There are clearly big disagreements among the American ruling class. Donald Trump is President of the United States, despite having a large number of adversaries in powerful places. Congress continues to investigate Trump for alleged ties to Russia, with leftist comedian Randy Credico being subpoenaed and former national security advisor Michael Flynn pleading guilty to perjury. Meanwhile, an unprecedented number of public figures have been fired or stepped down in a wave of sexual assault and harassment allegations.
This is just the latest episode in an ongoing drama. As the impoverished countries of the world have been asserting their economic independence, centered around Russia and China, the circles of wealth and power in the United States have long disagreed about how to respond. Disagreements about geopolitics, which become particularly intense in the context of domestic unrest, has been the basis for lots of Bonapartist maneuvering in modern American history.
The Marxist Concept of Bonapartism
The conception of US politics held by a stereotypical Marxist is “They are all bad! All the politicians work for big money interests! We need a working class revolution to get rid of them all!” While this may be common among those who have only a basic understanding of Marxian thinking, this was certainly not the analysis of Karl Marx when observing french politics in 1851.
When military officials dubbed “The Party of Order” grouped around the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte took over France, government policies changed significantly. It was not a revolution, but an attempt to make the system function better with authoritarian methods. Marx observed and studied the 1851 coup, composing his famous pamphlet “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” He came to understand that when the rate of profit falls, and instability abounds, the rich and powerful begin fighting among themselves.
The new French regime built railroads, legalized labor unions and strikes, created hospitals for poor people, and enacted other dramatic reforms hoping to restore stability. Louis Napoleon violently suppressed many wealthy french capitalists who wanted “laissez faire” policies to continue. The reforms enacted by the “Party of Order” were only a temporary fix, and 20 years later France was once again in a crisis, with the Paris Commune emerging in 1871. When one section of the rich violently suppresses others, and takes dramatic action at the expense of other capitalists, this is what Marxists call “Bonapartism.”
In recent American history, the key issue of division among America’s ruling elite has been how to combat the rise of Russia and China as competitors on the global stage. The rise of the Eurasian superpowers is something the billionaire monopolists who run the USA find intolerable. But what can be done about it? On this point, the powers that be often disagree, and clash with each other.
“I Welcome Their Hatred!”
In the 1930s, the Soviet Union became a superpower. The five year plans brought the country into the 20th century, with the world’s largest hydro-electrical power plant, record amounts of steel production, the elimination of illiteracy, and modern housing provided to the population. Meanwhile, the western world was having a depression, with huge amounts of unemployment and poverty.
The new strength of the Soviet Union was seen as a huge threat to the power of American capitalism. However, Italy, Japan, and Germany also became enemies of the United States during this period. Germany refused to pay its debt to American bankers, repudiated the Versailles Treaty, and began expanding across Europe. Italy seized Ethiopia, and Japan continued to contend with the United States in the pacific.
The Soviet Union wanted to align with the United States against the fascist governments of Italy, Germany, and Japan. However, most of the wealthy people in the United States hated the Soviet Union and were very threatened by the Marxist-Leninist ideas it spread across the planet with the Communist International.
Roosevelt clearly represented a wing of the American political establishment that favored an alliance with the Soviet Union against Germany, Italy, and Japan. The Rockefeller Family, which controlled Standard Oil, and had backed Roosevelt since his earliest days in politics, seemed to share this position. However, the Morgans, Henry Ford, and all of the other rich and powerful people in the USA, disagreed.
In order to carry out his pro-Soviet foreign policy, Roosevelt became probably the most definitively bonapartist figure in US history. Roosevelt passed sweeping economic reforms, hiring millions of unemployed people with the Works Progress Administration. Roosevelt created unemployment insurance, social security, and passed the Wagner Act, guaranteeing the right to strike. Roosevelt sent the US military to protect striking workers in Michigan, and attempted to pack the US Supreme Court so it could not get in the way of his policies. These economic reforms won Roosevelt a huge level of support among the population.
