Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

In Praise Of Scrooge

Charles Dickens and a Winter's Ghost Story

Why do we still bother to read Charles Dickens? One possible answer is that, although he may have written for a 19th century audience, he still tells us something about the society in which we live today; a social system of poverty, class exploitation, insecurity, greed, vulnerability and social disadvantage.

Two books by Dickens stand out: A CHRISTMAS CAROL and HARD TIMES. A CHRISTMAS CAROL was published in 1843, and HARD TIMES was published in 1854, a few years before and after Marx and Engels’s THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO (1848).

Dickens was a social commentator and critic. Marx liked Dickens. In an article, "THE ENGLISH MIDDLE CLASS", Marx wrote:

The present splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers in England, whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together have described every section of the middle class,...And how have Dickens and Thackeray, Miss Brontë and Mrs. Gaskell painted them? As full of presumption, affectation, petty tyranny and ignorance; and the civilized world have confirmed their verdict with the damning epigram that it has fixed to this class [the bourgeoisie], that "they are servile to those above, and tyrannical to those beneath them (NEW YORK TRIBUNE 1August 1 1854).
https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1854/08/01.htm

The tyranny shown by the capitalist class "to those beneath them - the working class - was illustrated by Dickens in his novels, particularly the characters of Scrooge (A CHRISTMAS CAROL) and Gradgrind and Bounderby (HARD TIMES). Unlike Marx, Dickens's thought that the capitalists could be redeemed, much like today's reformers who believe businesses and corporations can act with probity and responsibility. Journalists like William Hutton of the OBSERVER, writes about the need for "ethical capitalism" and economists run courses on "business ethics". Such ideas are ridiculous: capitalists, under ruthless competition with other capitalists, have to exploit workers in order to survive, and this makes capitalism a very unpleasant and nasty social system; particularly for the working class.

A Christmas Carol

A CHRISTMAS CAROL was Dickens's response to the Children's Employment Commission Report of 1842, which was highly critical of child labour practices. A CHRISTMAS CAROL is Scrooge's haunted journey from miserly cruelty to compassionate and charitable generosity towards family and employees. It is a theme which recurs in many of Dickens's novels, in which reformed capitalists become good capitalists looking after the sick, the poor and the disadvantaged.

Some of Dickens's attacks against the capitalism of his own day hit their target; like his savage critique of Malthus's theory of population and the brutality of the 1834 Poor Law. A CHRISTMAS CAROL is an anti-Malthusian tale. Dickens's shows his disgust with the Malthusian theory of uncontrolled population growth, which strangely still finds supporters today, particularly in sections of the Green and environmental movements. David Attenborough's comment that it is "barmy" to send food to famine-stricken countries was crass in its callousness (INDEPENDENT 18 September 2013). Solving starvation would be one of the first things a socialist society would do.

Dickens's biting satire of Malthus is shown in a CHRISTMAS CAROL, when two gentlemen ask Scrooge to contribute to charity to help the poor. Here is the exchange:

"there no prisons?"
"Plenty of prisons..."
"And the Union workhouses" demanded Scrooge
"Are they still in operation?"
"Both very busy, sir..."
"Those who are badly off must go there".
"Many can't go there, and many would rather die"
"If they would rather die", said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population
"


The final cruel remark by Scrooge, in wanting the poor to die to reduce the burden on the rates, comes back, later in the novel, to haunt him in the person of Tiny Tim. Tiny Time is Bob Cratchitt's disabled son. Cratchitt is employed by Scrooge, and lives with his family in abject poverty. Medical attention for Tiny Tim cannot be afforded on the salary Cratchitt earns in Scrooge's employment. Without financial help, Tiny Tim dies and thereby decreases the surplus population.

Both Dickens and Marx use spectres to haunt the living. In A CHRISTMAS CAROL there are three spectres haunting one capitalist. The spectres used by Dickens are reforming ghosts; a chance for Scrooge to make amends, to change the future and his place in it. There is only one spectre haunting the European ruling class in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO (1848): the proletariat. And Marx gives bodily form to this "spectre" by sketching out its historical formation through class struggle and moving from an incoherent mass to being capable of establishing its own political party.

