The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Robert Tressell

First published 1914 (1955 1st unabridged edition)

Discussed at the Socialist Book Club July 2016 , review by Andy McGeeney July 2016

‘….he saw that the people who enjoyed abundance of the things that are made by work, were the people who did Nothing; and that the others,  who lived in want or died of hunger, were the people who worked. And seeing all this he thought that it was wrong, that the system that produced such results was rotten and should be altered.’

p38 Wordsworth Edn.

Today we talk of the 1%.

‘Easton was still reading the Daily Obscurer: he was not able to understand exactly what the compiler of the figures was driving at – probably the later never intended that anyone should understand  – but he was conscious of a growing feeling of indignation and hatred against foreigners of every description, who were ruining this country, and he began to think that is was about time someone did something to protect ourselves. Still, it was a difficult question: to tell the truth, he himself could not make head of tail of it.’

p41 ibid.

Today we have anti-migrant outrage. 80% of newspaper readers read papers owned by four powerful billionaires who provide a continual stream of racism.

‘Owen continued: A little while ago you made the remark that you never trouble yourself about what you call politics, and some of the rest agreed with you that to do so is not worth while. Well, since you never “worry” yourself about these things, it follows that you know nothings about them; yet you do not hesitate to express the most decided opinions concerning matters of which you admittedly know nothing. Presently, when there is an election, you will go and vote in favour of a policy of which you know nothing. I say that since you never take the trouble to find out which side is right or wrong you should not have the right to express any opinion. You are not fit to vote. You should not be allowed to vote…….. I say you have no right to vote for a policy which may bring suffering upon other people, without taking he trouble to find out whether you are helping to make things better or worse.’

p44 ibid.

Today we have the same response. Most recently demonstrated in the shocked and confused reactions to Brexit.

I am drawn to this book in many ways, but the central theme of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropist (RTP) is what compels me to return to it again and again. The main theme is poverty and the condition of the working class, who on the whole are unable to see the benefits of socialism for themselves. The main character Owen, a skilled decorator and sign writer like the author was, is repeatedly thwarted in the most frustrating ways in his attempts to explain to his fellow workers why they live such miserable lives. And that they alone have the power to bring about change. He also knows that this own fate it tied to the very system that condemns his fellow men.

Owen sees clearly in his mind the causes of poverty in this country. He can also see a solution. What he is condemned to do, just like Sisyphus, is to repeat his frustrations every day with no end in sight. One of the central problems in abolishing capitalism is the resistance of working people to a call to action in the face of the destructive forces generated by the capitalist system. If tomorrow the population as a whole woke up and demanded democratic control of natural resources, the workplace and the money system we would be on our way to a socialist society. The fact that we know people won’t is, to me, the emotional core of this novel. The poor working people who tolerate capitalism are the ragged trousered philanthropists. Perhaps Tressell’s only compensation is the possibility that, as Marx suggested, the system will collapse of its own accord because of internal contradictions. In the meantime we have to keep plugging away to change things.

The economic absurdity of the system is repeatedly explained to Owen’s fellow workers. How they the workers convert the natural resources of the earth into goods with value. But because  the workers do not own the means of production, the factories etc, they have no control of how the wealth is distributed. The capitalist bosses who control where the wealth goes make sure they get the lions share while those that actually do productive work get paid only enough to sustain themselves. Chapter 21 has probably the most famous scene in the book, where in five pages Owen explains the theory of surplus value and The Great Money Trick.  The explanation is concise and beautifully clear, all the while set in the realistic and humorous context of a worker’s lunch break. Owen explains money is the cause of poverty. He does this by using slices of bread to represent natural resources, and then getting his fellow workers to represent the working class. He shows how the working class lose out even though they are the ones that do all the work. The scene is portrayed from different sides not only Owen’s. We see the frustration and antagonism of tory working class supporters and the reluctance and antipathy to self education from others. The characters are real and recognisable even while they are being portrayed in humorous way.

The RTP reminds me of many of Ken Loach’s films (eg Bread and Roses about the Spanish civil war and The Wind that Shakes the Barley about the liberation of Ireland). Loach creates a tension between groups seeking change. There are those that are willing to accept improvements in their lives from the elite (liberals), and those who don’t accept compromise and want to take control for the people as a whole (socialists).

