256.—Ed.

[i] Grand retreat.—Ed.

[j] "Not everybody can be a monster" (Victor Hugo, Napoléon le petit. Conclusion. Première partie).—Ed.

[k] Circular dispatch to the Prussian Ambassadors at the German Courts, early March 1859, Neue Preussische Zeitung, No. 56, March 8, 1859.—Ed.

[215] The reference is to the national liberation and anti-feudal uprising in the city of Cracow, which had been under the joint control of Austria, Russia and Prussia since 1815. The insurgents seized power on February 22, 1846 and set up a National Government, which issued a manifesto abolishing feudal services. The uprising was put down in early March 1846. In November 1846, Austria, Prussia and Russia signed a treaty incorporating Cracow in the Austrian Empire. p. 261

[216] In 1848 an acute financial crisis in Austria led to an enormous increase of the national debt, devaluation of the currency and mass issues of paper money.

[217] The reference is to Napoleon III's anti-Austrian declaration at a New-Year reception in the Tuileries (see Note 122↓).

[218] On January 20, 1858 Count Walewski, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, sent a Note to the British Government expressing dissatisfaction with Britain's granting of the right of asylum to political refugees. In view of this, on February 8 Palmerston introduced the Conspiracy to Murder Bill in the House of Commons. During the second reading of the Bill on February 19, Milner Gibson proposed an amendment censuring Palmerston's Government for not replying to the Note. Adopted by the majority, the amendment was actually a vote of no-confidence in the government and forced it to resign.

[219] In 1852 the French Government drew up a plan for the immigration of Negroes from Africa, including Portugal's African colonies, for work on the plantations in the French West Indies. The implementation of this plan which actually revived the slave trade resulted in a conflict between France and Portugal. In November 1857 the French ship Charles et Georges, with Negroes on board, was detained near the shores of the Portuguese colonies in Eastern Africa. This led to the conflict here referred to (see also "The French Slave Trade", this volume, pp. 621-23).

[220] The peace of Lunéville of 1801 between France and Austria and the peace of Amiens of 1802 between France and Britain ended the war between France and the second coalition. But peace did not last long. Soon Napoleon I resumed the war under the pretext of Britain's failure to fulfil one of the conditions of the Amiens peace according to which it was to evacuate Malta, which it had occupied in 1800 and return it to the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. At a reception in the Tuileries in March 1803 Napoleon I ended a talk with the British Ambassador Whitworth by exclaiming: "Malta or War!" p. 263

[221] In the autumn of 1858, Palmerston, then head of the Whig opposition to the Derby-Disraeli Tory Cabinet, was invited by Napoleon III to Compiègne in order to clarify his position in the impending Franco-Austrian war. At the meeting Palmerston did not object to the Austrians being driven out of Italy, but in his speech at the opening of Parliament on February 3, 1859, he condemned France's action.

[222] The younger sons of English dukes received the title of lord "by courtesy", i.e. they acquired it only by tradition, but by law they had no hereditary right to it or to membership of the House of Lords.

[223] On July 15, 1840, Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia signed a convention to support the Sultan of Turkey against the Egyptian ruler Mehemet Ali who was supported by France. This resulted in a threat of war between France and an anti-French coalition, but Louis Philippe decided against war and denied his support to Mehemet Ali.

[224] In its Note of February 22, 1859, addressed to Prussia and communicated to the other states of the German Confederation, Austria called on Prussia to abide by its obligations as an ally and take part in the impending struggle against France.

[225] An allusion to the Carbonari (see Note 144↓).

Feme—courts in medieval Germany which passed sentences after secret investigations, both in and without the presence of the accused, and themselves carried them out.

[122] At a reception of the diplomatic corps in the Tuileries on January 1, 1859, Napoleon III said to the Austrian Ambassador J. A. Hübner: "I regret that our relations with your Government are not as good as formerly." This statement led to a diplomatic conflict with Austria, war against which had long ago been decided on: in July 1858, in Plombières, a secret agreement had been reached between France and Piedmont, under which France was promised Savoy and Nice in exchange for participation in the forthcoming war against Austria.

[144] The Supreme Venta of the Italian Carbonari—the leading body of the Carbonari, a secret society which appeared in Italy in the early nineteenth century and fought for national independence and liberal reforms. While in Italy in 1831 Louis Bonaparte joined the Carbonari and for a short time took part in their activities.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.261-266), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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