By Dave Harker
TUC History Online
Robert Tressell 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' (RTP) is a very readable account of how capitalism operates in the workplace, but in some ways it is also a very contradictory book. It rarely lets the bosses and 'Idlers' off the hook, yet the nearest thing to a working-class hero, Frank Owen, shows little faith in winning economic reforms through collective action. It shows that some workers get 'some of their own back', some of the time, but marginalizes trade unions. However, it demonstrates that do-it-yourself reforms are temporary, and that individual workers are powerless against the bosses, so it provides an excellent case for organising against capitalist exploitation, which is why it has been part of many trade union activists' tool-kits for almost a century.
Towards the end of the book Owen hands over the baton to the middle-class socialist, George Barrington. He has a plan: 'you must fill the House of Commons with Revolutionary socialists'. Yet he assumes that the state is a neutral machine whose drivers will be allowed to steer society towards socialism, unmolested by capitalists, their hangers-on, the armed forces, the judiciary and the civil service, not to mention rival imperial powers. Of course, we have seen this plan fail - above all in Chile in the early 1970s. Yet while RTP was close to the cutting edge of British socialist thought when it was completed in 1910, it could not have been a fully Marxist novel, because by then Marxism had hardly touched the British working class. Its politics wobble between reform and revolution, but it contains some key Marxist ideas. The 'Great Money Trick', above all, has been put to work by generations of socialists to illustrate why we need to 'Blame the System', and to encourage us to build the kind of party needed to get rid of it altogether.
In the early 1930s a handful of socialists in the Labour Party thought about building a socialist alternative, but most of them stayed. However, especially after Hitler came to power in 1933, many other socialists joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. In 1935, as Stalin was moving right towards a Popular Front perspective, The Richards Press reissued the 1914 edition of RTP. Then, in 1940, during World War 2, Penguin published a sixpenny paperback of the 1918 edition. From 1941, after Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and Russia joined the Allies, Communists pushed the Penguin edition, especially in the armed forces and the trade unions. Ironically, what was left of its socialist content contributed to Labour's landslide victory in 1945, and to the 1947-8 alliance with US imperialism which is still with us today. Eventually, in 1955, just before Stalin's crimes were made public, and thanks to Fred Ball and Jack Beeching, the reconstructed 'complete' edition appeared from the Communist Party publisher, Lawrence & Wishart. A paperback followed in 1965. To date RTP has sold well over a million copies in more than one hundred printings and at least six languages, and it continues to sell very well indeed.
Most of the negative outbursts about workers in RTP do not come from the socialists, Owen and Barrington. Their arguments with workmates are reported as dialogues, and, sometimes, as bitter and sarcastic monologues. But often, especially after they win the argument but lose the vote, it is the narrative voice which 'reports' their thought processes as they deal with their frustrations. In the 1920s the Russian literary theorist, Valentin Volosinov, argued that this technique was an ideal way of representing 'class struggle in the head.' But whose heads? The narrative voice addresses not Owen and Barrington, but us, the readers, so we, too, are involved in the ideological struggle, and are encouraged to take sides all the time.
Dave is the author of 'TRESSELL: The real story of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' (London: Zed Books, June 2003. Paperback: £12.99/$25.00; ISBN 1 84277 385 2. Hardback: £50.00/$75.00; ISBN 1 84277 384 4).
See RTP on YouTube HERE.