Alan Morrison on
100 Years of Robert Tressell’s
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
And the strange case of its ‘abridged’ bowdlerisation for the first 41 years of its publication history
Poverty is not caused by men and women getting married; it's not caused by machinery; it's not caused by "over-production"; it's not caused by drink or laziness; and it's not caused by "over-population". It's caused by Private
Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
Book cover images from the seventh reprint of the book (235pp) ed. Jessie Pope (The Richards Press Ltd. & "The Daily Herald", June 1927)
Preamble on Contemporary Parallels
In 1906, Robert Tressell (real name Noonan), started writing his autobiographical novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, while working a fifty-six hour week as a painter- decorator and signwriter in Hastings. In the novel Tressell’s alter-ego, Owen, attempts to convert his exploited workmates to Socialism, ultimately to no avail. It was completed by 1910, only to be returned unread by the publishers because the manuscript was in long-hand. It was finally published four years after the author’s premature death, in 1914. Hence 2014 is the centenary of its publication.
That this novel gained a near Biblical status among the British Left throughout the twentieth century further emphasises its timeless relevance. Some even cited it as contributing to the 1945 Labour election victory. And in the early twenty-first century, the novel seems even more relevant than it has been for nearly half a century, in the wake of the near-collapse of capitalism, the “Great Recession” and the dismantling of the welfare state to all but its vestiges. Tressell’s polemical novel was in itself a ‘fictionalised’ crie de Coeur for the necessity of a new social contract to counteract the iniquities visited on the working classes (abject poverty, slum conditions, poor sanitation, and associated diseases such as consumption and rickets).
Tressell’s ears were burning: three years after he wrote the book, Liberal Chancellor David Lloyd-George introduced the first foundations of what would eventually become the welfare state, through his radical ‘Peoples’ Budget’ of 1909 – when, memorably, “the Welsh wizard” declared:
This is a war Budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness. I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests.
Over a century later, a government fronted by one of the most privileged generations of Tories in living memory swept into power to announce a period of austerity with an “emergency budget” also framed within the rhetorical analogy of “war” – but this time it was a ‘war’ which was to be waged not ‘against poverty’, but against the poor. And after just four years of welfare caps, cuts to Legal Aid, and the bedroom tax, with abject poverty and street homelessness spiralling out of control, and millions dependent on food banks, those ‘wolves’ are once again infesting ‘our forests’. This has of course been largely ‘supported’ by the public on the back of the most relentless and virulent politician-and-tabloid-spun campaign of ‘scroungermongering’ in British history (even more vicious and ubiquitous than the so-called “scroungerphobia” of the mid to late Seventies, as anatomised in Pete Golding and Sue Middleton’s Images of Welfare: Press and Public Attitudes to Poverty (1984)).
The blue torch and red-top driven four year ‘Welfare Hate’ (2010-2014, and still in full tilt) has been so devastatingly efficacious as to now have instilled in the public consciousness an almost unquestioning conviction that “the dole” is a social and ‘moral’ taboo, almost considered commensurate to having a criminal record (and through mandatory ‘community volunteering’ vast sections of the unemployed are being ‘rehabilitated’ in much the same way as ex-prisoners on probation).
The sheer unreasoning and atavistic hatred and resentment whipped up against the unemployed –the most abject victims of banker-caused economic recession and Tory facilitated austerity– irrespective of personal circumstances or even sickness and disability has today culminated in a new anti-welfare consensus which in spite of 2 million families (many in work) now living in food poverty, and the rise of food bank use, of evictions, homelessness, suicides and the deaths of approximately 50,000 incapacitated claimants within six weeks of being speciously declared “fit to work” by Atos (as instructed on criteria directly from the DWP), a majority of the electorate is still apparently convinced that the benefits are “too generous” and need to be cut still further, even though British welfare rates are among the stingiest and most punitive in Europe, and are actually less than half the average amount for out-of-work benefits in the Eurozone.
But the anti-welfare British attitude has a long pedigree: almost as soon as basic unemployed allowance was introduced after 1909, to make a claim for this assistance was pejoratively alluded to as “going on the Lloyd-George”. Nevertheless, such begrudging euphemisms were still far more preferable to today’s commonplace dysphemism of “scrounger” – a term more akin to the terminologies of the eugenics-inclined 1930s Social Hygiene Movement, along with “parasites” and “feckless”, phrases deployed prolifically today in poisonously Malthusian red-tops such as the Daily Express.
