Thursday, 25 June 2015

Boy's Own History

Andrew Roberts' three-part TV series Napoleon was a distillation of his 2014 book, Napoleon the Great. The heroic nature of the undertaking is obvious from the title of the more substantial work. What the TV adaptation provided, with the British historian outlining his case in rooms done out in First Empire bling, was a life-story with plenty of ormolu knobs on. What was fitfully entertaining was seeing a classic French narrative delivered in high Tory style, though the conservative admiration for Boney shouldn't surprise us too much. Winston Churchill surely learned as much from the career of the Corsican Ogre as he did from that of the first Duke of Marlborough, while Nigel Farage clearly owes more to bonapartisme than the political theory of Wellington. Roberts is an unapologetic apologist for the great man theory of history. Though he was frank in his admissions of Bonaparte's war crimes and egotism, the series was essentially a defence of enlightened despotism, in which Roberts brimmed with glee when Bonaparte was shown to be sculpting history to his will.

Historians are much taken with military metaphors: they marshal facts, they survey the field, they call up reinforcements. If most historians are experts in patient siegecraft, or the concentration of overwhelming force on the enemy's weak points, there remains a strand of historiography whose "dash" recalls the swift manoeuvring and daring gambles of the early Napoleonic era. This cavalier approach has a particular attraction to Thatcherite Tory historians, such as Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson, which stands in contrast to the more pessimistic and puritan tone of an earlier generation of Tories, such as Corelli Barnett, for whom all was decline, wasted opportunity and the vulgarity of the modern. Barnett wrote a particularly scathing biography of Bonaparte in 1978, which emphasised his opportunism, luck and the indulgence of a Mafia-like family of grasping relatives (there were odd echoes of Anthony Burgess's 1974 novel, Napoleon Symphony, with its ironically quotidien take on Bonaparte's story).

Roberts is a far better historian than Ferguson, both in print and on screen, being less manipulative with the facts and motivated by boyish enthusiasm (he was much taken with Napoleonic military fashions) rather than partisan contempt, but he does share the Scot's weakness for the counterfactual, with much fretting over where Bonaparte "went wrong". This reflects the Tory view that history is advanced by pivotal decisions taken by key individuals, rather than the interplay of class interests, which under-estimates the constraints on choice - i.e. determinism - whether economic, geographical or cultural. But this emphasis on choice is a double-edged sword. Roberts bemoans that Bonaparte failed to take his generals advice at Borodino and after, and that at Waterloo he lacked enough experienced marshals to offer any. This could be taken as evidence that the genius of Napoleon in the field was a more collegiate affair than history has hitherto allowed, which rather undermines Roberts' own thesis, or it could be taken as evidence that the enemy had learnt from their defeats and were now narrowing the options for the French, suggesting that Bonaparte's "edge" was significantly determined by his opponents inadequacies over the decade between 1799 and 1809.

Bonaparte's military genius was built on foundations bequeathed first by the Ancien Regime, notably the advances in artillery under Gribeauval, and then by the Revolution, particularly the levée en masse and the creation of large, conscript armies. In the early 1790s, a French artillery officer with a pragmatic political stance and contacts in the National Convention was in a sweet spot. Both improved field artillery and conscript armies would be gradually adopted by France's continental enemies, narrowing the military gap and leading to the strategic reverses after 1812 (Bonaparte's first battlefield defeat was at Asper-Essling in 1809). The adoption of the Corps d'Armée system was a major advance for which Bonaparte can take credit, but it was also an inevitable consequence of the expansion in the size of armies in the field. Though Bonaparte was undoubtedly a general with a genius for outflanking, it's easy to forget that many of his battles were won by throwing large numbers of troops into frontal assaults ("toujours l'attaque") after the enemy had been manoeuvred into a vulnerable position and then battered with cannon - e.g. at Austerlitz and Wagram.

The later carnage at Borodino and Leipzig was a logical extension of the tactics employed at Austerlitz, Bonaparte's most famous victory, where the enemy centre collapsed and French casualties were light. The difference was that the enemy was now more adroit at manoeuvring, thus denying Bonaparte the opportunity to outflank, resistant to feints, and better able to mass large armies in the field and wear the French down. Russia's scorched earth retreat in 1812 and the initially defensive and then offensive manoeuvring of the Allied forces ahead of Waterloo were examples of the maturity of Bonaparte's opponents, but they also highlighted the limits of the French Emperor's imagination: he had no plan B. Though it was fought a century later, the Somme was in many ways a typical Napoleonic battle. Just as the German success in the East at Tannenberg recalled the rapid manoeuvring and outflanking of Bonaparte, the stalemate on the Western Front was reminiscent of the bloody attrition of Leipzig and Waterloo.

