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Comrade Tressell’s Problem Novel

‘The trouble with you socialists is that you don’t know anything about economics.’ The businessman – a wealthy retailer – was talking to a miner in Western Australia. ‘What you don’t seem to understand,’ he continued, ‘is that every time you get an increase in your wages, the cost of living rises with them.’

‘So what are you saying?’ enquired the miner. ‘That if we asked for a pay cut the cost of living would go down?’

Taken aback by the miner’s question, the businessman had to admit that, yes – that was indeed what he was saying.

‘All right then,’ said the miner, ‘we’ll ask for a pay cut. And then we’ll ask for another pay cut. And I suppose that in a few years’ time you cunts will be paying us to take your stuff away!’

This vignette, which comes courtesy of a friend of mine – a musician and a former miner himself – has, I am sure, acquired a certain shine in the decades since it first came to light and was tossed back and forth in a Kalgoorlie pub. Certainly, there is something a bit too pathetic about the hapless petit bourgeois at its centre, with his flimsy grasp of the price-wage spiral, as well as something too cocksure and clever about the sharp proletarian who takes him as his foil. But the story still brings us – brings me – up short. It is like the legend of the English aristocrat who enquires indignantly of some uppity yeoman ‘Do you know that my ancestors came over with the Normans?’ and is met with the unforgettable reply ‘Yeah, my ancestors were waitin’ for ’em’. The sudden, sarcastic, embittered inversion, driven home with a fine old English oath, is an instant tonic to Tory condescension, with its ‘rising tides’ and ‘ages of entitlement’ and shitty innuendoes about the unemployed. Yes, we know it’s more complicated than that – that the intricacies of macroeconomics cannot be reduced to such neat class parables. But who dares say that our foul-mouthed miner, in letting fly so eloquently at his complacent interlocutor, has not drilled down to an ancient seam of truth?

In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, it is impossible to encounter such an anecdote with the same contempt for socialistic ideas that characterised the two decades leading up to it. Those ideas are not back in play, true, but they are in the intellectual mix. In the early 1960s, Michael Harrington coined the phrase ‘socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor’ to describe the phenomenon of corporate welfare, and many activists and commentators have found themselves deferring to it in their descriptions of Obama’s bailout and the subsequent recidivism of the major banks. As Thomas Piketty and Slavoj Žižek jostle for position on the display table in Dymocks, respectable magazines ask their readers to consider whether Marx may have been on to something when he described the ‘two great hostile camps’ into which capitalist society tends to split. The teleological aspects of Marxism are dead – happily so, for political ideologies that claim to know the future are inherently anti-human. But its explanatory and explicatory aspects are inscribed, albeit very faintly, in the idea of the 99% and in a more general sense that the system we have now is not only unjust and ecologically disastrous but also, necessarily, historically limited.

It is thus with something more than nostalgia that I blow the dust from Robert Tressell’s classic of proletarian literature, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, which, having barely scraped into print in expurgated form in 1914, is now enjoying its centenary year. And that ‘something more’ is political in nature. It is the desire to immerse myself again in the righteous anger and irresistible logic of a fine and passionately engaged intelligence – an intelligence not entirely unlike the one on display in the anecdote above. That the anger and the logic are not always helpful to Tressell’s novelistic ambitions is not an original criticism; nor is it one from which I dissent. But it is, in the end, the anger and the logic, and the attempt to novelise them, that I find thrilling. As a novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists has many problems, and may even be flawed. But such problems as it has arise from the seriousness with which its author went about his work. If The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is a failure, it is a glorious one.