What is saddening, and Tony Benn refers to this in the introduction to my edition of the book, is how much in RTP is similar to today. The media are owned by Tories and Liberals antagonistic to Socialism. The capitalist system is driven by the need to make money at all costs. The rich and powerful are corrupt and only lookout for themselves. Charities give relief but do nothing to change the causes of distress.

There is the repeated experience on reading the book that Tressell is describing today not a hundred years ago. All the progress attained by the 1950s has been or is being eroded by the neoliberal consensus. For example in the book men were paid by the day, with the demise of union power, we have moved to the insecurity of zero hours contracts. Back to square one for job security.We decided in the book club that it would be good if a film could be made of RTP, but set in the 21st century. It would have more impact on people who would not be able to dismiss it as the bad old days.

There are some important differences or additions comparing then with now. Feminism and racism are part of the political narrative today in a way that is not evident in the book. The perspective in RTP is local or at the most British, whereas today we are more aware of events far and near. There was the empire in Edwardian times which has now been replaced by multinationals as the major global forces of capitalism. We are more aware of environmental issues, partly because we have greater access to global information but also because environmental destruction is on a much vaster scale than it was in 1910.

I would like to have seen more exploration, in an empathic way of the workings of the right wing working class Tory mind. Tressell at one point explains that it is the system which is wrong not the individuals. He challenges the reader to see if they would act differently from any of the characters in the novel given the nexus of forces that hold them in place. In other words it is not the prime minister Theresa May who is the major problem as she drives through her neoliberal agenda (which is not to say she doesn’t have a moral responsibility) but it is the system as a whole which is wrong.

Some of Owen’s frustration comes from an assumption that if only his workmates would listen and think about it he could persuade them by rational argument. We are much more aware today of the role of emotions in motivating people to act in ways that do not seem to be in their own interests. We know how politicians and the unscrupulous play on people’s fears and prejudices against the vulnerable and the outsider.

It is my belief that socialism will not be achieved through political and economic change alone. It is not enough to elect a socialist government however desirable that might be. At the micro level change also needs to occur. All of us need to learn to understand how our own minds betray us. We so often react to others on the basis of inappropriate emotions, principally fear. It is fear that destroys any possibility of a transpersonal perspective on life. If fear can be understood and put aside then it is possible that a person can be genuinely collaborative, empathic and free of violence.

The book is very modern in some ways. There is no happy ending, socialism isn’t achieved in the book. I actually think the end is a bit sentimental. The wealthy socialist spending his money on making kids happy at Christmas feels more like something out of Dickens. I think Tressell lost it there and was probably as as confused as we are about how to bring an account of the tragedy of capitalism to an end that seems credible.

There is a repetition of themes:  how people get trapped in poverty, the cruelty of bosses,etc. But the effect of all the relentless and detailed descriptions of life in the working class Edwardian era is wearying on the reader. There is no escape for anyone. The effect is transferred to the reader in a powerful way.

Also the reader is led to feel – yes I know all this –  and yet there is no resolution, no action to change things. Which is just what the author was feeling. Poverty is all consuming and relentless. Capitalism is all encompassing. One of the difficulties of arguing for socialism is the sense that there is no alternative imaginable. In fact there are many alternative examples and visions for the future, they just don’t get explored in mainstream society.

I have wondered why Tressell didn’t portray a socialist society. Why didn’t he create a vision people could imagine? Perhaps he was wary of being utopian. In chapter 4 he makes some attempt to explain what will happen to the lazy and the drunk, who will do the really dirty work, and what will be the role of the clergy and the army. My hunch is he didn’t know the full answer and neither do we. He just know the present system was wrong and an alternative was possible. Maybe a socialist vision would require another book with a different tone.