His personal ghosts haunted Scrooge in the nights before Christmas Day. Marx's spectre is already haunting the ruling class: "A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of communism".

The first English translation of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, by Helen MacFarlane, was published in the magazine THE RED REPUBLICAN in 1850. Instead of the now-familiar translation, 'A spectre haunts Europe", MacFarlane translated Marx's 'Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa' as 'A frightful hobgoblin stalks through Europe'. Linguistically, Hobgoblin might appear the right word to use. It means bogyman and 'hob' is the nickname for the 'devil'. 'Napoleon' and 'Jacobin' and increasingly 'communism' were being used by politicians, at the time, as scare words to frighten workers away from radical politics.

However, 'Gespenst' does not mean 'hobgoblin' but derives from 'geist' - the German word for ghost. Google translates 'Gespenst' as 'spook' while the whole expression given in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO translates as 'A Ghost is haunting Europe'. So 'spectre' is good enough. The MANIFESTO is a call for the working class to become a revolutionary force and to end capitalism as an exploitive social system. The apt metaphor Marx uses for the working class to end capitalism is "gravediggers" - "What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers". But Dickens’s ghosts are anything but revolutionary.

Humbuggery

"Bah Humbug". This is Scrooge's view of Christmas. Humbug is deceptive or false talk and behaviour. Humbug is hypocritical nonsense and gibberish often found in the linguistic arsenal of politicians.

Why was Scrooge singled out for criticism by Dickens? He was only doing what every other capitalist was doing: exploiting the workers. Scrooge was "personified capital" as Marx would have it. He was driven to accumulate capital. He was a rational miser. He invested money to make more money. He did not want to waste his profits on charity or on the poor. Scrooge has to maximise profits, increase his power over workers, to accumulate and to survive in a competitive world.

In Marx's words:

To accumulate, is to conquer the world of social wealth, to increase the mass of human beings exploited by him, and this to extend both the direct and indirect sway of the capitalist (CAPITAL, volume 1, ch. XXIV, p. 592).

Scrooge's view of Christmas is the right one. Christmas is an element of unjustified publicity and spectacle. And for good reason, Scrooge believes Christmas to be a fraud.

Why is Christmas a fraud? It is a fraud because Christmas is associated with Christian sentimentality and charity; singling out babies and children for special attention. The children's school nativity play, for example, is one of the darkest and most servile pieces of religious propaganda on the calendar; polluting the minds of young children into believing about virgin births, angels and, gods. Then there is the charity industry, hustling money out of the pockets of the working class. However, in reality Christmas is a celebration of capitalism, consumerism and excess/gluttony. Is not the experience of Christmas false, bad faith, yes, humbug?

In a rational social system in which production takes place directly to meet human need you will not need charity. Helen Macfarlane not only the translator of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO but also a seasoned Chartist made this clear:

We feel humiliated and pained when a beggar stretches out his hand to us for "charity" - that insult and indignity offered to human nature; that word invented by tyrants and slave drivers - an infamous word, which we desire to see erased from the language of every civilised people... (HELEN MACFARLANE, David Black, 2004, p. 48)

Nevertheless, Dickens's focus of attention is away from the defects and revolutionary solution to the contradictions of capitalism, and instead points to the moral or immoral standing of the capitalist. He thought capitalists could be changed, and that you could have capitalism without the effects of capitalism. In humanizing Scrooge, Dickens tries to humanise capitalism. It cannot be done. In the real world Tiny Tim dies. Millions of Tiny Tims die each day through starvation and ill-health.

In fact, the CHRISTMAS CAROL would have better served the readership of the novel if the ghosts had visited Scrooge's overworked and underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchitt instead of Scrooge; the first spirit representing class position and class exploitation - the world as it still is, the second as the voice of class consciousness and the third ghost showing the hopeful way forward to a better future by means of collective, socialist political action.

Hard Times

HARD TIMES (1854) is a novel by Charles Dickens influenced by Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle's attitude to capitalism was one of revulsion and a harking back to the pre-industrial times of 'Merrie England' which he set out in his book PAST AND PRESENT. He denounced the modern age when the sole link between men and women was "the cash nexus".

