Vienna, January 7 – Not one of the three groups which form the contemporary political elite of Russia – the intelligentsia, the bureaucracy, and the bourgeoisie – is capable for playing the role of a modernizing force, according to a Moscow analyst. And consequently, the best although difficult way forward lies with a Russian version of Bonapartism.
In an online essay this week, Yury Girenko argues as others have before him that Russia needs a political system where the powers that be stand above the elite so that they can refashion both the system itself and its component groups without acting in ways that could tear the country apart (www.liberty.ru/columns/Reakcionnye-refleksii/Razvitie-bonapartizma-v-Rossii).
Russia needs such a system because its intelligentsia is capable only of “destroying and creating chaos,” its bureaucracy able to “impose order and stability but not serve as a motor of development by definition,” and its bourgeoisie, despite the hopes of many, is too weak to do what needs to be done.
Consequently, Girenko argues, Russia needs an updated version of Bonapartism if not as a system for all time then as a set of arrangements for a transition to a more modern social and economic way of life. And he provides both a definition of Bonapartism and a discussion of the obstacles Russian leaders face in imposing such a system there.
Bonapartism, he points out, refers to “the unique political system” founded by Napoleon Bonaparte just over two centuries ago in France. “Under conditions when no social forces had a confident supremacy over others, [his system] guaranteed the balance of interests by combining authoritarian and legal mechanisms.”
Not unimportantly, Girenko continues, “the legal portion here was no less important than the force segment. Arbitrariness of the powers that be for the Bonapartist system would be fatal no less than democracy. And Napoleon in the shortest possible time set up a mechanism in which tyranny was moderated by law and democracy by a strong hand.”
The French leader could not have done this had he “not formed his own elite” on the basis of “a hierarchy of services” to the state. For him, such “services were more important than money and origin.” And as a result, “the real elite were the knights of the empire, the Legion of Honor, which one could join only on the basis of personal efforts.”
What made both the original version of Bonapartism and its copies possible was “a special type of ruler – the hero leader,” who by his actions “legitimized the system in the eyes of society” and the specific “combination of authoritarianism and legalism” that allowed that system to flourish.
In the years since Napoleon originated this system, “many have tried” to reproduce it, but only three have done so: Napoleon III in France, Marshal Pilsudski and Francisco Franco in Spain. In all other cases, the Bonaparte-wannabes “either quickly degenerated into a trivial military dictatorship or simply came apart.”
. That should not come as a surprise, Girenko says, “it is not so simple to maintain the balance between authoritarianism and legalism” or to prevent bureaucratization with its consequent “de-sacralization” and the growth of opposition to the existing structure of the powers that be.
A Bonapartist leader must maintain “the necessary degree of heroism,” and that requires that he keep moving forward because “a Bonapartist regime like a bicycle or a shark must remain in motion” or risk collapse. “The most natural variant of this movement is,” as Napoleon showed, “expansion.”
But such constant expansion faces two obstacles, Girenko says. One is internal: society gets tired and “the elite wants peace and quiet” to enjoy its wealth and privilege. And a second ix external: “the first major defeat leads to the unification of all enemies, a war with which becomes fatal for the empire.”
“With time,” however, the seriousness of these threats has declined. At present, “it is sufficient to make the ruler something like a hero and then for years support this image of the hero through the mass media.” According to “the well-known anecdote, Napoleon said: ‘If I had a paper like ‘Pravda,’ no one would have found out about Waterloo.’”
But that anecdote, one familiar to people in Soviet times, now can and must be updated, Girenko insists. Now that the Internet is function, Napoleon would be saying that with a paper like the Communist daily, “’everyone would think that I won at Waterloo.’” That would seem to be enough, but there is a catch.
That catch involves the problem of succession. By its very nature, “Bonapartism is a monarchical system, and therefore it is not legitimized by elections.” For someone to become a ruler, he or she must be “the Main Hero,” and “that is not a role which can be transferred by inheritance.”
But as Franco showed in Spain, a Bonapartist regime can last a long time, and “if one considers [it] not as a permanent but as a transitional model, then it is already very effective. No other system permits resolving modernization problems – by the way, not only economic and technological but social-political – so quickly and with effective results.”
Indeed, Girenko argues, “Bonapartism represents a chance for mobilization without the rejection of freedom …of freedom but not of democracy,” with which it is not compatible because the two “are not synonyms.” And it thus can achieve its goals over 10 to 30 years “without a Holocaust and GULAG,” but “not without limitations in the political sphere.”
Russians have been talking about a Bonapartist option since at least 1990, Girenko says. Yeltsin fulfilled “in part,” and “in the second half of the 1990s, many actively sought a Napoleon among generals” like Lebed, Rutskoy, Rokhlin, and Gromov. But “no one came forward” because was needed was “not simply a general but a victorious hero.”
And one was found: “not an army general but a state security colonel in reserve” – Vladimir Putin who “began to realize the Bonapartist model almost in a classical form.” Having defeated the Chechens, he showed himself to be a hero. He restored “the balance between force and law.” And “he showed his effectiveness as a state builder.”
But Putin has run into the problem of succession, into the difficult that “a Bonaparte can be overthrown but he cannot simply leave.” The “tandem” he set up undercuts the Bonapartist requirement for the centralization and personalization of power. Dmitry Medvedev might have succeeded in replacing Putin by means of the August 2008 war, but he didn’t or couldn’t.
Putin could return as a Bonaparte, but if he “does not want to,” there is another possibility: “it is not too late for him to become a Bismarck,” an arrangement that is “not 100-percent Bonapartism but close” and that would allow him to play “the role of the founder of an empire if not of a dynasty,” crowning Medvedev but remaining “the ‘eternal’ chancellor.”
In any case, Girenko concludes, Bonapartism has a future in Russia because given the existing challenges the country faces and the inability of the normal actors to fulfill the role of change agents, no other political system – regardless of the variant its leaders choose -- offers Russia a way out.