There is no driving narrative which is what we are used to with most modern stories. No love angle or mystery to solve. I would have liked a stronger narrative. Dickens was a master at creating tension and of leading the reader to want more at the end of a chapter. The RTP is episodic. It seems as if Tressell sat down at intervals, between hours and days of hard work earning money, to capture a collection of stories from his own life. I imagine him putting down his pen and not returning to the manuscript for sometime. And in the intervening time he encountered further frustrations in trying to explain his ideas to his workmates, which he then had to record on paper. Maybe the novel worked as a form of therapy for Tressell. Journal writing is a respectable form of personal development. The issues a person is confronting in life are written about in an attempt to make sense of them and to explore the possibilities for change. The Appendix seems to confirm that Tressell just couldn’t let it go and had to add yet another incident on a theme he had already explored. Perhaps Tressell felt almost compelled to work out, through writing, his inability to rationally explain the solution to his fellow workers degrading lives. And of course he recognised that his own salvation could not be achieved without the collective actions of his colleagues.

Although there are female characters the novel is primarily focused on the actions that takes place in the all male work environment of painters and decorators. Partly this is a reflection of the times when men went to work and women mostly stayed at home and did housework and home work. Tressell was a man writing from his own experience and that is one of its major strengths. However it is possible for a writer to talk to groups of people he does not belong to, in his case women, and find out what life is like. In this he was a victim of his times when women were far less acknowledged by men.

He was working class himself and experienced what he was writing about directly and this gives it tremendous realism and detailed accuracy. The book is a useful social history account written by an insider. It would be interesting to know from historians how typical RTP is of the Edwardian era.

We also have the biggest spoiler of all, history. We know that many of the characters would have died in the Great War. We know that socialism grew in Britain but was blocked within the Labour and Union movement repeatedly by those wanting to retain capitalism with a human face. To offer charity rather than change. We know of the betrayal of working people in Russia and its satellite countries. When the Poles, Hungarians and Czechs tried to democratise their countries the Russian state forces repressed them. Russia had the tacit support of the West that was seeking to both undermine the Soviet bloc and destroy democratic socialism in Africa, the Caribbean and South America.

The questions of how we can achieve socialism have only become more complex as we learn about the all embracing power that capitalism has over everyones lives. Was Tressell naïve in not seeing the difficulties? I don’t think we can place that in front of him. He was confronted with the world as it was at the start of the 20th century. The precursors of the modern Labour party was very new, there was no Welfare State.  Today we have exported our extreme poverty through globalisation. Consumerism has become the driver of money flows and a major cause of poverty in seemingly wealthy countries. We also struggle with over population and the accelerating environmental problems created by capitalism. He could not have seen this coming.

An important message from Tressell is that its futile blaming the bosses for the state of things. They are just as trapped as the working class. The ruling class is cushioned from the economic effects of capitalism and live in relative comfort. The elite are not immune from the psychological and spiritual poverty that is a consequence of capitalism. I am pleased that Tressell makes this point very clearly in the book. The Spirit Level written by medical sociologists in our age displays detailed evidence of the relationship between inequality and a range of social problems including mental illness, ill health, crime, violence, and unhappiness. The greater the inequality the greater the social problems for a society. The evidence demonstrates that everyone suffers if there is great inequality, even those in the elite.

There are varied styes of writing in the book. The intention is to explain capitalism by describing real life situations. In some ways it fits the description of a docudrama. Tressell saw or heard of all the incidents he recounts. There are also extended passages where  economics and political ideas are explained in the form of speeches by Owen, represented in the guise of mini lectures to fellow workers. There is also much humour in the book. The names of the characters remind me of Dickens. People with names like Slyme, Hunter, Crass and Phillpott  have surnames related to their character. The dialogues are full of humorous banter and ironic turn of phrases.

I cannot think of a better book written in English which describes the problems of working people and explains why things are the way they are. For anyone wishing to understand what British socialism is and why it is needed, the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a place to begin.

A free to download audio version of the complete novel is available online from Beautifully read.

Robert Tressell 18 April 1870 – 3 February 1911 pen name of Robert Croker who later changed his name to Robert Noonan (mothers surname). Born in Dublin/Liverpool/London? died in Liverpool, buried in a paupers grave. He worked as a sign painter in Hastings and was involved in local politics. The book was all based on true events he experienced or heard about while he was working. His daughter saved the manuscript and eventually got it published, but the full unabridged version only came out in 1955.

Robert Tressell Society

Hastings Museum

Liverpool festival

Facebook: The Association of the Ragged Trousered

The book changed Ricky Tomlinson’s (the actor) life. See his account on Youtube.

Many thanks to Richard, June, Susan and Toby for a fascinating evening of lively discussion.