Michael Roberts – Napoleon’s war economy

Napoleon lost because Britain could outspend and out-manufacture him.

Michael Roberts is an Economist in the City of London and a prolific blogger

Cross-posted from Michael Roberts’ blog


Ridley Scott’s new film on Napoleon Bonaparte has been criticized from many angles.  Filmwise, some reckon it is boring, inexplicable in parts and inaudible in others.  Historical critics claim that it is just not historically correct – to which Scott retorted that “Excuse me, mate, were you there? No? Well, shut the fuck up then.”  Clearly, Scott has a great understanding of the point of historical research.

However, my criticism of the film is that there is no real explanation of why Napoleon rose to the top in the French revolution, why he won his battles and why he lost the war in the end.  Moreover, as others have pointed out, the film takes the view that the revolution turned into terror and then dictatorship and that is the way of all revolutions where the ‘mob’ is involved.  This conventional reactionary angle leaves out some of the key changes that the revolution achieved and Napoleon introduced.

Indeed, it is the economics of Bonaparte’s war against the reactionary monarchial powers of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia that is missing from Scott’s primitive biopic which concentrates on the battles, his personality and on his sexual relationship with Joséphine de Beauharnais, the daughter of a slave-owning sugar planter.  Yes, individuals can affect history, but as Marx pointed out in his essay, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (when analysing the coming to absolute power of Napoleon’s nephew ‘Emperor’ Louis in 1852): “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Napoleon started as a radical revolutionary supporting the Jacobin regime and ended up as an ‘emperor’ (much to the disgust of democrats like the composer Beethoven who in protest removed his dedication to Napoleon for one of his symphonies).  Napoleon came to power as the defender of the republic, but he turned a war of defence into wars of conquest for an empire in Europe to compensate for the empire that had been lost in India, the Caribbean and North America in the latter part of the 18th century. Millions of combatants and civilians died in the ‘Napoleonic wars’., the same number proportionately as in the WW1.

The term Bonapartism was coined to describe how one man can gain absolute power in a situation where the class forces are so balanced and unstable that the progressive class forces are unable to rule directly in the face of the opposition of reactionary class forces.

Before Bonaparte, there were other Bonapartes. There was the Roman Julius Caeser, a military leader who leant on the peasant and urban masses against the aristocrats of the Senate and eventually (if briefly) gained autocratic power.  Then in the 1640s England, there was Cromwell, a landowning farmer, who became a military leader in the parliamentary forces that defeated the royalist reaction and then ruled as ‘Lord Protector’ for ten years.  Then there was Stalin, a Bolshevik revolutionary who eventually established a vicious one-man dictatorship resting above and between a weakened workers democracy and the forces of capitalist reaction surrounding Russia.

In his 18th Brumaire Marx reckoned that “Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, and Napoleon” were “the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution” and they “performed the task of …. unchaining and setting up modern bourgeois society. The first ones knocked the feudal basis to pieces and mowed off the feudal heads which had grown on it. The other (Napoleon – MR) created inside France the conditions under which alone free competition could be developed, parceled landed property exploited and the unchained industrial productive power of the nation employed; and beyond the French borders he everywhere swept the feudal institutions away, so far as was necessary to furnish bourgeois society in France with a suitable up-to-date environment on the European Continent.”

The young Jacobin soldier

One man can make history but only within the conditions given.  It was the economic conditions and balance of forces that decided the ‘Napoleonic wars’.  Napoleon won many battles, but he still lost the war.  Why?  The evidence reveals that France just did not have the resources of manpower, arms and, above all, finance to wage a long war against the combined powers of the absolute monarchies backed by the firepower and wealth of a rising hegemonic Britain.

To sustain war depends on two measures: the economic resources available to fund war and the ability to get armaments supplied and fit men to the battlefield.  From 1789 to 1815, France faced seven opposing Coalitions and managed to defeat six.  As one analyst put it: “this feat is often attributed to the tactical and strategic thinking of Napoleon Bonaparte. However, the country was eventually defeated under the pressure from the combined superior economic, demographic, industrial strengths of the Allies.”

The French revolutionary republic after 1789 was immediately faced with a reactionary counter-revolution from the Royalists at home and foreign invasion from abroad.  And it had no money to fund the defence of the republic.  The Jacobin leaders hoped that the confiscation of Church wealth and royal properties would deliver.  But what was raised was just not enough to build a fighting successful army and meet the social needs of a starving population.  So the revolutionary government printed money – indeed there was already private printing of money that was out of their control.  The money supply rocketed and so did inflation.

