[lit-ideas] Flaubert's politics compared with Marx's

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas " <Lit-Ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Mon, 30 Jan 2012 08:12:48 -0800

Flaubert strove to make sense of the politics of the nineteenth century in
the same way that Marx did.  In the "The Politics of Flaubert" Edmund Wilson
writes, "we become aware that Marx and Flaubert started from very similar
assumptions and that they were actuated by moral aims almost equally
uncompromising.  Both implacably hated the bourgeois, and both were resolved
at any cost of worldly success to keep outside the bourgeois system. . .
The author of Das Kapital can hardly, of course be said to have had a very
high opinion of any period of human history; but in comparison with the
capitalist nineteenth century, he did betray a certain tenderness for Greece
and Rome and the Middle Ages. . . ."


"Karl Marx's judgment on his age was the Communist Manifesto. . . Flaubert's
L' Education sentimentale . . . plants deep in our mind an idea which we
never quite get rid of: the suspicion that our middle-class society of
manufacturers, businessmen and bankers, of people who live on or deal in
investments, so far from being redeemed by its culture, has ended by
cheapening and invalidating all the departments of culture, political,
scientific, artistic and religious, as well as corrupting and weakening the
ordinary human relations: love, friendship and loyalty to cause - till the
whole civilization seems to dwindle." 


In Flaubert's novel "There are no hero, no villain, to arouse us, no clowns
to entertain us, no scenes to wring our hearts.  Yet the effect is deeply
moving.  It is the tragedy of nobody in particular, but of the poor human
race itself reduced to such ineptitude, such cowardice, such commonness such
weak irresolution - arriving, with so many fine notions in its head, so many
noble words on its lips, at a failure which is all the more miserable
because those who have failed in their roles have even forgotten what roles
they were cast for. . . ."


"The one conspicuous respect in which Flaubert's point of view on the events
of 1848 diverges from that of Marx has been thrown into special relief by
the events of our own time [This essay appears in The Triple Thinkers which
was first published in 1948].  For Marx, the evolution of the socialist into
a proletarian-persecuting policeman would have been blamed on the bourgeois
in Senecal (a Socialist who becomes a policeman and shoots a proletarian
Flaubert describes favorably); for Flaubert, it is a development of
socialism implicit in socialist beginnings.  He distrusted . . . the
authoritarian aims of the socialists.  It is Flaubert's conception that
Senecal, given his bourgeois hypocrisy, is still carrying out a socialist
principle - or rather, that his behavior as a policeman and his yearnings
toward socialist control are both derived from his impulse toward despotism.


"We may not be prepared to conclude that the evolution of Senecal represents
the whole destiny of socialism, but we must recognize that Flaubert had here
brought to attention a danger of which Marx was not aware.  We have had the
opportunity to see how even a socialism which has come to power as the
result of a proletarian revolution can breed a political police of almost
unprecedented ruthlessness - how the example of Marx himself, with his
emphasis on dictatorial control rather than on democratic processes, has
contributed to produce this disaster. . . ."  


Flaubert wrote to George Sand about his pessimism.  "Oh, how tired I am of
the ignoble worker, the inept bourgeois, the stupid peasant and the odious
ecclesiastic."  But whereas most of us a century after Flaubert wrote have
selected Liberal Democracy as the lesser of all possible evils, Flaubert
concluded "Our salvation now is in a legitimate aristocracy, by which I mean
a majority which will be made up of something other than numerals."  Wilson
adds, "Renan himself and Taine were having recourse to similar ideas of the
salvation of society through an 'elite.'  In "Flaubert's case . . .  The
Commune [of 1870] has stimulated . . . a demand for his own kind of


Neither Marx nor Flaubert thought the known proletariat capable of acting in
its own best interest.  Marx and Engels thought that the proletariat could
eventually be brought to that place, but Flaubert did not.  "To Flaubert the
proletariat made a certain pathetic appeal, but it seemed to him much too
stupid to act effectively in its own behalf; the Commune threw him into such
a panic that he reviled the Communards as criminals and brutes."


Flaubert become misanthropic:  "Never, my dear old chap, 'he had written
Earnest Feydeau,' have I felt so colossal a disgust for mankind.  I'd like
to drown the human race under my vomit."   And in Bouvard et Pechuchet, left
unfinished at his death "The bourgeois has ceased to preach to the
bourgeois: as the first big cracks begin to show in the structure of the
nineteenth century, he shifts his complaint to the incompetence of humanity,
for he is unable to believe in, or even to conceive, any non-bourgeois way


COMMENT:  Edmund Wilson seems caught up in Flaubert's pessimism.  He read
L'Education sentimentale enough times to eventually appreciate it.  Ford
Madox Ford read it fourteen times.  But neither Wilson nor Ford despaired of
humanity to the extent that Flaubert did who thought an intellectual Elite,
perhaps the sort of elite described by Julien Benda, mankind's only
salvation.  By the end of the Cold War, most of us see Liberal Democracy as
mankind's best hope.  Within our Liberal Democracies the Left longs for a
Paternalistic elite, or a Paternalistically managed system that will care
for them from the "cradle to the grave.'  On the Right side of our Liberal
Democracies is distrust much like Flaubert's.   The benefit of being cared
for by an elite is more than countered by the fear that any elite that has
ever existed has succumbed to that same human nature Flaubert railed
against, and there is no different nature available to any elite that will
exist in our future.  Therefore, many of us exposed to pessimistic writers
continue to believe that we should elect politicians for limited periods of
time and give them very limited powers and hope for the best.  


Some on the Left both in Europe and America expected a more thorough-going
socialism from the Obama administration not fully recognizing that the
checks and balances built into American government prevent any American
executive from overturning Liberal Democracy to that extent.  Those on the
Left with more realistic expectations hoped that Obama would move the U.S.
in the direction of the Welfare Statism of Europe and he has done his best.
Knowing this, will a majority in the U.S. return him to a second term?  Or
will there be a majority who think the time isn't right to vote ourselves
any more entitlements., for once we have them, we learn from France's
experience, we never want to give them up - even if it is proved beyond
doubt that we cannot afford them.

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