In Issue 30 (December 2007) Henry Gibson celebrated the most influential novel the socialist movement has ever inspired.
A plaque above a betting shop in Dublin’s Wexford Street testifies to an Irish socialist who has made a powerful mark on left-wing consciousness but is hardly honoured in his own country. This was the birthplace in 1870 of Robert Noonan, who wrote the most widely read and influential novel the socialist movement has ever inspired. Written under a pen name borrowed from one of the tools of his trade as a painter and decorator, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists wasn’t published until 1914, three years after his death, and even then in a severely cut and distorted version, the full text not being published for another forty years. But all along it has been bought by millions, read by even more, and cherished as a book that encapsulates the socialist vision.
Tressell explains in his preface that
my intention was to present, in the form of an interesting story, a faithful picture of working-class life… to show the conditions resulting from poverty and unemployment: to expose the futility of the measures taken to deal with them and to indicate what I believe to be the only real remedy, namely—Socialism. …not a treatise or essay, but a novel. My main object was to write a readable story full of human interest and based on the happenings of everyday life, the subject of Socialism being treated incidentally.
The novel does present an interesting story, a collection of them, and succeeds from the literary point of view. The narrative is heavily written by today’s standards, more Hugo than Kafka. Dickens’s none-too-subtle approach to naming characters is employed, with capitalists glorifying in names like Sweater, Grinder, and the decorating firm of Smeeriton & Leavit. The political arguments often lead to simple but very funny exchanges—like the painter who rises to a point of order, only to be trumped by another saying: “And I rise to order a pint” (Chapter 25).
The tragic side of working-class existence is also there in abundance. The reality of trying to survive and feed a family when the work dries up is portrayed in unsparing detail. The middle-class prejudice that workers could easily get by if they weren’t so profligate is forensically refuted as a couple go through their debts, expenses and income item by item and conclude that only the pawnshop will see them through to next week. The death of an old worker because the boss wouldn’t employ another man to hold his ladder on a dangerous job hits home, as does the ensuing cover-up.
Many of the incidents will seem remote to us today, if only in their form. But few of us wouldn’t fit the description of workers with no love for their work, in the morning wishing it was dinner time, and at dinner time wishing it was Saturday: “So they went on, day after day, year after year, wishing their time was over” (Chapter 7). The book’s description of the long working day—getting home with only time for a quick meal before going to bed so as to get up early next morning to set out again—became outdated, but the Celtic Tiger has brought it back into fashion.
Friedrich Engels once wrote that “the socialist problem novel in my opinion fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real conditions it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning them, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instils doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists” (letter to Minna Kautsky, 26 November 1885). So far, so Tressell (although he would have had no way of reading Engels’s opinion). But, he goes on, a novel should do all this “without itself offering a direct solution of the problem involved”. All things being equal, you would agree: novels that preach at the reader, that never raise a question but to blurt out the answer, tend to be tiresome, ineffectual and just bad literature. But The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists shows that sometimes—just sometimes—it ain’t necessarily so.
It has a lot to do with the fact that the novel wears its socialism on its sleeve, shamelessly proclaims it: this is not an author trying to surreptitiously smuggle a little bit of politics into his hard-hitting Channel 4 drama because he believes that the mass media is the real arena of struggle now. The first chapter introduces us to Frank Owen, “generally regarded as a bit of a crank” because he’s always banging on about the robbery of the workers rather than the weekend sport. The narrator regularly addresses the reader directly with his own views. Whole chapters are actual lectures on socialist politics, and could even be published separately as propaganda pamphlets. But they are situated well within the context of credible political discussions, described and told as episodes of the story. Socialism is a fully integrated character in the plot, you could say, and its appearances seem no less legitimate than any other character.
Some of the socialist lessons Owen gives do get a bit schoolmasterly. But his “Great Money Trick” (Chapter 21) is a classic. Owen represents the capitalist class, and employs three of his workmates cutting up bread into small pieces. Having produced the required three pieces each, he takes them all, pays the workers one piece each, and even after consuming two himself, is left with a healthy surplus. Having eaten their piece, the workers have to come back and repeat the process. Before long, the capitalist is piling up wealth and the workers are in the same position as ever—until he decides to lay them off, of course. The Great Money Trick gets to the heart of capitalist exploitation in a way many socialist arguments don’t: it isn’t about how many bits of bread we’re allowed, but the fact that any bread is stolen from us at all.
If exposing and ending that trick is socialism, the novel goes out of its way to point out what isn’t socialism. Noonan was active in the English socialist movement in the heyday of ‘gas and water socialism’ which boasted of bringing public services into municipal ownership, but he unmasks it as basically another capitalist dodge. The local businessmen, in their capacity as councillors, sell themselves land at a knockdown price to set up an electricity company. When it fails, they get the council to buy it back from them at a handsome profit to themselves. “Well, ’ere’s success to Socialism,” toasts one of their number, aware of the likely public reaction when the truth comes out: “they’ll say that if that’s Socialism they don’t want no more of it” (Chapter 30).
