In the beginning

Henry Gibson reviewed an account of the roots of religion in Issue 54 (December 2013).

John Pickard, Behind the Myths: The Foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (AuthorHouse)

This book looks at the genesis of the world’s major religions, and explicitly does so from a non-religious standpoint. They are “rooted in material social conditions”, the author insists: “the origin of these religions can only lie in the economic, social and political circum­stances of the time in which they were born”. He undertakes an all but forensic analysis of their backgrounds, referencing a bewildering range of religious and historical texts.

Unsurprisingly, the received wisdoms don’t stand up too well to all this. The Bible, for instance (to take the one best known in this part of the world), is not a book handed down by God but a collection of more or less distorted versions of texts written by different people considerably later than the events they purport to describe. The central figure of Jesus is unlikely to have been an actual individual, but at most an amalgamation of legends about the various preachers of salvation active at the time. One book of the Bible flatly contradicts another, and sometimes a book contradicts itself, because the Bible we have is a heavily rewritten version of the tales and beliefs it started out from. The revealed truth is revealed to be largely fiction.

Religions grew as an aspect of social and economic change. As slaves revolted against rulers, and empires gave way to rivals, religion often provided the battledress in which conflicts were fought out. When the will of a god and the actions of his disciples represented “the only political language of the day”, political arguments often took the form of claiming divine support for your own side and calling divine wrath down upon your opponents. When one social system pushed aside an old one, religious belief could act, in the words of a historian quoted here, “as a symbolic phrasing of the new social relations”.

The other-worldliness of religious teaching lends it a flexibility which fits it well to such a role. It is often “enigmatic and open to a variety of interpretations”, any of which can serve different interests in various times and places. So Jesus says that, when someone smacks you on the cheek, you should offer the other one. To a conservative, this is a counsel of quietly submitting to oppression, but a radical can interpret it as advising that you should continue to stand up to in­justice whatever the consequences. The enigma can even suit the same people in different circumstances. Jesus saying that his kingdom is not of this world probably meant originally that freedom for the slaves could only be realised by the overthrow of the Roman empire, but in times of defeat and despair it could offer the consolation that true freedom lay on the other side of death.

But of course, such a fate has been visited upon other philo­sophies too, even that which Pickard draws upon. When we read that “the priestly authors overlaid the entire traditional narrative and oral history with their own interpretation”, it is difficult not to think of the way Marx’s essential thought has been impoverished by explanations and expositions, consciously designed or lazily accepted, which rob it of its power. “Whereas the early Church had demonstrated a wide range of different beliefs—to a degree that would be inconceivable in any branch of the Christian Church today—the growing bureaucracy sought to consolidate its position through theological uniformity”: an ironic foretelling of what Marx has been subjected to. There are complex social reasons for this, but the philosophical root lies in replacing a critical and enquiring scepticism with a blind faith based on obedience to authority.

Happily, John Pickard doesn’t write as such a Marxist true believer. All the same, there are times when his Marxism is somewhat limited and limiting. He refutes a claim that monotheism arose from a growth in people’s self-awareness by saying: “there is no evidence for any change in the basic psychological capacities of human beings in the last few thousand years”. But such evidence exists in abundance, of course, and it is strange for a Marxist to imagine that immense change can taken place in society while human psychology remains still the same old story. Individuality is something which has developed in society throughout history, and would develop further still in a world free from class oppression. A similar downplaying of the role of human thought is evident in the fact that, amidst all the description of religion reacting to social relations, we get no real discussion here of religion’s role in reinforcing and promoting social relations in turn—surely a necessary aspect of a rounded Marxist explanation.

The book gives short shrift to the holy books, showing them to be historical products, shaped by the developments that gave rise to religious belief. This all proves pretty conclusively that they are not at all factual narratives of things that actually happened. However, the author seems to conclude that consequently, they have no historical value. But they should be treated as folklore, as records of commonly-held beliefs, retold and reshaped by subsequent generations. Properly evaluated, such sources are important for the historian, even when dealing with comparatively recent history, and should be invaluable when going back millennia. To say that “there is no historical evidence, other than the biblical story” for someone or something discounts the reality that such stories constitute historical evidence in themselves, even if only circumstantial evidence on the level of tradition.

