All Commentary
Friday, December 1, 2006

Was Dickens Really a Socialist?

Far from being an early proponent of the welfare state, he was sounding alarms for all of us.

I have been an avid fan of Charles Dickens’s works since before entering high school. I have also adhered to the freedom philosophy for about as long.

Therefore, as the years passed and I read more and more commentators lauding Dickens as a catalyst for collectivist economics and state-centered social programs, I grew discouraged and disquieted. I have come to find, however, that by and large these commentators were not interpreting Dickens at face value, but were in effect putting words into his mouth.

Did Dickens stand up for the poor? Yes. Did Dickens speak out on the conditions in his time? Yes. Was he anti-capitalist? Were his views socialist? Did he advocate for government welfare programs? No. 

Having a Heart Does Not Equal Being a Socialist

Compared to most great novelists, Dickens has inspired an inordinate mass of biographies, and interest in his life, apart from his works, has been unceasingly strong. One reason for this is simply that Dickens lived life fully. He traveled abroad often and made many public appearances. He was an oft-seen figure (though many times anonymous) in the streets of London, exploring the city and meeting people of all backgrounds and walks of life. He was comfortable among England‘s highest society and among its lowest classes. His understanding of the human condition, therefore, was comprehensive. 

Dickens meant to force us to face the plight of society’s least members, but he did not prescribe a collectivist solution to ending their miseries. 

It is no surprise, then, that in both his fiction and his nonfiction Dickens went to great lengths to present his readers with the full range of English society, including many of its most downtrodden. We should not draw political conclusions from the fact that Dickens had a heart — that he painted vivid pictures of those suffering poverty, disability, abuse, and homelessness. That he would try to win his readers’ hearts to the likes of these says nothing about his views on how they should be helped. Such inferences are made today by self-serving ideologues eager to enlist an ever-popular writer into their ranks.

Dickens presented his readers with some of literature’s most touching characters: Tiny Tim, whose handicap would doom him to a youthful death without costly treatment; Oliver Twist, the orphan forced to endure hunger, cruelty, and childhood labor; Mr. Micawber, the genial debtor tragically forced into prison; Little Nell and Jo, who would die well before their time. In presenting such characters, Dickens meant to force us to face the plight of society’s least members, but he did not prescribe a collectivist solution to ending their miseries. 

Nor does he blame their plight on the still-evolving capitalist economy of his day. 

Attacking Greed Does Not Equal Attacking Capitalism

We are used to thinking of Dickens as an enemy of capitalism largely because of his timeless lampooning of certain men of business. What he was really doing, however, was attacking the vice of greed. In Our Mutual Friend, he blasts the Lammles, who marry each other solely for money (only to find out that neither has any). In the same novel, he forced the “mercenary” Bella Wilfer to undergo a transformation before finding happiness. In Martin Chuzzlewit, relatives of the title character are ridiculed for their scheming at inheritance. 

And then there is the prototype of the heartless capitalist — Ebenezer Scrooge. But as with other characters, Dickens does not attack Scrooge as a capitalist but as a miser. As Daniel T. Oliver put it in The Freeman (December 1999): 

Scrooge’s character defect is not so much greed as miserliness. He hoards his money even at the expense of personal comfort. While many remember the single lump of coal that burns in the cold office of his assistant Bob Cratchit, the fire in Scrooge’s own office is described as “very small.” … Dickens gives us no reason to believe that Scrooge has ever been dishonest in his business dealings. He is thrifty, disciplined, and hard-working. What Dickens makes clear is that these virtues are not enough.

Though the protagonist throughout A Christmas Carol might be Bob Cratchit, there are sympathetic characters who are, in fact, capitalists. Fezziwig, a man of business, nevertheless treats his employees like family. And then there are the easily overlooked “portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold,” collecting money to “buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth.” 

Indeed, Scrooge himself, on that transformative Christmas morning, does not renounce capitalism. Instead, he promises to be a better man. He will live a fuller life and share his good fortune with those close to him. 