Born in Dublin in 1870, Robert Tressell was the ‘illegitimate’ child of Mary Noonan and Samuel Croker. Raised by his mother and supported by his father, a retired inspector and magistrate, young Robert could have lived quite comfortably on the wealth he inherited upon Croker’s death. But since much of this wealth was derived from the land rentals of Irish peasants, he was disinclined to do so. Declaring himself against ‘absentee landlordism’ and changing his name from Croker to Noonan, he decided to make his own way in the world. By 1894, he was working as a painter and decorator in Cape Town, South Africa. Divorced and with a young daughter, Kathleen, he returned to England in 1901 and settled in Hastings on the southeast coast. There he worked as a painter and sign-writer, writing The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists in his spare time and helping to set up a branch of the Social Democratic Federation, a group founded and led by H. M. Hyndman. By this stage, however, his body was failing. Tressell had contracted tuberculosis and the condition was growing steadily worse. In 1910, he travelled to Liverpool, from where he hoped to immigrate to Canada in search of better weather and working conditions. But his health collapsed and a few months later he died in a workhouse hospital. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists was published posthumously under the pseudonym Robert Tressell, the author having adopted the name – a quiet reference to the trestle tables he would have used in his painting work – in order to avoid being blacklisted as a socialist.

In many ways, the novel’s early years were as inauspicious as those of its author. Initially published in abridged form (over 100 000 words shorter than the original manuscript), its political message could not survive the jingoism of the First World War, when even unionists and social reformers tended to fall in behind, or in front of, their aristocratic overseers. Sales, though decent at first, soon plummeted, and did not recover until after the war, when an even shorter (one-shilling) version began to command appreciation from a decimated working class heartily sick of imperial slaughter and inspired by the revolution in Russia. From the 1920s on, its influence continued to grow. The failure of the 1926 General Strike and the Great Depression of the 1930s lent credence to its socialist message. The book is often credited with helping the British Labour Party to victory in 1945. Ten years later, in 1955, the first unexpurgated version was published. Since then, it has been translated into Spanish, Polish, Russian, Slovak, Turkish, Persian, Korean, Chinese and Braille, and has been adapted for television, stage and radio. It is, by common and varied consent, the most influential work of British proletarian literature published in the twentieth century.

But as well as sitting atop that tradition, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists also occupies a unique position within it. Focusing not on the mill or the mine but on a group of painters and decorators, its author eschews the more visible aspects of working-class struggle for the less visible ones – the communitarian for the individualistic. For not only are Tressell’s characters politically unorganised; they are also, with two exceptions, politically ignorant. And while this has been a source of criticism from certain quarters (more on them later), it is, for me, precisely what gives the novel its relevance, or resonance, now. In 2008, Greenspan-ism and trickle-down economics were revealed as delusional. But in the absence of any political movement able to take advantage of the new situation, a novel that dramatises the weird disjunct between reality and consciousness is bound to give us pause. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists may be a pessimistic book, but these are pessimistic times.

The action of the novel takes place over twelve months and revolves around the home and working lives of a group of house painters in ‘Mugsborough’ (Hastings). These men are employed through Rushton & Co, a firm of painters and decorators that the Mayor of Mugsborough, Mr Sweater, has engaged to redecorate his house. Bonded labourers in all but name, their lives are almost unbearably tough. The starvation wages they are paid when in work are not enough to reduce the debts taken on when no work is available, and so the fear of unemployment is pervasive. In this milieu, the term ‘working poor’ would be considered a tautology. This fear is ruthlessly exploited by the employers in order, not only to keep wages low, but also to keep the workers divided: they are suspicious of the incoming employee whose willingness to work for lower pay may have sealed the fate of the outgoing one. Since even brief spells of unemployment can lead to total destitution, the workers read regularly of suicide-murders (‘one of the ordinary poverty crimes’), in which jobless men kill both themselves and their families. It is a depressing picture made all the more depressing by the fact that the great majority of workers do not regard their situation as anything other than the sad reality of how things are, have always been, and are almost certain to be in the future.

One man who refuses to resign himself to the system is the book’s protagonist Frank Owen, who is named for the great socialist Robert Owen. The son of a journeyman carpenter, Owen is by far the most skilled of the workers and something of a curiosity. Interested in neither football nor horse racing, he is a teetotaller and a socialist. He is also, unambiguously, the author’s projection of himself into the book: like Tressell, Owen is a painter and sign-writer, as well as ‘orf ’is onion about Socialism’, as one of his workmates affectionately puts it. This sets him at a peculiar angle to his fellows and to the narrative of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists more generally; as Raymond Williams once suggested, he is both inside the condition of the working class and outside its consciousness.