Pickard writes that “a person’s religion, in ninety-nine per cent of cases, is a matter of the national, ethnic, cultural and family identity into which they were born”. This may be true in the formal sense of which box gets ticked on the census form, but it misses a lot of the deeper reality. Plenty of people reading this will have been born into a religion but feel far less attachment to it that their parents did, and will hardly recognise the attitude of their grandparents. Their “national, ethnic, cultural and family identity” may not have changed much, but their religion certainly has. A survey by the Association of Catholic Priests last year showed that most Catholics in Ireland don’t go to mass every week, think women and married men should be priests, don’t see homosexuality as a sin—in short, dissent from fundamental defining characteristics of Catholicism. There are reasons for this shift, arising from the development of Irish society, but it is a shift which does reflect people making up their own minds about religion in one way or another, rather than just going along with what they were baptised into. Seeing religion as primarily an accident of birth collapses the development of religion into general historical development, which may be more convenient for the historian, but fails to confront important qualitative changes in religious belief.

While certainly not pulling punches, the book does its best not to gratuitously offend religious believers. The Vatican is character­ised as “a reactionary, self-perpetuating political machine”, but it is empha­sised that no other religion has such a crowning worldwide institution, and that the same does not go for the beliefs and actions of rank-and-file Catholics around the world. The litany of official Catholic reaction is long, but the statement that “Throughout its history, the Church has been on the extreme right of the political spectrum, opposed to every single measure, in whatever country, that extended the right to vote, or extended women’s or trade union rights” is plain inaccurate. In Ireland, hell is not hot enough nor eternity long enough to punish the bishops for all they’ve done on us—but it is a matter of fact that they didn’t oppose the referendum lowering the voting age in 1972, the Juries Act 1976 providing for women jurors on an equal basis, or the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 making it illegal to sack people for trade union activity. A less sweeping statement, better thought through, would have made the point more effectively.

The author observes that “many of the key political issues of war, revolution and social upheaval are brought into sharp focus by what appear, on the surface, to be issues of religious faith”. But only on the surface: the rise of political Islam, he points out, is less to do with the spiritual power of the Koran than with the corporal power of imperialism in the Middle East and racism in Europe. Therefore, he criticises atheists who treat religion as “an intellectual debate in which the followers of religion are charged with harbouring inferior and in­consistent ideas”. (Richard Dawkins springs to mind, with his patronising insistence that people just drop all this silly religious nonsense of theirs.) The truth is that “having atheists debate and argue with people of faith will not lead many of the latter to change their views”.

But if all this is the case, why has he written 450 pages of very dense, often heavy-going, argument on quite esoteric matters around the historical origins of religions and the inaccuracies of their holy texts? Believers will immediately react to factual evidence by affirming that they rely on faith, on phenomena which pass human under­standing and mundane fact. The preface advises such people to “put the book down and read no further” because it is “aimed at under­pinning the beliefs of those atheists, agnostics and unbelievers who are opposed to… established religions”.

This smacks a little of The League of Gentlemen’s grotesque shop­keeper proclaiming that “There’s nothing for you here!” Can a Marxist argument on religion not be made in a way which also addresses those who have some kind of religious faith? The dividing line between believers and unbelievers is never as clear-cut as all that, and fuzzy edges remain to be probed everywhere. In fact, if indeed “Workers of all faiths and nationalities will walk side by side” against the ruling class, religion could well come up for discussion somewhere along the way. On the other hand, if atheists need their position strengthened, there must be easier and more effective ways than a line-by-line refutation of the ancient world’s religious echoes.

Marx and Engels get quoted throughout, including the bit about religion being “the opium of the people”, which is thankfully quoted at length rather than as a phrase out of context. But while both men had to struggle with religion in their youth, there is a reason why the subject featured less and less in their work as they moved on. As Engels once said of the average socialist, “atheism has already out­lived its usefulness for them… they are simply through with God”. A non-existent god shouldn’t detain us so much.

