Saturday, November 9, 2013

Marx, Flaubert and Historical Progress

Comparison of Role of Historical Progress in the ideas of Marx and Flaubert
Flaubert and Marx were very much cognizant of historical progress during their time; they were both a child of the age of enlightenment. However, their works show a stark difference in how each one of them interpreted the historical progress. Flaubert, through his novel, Madame Bovary [1], shows the danger in taking any philosophy, in particular Romanticism, to its extreme. Flaubert warns that be it enlightenment or romanticism, when taken up by ordinary people, it can have unintended catastrophic consequences if they do not understand the ideology correctly. Karl Marx, on the other hand, in his essay The Communist Manifesto [2], believes that enlightenment by the masses can only be achieved through an extreme, in this case, the abolition of private property; he argues that a revolutionary struggle which results in giving equal power to everyone is the only way to achieve freedom for all.
In Madame Bovary, Flaubert shows how ordinary people practice enlightenment through Monsieur Homais. In Chapter 11, section II [2], Mosnieur Homais, who is by law not allowed to sell drugs as he does not has the correct license, and Charles Bovary, who is a dull, average doctor, convince Hippolyte that they will straighten his club foot but the operation goes horribly wrong. To prevent Hippolyte from dying,  Dr Canivet is called who scolds Charles and says “These are the inventions of Paris! These are the ideas of those gentry of the capital! It is like strabismus, chloroform, lithotrity, a heap of monstrosities that the Government ought to prohibit. But they want to do the clever, and they cram you with remedies without troubling about the consequences. We are not so clever, not we! We are not savants, coxcombs, fops! “. Thus, through this whole Hippolyte sub-plot, Flaubert is drawing attention that these inventions of enlightened people  when applied by masses can lead to disastrous results.
Flaubert also warns about the extremism of Romanticism through the novel's central protagonist, Madame Bovary.  Emma Bovary is blinded by the idea of romanticism, in section III, she becomes a reckless spendthrift, greedy and develops a possessive attitude of Leon. She is negligent of her duties especially to her daughter. Being unable to separate fantasy from reality, she becomes too much in debt that she finally forces herself to commit suicide. Through the novel Madame Bovary, Flaubert, shows a step by step deconstruction of an extremist romanticist; the novel is actually a social commentary on the deluded personal culture prevalent in Flaubert's period.
In contrast, Karl Marx, argues for an extremist response to achieve true enlightenment. Having witnessed the abolition of Feudal property by the bourgeoise, the French revolution had failed to provide any power to proletariat. The bourgeoise had merely replaced feudal powers, the labor class continued to be exploited. Marx through his study, goes back into the history, and argues [2] that “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” To abolish all class struggles, Marx advocates an extremist viewpoint to abolish all forms of private property. He proposes Communism as the answer and writes “There are, besides, eternal truths, such as Freedom, Justice, etc. that are common to all states of society. But Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience.".
Marx further argues that no matter how one sees history, there is one common thread to our entire existence - “... the exploitation of one part of society by the other.” He advocates for a revolutionary measure, he writes - “The Communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.”
Thus, Marx uses historical developments as a vehicle to make his case for an extremist action to solve class struggle problems. While, Flaubert uses real, the then prevalent, developments to highlight ill-effects if any one ideology, be enlightenment or romanticism is taken to an extreme.

  1. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
  2. The  Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

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