The Role of Historical Progress in the works of Gustave Flaubert and Karl Marx


Portrait of Flaubert, circa 1856, by Eugène Giraud

We can assume that historical progress, its driving force or its supposed goal, play an crucial role in the work of  those philosophers and artists whose thoughts revolves around societial advance – in the case of Karl Marx- or for those whose art reflects society, like that of Gustave Flaubert.

In Marx’s work, historical progress has always plaid a pivotal role. The early Marx saw history driven by dialectical progress: History has always advanced only because societal contradictions had caused tensions and has given rise to revolutionary discharge, spawning new states. “The history of all hitherto existing societies in history is class struggles“ (1). „Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman … stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on … a fight that each time ended in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large“. (2)

The early Marx referred to Hegel’s dialectic. Contradictory states, he denotes as thesis and antithesis cause tensions, and both form a synthesis, a new and better state, in which contradiction merge. In Hegel’s view, history happens on its own accord, and humankind part is to look passively upon history and discern a beautiful truth hidden behind it. Marx rejected the passive part of humankind. For him, humans role was to accelerate history, predominantly by revolutions. The Communist Manifesto emphasizes this a score of times. (3). Marx saw historical progress optimistically.

History in Flaubert’s work has not a pure dialectical character. Contradictions play a role, but they do not end up in a synthesis, let alone a good one. They only lead to catastrophes. Flaubert depicts in his clashes of opposed movements in so far as it is an unembellished mirroring of reality. In „Madam Bovary“, the clash of Romanticism, its idealization of relationships with the reality of life renders the heroine incapable of coping with life. Rousseaus ideal of the natural state of man exposed to society. epitomized in „bovine“ Charles Bovary is bound to fail in an age of Enlightenment. Instead, the Enlightenment – unjust, shrewd but stupid, hypocritical – symbolized by the pharmacist Homais prevails. Historical progress turns out to be far less beautiful and does not advance society in the positive way it was promised. It is ugly. stupid and a lie.

If the plot of Madam Bovary is an indication of Flaubert’s perception of history, it also appeared to him in large parts as dull repetitions. His use of the past imperfect („Charles would return home; he would go out; later, he would have some broth“. (4)) represents habit and repetition, always boding something ill. The dullness is only interrupted by the apperances of stupity (Emma’s actions), hypocrisy (the agricultural fair) and cruelty (Rudolphe).

Karl Marx

Karl Marx, 1875, by John Jabez Edwin Mayall

Flauberts novel shows his absolute disillusionment with history without any hope for progress, let alone for a redemptive final state. This lead him to seeing art as the only remedy: reflect the world perfectly (he spent five years writing ‘Madam Bovary, weighing every word and sentence), all-knowingly and detached (he used the third-person and indirect address frequently), and as it really is. (5) (6). If you encounter history’s ugliness with perfect form, its stupidity with God-like omniscience, its hypocrisy with bluntness, you can rescue yourself from moral corruption. That is Flauberts reaction to dillusionment with history.

Disillusionment with history can be found in early Marx as well. In the Manifesto he already showed a notion of it, expounding how the Bourgeoisie unveils illusions. „The bourgeoisie … has put an end to all … idyllic relations. It has left remaining … naked self-interest … in one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.“ (7)

The later Marx turned away from dialectical historical progress towards economics. There is good reason to assume that disillusionment with history plaid an important role. First, Marx experienced his own disillusionment, noticing that the revolutions of the 19th century did not yield the expected changes (“the peasants wanted land, the workers wanted  wages and jobs, the middle-class wanted power and money” (8)), indicating that class struggles towards equality might  not have been the ‘really real’ of history. Second, in the ‘Manifesto’ he discovered disillusionment in history (“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe.” (9))  towards a burgeoning realization that economics might propel history: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe .. The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instrument of production … draw all … nations into civilization.” (10). Being dissillusioned, he discovered economics as the actual motor behind historical progress.

Disillusionment in and with history was THE siginificant influence on both Marx and Flaubert. It molded the late philosophy of the one and the art of the other. It lead the philosopher to reconsider it in order to discover the truth and the artist to withdraw from it for good.

Klemens Großmann, June 2013

1) 2) 3) 7) 9) 10) Marx, Engels: The Communist Manifesto,

4) 5) Flaubert: Madam Bovary

6) Flaubert’s letters to Louise Colet

8) Lectures “From Enlightenment to Revolution”, Part 5

  1. Peer 3 said:

    Argument Feeback: Perfect text! The student certainly read the authors studied and understood every detail thought of every one of them.
    Evidence Feedback: The text contains several quotes and all quotes used are very good and appropriate to explain the ideas of Marx and Flaubert. Very good job. Congratulations from Brazil.
    Exposition Feedback: Great text, writing perfect.

  2. Peer 1 said:

    Evidence Feedback:The arguments are wonderfully supported by quotations!

    Exposition Feedback: The essay shows that the writer loves literature and enjoys writing.

    Your understanding of literature and your profound analysis of Flaubert show where your heart is! I really admire your writing about Flaubert!

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