It is one of those unmistakable historical facts: Charles Dickens and Karl Marx walked the same streets of London and Manchester, England as contemporaries in the 1840s. Saw the same things. Were horrified by the same things. Struggled both socially and personally with the same economic realities.
We know Marx read Dickens, was a fan of Dickens. It is surely possible that Dickens read Marx, though we do not know. I would like to think he did. Well, really, I could imagine them, or all three, Marx, Dickens, and Friedrich Engels sitting over a Christmas Bowl in a Manchester coffee house in 1849, arguing. It’s the romantic in me — which Dickens would applaud, Marx would sneer at, and Engels — hmmm, Engels might indulge, just a bit.
Christmas — did it ever actually snow in the December of the 1840s in England? *— might be a good time to consider a two centuries, or so, long dispute over how to fix the essential unfairness, the essential inequity of “western” society. And a great entry point — Christmas indeed — because two of the seminal arguments were made during the 1840s in early Victorian England and one of those is part of our basic Christmas literature.
But one saw possibility in Christian redemption, in the remaking of the capitalist human soul, while the other held no such illusions about the perversions that power and greed played upon the human heart and saw revolution as the only possible path. Dickens, though absolutely Anglican in development, was touched by the ‘Great Awakening’ and imagined thousands of Scrooges across Europe and North America ‘born again' into the light of humanity. Marx, though raised in the redemptive traditions of German Jewry, saw no evidence of that in Mercantilistic England and could see no path other than violent seizure. His reading of Dickens spiritual interventions in the night must have seemed the height of naivete.
I’m not so sure Dickens is that naive, as I said, romantic that I am. His warnings, despite his deliriously happy ending, are quite dire: “Are they your’s” Scrooge asks that jovial Spirit of Christmas Present, “ “They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” Read that line once again: “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.” OK, yes, Dickens was writing to escape debt here, writing for profit, and Christmas stories then or now will sell much better with a happy ending than with global economic revolution, but he does end his joyous Christmas of 1843 with the word “Doom” inscribed on humanity’s future. And he sees no hope in the actual or allegorical (social) parentage.
“Dickens was able to deliver important social messages while engaging the reader through empathetic characters, sharp wit, and true-to-life situations. Like a sneak attack, it was as if the bourgeoisie never knew what hit them, or indeed, that they had been hit at all. And the proletariat, finally, were the new heroes of popular literature,” wrote Stearns and Burns in 2011. “ But Dickens…never found his way to socialist ideas,” noted a British Socialist website on the 200th anniversary of his birth. Marx and Engels deeply appreciated the narrative, but also knew that the only vast change in social condition in the Europe of their knowledge had come with the violence of the French Revolution (see Jones, 2008). For them, perhaps, there was danger in the catharsis of reading of a redemption which was not coming.
So, does Tiny Tim die?
In the last stanza Dickens makes clear, “and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.” As some have noted, this is usually read with such emphasis as to make Tim immortal — a new Christ-child — though I would find that hard to imagine in Dickens’ original authorial intent. Now, understand, this is a Christmas story of redemption — perhaps, in Christian theology, better suited to Easter, but who’s counting — so Tiny Tim is supposed to live… but would he have?
“Dickens often modeled his fictional characters on people who had passed in and out of his life. It is widely believed that his crippled nephew Harry Burnett, who died from tuberculosis at age 9, was his inspiration for Tiny Tim,” Roxanne Nelson wrote in the Washington Post in 2002, making the reality a bit clearer than as seen through the fog of a coal-fired London Christmas.
In Marx’s Christmas, in Engel’s Christmas — opiate of the masses as the holiday might be — Tim Cratchit would indeed die and the crutch would be fondly preserved in that meager four room house. The crushing poverty of Victoria’s Industrial Britain would steadily fail to be camouflaged by folk Christian mythology, and the proletariat would rise up, standing on the graves of millions of Tiny Tims.
In truth, Dickens was the better observer. He truly understood the minds of the characters he drew. Marx was the better historian. Engels the better philosopher. They understood the truths beneath those English streets. But Dickens understood that at times — even in desperation — the myth will win out. So though he warned, he warned intensely and passionately, he knew the happy ending would sell better on those London and Manchester streets.
