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 despotism.”
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 out.”
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.