Against Capitalism and Empire: Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

This article originally appeared in the newsprint publication, Constructing Connections: Fiction, Art and Life, published by Tressell Noonan Associates in 2017.  My thanks to the editor, Paul Rooney, for permission to reprint it here.

A unique expression of working-class culture, Robert Tressell’s 1914 novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, still occupies a marginal position within the field of literary studies.  A tale of painters and decorators who are forced, daily, to compete with one another in an economic race to the bottom, “the painters’ bible” as the novel became known, was quickly recognised as an important radical, even insurgent text.  Circulated among workers in Belfast, Dublin, Liverpool and Glasgow upon its first publication, it motivated and inspired labour organization in these and other cities in Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. Focussed on the grinding misery of working-class existence, it presents a troubling picture of the ruthlessness and relentlessness of capitalism.  Read and re-read by workers, many of whom were given copies by their trade unions at the beginning of their apprenticeships, it assumed a central position as a foundational text of modern class struggle. With its importance relayed to workers via these channels, rather than through the conventional academic and critical spheres that traditionally confer literary works with status and authority, it became a classic of the socialist literary canon. With millions of copies produced during 117 English-language printings between 1914 and the present, it has also been translated into Chinese, Farsi, Russian, Dutch, Bulgarian, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Polish, Slovak, Czech and Spanish.

The novel’s graphic descriptions of poverty, along with its searing portrayals of working-class families enduring hunger and even starvation, are accompanied by Tressell’s repeated criticisms of British imperialism: his narrative of working-class distress opens by subverting James Thomson’s 1740 colonialist anthem, Rule Britannia, declaring, with firm irony, that “Britons never shall be slaves”.  Asking the reader to reflect upon the inherent contradiction of imperialism’s claim to liberate its subjects, Tressell highlights the repressive fusion of capitalist economics and imperialist expansion, both at home and in the colonies. The novel is particularly scathing of British colonial policy in Ireland where he warns the reader that  British policy deliberately “exterminated” four million peasants during the Irish Holocaust of the 1840s and 1850s (referred to, misleadingly, as the “potato famine”).  Tressell warns that the next logical step is for such genocidal policies to be implemented in England, where the ruling class has already convinced itself that “half of this country ought to be exterminated as well.”

Thoroughly politicized and influenced by Karl Marx’s analyses of capitalism, the novel foregrounds the crises and traumas experienced by Edwardian workers, and its subtitle, Being the Story of Twelve Months in Hell, Told by One of the Damned, underlines Tressell’s concern with the unremitting mobilisation of capital against the interests of the working poor.  Its infliction of physical, psychological and economic shocks against workers is integrated into the text and, in turn, this repeatedly disrupts the novel’s narrative, exposing the relationship between these pressures and the system that generates them.  Its disrupted and disruptive aesthetic captures a desolate, impoverished world that is “falling to pieces and crumbling away” around the working-class characters who inhabit it.

Its significance lies in its uncompromising realism because, unlike earlier ‘condition of England’ fictions (such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South [1855] and Mary Barton [1848], and Charles Dickens’ Hard Times [1854]), it rejects the formal and long-standing conventions of the nineteenth-century novel.  As Gary Day has emphasized, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists does not rely on sentimentalism or romance, as Tressell denied the reassuring closures that characterized bourgeois fiction – conclusions that reflected these authors’ affiliation with liberal reformism.  Instead, he deployed fiction as a means of confronting the economic violence lying beneath the surface of bourgeois normality.

Composed amid the uncertainty that marked working class experience at the beginning of the twentieth century, the novel is ideologically precise and politically assertive in its descriptions and analyses of class violence.  Attempting to educate English workers who, Tressell found, were either thoroughly terrorized or desensitized by the combined violence and authority of capitalism and the state, his novel has traditionally been regarded as a specifically English expression of working-class identity rather than the product of an internationalist, anticolonial consciousness.  In his introduction to the 1965 edition, Alan Sillitoe described it as “the first great English novel about the class war” and in 1969 the Marxist critic, Jack Mitchell, praised it as “one of the greatest tradition-breakers in the English novel”.

