So I Just Watched A Christmas Carol 2019…

…and it is easily one of the most joyless media-watching experiences I have ever had to endure.

Don’t let this poster fool you. Nothing even remotely as cool as this ever happens in the film.

We all know Charles Dickens’ story of how the elderly miser Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed into a kinder, gentler soul when several ghostly spirits help him see the true magic of the holiday season. We’ve also seen it portrayed in many adaptions starring Reginald Owen, Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, and many others in the title role (although the version starring Michael Caine alongside the Muppets will always be my personal favorite). It has been well renowned for not only helping to codify many modern Christmas traditions in a time when the holiday had slowly been regaining popularity in Victorian England but also for simply being a life-affirming story about the value of kindness and generosity.

Even so, some have noted that the story, despite acknowledging the plight of the poor numerous times, doesn’t really engage with the question of why they’re impoverished in the first place and paints too much of a happy, sentimental picture over the very genuine and very terrible suffering that the lower classes went through in this period. Need I remind you that Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto appeared only five years after A Christmas Carol was published?

It seems that this was the lens that Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight was approaching the story through when he wrote the three episodes that make up the 2019 adaptation. He decided to lift the veil on the horrific conditions that the proletariat worked under as the age of capitalism truly codified itself in the early 1800s. But does Knight’s approach work when he applies his critiques of systemic abuse to an adaptation of A Christmas Carol of all things?

Before I go into my many, MANY problems with this adaptation, however, I should at least go into what I felt the series did right.

The best element that the series has going for it is its cast. Despite being much younger than the traditional image most of us have of an elderly skinflint, Guy Pearce is suitably imposing, manipulative, and chilling as a more middle-aged Scrooge. Stephen Graham is obviously having fun playing Jacob Marley, providing most of the series’ rare moments of comic relief as he stumbles in confusion through Purgatory. Another standout performance is Andy Serkis as a much more grizzled and imposing version of the Ghost of Christmas Past than we’re used to.

Although he looks more like a battle-scarred cross between the Ghost of Christmas Present and an ax-murdering lumberjack.

Meanwhile, Vinette Robinson gives an intense performance as Mary, the matriarch of the long-suffering Cratchit family, while Lenny Rush is delightfully adorable as Tiny Tim.

Another point in the series’ favor is its cinematography and set design. The setting is appropriately Victorian, and the design for Purgatory is suitably dark and Christmassy. It takes the form of what looks like a giant abandoned Christmas tree lot, which is tended by the Ghost of Christmas Past periodically burning the trees.

The more horror film-inspired scenes are also very creative, especially during the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come sequence when Scrooge sees the ceiling of his office transform into a frozen pond surface and watches in horror as Tiny Tim falls through it and drowns.

That being said, the series also does that annoying thing some cinematographers do in that they try to emphasize the darkness of the story by making the shots so dark that you can barely tell what’s happening onscreen. This series is definitely guilty of that, although it does brighten up a little as the story goes along.

The literal darkness is one thing, but the thematic darkness inherent to this version of the story is what ruins it. For example, this version begins with a boy with a prominent facial scar pissing on Marley’s grave. This alone is cringeworthy edgelord bullshit, but what pushes it into unintentional hilarity is that as some of the piss drips on Marley’s corpse, he wakes up and starts loudly complaining about how he’s not allowed to rest in peace. And it all goes downhill from there.

The biggest sin that this series commits is the way it handles Scrooge himself. One can argue that Scrooge in the original novella really wasn’t all that bad a guy. True, he is ruthless in charging his financially challenged debtors for more than their meager dwellings are worth. He also just sits on his wealth rather than spend it on anything and pays Bob Cratchit starvation wages that more than likely are condemning his youngest son to an early death. Plus, when told that the poor would rather die than slave away in prisons or workhouses, he famously responds, “Well, if they’re going to die, they’d better do it and decrease the surplus population!” But that type of evil is subtle enough that some readers (especially those more sympathetic to Ayn Rand) might wonder why he’s treated as evil at all, especially since he is presented as scrupulously honest and, for all his grumbling, does allow Cratchit to take Christmas Day off.

