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The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: laying bare the system

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The author of a new book about the left wing classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists explains the novel's appeal
Issue 1872

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is no ordinary novel.

It’s been in print for 90 years, been translated into at least six languages and sold well over a million copies. It gets passed from generation to generation. It has been read by tens of millions of workers and taken to their hearts.

Robert Tressell was born in Dublin in 1870. By May 1902 he had arrived in Hastings, where he worked as a low paid house painter.

He became politically focused by the 1906 general election.

A few of the newly formed Labour Party’s candidates became MPs. Labour separated economics (the union’s business) and politics (that’s for parliament), and they believed that the state was neutral.

Tressell scorned such reformism. So, late in 1906, he became a founder member of the Hastings branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), which was influenced by Marxism.

Tressell kept a ‘diary’ of the arguments he was involved in, and began writing them up.

The resulting novel describes how socialist activists can feel on a bad day, going over lost arguments in their head.

The Philanthropists’ working class hero, Frank Owen, is clear that the fundamental problem is the ‘present system – competition, capitalism’ and that ‘it’s no good tinkering at it.

‘There’s only one thing to be done with it and that is to smash it up and have a different system altogether.’

Owen demonstrates how the ‘system’ works but he offers no strategy, or even a set of tactics, about what should be done.

Eventually, he takes a back seat and a middle class socialist type, Barrington, takes the lead.

Barrington has a strategy – ‘you must fill the House of Commons with Revolutionary Socialists’. He doesn’t understand that the state is part of the capitalist system.

The book is hard on workers and how easily they can be influenced by the ruling class. Yet at the same time, the book never lets the ‘idlers’ off the hook, or stops criticising the capitalist system.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was finished by 1910 and it was at the cutting edge of British socialism. Then, in 1911, Tressell died.

The first edition of the novel was published in 1914 and then in 1918, a cheaper, thinner version was published which was a great success with radicalised workers.

It has been reissued many times since, and adapted successfully for the stage.

In the 21st century the book still sells around 5,000 a year and second-hand copies are scarce because so few people want to part with the book.

The book’s critique of the system will remain relevant as long as the system remains in place and the idlers at the top of society continue to benefit.

MY DAD used to read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to me at night when I was a kid.

He was a cloth looker in a textile factory. We lived in a mill town in Lancashire.

During the 1930s he was blacklisted as a union activist and never got work.

He was in the Communist Party but later joined Labour and became a councillor, but he was always on the left.

I think he saw reading the book to me as part of handing down a tradition of working class activism.

When he first read it to me, it taught me that life isn’t fair. But I reread it when I was older and realised that the unfairness was a class antagonism in society.

The book explains this in a way you don’t need a university education to understand.’
RITA McLOUGHLIN, GMB union activist and socialist, Manchester

Tressell: The Real Story of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Dave Harker, is published by Zed Books, priced £12.99

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