HARD TIMES deals with industrial relations, the education of the poor, class division and the use of ruling class ideas like utilitarianism - a celebration of individual self-interest - to justify competitive capitalism.

However, Dickens may have criticised capitalism but he had no intention of replacing the profit system with socialism. Workers in HARD TIMES do not have class consciousness. They do not pursue their own class interest nor do they organise politically.

Charles Dickens did not like the organised working class. He did not like the class struggle manifesting itself in trade unions and strikes. His fictional depiction in HARD TIMES of the trade union organiser 'Slackbridge' was aimed at a bourgeoisie readership that shared his view of the unions as a threat to stability. Slackbridge is symbolised as the false prophet to the working class; a demagogue and agitator.

Social stability for Dickens was important. As a child, his father was in a debtor's prison and Dickens had to work in a factory that handled shoe polish. His early years were hard and poverty ridden. He may have been a social critic but he did so from a position of wealth and security which his later successful literary career allowed him to do. Dickens was no Frederick Engels. Dickens may have been a social critic of capitalism but he was not a revolutionary socialist.

Dickens, for example, had visited Preston in 1853 when 26,000 cotton spinners were locked out for 28 weeks by employers who refused to recognise their union. In February 1854 Dickens wrote an article for HOUSEHOLD WORDS (VIII), called "On Strike". When he came to write HARD TIMES, instead of siding with the workers against the employers, Dickens, used the lock-out to ridicule the unions by contrasting the character of Slackbridge with the common sense conformity of the crowd of Coketown he is addressing.

Dickens writes of Slackbridge, the union official, addressing the meeting:

Oh my friends, the down-trodden operatives of Coketown! Oh my friends and fellow countrymen, the slaves of an iron-handed and a grinding despotism! Oh my friends and fellow sufferers, and fellow-workmen, and fellow-men!"...As he stood there, trying to quench his fiery face with his drink of water, the comparison between the orator and the crowd of attentive faces turned towards him, was extremely to his disadvantage...He was not so honest, he was not so manly, he was not so good humoured; he substituted cunning for their simplicity, and passion for their safe solid sense.

Even now, contemporary media attacks on the trade unions still echo Dickens's sketch of Slackbridge. Trade Union leaders are often portrayed in the DAILY MAIL and DAILY EXPRESS as "barons", shop-stewards as "extremist demagogues" and striking workers as "greedy and selfish".

Nevertheless HARD TIMES attacked the fashionable philosophy of Utilitarianism through the character of Gradgrind and illustrated the rapacious greed of the employers through the factory owner Mr Bounderby. Bounderby looks at workers as mere "hands", rather than as human beings, while Gradgrind is a retired merchant who attempts to impose an educational system based on utilitarian facts rather than questioning; an ideology supporting a supposedly natural system of exploitation and profit-making.

At the beginning of the novel Gradgrind sets out his educational theory:

Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the mind of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.

Consider the satire "1066 and all that" (1930) by W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman. The book is a parody of the style of Gradgridian history teaching found in English schools at the time, where dates of kings and queens and great men and women were deemed of paramount importance and which school children had to learn -off-by-heart.

Education is, or should be, more than "facts"; it is about asking critical questions like why is 1066 important and important for whom? The Gradgrind ethos dominates education. Education under capitalism is for the labour market and class exploitation. Learning by rote, memorising facts and continual testing destroys what education should be - a love of learning. Schooling not education is what capitalism wants; a pliant and obedient workforce to exploit.

Capitalism needs an educated workforce and this is met by enforced attendance at school, competitive examinations, league tables and parents increasingly paying private tutors for "cramming" students into "better" schools and universities. The result for school children is high levels of stress, mental illness and suicide. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)) said disadvantaged pupils here are more stressed than anywhere else except Turkey (Guardian 28 October 2018).

Despite his inability to look beyond a criticism of society to a revolutionary change of society, Dickens is still worth reading for his trenchant social criticism. We still live in hard times but a spectre of communism is still haunting capitalism. It is time for the world’s working class to make communism/socialism (both words mean the same thing) a reality and dig.

Back to top

Socialist Studies

email: enquiries@socialiststudies.org.uk | www.socialiststudies.org.uk