In 1933, US Marine Corp General Smedley Butler testified before Congress about how certain wealthy interests were involved in the “Business Plot” for a military coup to remove Roosevelt. Speaking in Madison Square Garden in 1936, Roosevelt described the opposition to him among the corporate boardrooms and Wall Street suites, and received a thunderous standing ovation after proclaiming: “I welcome their hatred!”
A Congressional Committee led by Martin Dies investigated Roosevelt for alleged ties to the Communist Party and the National Youth Congress. In an act of defiance, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited members of the Young Communist League to sleep over at the White House while they were in Washington to testify.
Roosevelt was wildly popular among American people, despite hostility from almost all but a few of the ruling elite. Roosevelt is the longest serving President in American history, and term limits were added to the constitution after his death. Due to Roosevelt’s bonapartist maneuvering, the US entered an alliance with the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communists on the basis of anti-fascism. This alliance ended after Roosevelt died, and the Second World War concluded.
Kennedy’s Soft Power Approach
In 1961 when John F. Kennedy was elected President, disagreements about how to relate to Russia and China were everywhere in America. 1950s Mccarthyism had died down, and fear of nuclear war was widespread. The Soviet Union was actively publicizing Jim Crow Segregation and racism in the United States, using the issue to discredit US claims about “freedom” and “democracy.” The Korean War, and the various proxy military conflicts across the world, did not seem to be halting the rise of Communism.
However, Stalin had died, and Khrushchev was offering a much more conciliatory tone to Washington. China, on the other hand, was presenting itself as a fountainhead of communist and anti-colonial revolution. Among the Central Intelligence Agency and the northern wing of the Democratic Party, there was a feeling that a “soft power” strategy might be more effective in moving against Russia and China. These forces also felt that Jim Crow segregation was too expensive and was an embarrassment to the USA.
John F. Kennedy took office talking of negotiations with Moscow and a stronger role for the United Nations. He also mouthed support for the civil rights movement. Kennedy talked of how “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable” and pushed allies of the USA around the world such as the Shah of Iran and the various regimes of Latin America, to make symbolic concessions, land reforms, while loosening their authoritarianism. Kennedy strongly favored the covert wing of the US government, operating behind the scenes to fund anti-communist paramilitary forces and stage coups, while the President could maintain a “Mr. Nice Guy” image of Washington on the global stage.
Kennedy pushed very hard to implement his soft power strategy, and made a point of utilizing the “ban the bomb” activists and civil rights marchers as his foot soldiers against Pentagon hardliners. When the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba failed, Kennedy refused to send in the US military. He also refused to further escalate US involvement in Vietnam. Military leaders openly voiced contempt for his “soft” and “weak” foreign policy approach. Southern Democrats couldn’t stand his perceived alliance with Martin Luther King Jr. The John Birch Society and other right-wing activists hated Kennedy with a passion, calling him a Soviet agent and traitor.
Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, a stronghold of military and right-wing opposition to his policies. Lee Harvey Oswald, said to be his assassin in the “official story” appeared to be a Marxist, but many remain unsatisfied with this version of events. Kennedy was never a bonapartist, but there were very big fears that he could become one. He attempted to push a very specific “soft power” strategy against Russia and China which most of the American elite rejected. After Kennedy’s death, US military involvement in Vietnam escalated significantly.
“Law and Order” for “The Silent Majority”
By 1968, the international and domestic crisis which Kennedy had intended to resolve with conciliatory words had further escalated. Black rebellions had swept almost every urban center following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. The USA was losing the Vietnam War, humiliated by the Tet Offensive, and student protests against the war were shaking the country. Richard Nixon, who Kennedy had defeated in 1960, took office, sounding a lot like the “Party of Order” in 1851 France.