Unfortunately, Knight’s solution to this problem goes so far beyond the realm of good taste that one ends up concluding that Pearce’s Scrooge deserves nothing more than an eternity in the lowest pit of Hell. For example, unlike in the novella where Scrooge and Marley’s business doesn’t seem to go beyond the impoverished Londoners they lend money to, this version portrays them as the Victorian era equivalent of a private equity firm, buying struggling small businesses for far less than they’re worth and gradually ruining them for a profit. The consequences of this are shown plainly when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge a factory explosion and a mine collapse that was directly caused by his financial meddling. Indeed, the boy shown pissing on Marley’s grave was a survivor of the mine disaster.

But that’s nothing compared to what made Scrooge this way in the first place.

(Major trigger warning for those sensitive to issues of sexual assault, especially the kind involving children. Please proceed with caution for the following three paragraphs!)

Knight was determined to show Scrooge as having the worst childhood possible, from watching a pet mouse gifted to him by his sister get decapitated by his howling drunken beast of a father…

Who in this version looks and acts like a discount version of Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York.

…to his father letting him be sexually assaulted by his schoolmaster so that he could get a discount on tuition fees. Incidentally, this leads to the other most infamous scene in the series when Scrooge’s sister (named Lottie in this version) pulls a gun on the schoolmaster to rescue Scrooge from his abuse after their father dies. I will admit that I was rather entertained by this scene, mostly because of present-day Scrooge’s reaction (“She pulled a fucking gun on him!” he exclaims in shock).

Later, the effects of this abuse are shown when Mary Cratchit, desperate for money to save Tiny Tim’s life, asks Scrooge for help. Scrooge says he will, but only if she will come to his house to prostitute herself. When she is halfway undressed, however, Scrooge tells her to put her clothes back on, as he wasn’t interested in sex, just in trying to prove how easily people will abandon their morals for money. The Ghost of Christmas Past storms away afterward, convinced that Scrooge is beyond all hope of redemption.

Many critics trashed the series for this, as it seemed less like Knight was using this to open up a dialogue about these issues and more like he just added them for shock value. It doesn’t help that after Scrooge dismisses Mary, she lays a curse on him that is strongly implied to have set Marley and the Spirits on him. The ending even implies that Mary will continue to enlist the Spirits’ help to punish men who abuse women. Many reviewers have pointed out how having the only central non-white character be into witchcraft is… rather tone-deaf at best, but that’s probably a conversation for someone more qualified than me to have.

The unrelenting grimness of the proceedings is not helped by how sluggish the pacing is. The series runs for three episodes that bring it up to a total runtime of just seven minutes shy of three hours. And believe me, you will feel every single minute of it, especially if you watch it all in one sitting as I did with the version shown on Hulu (plus commercials! Joy to the fucking world!).

To give you an idea of just how badly the series paces itself, let me show you where the appropriate plot beats happen in this version of the story:

  • Scrooge doesen’t even leave his office until about 40 minutes in. Most other feature-length adaptions are well into the Ghost of Chrsitmas Past sequence by this point.
  • Jacob Marley’s meeting with Scrooge happens an hour in, at the beginning of the second episode!
  • The Ghost of Christmas Past sequence last for about seventy-five minutes! And virtually all of it is spent wallowing in Scrooge’s miserable childhood and equally miserable business career watching him carry on the cycle of abuse to basically all of London’s lower class (and possibly even farther: Marley mentions them having employees as far away as India). There is no Christmas cheer to be seen anywhere. Scrooge’s eternally sunny nephew Fred never shows up again after his short visit in the beginning and Fezziwig has become Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Adaptaion.
  • The consequently truncated Ghost of Christmas Present sequence, which only lasts twenty minutes, doesn’t lighten the atmosphere one bit. For one thing, the role of said Ghost is filled by, of all characters, Scrooge’s deceased sister, presumably just to remind us more about how Scrooge sucks. And for another, because Mary Cratchit is a witch in this version (ugh!), when Scrooge visits the Cratchit dwelling, she’s able to see him, which causes her to have a nervous breakdown and ruin Christmas for everyone. Fa la la la la, la la, la la!
  • Finally, with not even half an hour left, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come finally arrives… and he looks utterly ridculous!
What, Steve, did the dark, imposing cloaked figure not give you enough body horror to work with?