In 1793, under the Jacobin government, total money in circulation was valued at almost 3 billion francs, more than double the original sum raised from confiscations.  The starving population looted shops for clothes and food.  The government then paid out social benefits to restore stability.  By 1795, total money supply increased to 4.4 billion francs and the franc exchange rate with the British pound plummeted by 45%.  By the point of the counter-revolutionary removal of the Jacobin leadership and the establishment of the Directory, the money supply had multiplied to 20 billion francs, on top of which the government has issued bonds for another 50 billion.

But it was not all disaster, contrary to the views of historians today.  The French republican economy was actually beginning to motor.  Coal production doubled between 1794 and 1800 when Napoleon took over.  Iron production rose 50% and salt by even more.  These were key products for a budding industrial and urbanising economy.  This industrial production was driven by the needs of the war economy.  The French defence industry was developing fast.  Above all, agricultural and food production recovered – if not enough to stop food prices rising.  While Britain’s war economy managed a 25% rise in agricultural production in the first decade of the 1800s, France under Napoleon raised agro production by 500% – but it started from such a low level, even that increase was not enough to meet demands of the army and the civil population’s needs.

The right-wing Directory eventually gave way to a Bonapartist coup in 1799-1800, giving Napoleon supreme powers to ‘save the revolution’ and defeat royalist reaction at home and abroad. Like a good ‘bonapartist’, Napoleon balanced between the class forces of bourgeois and merchants and the ‘masses’ of peasantry and artisans (sans culottes).  Formerly a ‘fellow traveller’ of Robespierre’s Jacobins, he came to power preaching prosperity for the masses over the interests of the big merchants and the aristocracy and ended up as an emperor of Europe.

Emperor Napoleon

Napoleon always stood on the side of the capitalist mode of production against that of feudalism and the ancient regime, despite declaring himself emperor in 1805.  On the other hand, he was strongly opposed to any ‘socialistic’ alternatives that some more radical forces among the Jacobins proposed. Napoleon reckoned that in any society “the abler minority will soon govern the majority and absorb the greater part of the wealth”; as it was human nature: “it is hunger that makes the world move.” As he put it: “Whilst an individual owner, with a personal interest in his property, is always wide awake, and brings his plans to fruition, communal interest is inherently sleepy and unproductive, because individual enterprise is a matter of instinct, and communal enterprise is a matter of public spirit, which is rare.”

“Before 1789,” says Taine, “the peasant paid, on 100 francs’ net income, 14 to the seignior, 14 to the clergy, 53 to the state, and kept only 18 or 19 for himself; after 1800 he pays nothing of his 100 francs of income to the seignior or the clergy; he pays little to the state, only 25 francs to the commune and département, and keeps 70 for his pocket.”  Before 1789 the manual worker laboured from 20-39 working days per year to pay his taxes; after 1800, from six to 19 days and “through the almost complete exemption [from taxes] of those who have no property, the burden of direct taxation now falls almost entirely on those who own property.”

Napoleon introduced a special land registry which by 1814 had registered 37,000,000 plots of land with their owners.  Napoleon reckoned that state “finances founded upon a good system of agriculture never fail.” He introduced protective tariffs, reliable financing and well-maintained transport by roads and canals should encourage the peasants to labor steadily, to buy land, to bring more and more of it under cultivation, and to provide sturdy youngsters for his armies. Too many French farmers were sharecroppers or hired farm laborers, but half a million of them, by 1814, owned the acres that they sowed.

An English lady travelling in France in that year described the peasants as enjoying a degree of prosperity unknown to their class anywhere else in Europe. These tillers of the soil looked to Napoleon as a living guarantee of their title deeds and remained loyal to him until their lands languished in the absence of their conscripted sons.

As Marx put it in the 18th Brumaire: After the first Revolution had transformed the semi-feudal peasants into freeholders, Napoleon confirmed and regulated the conditions in which they could exploit undisturbed the soil of France which they had only just acquired, and could slake their youthful passion for property ….Under Napoleon the fragmentation of the land in the countryside supplemented free competition and the beginning of big industry in the towns. The peasant class was the ubiquitous protest against the recently overthrown landed aristocracy. The roots that small-holding property struck in French soil deprived feudalism of all nourishment. The landmarks of this property formed the natural fortification of the bourgeoisie against any surprise attack by its old overlords.

