Socialist View, No. 15, Spring 2006
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
by Robert Tressell
Reviewed by Kate Rehilan
THE RAGGED Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell is an extraordinary book. Tressell recreates the fear, grinding poverty and deprivation that was a reality for the working class of Britain at the turn of the 20th century with conviction, humour and brutal honesty.
This absorbing book charts the daily life of the people of Mugsborough over the course of a year, a town steeped in the irrationality and hypocrisy of capitalism.
Robert Tressell was born in Dublin in 1870 to a middle class family. He moved to South Africa to work in the building industry before returning to England in 1901 to work as a painter in Hastings where life was precarious due to the constant threat of unemployment and were the working day was long and badly paid. He died in 1911 and was buried in a pauper's grave which was only marked with a tombstone in 1977.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was written in his spare time between 1906 - 1910 about the workers of the building and painting trades in the fictional town of Mugsborough. Tressell wrote about the other side of the greatest, wealthiest and most powerful empire the world had ever seen. He wrote about the abject poverty, poor housing, sickness and unemployment that were daily enemies of the working class.
This book is an ingenious satirical feat on how the working class are the true philanthropists and how they are unaware of their generosity to their "betters" through the trick of capitalism and so their fate is to remain ragged trousered. Tressell identifies the root cause of the horrendous poverty, inequality and injustice of Mugsborough to be that of capitalism and counter-poses the necessity for a socialist society.
This is accomplished by way of Frank Owen, the central character, a painter/decorator, a ragged trousered philanthropist and an ardent socialist who throughout the book educates and enlightens his fellow workmates on the ferocity of the profit-seeking capitalist system - a system where it "is necessary to be brutal, selfish and unfeeling" to succeed. This is contrasted to the virtues of socialism, a co-operative commonwealth where "no man will find profit in another's loss."
Through the injustices suffered by Owen and his fellow philanthropists the reader comes to realise the callousness of the unscrupulous, vicious foremen like "Misery" and "Hunter". Tressell explains the reign of terror prevailed on all jobs where foremen pushed for higher profits by making the men work faster, cut corners and lower standards through the threat of instant dismissal. He describes how they were always trying to exploit the poorest and most vunerable of workers by "charitably" employing them, but on a lower rate than the rest, whilst apprentices like the low paid "Bert" were driven like work horses.
With a taut descriptive style and exemplary use of satire, Tressell lifts the veil on the daily lives of workmen and their bosses, the anxieties, collisions, survival strategies, the humour, the gossip and the practical jokes and their endless battle with "time."
The book reveals a litany of never ending catastrophies for the working class who sweat, toil and scrape for up to 80 hours a week. The fruits of their labour give them nothing but semi-starvation, eviction and premature death. Tressell illuminates this poignantly when he tells of the suicide of a man, his wife and two children who took their own lives rather than suffer any longer. The blood smeared note left behind declared: "This is not my crime but society's."
Tressell, through Owen goes on to explain the root cause of poverty being the private monopoly of capitalism, landlordism and competing employers and dispels the myth that poverty is caused by drink, laziness and over-population as the establishment claims. This same establishment - or 40 thieves, as Tressell calls them - further their own private greed through apparently benevolent public measures, charity being the favourite. Tressell discloses the real hypocrisy and humiliation behind charity which only serves to pauperise those who receive it, and yet this same charity always "kept a good balance in hand because of the secretary's salary and the rent of the offices."
The book also satirises and savagely attacks the insincere psalm-singers, lay and clerical, from "Mrs Starvem" to "Lord Belcher" who use religion to promote laissez-faire capitalist values and acceptance by the working class of their own exploitation.
What enrages Owen throughout the novel is the resignation and acceptance by the working class of this brutal system that robs them daily of their dignity and labour. This is the lot of 67 year-old Jack Linden, who slogged all his life only to die a pauper and who believed that the pleasures of life "were not for the likes of 'im."
This book is a timeless masterpiece. Timeless, in that the cause of the poverty and exploitation of the working class in the 21st Century is caused by the same economic and political system which enslaved the workers of Mugsborough. The answer to ending that exploitation is still the same as that argued for by Tressell through his wonderfully crafted character Owen - socialism.
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