Dickens, Reconsidered

Column by Jim Davies.

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Few novels if any can have so profoundly assisted the spread of socialism in the century following 1850 as those of Charles Dickens, for they portrayed vividly the slums in English cities during the Industrial Revolution which enabled Karl Marx, who lived in London with support from his friend Friedrich Engels, to denounce the capitalist system he said had caused them. Engels' support came thanks to his foresight in being born the heir to some shares in an English cotton mill;he took part in the mill's management even as he sponsored ideas calculated to destroy such private ownership. But Dickens' Oliver Twist and above all A Christmas Carol cannot leave their readers unmoved by the grim effects of abject poverty, particularly upon children, and by the steely indifference to that poverty by some who had gained wealth but shriveled up their compassion.
Socialism is of course just government as usual, eager to infest as many aspects of society as possible, and as the public became horrified by those anomalies, it was very easy to sell a new excuse for its malignant existence: to help the poor, by taxing the rich. Usually it works out the other way around, but countless bureaucrats have been employed in such redistribution ever since, and socialists from Marx to Obama have been living well off that excuse. It has, of course, never worked--and never will. Government doesn't.
The late David Holmes wrote A Capitalist Carol, still awaiting publication, to undo some of the damage done by the misuse of the Scrooge character, noting that "his old covetous self unraveled into a gleeful generosity that seemed to throw radiance (and not a few raised eyebrows) on everyone with whom he came in contact" but proceeding to follow logically the effect of the ex-miser's great liberality; it led, of course, to his financial exhaustion. Holmes relates how he rescues himself from poverty in the nick of time and rebuilds his business after figuring out that giving money away is impossible without making it in the first place; and so corrects the impression Dickens may have left.
David rightly shows that Dickens failed to notice the aspect of unfettered trade that is by far the most important--even though Adam Smith had spotted it a couple of generations earlier. It is that the capitalist benefits other people whenever he spends money or invests money, even though he is a miser and intends to help none but himself. There is no way for him to be a player in a free market without doing so. If he spends his profits, he benefits those who sell whatever he buys. If he invests them, he generates new business for himself and others – those who work in his bigger factories, those who buy the goods he makes because they prefer them to their money, and even if he stuffs his profits in the mattress, he benefits those who enjoy lower prices generally by reducing the money supply.
Certainly, the world is a nicer place if (as I've noticed happens quite often) successful people donate some of their wealth to lend a hand to the less fortunate; no question, Scrooge spread a lot more happiness after his conversion than before. But Smith had it right, and Dickens evidently never grasped it: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”
It's not clear to me, though, that Dickens can fairly be held responsible for giving the deadly disease of government a new raison d'ȇtre in socialism. He wrote of what he saw; what he saw did happen. Probably there was much more compassion, and much less meanness and deep poverty, in English cities than is found proportionally in his novels; but he never set out to present a set of statistical abstracts. Another vital point he may have missed--as Marx certainly did--is that however badly some people were living in the cities, they had migrated there from the countryside in order to be better off. There was some deep poverty in the villages too--but spread wider, less concentrated, and so harder to see. Overall, of course, the Revolution produced immense wealth for an immense and rapidly growing number, in England just as in the USA; never in history had so many improved their living standards so much in so short a time. Per-capita income grew more than ever before in both countries, while the population more than tripled in Britain and (due to huge immigration) it grew by fourteen times in the USA. For good measure on top of all that, a full 50% was added to life expectancy! Each such achievement is unprecedented and amazing. Dickens should have pointed that out, but he didn't.
On balance, though, I've formed the opinion that Dickens has been done an injustice. His novels do feature blackguards, misers and ill-treated children, but by no means do they do so exclusively; and most notably, they tell how the hero overcame the obstacles strewn in his path, thereby celebrating individual endeavor rather than socialized solutions. Even Oliver Twist, recall, was refused that second helping in a parish workhouse, funded possibly with tax money; so Dickens might be said to have taken aim at the duopoly of church and state, rather than calling on either to intervene. And Twist went on, to navigate his own way through the criminal underclass towards adulthood and better fortune.
The novel that comes closest to comment on governments (which it seems to me he usually ignores) is perhaps A Tale of Two Cities, about the French revolution. His opinion of the Old Régime is clarified at once: “France [in 1775]... rolled with exceeding smoothness down hill, making paper money and spending it. Under the guidance of her Christian pastors, she entertained herself, besides, with such humane achievements as sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive, because he had not kneeled down in the rain to do honour to a dirty procession of monks which passed within his view, at a distance of some fifty or sixty yards.” Would that I could write in so few words such a devastating critique of (a) paper money and (b) the evil that results when the two great myths of state and religion combine their powers!
I can't think of many socialists who are too worried about fiat currency, and in the bulk of the novel, Dickens develops characters that strip the (socialist) revolutionaries of any moral virtue. Rightly, he places a pox on both the old government and the new.
In The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens develops some more wonderful characters including a poor child (Little Nell) and a wicked miser (Quilp) but also a rich cast of others, all of whom in varying ways and degrees help Nell and her loving grandfather make good despite the latter's weakness for gambling. I could see no way the novel is socialist propaganda. All the key events take place because of individual choices, often benevolent ones. It conveys no collectivist message.
Dickens chooses names for each of his characters that uncannily project what they are like (what else could “Uriah Heep” be, than a slippery, unctuous weasel of a man?) and “Pip” in Great Expectations; it begins “My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.” Except for a terrier dog, none but a cheerful, self-confident urchin of a boy is well fitted to such a name and Pip lives up to it. He's raised by an elder sister and neither abandoned nor ill-treated, but the family is poor. He works well, has ambition, and has the good fortune to find a benefactor who finances a good education to make him a “gentleman”--and he fulfills his expectations and shows gratitude when the mysterious benefactor at length reveals his identity. Nothing socialist there: the theme is Poor Kid Makes Good, assisted by private generosity drawn from a fortune built by a cowboy capitalist.
David Copperfield is another young lad who overcomes heavy odds; clearly it's a theme that Dickens loves. David's mother dies young and his step-father is harsh; he runs away and after an epic journey during which he never begs but rather sells his coat to buy a loaf, eventually finds his Aunt Betsey--who had, upon learning of his gender when visiting for his birth, “said never a word, but took her bonnet by the strings, in the manner of a sling, aimed a blow at [her informant's] head with it, put it on bent, walked out, and never came back.” Happily, she overcame her prejudice in time and took David in, providing him with an education which he put to good use. An interesting sidelight is that Aunt Betsey also had a lodger, on very favorable terms, who was mentally retarded; a kindness not always feasible, but Dickens did not call for that problem to be socialized.
Such examples tell me that Dickens understood both the problem and the solution; that squalid poverty and cruelty are dreadful, but also that individual self reliance and private charity, both, suffice perfectly well as remedies. His novels encourage both. If he gave himself a mission in his writing, it was not to re-engineer society like Marx but to call for philanthropy from the large and growing number of people enjoying wealth on a scale never seen before, thanks to the relative freedom of classical-liberal Victorian England.
Thirty years after Dickens died, George Bernard Shaw remarked that Great Expectations was more seditious than Marx's Das Kapital--so it was Shaw, alas, who helped fashion the image of Dickens as a socialist. Shaw was a popular playwright, a brilliant Irish wit, and author of my favorite quote, but he was a Fabian. Those are socialists who favor advancing their agenda slowly by the ballot, instead of rapidly by the bullet. They surround us today. Was he right? I think not. Dickens' novels did not set out to be seditious, but to call out human qualities in all of us that were always present; the socialists made full use of his passionate exposés of poverty, but ignored the remedies he clearly presented, imposing instead their own, force-based prescriptions. In so doing, they dishonored his genius.
In a sense Shaw did not intend, though, I wish his comment was correct, and think it will yet prove to be correct. Marx's socialism has had its day, and has proven conclusively, over and over, that it is a total failure. The more that war is made on poverty by government, the more poverty prevails; and the power the process hands to government has been used to extinguish tens of millions of human lives. Now is therefore the time for Dickens' really seditious alternative to come into play: individual exertion and responsibility, supported by voluntary benevolence. Those are attributes that will prevail in the coming free society.

