Engels, Boulanger and the Fight Against Fascism

by Doug Enaa Greene on March 27, 2016


Frederick Engels

Dedicated to my friend and comrade, Harrison, who apparently possesses telepathy.

The rise of Donald Trump and his odious brand of right-wing populism has been one of the hallmarks of 2016’s election season. Certainly, Trump is an odious person who hates women, calls Mexicans rapists and criminals, and (not so subtly) courts support from white supremacists. He openly invites his followers, who seem to be coming out of the woodwork, to commit violence. Across the liberal and left spectrum, there has been debate on what Trump represents: Clown? Demagogue? Populist? Fascist?

The question is not simply academic. On Saturday, March 11, 2016, protesters in Chicago, many of whom support the social democrat Bernie Sanders shut down a planned Trump rally. In response, Donald Trump has threatened Sanders’ supporters with violence. If Trump is a fascist, does that mean socialists and communists should support Bernie Sanders as part of a united front, and by extension, the Democratic Party? For many leftists, support for the Democrats, could potentially mean subordinating mass actions and independent initiatives into the safe and demobilizing channels for the “friendly face” of the US Empire. Already, the historical analogies are out about the danger of the hour about the need to fight fascism, in the form of Trump and the GOP, above everything: Popular Front and“Unite to Defeat the ultra-right!” (a favorite mantra of the CPUSA) which all leads to another round of “lesser evilism.” Leftists who refuse to support the Democrats against Trump and the GOP are branded as purists and sectarians.

If we are to effectively fight the far right and Trump, we can learn a thing or two from Frederick Engels who dealt with the proto-fascist movement surrounding George Boulanger in 1880s France and offered concrete strategies for how to fight it.


In 1870, France had established its Third Republic, which bore the scars of its birth in defeat at the hands of Imperial Germany, who annexed the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, and revolution of the Paris Commune which was put down without mercy. Throughout the life of the Republic, its ruling class feared the specter of further red revolution at the hands of the “dangerous classes” and yearned for revenge against Germany. Although the chances for a restoration of the monarchy ended following the elections of 1877, the exiled dynasties still yearned and plotted for the downfall of the “Godless Republic.”

By the 1880s, France was governed by the “Opportunistic Republicans,” who favored moderate social and political reform. Yet the Opportunist regimes, despite their commitment to the Republic, were marked with instability, corruption, political patronage, and scandals. France was also in the midst of a long economic recession with the workers suffering privation and unemployment.

The labor movement, which had been driven underground following the Commune had revived, unions were legalized in 1884, and strikes often led to clashes with the police and army. Organized socialism had also gained a foothold in France, albeit the movement was fractured into several different organizations: reform minded social democrats, syndicalists, followers of the nationalist Jacobin communism of Louis-Auguste Blanqui, a Marxist-wing led by Jules Guesde (who’s vulgarization of socialism caused Marx no end of headaches).

National humiliation, economic crisis and political corruption all served to discredit not only the ruling parties, but the Republic itself, opening the door to the rise of Boulanger.


General Georges Boulanger (1837-1891) was a career military officer who had been decorated for bravery in the Franco-Prussian War and had taken part in the suppression of the Paris Commune. Despite the blood of workers on his hands, Boulanger’s later stronghold were in the working class districts of Paris. By the 1880s, Boulanger headed the War Ministry, making a name for himself as a reformer by improving morale and efficiency, winning him the support of conscript soldiers. Boulanger was also one of the loudest and most uncompromising voices demanding revenge against Germany, earning him the nickname of Général Revanche (revenge). Boulanger also received support from the public as France expanded her colonial empire.

In 1887, Boulanger continually provoked the Germans and during the Schnaebelé Affair, his actions not only almost caused a war, but after the Germans backed down, this shored up his nationalist credentials. Following a change in government, he was removed from the Ministry of War in May 1887. The government decided to take a further step and remove Boulanger from Paris. Yet in July, when his train left, Boulanger, a crowd attempted to prevent his departure. Boulanger’s popularity was apparent during an election in a district of the Seine when received 100,000 votes, despite not being a candidate.

A movement was born. In 1888-9, Boulanger gathered thousands of supporters in the face of a corrupt government that seemed more concerned with their own profit as opposed to the good of France. He won elections in seven districts, he was seen not only by workers, but many in the middle classes as a “man on horseback” who would avenge France’s defeat at the hands of Germany, favor the common man and revise the Republic’s constitution. For enemies of the Republic, whether left-wing nationalist Blanquists, anti-Semites, or exiled royalists (who provided the bulk of his financial support), his rise portended the downfall of the hated regime.

In January 1889, Boulanger stood as a candidate in Paris, winning the election by 244,000 votes to 160,000. In the victory celebrations, Boulanger was urged to seize power via a coup. His nerve failed and Boulanger did not take the opportunity. Finally, the Republic moved against the popular general with legal action. Fearing his immediate arrest, Boulanger fled to Belgium with his mistress. Boulanger’s image was destroyed overnight and the movement surrounding him quickly collapsed (the Blanquist Party split apart as a result). In 1891, a disgraced Boulanger committed suicide.


