A tale of two writers
By Jim Coogan
There is no evidence that the great nineteenth century writers Charles Dickens and Karl Marx ever met. Marx was a few years younger than Dickens but they were contemporaries in a changing world. Both men took different approaches in evaluating the social and economic conditions of their time. Dickens, in his novels, exposed the negative consequences of the new industrial age and its effects on the working class. In books like Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and in the journal “Household Words” that he edited, we are introduced to a dark world of poverty, crime, and hardship. While Dickens is celebrated as a literary genius, Marx, who advocated for economic reforms that would benefit the very class of people that Dickens wrote about, is reviled as a radical extremist whose ideas should be diminished and devalued. Indeed, many conservatives use the word “socialist” as a substitute for mayhem, disorder, and eventual economic ruin. The truth is that both Dickens and Marx were reacting to what some have termed, “capitalism without a conscience.” Each in his own way called for a just world.
Perhaps the negative reaction to Marx is the result of not understanding what socialism is. Too often when the suggestion of any kind of collectivism comes up, the line is drawn directly to Stalinism and Maoism. It’s understandable that this the typical reaction. The Soviet Union and communist China used the Marxist model to enslave masses of people. Politicizing socialism as they did meant the creation of top down dictatorships that benefitted a select few. And economic failure and the loss of individual freedom came with it. That result, however, was not what Marx advocated in Das Kapital. His basic philosophy was anti-capitalist. He decried the negative effects of the class system. While it’s easy to take offense at this today, remember, Marx was writing in a time of extreme social and economic inequality. He saw the poverty and squalor that Dickens wrote about. And like Dickens, he reacted to the inherited privilege of the ruling class that exploited industrial workers with low wages and long hours.
When we examine the lot of the laboring class in the late nineteenth century in both Europe and America, it was dismal. Six day work weeks of 12 hour days at subsistence wages was common. There was child labor and unsafe working conditions. Labor unions were banned. The Chartists in England and the agrarian reformers in America had been beaten down. Meanwhile, in what historians have called “the Gilded Age,” a small group of capitalists lived in unimaginable luxury in virtual palaces, removed from the day to day hardships of people who were barely surviving. This is what Dickens and Marx were responding to. With these conditions, there should be little wonder that the ideas of Marx began to take hold.
Today, we see the continuing erosion of the middle class while the aggregated fortunes of the top 10% amount to almost 40% of America’s wealth — double what the rest of the 90% has. While Republicans tout the increase in stock values in the past two years, the fact is that most Americans haven’t benefitted from this because they aren’t invested in the market. 80% of the worth of the stock market is owned by 10% of the population. The increases in values have gone largely to the wealthy who have seen their portfolios grow just as the capital gains tax has been reduced. We live now in a system where millionaires have literally purchased the government for their own advantage.
With all this, it’s astounding to me that pushing for higher taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations is seen as such a radical notion. When the president and other conservatives slam the idea of making the rich pay a larger share of taxes, claiming that it will kill jobs and crush the middle class, they stand on the side of modern day plutocrats — the 1%. And no wonder. That’s who they are.