All of this makes the ending scenes feel incredibly rushed. Scrooge decides to reject redemption because he doesn’t feel he deserves it (Yeah, no shit!) and decides instead that all he wants is to save Tiny Tim from the skating accident he foresaw, which he accomplishes by spreading salt over the ice. He then visits the Cratchits to announce that he’s shutting down his business, thanks Mary for summoning the spirits (ugh!), and heads off to try to become the best person he can be. And despite Pearce’s best efforts to bring back memories of the joyful Scrooges of old, none of it feels convincing. This is still a ruthless, sexually harassing capitalist we’re talking about. After almost three hours of Steven Knight ripping out all of the salvation present in the story, it’s hard for me to get on board with him suddenly taking a 180 and saying, “See, I can do Christmas cheer too!”

I get what Steven Knight was trying to do. He wanted to lift the veil on the economic conditions underpinning this beloved classic and recontextualize it with our more modern understanding. But in doing so, he ended up removing everything that made A Christmas Carol a beloved classic in the first place. Scrooge is turned into an irredeemably awful cad, the darker elements are handled with about as much subtlety as a Monty Python sketch, the story is too busy wallowing in the melodrama to actually go anywhere most of the time, and the supposedly “happy” ending is so rushed and underdeveloped that it almost makes the whole affair seem like an unfunny joke.

Hell, I almost recommend watching Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas instead: at least that film’s incompetence makes for good riffing material at parties and such. Basically, any adaptation of A Christmas Carol is better than this one simply by virtue of having some goddamn cheerfulness to them as opposed to three hours of wallowing in a cycle of abuse. And I’m giving this one a 3/10. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

The Complete Noob’s Guide to the Left #2: Marxism-Leninism

Marxism-Leninism was by far the most widespread strain of socialist thought to emerge in the 20th century. It was the form of government that the Soviet Union took after the death of Vladimir Lenin, as Josef Stalin sought to combine Lenin’s philosophy with that of Karl Marx. The results were wildly successful for a time; at its height in the early to mid-1980s, thirty countries followed Marxist-Leninist principles when setting up their socialist governments. But today, only four are still considered bona fide Marxist-Leninist states: Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, and China. But did these states fail on their own merits, like capitalist propaganda would have us believe? Or did capitalism end up strangling the baby in its crib to stop the working class from seeing a better way?

General Beliefs

Before we answer those questions, we must first examine what Marxist-Leninists actually believe. The main difference between Marx and Lenin was that Lenin thought that Marx had been mistaken when he predicted that the working class would achieve solidarity as poverty got worse and more jobs were replaced by machines. Lenin instead argued that by outsourcing hard labor to overseas colonies during the age of imperialism, the capitalist ruling class had managed to instill workers with a false sense of solidarity with the bourgeoisie. They did this mainly by providing the workers with enough benefits to satisfy them and forestall a populist uprising.

Lenin argued that the solution to this problem was to form a political party composed of intellectuals to show the misguided working class that their bourgeois solidarity is wasted on rich people who don’t care about them. With this vanguard party in place, a revolution would overthrow the old bourgeois class and be ruled under a dictatorship of the proletariat, which Marx predicted in his original writings. Lenin interpreted this “dictatorship of the proletariat” as a one-party political system that would determine what was good for the workers and establish a strong law enforcement arm to suppress counterrevolutionaries (something that many other socialist thinkers disagreed with; more on that later).

With all of this in place, the path to the classless, stateless society that Marx originally dreamed of would eventually be realized as the rest of the world saw how well the citizens of the Soviet Union were doing under the newer, better communist regime. But sadly, as history has demonstrated, capitalism doesn’t like competition as much as it claims it does.

History and Principle Figures

Russia did indeed have its socialist revolution in October of 1917 that established the very first non-capitalist nation in the modern-day. Some sources, like the Libertarian Socialist Wiki, have divided the subsequent history of Marxism-Leninism into six phases.

Phase One starts with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and ends with the invasion of the USSR by Nazi Germany in 1941. This period saw the establishment of the Soviet Union as a formal state in 1922, Josef Stalin coming to power in 1924 after Lenin’s untimely death, Mongolia becoming a socialist republic the same year, and Stalin pursuing a policy of isolationism as he pursued independent industrial development.

Phase Two lasted from 1941 to 1959. This period saw the Allied Powers’ defeat of Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire with significant help from the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Cold War between the USSR and the United States. This period also saw the first big wave of new socialist republics as the USSR sought to spread its foreign influence. Yugoslavia was the first to join in 1943, followed by Poland (1945); Albania and Bulgaria (1946); Romania (1947); Czechslovakia (1948); East Germany, Hungary, and China (1949); North Korea (1950); and Cuba (1959). Stalin died in 1954, and his successor, Nikita Krushchev, pursued a policy of de-Stalinization. Meanwhile, the capitalist countries begin covert military operations to destabilize emerging communist governments like those in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954).