Pickard rightly states that religion is unlikely to succumb to academic debate or to repression, and that a society without exploit­ation is needed to create conditions where people will exert a greater control over their lives and free themselves of a need for religious explanations and consolations. In the meantime, “their religious affiliation will not prevent them moving on class lines to challenge the old order”. So where does a book like this come in? Those interested in the subject will find a painstaking account of how major religions arose amidst the social struggles of the time, but a materialist understanding of the role of religion today would derive more from confronting its modern realities than from combing through its primeval genesis. Even if he never existed, the man had a point when he said that we should let the dead bury their dead.

Socialist Classics: William Morris, ‘News from Nowhere’

In Issue 51 (March 2013) Henry Gibson examined a book that pictures a vision of socialist society and how to get there.

William Morris retains his fascination as one of the most remarkable and diversely talented people who have shaped, and been shaped by, the movement for socialism. The glimpse of a socialist society he gave us dates from 1890, but the century and more that have elapsed between him and ourselves has done little to diminish the inspiring power of that vision.

News from Nowhere sprang in large part from his dissatisfaction with the way socialism was commonly being envisaged at the time. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward had been published in the US three years earlier and taken a grip on the public imagination. Its protagonist wakes up in the year 2000 in a world of planned equality where the irrationalities of capitalism are no more. Morris was all but horrified, however, at its depiction of a society that differed from contemporary capitalism primarily in being run more efficiently. Human beings in this utopia were cogs in a huge machine, albeit cogs with a fairer standard of living, with no say in running things until their retirement. What’s more, Bellamy presented this society as emerging peacefully as a natural development of capital­ism’s own tendencies. In 1889 Fabian Essays in Socialism appeared in Britain, outlining the Fabian Society’s conception of socialism as a reformed version of capitalism, to be gradually introduced by sympathetic liberal politicians. This prospect of a state administered by enlightened planners, with the idea of a liberated human existence conspicuous by its absence, severely rubbed Morris up the wrong way, and he said as much around the time he was beginning his book.

Alongside these, Morris faced tension among his own comrades. He was a prominent member of the Socialist League, an openly revolutionary organisation formed five years earlier. In the meantime it had rejected on principle standing in parliamentary elections—a position Morris wholeheartedly endorsed—and then gone on to embrace anarchism more and more openly—a position Morris didn’t share. News from Nowhere was serialised in The Commonweal, the League’s paper which Morris edited, but by the time its final chapter appeared, he had been replaced by an explicitly anarchist editor. The book’s opening sentence has its events following from a discussion “Up at the League” on a post-revolutionary society, and week by week it portrayed a socialism which went against the grain of the new orthodoxy prevailing in the League. Subtitling his story ‘An Epoch of Rest’, Morris was imagining a time beyond the storm and stress of party divisions, focussing on what should be the end goal of it all. Its protagonist feels that his experiences “should be told to our comrades” as well as the general public.

The introductory chapter is conventionally told, but the narrator then shifts to the first person “since I understand the feelings and desires of the comrade of whom I am telling better than any one else in the world does”. Morris hardly bothers to hide the fact that the protagonist is himself: his name is William, and he happens to be 56 years old, as Morris was in 1890. So this new world is not presented to us objectively to be accepted as a finished article, but revealed bit by bit through Morris’s eyes, with all his incomprehension, questions, and reservations.

There are certainly things to doubt and question in what Morris puts before us. The educational system of this society, for instance, is not to have one, to just leave children and adults to acquire whatever learning they may happen to pick up along the way. The rustic paradise of it all sometimes suggests a 1950s Hollywood movie where the happy folk of Ye Olde England merrily ply their trades in the forest as a lute sounds in the background. You could certainly imagine a baffled Danny Kaye making a fool of himself as Morris’s hero does when he tries to offer strange old things called money in return for goods received, or when he fails to understand that people in their forties now look younger than people in their twenties did when harassed by the worries of capitalist society. The Commonweal’s readership would certainly have appreciated the running anti-parliamentary gag about the Palace of Westminster having been converted into a place for storing dung.