In 2014, pundits of all political persuasions are now beginning to question, for the first time in decades, whether Marx’s argument of dialectical materialism – ingeniously recapitulated by Tressell’s ventriloquism through his alter-ego ‘Owen’, replete with explanatory charts – is as ‘wrapped up’ as it was supposed to have been with the presumed colophon of Eighties Thatcherism. But today, after four years of remorseless Tory-driven austerity that has uprooted the last burnt stumps of Attleean social democracy for what is effectively now a privatised plutocracy, we can read Tressell’s novel, a century after its publication, and see in it such uncanny parallels with the iniquities of our society. This is both a tribute to the farsightedness of the writer, and a damning indictment of our degenerated national character.
But to the book itself, as a depiction of the iniquities of working-class existence in the Edwardian era: Tressell invites us into the dead-end existences of a group of painters and decorators whose employer, the exploitative private firm Rushton & Co., pits them against one another in an inexorable grappling for scant work placements which they’re encouraged to ‘scamp’ (i.e. rush) in order to maximise profits. Owen nicknames his workmates ‘the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ for submitting themselves unquestioningly to this cycle of pitiful wages, bouts of unemployment and poverty.
Subsisting on ‘…block ornaments, margarine, adulterated tea, mysterious beer’, their lives are a collage of cheap tobacco and tubercular diets – the Pound Stretcher fare of yesteryear. Their only daily respites are short breaks sipping stewed tea from tins, sat on upturned pails occasionally used as makeshift soap-boxes by Owen for tub-thumping on the sanity of Socialism, which always falls on deaf ears: '…it was not as if it were some really important matter, such as a smutty story … something concerning football … or the doings of some Royal personage or aristocrat'.
Our present ‘celebrity’-obsessed, Royalist society shows little has changed in terms of the British idea of ‘culture’. These ‘philanthropists’’ rely for their opinions on the local tabloid rag, The Obscurer, which voices the jingoism of the Directors of the limited company that funds it:
The papers they read were filled with vague and alarming accounts of the quantities of … the enormous number of aliens constantly arriving … the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade.
The Tressellian parallels with regards to the grotty anti-“scrounger” and anti-immigrant stigmatising nature of right-wing British red-tops such as the Daily Express and Mail are all too striking. While the materialistic acquisitiveness (what Marx termed ‘commodity fetishism’) and philistine aspirations encouraged by government and advertising are every bit as endemic as they were in Tressell’s time:
These wretches had abandoned every thought and thing that tends to the elevation of humanity … in order to carry on a mad struggle to acquire money which they would never be sufficiently cultured to properly enjoy.
Tressell’s book was nothing if not contentious in its tone of almost despairing criticism of attitudes of the very working classes whose emancipation it championed, as is signposted in its deeply sardonic title of course. In these senses, Tressell’s ‘Owen’ presages the haughtily judgemental Orwell of The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), in which the latter notoriously broached the thorny subject of the olfactory nature of class distinction: ‘the lower classes smell’. Orwell himself wrote very favourably about Tressell’s book, when reviewing it in the Forties: ‘a book that everyone should read’ and a piece of social history that left one ‘with the feeling that a considerable novelist was lost in this young working-man whom society could not bother to keep alive’.
The derelict lots of the ‘philanthropists’ are depicted in 12 hour shifts decorating the freezing interior of a house referred to poignantly as ‘the Cave’, constantly stalked by their taskmaster foreman. One only needs to draw up the contemporary parallel of Amazon staff having to wear special wrist-straps that monitor how long they take in the toilet to see how this Orwellian practise has translated into the electronic age. As we see through Tressell’s eyes, casualisation is nothing new, and the zero hours contracts of today are an echo of similarly iniquitous exploitation rampant in the 1900s. The employees of Rushton & Co. are liable to dismissal at an hour’s notice, something still prevalent today in temping placements where contracts can be terminated at less than an hour’s notice.
