James Kerr, Socialist Alternative (ISA in England, Wales, and Scotland)
A Christmas Carol is a story of redemption and transformation as wealthy businessman Ebeneezer Scrooge, through the intervention of four ghosts, realises the error of his ways and is turned philanthropist. So, should socialists claim it as their own?
As December 25 approaches, the references to Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol become more frequent and it is used as a jumping off point for polemics right across the political spectrum. In 2012 Prince Charles hailed Dickens for using his creative genius to campaign for social justice. In the aftermath of the 2019 General Election The Telegraph counterposed Boris Johnson as the “opulent Ghost of Christmas Present” to Corbyn as “Scrooge”. Not wanting to be left out, Corbyn himself chose to “gift” Johnson a copy of the novella when asked during a televised debate what present he would give to the Tory leader. Zarah Sultana MP has continued the tradition this year by sending a copy to Jacob Rees Mogg in response to his claim that UNICEF were “playing politics” by funding breakfasts for children in South London. While Mogg is possibly best placed to be the modern day Scrooge, we need to delve into the story and its historical context a little bit more to understand it as a “political” work.
“Scrooge” (derived from “screw” & “gouge”) has become a byword for mean-spirited money grubbing bosses and certainly it is a story of dramatic transformation. Dickens was part of a generation of Victorian authors who saw their role as more than entertainers. Karl Marx described those authors as having “issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, moralists and publicists put together.”
So, what motivated Dickens to write the Carol and should socialists claim it?
Charles Dickens was inspired to write the classic having been “perfectly stricken down” by an 1843 parliamentary report into child labor and the treatment of women in Victorian factories. Horrified at the conditions people were working under, he resolved to “strike the heaviest blow in my power” against the injustices he saw in the report. The struggles of Victorian working class children are foregrounded in the story when, at the end of “Stave 3”, two malnourished children appear from behind the robe of the “Ghost of Christmas Present”. They are named “Ignorance” and “Want”, to symbolize the two greatest ills dogging Victorian society.
Bob Crachit, Scrooge’s underpaid clerk, sees his children sent off to work to make ends meet and his youngest “Tiny Tim” faces an early death from a curable health condition. At the start of the novel Scrooge is completely unsympathetic to the plight of the poor and takes no responsibility for their situation despite hoarding wealth and preying on hardship as an unscrupulous money lender. He echoes Christian minister Thomas Malthus by suggesting the poor had better die and “decrease the surplus population”. The story is social criticism from start to finish and appeals for change.
Dickens highlights the personal effect this avaricious nature has on Scrooge as he is shunned by society, “solitary as an oyster”. By looking back into his past, Scrooge is forced to confront the trauma of losing his fiancé, sister and business partner and faces a bleak future. By the last chapter, he is “merry as a schoolboy” and like a “second father to Tiny Tim”, supposedly showing the positive effects of developing a charitable nature.
However, while it is certainly a story of personal transformation, it stops short of being a tale of societal change. In the final chapter, we still see the “Portly Gentlemen” out collecting money for the poor and there is a reliance on the benevolence of the wealthy, rather than the independent action of the working class to affect change. In fact the working class are presented as meek, mild and generally helpless. Bob Cratchit stops his wife chastising Scrooge when he toasts his boss on Christmas day and brushes aside years of ill treatment in a moment of seemingly Christian forgiveness. The burning anger at the gaping chasm between rich and poor is largely absent from the book, this is despite the fact that at the time the book was written, Chartism was emerging as the one of the first independent movements of the working class. Marx’s political collaborator, Friedrich Engels was more forthright in his The Conditions of the Working Class in England (written the year after The Carol was published) when he described how “these Londoners have had to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature to bring to pass all the marvels of civilization which crowd their city.”
In fact the book seems to be an appeal for the ruling class to modify their ways in order to prevent the kind of uprisings that took place across Europe five years later in 1848. The previous century had seen the French, American and Haitian revolutions and liberal reformers like Dickens would be worried the same could happen in Britain. Victorian philanthropists like Thomas Barnardo were held up as examples for others to follow. These figures are reflected in one of the most sympathetically written characters in the story, Scrooge’s old boss Fezziwig. Fezziwig is kind and welcoming to all and generous with his time and money but he’s still a boss, still wealthy and sees his apprentices sleep under the cash register rather than in a home of their own.
Dickens’ conservatism was even more pronounced when applied to the British Empire. In 1865 Dickens rallied to the defense of General Eyre, Governor of Jamaica after Eyre put down the Morant Bay Rebellion by killing hundreds and burning over a thousand houses. The author sat on Eyre’s defense committee, helping him escape a jail sentence and never seeing justice for a brutal episode in Britain’s colonial conquest of the island.
So overall, while A Christmas Carol highlights the struggles faced by the Victorian poor and has many important and worthy qualities as a piece of literature, it is what Dickens leaves out that is possibly most significant. Karl Marx offered the working class in Victorian England and beyond a maxim to live by “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it” and it is at that point him and Dickens diverge.