Balzac: an unwitting revolutionary

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Balzac: A Biography
By Graham Robb
Picador, 2000
521pp., $20.78 (pb) Picture

REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON

For Honore de Balzac, a self-proclaimed defender of "throne and altar", to have had all his works placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by the Pope in 1864 and to have been praised by the arch-democrats Marx and Engels, there must be something more to his writings than meets the eye.

Balzac, the 19th century French novelist, was a conservative monarchist and a Catholic, yet he wrote novels that, through scrupulous social accuracy, had a profoundly revolutionary effect. This biography of Balzac by Graham Robb delves into the contradictions of the man and his art.

Balzac was a writer, political campaigner, treasure hunter, inventor, lover of two duchesses, husband of a countess, a defender of "the Family" who had at least one extra-marital child, one of the best-dressed bankrupts in Paris and the acclaimed author of The Human Comedy, a monumental collection of more than 100 novels, short stories and other writings.

Born in 1799, the son of a peasant-made-good, Balzac vowed to become a "genius" and write his way to fame and riches. Powered by enormous self-belief and an endless intake of coffee, Balzac's early attempts at philosophy and drama secured only debt and obscurity. His fortunes changed when he took to the novel, until then widely despised by the intelligentsia because novels were largely "written by women and read by servants". Balzac shaped the novel into its modern form, giving it a social significance by making it "an expression of society".

Balzac was on the money in his novelistic endeavours but the establishment's political and moral guardians didn't like what they read. The Physiology of Marriage was banned by the state censor and (in a taste of things to come) proscribed by the Pope in 1822 for its "immorality" and being anti-government. The Pope felt its story of a "priest emotionally entangled with a lusting parishioner" was likely to arouse scorn for the state religion.

In the early 1820s, Balzac showed distinct republican and liberal tendencies. This was to change within a few years when he took up Catholicism and monarchism. Balzac's brief membership of an underground society of the followers of the utopian socialist Saint-Simon was terminated because he was suspected of being an agent-provocateur.

Balzac then espoused an authoritarian politics — dictatorial government was needed, the "masses must be ruled with a rod of iron", Christianity was essential as a "system of opposition to the depraved tendencies of Man" and the family was "the true social element".

Balzac turned his energies to business ventures which were unsuccessful, but he got to know capitalism first-hand and he put the experience to good use in his novels.

Balzac was haunted by a fear of revolution. His nightmares were germinated by the French Revolution 10 years before his birth and were nourished by revolutions in 1830 and 1848 as monarchs, absolute and constitutional, were toppled by a victorious capitalist class (which stole the economic and political fruits of the insurrections of the labouring classes).

Why then, with Balzac's right-wing credentials, did his famous left-wing contemporaries, such as the novelists Emile Zola and Victor Hugo, and Marx and Engels, claim Balzac as a revolutionary?

Whilst Balzac made no secret of his autocratic politics, often cutting into the narrative of his novels to declare them, he never distorted the social realities he depicted in his novels to make them fit his political prejudices. It was Balzac's realistic portrayal of the capitalist class during the years of its decisive political triumph and economic consolidation during the first half of the 19th century that revealed the true heart and soul of the bourgeoisie.

The unappeasable greed of the business buccaneer, the conversion of all human relations and values to the "cash nexus", the crass commercialism which invaded all spheres of social life, capitalist society's "blatant luxury and secret destitution" (which describes Balzac's personal life as well as the economy) — all this was laid out with literary skill and political fervour in Balzac's novels.

Neither does Balzac hide the vices of his favoured class, the aristocracy, nor conceal the merits of the labouring classes. While the poor must be "mercilessly repressed for reasons of state", he wrote, "one cannot say the masses are in the wrong", at least in their opposition to the bourgeoisie.

As Engels put it: "Balzac's sympathies are all with a class [the feudal aristocracy] doomed to extinction. But for all that, his satire is never keener, his irony never bitterer, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathises most deeply — the nobles. And the only men of whom he always speaks with undisguised admiration are his bitterest political antagonists, the republican heroes."

Balzac's powers of perception, however, failed him in one major area. As Robb notes, the absence of the urban proletariat from Balzac's novels is the "largest gap in his panorama of French society". Balzac saw the peasantry as the main threat to social order, at least until his last years when, observing the brief but victorious alliance of the bourgeois and proletarian classes during the 1848 revolution, he warned that "necessarily, within a short time, the bourgeoisie will be on one side and the proletarians on the other. Then ... it's civil war".

Balzac saw what Marx saw, but the solution Balzac advocated (and which came to pass in 1851), a dictator to crush the working class, was diametrically opposed to Marx's political philosophy. Balzac's loathing of the capitalist class came from a different perspective to that of his socialist peers. Balzac was a reactionary romantic, mourning the loss of a pre-revolutionary feudal golden age to the vulgarities of bourgeois society, "a society based solely on the power of money". Marxist socialism shared Balzac's scorn for bourgeois society but looked, not backwards, but forwards to a classless, egalitarian and fully democratic society.

Nevertheless, when Hugo in his speech at Balzac's funeral in 1850 called Balzac an unwitting revolutionary, when Zola claimed that Balzac "was one of us", when Marx praised Balzac for his "profound grasp of real conditions", when Engels said he learned more from Balzac than "from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period together", they were all attuned to the revolutionary impact of Balzac's art. As Robb summarises the position of Marx and Engels, they valued Balzac's novels for exposing "the contradictions and injustices of society so promoting the proletarian revolution he actively tried to prevent".

Balzac will never be warmly accepted into the family of artists whose personal commitment to socialist values and struggle complement their art, a reservation which makes Robb's biography of Balzac a much less compelling read than his recent superb biography of Victor Hugo. Whilst Balzac's life may not be the stuff of inspiration, his honest portrayal of capitalism in his art more than makes up for it.

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