Dickens and Marx
The England depicted by Charles Dickens in his a Christmas Carol was also the world that influenced Karl Marx, for he was living in England when he wrote the Communist Manifesto and certain other works along with Friedrich Engels. What Marx had to say about the nature of capitalist society and about the struggle between classes can be applied to the imae of economic relations offered by Dickens in this book, and for that matter in other books by Dickens. Dickens was a social critic as well as a novelist and often commented on the social order of his time in his fiction. His book Hard Times is set in a region he calls Coketown, and the latter represents much of the worst of the Industrial Revolution in England in the nineteenth century. In a Christmas Carol, Dickens’ view of the economic structures of British capitalism in the nineteenth century is clearly evident and helps define and shape the character of Ebenezer Scrooge and those who interact with him.
Scrooge is a man all about business, largely for its own sake. He lives entirely for the moment and for work and amassing a fortune, and he does not express any vision of building for the future, of achieving some social improvement, or of contributing anything to the social order. He sees work and the creation of wealth as an end in itself. Scrooge is described as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” (Dickens 10). Marx might so describe the capitalist as a class, and Marx would also find significance in the way Scrooge treats his clerk, begrudging him even the one day off a year for Christmas (though Marx would also see Christmas as no more than one of the ways the ruling class keeps the working class in line).
In Marx’s time, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and big industry was taking root throughout Europe. Engels wrote that Marx had shown how the bourgeois republic had developed out of the “social” Revolution of 1848 while grouping all the other social classes around the proletariat. Capitalism was thus increasing in power throughout Europe, and the industrial revolution of capitalism had produced clarity in class relations, a clarity pointed out by Marx and Engels in terms of the class struggle Marx saw as having shaped history to that time and predicted would lead to a revolution. The struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat had originally existed only in France and England and in a few big industrial centers, but with the increase in industrialization, it had spread over all of Europe. Marx and Engels both felt that this increase in power and domination for the bourgeoisie would in time give power to the proletariat in reaction, and to this end Marx had defined the nature of the struggle to come: “At that time the masses, sundered and differing according to locality and nationality, linked only by the feeling of common suffering, undeveloped, helplessly tossed to and fro from enthusiasm to despair; today the one great army of Socialists, marching irresistibly on and growing daily in number, organization, discipline, insight and certainty of victory” (Tucker 562).
Marx states that the form of intercourse determined by the productive forces existing at any given stage of history is the definition of civil society. Civil society is the essence of true history: “Already here we see how this civil society is the true source and theater of all history, and how absurd is the conception of history held hitherto, which neglects the real relationships and confines itself to high-sounding dramas of princes and states” (Tucker 163). Civil society as defined by Marx only develops with the bourgeoisie.
Civil society is thus a structure of domination, with the means of production held by the dominant social class, the bourgeoisie, based on the accumulation of capital. The proletariat is the oppressed class by definition, and for Marx it is also the class that will rebel against the domination of the bourgeoisie, overthrow that dominant class, and institute a dictatorship of the proletariat leading to a classless society. This is the next logical step in economic and social development, following from the social and economic relations that have gone before.
Marx’s conception of civil society explains the history of economic development to his time and offered as well a predictive approach to the future. Marx could see all around him evidence of the domination of the bourgeois class over the rest of society, and he believed that the tensions and antagonisms of such an arrangement would lead to revolution and revolutionary change. Marx could also see clearly that society was becoming more simplified as the number of social classes and gradations within classes was diminished, with this reduction coming specifically because of changes in productive relations. Marx makes a strong case for the historical determinism that is the basis of his view, though it was not clear that the future developments he envisioned were inevitable based on what had gone before.
