Advocates for a New Social Order: Dickens, Marx, and the Trade Union in Hard Times
For over a century, Charles Dickens has been praised as being the working man's advocate, and the lower classes have played a major role in peopling his vast world of characters. Always, the reader is left with a sense of sympathy and pity for these characters as Dickens' journalistic descriptions of their plight are often dramatic, stirring, and pathetic. Although he renders the living conditions of the poor in such a way that no reader can escape feeling sympathy for such characters, Dickens never once offers a solution to such distress. In Hard Times we find a man who suffers not only the degradations of the industrial city, but also the ostracism of his own kind when he refuses to join the ranks of a budding trade union. Dickens has often been deemed a reformer by many modern critics. However, if he truly sought reform for the treatment of the lower classes in Victorian England, why, then, does he refuse Stephen Blackpool a chance to take a part in that reform? Like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Dickens realized and reported upon the conditions of the working classes, but he chose to offer a more spiritual form of aid rather than to suggest a complete political reformation.
Dickens published his views on labor issues in several of his journals, and he spoke on the subject frequently as well. Although he was moved by the plight of the workers, he could not understand why they would become violent at times. Peter Ackroyd cites a letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts, describing Dickens’ views on trade union violence. The reason for such violence, Dickens contends in the letter, is that the lower classes were being brainwashed and swindled by what he terms "designing persons who have. . . immeshed the workmen in a system of tyranny and oppression" (690). In other words, trade union "agitators" incited strikes and riots among a typically orderly, peaceful and honest group of people. Dickens never referred to these organizers as anything but "agitators,” and he thought them to be nothing but rabblerousers concerned only with lining their own pockets.
Perhaps because of his journalistic training, Dickens was able to present characters from the lower classes in a believable and heart-rending fashion, but he never truly understood them. It is true that he spent several months as a child working in a bootblacking (shoe polish) factory while his father was incarcerated for debt, but he was soon returned to his middle class household and was able to continue his education. Dickens then worked his way up to becoming a parliamentary reporter, and he was later able to write for a living. His being a self-made man is perhaps the key to understanding his view on the lower classes. If he was content with his hard-earned position in the social order, why should they not be as well? This was the typical bourgeois attitude of the time.
In The Grudrisse of...