The Enlightenment view of the human project as one of historical progress for society was perhaps a comforting worldview, though one not necessarily held by all. The works and inherent ideas of Karl Marx and Gustave Flaubert in relation to the role of historical progress might be considered somewhat similar, but to what extent did these two figures agree that historical progress was a project destined to fail?
Karl Marx was a great believer in history in itself as a revelation of truth. He did not claim, though, to have any special insight into the nature of the development of history; however, he did believe class struggle in each sequence of history would create a new set of circumstances for society. This is documented in The Communist Manifesto, where he details the importance of historical eras upon the status quo with the famous line:
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
In this way what we are now comes from what is before, and what comes next is a result of our current struggle.
In order to determine Flaubert’s position by looking at his seminal work, Madame Bovary, I will consider a character that has increasing prominence throughout the novel, in the form of the pharmacist, Monsieur Homais who is described as, “a partisan of progress” (p.145). Homais can therefore be considered to be a representation on the Enlightenement in this work and, as such, he provides a useful tool with which to analyse Flaubert’s own consideration of the movement that promised to deliver an historical improvement to modern society.
In one key episode in the novel, Homais, armed with all the rational tools that Enlightenment brings (along with a great sense of self-importance) is attempting, together with Charles Bovary, to help and repair the condition of clubfoot in Hippolyte. Homais considers the operation a great success and prepares his own plaudits, meanwhile it becomes apparent that the truth is rather different:
“[Hyppolyte] was writhing…in atrocious convulsions, such that the contraption boxed round his leg was knocking against the wall.” (p.149)
We can see here that the ‘contraption’ of the enlightenment has failed to benefit society, in fact it has made it even worse (Hyppolyte later requires an amputation). Bovary himself dimly considers that this is simply something that is down to fate.
For Marx, the role of history is to teach us what was ‘really real’ about our current state and thus to institute reform, and progress. The solution to the contradictions presented by history, as he argues in the Communist Manifesto, was to be played out by the working classes. Political reform in this way, in a ideal world, would eventually realise this progress. However, the murky workings of politics got in the way of this vision and as the Ugly Revolution of 1848 proved the unsustainability of the working classes operating together with the bourgeoisie, Marx became disillusioned with the possibility of achieving this Utopian idea of progress borne from the Enlightenment philosophy.
Likewise, we can see a similar disillusionment apparent in Flaubert, as Madame Bovary ends with an even more scathing appraisal of the apparent progress of human society: Homais receives the Legion d’honneur for his services in the final line of the novel. For Flaubert, society has become so easily tricked by the falseness of this apparent ‘progress’ that it rewards it, even when it fails. In this way we can see the similarity in the views of Karl Marx and Gustave Flaubert who in the end, we might say, were both sceptics of the Enlightment perspective of the role of historical progress.
- Flaubert, G. (trans. Wall, G.) Madame Bovary (1992). London: Penguin Classics
- Marx, K., Engels, F. The Communist Manifesto. Referenced at Project Gutenberg [http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/61/pg61-images.html] Date referenced: 27/12/16