Can Socialists be Happy? is the title of an amusing little essay by George Orwell, which touches on the subjects of Christmas and socialist Utopias. The short answer is, —No. The sterile socialist utopias of Wells’s Men Like Gods and William Morris’s News from Nowhere elicit no joy in Orwell’s heart.
Christmas, of course, from A Christmas Carol, Dickens’ timeless Victorian parable of the redemption of an old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge. [Every Christmas Eve, I watch the 1951 movie with Alistair Sim playing Scrooge—the definitive version]. And despite Orwell’s critiques of Dickens, elaborated extensively in his essay on Dickens, he cannot help but express a liking for him.
I must confess a grudging admiration for Dickens, ever since as a very young boy, reading Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol from my grandfather’s beautiful leather-bound Dickens collection, complete in that old thin paper and sinister illustrations. Although he can be overly verbose, and sentimentality oozes from his every pore, he has a knack for creating characters with real feelings and emotions, real joys and sorrows, rather than fabricated professions of goodwill. I can still feel the cold of English houses and almost feel Bob Cratchit shivering on Christmas Eve as he toils for Scrooge. But,
…however thick Dickens may lay on the paint, however disgusting the ‘pathos’ of Tiny Tim may be, the Cratchit family give the impression of enjoying themselves. They sound happy as, for instance, the citizens of William Morris’s News From Nowhere don’t sound happy. Moreover and Dickens’s understanding of this is one of the secrets of his power their happiness derives mainly from contrast. They are in high spirits because for once in a way they have enough to eat. The wolf is at the door, but he is wagging his tail. The steam of the Christmas pudding drifts across a background of pawnshops and sweated labour, and in a double sense the ghost of Scrooge stands beside the dinner table. Bob Cratchit even wants to drink to Scrooge’s health, which Mrs Cratchit rightly refuses. The Cratchits are able to enjoy Christmas precisely because it only comes once a year. Their happiness is convincing just because Christmas only comes once a year. Their happiness is convincing just because it is described as incomplete.
…As all happiness is; incomplete and never a thing in itself.
All the imagined socialist utopias never get beyond seeing happiness as a kind of maudlin cleanliness, populated by nice, but drab and boring, people, much like the decaffeinated personalities of the progressives of today. Imagine waking up in that kind of world…
It is a world whose keynotes are enlightened hedonism and scientific curiosity. All the evils and miseries we now suffer from have vanished. Ignorance, war, poverty, dirt, disease, frustration, hunger, fear, overwork, superstition all vanished. So expressed, it is impossible to deny that that is the kind of world we all hope for. We all want to abolish the things Wells wants to abolish. But is there anyone who actually wants to live in a Wellsian Utopia? On the contrary, not to live in a world like that, not to wake up in a hygenic garden suburb infested by naked schoolmarms, has actually become a conscious political motive.
Orwell had a horror of the joyless, antiseptic, hectoring feminism that contaminates so much of our civil discourse today. Nowadays, the infestation of “naked schoolmarms” would be replaced by a tyrannical collective of ham planets with blue armpit hair beating young boys until they do have periods.
On the question of utopias…
All ‘favourable’ Utopias seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness. News From Nowhere is a sort of goody-goody version of the Wellsian Utopia. Everyone is kindly and reasonable, all the upholstery comes from Liberty’s, but the impression left behind is of a sort of watery melancholy. But it is more impressive that Jonathan Swift, one of the greatest imaginative writers who have ever lived, is no more successful in constructing a ‘favourable’ Utopia than the others.
Because utopia is planned, and boring, only dull and boring people can inhabit it.
Dickens can describe a poverty-stricken family tucking into a roast goose, and can make them appear happy; on the other hand, the inhabitants of perfect universes seem to have no spontaneous gaiety and are usually somewhat repulsive into the bargain.
…which, in a nutshell, describes the drab personalities that inhabit the tedium of progressive politics today.
Dickens could portray happiness because he was a free man, and a decent man, much in the way Orwell was himself. And this is one of the many reasons Orwell (and, no doubt, Dickens) is hated by the Left and doctrinaire socialists in general. That the Cratchits may be poor is one thing, but that they should be happy, if only occasionally, is something that infuriates the legions of the perpetually morose. Orwell imagined Dickens thus …
Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.
The smelly little orthodoxies are now almost suffocating us.