Another depressing parallel between 1914 and 2014 is the still spreading cancer of privatisation:
The only reason they have not monopolized the daylight and the air is that it is not possible to do it. If it were possible to construct huge gasometers and to draw together and compress within them the whole of the atmosphere, it would have been done long ago, and we should have been compelled to work for them in order to get money to buy air to breathe. And if that seemingly impossible thing were accomplished tomorrow, you would see thousands of people dying for want of air - or of the money to buy it - even as now thousands are dying for want of the other necessities of life. You would see people going about gasping for breath, and telling each other that the likes of them could not expect to have air to breathe unless the had the money to pay for it. Most of you here, for instance, would think and say so. Even as you think at present that it's right for so few people to own the Earth, the Minerals and the Water, which are all just as necessary as is the air.
Despite the much-needed surgery of nationalisation in the mid 20th century, this growth re-attached itself through Thatcherism. Today we are now seeing an already privately infiltrated NHS now being even more comprehensively privatised under the Tories, with suggestions that, in addition to the continuingly exorbitant annual rises in prescription charges (first introduced in 1951, which prompted NHS founder Nye Bevan to resign as Health Minister in protest), in future, patients may also be charged to see their GPs. If the Tories were to secure office in 2015, it will not be long until English patients are once again at the mercy of medical capitalism, as they once were back in 1906: 'It happened that it turned out to be more expensive than going to a private doctor… The medicine they prescribed and which he had to buy did him no good…'. Indeed, Owen’s health problems are down to poor diet, poor living conditions and industrial stress, and are no more alleviated by costly quackery as modern industrially induced depression and anxiety are solved by anti-depressants.
One of the most moving moments in the book to my mind is a scene in which Owen, suffering from incipient tuberculosis (then known as “galloping consumption”, “hectic fever” or, among the bourgeois, “going into a decline”), is almost light-headed with rapture at having an opportunity for once to employ his skill as a signwriter on a special commission by his exploitative bosses. Owen relishes the experience almost as if it is an epiphany, since it is a rare opportunity for him to employ not only his hands but also his mind and heart (to paraphrase from William Morris). This is his only very brief experience of what in humanistic occupational theory is termed ‘authentic occupation’; the remuneration from the duty is the last thing on Owen’s mind, the experience in itself is reward enough –to risk a pun, it is the ‘journey’ that most animates the Journeyman.
Today’s ‘public’ services are run by unaccountable private companies –just as the novel’s town, Mugsborough (Hastings), is held to ransom by the Electric Light Company– who siphon off profits to shareholders instead of investing in improving their ‘services’, and who surround themselves in a sub-contracting labyrinth, impervious to customer complaints. British ‘democracy’ today is –as Tressell’s Mugsborough– dictated to by tabloid tycoons and businessmen. The three main parties –like the novel’s Liberals and Tories– squabble over a capitalist centre-ground. With the 1945 Clement Attlee Labour Government, much of this parlous state of affairs was of course finally reformed and in many aspects reversed, with the creation of the welfare state and the NHS, and the re-nationalisation of the core services and industries. But such a belated bouleversement, buoyed on a new societal sense of commonality and fellowship built up during the Blitz, enjoyed a honeymoon period for a further thirty years until it was systematically dismantled by Thatcherism.
The Bowdlerised Version 1914-1955
But what is less well-known about Tressell’s book is that on its first and belated publication, it was significantly abridged, or rather, ideologically bowdlerised, by its editor and publishers, on the seemingly reasonable pretext:
In reducing a large mass of manuscript to the limitations of book form it has been my task to cut away superfluous matter and repetition only. The rest practically remains as it came from the pen of Robert Tressall, house-painter and sign-writer, who recorded his criticism of the present scheme of things, until, weary of struggle, he slipped out of it.
This was from the brief Preface to the First Edition by journalist and poet Jessie Pope, composed in 1914, also of course the year of the outbreak of the catastrophic First World War, a vicissitude which inspired Ms Pope to pen some of the more emptily hortatory ‘calls to arms’ poems of the moment (her reputation for poetic patriotism later inspiring Wilfred Owen’s bitter empirical poem-riposte, ‘Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori’).
The conspicuous misspelling of ‘Tressall’ apart, the almost pitying sentiment of Pope’s tone in this Preface was also in-keeping with the main motive behind the publisher –to whom Pope recommended the manuscript on having it passed to her by Tressell’s daughter, Kathleen Noonan– Grant Richards’ request that the book be ‘abridged’, a condition of contract: the intention here was deliberately political, to adulterate the socialist optimism of the original ending by truncating the book so that it concluded on the distinctly more despairing episode in which an exhausted and consumptive Owen (Tressell himself was to eventually die of tuberculosis or “the white plague”) contemplates the mercy killing of his impoverished wife and children and his own suicide.