Although the Boulangist movement appeared to be ephemeral in retrospect, Frederick Engels paid close attention to it. Engels saw the threat of a Boulanger dictatorship, warning socialists in France:

The finest thing of it all is that three months after these two congresses Boulanger will be in all probability dictator of France, do away with parliamentarism, epurate the judges under pretext of corruption, have a gouvernement à poigne and a chambre pour rire (trans. mock chamber), and crush Marxists, Blanquists and Possibilists all together. And then, ma belle France—tu l’as voulu! (trans. my beautiful France – that’s what you wanted!)

Engels recognized the danger of a Boulangist dictatorship as spelling the end not only to the socialist movement in France, but the Third Republic itself. For him, the question was not just how to analyze Boulangism, but how to fight it.

Engels had to contend with two currents within the Marxist-wing of the French socialist movement. On the one hand, Jules Guesde saw the fight between Boulanger and the Opportunists was a feud between two sections of the bourgeoisie that the working class had no stake in. Guesde summed up this position with the phrase (‘Ni Rue de Seze ni Rue Cadet!’) or “Between cholera and the plague, one does not choose.” Engels was enraged, writing of the general’s ties to royalists and that his threat of war would be used to kill off the workers’ movement. Engels warned the socialists not to let their hatred of the radicals and the Republic blind them to the threat of a right-wing dictatorship.

Engels told the workers that the defense of democracy was vital, so vital in fact, that its defense could not be left to the bourgeois. Rather the preservation of democratic freedoms needed to be led by the socialists, using revolutionary means.

In contrast to Guesde’s abstentionism, there were socialists attracted to Boulanger, not only extended to the nationalist Blanquist socialists, but amongst Marxists such as Paul Lafargue (Marx’s son-in-law). Lafargue believed that due to Boulanger’s popularity that socialists shouldn’t attack him for fear of being isolated. Lafargue feared that if the socialists attacked Boulanger, they would be mistaken as bourgeois republicans, losing them votes.

However, Engels warned that it was not the job of socialists to just go along with the tide, even if it appeared momentarily popular, stating that such a course was bankrupt. Rather, socialists needed to take a long-term view and not just follow whatever was popular:

But if we are not to go against the popular current of momentary tomfoolery, what in the name of the devil is our business?

What Engels stressed to Lafargue and Guesde was that the options before them were not simply between the Opportunists and Boulanger, but that there was a third option of independent political action by the working class. He urged the socialists to put up their own candidates, opposed to those of both camps. When the Marxists put up their own candidate in Paris in 1889, Engels hailed it as “at least one step in the right direction by proclaiming the necessity of an independent socialist candidature.” As Engels, reminded Lafargue, “For the past twenty years we have been advocating the formation of a Party that was distinct from and opposed to all bourgeois parties.”

What Engels advocated to the POF, was not renouncing the fight against Boulanger or seeing him as just another inter-bourgeois affair, but that the working class needed democratic freedoms with their own revolutionary means, as opposed to ruling class moderation and mere reliance on the ballot box. And in order to defeat reaction, the working class needs their own flag in the field – an independent political party with its own revolutionary agenda.

Doug Enaa Greene is an independent communist historian living in the greater Boston area. He is the author of the forthcoming book Specters of Communism, on the French communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Wayne Price March 27, 2016 at 3:43 pm

For more of a thorough discussion of Engels’ strategic proposals for how to deal with someone such as Boulanger, see Hal Draper (1990) Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. IV, Monthly Review; chap. 8 “Of Boulangism: The Politics of the Third Way.”


Doug Enaa March 27, 2016 at 11:37 pm

Thanks Wayne. Although this article doesn’t have footnotes, that was one of the sources consulted.


Michael Yates March 27, 2016 at 8:11 pm

Nice piece, Doug. It points out, by use of an historical example, the folly of going all-in for Sanders and, in realty, for the Democratic Party.


Curtis Hansoni March 28, 2016 at 12:35 am

This is timely. Far too many on the Left are falling for the SD line and getting sucked into the bourgeois party which will deliver only authoritarianism and death. LIberation can never be gotten from Capitalists. Only in spite of them, over top of them.


patmcclung March 28, 2016 at 9:47 am

The answer is, of course, dependent upon whether Sanders wins the Democratic Party presidential nomination. I don’t consider this even a remote possibility, but, in the event that I am wrong, then I think Socialists should support him (AFTER the nomination, but not before). If Sanders loses the Democratic nomination to one of the Four Horsewomen of the Humanitarian Intervention Apocalypse, he will then be forced to show his true colors, choose between Armageddon or revolt, and we will see whether I was right or wrong re supporting him pre-nomination.


Aaron Aarons June 9, 2016 at 3:00 pm

It seems that what tied sections of the French working class of the 1880’s to the fascistic Boulanger is the same thing that ties much of the United Snakes working class today to Donald Trump: imperialist-nation identity politics, which is something that “leftist” critics of the “identity politics” of oppressed groups somehow hardly notice.

BTW, Boulanger started his military career in Algeria in the 1850’s, fighting to establish French rule there. I don’t know how, if at all, that affected his perception by French workers decades later.


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