Novel Reflections: On Dickens, Marx, Bronte, Zola, Bernie, and Orwell

Image Source: Ebenezer Landells – Public Domain

Recently I was slightly surprised to hear an old Marxist friend and Bernie Sanders fan declare her “unqualified love” for Charles Dickens. I’m no great fan of the anti-communist snitch George Orwell, but the future author of 1984 got it right on the famous and much-adored 19th Century British novelist in a 1940 essay that properly ridiculed the then Popular Front-ist Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPBG)’s attempt to claim Dickens as a proletarian and revolutionary writer. Along with the fact that the early industrial proletariat was almost completely absent from Dickens’s work, the partial exception being Hard Times, Orwell noted, the main thing contradicting the CPBG’s attempted cultural appropriation (yes, I actually just used that phrase) of Dickens was that he never blamed capitalism the system or calls for a different order to replace the class rule of the bourgeoisie. The closest thing Dickens could advance in the way of a solution for the downtrodden victims of capitalism he portrayed was the occasional intervention of kind, morally decent and humane bourgeois. There’s no revolution, no collective rebellion even of the people against class rule in Dickens, just brilliant mockery and caricature of the moral pretense and falseness of the masters combined with sympathetic portrayals of considerate privileged folks who take pity on the victims:

“The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work….There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make much difference if it were overthrown…His target is not so much society as ‘human nature’. It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system. Nowhere…does he make any attack on private enterprise or private property. Even in a book like Our Mutual Friend, which turns on the power of corpses to interfere with living people by means of idiotic wills, it does not occur to him to suggest that individuals ought not to have this irresponsible power. …Macaulay refused to review Hard Times because he disapproved of its ‘sullen Socialism.’ …Macaulay [was] is here using the word ‘Socialism’ in the same sense in which, twenty years ago, a vegetarian meal or a Cubist picture used to be referred to as ‘Bolshevism.’ There is not a line in the book that can properly be called Socialistic; indeed, its tendency if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious. Bounderby is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough, that, all through, is the implication. And so far as social criticism goes, one can never extract much more from Dickens than this, unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent…Naturally this calls for a few characters who are in positions of authority and who do behave decently. Hence that recurrent Dickens figure, the good rich man…He is usually a ‘merchant’ (we are not necessarily told what merchandise he deals in), and he is always a superhumanly kind-hearted old gentleman who ‘trots’ to and fro, raising his employees’ wages, patting children on the head, getting debtors out of jail and in general, acting the fairy godmother. …Even Dickens must have reflected occasionally that anyone who was so anxious to give his money away would never have acquired it in the first place. Mr. Pickwick, for instance, had ‘been in the city’, but it is difficult to imagine him making a fortune there…Pickwick, the Cheerybles, old Chuzzlewit, Scrooge — it is the same figure over and over again, the good rich man, handing out guineas… the usual deus ex machina, solving everybody’s problems by showering money in all direction… individual kindliness is the remedy for everything.”[1]

In Scrooge’s case, the bad Victorian oppressor becomes a good and decent employer. A magical visit from Christmas ghosts performs a glorious moral transubstantiation that changes the capitalist from miserly exploiter to benevolent patron.

Orwell might have mentioned Mr. Bounderby and the Maylies, the compassionate London bourgeois who step in to rescue the young workhouse waif Oliver Twist. As the great and forgotten Marxist literary critic Arnold Kettle pointed out in the first volume of his masterful Introduction to the English Novel, the novel named after that famous Dickens character follows a “debased” plot because Dickens is “working within” a “moral framework…in which the only standards are the sanctity of property and complacent respectability.” Thus, on one hand, Kettle notes, Dickens’ Oliver Twist painted an unforgettable picture of class disparity recognized the world over:

“When [Oliver] he walks up to the master of the workhouse and asks for more gruel, issues are at stake which make the [aristocratic] world of Jane Austen tremble. We care, we are involved, not because it is Oliver…but because every starved orphan in the world, everyone who is poor and oppressed and hungry is involved, and the master of the workhouse is not anyone in particular but an agent of an oppressive system everywhere. And that is why millions of people all over the world (including many who have never read a page of Dickens) can tell you what happened in Olivers’ workhouse….”

On the other hand, Kettle noted, Oliver Twist loses its power after its opening chapters’ depiction of class oppression because of “Dickens’ conscious view of life,” stuck within the killing confines of capitalist property relations and bourgeois morality. The divide in Dickens is not between classes but between moral good and moral bad, with “the oppressed …divided (though the working of the plot) between the good and deserving poor who help Oliver win his rights [to a bourgeois inheritance of which he has been cheated! – PS] and the bad and criminal poor who…must be eliminated. It is a conception which makes a mockery of the opening chapters of the book, where poverty has been revealed to us in a light which makes the facile terms of good and bad irrelevant” (emphasis added).

Dickens’ contemporary Karl Marx followed a different path, as suggested in his preface to the original edition of Das Kapital:

“To prevent possible misunderstanding, a word. I paint the capitalist and landlord in no sense couleur de rose. But here individuals are dealt with only insofar as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class relations and class interests. My standpoint…can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.”

