Marxism and Leninism developed a vocabulary of political terms that included Bonapartism, derived from their analysis of the career of Napoleon Bonaparte. Karl Marx was a student of Jacobinism and the French Revolution, and was a contemporary critic of the Second Republic and Second Empire. He used "Bonapartism" to refer to a situation in which counter-revolutionary military officers seize power from revolutionaries, and use selective reforms to co-opt the radicalism of the popular classes. Marx argued that in the process, Bonapartists preserve and mask the power of a narrower ruling class.
According to his essay "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon" (1852), Marx believed that both Napoleon and his nephew Napoleon III had corrupted revolutions in France in this way. In this document, he drew attention to what he calls the phenomenon's repetitive history by saying: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."
More generally, "Bonapartism" may be used to describe the replacement of civilian leadership by military leadership within revolutionary movements or governments. Many modern-day Trotskyists and other leftists use the phrase "left Bonapartist" to describe those, such as Stalin and Mao, who controlled 20th-century bureaucratic socialist regimes. In addition, Leon Trotsky was accused of using his position as commander of the Red Army to gain top-level power after Lenin's death.
Noted political scientists and historians greatly differ on the definition and interpretation of Bonapartism. Sudhir Hazareesingh's book The Legend of Napoleon explores numerous interpretations of the term. He says that it refers to a "popular national leader confirmed by popular election, above party politics, promoting equality, progress, and social change, with a belief in religion as an adjunct to the State, a belief that the central authority can transform society and a belief in the 'nation' and its glory and a fundamental belief in national unity." Hazareesingh believes that although recent research shows Napoleon used forced conscription of French troops, some men must have fought believing in Napoleon's ideals. He says that to argue Bonapartism co-opted the masses is an example of the Marxist perspective of false consciousness: the idea that the masses can be manipulated by a few determined leaders in the pursuit of ends.
Philosophically, Bonapartism was Napoleon's adaptation of principles of the French Revolution to suit his imperial form of rule. Desires for public order, French national glory, and emulation of the Roman Empire had combined to create a Caesaristcoup d'etat for General Bonaparte on 18 Brumaire. Though he espoused adherence to revolutionary precedents, he "styled his direct and personal rule on the Old Regime monarchs." For Bonapartists, the most significant lesson of the Revolution was that unity of government and the governed was paramount.
The honey bee was a prominent political emblem for both the First and Second Empires. It represents the Bonapartist ideal of devoted service, self-sacrifice and social loyalty.