Nixon’s speeches in the 1968 election pioneered neoconservative rhetoric in the USA for future decades. Nixon said he represented the “silent majority,” the millions of white middle class Americans who thought the anti-war protesters were disgraceful and were terrified of the Black urban rebellions. Nixon spoke of “Law and Order,” and promised to restore domestic tranquility while bringing “an honorable end” to the Vietnam war.
Nixon was not afraid to take strong actions against rivals. Nixon kept his campaign promise to fire Ramsey Clark, the liberal reformer who had been running the Justice Department. Nixon unleashed J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, who previous administrations had tried to restrain. The COINTELPRO program escalated with a wave political repression against Black Nationalist and left-wing activists.
Like all bonapartist figures, Nixon built a mass movement behind himself. In Manhattan, the country watched the “hard hat riots” as construction workers were mobilized to attack anti-war and counterculture youth. Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the cult leader from South Korea, was imported to the United States. Moon’s followers worked day and night on behalf of Nixon and against his opponents, even staging a hunger strikes.
Nixon had taken office promising economic liberalism, and bringing Milton Friedman into the White House. However, when the economy went bad, Nixon booted Friedman out of his administration, proclaiming “We are all Keynesians now!” Despite his pro-market campaign words, he enacted a series of economic reforms, creating wage controls, price controls, workplace health and safety laws, as well as environmental legislation. He also supported and passed a constitutional amendment, lowering the voting age to 18.
Nixon recognized the People’s Republic of China, and worked with the Chinese government against the Soviet Union. After his “secret plan” of massive bombing failed to secure victory in Vietnam, Nixon withdrew US forces from the country, and ended the war. All of these moves were wildly controversial, and the typical, gentlemanly rule by consensus among the US elite would never have permitted such changes. Nixon swiftly enacted policies with authoritarian methods, seeing it as a mechanism for ending the turmoil.
Despite infuriating many rich and powerful people, Nixon achieved his goals, and the crisis ended. By 1974, when Nixon resigned, the USA was “back to normal.” Americans were already reminiscing about all the confusion “back in the 60s.” His bonapartist methods had been successful.
He left office in complete disgrace after the Watergate Scandal, hated by the US public. With no crisis on the global and domestic stage, Nixon’s strong-armed approach was no longer needed. Nixon’s Bonapartism had served its purpose. US society was ready to return to a looser style of government, and Nixon’s “enemies list” and spying on political rivals was a source of national outrage.
Will Trump Triumph?
The specter of bonapartism once again hangs over America. Donald Trump, like Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Nixon represents a minority within the US political establishment, with a possible policy difference related to relations with Russia and China. Like the previous figures who toyed with bonapartism, Trump continues to try and build a movement among the public to back him up against rival sections of the US elite.
However, Trump seems to have compromised much of his agenda in international politics, while facing a huge amount of difficulty enacting his policies. Trump has embraced the Saudi monarchy, which he denounced on the campaign trail, and directly attacked the Syrian government with cruise missiles. Trump’s plan for building a giant wall on the US border does not seem to be going anywhere, and his calls for building infrastructure across the country also seems to have flopped.
However, Trump’s first term in office is far from over, and some of his policies, such as the travel ban and rescinding of the Trans Pacific Partnership, have represented a bold shift. Trump continues to make statements on social media and in TV interviews, which deeply offend powerful people.
The US economy remains in turmoil, with wages lower than ever, despite low unemployment numbers. Household debt is at record levels, and the opioid epidemic keeps rising. Internationally, Russia and China continue to rise and exist as an alternative pole in geopolitics, while instability continues within the United States.
Amid the crisis, many within the ruling elite of the USA desperately want a “party of order” that can make the turmoil cease. However, this cannot be done without working against the interests of lots of entrenched power. Each and every wealthy American capitalist wants the crisis to be resolved at the expense of someone else, not themselves, and will protect their own profits in political battles.
If Trump is unable to resolve the crisis, other Bonapartist figures will undoubtedly emerge. If Trump cannot be the savior American capitalism longs for, infighting among the ruling elite is likely to become even more complex.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.