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The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
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Robert Tressell
Robert Tressell
'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' (RTP) is a very readable account of how capitalism operates in the workplace, but in some ways it is also a very contradictory book. It rarely lets the bosses and 'Idlers' off the hook, yet the nearest thing to a working-class hero, Frank Owen, shows little faith in winning economic reforms through collective action. It shows that some workers get 'some of their own back', some of the time, but marginalizes trade unions. However, it demonstrates that do-it-yourself reforms are temporary, and that individual workers are powerless against the bosses, so it provides an excellent case for organising against capitalist exploitation, which is why it has been part of many trade union activists' tool-kits for almost a century.

RTP also offers a socialist critique of many of the ideas that seek to justify class society, and it retains an ultimate faith in the coming Co-operative Commonwealth; yet it does not tackle (let alone solve) the problem of how to get there. Owen is clear that the basic problem is politically rooted in 'The present system - competition - capitalism.' And he rejects reformism: 'it's no good tinkering at it. Everything about it is wrong and there's nothing about it that's right. There's only one thing to be done with it and that is to smash it up and have a different system altogether.' But he sees his job as winning workers to socialist ideas, which are rarely tested in practice, and he offers no political strategy, or even a set of tactics.

Towards the end of the book Owen hands over the baton to the middle-class socialist, George Barrington. He has a plan: 'you must fill the House of Commons with Revolutionary socialists'. Yet he assumes that the state is a neutral machine whose drivers will be allowed to steer society towards socialism, unmolested by capitalists, their hangers-on, the armed forces, the judiciary and the civil service, not to mention rival imperial powers. Of course, we have seen this plan fail - above all in Chile in the early 1970s. Yet while RTP was close to the cutting edge of British socialist thought when it was completed in 1910, it could not have been a fully Marxist novel, because by then Marxism had hardly touched the British working class. Its politics wobble between reform and revolution, but it contains some key Marxist ideas. The 'Great Money Trick', above all, has been put to work by generations of socialists to illustrate why we need to 'Blame the System', and to encourage us to build the kind of party needed to get rid of it altogether.

Sadly, the book that Robert Noonan wrote was not the one that was published, three years after his death, on 23 April 1914. The editor, Jessie Pope, cut out much of its socialist politics and all of Barrington's ideas about revolutionaries, while the publisher, Grant Richards, aimed his expensive edition at the liberal middle-class. The book sold quite well until August, when sales 'died', just as reformist socialist leaders forgot their internationalist rhetoric and got behind their 'own' national ruling classes in the Great War. However, after the experience of the imperialist slaughter and the example of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, some rank and file socialists cottoned on to RTP, and in 1918 Richards published an even shorter version for a working-class market. This cheap but politically gutted edition sold very well, especially when the General Strike was betrayed by union leaders terrified of taking political responsibility in 1926, and when the Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, helped the Tories make workers pay for capitalism's crisis after 1931.

In the early 1930s a handful of socialists in the Labour Party thought about building a socialist alternative, but most of them stayed. However, especially after Hitler came to power in 1933, many other socialists joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. In 1935, as Stalin was moving right towards a Popular Front perspective, The Richards Press reissued the 1914 edition of RTP. Then, in 1940, during World War 2, Penguin published a sixpenny paperback of the 1918 edition. From 1941, after Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and Russia joined the Allies, Communists pushed the Penguin edition, especially in the armed forces and the trade unions. Ironically, what was left of its socialist content contributed to Labour's landslide victory in 1945, and to the 1947-8 alliance with US imperialism which is still with us today. Eventually, in 1955, just before Stalin's crimes were made public, and thanks to Fred Ball and Jack Beeching, the reconstructed 'complete' edition appeared from the Communist Party publisher, Lawrence & Wishart. A paperback followed in 1965. To date RTP has sold well over a million copies in more than one hundred printings and at least six languages, and it continues to sell very well indeed.

Some supercilious people argue that RTP appeals, above all in periods of working-class defeat, because of its 'pessimism' and 'elitism'; and it is true that the book is sometimes very hard on workers: 'They were the enemy... They were the real oppressors...They were the people who were really responsible for the continuation of the present system... No wonder the rich despised them and looked upon them as dirt. They were despicable. They were dirt. They admitted it and gloried in it.' So, 'Truly the wolves have an easy prey.' But are millions of working-class readers masochists, or are today's socialists just plain stupid?

Most of the negative outbursts about workers in RTP do not come from the socialists, Owen and Barrington. Their arguments with workmates are reported as dialogues, and, sometimes, as bitter and sarcastic monologues. But often, especially after they win the argument but lose the vote, it is the narrative voice which 'reports' their thought processes as they deal with their frustrations. In the 1920s the Russian literary theorist, Valentin Volosinov, argued that this technique was an ideal way of representing 'class struggle in the head.' But whose heads? The narrative voice addresses not Owen and Barrington, but us, the readers, so we, too, are involved in the ideological struggle, and are encouraged to take sides all the time.

We live in a capitalist world, and imperialism remains red in tooth and claw. So we face the same basic choices as Owen and Barrington. Do we give in to sophisticated despair, blame other workers, and claim that they can't or won't change? Do we argue that, since capitalism is allegedly all-powerful, we should settle for a few crumbs from the table? Or do we carry on, like Noonan, patiently explaining how the 'Great Money Trick' works, then go on to organise fighting unions, and to build a party, rooted in the working class, which, amongst other things, sends socialists (including revolutionaries) to Parliament? RTP continues to offer this choice, and its socialist ideas remain very relevant to those of us prepared to put them into practice in these increasingly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist times.

Dave Harker, 29 May 2003

Dave is the author of 'TRESSELL: The real story of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' (London: Zed Books, June 2003. Paperback: 12.99/$25.00; ISBN 1 84277 385 2. Hardback: 50.00/$75.00; ISBN 1 84277 384 4).

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Japanese edition of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists Robert Tressell and daughter, Kathleen
  Kathleen Noonan   Robert Tressell  
  Book review   Manuscript  
 
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