Marx and Flaubert-At Opposite Ends of History


Karl Marx and Gustav Flaubert both lived in the middle of the nineteenth century but held very different views on the potential for human progress and the ability of men to effect the course of history. Nowhere is this more apparent than their writings on the series of revolutions that swept the continent in 1848-9, particularly the revolution in France. Marx wrote about the revolution directly in his journalism and theoretical writings. Flaubert addressed the revolution more obliquely through his novels. They came to very different conclusions.

Karl Marx was a strong believer in historical progress and more importantly viewed that progress as the result of intentional and coordinated human action. Change is not something that happens to people, it is people that can and do create change.

“The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself.”
Karl Marx, Theses On Feuerbach (1845)

He viewed his theoretical and philosophical writing as a way to help create and coordinate that change.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Karl Marx, Theses On Feuerbach (1845)

Marx looked upon the eventual failure of the 1848 revolutions to achieve extensive and lasting results as a temporary set back. Changing society is not an easy or short process. It requires commitment and determination. Marx continued to write about it with a sense of purpose and destiny even using biblical metaphors.

“The revolution, which finds here not its end, but its organizational beginning is no short-lived revolution. The present generation is like the Jews whom Moses led through the wilderness. It has not only a new world to conquer, it must go under in order to make room for the men who are able to cope with a new world.”
Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France (1850)

According to Marx men were the agents of change, yet they don’t have complete control over history. They must fight to overcome their past and the circumstances they are living in.

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”
Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

For Marx historical progress was not only possible but in some ways inevitable. His goal was convince others to take charge of that destiny and cooperate together to create the kind of world they wanted.

Gustav Flaubert, on the other hand, was not so optimistic. Flaubert was in Paris in February of 1848. He was mostly interested in the spectacle but soon became swept up in the excitement, eventually volunteering to serve in the Garde nationale. However, when the June revolts were suppressed he was repulsed by the violence and destruction. He withdrew his support for the Republic and became very cynical about the effectiveness of political movements. This cynicism would show up various ways in the novels he later wrote.

Flaubert’s Salamabo (1862) depicts a fictionalized account of the Mercenary Rebellion in Carthage in the wake of the First Punic War. There are several similarities between this revolt and the revolutions of 1848. Many passages suggest scenes from the revolutions, for example, the looting of Hamilcar’s palace and gardens resemblance to the destruction at the Tuileries in 1848. Flaubert’s cynicism about great historical upheaval is apparent throughout. We see many examples of characters that give up their ideals and solidarity for personal decadence, lust or greed bringing the rebellion to a tragic and brutal conclusion.

Flaubert’s final unfinished novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet, (1881) includes the “Dictionary of Accepted Ideas” a “compendium of stupidities” that reflect the biases and clichés that pass for thought in the bourgeois culture of Second Empire Paris. Many of these ironic definitions relate to politics and the events of 1848. For example:

“Aristocracy: Despise and envy it.”
“Monarchy: The constitutional monarchy is the best of all republics.”
“Period (of Revolutions): Always ongoing, since each new government promises to end it.”
“Principles: Always debatable. One can never tell their nature or their number. No matter, are sacred.”
“Radicalism: All the more dangerous for being latent. The Republic encourages us toward radicalism.”
“Republican: Republicans are not all thieves, but all thieves are republicans.”
“Suffrage (Universal): The final step in political science.”
Gustav Flaubert, “Dictionary of Accepted Ideas” from Bouvard et Pécuchet,

It was his novel L’Éducation sentimentale (1869) that most directly addressed his thoughts on the 1848 revolutions. L’Education sentimental tells the story of Frédéric who comes from the country to join Paris society at the time of the 1848 revolution. The narrative of the social interactions happens against the backdrop of revolution and the parallels provide a commentary. The aimless and duplicitous commercial, social and amorous affairs of Paris society are reflected in the lack of cohesion, infighting and personal opportunism that destroys the revolution. The characters look to fate, luck or chance rather than their own ability or reason. Frédéric at one time even flips a coin to help him decide if he should visit the woman he is trying to seduce. Flaubert looks scornfully on the notion of historical progress and has no faith in an aimless and decadent people to effect positive change. At the end of the novel Frédéric reminisces about the brothel’s of his youth while the nation of France returns once again to absolutist rule.

Both Marx and Flaubert created some of Western culture’s most enduring works. The books they wrote have influenced generations of admirers. Flaubert’s pessimistic and cynical interpretation might appear to have been the more accurate as betting on human stupidity may be almost a sure thing. After all, with hard work and effort a person can become an expert at one or maybe two things, but we are all amateurs at everything else. Marx, however, did not set out to best describe or interpret the world, he set out to change it, which is a much more difficult project.


~ by severalfourmany on March 4, 2013.

5 Responses to “Marx and Flaubert-At Opposite Ends of History”

  1. Wow – this looks really detailed. Especially as you only just started. I dragged something much more feeble together. I had to delete a lot as well as I didn’t think the references or the title would count in the 800 words.

  2. Very much enjoyed this — “here! here!” for your final paragraph for one should never discount our stupidity when it comes to progress – especially when economics is the driving force. ~ a

    (btw- check your avatar settings, that is where you should be able to add blog)

  3. I really enjoyed writing this. I had never looked at Flaubert in this way before. It all seemed to fit together so consistently, yet I had never much noticed it before. Thanks.

  4. An interesting ironic postscript: In 1886, the first English translation of Madame Bovary was published. It was translated by Eleanor Marx Aveling, Marx’s daughter.

  5. […] Marx and Flaubert-At Opposite Ends of History ( […]

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