Tressell’s illustrations of unstable living conditions, the impact of poverty upon mental health and the workers’ ceaseless struggles with the ever-present threat of starvation led its first publisher, Grant Richards (who also published James Joyce’s Dubliners in the same year), to describe it as a “damnably subversive” work, but one that was “extraordinarily real”. Cautiously, Richards issued the novel in a very abridged form and the uncensored version was not published until it was issued by Lawrence and Wishart, the publishing house of the Communist Party of Great Britain, in 1955.  George Orwell, reviewing a new edition of the still-abridged work in 1946 (the novel had by now been reissued thirty-two times since its original publication), praised its realism but also criticized what he regarded as its political naivety.  Its relevance, he insisted, lay in the descriptive power of its compelling exploration of the proletariat’s bleak and – for middle class readers, at least – unimaginable working conditions.  Its importance, he believed, lay in its documentation of the “unhonoured” or forgotten radicals whose efforts finally crystallized in the popular British socialism of the 1940s.

The Colonial Context

Born Robert Croker in Dublin in 1870, Robert Tressell adopted his mother’s surname, Noonan.  He became a transnational migrant in his teens, leaving Ireland for Liverpool, which he left after serving six months’ imprisonment for theft in 1890.  Emigrating to South Africa, he learned his trade as a decorator, rising to foreman in Johannesburg.  Here he became involved in trade unionism, writing political pamphlets and joining the International Independent Labour Party in 1899.  His socialist beliefs were aligned to his anticolonial politics and, as an Irish republican, he served on the Transvaal Executive of the Centennial of 1798 Committee, a front organization of the clandestine and revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).  This body linked the Boers directly to militant Irish anti-imperialism and Noonan sat on its committee alongside the future president of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, and the chemist and mineral assessor, John MacBride, who would be executed for his part in leading the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.  Upon the outbreak of the Boer War, the Transvaal 1798 Committee organized the Irish Transvaal Brigade, which Mac Bride led into battle against the British army.

Noonan left the organisation after hostilities commenced and returned to England, but his literary writing remained framed by this experience of imperialism. Living in Hastings from 1902, he joined the Social Democratic Federation, writing pamphlets and election literature for his local branch, but his daughter, Kathleen, recalled his increasing frustration with the conservatism of English workers.  Five years later, in 1907, amid acute unemployment and deprivation in the city, he began writing The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in response to the Liberal government’s application of conservative social policies.  The novel was completed in 1910, when his already ailing health quickly deteriorated and, in February 1911, three years before the publication of his novel, Robert Noonan died in Liverpool from tuberculosis while preparing to emigrate, once more, to Canada.

Socialism

Informed by a combination of socialist and anticolonial ideas, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists conveys the suffering endured by the marginalized working poor of England.  Upon its publication, it articulated experiences that, as Orwell noted, were ignored in mainstream English fiction, explaining to its readers how, in Britain, “the wolves (i.e., capitalists) have an easy prey.” Conveying the real, material consequences of life under capitalism, it portrays working class experience of modernity as a prolonged encounter with endless cycles of economic crisis and stagnation. In doing so the novel fulfils Raymond Williams’ categorization of progressive art as that which reflects contemporary society’s “structure of feeling”.

In The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, we find an expression of anticolonial politics in combination with militant, revolutionary socialism.  Through this radical narrative, Tressell, or Noonan, counters bourgeois “normality” and its assertion that such suffering, injustices and violence are normal, natural or inevitable phenomena. Rather than drawing on the leisured experiences of the inhabitants of Pimlico or Regent’s Park that qualified as Bloomsbury modernism.  In his presentation of the chaotic and traumatic experiences of working class life, Tressell concentrates on the resistant consciousness of his protagonist, the alienated decorator and radical socialist, Frank Owen.  Refusing to comply with the violence that surrounds him and his fellow workers, Owen will not acquiesce in the dehumanizing structures and practices of power.  The novel’s structural disjointedness and lack of pattern, therefore, are not aesthetic insufficiencies, but crucial reflections of the chaos of working-class experience.  Through these interruptions, Tressell worked the structural violence of capitalism into a disordered but realistic and aesthetically productive fiction.  Its directness draws from its repetitiveness, which Grant Allen excised from the original edition, yet it is precisely this fragmentary aesthetic that repeats the author’s (and his characters’) frustration, anger and despair.