Many libertarians and other supporters of the free market will interject that Scrooge is already benefiting society as an effective businessman. The argument is also made that in lampooning Scrooge’s personality, Dickens also distorts the realities of the labor market. Michael Levin has written:

Let’s look without preconceptions at Scrooge’s allegedly underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit. The fact is, if Cratchit’s skills were worth more to anyone than the fifteen shillings Scrooge pays him weekly, there would be someone glad to offer it to him. Since no one has, and since Cratchit’s profit-maximizing boss is hardly a man to pay for nothing, Cratchit must be worth exactly his present wages.

Both arguments have merit — Scrooge, like your local banker or financier, benefits society through his business. And yes, Dickens does not express, and most likely did not fully comprehend, the realities of the labor market. But the tale of Scrooge is of personal redemption. It is not particularly realistic nor well-versed in economics. Dickens is not attempting to argue against capitalism, nor is he arguing against a free market for labor. He is arguing against personal callousness and against misanthropy. 

In chapter 33 of Socialism, Ludwig von Mises lamented Dickens’s characterizations of utilitarianism and of true liberalism. However, if Dickens’s words were later co-opted to promote a socialist agenda, that is hardly his fault. Utilitarianism can be the basis of a solid capitalist economy. It can also be mutated into a communist state. Dickens might not have understood that, but he did know that utilitarianism without reasonable judgment can turn society — and the state — into something monstrous. 

Private Philanthropy, Not Public Welfare 

A Christmas Carol exemplifies, on a personal level, what Dickens was really arguing for. He was not calling for state intervention, nor for economic regulations. Instead, he argued on behalf of personal philanthropy. In the end, Scrooge helps Tiny Tim, not because of socialist ideals, but because his humanity is reawakened, causing him to care for this child. Quite frankly, he does the right thing. 

In fact, a survey of Dickens’s novels shows that his protagonists and his happy endings often have something in common — a person with means helps persons of limited or no means out of the goodness of his heart. Oliver Twist is adopted by Mr. Brownlow. In Our Mutual Friend, the Boffins relinquish their fortune to the rightful heir. Martin Chuzzlewit provides for his long-neglected grandchild and his true love. Mr. Pickwick forgives dishonest friends and helps them to establish a new life. And Sydney Carton gives up his very life for a pair of lovers in A Tale of Two Cities

One can search in vain through Dickens’s works for calls for government control of the economy or social-welfare structures. As Lauren M. E. Goodland writes in Victorian Literature and the Victorian State regarding Dickens’s treatment of sanitation in Bleak House

Here sanitary reform becomes fundamentally necessary to the nation’s moral and physical well-being. Yet it would be a mistake to infer from such remarks that Dickens had become a staunch proponent of the state’s duty to intervene in the lives of individuals and communities. Bleak House memorably dramatizes the need for pastorship in a society of allegedly self-reliant individuals. But it by no means clearly endorses state tutelage, nor, indeed, any other form of institutionalized authority. 

In reality, Dickens often criticized state-sponsored institutions. The Ghost of Christmas Present, for instance, chastises Scrooge for relying on such institutions rather than being philanthropic himself. Using Scrooge’s own words he mocks him: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” 

Among Dickens’s most moving writings is a nonfiction article called “A Walk in a Workhouse.” In a few short pages, he describes the pathetic scene of a state-sponsored parish workhouse, Victorian England’s solution to almost every social burden — orphans, abandoned children, the sick, the aged, the infirm, the insane. The problem, of course, was that the workhouse took away both a person’s liberty and dignity — not to mention his future. 

In all these Long Walks of aged and infirm, some old people were bedridden, and had been for a long time; some were sitting on their beds half-naked; some dying in their beds; some out of bed, and sitting at a table near the fire. A sullen or lethargic indifference to what was asked, a blunted sensibility to everything but warmth and food, a moody absence of complaint as being of no use, a dogged silence and resentful desire to be left alone again, I thought were generally apparent. 

Such was how Dickens viewed the state’s involvement in society’s welfare. He took great pains to laud the nurses of the workhouse, who cared deeply about their wards. But the place itself — the institution — was an abomination. 

So don’t believe the English professors and the literary theorists. Charles Dickens was not a socialist at heart. Far from being an early proponent of the welfare state, he was sounding alarms for all of us. Let us finally heed his warning.

  • William Pike is interested in non-profit development, planned giving, higher education, and Christian organizations.

    In addition to a full-time planned giving position at DePauw University, he am also the pastor of two small churches and ordained in the Church of the Nazarene.