Monday, 27 January 2020

Tressell, Marxism and Hope: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists today - Dave Harker (2001)

Tressell, Marxism and Hope: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists today
Written By: Dave Harker
Date: October 2001
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 13: Autumn 2001  

Where do radicalising workers get their Marxist ideas from? In the UK, Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is often seen as part of the answer. It has been published over eighty times. Its sales cannot be under half a million. It has been adapted for the stage at least eight times, and four playscripts have been published. It has appeared in Russian (twice), German (twice), Dutch, Czech, Bulgarian and Japanese, and, reportedly, in Polish, Rumanian and Swahili. Why?

On the face of it, the book belongs to periods of working-class defeat. It was written in 1907-1909, and first published in 1914, butchered by a Fabian editor, for a middle-class audience. It sold 500 copies a week for months after the defeat of the General Strike, and 200 a week throughout the Depression. UK sales peaked as workers’ struggles diminished in the late 1970s, during and after the Great Strike of 1984-1985, and during the collapse of the Stalinist states in 1989-1992. It was published in Germany in 1925 after the defeat of the Revolution, and in Dutch in 1933 after Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. So, what’s in it for working-class militants?

Despite names like Crass and Belcher, and a political set-up in Mugsborough which appears unshakeable, what is crucial is the book’s highly contradictory realism. Tressell dramatised exploitation at the point of production in ‘The Great Money Trick’; but he often blamed the victims as a well as ‘the system’. He drew on real Hastings stories, but left out or marginalised trade unions, radical traditions and socialist organisations – hope, in fact - in order to focus on the key problem, as he saw it, inside workers’ heads. Such abstract propagandism was in the SDF, SLP and SPGB traditions - if you change the ideas in workers’ heads by reasoning, they will (somehow) change the world - but the narrative voice is crucial. It’s as though class struggle, in Volosinov’s sense, had been beaten back into Owen and Barrington’s heads; and so, when the going gets tough, sophisticated despair seems ready to take over from hope.

In 1914 the mediated book ended in despair; but it was fought over. In 1916-1917 there was a demand for a cheap edition from revolutionary syndicalists, especially in Glasgow and London, and one appeared, butchered again, in 1918. Then, in 1927, the Communist Tom Thomas adapted the story for the stage, gave it a positive ending and met success with Labour and trade union audiences. The Third Period – when Communists were persuaded to see reformist socialist parties as enemies – put paid to that initiative. But radical workers, especially on building sites, never let the book go; and in the mid-1930s the Communists had to run to catch up, via the Popular Front. During WW2, Penguin sold tens of thousands of copies, which were pushed by Communists and other socialists in the forces. Yet the Labour landslide in 1945 demonstrated who had won the argument.

The Communist leadership was lost politically, but their response to ’45 and the Cold War was partly cultural: ‘The American threat to British Culture’. After turning down the complete manuscript in 1948, Lawrence & Wishart published it in 1955. It seemed to fit the left-nationalist line on ‘Britain’s Culture Heritage’, even though it had been written by an Irish anti-imperialist and internationalist! It was also, apparently, prefigurative, developing on classic realism and moving towards ‘Socialist Realism’. In 1956 Khruschev made some of the realities of the Stalinist past inescapable; yet, once again, socialist workers took the book to their hearts, and passed it on, and it sold in ever greater quantities, especially after the Granada paperback appeared in 1965.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is not a Marxist book, but it was influenced by aspects of Marxism, and its contradictory character and innovative method can have contradictory effects. You can read the book as an elitist, deeply pessimistic, left-reformist book (in Labour, Centrist or Stalinist variations). Or you can argue that Tressel’s solution – sending ‘revolutionaries’ to Parliament – hasn’t been tried yet in the UK, and support the Socialist Alliance and SSP. But can you do both? I think the effort to perform that feat is a key element in the book’s continued appeal, since it encapsulates the developing political contradiction between reform and revolution inside radicalising workers’ heads.
Help me test these ideas. Send me real stories about how you came across this book, what it meant to you, and, above all, what it encouraged you to do.

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