Capitalism was seen by Marx as only a stage in the development of a system he thought would be freer, more efficient, and more equitable. This development would not be painless, any more than the developments to his time had been painless. Class struggle and shifting patterns of dominance and oppression were always at the heart of economic relations and revolutionary change. Bourgeois society was dominant because it controlled the means of production, made decisions regarding the manufacture and sale of goods, accumulated capital, and fed off the labor of the alienated masses who actually produced value with their labor but who did not enjoy the fruits of that value because they did not control the means of production. Marx found that there was always a dominant class in society, if not a dominant faction even within the dominant class, and in his own time, with only two classes remaining, the bourgeoisie was the one that was dominant. Having defined society in terms of class dominance, Marx also must show how that dominance can and will be overcome through subsequent class struggle and revolutionary change. His thesis here is arguable. It would seem that capitalism is more resilient than Marx believed and that it has adapted itself to changing conditions in a way that reduces class conflict while not completely eliminating it.
Marx and Engels often wrote in a journalistic way in order to identify their version of socialism with current events, and one of the more successful attempts in this line associated Marx’s ideas with the Paris Commune and so downgraded any version offered by the French socialists. For Marx, the Paris Commune was the first example in history of the dictatorship of the proletariat, though it was short-lived. Such a dictatorship would constitute a radical democratic experiment. Marx finds that the demands of the proletariate once they had the ability to impose their will remained more or less unclear and confused, but what they sought, he says, was the abolition of the class antagonism between capitalists and workers. This created a threat to the existing order and caused the bourgeoisie to seek to disarm the workers, leading to a new struggle in which the workers lost (Tucker 620). Marx looks back to the time of the Paris Commune and considers its nature and the elements that it brought forth on the political scene. He finds that the workers had to eliminate all the machinery of power that existed before and then had to install their own, but at the same time they had to safeguard themselves by providing the means by which they could remove their own deputies and officials at any moment. This is a democratic principle, that the leadership can be recalled when it is not carrying out the will of the people (Tucker 627).
Scrooge can be considered the essence of capitalism at this stage. Scrooge and Marley, the company headed by Scrooge, is a form of financial institution. It does not produce anything but only handles money. Scrooge’s workplace is the counting house, and Scrooge makes nothing but money there. Many of the institutions referred to by Scrooge would be classed as evidence by Marx of the conflict between classes and of the unwillingness of the capitalist to m make any concessions to the working class, among them prisons, workhouses, the treatmill, and the Poor Law (Dickens 15). Marx notes in “The Duchess of Sutherland and Slavery” points to the way the nobility gained its wealth, writing, “Robbery of Church property, robbery of commons, fraudulent transformation, accompanied by murder, of feudal and patriarchal property into private property — these are the titles of British aristocrats to their possessions.” The sorts of institutions cited by Dickens are the aristocratic response to complaints about poor treatment for those without title or wealth.
Marx would likely part ways with Dickens on one point in particular. After the adventures of this one night, having seen past, present, and future in a new light, Scrooge changes and becomes a more kindly man more willing to share the wealth, as it were. In other words, he changes, and for Marx, the capitalist cannot change until forced to do so, specifically by the revolution he and Engels call for in the Communist Manifesto. Marx sees the economic development of history as a matter of class struggle, following the dialectic of Hegel as opposing forces fight and through that revolution produce a synthesis, or a new social order. Dickens sees change as possible more simply by showing people the error of their ways and so getting them to change to a different way of behaving. Marx sees the need for a revolution to force any change into existence.
Again, the England described by Dickens was the England that helped produce Karl Marx and that contributed to his social theory. Both Marx and Dickens see the social ills of the time and ascribe these to the greed and single-minded pursuit of money on the part of the capitalist class, though Marx is more likely to see this issue as a matter of a given social class while Dickens is more likely to see this behavior as more individual, behavior engaged in by certain individuals and not necessarily by an entire class. The latter view allows more readily for change by the individual, while Marx wants all of society to change at once and see this as possible only through revolution.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Provided.
Marx, Karl. “The Duchess of Sutherland and Slavery.” 1953. Provided.
Tucker, Richard C. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.
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