Reading a little Marx, as one does in preparation for the 200th anniversary of his birth, I was struck, not by any renewed commitment to the class struggle, but by the remarkable history of Napoleon the Third.
I was reading the essay Der 18te Brumaire des Louis Napoleon, which I had never read before in its entirety. It's a terrifying document. Also terrible; I tried three different English translations, and each was clunkier than the other two. You know how I love me some nineteenth century prose, and I am aware of how black a pot I am, but get yourself an editor, dude. No, not Engels, oh man he's not going to—fine. Too late now.
Anyway, while I have read a tiny bit about the Paris Commune of 1871 that followed the downfall of Napoleon III, I don't know anything, really, about the uprising of 1848 that was the first bookend to his Imperial reign. I mean, you know, barricades and radicals and anti-clericalism and probably singing and red hats, but I've never learned anything really about it. Not my period, as they say.
Anyway, here's the thing: Louis Napoleon was a famous guy without any real achievements before being elected President of France. There's a disastrously incompetent government; the parties are deeply divided and are seemingly incapable of active governance. Leaders of the parties denounce leaders of other parties as traitors, and denounce the other parties themselves as inherently unconstitutional. A bunch of radicals occupy the financial center of the country for a while; the liberal factions amongst the legislators admire their passion but deplore their tactics. A conservative party (more or less) gets temporarily behind this famous guy who has widespread popular support but no actual government experience—he's a famous womanizer, known for borrowing money and not paying it back, and the leaders of the financial world consider him a cretin who can easily be led. He holds a handful of populist policy positions (universal suffrage for men, education for women) that seem to conflict with his fundamentally reactionary authoritarianism. His support is largely from outside the major urban centers; both the poorer rural folk and the landowners see him as on their side against the dangerous modern city.
The military, at the time, have a strange and privileged position, almost a class to itself. They are not directly or explicitly represented in the government, but none of the parties of the left or right can risk being seen to be critical of them. And they are drawn almost exclusively from the rural population, where the support for this new President is.
The new President shows no interest in legislating and has few supporters in the legislature. He fires heads of departments with unprecedented frequency, and treats both the fired ministers and their supporters in the Parliament with undisguised contempt. He refuses to take advice on behavioral norms—sometimes he demands more pomp and formality than expected and sometimes he neglects ceremonial duties. He talks loudly about the dangers of uncertainty and the importance of stability; meanwhile nobody knows what he's going to do next.
Midway through his term, an election goes against the conservative party to which he is increasingly distantly allied—not devastatingly, but enough to cause real concern for their political futures. They respond by instituting new restrictions on voting, including a requirement that voters show ID that demonstrates their residence in the district (and does not allow people to vote if they have only recently moved). There are protests, some of them violent; they are put down, sometimes violently. Things appear increasingly unstable; every side is afraid of being the one blamed for any sudden departure from the Constitution, even while the actual workings of that Constitution are being constantly diminished and deprecated. Meanwhile the President's term is going to end, and there's some sense that he could be in significant legal or financial jeopardy if he steps down.
So he stages a coup (a self-coup, which is a wonderful term), declares himself Emperor and stays in power for another eighteen years.
I obviously mean to suggest a parallel and it's a lousy one—for one thing, Louis Napoleon had attempted to gain power by military coup twice before being elected President. Also, the institutions of the Second Republic were weak through infancy, not senility; tearing up a failed constitution is different in its third year than its third century. And, you know, there was magic in the name Napoleon, you know? Also, he had (and this I think is important and instructive) a private army (the Band of the 10th of December) that paved the way for his ascent and kept him there. It was no Sturmabteilung, but it was organized and paid, and we haven't seen anything like that in the United States. Yet.
Still and all, it seems like there was a torrent of bad historical parallels for a while, and I hadn't heard that one.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,