Phase Three lasted from 1960 to 1973 and saw the creation of several Marxist-Leninist organizations that failed to seize power in their home countries. Examples include the Naxalite movement in India, the Red Army Faction in West Germany, and the Japanese Red Army. Others successfully achieved socialism, like Yemen in 1967 and Congo and Somalia in 1969. It also saw tensions between the US and Soviet Union reach a fever pitch during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Meanwhile, tensions between the USSR and China led to the Sino-Soviet Split, as Mao Zedong accused Nikita Krushchev’s policies of de-Stalinization and attempts at peaceful coexistence with the West as a betrayal of Marxist principles. Even so, Mao himself eventually established friendly relations with the US after Nixon’s famous visit in 1972. During this period, the US would also pursue much more hostile relations with other Marxist-Leninist nations, most infamously with its toppling of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile in 1973 and the Vietnam War (1964-1975).

Phase Four lasted from 1974 to 1988 and saw the second big wave of states joining the Marxist-Leninist cause. These included Ethiopia in 1974; Benin, Angola, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Mozambique in 1975; Afghanistan in 1978; Nicaragua and Grenada in 1979; and Burkina Faso in 1983. Indeed, one might call this the golden age of Marxism-Leninism, as not only did the philosophy hold sway over 30 nation-states at this time, but revolutionaries were conducting insurrections against their capitalist regimes all over the globe, albeit with little success. Meanwhile, the US continued its fight against the rise of communism. First, it seized upon the assassination of socialist prime minister Maurice Bishop to lead an invasion that toppled Grenada’s Marxist-Leninist government in 1983. Then it joined France, Libya, Israel, and several other nations in assassinating Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara in 1987. This period also saw American president Ronald Reagan become involved in the Iran-Contra affair, in which he was outed as using money from illegal arms sales in Iran to fund the Contra movement to oust the Communist government of Nicaragua.

Phase Five, lasting from 1989 to 1992, was when the bottom dropped out of the old communist regimes, as the contradictions inherent in the centralized economies of places like the Soviet Union caused them to start falling apart, partly thanks to Mikael Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost. The age of neoliberalism formally codified itself as authoritarian governments, communist or otherwise, were replaced by capitalist representative democracies. Only five countries still operated on Marxist-Leninist principles when it was all over; China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, and Cuba.

Phase Six, which started in 1993 and continues today, sees the remaining five socialist governments struggling to adapt to the neoliberal era. Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba remain steadfastly Marxist-Leninist despite often overbearing international pressure. Meanwhile, China has adopted more and more capitalist elements as the years have gone by, while North Korea devolved into an authoritarian hellscape. What major socialist movements are left have mostly turned to social democracy or libertarian socialism (like the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, or the PKK and Rojava movement in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria).

Personal Thoughts

I have rather complex feelings about the Marxist-Leninists. On the one hand, Marxism-Leninism has a lot to answer for in terms of some of their actions, some of which might even rise to human rights violations. Indeed, the millions of deaths that occurred under events like the Holodomor in Stalinist Russia, the great famines that happened under Mao Zedong’s watch in China, and the millions of people murdered by Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia could make a strong case that trying to centralize the entire economy under government control never works.

Even many contemporary leftists had a lot of negative things to say about how Lenin and co. were handling things in Russia. For example, Polish communist Rosa Luxemburg heavily criticized Lenin’s idea of a vanguard, which she thought would lead to a one-party totalitarian state (something that would prove all too true once Stalin took power). My personal political hero, Pyotr Kropotkin, also criticized the Marxist-Leninists as being too centralized and authoritarian. The great American anarchist Emma Goldman, deported to Russia for her radical views, even wrote a two-volume book entitled My Disillusionment in Russia, in which she excoriated the Marxist-Leninists for their suppression of independent voices (something that was brilliantly depicted in the 1981 film Reds during her argument with John Reed (see my review of that film here)).

