Saturday, 28 April 2012

Charles Dickens - liberal or neo-liberal?

From LSHG Newsletter, # 45 (Summer 2012).
Charles Dickens had a fine beard, wrote many best selling volumes and was not a Tory. 2012 is the bicentenary of his birth.
I’m afraid however that any attempt to claim Dickens for the left will fail, and do so quite badly.
Certainly, and Claire Tomalin’s recent biography[1] makes the point again, Dickens had sympathy for the poor and disadvantaged in the early years of Victorian England. Such people were numerous and the developing market capitalist society had yet to do much in the way of addressing the matter beyond the 1834 Poor Law. That Act, a Liberal measure, gave us the workhouse.
Dickens did not just have sympathy for the least well off in society because he read or heard about their conditions. Rather, he walked the streets of central London, often at night, and gathered direct experience of the conditions they found themselves in. Further, Dickens’s childhood experiences had done much to impress on him how precarious a reasonable existence in Victorian England actually was.
Yet Dickens sympathies were personal ones based on individual cases. They were not solidarity with the most disadvantaged sections of the working class. Dickens was a Liberal [broadly, think many of the Guardian’s Editorials today]. His concerns about the unequal nature of society did not lead him to support organised class opposition to it, either in terms of trade unions or politics.
Possibly the clearest exposition of this is to be found in his book about the 1854 Preston Lock-Out, Hard Times. Dickens made a point of supporting neither the mill owners nor the locked out workers. His description of utilitarian capitalism in the figure of Thomas Gradgrind, a man obsessed by empirical facts, has entered the language as a term for relentless, grinding capitalists.
Dickens was hardly more sympathetic to the politics of the leaders of those locked out and their Chartist views. He portrayed them as often untrustworthy and violent men.
Yet if it is not possible to claim Dickens in any serious sense for the left, his literary works remain, I would argue, of great use to socialist historians. They capture something of the essence of mid-Victorian society, its class divisions and hypocrisies. Whether it is the figure of Gradgrind or the endless legal dispute of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, Dickens describes a capitalist society in the process of forming its key institutions and ways of working.
Most importantly in many respects these are things that remain with us today 140-odd years after Dickens’s death. So for the historian Dickens’s books provide an excellent way into understanding the landscape of mid-Victorian society, its attitudes and dilemmas.
Some of the issues facing the less well off can also be traced albeit through a refracted sense of them as individual tragedies. Michael Rosen makes the point about A Christmas Carol and Scrooge. Dickens had thought about writing an essay but instead focused on telling the story of individuals in the context of a developing capitalist society. The use of ghosts in the book, a particular Dickens obsession [see the current exhibition in the British Library] was mirrored in another register: Marx’s usage of spectres and hobgoblins. In all cases they represented the presence of another, alternative, non-marketised society.
Keith Flett
1. Charles Dickens: A Life [Hardcover] Viking 2011 576 pages ISBN 978-0670917679

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