There was a strong element of contemporary propaganda in Roberts' language, with much ahistorical talk of "meritocracy", "hard work" and "strivers", which will have pleased his mate in Number 10, though he failed to spot the contradiction in his dismissal of Bonaparte's incompetent brothers, plonked on various petty thrones across Europe, and his praise for the promotion of able generals from humble origins. Roberts correctly noted that Bonaparte's political constituency centred on the bourgeois who had secured property and economic rights through the dispossession of the church and aristocracy, but he was guilty of accepting Bonaparte's own propaganda about preserving the gains of the Revolution. What the period after the coup of 18 Brumaire meant in practice was the consolidation of a bourgeois reaction, the establishment of a new nobility, the suppression of democracy, and the reversal of gains by workers, women and West Indian slaves.

Napoleon (the historical icon, as opposed to the mundane Bonaparte) was a "new type of man", hence his emblematic importance in art and philosophy, from Beethoven's Eroica to Nietzsche's Ubermensch. A key element of his novelty was the belief, popularised by Rousseau, that talent could be found at any level of the social order. This was a profoundly destabilising idea for a society with so much invested in hierarchy - and the France of the First Empire was just as minutely obsessed with grades and status as the Ancien Regime - but it could be controlled if that talent was seen to be rare: a biological "sport" that required reclassification and absorption into the hierarchy. The persistent nineteenth century trope of the madman claiming to be Napoleon reflected the psychological ambivalence of this attitude: the exceptional was simultaneously possible and impossible.

The strategy of co-option required an emphasis on the unusual nature of talent, to emphasise that a general reordering of society through a true "meritocracy" was not on the cards: the elevation of a man, not mankind. The tension in this idea - the frontal assault of individual ambition on an initially resistant but finally surrendering society - would provide fertile soil for early nineteenth century literature, most notably Stendahl and Balzac in France, but extending also to Thackeray and Dickens in England and many others across the continent. The idea lives on today in debased form, in national lotteries and TV talent shows. Though the common soldier might have had a marshal's baton in his knapsack, the primacy of military "gloire" reflected the continuation of an aristocratic ideology and thus served to contain the revolutionary implications of Bonaparte's apercu. Roberts did mention the Code Napoleon and various other administrative reforms enacted under the Empire - they could hardly be ignored given their longevity and influence - but he was reluctant to dwell on Bonaparte the bureaucrat. He preferred the man of action - the adventurer finally and tragically reduced to boredom on Saint Helena. This was a Boy's Own history.


  1. Herbie Causes Extinction25 June 2015 at 17:37

    I presume the great man theory of history says, in order to have real progress for everyone we must allow great men to have their way. Let war decide when 2 great men face off!

    There is another way of looking at the great men theory however. We could say, yes history has thus far been about great men but history has also been about the gradual weakening and eradication of their absolute powers and what has been the result? Great and unparalleled progress! So the lesson of history is that weakening the influence of great men is the most productive battle that can be fought!

    And now we can look back on those great men with a mixture of admiration and a wry smile!

  2. One problem with historians is they often have poor math skills. George Osborne for example. Historians have little sense of probability. Class interests and underlying demographic, technological and economic factors must win out in the end. The timing of key turning points may just be random. Great men of history may just be the guys who happen to be holding the dice. Napoleon may have had a sense for this he valued lucky generals.

    Roberts was enthusiastic about the fantastic social mobility demonstrated by the Marshals of France. If you setup the guillotine and start creating space at the top social mobility is possible. Sadly no such concrete practical solutions from Alan Milburn. Isn't a social mobility tsar a contradiction in terms.

    1. Indeed. The political tsar/czar term appears to have started life as an ambivalent response to Progressive era state intervention in the US. For a while, "czar" was used to describe both Federal government agents (e.g. Hoover of the FBI) and their opponents (e.g. Frank Costello of the Mob). The term became increasingly identified with central planning during WW2. Depending on your ideological priors, this could be seen as either evidence of the inefficiency of government bureaucracy or a logical response to the increasing complexity of the modern state.

      A pivot occured in the 70s when the term was used to address external and existentially-framed threats, as opposed to problems of coordination, notably drugs and the energy crisis. From that time on, czars were increasingly performative and propagandistic roles - i.e. their presence meant to show either that government cared about an issue (despite little executive action), or that the President wished to bypass an obstructive Congress (i.e. revealing the limits of democracy).

      It was after this that the term was imported (as "tsar") to the UK, as part of the argot of neoliberalism. You can now take it as read that the appointment of a tsar either means "we're going to do bugger all" (e.g. the social mobility tsar), or we're going to "challenge conventional wisdom" (e.g. the poverty tsar), which usually means we're going to make the problem worse.