A socialist character gives the workers a real solution: “you must fill the House of Commons with Revolutionary Socialists” who would pass legislation to bring the means of production into public ownership (Chapter 45). There is no plan against the likelihood that the former owners would go outside the law to resist this change: perhaps the presumption is that a socialist electoral landslide would convince them that their cause was lost. But even so, the advent of socialism is portrayed as a top-down process—laws transfer ownership from the few to the many—rather than a fundamental revolution from below in social and economic relations.
That is intimately related to the fact that The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is pervaded by a sense of pessimism about the ability of workers to change things. The world is full of philanthropists with no arse in their trousers, working selflessly to keep a class of rich idlers in luxury, because “the majority are mostly fools”, as Owen says (Chapter 15). And he goes further (Chapter 2):
there sprung up within him a feeling of hatred and fury against the majority of his fellow workers.
They were the enemy. Those who not only quietly submitted like so many cattle to the existing state of things, but defended it, and opposed and ridiculed any suggestion to alter it.
They were the real oppressors… He hated and despised them… They were the people who were really responsible for the continuance of the present system.
When a workmate is laid off, he refuses to feel sorry for a man who supports the system that impoverishes him (Chapter 6): “It’s wrong to feel sorry for such people; they deserve to suffer.”
“Were they all hopelessly stupid?” he asks himself (Chapter 1), but another possibility suggests itself: “Or was he mad himself?” Doubts of his own sanity torment Owen from time to time, compounded by evidence of what seems to be tuberculosis. He even hatches a well-thought-out plan to kill himself, his wife and their son to spare them the suffering that the system has in store for them.
All this could easily make the book into a prop for left-wing elitism, the idea that the working class is too thick to achieve anything, too absorbed in football and soap operas to comprehend their position, and so wiser, nobler minds have to improve things without or against them. It has rarely been claimed as such a prop, though. This is partly because a traditional enough story of working men in Edwardian England holds little appeal for elitists. But apart from that, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists ultimately transcends the pessimism in it.
To return to Engels, he once criticised a writer in whose novel “the working class figures as a passive mass, unable to help itself” (letter to Margaret Harkness, April 1888). On the other hand, he went on, “how do I know whether you have not had very good reasons for contenting yourself, for once, with a picture of the passive side of working class life, reserving the active side for another work?” Robert Noonan’s early death in a workhouse leaves us no way of knowing how he may have portrayed the working class in other works, and it is unfair to take the one novel he managed to write as his definitive last word on the subject.
And that novel was written at a time that would test the faith of many socialists. Economic depression put a big dent in working-class militancy in England. The pensions and rudimentary social insurance that would soon constitute a proto-welfare state hadn’t kicked in yet, leaving no safety net for workers, and an incentive not to challenge things. Noonan told it as he saw it, and the picture he saw was a fairly gloomy one. While Owen is active in the painters’ union, he sees no connection between trade unionism and socialism. Soon after the book was finished, the ‘great unrest’ unleashed a strike wave across Britain and Ireland, and brought home to many that workplace struggle was an integral part of the fight for socialism. Had Noonan lived to experience that—or better still, the revolutionary possibilities that followed the first world war—The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists could have told a different story.
But there are aspects of Owen’s difficulties that are almost universal. Here is a socialist trying his hardest to convince his fellow workers of the need for socialism but making little headway, one of “a few self-sacrificing enthusiasts, battling against the opposition of those they sought to benefit” (Chapter 40). Who among us has not “listened with contempt and anger” to workers spouting reactionary prejudices (Chapter 34)? All socialists have to bang their heads against “the great barriers and ramparts of invincible ignorance, apathy and self-contempt, which will have to be broken down before the system of society of which they are the defences can be swept away” (Chapter 40).
Usually after one of these arguments Owen would wander off by himself, with his head throbbing and a feeling of unutterable depression and misery at his heart, weighed down by a growing conviction of the hopelessness of everything, of the folly of expecting that his fellow workmen would ever be willing to try to understand for themselves the causes that produced their sufferings. …they did not want to know!(Chapter 48)
We’ve all been there. Socialists whose faith in the working class is a blind one will dismiss the problem and carry on smiling with the unconvincing compulsory happiness of a holiday camp employee. But anyone who puts their socialism to the test with working-class people will recognise the frustration when something you know yourself to be obvious and simple just doesn’t get through. If you’re any good, you overcome the doubts and depressions, but there’s something wrong with a socialist who never has them. While Owen’s methods sometimes leave a lot to be desired, his stubborn determination against such odds makes him a comrade to us all.
Fiction is the ideal medium for exploring such personal dilemmas that socialists face. Owen’s pessimism more than likely reflects that of the author, but Tressell’s novel has the merit of going beyond that pessimism. Some of his workmates start lending an ear to Owen’s arguments, a socialist propaganda van comes to town, and a couple of the workers become socialists themselves. The firmest of them, Barrington, comes across an ex-socialist who has turned coat and become a paid orator for the Liberal Party, citing the ignorance of the workers as his excuse. Initially Barrington is demoralised by this, but seeing a group of children staring at Christmas presents they can’t afford renews his socialist faith: “he flushed with shame because he had momentarily faltered in his devotion to the noblest cause that any man could be privileged to fight for” (Chapter 53). The novel concludes that “the glorious fabric of the Co-operative Commonwealth” was coming into view, “the rays of the risen sun of Socialism”. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has awakened, maintained and renewed that hope in generations, and continues to do so in the 21st century.