Jenny Farrell discusses one of the great working class novels in English literature, a literary exposure of the 'Great Money Trick' - the exploitation inherent in capitalism.
Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is the first important working-class novel in English literature. It was written between 1906 and 1910 and first published posthumously in abridged editions in 1914 and 1916. Its full text only appeared in in 1955.
Working class readers have widely embraced the novel as an important text about their experience, written from their own point of view. The birth and growth of the working-class theatre is inseparable from The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: the first of many adaptations for the stage was made by the Workers’ Theatre Movement in 1930-31. The book has been republished very many times. No other working-class novel in Britain can claim a history faintly approaching this.
Robert Tressell’s life
Its author, Robert Tressell, was born Robert Croker in Dublin in 1870, later changing his name to his mother’s name, Noonan. By 1875 he was living in London, trained as a signwriter and decorator, and married Elizabeth Hartel in 1891; daughter Kathleen was born a year later. From 1894 Tressell spent a number of years in South Africa, where he was involved with the Trade Union movement.
He returned to England in 1901, around the time of the Boer War, in which he had helped organise the Irish brigades to fight on the side of the Boers against the British. In the meantime, he had divorced Elizabeth and received custody of Kathleen, with whom he now settled in Hastings.
Tressell was a member of the only Marxist group in Britain at his time, the Social-Democratic Federation, and had a reputation as a socialist educationalist, writer of leaflets and painter of banners. Over the next few years, he was in and out of employment as a painter and decorator, gaining a high reputation for his signwriting skills. His health began to deteriorate, as TB developed. Tressell died in a workhouse hospital in February 1911 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
Wall painting from St. Andrews Church, Hastings. Robert Tressell was employed by Burton & Co to carry out the decoration of the chancel in 1905.
Tressell wrote the Philanthropists in the evenings, and described it as “the story of 12 months in hell, told by some of the damned”. He states in the preface, “There are no scenes or incidents in the story that I have not either witnessed myself or had conclusive evidence of.” The 1,674 pages long, handwritten manuscript was turned down by three publishers. In 1913, after Tressell’s death, Kathleen showed the manuscript to Jessie Pope. Pope edited the manuscript drastically, deleting many socialist references. Her publisher then took on the book, paying Kathleen £25 for the rights.
The start of social realism
With the transition from industrial to monopoly capitalism at the end of the 19th century, a realist working-class writer of Tressell’s calibre could no longer accept the old type of plot. There are no personal “stories” between members of opposed classes – only money. Together with this honesty of portraying typical characters in typical circumstances, and the development of a collective as “hero”, Tressell revolutionised the genre and contributed to the foundation of social realism in the English novel.
The Philanthropists has no ‘story’ in the traditional sense. Instead it is an epic portrait of working-class existence in the newly ‘matured’ age of imperialism, set between 1902-1904, during the slump after the boom of the Boer War, with mass unemployment and rampant destitution. An impoverished, unorganised group of workers is at the centre of the novel – for this first time in the history of the English novel. Their class consciousness is at a primitive level – they are duped by the capitalist and imperialist media, for example by what they read in The Daily Obscurer, with its demagogy and jingoism. Throughout, Tressell castigates them unmercifully for the ‘philanthropic’ acceptance of their destitution, their acquiescence that culture and the achievements of civilisation are not for “the likes of us” and that their children should inherit this lot.
Economic, political and cultural hegemony
The boss Rushton (rush-it-on) and his middle-men force the workers to hurry and slobber the work, use inferior materials, while charging for excellence, and looting the premises for their own benefit. They also threaten the casual labourers with unemployment, effectively the workhouse and pauperism. The same bosses control the disorganised workers at a political level through the city’s council and through the church. It is a literary expression of Marxist theory, a fictional expression of the approach of the Culture Matters website, showing how the bosses’ economic power is copper-fastened not only by their hegemony of the political spheres, but also through appropriation and domination of cultural spheres – the church and the pub.
The life of the centre-stage class is traced from the cradle to the grave, from Easton’s baby, Frankie, to Bert, and right through to Jack Linden, who dies in a workhouse and is buried a pauper after a life of hard labour. The novel also develops fully individualised women characters. Nora Owen is as class conscious and conversant with Marxist ideas as her husband.