The workers who dug the canals, raised the triumphal arches and manned the factories were not allowed to go on strike, or to form unions to bargain for better working conditions or higher pay. However, Napoleon’s government saw to it that wages should keep abreast of prices, that bakers and butchers and manufacturers were under state price regulation, and that—especially in Paris—the necessaries of life should be supplied. Until the last years of Napoleon’s rule, wages rose faster than prices and the proletariat shared (modestly) in the general prosperity and proud of Napoleon’s victories.  There was no unemployment, so no political revolt. “Nobody is interested in overthrowing a government in which all the deserving are employed.”, said the great man.

While the reactionary monarchies financed their war by printing money and relying on the huge empire war chests of the British treasury, Napoleon’s France had to rely on domestic taxation, which was never enough, and on booty from conquests in the Netherlands, Italy, Austria and Prussia.  At home, Napoleon sorted out the finances.  Money printing was ended and inflation receded.  And up to at least 1812, war booty usually brought in more than the battles cost.  The defeated countries were charged high fees.

In 1811, Napoleon boasted that he had 300m gold francs in the Caves des Tuileries.  He used this fund to ease stringencies in the Treasury, to correct volatility in the stock market, finance public works or municipal improvements and to pay for his secret police. Enough remained to prepare for the next war and to keep taxes far below their level under Louis XVI.  In 1805, Napoleon reorganized the Bank of France, which had been established in 1800 under private management. This new Banque de France opened branches at Lyons, Rouen, and Lille and began its key role in service to the French capitalist economy and the state.

Banque de France

When Las Cases, an émigré returned in 1805 from a tour of sixty départements, he reported that “France had at no period of her history been more powerful, more flourishing, better governed, and happier.” In 1813 the Comte de Montalivet, minister of the interior, claimed that this continuing prosperity was due to “the suppression of feudalism, titles, mortmain, and monastic orders; … to the more equal distribution of wealth, to the clearness and simplification of the laws.”

But France’s economy was still inefficient when compared to that of Britain. French industry could not meet the demands of the prolonged war that Napoleon initiated and this forced the Grand Armée to rely heavily on war booty.  The irony is that it was Britain that printed money and issued bonds to pay for the war.  But Britain could do that because bond holders could be confident that after the war revenues from Britain’s industrialization and huge colonial empire would easily service such debt. France had no such economic credibility.

The reality was that overall French finances were much lower compared to that of Britain. In 1805, the French budget was just £27m, whereas the British was £76 million. In 1813, the French expenditure rose to £46m but the British budget reached £109 million.  In spite of the continued exploitation of occupied countries, the French government debt rose five times between 1809 and 1813.

In 1800, per capita GDP in England was twice as large as France.

Per capita GDP

For France, booty was the answer.  But these sums began to dry up with growing resistance from and even victories by the European monarchies.  The economic writing was on the wall.  Napoleon’s France could not win the war no matter how many battles he won.  The retreat from Russia signalled the end as Napoleon faced a new coalition of Prussia, Russia and Britain assisted by Sweden and Austria.  Napoleon’s final gambit at Waterloo was made possible by a huge mobilisation of support and financial borrowing. By June 1815, just three months after the arrival of Napoleon from his exile in Elba, the strength of the French army increased from 224,000 men to 662,331 men.  But it was not enough.

Napoleon managed to defeat almost all of France’s continental enemies including Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Italy in most engagements. However, his tactical and strategic skills failed to overcome the two major French deficiencies. First, the economic looting of Europe stressed out the conquered territories and pushed them into nationalist rebellions against him. Second, there was an immense imbalance in economic power between Britain and France. France may have occupied Europe, but Britain had the colonies of America, Canada, Africa, India, and Asia behind it. Britain, based on its international trade, could mobilize more economic resources, raw materials and labour than France. In a prolonged war, Britain could survive longer and better than France.

A lesson to be learnt now – which has the stronger war economy: Ukraine or Russia?

Michael Roberts

“Brave New Europe has made a vital contribution to radical analysis of world events, economic developments and the condition of our planet. It should be supported by all who are striving to make fundamental changes for the better”

Donate: https://braveneweurope.com/donate

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.