Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, just two years after Karl Marx completed his doctoral dissertation and well before the thinking of Marx and Engels matured to shape a scathing critique of capitalism. Yet on an emotional level, Dickens was offering his own critique of the industrial system most fully developed in his home country, England.
While Dickens never embraced socialism, his writings brought to life characters broken and bent by the emerging capitalist order in an even more vivid way than Frederick Engels’ masterful The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Where Engels carefully, and in great detail, described the material life of impoverished and desperate workers, Dickens gave the impersonal a name, a family, and a full mental life. But the dialectic of class is not merely sympathy for the plight of the working poor and the other victims of social abuse. To fully convey the impact of social class, one must also expose the exploitation and greed of those responsible for impoverishment and desperation. In Dickens’ time, this point distinguished the charity of the privileged from the indignation of the Radicals. In our time, we make the same distinction between the paternalism of the welfare state and the social justice of socialism. That Marx and Engels came to appreciate the emotional force of Dickens and his contemporaries is clearly demonstrated from an article by Marx, written in 1859:
“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 from the “highly genteel” annuitant and fundholder who looks upon all sorts of business as vulgar, to the little shopkeeper and lawyer’s clerk. 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 that “they are servile to those above, and tyrannical to those beneath them.”
“Servile to those above, and tyrannical to those beneath them…” would well describe the bourgeois characters that populate Dickens’ fiction. Ebenezer Scrooge, in A Christmas Carol, fits this description neatly. A man totally and completely immersed in accumulation of wealth and bereft of any empathy, trust or sentiment towards other human beings, Scrooge works his clerk Bob Cratchit. mercilessly and begrudgingly compensates him. Like capitalists in general, Scrooge sees not a human being, but an instrument of labor in the person of Bob Cratchit. Scrooge, when we meet him before his encounter with Marley’s ghost, is the embodiment of selfishness and hollow existence – there is nothing in his life beyond accumulation.
And for those reasons, there is nothing that the reader would find attractive in him. Here we might quote Marx, whose description of homo economicus in the Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts of 1844, fits Scrooge perfectly: “The less you eat, drink and buy books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save – the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor rust will devour – your capital.” This description should remind us of the Communist screenwriter John Howard Lawson’s admonition that it is nearly impossible to forge a bourgeois character into a literary “hero.”
A Christmas Carol is part of the Dickens’ work often called “the Christmas Books.” Like other writers of his time, Dickens released a number of his stories at Christmas time – I suppose, in the same manner that films today are released to advantage during this period. While the Books traded on the holiday season, they used the occasion to serve up morality plays to dramatize, even sentimentalize, the larger social points that occupied him. Today, the context of A Christmas Carol is, for the most part, lost or distorted. Here I follow the excellent study, Charles Dickens: The Progress of a Radical, by Communist working class writer, T. A. Jackson. Jackson insisted that Dickens could only be properly appreciated if we understand the influence of the social ferment of his time as well as follow Dickens’ evolution as a radical writer.
I might add that Dickens’ impact today can only be understood by revealing how Dickens’ work is presented to the public in our times. I would suspect that few read A Christmas Carol today. Most of us know the story through the many film versions of the Dickens classic. Through the medium of film, A Christmas Carol has become arguably the most widely known story associated with the holidays in the English-speaking world. While situated in Christian England, the story carries no singular religious message despite the important supernatural experiences (or dreams) that figure in the story. As Jackson attests, Dickens’ pressed no particular religious conviction and if his religious allusions were eliminated, “…the novels would suffer no recognizable change…” Since the Second World War, most dramatizations of A Christmas Carol have stressed miserliness, religiosity, redemption, and the occurrence of fabulist miracles over Dickens’ social realism.
My favorite film version is the 1938 film directed by Edwin L. Martin and starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge. This efficient and economical film – 69 minutes in length – crisply tells the tale without distraction or high drama; Dickens message comes through effectively. The first apparition’s appearance – the Ghost of Christmas Past – gives Scrooge and the audience a look at Scrooge’s youthful humanity shorn of his later acquisitiveness. Without the lust for capital, Scrooge shares, feels, and enjoys life – a lesson not lost on the old man. Where most versions stress redemption – a quasi-religious notion – the Ghost speaks of “reclaiming Scrooge” in the 1938 version. Though a subtle difference, “reclaiming” suggests a return to an earlier condition free of the greed that infected him, while “redeeming” – apart from its commercial overtone – suggests securing a pardon for past transgressions. The lesson of A Christmas Carol is not that Scrooge – the individual – is morally flawed, but that his role as a petty business man is a moral pollutant. Morley’s plight, as his business partner, underlines this point. It should not be lost on the viewer or reader that it is Scrooge’s examination of his past and future life (and death) that is decisive in his reclamation and not some promise of celebrity or the rewards of an afterlife. Scrooge reclaims the humanistic values precisely because an overview – something denied in real life – demonstrates to him the emptiness of the lust for accumulation. It is this corruption of human values that is at the heart of Dickens’ writing.
Surely it is no accident that the pointed 1938 version was made in the throes of the Great Depression and at a time of a strong sense of impending war. The post-War versions emerge in times of relative prosperity and social stability. Thus, they generally blunt the sharp edge of class present in Dickens’ work. Instead they focus on individual failing, miserliness, found compassion, and fate. The Scrooge of these films suggests nothing deeper than another caricature of an evil person, the same kind of shallow artistic portrait that dominates film in out time. From Reservoir Dogs to No Country for Old Men, film writers replace social perspective with vacuous, inexplicable “evil” that competes on a scale of mindless violence. It is no wonder that the political slogan of “axis of evil” got traction.
One can hope that at the end of 2008, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression viewers will watch the holiday classic, A Christmas Carol, through a different lens. The persistent and accelerating decline of working class living standards, the catastrophic increase in unemployment, the collapse of health care, and the continuance of costly and death-dealing military aggression should make Dickens’ story provoke a “reclaimed” relevance. The “souls” of transnational corporations, their CEO’s, and other executives are no different than the corrupted self of Ebenezer Scrooge, except in scope. On a grander scale, they show the same lust for wealth accumulation and callousness towards their employees. Like Scrooge, they have lost sight of any social consciousness, placing their own obscene acquisitiveness before the fate of others. As a writer reflecting his times, Dickens could not help but acknowledge social classes and class relations. To do otherwise would present an incomplete, distorted picture of his world and diminish his work. Nonetheless, his work suffers because he never developed an approach to challenging class privilege and exploitation beyond moral suasion.
It was left to Marx and Engels to give form to working class struggle and content to the elimination of exploitation of man by man: socialism.