While the working-class characters are fleshed-out individuals, whom the reader follows into their home lives, the bosses are simply types. This is a refreshing reversal of the usual pattern of individualised middle-class lives and worker stereotypes. In this way, the breadth of depiction is matched by deep insight into the interior of working-class life.
Before The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, fictional proletarian characters lived a far less rich life than the great middle-class figures of the bourgeois realists. In the Philanthropists, we are presented with individuals with a personal – and in the case of Owen, inner – life which is rich, humane and full of drama. We are presented with a conviction that the working class way of life has the potential to encompass all aspects of truly human living. The ruling class, by contrast, is put beyond consideration as a human way of life, its purpose being to block the working-class from free development, and to impose both physical and political degradation.
The book’s individual hero, Frank Owen, named after the utopian socialist Robert Owen, is a committed socialist who puts all his effort into converting his workmates to his way of thinking. His dinner break lectures on capitalism and socialism form an enriching commentary on the events of the novel. However, Owen is depicted as part of this labour collective, made up also of opportunists, the non-socialist rank and file, as well as highly class conscious workers, forming an organic, complete image of the working-class. He shares the same qualities as the other workers, only more developed and conscious: this is his socialism. In this realistic, heterogeneous portrayal of the working class, Tressell is like his contemporary, Maxim Gorky.
As Alan Dent remarks in his Introduction to the recent collection of poems by Martin Hayes, although work is a central reality in life for most people, it is rarely depicted in art. Never before in the English realist novel had the actual labour process been central to the depiction of class struggle. For the first time, Tressell reverses the assumption that life begins where work ends – work is essential to a fully lived human life. A character’s attitude to labour is a touchstone of his/her humanity. Labour means nothing to Rushton, Sweater and the bosses. Crass, Slyme and other labourers display the least humanity, betraying and tricking their mates, and toadying to the bosses. In all the decent workers, pride in their work and their efforts to do it properly, despite threats of instant sacking, emerges damaged but basically intact.
Owen’s decorative painting of the drawing room in the Moorish style is a supreme example. He takes the annihilating material environment, the central tool of capitalist oppression, and turns it into a vessel of creative proletarian living, an opportunity to express his humanity through his work. In the struggle over how the work should be done, Owen lays down the law to the bosses: during the period of this work, Owen achieves his fullest humanity and the bosses lose control of him and the entire situation.
In the character of the socialist and humanist Owen, Tressell succeeds for the first time in giving vital, realistic embodiment to his hero William Morris’s idea of the kind of human being that is the salt of the earth. In presenting the labour process as a legitimate subject for art, Tressell introduces an element, which points far into the future of socialist and communist culture.
In this way, Tressell echoes the anti-capitalist thinking of not only Morris, but also Carlyle and Ruskin before him. For both Ruskin and Morris architectural decoration was the universal form of human self-expression, direct forerunners of Owen. As a worker-writer, he stands in the radical Burns, Blake, Clare and Chartist tradition. Standing on all these shoulders, Tressell breaks new ground with the creation of a working class group hero, with labour at the heart of the action, and with the creation of the revolutionary novel.
The struggle and partial victory of the workers is a theme of many of the best sections of the book, for example the one entitled “Filling the Tank”. While the pub is primarily part of the ruling class armoury for controlling workers in their ‘private’ lives, and milking them for their pitiful wages, there is a moment where the Semi-Drunk and the Besotten Wretch compete in a game of rings and shove-ha’penny. On this occasion, the Besotten Wretch turns this degrading environment to a positive purpose, where the workers take charge and really enjoy themselves, living at their own terms. An example of the ‘cultural struggle’, perhaps?
Another example is young Bert’s magic-lantern “Pandorama”, depicting the cruelty of capitalism. With it, he entertains the fully comprehending children at the Christmas party, who then burst out into jingoistic songs, such as the hilariously ironic “Rule Britannia”, containing the words “Britons never shall be slaves”. The children’s’ immediate understanding of the irrationalities of capitalism contrasts ironically with Owen’s relatively meagre success among his workmates, despite using similar dramatic propagandist theatrics.In all these examples, Tressell shows humanity in the face of degradation, and the workers’ ability to come to grips with their environment, however unpromising.