For the most part, Owen’s fellow workers regard his political views askance, though as the book progresses one or two of the men begin to warm to ‘this ’ere Socialist wangle’. Among those who don’t, the prevailing mood is one of amusement laced with irritation; Owen’s eloquence and intensity are at once an entertainment and a rebuke. Tea breaks are especially fraught, with several of the men prevailing upon Owen to elucidate some political point, and the rest prevailing upon him not to. Indeed, these scenes, in which the men crack jokes and settle scores and scarf their ‘dinner’ (bread, herring and strong black tea) are the heart and soul of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, and the ones on which dramatic versions of the novel tend to concentrate. Taking their places on improvised benches – planks of wood set across buckets and stepladders – the painters and decorators of Rushton & Co are transformed into a sort of ramshackle parliament in which the themes of the book – wealth, poverty, charity – are openly, and often angrily, debated.

Such economic views as Owen’s workmates have tend to derive from one of two sources: the Liberal source and the Tory source. Roughly stated, the Liberal position is that free trade is preferable to protectionism and the Tory position is that protectionism (the imposition of tariffs) is preferable to free trade. Owen, however, is contemptuous of this dispute, regarding it as a distraction from the key issue, which is the inherent immorality of a system in which wealth is created socially and appropriated privately. To this extent, he represents the challenge of organised labour to the old two-party duopoly (a challenge beautifully and sardonically captured in George Dangerfield’s masterpiece of historical portraiture, The Strange Death of Liberal England, published in 1935). And while Tressell casts his painter-hero as more of an outlier than he might have been – for surely his workmates would at least have been aware of militant unions and the syndicalist movement and the Independent Labour Party – there is no doubt that most people in Britain at that time would have regarded such a committed anti-capitalist as eccentric, if not actually mad. Then, as now, some form of capitalism would have been regarded as inevitable.

This, then, is the ideological brick wall against which Owen butts his skull: not just an unfair, inefficient system, but a working class that regards that system as a law of nature, not a fact of history. Nevertheless, he makes the case. Set out in the three great ‘teaching chapters’ (‘The Great Money Trick’, ‘The Oblong’ and ‘The Great Oration’), and interspersed with occasional illustrations representing the charcoal diagrams Owen draws to elucidate his arguments, his message is a simple one: unemployment, low wages and poverty are not the unfortunate by-products of a system based on economic competition; they are a fundamental part of it – the means through which the ruling class of landlords and monopoly capitalists disciplines the working class, without which wealth could not be created. Far from being the solution to poverty, money is the cause of it. True wealth consists of the things workers make; but what Owen calls the ‘Money System’ ensures that most of the things they make end up in the hands of those who don’t make them. Challenging his workmates’ rusted-on assumptions that the cause of poverty is foreign workers or drink or indolence or machinery or over-population, he strips back the system to its key working parts in an attempt to lay bare its underlying weirdness.

Some of Owen’s ‘speeches’ have a spare moral power. If this doesn’t rouse your inner Leveller, ask the nurse to check your vital signs:

What we call civilization – the accumulation of knowledge which has come down to us from our forefathers – is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil. It is not the result of the labour of the ancestors of any separate class of people who exist today, and therefore it is by right the common heritage of all. Every little child that is born into the world, no matter whether he is clever or dull, whether he is physically perfect or lame, or blind; no matter how much he may excel or fall short of his fellows in other respects, in one thing at least he is their equal – he is one of the heirs of all the ages that have gone before.

