“A scathing, humorous and urgent call to arms in the fight for socialism”

Workers today still face similar issues to those faced by the 'ragged-trousered philanthropists' at the beginning of the 20th century, photo Jorge Royan/CC

Workers today still face similar issues to those faced by the ‘ragged-trousered philanthropists’ at the beginning of the 20th century, photo Jorge Royan/CC   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Akila, Birmingham South East Socialist Party

‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Tressell, published in 1914, portrays with compassion the plight of the working class in the early 1900s. However, he does not idealise the working class either: the workmen in this tale are depicted ‘warts and all’. Mingled with empathy, the author’s rage at the inaction, ignorance, and complicity of some workers in the capitalist system is inescapable.

Although the settings alternate between various buildings where the workmen are labouring, much of the action takes place in a house called ‘The Cave’. Under the thumb of bosses Rushton & Co., the workmen renovating The Cave are under huge pressure to cut corners, scrimp and rush the job with as few hands as possible.

All this is to the detriment of their very survival; as soon as the job is complete, the impending ‘slaughter’ will leave them unemployed, semi-starved and desperately wandering the streets in search of work.

With few workplace rights, the workmen toil in dangerous conditions, afraid to speak out against their bullying employer for fear of getting the sack. They trudge through town between different jobs, doing hazardous work which frequently leads to collisions with the public. In such collisions, workmen are often left clinging on to the top of a ladder for dear life, if not killed.

Era of industrial struggle

The lead up to the Edwardian era, in which the narrative takes place, saw waves of industrial action. The working class, concentrated in the urban workplaces due to the industrial revolution, engaged in numerous strikes over pay, conditions and safety. Notable movements included the 1889 east London dock strike over pay, and the ‘Great Unrest’ of 1910 onwards in which mass industrial action took place. Tressell himself was a politically active member of the Social Democratic Federation, which described itself as ‘Marxist’.

Tressell’s workmen, however, are in a tangle of political confusion; some are at varying stages of political enlightenment, as their fellow worker, Frank Owen, attempts to convince them of the need for socialism. It is no easy task. Some are openly hostile, others wilfully ignorant, and many seemingly want to believe capitalism is the only way forward, perhaps afraid to catch a glimpse of their own collective power.

The Cave doubles as a mock lecture theatre in which Owen and others patiently overcome these obstacles. The socialists make clear the link between the crisis of capitalism and the destitution of the working class. For instance, they expand on the crisis of overproduction, the result of the capitalist profit drive where workers are paid so little that they cannot buy back what they produce and production routinely ceases, forcing them into unemployment.

In his ‘Great Oration’, Barrington, another converted socialist and a labourer, describes the abundance of wealth already produced by the working class, even under the chaos of capitalism, and explains how it could be fairly distributed for the benefit of all under socialism. To the amazement of some of the workmen, Owen explains the source of poverty through the ‘money trick’, where workers are paid less than the value of what they produce and capitalists keep the difference as profit.

Despite their destitution, some workmen cling to their deeply entrenched views: that capitalism cannot be overcome, that enjoyment of life is not for ‘the likes of them’, and that the running of society should be left to their ‘betters’.

The workmen frequently turn on each other, rather than the bosses, a problem caused by the divide-and-rule tactics of the capitalists. Workers are paid different rates to do the same job, with higher-paid workers often laid off with the slightest excuse, watched like a hawk by the bullying manager, Hunter. Yet as the story progresses, even the most stubborn workmen run out of ways to disagree with the arguments for socialism.

Although the conditions of the working class have improved since the book was published, many of us can still identify with the ‘struggle for life’ described in Tressell’s book. Tressell puts before us the possibility of a socialist society in which abundance, enjoyment of work and stability are available to all. More than just a brilliant work of fiction, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is a scathing, humorous and urgent call to arms in the fight for socialism. The burning issues of profiteering and unstable work have not gone away. With the rise of the gig economy and, more recently, the Covid pandemic, they have returned with a vengeance. This shows that Tressell’s call to arms is as urgent now as it was then.

  • ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Tressell, Grant Richards, available to buy online.