To demonstrate the drastic effect in tone and in terms of how the story lingers in the mind of the reader afterwards, here is the original ending of the original longer manuscript (which Tressell himself had to edit down from an even vaster 1,600 pages!), which didn’t actually appear until the first unexpurgated publication edited by F.C. Ball in 1955:
The gloomy shadows enshrouding the streets, concealing for the time their grey and mournful air of poverty and hidden suffering, and the black masses of cloud gathering so menacingly in the tempestuous sky, seemed typical of the Nemesis which was overtaking the Capitalist System. That atrocious system which, having attained to the fullest measure of detestable injustice and cruelty, was now fast crumbling into ruin, inevitably doomed to be overwhelmed because it was all so wicked and abominable, inevitably doomed to sink under the blight and curse of senseless and unprofitable selfishness out of existence for ever, its memory universally execrated and abhorred.
But from these ruins was surely growing the glorious fabric of the Co-operative Commonwealth. Mankind, awaking from the long night of bondage and mourning and arising from the dust wherein they had lain prone so long, were at last looking upward to the light that was riving asunder and dissolving the dark clouds which had so long concealed from them the face of heaven. The light that will shine upon the world wide Fatherland and illumine the gilded domes and glittering pinnacles of the beautiful cities of the future, where men shall dwell together in true brotherhood and goodwill and joy. The Golden Light that will be diffused throughout all the happy world from the rays of the risen sun of Socialism.
Now here is how the first abridged publication of the book in 1914 (‘edited’ by Pope, censored by Richards) –whittled down from 250,000 (1,600 pages) to just 90,000 words (234 pages!), and reduced still more for subsequent reprints– ends:
About an hour later, when he had finished writing the showcard, Owen went out into the scullery to wash his hands before going to bed; and while he was drying them on the towel the strange sensation he had been conscious of all the evening became more intense, and a few seconds afterward he was terrified to find his mouth suddenly filled with blood.
For what seemed an eternity he fought for breath against the suffocating torrent, and when at length it stopped he sank trembling into a chair by the side of the table, holding the towel to his mouth and scarcely daring to breathe, while a cold sweat streamed from every pore and gathered in large drops upon his forehead.
Through the deathlike silence of the night there came from time to time the chimes of the clock of a distant church, but he continued to sit there motionless, taking no heed of the passing hours, and possessed with an awful terror.
So this was the beginning of the end! And afterwards the other two would be left by themselves at the mercv of the world. In a few years' time
the boy would be like Bert White, in the clutches of some psalm-singing devil like Hunter or Rushton, who would use him as if he were a beast of burden, to be worked, driven, and bullied. His boyhood would be passed in carrying loads, dragging carts, and running here and there, trying his best to satisfy the brutal tyrants whose only thought would be to get profit out of him for themselves. As the vision of the future rose before him Owen resolved that it should never be. He would not leave his wife and child alone and defenceless in the midst of the " Christian " wolves who were waiting to rend them as soon as he was gone. If he could not give them happiness, he could at least put them out of the reach of further suffering. If he could not stay and protect them, it would be kinder and more merciful to take them with him.
It’s clear to see that by cutting the book at this point, the narrative is left open-ended at its darkest and most Hardyesque moment, with a distinct atmospheric echo of Jude the Obscure (1895). It is not known whether Pope herself was personally responsible for this wilful bowdlerisation of the book, but it nonetheless fell on her to undertake this considerable editing down, and so, in light of this complicity, her claim that she was simply cutting away ‘superfluous matter and repetition only’ was, to put it mildly, grossly disingenuous; unless of course such was her genteel naivety that she genuinely perceived Tressell’s resounding social overture at the close of the book as ‘superfluous’, or ‘repetition’.
