The Enduring Radicalism of Les Miserables

In discussing Les Miserables, most critics have focused on the spectacle (grand), on the acting (quite outstanding) or the use of real-time singing (quite effective), but far less has been written about Victor Hugo’s enduring radical politics being brought to the big screen.

This is a case of a movie budget making poverty look nasty and heartbreaking, as nearly sainted characters join revolution in protest of its ills.   And in many ways, this 1832 occupation of the barricades of Paris is the early forefather of 2011’s Occupy protests across the country.

But the real measure of the radicalism of Les Miserables is not in the character of the heroes or the evils visited upon them, but in that of the movie’s villain, Inspector Javert.  Unlike so many political films whose villain may be a rogue corporation or a corrupt cabal of the government, Javert is rigidly honest and even fair in his own terms, since he believes his harsh standards of justice should apply to himself when he falls short.

As the movie sings, Javert is the law, embodied, a representative of the system not at its worst, but in many ways at its best.

And that economic and political system, even at its best, leaves mothers dying in the streets, children orphaned and good men losing decades of their life in prison for minor crimes committed to feed their families.  This is the rare movie with hard class politics that demands not opportunity for a few marginalized people but a change in the system itself.

It is not just because the hero Jean Valjean is a good man that he saves Javert’s life, but because Javert on his own terms is a good man as well—just dedicated to protecting a very bad system.  Instead of personalizing politics in a bad guy the hero can kill, this is a movie where a Javert defending the system is instead confronted with the system’s own failings—and can’t live with having dedicated his life to defending a lie..

While Javert dismisses many of those on the barricades as “school boys” playing at revolution, it is another child of the streets like himself who, when Javert attempts to spy on the barricades, is savvy enough to finger him and nearly gets him killed (before Jean Valjean saves Javert’s life).  That boy, Gavroche, is in many ways the representative of the workers of Paris and Europe, who generally will not rise in revolt in 1832, but, as Gavroche sings, they are underestimated and will soon “grow up”; in fact, sixteen years later the streets of Europe will be convulsed by workers’ revolutions as the Gavroches of Europe would come of age in the time Karl Marx would hail in his Manifesto.

Victor Hugo, however, was not Karl Marx, if only for the religiosity he mixes with his class radicalism.   Some might go further and argue that this is a story of love in conflict with the appeals of politics, but that tension—not conflict – is part of Hugo’s humanism.   As they approach the barricades, love-struck Marius and revolutionary leader Enjolras, sing out this tension in the song “The Red and the Black”, debating whether the Red of Love is more important than the Red of Revolution, but notably Marius ultimately opts to join in the revolutionary verse and the barricades themselves – as does almost every hero and every heroine of the film (if you count the final ending montage at the film).

Given the poverty of Fantime, which kills her chance to care for her child Cosette, and the oppression of Jean Valjean, which nearly kills all humanity in him before being saved by the kindness of one other man, Hugo’s whole story is that of how revolutionary change is needed to make the world safe for love and compassion in the world.  Yet his romanticism would argue that love is needed to make revolution safe for the world as well – something lost in the worst, dogmatically ideological revolutions we saw in the last century.

At their best, the Occupy Wall Street protests launched in 2011 sought to combine the best of  historic class radicalism and humanism in their demands for national and global equity for “the 99%.”   Many dismiss the Occupy protests as a historic blip, one dominated by the educated young, but it’s worth remembering that the events of 1832 in Les Miserables were similarly dismissed – yet were memorialized in arguably the greatest novel of one of the greatest writers of the 19th century and is now, one hundred and eight years later, pulling the heartstrings of millions globally on the big screen.

We’ll see if Occupy finds the poets to similarly memorialize its moment but Les Miserables is a reminder of the enduring radical and humanistic sources of social revolution over the last few centuries.