Sometimes in News from Nowhere, though, the most radical changes have the most practical feel. With no private property to own or covet, crime has become largely a thing of the past, and civilised living is taken for granted, as Hammond—a character whose main function is to explain the new society—describes:

We have been living for a hundred and fifty years, at least, more or less in our present manner, and a tradition or habit of life has been growing on us; and that habit has become a habit of acting on the whole for the best. It is easy for us to live without robbing each other. It would be possible for us to contend with and rob each other, but it would be harder for us than refraining from strife and robbery.

This habit is occasionally broken, of course, either through a break­down in an individual’s mental health—“in which case he must be restrained until his illness or madness is cured”—or a freak rush of blood to the head. Either way, such instances are treated as “the errors of friends, not the habitual actions of persons driven into enmity against society”. The most notorious case mentioned in the book is someone who accidentally killed a man in a jealous fight over a woman they both loved. The fact that it is such a cause of comment underlines its rarity, and the remorse he has to live with is considered worse than any punishment would be.

So Morris doesn’t claim that the revolution will abolish un­requited love, but he does show it having established relationships between the sexes which are based on free will and equality. Partner­ships are formed, broken and reformed casually enough, as people desire themselves: “families are held together by no bond of coercion, legal or social, but by mutual liking and affection, and everybody is free to come or go as he or she pleases”. There is no need for courts to sanction or dissolve such relations, and importantly, “there is no code of public opinion which takes the place of such courts, and which might be as tyrannical and unreasonable as they were”. People still hold opinions, right or wrong, on the affairs of others, but there is no unbending standard of moral rectitude imposed on them.

Unfortunately, News from Nowhere doesn’t anticipate an end to the sexual division of labour. Domestic work and child rearing still fall to the lot of women, albeit free from economic degradation. The visitor is asked: “don’t you know that it is a great pleasure to a clever woman to manage a house skilfully, and to do it so that all the house-mates about her look pleased, and are grateful to her?” The idea that women be freed of the burden of parenting is described as a “strange piece of baseless folly”, and instead woman is “respected as a child-bearer and rearer of children”. It is good to hear that such important work is recognised as such, but there is nothing approaching an explanation of why it should still be woman’s work. Could men not be equally willing and able to run a house, equally willing and able to bring up children if not actually give birth to them? Could this society not be making provision for such work to be done more collectively, as and when women and men wanted that? While ahead of most of his contemporaries when it came to the liberation of women, Morris failed to go all the way with it, and as a result this is one aspect of his book which has dated very badly.

On the other hand, the actual portrayal of female characters does go beyond this. They are not in fact contented housewives or mothers, but quite emancipated women, and they exercise an attraction for the central character which he isn’t shy about expressing. Morris must have thought likewise: living in a less than happy marriage himself, his longing for someone like Ellen, the free spirit in love with life and nature who appears in the latter half of the book, is evident.

Love of nature shines through the whole of News from Nowhere, “love of the very skin and surface of the earth… a nature bettered and not worsened by contact with mankind”. The visitor is constantly shocked to see that districts he knew as polluted slums are now clean and pleasant places for people to live. London has shrunk, and people now live in smaller communities. Following the revolution people flocked from the cities to populate the countryside, “so that the difference between town and country grew less and less” with the “world of the country vivified by the thought and briskness of town-bred folk”. This rational relationship of humanity to the rest of the natural world reverses the old way of seeing things, and again it is a woman who points it out:

Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature’, as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another. It was natural to people thinking in this way that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was some­thing outside them.

The key to the whole transformation is work, which is of course the key to human life at any time or place. As Hammond explains, socialism couldn’t exist without radically reshaping human labour:

What is the object of Revolution? Surely to make people happy. Revolution having brought its foredoomed change about, how can you prevent the counter-revolution from setting in except by making people happy?… And happiness without happy daily work is impossible.