Naturally enough, this radical worldview finds stylistic expression in irony. The title, as titles should, sets the tone. The Mugsborough painters are ‘philanthropic’ in the sense that they offer up their labour for no, or very little, reward; the ruling class is dependent on their largess. Owen’s point is that his fellow workers need to swap their selflessness for selfishness, and that selfishness mandates solidarity – a position that recalls Oscar Wilde’s assertion in ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ that the ‘chief advantage’ of a socialistic system would be to liberate humanity from the ‘sordid necessity of living for others’. The point of the book’s title, in other words, is to turn the tables on the ruling classes and suggest that it is they, not the people in their employ, who evince an attitude of ‘entitlement’.

A similar comic inversion is at work in many of the novel’s chapter headings, where a tea break or political shouting match will be described, respectively, as ‘An Imperial Banquet’ or ‘A Philosophical Discussion’. Again, the aim is serio-comic: on one level, it is a putting on of airs – the laughter of the factory hand as he imitates some local worthy; on another, it makes the political point that the local worthy is inherently no better than the factory hand who is taking him off. No doubt Czeslaw Milosz had something like this tension in mind when he described irony as ‘the glory of slaves’.

There are times when Tressell’s irony softens the book’s political message. In the mouths of the workers themselves, for example, it provides a much-needed element of realism. Take the carnival atmosphere that attends Owen’s ideological ‘lectures’. In ‘The Great Money Trick’, the dissolute Philpot affects to take control of the ‘meeting’ in the manner of an official chairman. Using a plumber’s hammer as a gavel, and aspirating his vowels in mock posh style, he brings his fellow housepainters to ‘horder’. In so doing, he allows his colleague to speak but also pokes gentle fun at him, the implication being that there is something implicitly ludicrous about men who paper walls for a living discussing important political matters. Here, the irony is internal to the action, and anyone who has spent any time in a staff room will recognise its trueness to life.

However, it is clear that what Tressell wants the reader to take away from such scenes is the idea that the joke is on the jokers, and it is here that the narrative problems arise. For it is in trying to drive home this point – that, notwithstanding the state of their trousers, the workers really are philanthropists – that the author’s (bitter) ironies have a tendency to degenerate into open sarcasm. And while sarcasm may be in order (or in ‘horder’), there is no question that its effect in this context is to push the novel towards agitprop.

This is the central problem of Tressell’s proletarian novel: the tension between art and ideology. For even as the workers lay the paint on thin, as per the tight-fisted Rushton’s instructions, their creator lays on the morality with a trowel. For Comrade Tressell, it is not enough to show how the bosses exploit their workers. Exploitation must be condemned. Moreover, it must be condemned, not with a dry sardonic aside, but in a way that even a Philpot could understand. ‘The men work with their hands, and the masters work with their brains,’ declares Tressell at the end of Chapter Fourteen, adding: ‘What a dreadful calamity it would be for the world and for mankind if all these brain workers were to go on strike.’ Tressell gets points for foresight here: he has just predicted the plot of Atlas Shrugged (1957). The question is whether, in doing so, he has opened himself up to the very charge that has been levelled at its author, Ayn Rand: the charge of being a propagandist.

It is doubtful whether Tressell would deny the charge, or consider it a charge at all. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is a ‘social novel’, sometimes called a ‘problem novel’; that is to say, it explores a social problem – in this case, the problem of an unfair economic system – by depicting a particular social milieu. But it is also explicitly revolutionary in a way that few social novels are. That Tressell had read and assimilated Marx is clear from a number of statements in the book, not least his description of socialism, or rather of the popular view of socialism, as a ‘phantom of [the world’s] imagining’, which is more than reminiscent of Marx and Engel’s description of communism as a ‘spectre’ in The Communist Manifesto. But he also seeks to follow Marx in the sense that he wants to use his art, not merely to describe the world, but to effect some major change in it. The famous last line of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach – ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’ – operates as a kind of invisible epigram. Declaring against the principle (‘so popular with people who do nothing’) of ‘work for work’s sake’, the book is also in itself an attack on the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’.

The problem is that a problem novel that seeks to be, not only a novel, but also a political pamphlet, is bound to fall between two stools. Too often Tressell eschews complexity for caricature. Characters are given allegorical names (Crass, Starvem, Belcher) and are painted as either hilariously ignorant or fantastically cruel and cynical – this despite Owen’s frequent entreaties to ‘blame the system’, not the bosses.

