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A Historic Parallel

Karl Marx

When Louis Napoleon, emulating the less lucky Marino Faliero of Venice, vaulted to a throne by perjury and treason, by midnight conspiracy and the seizure of the incorruptible members of the Assembly in their beds, backed by an overwhelming display of military force in the streets of Paris, the sovereign princes and aristocracies of Europe, the great landowners, manufacturers, rentiers and stockjobbers, almost to a man, exulted in his success as their own. "The crimes are his," was their general chuckle, "but their fruits are ours. Louis Napoleon reigns in the Tuileries; while we reign even more securely and despotically on our domains, in our factories, on the Bourse, and in our counting-houses. Down with all Socialism! Vive l'Empereur!"

And next to the Military, the fortunate usurper plied all his arts to attach the rich and powerful, the thrifty and speculating, to his standard. "The Empire is peace,"[236] he exclaimed, and the millionaires almost deified him. "Our very dear son in Jesus Christ," the Pope affectionately termed him; and the Roman Catholic priesthood saluted him (pro tem.) with every expression of confidence and devotion. Stocks rose; Banks of Crédit Mobilier sprang up and flourished; millions were made at a dash of the pen in new railroads, a new slave-trade, and new speculations of every sort. The British Aristocracy, turning their back on the past, doffed their caps and pulled their forelocks to the new Bonaparte; he paid a family visit to Queen Victoria[237] and was feasted by the City of London; the Exchange touched glasses with the Bourse; there was general congratulation and hand-shaking among the apostles of stockjobbing, and a conviction that the golden calf had finally been fully deified, and that his Aaron was the new French autocrat.[a]

Seven years have rolled away, and all is changed. Napoleon III has spoken the word that may never be unsaid nor forgotten. No matter whether he rushes on his destiny as recklessly as his forerunner did in Spain and Russia, or is forced by the indignant, universal murmur of the royalties and bourgeoises of Europe into a position of temporary submission to their will, the spell is forever broken. They knew him long since as a villain; but they deemed him a serviceable, pliant, obedient, grateful villain; and they now see and rue their mistake. He has been using them all the time that they supposed they were using him. He loves them exactly as he loves his dinner or his wine. They have served him so far in a certain way; they must now serve him in another way or brave his vengeance. If "the Empire is peace" henceforth, it is peace on the Mincio or the Danube—peace with his eagles flaunting in triumph on the Po and the Adige, if not on the Rhine and Elbe as well—it is Peace with the Iron Crown on his brow[238]; Italy a French satrapy, and with Great Britain, Prussia, Austria, merely satellites revolving around and lighted by the central orb France, the Empire of Charlemagne.

Of course, there is gnashing of teeth in royal palaces, but not less in the halls of bankers and merchant princes. For the year, 1859, was opening under auspices that promised a restoration of the golden days of '36 and '56[239]. The long protracted stagnation of manufacturing had exhausted stocks of metals, wares and fabrics. The manifold bankruptcies had measurably purified the atmosphere of Commerce. Ships began again to have a market value; warehouses were about once more to be built and filled. Stocks were buoyant and millionaires decidedly jolly; in short, there was never a brighter commercial prospect, a more serene, auspicious sky.

A word changes all this; and that word is uttered by the hero of the Coup d'Ètat—the Elect of December—the Savior of Society. It is spoken wantonly, coolly, with evident premeditation, to M. Hübner, the Austrian Envoy, and clearly indicates a settled purpose to pick a quarrel with Francis Joseph or bully him into a humiliation more fatal than three lost battles. Though evidently calculated for instant effect on the Bourse, in aid of gambling stock sales to deliver, it betrayed a fixed purpose to recast the map of Europe. Austria must recede from all those nominally independent Italian States which she now practically occupies by virtue of treaties with their willing rulers, or France and Sardinia will occupy Milan and menace Mantua with such an army as Gen. Bonaparte never commanded in Italy. The Pope must reform the abuses of clerical rule in his States—abuses so long upheld by French arms—or follow the petty despots of Tuscany, Parma, Modena, &c., in their headlong race to find safety at Vienna[240]. The Rothschilds groan over their Eleven Millions of Dollars lost by the depreciation of stocks consequent on the menace to Hübner, and utterly refuse to be comforted. The manufacturers and traders mournfully realize that their anticipated harvest of 1859 is likely to give place to a. "harvest of death." Everywhere apprehension, discontent and indignation convulse the breasts on which the throne of the Man of December reposed so securely a few months ago.

And the cast-down, broken idol can never be set on its pedestal again. He may recoil before the storm he has raised, and again receive the benedictions of the Pope and the caresses of the British Queen; but neither will be more than lip-service. They know him now, what the peoples knew him long since—a reckless gambler, a desperate adventurer, who would as soon dice with royal bones as any other if the game promised to leave him a winner. They know him one who, .having, like Macbeth, waded to a crown through human gore, finds it easier to go forward than to return to peace and innocence. From the hour of his demonstration against Austria, Louis Napoleon stood and stands alone among potentates. The young Emperor of Russia[b] may, for his own purposes, seem to be still his friend; but that seeming is an empty one. Napoleon I in 1813 was the prototype of Napoleon III in 1859. And the latter will probably rush on his fate as substantially as the former did.

Written about March 18, 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5598, March 31, 1859 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1445, April 1, 1859
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 917, April 9, 1859
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] Cf. Exodus 7:20.—Ed.

[b] Alexander II.—Ed.

[236] An allusion to Louis Bonaparte's words spoken in Bordeaux on October 9, 1852, shortly before the plebiscite and the proclamation of the Second Empire. In an effort to win the people's sympathy he declared demagogically: "L'Empire c'est la paix" ("The Empire is peace").

[237] Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie visited England in April 1855.

[238] The reference is to the Lombardy crown.

[239] The economically favourable years of 1836 and 1856 were followed by crises in 1837 and 1857.

[240] At the beginning of the 1848-49 revolution in Italy the dukes of Tuscany, Modena and Parma fled from their duchies.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.271-273), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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