Work has become pleasurable, something people enjoy doing and take pride in. Artistic creation has become the norm: “the production of what used to be called art… has become a necessary part of the labour of every man who produces”. There is no pretence that such a state of affairs came about overnight, but now it is established, there is no contradiction between the satisfaction of need and the need for satisfaction: “as we are not driven to make a vast quantity of useless things, we have time and resources enough to consider our pleasure in making them”, says Hammond, even sacrificing technical efficiency whenever it robs work of its joy. The basic principle, he explains, is “the freedom for every man to do what he can do best, joined to the knowledge of what productions of labour we really wanted”.

This is expanded upon in two passages that Morris added to News from Nowhere between its serialisation in The Commonweal and its publication as a book in 1891. One deals with the impression that work in this society is “a mere part of a summer holiday” by showing a gang repairing a road. While this is difficult and necessary work, they deprive fulfilment from it, with the physical exertion making a welcome change to the more sedentary occupations they would engage in at other times. A new chapter focusses on “The Obstinate Refusers”, a group of artists, led by a sculptress, who prefer to renovate an old house than to go haymaking with everyone else. There is something of a general bemusement at their desire to do their own thing, but nothing like hostility, suggesting that individual inspiration has a secure place in a society of mutual solidarity. The secret of it all, Morris’s character concludes, is that people “had at last learned to accept life itself as a pleasure, and the satisfaction of the common needs of mankind, and the preparation for them, as work fit for the best of the race”.

The administration of this society is not a matter for a specialised class: “the whole people is our parliament” is how Hammond puts it. He explains that each local community has regular meetings where anyone can propose to do something new or different. If they get some support, the proposal is put off to the next meeting while people discuss arguments for and against. At that meeting a vote is taken.

If the division is a close one, the question is again put off for further discussion; if the division is a wide one, the minority are asked if they will yield to the more general opinion, which they often, nay, most commonly do. If they refuse, the question is debated a third time, when, if the minority has not perceptibly grown, they always give way; though I believe there is some half-forgotten rule by which they might still carry it on further; but I say, what always happens is that they are convinced, not perhaps that their view is the wrong one, but that they cannot persuade or force the community to adopt it.

If the vote is still close, the rule is that “the question must lapse, and the majority, if so narrow, has to submit to sitting down under the status quo”, although in practice, the minority usually yields by this point.

This amounts to democracy in practice. In individual affairs people can do as they wish, and in social affairs “the majority must have their way” at the end of the day. This ran directly counter to an individualist type of anarchism then becoming stronger in the Socialist League, which maintained that no one could ever submit to the will of another without being a slave. Morris’s character puts this point of view to Hammond, “that every man should be quite in­dependent of every other, and that thus the tyranny of society should be abolished”, but the very notion only causes them both to burst out laughing. Hammond states that the only alternative to consensus-based majority rule would be some kind of a privileged class making decisions and having them enforced, whereas no one “needs an elaborate system of government, with its army, navy and police, to force him to give way to the will of the majority of his equals”.

Morris challenges his anarchist colleagues in “How The Change Came”, a chapter twice as long as any other in the book. The over­throw of the old system is related here by Hammond, who is another alter ego of the author’s: “in truth his face… seemed strangely familiar to me; as if I had seen it before—in a looking-glass it might be”. The revolutionary narrative Morris puts in his mouth is no sudden thunderclap brought about by the bombs and bullets of underground agitators, but a process of political change working itself upwards in plain sight, emerging historically out of the ruins of the society it brought down, with the revolution located over sixty years after News from Nowhere appeared.

The idea of a society of freedom and equality had emerged in the nineteenth century, but the power of the ruling class was so great “that some of those more enlightened men who were then called Socialists… shrunk from what seemed to them the barren task of preaching the realisation of a happy dream… had no faith in it”. So they believed “in their impatience and despair” that the system could be modified by something “which was known at the time as State Socialism” so that the working class “might have their slavery some­what ameliorated”. Some improvements were brought about, but “that instinct which produced the passion for freedom and equality” persisted among the workers, and remained unsatisfied.