Still, there are passages of genuine power, and of fine writing. Here, for example, is Tressell’s description of Mugsborough’s mayor, Adam Sweater:

He had large fat feet cased in soft calfskin boots, with drab-coloured spats. His overcoat, heavily trimmed with sealskin, reached just below the knees, and although the trousers were very wide they were filled by the fat legs within, the shape of the calves being distinctly perceptible. Even as the feet seemed about to burst the uppers of the boots, so the legs appeared to threaten the trousers with disruption.

This prissy description is perfectly suited to the vanity and self-regard of its subject, who is not only a politician and a businessman but also a philanthropist of the non-ragged-trousered variety. The real significance of passages such as this is that the satire emerges from within the writing. Unhappily, they are all too rare.

That an explicit ideological message can be deadly to fiction is not a new insight. But because it is so ideologically explicit, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is also open to the charge that it is, so to speak, ideological in the wrong way. Indeed, to step out of the literary sphere and into the political one is to encounter a different class of criticisms. Where are the other great issues of the day: the Suffragettes and Ireland? Are not Owen’s ideas too simplistic? Why does he barely mention the Society (the painters’ union) in his speeches? Such criticisms would be easy to rebut if the novel were a novel only: they could be put down to the ignorance or quirks of individual characters. But a novel conceived as a delivery system for a particular ideological line foregoes its right to such a defence.

One criticism that unites the activist and the aesthete centres on the depiction of Owen’s workmates. That a labourer in Owen’s position might harbour some contempt for such men is unsurprising. Frustrated and afraid for his family’s future, he regards his colleagues as both the victims and the perpetuators of an unfair and imbecilic system. They neither know nor want to know about the system in which they are forced to live like animals. But from the novelist we expect more sympathy, or at any rate more empathy. He must not allow his mind to carp. Indeed, he must, in Auden’s words,

Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just

Be just, among the Filthy filthy too …

Certainly, he shouldn’t stoop to this kind of thing:

‘Then that means,’ said Owen, ‘that means that the wages the people in division four receive is not equivalent to the work they do.’

‘Wotcher mean, quiverlent?’ cried Crass. ‘Why the ’ell don’t yer talk plain English without draggin’ in a lot of long words wot nobody can’t understand?’

‘I mean this,’ replied Owen, speaking very slowly …

Speaking very slowly, indeed. This is what Raymond Williams calls ‘the orthography of the uneducated’ and its effect is to equate illiteracy with stupidity: misspellings, double negatives and word-choice errors are taken as evidence of a slow wit. It is the kind of thing you would expect from Enid Blyton, or from Martin Amis on one of his grumpier days. Needless to say, it doesn’t belong in a novel that seeks to instil in the working class a consciousness of its own power and potential, in spite of its lack of formal education.

Tressell fails, in other words, to separate his own frustration from that of his protagonist. But for all that this failure dogs the book, it is also, in a strange way, part of its power. For Tressell was not just a novelist. He was a working man and a single parent with tuberculosis and a poorly paid job. He took the advice always given to writers – to write about what you know. But what he knew was poverty and disease, and he wanted to do more than merely describe them: he wanted to show how they could be defeated. After reading The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, George Orwell was left ‘with the feeling that a considerable novelist was lost in this young working-man whom society could not bother to keep alive’. True enough, though I would add that this loss is felt not just in the absence of a second or third book but within the pages of the one we have. If The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is caught between art and propaganda, it is because its author was caught between literature and life. Into Orwell’s category of the ‘good bad book’ fall books that are silly but enjoyable to read and books that are serious and artistically suspect. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is a book of the second kind. And although it would be too pat to claim that where it is bad it is bad for good reasons, there is a sense in which its failures form part of its enduring power. Setting out, as it does, to change our minds and to spur the labouring classes into action, it commands our attention in spite of its flaws, and, to some extent, because of them.