However, as my literacy of the history and philosophy of the political left has increased, I’ve also come to realize two things. The first is that, in many cases, the supposed crimes of the Marxist-Leninist regimes have often been grossly exaggerated or even outright fabricated by capitalist propagandists. Much capitalist propaganda would have us believe that all communist nations were Stalinist or Maoist hellholes where everyone was crushed under famine and economic stagnation and anyone who dared to speak out about it was deported to a life of hard labor in the gulags. Of course, this ignores the fact that the gulags were discontinued under Krushchev’s administration as part of his de-Stalinization policies. It also ignores the fact that the Soviet Union became an industrial superpower that vastly increased living standards. Many egalitarian achievements, in the form of social programs for education, housing, health, and jobs, helped lift up much of the population.

This is your country on socialism, and this is your country on capitalism. Any questions?

Speaking of which, that leads me to the second thing I’ve realized: that capitalism is far deadlier than communism could ever hope to be. Let’s say we take 1997’s The Black Book of Communism at its word and assume that communism has indeed killed 94 million people in the 100+ years since the Bolshevik Revolution. That doesn’t change the fact that capitalism kills just as many, if not more, people every five years!

Of course, that’s not including all the atrocities that capitalism wrought on the world during the age of imperialism. Let’s go through some of these atrocities one by one and see how long it takes to surpass The Black Book’s death toll, shall we?

  • The Atlantic slave trade is estimated to have directly killed around 17 million, according to the United Nations, although many estimates place the death toll much higher.
  • Colonial negligence by the British resulted in the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852, which some have estimated killed as many as 1.5 million.
  • The colonization of North America in the wake of Christopher Columbus’ arrival lead to genocide of the Indigenous population, resulting in anywhere from 50 to 100 million deaths.
  • King Leopold II of Belgium’s infamously brutal treatment of rubber laborers in the Congo Free State between 1885 and 1908 resulted in the deaths of 15 million, according to the highest estimates.
  • Adolf Hitler’s Holocaust against the Jews, the Romani, the homosexuals, the disabled, and several other groups (resulting in over six million deaths) is a direct legacy of the systems of racism created by capitalists to justify the Atlantic slave trade.
  • One direct rebuttal of The Black Book by noted leftist philospher Noam Chomsky noted how deaths from hunger in India typically exceeded 4 million deaths even in non-famine years, in contrast to the 15-55 million figure death toll often applied to China’s Great Famine of 1959-1961.

Of course, that doesn’t cover nearly all the people killed by capitalism and all the genocides, wars, and just plain negligent actions that it propagates, but the point still stands. In all, I think the last paragraph of this article from the eco-socialist journal Capitalism Nature Socialism puts it best:

Leftists who object to communism will hardly put an even infinitesimal dent on the capitalist killing machine by reproducing anti-communist propaganda. It only helps intensify the threat of burgeoning anti-communist legislation and fascist street actions against the left as a whole… Let us then consciously reorganize and struggle for economically tenable classless egalitarian ends before capitalists obliterate most of humanity and other beings with another world conflagration or simply conducting their regular buisness.

Engel-Di Mauro, Salvatore; et al. (4 May 2021). “Anti-Communism and the Hundreds of Millions of Victims of Capitalism”Capitalism Nature Socialism. Routledge. 32 (1): 1–17.

Indeed, from what I’ve gathered, it seems that the ultimate end goal of Marxist-Leninists and anarcho-communists is ultimately the same: a classless, stateless society devoid of any and all forms of coercive power. The former just disagree that such a society can be achieved without some form of centralized government, no matter the risk of it turning just as authoritarian and repressive as the capitalist society it is trying to replace.

Still, though, Vietnam and Cuba seem to have managed to achieve stable systems under Marxist-Leninist principles, even despite pressure from the capitalist West to “reform,” so maybe I’m overstating my case. Even so, I still think it’s imperative to remind my dear readers that arguments about what kind of socialist government should replace the current capitalist world order should wait until after we gain the upper hand. Arguments over whether Marxists, anarchists, primitivists, or syndicalists are correct should wait until after we’ve extricated ourselves from under the crushing weight of income inequality and climate change. What matters now is that the capitalists are hurting people, and we need to make them stop!


And that’s another episode of The Complete Noob’s Guide to the Left in the bag! Join me in future installments as I look at the various communist ideologies that directly spun off from Marxism-Leninism, like Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism, Titoism, Guevarism, and others. Stay tuned for those, and maybe keep an eye for this year’s Christmas special sometime later this month. See you then, beautiful watchers!