The trade union movement had often fallen victim to corrupt leaders, we are told, but did succeed in winning improvements from employers and the state, and expanding the organisation of the workers. An economic crisis led to it demanding workers’ control over the economy, which was met by military repression. The response was a general strike, the workers boycotting the capitalist class while busily arranging distribution of goods for themselves.

now that the times called for immediate action, came forward the men capable of setting it on foot; and a new network of work­men’s associations grew up very speedily, whose avowed single object was the tiding over of the ship of the community into a simple condition of Communism; and as they practically undertook also the management of the ordinary labour-war, they soon became the mouthpiece and intermediary of the whole of the working classes…

Arresting their leaders proved pointless, “For they depended not on a carefully arranged centre… but on a huge mass of people in thorough sympathy with the movement”. All the while, the ideas and activity of socialists had been making themselves felt throughout the working class. Although most of the rank and file soldiers came over to the workers’ side, unofficial capitalist militias fought on, and capitalism was only beaten after a couple of years of bitter civil war. The workers were victorious because “the very conflict itself… developed the necessary talent amongst them”, experience which proved invaluable in laying the foundations of the new society.

Morris wrote when the world had little experience of actual workers’ revolution, beyond the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871. It is all the more remarkable, then, that the outline he sketches coincides to such an extent with revolutionary situations since. The general strike, the spread of grassroots workers’ councils, the dis­semination of socialist ideas among the working class, the army splitting along class lines, the tough challenges of definitive class struggle themselves equipping people to take over society: it comes close to a checklist of how revolutions happen, of what factors need to be present for them to win.

It wasn’t long after the final chapter appeared in The Commonweal that Morris left the Socialist League, having concluded that it had outlived its usefulness in spreading sane socialist politics. The main thing was to convince people on the ground that socialism was necessary and possible, he wrote in his parting shot: “When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles in practice.” In News from Nowhere Hammond looks back to Morris’s time, which is still very much our own time too: “knowledge, discontent, treachery, dis­appointment, ruin, misery, despair—those who worked for the change because they could see further than other people went through all these phases of suffering”. William wakes up in the end, of course, but far from cursing it all as only an idle dream, he wants others to see it so that it can become a vision. He remembers Ellen’s last look and the message it conveyed:

Go back and be the happier for having seen us, for having added a little hope to your struggle. Go on living while you may, striving, with whatsoever pain and labour needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness.

Socialist Classics: Robert Tressell, ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’

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.

Socialist Classics: William Morris, ‘Art and Socialism’

In December 2008 (Issue 34) Henry Gibson looked at a little-known work arguing that capitalism must be overthrown to build a creative society.

This pamphlet, published in 1884 and based on a lecture given that year, is rarely cited as required reading for revolutionaries. Indeed, its author frequently features in left-wing discourse more as a convenient proof that yes, socialists are very much in favour of culture and all that kind of stuff. Nodding in the direction of such an outstanding artist as William Morris is a lazy way of discharging our artistic obligations, if we feel we have any. Taking seriously what he actually had to say on the matter is rare enough.

Morris condemns the exclusion of the working class from the joys of art: “the greater part of the people have no share in Art—which as things now are must be kept in the hands of a few rich or well-to-do people”. There is nothing particularly unusual about this claim, and its result is usually no more than advocating increased public funding for galleries. But the argument moves on to a generalised critique of capitalism’s degradation of art:

All this I say is the result of the system that has trampled down Art, and exalted Commerce into a sacred religion… The poet, the artist, the man of science, is it not true that in their fresh and glorious days, when they are in the heyday of their faith and enthusiasm, they are thwarted at every turn by Commercial war, with its sneering question “Will it pay?”

The other side of this coin—and far more common in our own day—is the way capitalists sometimes patronise (in every sense of the word) the arts, with sponsorship of an exhibition or an award providing a quite cost-effective way of forging (again, in every sense of the word) a cuddly corporate image. In either case, the result is the same: free artistic enquiry and expression gets subordinated to the priorities of capital.