The last part of that passage sounds like a conscious reference to Dickens, whose writings Marx and his family appreciated. Marx’s statement is not a determinist repudiation of human agency, but part of his call for proletarian revolution to end capitalism, something that required collective organization and political action from the bottom up rather than mere occasional individual kindliness from the top or middle down. Marx didn’t care whether or not Scrooge became a decent man or whether or not kindly bourgeois men helped cheated orphans get their bourgeois inheritance – or whether the subjugated masses of “outcast London” wanted to help such orphans re-enter the world of privilege. He cared about analyzing the nature and workings of the exploitative, soulless, and amoral profits system that oppressed the working-class, divided society into rich and poor, poisoned the Earth, and perverted the broader society and culture with the soulless contagion of pecuniary selfishness – the system that:

“has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. …has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation…has resolved personal worth into exchange value…has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe… has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers… has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.

He cared about building a movement to overthrow that system. The Scrooge or Bounderby he would have appreciated would have been the class traitor Scrooge or Bounderby willing to pay for the printing of communist writings and the distribution of socialist literature and agitation calling for the overthrow of the parasitic order that made Scrooge and Bounderby prosperous in the first place.

Is this difference between Dickens and Marx not relevant to our current political plight all these many decades later? Many of us even on “the left” can’t seem to drop the foolish habit of hoping for some supposedly benevolent and far-seeing member of the ruling elite to somehow make a better world for us beyond the systemic anarchy and oppression of eco-cidal capitalism. The capitalist media constantly direct mass eyes and fears against the supposedly “bad and criminal poor” instead of the ruling class and – of greater importance – the class rule system that consigns billions to poverty while concentrating massive wealth and power in ever fewer hands while crippling livable ecology and fomenting potentially terminal war.

There’s no silly hope for “the good rich man,” the benevolent capitalist good capitalist in an amazing novel that came out one year before The Communist Manifesto. A brazen lack of sentiment and a daring affront to Victorian morality is no small part of what makes Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights a better novel than anything Dickens ever wrote. There are no decent bourgeois to pat on the back in Bronte’s masterful tale, where we confront a very different orphan than the passive Oliver. Heathcliff is a Liverpool waif who grows up to take bitter revenge on his class oppressors and the love of his life, Catherine, his childhood ally against Christian capitalist tyranny. Catherine, born to a propertied family whose moral hypocrisy and whose vicious classist oppression of her beloved Heathcliff she despises. She has a special relationship with the proletarian servant boy Heathcliff, forged in common rebellion against her older brother’s regime at Wuthering Heights. But after Heathcliff is forced to leave in the face of recurrent class humiliation, Catherine betrays both him and herself by marrying into bourgeois comfort over at a different and propertied estate, Thrushcross Grange. The betrayal proves fatal, sparking a suicidal depression when Heathcliff returns as a new and vicious bourgeois. Heathcliff’s retribution comes not through proletarian revolution but through a climb into wealth that permits him to sadistically use his former class oppressors’ own weapons – money and property – against them. His payback is complete but it brings no relief. Near the end of the novel, one of the finest ever penned in English, Kettle notes:

“The great rage has died in him. He has come to see the pointlessness of the fight to revenge himself on the world of power and property through its own values. Just as Catherine had to face the full horror of her betrayal of their love, he must face the full horror of his betrayal too. And once he has faced it, he can die….at least as a man, leaving with [his son and Catherine’s daughter] the possibility of carrying on the struggle he has begun” — the struggle for true love and community beyond the despotism of class.

“the rebellion of Heathcliff [is] a…rebellion…of the worker physically and spiritually degraded by the conditions and relationships of [Victorian capitalist] society. That Heathcliff seeks to be one of the exploited is true, but it is also true that just in so far as he adopts (with a ruthlessness that frightens even the ruling class itself) the standards of the ruling class, so do the human values in his early rebellion and in his love for Catherine vanish. All that is involved in the Heathcliff-Catherine relationship, all that it stands for in human needs and hopes, can be realized only through the active rebellion of the oppressed.”

Heathcliff and Catherine essentially kill each other and themselves as individuals by betraying the proletarian revolution (or at least rebellion) implicit in their love. Bourgeois “morality” and aspiration are presented in Wuthering Heights as fatal poisons.

Wuthering Heights,” Kettle notes, “is a novel without idealism, without false comforts, without any implication that power over their destinies can rests outside the [collective] struggles and actions of human beings themselves” against oppression.

As I suspect Marx discussed with his daughters in their West End London home, where Dickens and Bronte were read and beloved along with Balzac, Shakespeare and other great literary lights even as the Marx family struggled with Dickensian poverty alleviated by recurrent financial support from the most curious capitalist ever: Marx’s fellow founder of scientific socialism, Frederick Engels.

The Marx family loved Dickens but not without some strong qualifications is my guess.

I suspect Marx’s socialist and French-speaking daughters embraced Emile Zola’s novel Germinal, published two years after Marx’s death, with fewer qualms than they likely had about Dickens and even Emily Bronte’s tour de force. There one follows the experience of a true proletarian militant, a migrant miner named Étienne Lantier, a man who comes from (like Heathcliff and unlike Oliver) and stays in (unlike Heathcliff and Oliver) the proletariat.

