French writer Victor-Marie Hugo summarizes his liberal imprint in his great book Life of Shakespeare. He was an author who claimed to follow a peculiar socialism as he placed great importance on individual liberty, ultimately declaring that “nothing can be achieved without freedom.” “Pretending to achieve civilization without it, is equivalent to attempting agriculture without sunshine,” he argued. Below we will note his fiery criticism of communism and the re-distribution of wealth.
Although authorized biographers such as Matthew Josephson, André Maurois and Graham Robb do not highlight him in this way, I believe that the best way to know Victor-Marie Hugo’s thoughts on social matters is in the aforementioned work. One can not only appreciate his precise, grandiose and at times fulminating way of writing (translator Edmundo Barthelemy does a masterful job in this regard), but also his capacity for historical, political, and philosophical analysis and his remarkable eloquence and phenomenal didactic capacity it is thorough in a transparent way. I would even say that it is secondarily about the famous English poet and playwright, and much more about the very medullar reflections and considerations that the French writer prints on the most diverse past, present and future aspects of the cultural life of mankind.
He reviews with a firm brushstroke and well-defined and vibrant colors the people and times of Lucretius, Juvenal, Tacitus, St. Paul, Dante, Rabelais, Cervantes, Voltaire and, of course, Shakespeare himself. He spares no effort in photographing Sophocles, Virgil, Milton, La Fontaine, Galileo, Newton, Schiller, Beethoven, Kant, Montesquieu and some other giants of the spirit.
He reveals a visceral disgust for political power and a deep admiration for noble thought. He writes that “The human spirit has a summit. That summit is the ideal. God descends to it, man ascends” because “To exist is to know that one wants, that one can, that one must.” He goes on to affirm that “For as long as human tradition has existed, men of strength have been the only ones to shine on the empyrean of history […] This tragic radiance fills the past [… but] civilization quickly oxidizes these bronzes.” On the other hand, “What are these monsters? Symptoms […], they are the product of environmental stupidity [… since] the wolf is nothing but a product of the forest.
So, if “evil men are a product of evil things. Let us therefore correct things. And here we return to our starting point. The extenuating circumstance of despotism is idiotism.” Further on he points out that “It is evident that history will have to be written again [… minimizing] the royal gestures, the warlike successes, the coronations […] the prowess of the sword and the axe, the great empires, the heavy taxes […] with no other variant than the throne and the altar […] Until now, history was courtly. The double identification of the king with the nation and the king with God is the work of courtly history […] vague theocratic declamation that is satisfied with this formula: God has his hand in the hearts of kings. Impossible fact for two reasons: God has no hands and kings have no heart.” And he emphasizes the mirage and the most grotesque fallacy that “The king pays, the people do not. Therein lies, more or less, the secret of this genre of history” and concludes that “the skill of the rulers and the apathy of the ruled accommodated and confused things in such a way that all these forms of princely pettiness take place in human destiny.”
In the same direction, he points out: “That a man has torn other men to pieces, that he has put them to the sword, that he has made them bite the dust of defeat, horrible locutions that ended up being frighteningly banal; look in history for the name of that man, whoever he may be, and you will find it. Look in it for the name of the man who invented the compass and you will not find it […] collective nonsense that emerges from that history. In that history there is everything but history […] It is necessary that the men of action place themselves behind the men of thought. Where the idea nestles, there is the power” in which context Victor Hugo is very pejorative against school history lessons where the focus is on the reigning dynasties and shifts of power, instead of highlighting the contributions of intellectuals and scientists and the magnificent discoveries of the common man.
He maintains that it should be placed “in the first row to the spirits, in the second, third, in the twentieth to the soldiers and princes […] The medals will be minted again. What was the reverse will become the obverse and the obverse will be the reverse. Urban viii will be the reverse of Galileo” and “the sword-bearers” will be called to silence, since “the great blows will be taken less into account than the great ideas” since “what does the invasion of kingdoms mean compared to the flowering of intelligence? The conquerors of spirits eclipse the conquerors of provinces […] Tiaras and crowns will add to the statue of the pygmies nothing but ridicule; stupid genuflections will disappear. From this new erectness will be born the right. Nothing endures but the spirit […] In the middle of the night I admit the authority of torches.”
The author clarifies what he means by his socialism by warning with emphasis that “Certain social theories, very different from socialism as we understand and desire it, have gone astray. Let us put aside everything that resembles the convent, the barracks, the pigeonhole, the alignment” and he refers to “these socialists on the fringe of socialism” who with “a possible despotism think to indoctrinate the masses against freedom.”
On the other hand, as Jim Powell rightly points out, in Les Misérables (where he does not exonerate governments for poverty, which he advises to mitigate with voluntary aid from their own resources) we read that “Communism and the land reform law think they have solved the second problem [income distribution]. They are wrong. Their distribution kills production. Egalitarian partition puts an end to emulation. And, consequently, with work. It is the butcher’s distribution that kills what it distributes.
Hugo’s disquisitions on the mania of some historians to focus attention on the movements and decisions of rulers instead of paying attention to what has been done by people who do not hold power but who make formidable contributions to civilization, this mania refers me to the five thick volumes that fortunately operate against the grain of what has been said, entitled History of private life with such juicy essays, all compiled by Philippe Ariés and Georges Duby.
Much has been discussed about the central message of Les Misérables, some consider that it was a dangerous text to instill in people desires for radical changes of reciprocal respect to the detriment of the powerful installed in the monopolies of force that we call governments and their courtiers, that is why it was a work fought in his time and placed by the Catholic Church in the Index. Others, on the other hand, extol it and maintain that it helps to raise the aim of excellence, even if some of the goals are never fully achieved. The passion for the impossible can have its controversial edges if it is taken as a fundamentalism that is always reprehensible. In this sense, it is pertinent to point out that fiction is one thing and reality is another.
That is why both sides must be seen in the famous graffiti of the Marxist revolutionaries of May 68 in Paris: “Let’s be realistic, let’s ask for the impossible”. On the one hand, the example of going to the bottom in ideas in order to achieve the best possible, which is always closer if it is presented as non-negotiable, but, on the other hand, it becomes a mess if it is all or nothing, it is of interest. Friedrich Hayek has given as an example the perseverance and the proposals of the substance of the left and warns us of the serious problems of supposed supporters of freedom who give in to be “politically correct.”
In any case, the criticisms of the time for containing too extreme proposals in this novel by Victor Hugo have done nothing but praise it as Mario Vargas Llosa writes that “Not only the Spanish inquisitors had an instinctive distrust of novels, as factors of instability of the spirits and underminers of faith.
In truth, all dictatorships around the world have imposed censorship systems on literary creation, convinced that the free invention and circulation of fiction could endanger the established regime and erode discipline, that is, social conformity. In this, fascists, communists, religious fundamentalists and third-world military dictatorships are identical […] Les Misérables is one of those works that in the history of literature have made more men and women of all languages and cultures wish for a fairer, more rational and more beautiful world than the one in which they lived.”
On the other way and to conclude this telegraphic sketch of the great nineteenth-century writer, I cannot resist transcribing a final quote from his last novel referring to the French counter-revolution whose English version was prefaced by Ayn Rand (NY, Bantam Books, 1874 /1962) who writes that “Victor Hugo is the most outstanding novelist in the literary world” and that “he professed himself a socialist, but was a fiercely uncompromising individualist.”
The announced quote is found in the third book of nighty-three, titled The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew, a reference that for all of us who have children and grandchildren is of a thrilling and patent reality: “The awakening of children is like the opening of flowers; a fragrance seems to be released from those fresh souls”. All his texts are flames for the spirit.