Certainly, if there is to be one major fault highlighted about the novel, it is its’ aspects of repetition, which tend to suggest a certain compositional spontaneity, and could certainly prove a little off-putting to those readers not instinctually sympathetic to the socialist cause. In these senses Tressell’s book is emphatically polemical, and on occasions, palpably tub-thumping –his is indeed a tub-thumping prose style. But this is where he too had so much in common with the 17th century radical pamphleteers such as John Lilburne and Gerard Winstanley; and the polemic is part of the point of the book's purpose, indeed, pivotal to it: it is essentially a manifesto communicated through a ‘fictional’ framework, in the same sense as Arthur Morrison’s Child of the Jago (1896), Jack London's Martin Eden (1909), or, much later, Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole (1933).
If there was another criticism to be levelled at Tressell’s book, it is his slightly ham-fisted attempt at Dickens-style ‘character’-names to serve as a kind of prescriptive nomenclature determining the characters of the characters via trait-suggestive made-up names; but where as Dickens’ names tended to be more onomatopoeically evocative of certain personality types (Gradgrind, Bumble, Pecksniff, Sykes, Scrooge, Pinch, Cratchit, Sowerberry, Quilp, Heep, Squeers et al), Tressell’s were more blatantly schematic: Rushton & Sons (the exploitative bosses who encourage rushed jobs), Mayor Sweater, Crass, Didlum, Misery, Slyme etc. If Tressell’s novel had been more generally in the tone of social satire, as opposed to more social polemic, such fantastically schematic names would have worked better –as they did in the case of Miles Malpractice in Evelyn Waugh’s satire Vile Bodies (1930)– but part of the problem of TRTPs is that its' tone oscillates throughout from polemic to satire to social realism, which gives an overall impression of stylistic confusion, even if the fundamental dialectical materialist thrust is well-honed and holds together.
Jessie Pope’s Preface started out much more promisingly than it ended up (as quoted above), her first two of only three paragraphs empathetically recapitulating much of the essence of the novel, albeit with initial confessions of indifference to its themes (this apparent ‘conversion’ in opinion/attitude typical of the novel’s morally restorative, proselytising power):
A few months ago a friend ask me to look at the manuscript of a novel, “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”, the work of a socialistic house-painter who wrote this book and died. I consented without enthusiasm, expecting to be neither interested nor amused –and found I chanced upon
a remarkable human document.
With grim humour and pitiless realism the working man has revealed the lives and hearts of his mates, their opinions of their betters, their political views, their attitude towards Socialism. Through the busy din of the hammer and the scraping knife, the clang of the pail, the swish of the whitewash, the yell of the foreman, comes the talk of the men, their jokes and curses, their hopes and terrors, the whimpering of their old people, the cry of their children.
But even in more ‘social realist’ mode, the sleeping prejudices of Pope’s presumably bourgeois mindset betray themselves in a tone of detached pity, the constant use of ‘their’ as if speaking not only of a different class but almost a different species, and the very telling line, ‘their attitude to Socialism’, which implies she is reminding the reader, in a slightly disingenuously elliptical fashion, of the pivotal point of the book and the book’s almost symbiotically wieldy title, that practically all the working class characters of the story don’t actually seem to aspire to Socialism at all, but rather distrust it, resent it, are even hostile towards it, albeit false attitudes spoon-fed to them through the capitalist tabloid propaganda of their daily ‘working men’s’ papers.
It’s as if Pope is subtly communicating to readers that, while obviously the iniquitous conditions of the working class are unacceptable, Socialism is not necessarily the solution, and, in any case, according to Tressell himself, the working class don’t seem
to want the very political credo supposedly associated with the interest of their class. Nevertheless, there is a kind of poetic irony in Pope’s ubiquitous ‘their’s and those used by Tressell to oppositely denote the monopolist classes of the Marxian ‘Us and Them’ paradigm that is the template of capitalist society:
In exactly the same spirit as you now say: "It's Their Land," "It's Their Water," "It's Their Coal," "It's Their Iron," so you would say "It's Their Air," "These are their gasometers, and what right have the likes of us to expect them to allow us to breathe for nothing?" And even while he is doing this the air monopolist will be preaching sermons on the Brotherhood of Man…
And given the fact that significant chunks of Tressell’s Marxist dialectic, replete with taxonomical charts and graphs, were left intact in the abridged version, while Pope’s Preface was in later editions (such as the 1927 one which I have, pictured above) preceded by a far more impassioned Foreword by socialist trade unionist George Hicks, would appear to suggest that the considerable abridgement of the book was not entirely politically motivated on behalf of publisher The Richards Press Ltd... Hicks’s Foreword is, in itself, exceptionally apposite and well-phrased, not to say, today, a valuable compendious social document in its own right:
ROBERT TRESSALL was the Zola of the building trade operatives. On reading this book one is made to feel that the author has caught the spirit, the tone, the soul, of working-class life more, perhaps, than any other writer of his time. What he has described is true to life; we know that he lived it.