Etienne’s rejection of Oliver-esque passivity involves not a climb into the propertied class (ala Heathcliff) to carry out personal revenge against a select few oppressors but rather enlistment in the socialist International to fight the whole damn inhumane class system of capitalism[2]. There’s no hint of hope for benevolent intervention by “good rich men” in Germinal, no Dickensian flavor of capitalist paternalism. The hope advanced in Germinal, who title was based on the springtime seventh month of the French Revolutionary Calendar is vested in “new growth” as “the countryside’s….belly swelled with a black and avenging army of men, germinating slowly in its furrows, growing upwards in readiness for harvests to come, until one day soon their ripening would burst open the earth itself” – the revolutionary proletariat. At Zola’s funeral workers applauded the procession with shouts of “Germinal! Germinal!”

(Another aspect of Germinal that Marx would certainly have appreciated is its negative portrayal of Souvarine, a Russian anarchist and political émigré, as an agent of mere destruction.)

I doubt Marx, Marx’s daughters or Zola would have been terribly impressed by my Marxist friend and Dickens fan’s attachment to the “socialist” Bernie “The United States Should Have the Most Powerful Military in the World” Sanders, a Senator who has dedicated his life to sheep-dogging working class and other people into the fold of the militantly capitalist and imperialist Democratic Party. The Democrats masquerade as the good and benevolent party. They pose as the Mr. Brownlow and post-Christmas Ghost Scrooge party over and against the Gradgrind and Bounderby and pre-Christmas ghost Republicans, who have taken a turn to fascism with “a ruthlessness that frightens” at least some in “the ruling class itself” (Kettle on Heathcliff) – though many in the ruling class are perfectly fine with the likes of Trump and Ron DeSantis (both of whom Dickens would have viciously and brilliantly caricatured). But the dismal, dollar-drenched Dems are the hollow Oliver resistance, the inauthentic opposition to, and enablers of, the “bad rich men,” many of whom populate their not-so leftmost major party’s upper echelons in the neoliberal era. Their claim to greater decency is far too dilute to keep the more ruthless and now neofascist red meat party at bay. It’s a time that calls for Etiennes and Marxes not Olivers, Orwells, Brownlows, and Heathcliffs, with proper updates for the lethal century at hand.

+1. To be clear, Orwell’s essay is non- and even anti-Marxist and ends with praise for Dickens’ alignment with what he calls “the native decency of the common man,” which Orwell opposes to the evils of the falsely merged “Marxist or Fascist point[s] of view.” “‘Behave decently’, Orwell wrote “is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness.” Such were the reflections of an anti-communist who got it wrong on the primary threat to democracy in the 20th Century. As the Australian propaganda critic Alex Carey noted in a reflection on “The Orwell Diversion” four decades ago: “The communist craze has been created and sustained for so long that we are in danger of believing in it – believing for instance, that we should take George Orwell’s warning about 1984 seriously. Orwell warned that a crude and brutal totalitarianism would come from the left of politics and subvert the liberal democratic freedoms we are all supposed to enjoy. Such a prospect is no more than part of the communist craze of the twentieth century, for while the freedoms of liberal democracy are certainly threatened, the danger has always come from the Respectable Right. It has come in the form of widespread social and political indoctrination, an indoctrination which promotes business interests as everyone’s interests and in the process fragments the community and closes off individual and critical thought…Orwell’s warnings about future threats to liberal democracies were largely, even dangerously misconceived. Influenced by Orwell’s erroneous views, popular consciousness has been drilled in the expectation that the subversive Left, supported by influences from ‘outside’ the country, is about to control public and individual thinking. (This is the corporate sponsored narrative which provides the justification needed for managing democracy in the interests of business.) Meantime, the real attack is in stark contrast to Orwell’s expectations. It has come, for most of this century, from the Respectable Right. but this actual threat is more or less ignored by the community, for it is vastly sophisticated, appears uncoercive yet is dedicated to corporate interests.”

2.. The self-educated working-class activist Etienne is a far more believable and sympathetic proletarian protagonist than the central character in another widely read socialist and naturalist novel – Upton Sinclair’s tale of working- class misery and struggle in Chicago’s turn-of-the-20th-Century meatpacking industry, The Jungle. Sinclair’s central character is the Lithuanian immigrant and uber-exploited, monumentally humiliated proletarian Jurgus Rudkus. Rudkus’s practically religious conversion to articulate Eugene Debsian socialism at the end of the novel rings oddly counter-intuitive given the multiple forms and extreme level of oppression Jurgus undergoes without the slightest hint of resistance or understanding in the book’s previous chapters. Despite that narrative difference, Germinal and The Jungle both see political socialism as the proper response to the horrors of capitalism. Both also evoke sympathy for the non-human animal victims of capitalism: the cows, pigs, and sheep that are slaughtered en masse mass in Chicago’s packinghouses of 1900-1904 (in Sinclair’s book) and the horses that are sent down to toil for their entire shortened and miserable lives in the French coal mines of the 1860s and 1870s (in Zola’s novel.)

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).