Saturday, 9 February 2013
Les Misérables: a cry for the oppressed
The central character is Jean Valjean, a former convict who, frustrated at the crass treatment that dogs his ex-convict’s papers, dodges parole and becomes a fugitive. Enriched and abashed by the humanity and generosity of a priest, he opens a factory and even becomes the mayor of a French town. Presently his identity is exposed and he is forced to flee from his nemesis, the single-minded policeman Javert. But Valjean is no longer alone. Discovering that one of his former workers, Fantine, has fallen into prostitution, he promises at her deathbed to take care of her daughter Cosette. Years later, Cosette falls in love with the young revolutionary Marius, and Valjean’s story becomes entwined with the June Rebellion in Paris.
Behind the turnings of this plot, however, lies a very different story, one which has achieved next to no attention from reviewers. As its title says, Les Misérables – whether novel, musical, or musical film – is above all the story of the oppressed.
For his setting Hugo chose the least well-known and least successful of the French revolutions.
In 1830 the Bourbon king, Charles X, was overthrown by a popular uprising. Republican aspirations among the workers and students who had barricaded the streets were betrayed when the Chamber of Deputies installed the Orléanist Louis-Philippe to become the new king. The outcome of this July Revolution, so memorably commemorated by Delacroix in his painting ‘Liberty Leading The People’, was merely to replace one monarch with another. The liberal Louis-Philippe was initially popular, but two years into his reign, the living conditions of the working class were driven down by failed harvests and rising prices. In this context of economic failure, a cholera epidemic and disappointment in the July Revolution surged the climactic event of Les Misérables: the June Rebellion of 1832.
The trigger was the death of General Lamarque, a republican and a figurehead for the poor. Early on 5 June, the streets filled with people following his hearse on its procession through Paris. Swelled by students and workers, the crowd raised barricades and, for one night, took over half of Paris. Victor Hugo himself was an eyewitness, dodging bullets as the rebels exchanged fire with soldiers. But the rebellion would fail. Unlike in 1830, the Parisian masses failed to mobilise in support of the rebels, leaving them isolated against state power. On the second day, the rebels made a last stand at the Église Saint-Merri, a church in the thick of the fighting on the Rue Saint Martin, until the evening of 6 June. As the smoke cleared, nearly a thousand people lay dead.
Hugo’s title refers not only to the failed revolutionaries but to the wretched poor, and the theme of poverty is the unhappy soul of Les Misérables. This was a society with no welfare state, criminalising the destitute then hounding them with the likes of Javert. Jean Valjean was thrown into prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family. When thrown out of her factory job, Fantine has no means to live except by selling her hair, her teeth and then her sexuality.
These conditions are illustrated very vividly in the film. When the action moves to 1832 we see the teeming beggars, whores and urchins of Paris, whom the director bluntly portrays besieging a wealthy couple in a carriage.
Look down and see the beggars at your feet
Look down and show some mercy if you can
Look down and see the sweepings of the street
Look down, look down,
Upon your fellow man!
A film like this doesn’t attempt to explore political complexities, and one of its weaknesses is vagueness about what exactly the revolutionaries represent and what they’re rising against. (Hugo’s novel, by contrast, is explicit.) But even here, the connection between the young leaders of the June Rebellion and the dreadful earlier experiences of Valjean, Fantine, Cosette et al is absolutely clear. In the same scene, the rebel leader Enjolras demands:
With all the anger in the land
How long before the judgement day?
Before we cut the fat ones down to size?
Before the barricades arise?
Les Misérables works within boundaries acceptable to the liberal bourgeoisie. Valjean becomes a rich factory owner; Cosette grows up a good bourgeois girl; and the leaders of the rebellion are students, not soot-smeared proletarians. This doesn’t mean the story does not speak to us. After all, in 1832 the bourgeoisie was still the most revolutionary class in history.
The real issue raised by Les Misérables is not that the actors are singing live, or whether Russell Crowe can sing. It is that this film with its overt sympathy for the desperate, hungry and oppressed has been released during the most sustained attack on working class living standards since the 1930s.
In ‘austerity’ Britain, the right-wing Tory government is making the working class pay the price of the crisis by freezing wages, sacking workers, cutting and capping benefits and persecuting benefit claimants. The worst hit are those who are already disproportionately poor and vulnerable: women, the disabled, young people, the unemployed, and families on low incomes. The masses are confronted with unaffordable rents, a grim housing shortage, soaring energy bills, welfare cuts, shrinking incomes and increasing despair. This descent into poverty gives Les Misérables a social relevance completely lost on almost all of the critics. If Tom Hooper, whose film credits include The Damned United and The King’s Speech, intended his film to be a comment on austerity, I don’t know. But the meaning of a work of art goes beyond its creator’s intentions.
Sadly, it is also relevant that the revolution it portrays was one that failed. There are currently no mass forces in Europe posed to overthrow capital, and the level of struggle, outside of Greece, is pitiful. While the working class is going on the offensive in Latin America, particularly Venezuela, the European masses are failing to mobilise in their own self-interest – such is the balance of forces after more than thirty years of defeats.
But for me, it is impossible not to feel a thrill at the finale of Les Misérables, when the red flags are raised to the tune of ‘Do You Hear The People Sing?’
Some readers of course will be put off by the limitations of the music and lyrics, or by the sentimental Dickensian ethics of fallen woman, orphan child and redemption. If so, perhaps they would like to start writing a great film or musical about the Paris Commune. Now there’s a feel-good movie I’d like to see.
 Sixteen years later, Engels wrote a brief article on the rebellion for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung.