SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 198 May 2016

The Dickens paradox

Dickensian, the recent BBC drama series, brought to attention once again the enduring power of Dickens’s work, argues Derek McMillan, even as the great novelist ultimately offered no alternative to the social evils he highlighted.

Charles Dickens was not a socialist. Indeed, in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, set at the time of the French revolution, he portrayed the plebs as a bloodstained mob who would have all decent people decapitated. So far, so Tory. Yet it is a paradox that more people have been brought to socialism through Dickens than through explicit socialist writers like Jack London and George Orwell.

He appeals to the heart of those who want a better world. Reading Oliver Twist or Hard Times gets the most mild-mannered reader ready to tear a strip off the next hypocritical Pecksniffian rogue they come across – be that a David Cameron or a Tony Blair! (Seth Pecksniff is the greedy, hypocritical architect who rips off his students with tuition fees and poverty pay in Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit.)

Nobody can read Hard Times or Nicholas Nickleby without wanting to take Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief schools inspector, Michael Gove, justice minister, or Baroness Sally Morgan aside to ridicule their outdated educational thinking. It is strange to think that Dickens never even met the Gove when he can read the mind of the hypocrite so clearly.

Dickens took things to extremes. While Bumble the Beadle (the local official pumped up with his own self-importance in Oliver Twist), Josiah Bounderby (the self-centred, fraudulent businessman in Hard Times), and Wackford Squeers (the cruel schoolmaster in Nicholas Nickleby) dine in luxury, they decry the ‘greed’ of the poor who dare to ask for more. Dickens could not have realised that this is mild compared to the behaviour of today’s British cabinet members who dine on caviar and champagne while three-quarters of those paying the bedroom tax are forced to cut back on essentials, endangering their health.

Dickens appealed to the conscience of the rich. In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge comes across as a version of the former work and pensions minister, Iain Duncan Smith – until, that is, Scrooge sees the light. One percent of the population hog the wealth and make sure they use the power of the state to hold onto it. Anyone who breaks ranks to help the poor can wave goodbye to all that. Plenty of Scrooges, though not of the reformed kind. Ostentatious charity matched by private penny-pinching is the best you can expect from this rabble!

Dickens would have approved of the ‘trickle down’ theory. Capitalism is fine but the poor need help from the rich so perforce the rich must be generous. The rich have no such scruples. In their view – enforced by the state – the poor and disenfranchised must be kept that way. A user of a food bank in Horsham once shared this with me: "Any trickle-down is the effect of being pissed on from a great height!"

Dickens’s host of characters and caricatures have long been a source of delight and enlightenment. This is true of the books, which had a genuine working-class following through the weekly magazine, Household Words (edited by Dickens in the 1850s), which did not confine their audience to the novel-reading middle class. It is equally true of the much more recent television adaptations, although the temptation to emasculate the social message of Dickens and focus on the humour seems to be too much for the spineless BBC to resist.

Oliver Twist, the poor, starving orphan, famously asked for more. The ruling class usually needs more than mere asking. Lord George Brown, a Labour minister in the 1960s, used to say that "no ruling class in history has given up its position without a fight and that usually meant a fight to the finish with no holds barred". But why should the working class and poor be content with a piece of the cake when they could take over the bakery?

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