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Hard Times by Charles Dickens, reviewed by Linda Taaffe
IN 1854 Charles Dickens' weekly magazine Household Words serialised his novel Hard Times. People looked forward to each episode just as nowadays they await the latest edition of TV serials.
Workers' conditions 150 years ago were brutal. Dickens devoted his literary talent to making them central to this novel. People still use the term "Dickensian" to refer to the poverty-stricken lives of poor workers today.
Dickens was not a socialist. Hard Times makes deprecatory comments about the union agitator character Slackbridge, and features a non-union mill weaver as the main worker character. Neither did he pose a fundamental change in society.
But even this story, for popular consumption, would have been seen as an attack on the establishment and an open condemnation of capitalism.
Greedy employers such as Josiah Bounderby looked for the slightest signs of discontent that could lead to the "Hands" - real people reduced to mere units of labour - wanting "to be set up in a coach and six, and fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon." Such men were marked out for transportation.
Karl Marx loved Dickens, who graphically highlighted working conditions and workers' efforts to form combinations (early trade unions). Dickens worked briefly in a Manchester shoe polish factory, experiencing the conditions that Friedrich Engels brilliantly documented in Conditions of the Working Class in 1844. Dickens vowed to "strike the heaviest blow in my power" to help those toiling there.
This wonderful short novel uses satire to comment on class, laws and parliament. Dickens presents two ways of seeing life - the mean, utilitarian, cash nexus, as opposed to treating people decently and letting human relations flower.
MPs were already getting a bad name. Dickens describes Thomas Gradgrind MP as "throwing of dust about into the eyes of other people," and described politicians as people in the service of the rich.
He was sickened by inhuman conditions in the factories where children's bodies were regularly mangled. Even the factory inspectors were shackled.
"Government gentlemen come and mak's report. Fend off the dangerous machinery, box it off, save life and limb, don't rend and tear human creeturs to bits in a Chris'en country. What follers? Owners sets up their throats, cries out 'Onreasonable! Inconvenient! Troublesome!' Gets to Secretaries o'State wi' deputations and nothing's done. When do we get there wi' our deputations..."
What about deputations on pay, housing, health today, let alone the petitions of millions who demonstrated against war? Cabinet ministers are still deaf to workers' pleas. Secretaries of State still cry "Onreasonable" over our cry for decent pensions.
Gradgrind wants to mould everyone and everything to serve self-interested capitalist exploitation for naked profit. His school in Coketown, "a town of machinery and tall chimneys," was founded on "facts". He advises the teacher Mr M'Choakumchild to "plant nothing else, and root out everything else." The "little vessels...are arranged in order, ready to have imperial facts poured into them until they were full to the brim."
Governments today still try to harness education strictly to employers' needs. Teachers talk about the Gradgrind curriculum when campaigning against Sats tests for young children, and against the use of numbers and scores in league tables as the crucial measure for educational institutions. Real education, most teachers agree, should be based on the ability to think for oneself.
This debate has been held for generations. Albert Einstein failed at school, but his enquiring mind pushed the boundaries of science and he came to the conclusion that "Imagination is more important than knowledge."
Dickens juxtaposed Sleary's Circus to Gradgrind and Bounderby. The circus characters empathise with others and help each other, despite their poverty. Imagination, emotions and colour make for real human relations. They show that life is about the common interest, and lending a helping hand. The circus girl Sissy Jupe helps sort out the problems in the story, not the wealthy, powerful or educated, for all their knowledge and vanity.
Dickens' novel reminds us how little has fundamentally changed. Workers are still exploited by employers as units to make profits - and brutally discarded when not needed. The cash nexus has penetrated every aspect of life, debasing human relations even more.
One character in Hard Times bemoans: "All's in a muddle," ie society is in a mess. It still is today.
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
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In The Socialist 21 October 2009:
War and occupation
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party reviews
Marxist analysis: history