The novel opens with Owen explaining to his fellow-decorators that the denial of pleasure is key to the normalisation of repression:

“What I call poverty is when people are not able to secure for themselves all the benefits of civilization; the necessaries, comforts, pleasures and refinements of life, leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food.”

Key to the containment of the proletariat is capitalism’s refusal to allow the working class any access to leisure and culture.  The prevention of these enjoyments produces the constant tension upon which the novel hinges, ensuring that “the system which produces luxury, refinement and culture for a few… condemns the majority to a lifelong struggle with adversity, and many thousands to hunger and rags”.  This reality for the majority, Tressell repeats throughout the novel, “has made the world into a hell” and the challenge that he saw facing the left was its responsibility to radicalize the working-class and convince it of the artificiality of capitalism’s “fair outward appearance”. This problem is directly confronted in his documentation of life in Mugsborough, the fictional town modelled on Hastings, in which the novel is set.  Its very revealing name nods to the establishment’s duping of the working class, a feat that is achieved with the help of the media, which circulates newspapers entitled, tellingly, The Obscurer and the Daily Chloroform.

A self-reflexive work of political fiction, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists relays the experience of poverty, desperation, deprivation and hunger – realities that these publications deny and conceal.  It explains the material consequences of the operation of the capitalist system and its effects upon those who are on the receiving end of the bourgeoisie’s “great money trick.”  Countering the liberal calls for a gradualist version of socialism voiced by Tressell’s contemporaries, the Fabian socialists, with a series of grimly descriptive episodes, the novel documented the direct violence of capitalism and the intensity of the misery that it instils in its victims –  a form of structural violence from which, as Tressell reveals on many occasions throughout this story, not even children are spared.

In the novel’s preface, Tressell explained why he decided to use fiction as a means of conveying the realities of poverty, suffering and class violence in early twentieth-century England:

“I designed to show the conditions relating 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. I intended to explain what Socialists understand by the word ‘poverty’: to define the Socialist theory of the causes of poverty, and to explain how Socialists propose to abolish poverty.”

A unique text, a key example of radical, working-class writing and a profoundly important work of insurgent literature, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists still amplifies socialism’s revolutionary tendencies today.  It successfully popularized socialist doctrine by documenting capitalism’s harmful practices, its prolongation of injustice and the violent ways in which it denies human potential.  The novel’s intensive, class-focussed realism is key to how it has conveyed these problems to generations of readers, and the conditions of working class poverty and desperation that it describes continue to remain strikingly familiar.  This novel still speaks to the exploited, to the unemployed and to people working on zero-hour contracts.  Its relevance is undiminished in a world in which the monopolization of resources and their concentration in the hands of wealthy and powerful élites intensifies without pause.  Now that imperialist governments have, since 2003, revived the practice of direct military occupation, it also speaks to the colonized and to those who have been dispossessed and exiled by neoliberal capitalism, like the immigrants and economic refugees whom Tressell defended in his novel.  It speaks to the many people in this country today who are forced like those who died in the Grenfell fire, to live in unregulated and hazardously dangerous conditions in rented properties that mirror the dilapidated housing in which many of the novel’s scenes are set.  For these reasons, in our age of austerity, inequality, imperial occupations, seemingly endless economic recession and ongoing economic exploitation, Robert Tressell’s tale remains as relevant to readers today as it did to those who encountered it upon its first publication in 1914.  As he concluded, people who are organized, even in what may appear to be hopeless situations, can work together in solidarity to establish a new and better world.  This, Tressell shows us in the final lines of his novel, can be accomplished by establishing what he described as “the glorious fabric of the Co-operative Commonwealth,” where “brotherhood, goodwill and joy” will replace misery, greed and despair – the keynote realities of modern capitalism.

 

The full PDF of Constructing Connections: Fiction, Art and Life, is available here:

Constructing Connections: Fiction, Art and Life