“Trump came to Burlington back in 2015 as his campaign for president was picking up steam. He declared: “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created … I will bring jobs back,”’ about to be laid off worker Robert Morrison writes in The Guardian complaining that Trump lied to his community. Well, no ****, as they say.
“You are fettered,” said Scrooge — perhaps in our better imaginations Trump to McKinley, as if there’s any equivalent — trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
Scrooge trembled more and more.
“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”
“Back when he was running for president,” Morrison continues, “Trump told us exactly what we wanted to hear. In fact, Trump’s promises are a major reason why Des Moines county swung from Barack Obama to Trump in 2016 – making it one of 31 Iowa counties that pivoted to Trump. Most of these counties are located along the Mississippi river valley, which was once a thriving industrial corridor but has since fallen on hard times.” Of course. And now, “A report…shows that, instead, the Trump administration has rewarded Siemens with $760m in lucrative contracts. Even worse, the report shows close to 8,000 jobs have been outsourced from Iowa since Trump was elected, including almost 2,000 jobs by federal contractors.” In other words, Morrison and his fellow Iowans believed Dickens, and got exactly what Marx knew they’d get exactly for the reasons Engels understood.
“God bless us, every one,” but, in reality, Tim Cratchit is dead and most likely buried in a potters field.
And so… at this 2018th Christmas?
In education, as in economics, as in politics, as in life, you get to be on one side or the other. You get to be with the revolutionaries by choice, or by action, or you get to be with the hopeful — by choice or by default.
I don’t mind either choice — but I do mind default. I don’t minimize the risks of— or even the likely futility of — the revolutionary path. Nor do I doubt the possible accomplishments of hope, faith, and charity. Scrooge might have been redeemed. He might have saved Tim. His charity might have saved a hundred others, a thousand others, ten thousand others. I think of the Rosenwald Foundation, of the Kennedy family, of the charitable work of so many children of ‘Robber Barons' —like the Rockefellers, or the religiously redeemed, like Carnegie. I’d be both cruel and foolish to ignore those facts or the differences they’ve made.
Yet we all know that the net result — its been 175 years since Dickens published A Christmas Carol — of hope, faith, and charity is a society, a political system, an economic system, an educational system, riddled with vast and cruel inequities, and in all, Tiny Tims die, and die by the thousands, every day.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
For Marx and Engels, well, they never lived to see the outcomes of their theories. But revolution really couldn’t ignite (or at least catch fire) in Britain or Germany — even in the full chaos of Germany at the close of the Great War. It required a much greater level of desperation — a level of desperation where those religious teachings, and the fears associated with risk — like the mass starvation of 1917 Russia or 1947 China.
Obviously, we have yet to reach that in the United States. As far as the field of education, where the victims are all children, I’m not certain that we can ever reach that level.
Still, you have to make the choice. And if you choose revolution — which is fair, which is just — please be the most humane revolutionary you can be. Revolutions will hurt people — but they need not kill millions like the Industrial Revolution in Britain, or Russia’s Stalinist revolution, or Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. Great disruption can occur — especially in education — with great care, for children obviously, but for adults as well. In my lifetime I have watched incredible social transformations unfold — in Ireland, in Quebec, in what is now the Czech Republic, and what was the “DDR” (East Germany), with amazing gentleness. It is possible.
And if you choose revolution, be careful. It is a choice filled with personal and familial risk. Revolutions fail more than they succeed. Revolutionaries often die in failure and in success. Education is only marginally more gentle.
If you choose Dickens, if you choose hope, faith, and charity, your responsibilities are large as well. You not only have that personal responsibility to be, “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world,” but you carry with you the responsibilities of Fred Hollowell and Jacob Marley — you must warn, you must haunt, you must do everything in your power to bring about that transformation, that redemption. If you do not, you are doing little more than fixing that writing on that stone, and in the end, Tiny Tim will die.
Don’t be part of that answer. Please.
Happy Christmas to All.
- Ira Socol, on the eve of the eve of the 2,018th Christmas, Virginia, USA
*Turns out, yes, if you were living when Dickens and Marx were writing.