In 1939 George Orwell, then in a state of political despair, wrote three long essays, "Charles Dickens," "Raffles and Miss Blandish," and "Inside the Whale," which he marketed to his publisher Victor Gollancz as a book. Gollancz gave him exactly 20 pounds sterling (then $80) for the rights to these masterpieces, and the sales seem to have fully justified the advance. The technique Orwell used in those essays is the one I have borrowed here on many occasions: to take a literary event, whether high- or low-brow, or even a classic writer, and ask what his work and its appeal says about the current state of the world. My borrowing is anything but accidental. I discovered these essays at the age of 15 thanks to a young embassy wife while living overseas and I wrote about them at length in my senior thesis. "Inside the Whale" was about Henry Miller's book Tropic of Cancer, then banned in Britain and the United States; "Raffles and Miss Blandish" compared a 19th-century British mystery with an American film noir; and "Charles Dickens" dealt with that author's whole body of work. which Orwell, then 36, had loved since childhood.
The Dickens essay is fascinating for many reasons, even to those like myself who have never been Dickens fans, but I'm going to focus today on its political argument. Orwell, a convinced socialist who distrusted many of his fellow leftists and who had become a convinced anti-Communist after his experiences in Spain, noted that because of Dickens' sympathy for the poor, many leftists claimed him as an ideological kin. Orwell typically saw the misunderstanding at the heart of this claim. He had no doubt that Dickens's sympathy for the poor was genuine and that the novelist wanted things to change, but he realized that Dickens was criticizing the existing order from a particular point of view. Contemporary leftists thought society's problems were structural and reflected certain key aspects of capitalism, a view Orwell had certainly endorsed four years earlier in The Road to Wigan Pier. Dickens, Orwell argued convincingly, did not see the world that way.
"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. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens's attitude is at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality 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, for instance, 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. Of course one can draw this inference for oneself, and one can draw it again from the remarks about Bounderby's will at the end of Hard Times, and indeed from the whole of Dickens's work one can infer the evil of laissez-faire capitalism; but Dickens makes no such inference himself. It is said that Macaulay refused to review Hard Times because he disapproved of its ‘sullen Socialism’. Obviously Macaulay 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. Bounder by 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."
Continuing, Orwell argues that Dickens recurrently creates "good rich men" to bring this fantasy to life, and occasionally converts a bad rich man (see Scrooge, Ebeneezer) to a good one to hold out hope. On the other hand, Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities portrayed the French Revolution in all its horror as an inevitable outcome of the repression of the many by the few. Orwell was too hard-headed and had seen too much exploitation first hand to put too much stock in such individual conversions, but re-reading Dickens after wading through years of Marxist tracts had gotten him thinking about how historical change occurs. And thus, a little later, he penned the following paragraph, the one whose memory moved me to begin this post.
"If that were all, he might be no more than a cheer-up writer, a reactionary humbug. A ‘change of heart’ is in fact the alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo. But Dickens is not a humbug, except in minor matters, and the strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny. I said earlier that Dickens is not in the accepted sense a revolutionary writer. But it is not at all certain that a merely moral criticism of society may not be just as ‘revolutionary’ — and revolution, after all, means turning things upside down as the politico-economic criticism which is fashionable at this moment. Blake was not a politician, but there is more understanding of the nature of capitalist society in a poem like ‘I wander through each charted street’ than in three-quarters of Socialist literature. Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. There is always a new tyrant waiting to take over from the old — generally not quite so bad, but still a tyrant. Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee. The central problem — how to prevent power from being abused — remains unsolved. Dickens, who had not the vision to see that private property is an obstructive nuisance, had the vision to see that. ‘If men would behave decently the world would be decent’ is not such a platitude as it sounds."
Orwell was never very interested in the contemporary United States, and the New Deal seems to have barely crossed his field of vision, but from nearly 75 years' distance we can say that the New Deal had changed the system, albeit not as fundamentally as Marx would have liked or as Roosevelt's critics charged, so as to put significant limits upon the accumulation of wealth and put some kind of a floor under poverty. (It is interesting to note that, in an annual ritual at Hyde Park, Franklin Roosevelt read A Christmas Carol to this grandchildren.) Those reforms were in turn based upon a particular moral vision, one that held that greed was evil and destructive, as well as on the idea that prosperity and staggering inequality simply were not compatible. Orwell lived to see even more drastic changes in his own country under the Labour Government after the war. Now, as President Obama struggles to hold our society in roughly the unfortunate, far more unequal state that it is in today, it behooves us to ask once again what is more to blame: our system or our values?
While I have never shared Dickens's view that more benevolent businessmen would make the world a better place, I feel quite certain that our values are now the real problem. As historian Jill Lepore argued in a recent New Yorker article that unfortunately is not available to the public, business interests and Republicans have successfully sold the accumulation of private wealth as the greatest moral good during the last few decades, and redefined "citizens" as "taxpayers." In past eras, churches and universities have provided an alternative view, but for some time now our most powerful churches have been in an alliance with business interests against different forms of liberalism, and universities, as I have pointed out again and again, are no longer interested in the practical details of securing economic inequality, or indeed in government as it is really practiced at all. The President says again and again that the rich have to pay a bigger share, but neither he nor any other elected Democrat I know of will say that we are threatened by billionaires who simply have too much money for the good of the rest of us. The idea of a secure home and future by every American no longer seems to be compelling. Equally moribund is the idea of greater artistic value that could actually trump the profit motive in industries like films and book publishing. The only moral value the left seems to care about is opposition to discrimination based upon race, gender or sexual preference. That is an important moral value, but it is not enough to organize an economically just society around.
Forty years ago, in Nixon Agonistes, Gary Wills argued that Americans needed to realize that wealth was no index of virtue. Since then society has moved in the opposite direction--and the momentum has become self-sustaining thanks to tax cuts for the wealthy and the Citizens United decision, which allows the already superrich to buy more infuence and make even more money. Churches, as I have noted, have other concerns, and colleges and universities have fallen as far under the sway of the money gods as anyone else. Worse, a university education--the price of admission to the decision-making elite--has become so expensive that it is hard to emerge from college without serious economic ambitions. Ironically, the disappearance of Fascism and Communism has eased the pressure on free societies to provide a better life for their citizens--although Europe, which suffered so much more from them, has not given up that task. The Progressive Era, which the contemporary right now identifies as the root of all evil, was a reaction to the unbridled capitalism of the Gilded Age. We are due for such a reaction now, but it is not yet happening. History suggests that, eventually, it will, but it may take another twenty to thirty years.