We workers in the building industry know that he was one of us; that what he saw and felt burnt itself into the very heart of his sensitive nature, enabling him, with his literary genius, to embody in words the life we lived in the period he deals with. No middle-aged painter, or bricklayer, or carpenter, etc., or builder's labourer, could read this book, especially if he also had been one of the agitators and had endeavoured to arouse his fellows to better things, without exclaiming at the end, “How true it all is!”
Even to-day, when conditions are a little better and brighter, and the philanthropists are not quite as ragged and are becoming increasingly class-conscious and concerned about their own interests, the poignant appeal of the I book has lost none of its potency. And even to-day, the building worker is still casually employed, and still endures I many of the hardships, sufferings, uncertainties and petty tyrannies the author so feelingly describes.
Fortunately the Trade Unions have been able, by dint of hard struggles and f, ceaseless guerrilla warfare, to effect many improvements. Conditions are still lamentable, but the future is not so dark; and hopeless as it was in the bad old times.
We know, of course, that what Robert Tressall wrote about the life and conditions of the workers in the building industry, could also have been written about the workers in other industries, about the workers generally. They were all Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and they still are to a large extent, though "through the welter, through the tangle," as William Morris described it, they are beginning to see the end of their stupid philanthropy which rivets the chains of wage-slavery upon them.
How well this book recalls the troubles, hardships, disappointments, disillusionments, sufferings and repressions undergone by the pioneers of Socialism. Those early agitators and propagandists of the S.D.F. & I.L.P., working amongst their fellows, carrying on in the shadow of victimisation and dismissal from their employment, vainly endeavouring to make those with whom they came in contact see the necessity of organisation and economic and political enlightenment, must have been heroes, indeed, possessed of lion-hearted courage and the faith that conquers.
Robert Tressall was of their number. He was a painter, a member of the Painters' Union in London, and subsequently on the South Coast, who gave unstintingly of his strength of mind and body to agitating for the S.D.F. He was an artist of great ability, both with brush and pen, but the sad and sombre conditions of working-class life never allowed him to give of the best that was in him. He suffered from ill-health.
Poverty, the tyranny of capitalism, disgust and despair caused him to seek for escape anywhere. He died of consumption, in 1911, in Liverpool, while on his way to America. How many of those Pioneers met with a fate somewhat similar to his? And how tremendous is the debt which our great organised Trade Union and Labour Movement owes to those nameless agitators and propagandists who did their work and passed out very much as he did?
This book is a Testament to the Cause of Socialism. I know of no better book to give to the newcomer into our Movement, or for circulation amongst the unconverted. At the present time, when our opponents are seeking to destroy our Trade Union organisations and attacking the conditions so laboriously established with incalculable struggle and sacrifice the lessons contained in this book should be learnt by heart by all toilers.
George Hicks, June 1927
The opening trope is a marvellous epitaph to Tressell the writer, and indeed comparisons have since been drawn between TRTPs and Zola’s masterpiece of social realism, Germinal (1885). The line [relating to ‘casual’ workers] is of course particularly apposite still today in this new age of Tory casualisation of the workforce and zero hours contracts, which makes Hicks’ phrase ‘And even to-day, the building worker is still casually employed’ sounds as historically ironic as the fact that Keir Hardie was decrying the scandalous absence of a ‘minimum wage’ as far back as the 1890s, it subsequently taking over a century for Parliament to finally pass minimum wage legislation!
Another criticism of the book is of Tressell’s polemical ‘tone’ as ventriloquised through the Marxist protagonist Owen who despairs at the apparent wilful ignorance and philistinism of his fellow painter-and-plasterers whom he futilely attempts to convert to socialism throughout, literally tub-thumping on upturned paint-tubs.