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched http://TinyURL.com/QuitGov , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?" and in 2016, an unraveling of the great paradox of "income tax law" with "How Government Silenced Irwin Schiff."


Samarami's picture

Jim, I believe you've exposed the eerie thread of subtlety that weaves and yaws throughout virtually all of what passes for "entertainment" and/or "enlightenment" (TV evening news, as one glaring example). The gist of the thread appears to be geared to ratify legitimacy of parasites and predators of state as opposed to individual action: the political means in lieu of the economic means (robbery vs work) of human progress. The thread is "superhuman" in nature in that it defies human ability to simply sit down and form a plan of action and then work to carry it out.

It has apparently intensified ever since the beginning of recorded history.

Butler Shaffer had an interesting essay in the form of a court skit a few years ago on the Lew Rockwell page. Butler's piece defending Ebenezer Scrooge also exposed the subtlety of how the masses are inculcated toward socialistic support of state agents. He accomplished his exposure with the classic Shaffer flair.

You and I agree that Shaw's comment will pan out: the unreasonable man will prove to have always been at the helm of all (genuine) human progress. We may not necessarily agree as to how it will come about, but in the end all progress will depend upon the unreasonable man.

That would include thee and me. I salute thee.


John deLaubenfels's picture

He's raised by an elder sister and neither abandoned nor ill-treated...

I don't have the book in front of me, but my recollection is that Pip is subject to almost constant psychological abuse by his sister.

However, I'm quibbling; excellent column.

Jim Davies's picture

Thank you, John.

Discipline in the household, reinforced by a cane, yes; but that was not unusual for the time and place. And the day when complaints by small boys about bossy big sisters can be classified "psychological abuse" will be the day the world's psychiatrists dance in the streets.