Historical progress: Karl Marx and Gustave Flaubert

What is the role of historical progress in the ideas of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)? Progress can be defined as “an improvement or an advance in a desirable direction” (Rotenstreich, 1971), and thus historical progress as those advances made through historical events. Marx and Flaubert similarly use historical progress as a tool for providing us with a snapshot their respective realities, but ultimately have fundamentally different ideas about how they are represented. For Marx, this progress is represented by a series of conflicts; from these conflicts a division between bourgeoise and proletariat has arisen that can only be resolved by upsetting societal order and this must be the way forward. For Flaubert, historical progress is an elusive and futile concept; both romanticism and enlightenment might change society, but neither is inherently good, or moves society in an objectively beneficial direction.

Marx, especially in his early writings, is heavily influenced by Hegel’s (1770-1831) dialectic. This idea revolves around the triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis in which history delivers us with a rational and truthful worldview. A thesis gives rise to its own conflicting antithesis; through their synthesis conflict between the two is resolved, the new order is that what remains. In both ‘Estranged Labour’ (1844) and ‘The Communist Manifesto’ (1848), this conflict is a driving force behind progress. According to Marx and Engels, in the Communist Manifesto: “the whole history of mankind (…) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes“. And, at this stage “the exploited and oppressed class – the proletariat – cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class – the bourgeoisie – without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinction, and class struggles“. Historical progress – here “a series of evolutions” – leads up to Marx’ revolution and the end to these struggles. However, after the revolution of 1848, Marx becomes disillusioned with these ideas. He sees the ugly side of society and moves his focus to economics, which he now sees as the driving force behind progress and truth.

Flaubert at times rather seems to mock the idea of progress. Green (1982), exploring a broader set of his works, states they depict “the relative unimportance of the historical events compared with the fictional development” (p. 42). However, it is through these fictional developments that Flaubert debates the idea of historical progress. Emma, in Madame Bovary, is a tragic figure, enslaved by her unattainable romantic ideals: “Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings,- a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss“. This frees her from boredom only temporarily, as she never actually progresses to a more permanent state of happiness. Her counterpart, the enlightened Monsieur Homais, is an endless bore and prone to clichés. He eventually becomes successful and he is even awarded a medal, but throughout the novel he is depicted as an egotistic and pretentious figure. Flaubert does not paint the romantic in a kind light, but he is not kind to her enlightened counterpart either. So, enlightenment wins, but the result is still stupid and futile; either way there is no real progress. And thus in contrast to Marx, Flaubert’s goal is not to rid the world of imperfection, but to describe its imperfection in in perfect form.

In conclusion, historical progress plays a significant role in both the writings of Karl Marx and Gustave Flaubert. They overlap in their disillusionment with progress, as Marx must concede that progress was further removed from reality than he might had hoped. However, they differ in that for Marx progress is connected to ideas of inequality and conflict, and the realisation of freedom, while Flaubert uses the notion of what his contemporaries would see progress to show its outcomes are in fact stupid and pointless. Marx looks for a way forward and finds it in economics; Flaubert tells us that simply moving does guarantee ended up in better place and he finds his escape in art and aesthetics.

* For the Coursera course “Modernism and Post-Modernism I”, courtesy of Wesleyan University.

Green, A. (1982). Flaubert and the Historical Novel: ‘Salammbô’ Reassessed. Cambridge University Press.
Rotenstreich, N. (1971). The Idea of Historical Progress and Its Assumptions. History and Theory, 10(2), 197-221.

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