The Tressellian dialectic is noticeably splenetic in tone towards the working-class attitudes depicted, all of which are drawn from the firsthand witness of the author himself as a painter-and-decorator and signwriter in Hastings (the book is, therefore, effectively an autobiographical memoir in the guise of a ‘novel’). Such attitudes are, in the main, those of self-immolating blue-collar ‘Tories’ (“Angels in Marble” as Disraeli nicknamed them), who seem to revel in their own subjugation, which they aggressively guard against any perceived unpatriotic ‘Red’ resentments, as if the criticisms of the capitalist system which is explicitly constructed to trap and exploit them, and of the capitalists who administer it, is somehow a personal insult to themselves and their insultingly remunerated ‘work ethics’.
In this aspect, TRTPs exemplifies a very controversial seam in some types of socialist thought, a fundamental and seemingly contradictory misanthropy. But I would argue that in many ways this is simply a more personalised expression of a fundamental dissatisfaction with the state of affairs found in capitalism, which focuses as much on the symptoms (i.e. those working people of the title who seem to so ‘happily’ conspire in their own exploitation) as on the root pathology (i.e. capitalism).
Indeed, in order to imagine a better and more equitable world one has to first acknowledge and recognise how imperfect and inequitable the world currently is –without such an awareness of the grubbiness of things, one wouldn’t be prompted to consider how they might look if added a bit of sparkle. In my own experience, many socialists can come across, at least in surface temperament, more as ‘Ragged Trousered Misanthropists’ than anything else.
But from the lugubrious Gorgon head of disgust and anger sprouts the Pegasus of socialist possibility. Surely those who are most content and thus more superficially amicable, at least when they can smell profits, are the capitalists, who seem to have no problem living in propinquity to the social miseries of others, if nothing else, because such miseries are ripe opportunities for exploitation through usury (capitalists need the poor, but the poor certainly don’t need the capitalists). By contrast, it is difficult for socialists, distressed at the social miseries around them, and in the chronic absence of the kind of society they wish to come about, to display any obvious joie de vivre. In short, in order to be an optimist, one first has to be a pessimist: in order to see how good things could be, one has to first recognise how bloody awful they are.
So in teleological terms British society has practically come full circle –if not entirely, then well on the way towards it. It’s hugely instructive to read Tressell’s book today since it provides us with a foretaste of the type of society we are likely to return to shortly, and which we have already returned to in many respects. But throughout all political and social vicissitudes since its posthumous publication in 1914, Tressell’s magnificent socialist novel has stood the test of time, and withstood the many attempts by establishments to suppress and belittle it, most notably, through its contractual bowdlerisation for the first forty-one years of its published life, something almost unprecedented for any novel –which cheated an entire first generation of readers of well over half the length of the full work.
In terms of identifying the title’s equivalents in England 2014, one doesn’t have to look very far. In the recent aftershock of the UKIP triumphs in the Local and European elections, it is graphically clear that today’s ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ are those among the working classes who are currently flocking to Nigel Farage’s fanfare of a “Peoples’ Army”. Once again, it is not socialism to which many of the working-class are turning, but to the extreme right. The patriotic fad that was ‘Blue’ Labour, which attempted in a rather crass and dialectically contradictory way to woo back sections of Labour’s old working-class vote who had drifted to the BNP and EDL due to disaffection with an ever-remoter parliamentary political class, died a quick death –punctually replaced by the Disraelian-sounding ‘One Nation’ Labour; and so the subsequent burgeoning working-class disaffection with Westminster has instead been mopped up by the Purple xenophobes of UKIP.
The working-class supporters of UKIP, those mostly empty-pocketed pockets of the proletariat who are falling for the old neo-fascist chestnut that less foreigners will mean more jobs for the natives (“jam today” instead of “tomorrow”, in Faragian parlance), are today’s Tressellian equivalents. This is because, if they were to repeat their votes in the general election, they would be voting for a party whose domestic policies are diametrically opposed to their own class interests: privatisation of the entire public sector, the abolition of JSA, and a fixed universal tax rate of 30%, irrespective of income. Undoubtedly, the most graphic example of the Tressellian class-trap of today is UKIP’s purpleproletariat, ‘The Purple-Rinsed Philanthropists’ if you will; and it’s once again up the ‘Reds’ (and Greens) to rescue them from their future folly, which would be not only their own ruin but also the ruin of what is left of our social democracy, which is already hanging by a drip on life support.
Alan Morrison © 2014