But what takes Morris beyond this partial criticism is an under­standing that art is not just poems, painting and pottery. Art is by right a natural element of human life and labour, and the fact that this natural element is suppressed by capitalism is the heart of the problem:

the cause of this famine of Art is that whilst people work throughout the civilized world as laboriously as ever they did, they have lost—in losing an Art which was done by and for the people—the natural solace of that labour; a solace which they once had, and always should have, the opportunity of express­ing their own thoughts to their fellows by means of that very labour… the world’s work, almost all of it—the work some share of which should have been the helpful companion of every man —has become even such a burden, which every man, if he could, would shake off.

A frightening amount of the work performed under capitalism is entirely pointless, producing “embarrassing or superfluous” luxury commodities. This branch of production has ballooned out of all proportion since Morris spoke, giving his comments a remarkably contemporary feel. The mechanisms needed to sell all this have expanded too: “the very capitalists know well that there is no genuine healthy demand for them, and they are compelled to foist them off on the public by stirring up a strange feverish desire for petty excitement, the outward token of which is known by the conventional name of fashion”.

Useless work cannot be other than frustrating and alienating work, a torture to mind and body. Morris’s simple claim is that “It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall be worth doing, and be of itself pleasant to do; and which should be done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious.” Reasonable and all as this claim is, “if Society would or could admit it, the face of the world would be changed… it is a direct challenge to the death to the present system of labour”.

The fascinating aspect of the argument here is the way Morris reverses the usual order of things. In his day and our own, socialists advocated and advocate an end to the capitalist system, after which a life of fulfilling labour would be introduced. But Morris raises the demand for fulfilling labour as an argument against capitalism in the here and now, rather than as a distant post-revolutionary prospect. It is not just an anticipated result of capitalism’s overthrow, but a battering ram to be used in its overthrow. Employing “the true doctrine that labour should be a real tangible blessing in itself” as a weapon against capitalism was something Marx had done years before, but that had been lost even to his followers.

The post-capitalist future Morris envisages also goes against the grain of much socialist thinking. “Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making”, he says in restating his claim, “or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers.” This is a socialism not oriented to production but to the liberation of labour. How many tons of pig iron are produced in the workers’ republic is not as important as how and why it is produced. If something cannot be produced in a manner worthy of true human dignity, it is better left unproduced.

Worthwhile work means nothing without worthwhile leisure. Morris argues

first that all men must work for some portion of the day, and secondly that they have a positive right to claim a respite from that work: the leisure they have a right to claim must be ample enough to allow them full rest of mind and body: a man must have time for serious individual thought, for imagination—for dreaming even—or the race of men will inevitably worsen. Even of the honourable and fitting work of which I have been speaking, which is a whole heaven asunder from the forced work of the Capitalist system, a man must not be asked to give more than his fair share…

For Morris, the defining characteristic of socialism is not any specific political or economic set-up, but the development of a rounded way of life, work and pleasure for all.

The pamphlet openly advocates revolution to achieve such a society, and masterfully answers the objection that revolution may be all very well in tyrannical dictatorships, but not where constitut­ional rights have been won:

To say the governing classes in England are not afraid of free­dom of speech, therefore let us abstain from speaking freely, is a strange paradox to me. Let us on the contrary press in through the breach which valiant men have made for us: if we hang back we make their labours, their sufferings, their deaths of no account.

Morris’s audience is not a working-class one: he addresses himself explicitly to “we of the middle classes, we the capitalists and their hangers-on”. This leads to an embarrassingly patronising moment where he advocates shared meals between masters and servants: “what an education it would be for the less refined members of a household to meet on common easy terms the more refined once a day, at least”.

But there is no political concession to the middle classes: what he recommends to sincere people of his own background is “renounc­ing our class… throw in your lot with that of the wage-slave… hope for the day when you will be compelled to be free!” The fighting movements of the working class are where the hope lies: “Chartism and Trades Unionism and Socialism… germs of the change which must be”. It is a change which necessitates the complete overthrow of capitalism, to create a free and artistic society from the word go: “the beginnings of Social Revolution must be the foundations of the re-building of the Art of the People, that is to say of the Pleasure of Life”.