Owen’s lectures on socialism are a further instance. Although he only reaches some of the workers, the portrayal of the others is not negative. They engage with him and take an active part in these lectures, by helping to dramatize the examples. These scenes take on the nature of theatrical enjoyment and their collective reaches its highest development.
The Great Money Trick
Perhaps the most central of these dramatized lectures is where Owen explains to the astonishment of his fellow workers that “Money is the real cause of poverty”. To prove this, he shows them “how the Great Money Trick is worked”. Using bits and pieces from the dinner baskets, Owen illustrates his point, the creation of surplus value:
You say that you are all in need of employment, and as I am the kind-hearted capitalist class, I am going to invest my money in various industries, so as to give you Plenty of Work. (…) For doing this work you will each receive your wages …
These blocks represent the necessaries of life. (…) you will have to buy them from me …
As the working classes were in need of the necessaries of life, and as they could not eat, drink or wear the useless money, they were compelled to agree to the kind Capitalist’s terms (…) having consumed the necessaries they had bought with their wages, there were again in precisely the same condition as when they started work – they had nothing. (…) The kind-hearted capitalist consumed twice as much as any one of them and his pile of wealth continually increased (… he …) takes the machinery away from them and informed them that as owing to Over Production all his store-houses were glutted with the necessaries of life, he had decided to close down the works.
And so it goes on, like a chorus on the events of the novel.
While Tressell shares a great deal of common ideological and artistic ground with his peer Gorky, he also inherits a specifically English tradition, especially from Dickens. One example is his use of composite images, which contain the phenomenal power of social generalisation. While these images work fully at their own level, they often become symbolic of a more general social phenomenon.
For example, an important theme in the novel is the scamping of work. Misery commands the men nonstop to “slobber it on” – to cover dirt, cracks and structural weaknesses for long enough to pocket the profits. While this is the typical capitalist work ethic, at another level it epitomises the general drive to alienation in capitalist society and culture. And at yet another level, it is a symbol for the entire imperialist enterprise, where putrefaction, corruption, fraud and structural weaknesses are covered with a shoddy façade of illusory luxury and ineffectual half-measures at reform and regulation.
Over one hundred years after its first publication, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists continues to be considered by most readers as a revelation, a novel of the utmost relevance today, as a book that describes the world as it is. All working people nowadays, especially the precariat, easily recognise the ‘slob-it-on’ work ethic of less resources, fewer people to do jobs, poor wages and conditions, part-time work, and the threat and reality of unemployment. All those people who sell their labour are essentially in the same boat. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists reveals the essence of an exploitative, capitalist system that is still in place.
In this way, the book represents exactly the kind of political art that is central to the Culture Matters project, because it expresses the truth in a counter-hegemonic fictional discourse about work and exploitation, a truth that so many other writers ignore, gloss over or even glorify. Just how it lives on is illustrated in the following poem, entered for the Culture Matters Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2018, sponsored by Unite:
The Song Of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist
by Graeme Darling
I've been working my arse off for years,
So that parasites can sit on theirs,
Counting all the money they have stolen from me.
These venal cannibals are legal criminals,
Cloaking their immorality in the joke of respectability.
It's the same story in every capitalist trap;
The most essential employees ( exploitees ) are treated like crap.
Decent folk on scrimping wages strain, scrub and mop,
While bloodsucking turds ride on their backs to the top.
You don't need to know the Communist Manifesto
To recognise injustice that's manifestly so.
This situation blights every organisation, I'm telling you true;
The higher the pay, the less work they do!
I'm sick and tired of being trod into the ground,
I'd turn this crazy pyramid the right way round.
The bosses in armchairs should clean toilets and stairs,
And experience an existence of struggling for subsistence.
Along with a decent minimum, I'd have a wage maximum.
Four to one should be the widest disparity;
Anything more is an utter obscenity.
This economic system of domination wreaks global exploitation;
Our training shoes are made by kids in sweatshops,
The Earth is ravaged for our phones and laptops.
We must side with the oppressed of every form and nation;
The universal kinship should be our motivation.
This article is indebted to my father’s study: Jack Mitchell, Robert Tressell and the Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, Lawrence & Wishart, 1969.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.