Bringing Down the House

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Review of 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists', Robert Tressell, Penguin £8.99

This book is said to have won Labour the 1945 general election and to have brought generations to socialism. So, when reading it, I wondered what the book would hold for me, already a socialist and first-time voter in the recent elections, proud never to have voted for the Labour Party.

Imagine a work lunch break. Someone borrows a few pieces of bread and some knives and lays them out as if to perform a magic trick. But they don't. Instead they use these inanimate objects to explain the greatest trick of all, the 'Great Money Trick', and to explain the fundamentals of capitalism - overproduction, surplus value, competition and the like - in a manner understandable by all. It seems an almost unachievable feat and yet, through the semi-autobiographical character of Frank Owen, a decorator for the firm of Rushton & Co in the town of Mugsborough, Tressell manages to do exactly that.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists tells a harsh tale of unemployment, poverty and starvation, made worse by the workers' constant justification of the profiteering of their capitalist bosses. Set in a different world - a world before welfare, a world before the NHS - there was still much that I could relate to and that was highly relevant in the world today.

The comparison between the two major parties - then the Liberals and the Tories - as being 'all alike', is a comparison millions make now between the Tories and New Labour. The early 1900s had their own 'reign of terror', not from the threat of Al Qaida, but the real and ever present 'terror of the sack'. There is also the same racist anti-immigration propaganda spouted by the mainsteam media: 'Easton was still reading the Obscurer: he was not about to understand exactly what the compiler of the figures was driving at... but he was conscious of a growing feeling of indignation and hatred against foreigners of every description, who were ruining this country...' Little wonder that the RMT union has added the book to its recommended reading list.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists reveals much about Tressell's frustrations with the period. He fails to explore how class struggle can change people's ideas and consciousness and, as a result, sometimes ends up sounding quite bitter towards the working class.

However, the book was written after terrible working class defeats and during a great downturn and was finished at the end of 1909. In addition, any bitterness is coupled with a deep understanding that 'from their infancy they had been trained to distrust their own intelligence and to leave the management of the affairs of the world... to their betters'.

Tressell understands that 'in order to do away with poverty, we must destroy the causes: to do away with the causes we must destroy the whole system.' The book is revolutionary in its core and although at some points it does pander to reformism, saying that socialism can be achieved 'by simply passing acts', this again must be understood in its context - just after the election of the first Labour MPs, a time when hopes were yet to be dashed. Although Owen doesn't build a union and there is little evidence of unionisation and the changes it can bring, the need for it is clearly shown.

Importantly, despite grim settings, the book remains humorous, pointing out that workers enjoy 'perfect Liberty...the right to choose freely which [they] will do-Submit or Starve. Eat dirt or eat nothing.' There is of course a third choice, the choice to fight back and revolt. He may write about a different generation, but he writes about the same system, a system that we are still fighting to change. It is this fight that The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists helps to inspire.