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Robert Tressell and the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Most readers of the Socialist Standard will have at least heard about The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell. Now there's a book about the book: Tressell, the Real Story of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Dave Harker, just published by Zed Books.

Tressell was the pen-name of Robert Noonan, a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in the English South coast town of Hastings before the first world war from 1905 to 1910. His book is the story covering a period of just over a year of a group of painters and decorators, one of whom is a Socialist but who is continually frustrated by the indifference and support for capitalism of his fellow workers. It has appealed to generations of working-class activists, including members of the Socialist Party, but of course people of different political persuasions have read different things into it.

Harker himself writes as a thinly disguised SWPer, though he seems fascinated by the attitude of the old Communist Party towards the book. Basically, they didn't like it too much since, as a member of the SDF (from which the SPGB sprang in 1904), Tressell/Noonan's approach was considered too "sectarian", too "abstract propagandist". This was because he was trying to convince his fellow workers by reasoned argument rather than "giving them a lead" in the trade union struggle or in the struggle for reforms. In short, because he wasn't a Leninist. But they could not dismiss the book entirely as it was genuinely popular amongst workers, especially those who found themselves in the same position and meeting the same response as Owen, the book's Socialist. And Tressell was assumed to be a working man, so that the book could be seen as an example of "proletarian literature" (actually, although he had to work as a painter and decorator and died in poverty, he was not from a working-class background but the illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish knight).

Before WW2 some CP actors did perform a stage version, but changed the book's basic message into a plea for mere trade-unionism. It was not until after the war that the CP decided to fully appropriate the book's heritage, after being instructed by Moscow to present the case for Russian-style state capitalism in national(istic) terms. Tressell was praised for being an English Socialist (as at the same time, and for the same reason, was William Morris). Still, perhaps we shouldn't look a gift-horse in the mouth since one result was the publication of an unexpurgated edition in 1955 (previous editions had been of the severely truncated original 1914 version). Even so, as Harker records, Harry Pollitt, in an article on the new edition, critised Owen as "sectarian", i. e., issued a warning that CP members were not to accept the political views expressed in the book.

Because of the CP's earlier reluctence, the inter-war editions of the book were sponsored by the "Labour Movement", in particular by the building workers' unions. In 1927 an edition appeared with a preface by George Hicks, then General Secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers and TUC President for that year. Hicks, as Harker reminds readers more than once, had been a member of the SPGB (he had in fact been one of the founder members but left after a few years to pursue a trade union career: he ended up a Labour MP and a junior minister in the war-time coalition government). Another name that frequently crops up in Harker's book is CP full-timer and the party's "proletarian philosopher", TA Jackson, who was in fact more pro the book than most CPers. He was also, as Harker again reminds readers more than once, a former SPGB member. Harker refers to him as "former SPGB General Secretary", as indeed he was if only for a short time and in an acting capacity -- not that the general secretary of the SPGB is anything like the General Secretary of the CP, ie a Leader.

During WW2 Penguins produced a cheap edition for the forces and it is one of the books credited with helping to win over people to vote Labour in 1945. The book itself is not pro-Labour (the Labour Party existed when the book was written but in it Tressel/Noonan talks of sending "revolutionary socialists" not Labourites to parliament). By the 1970s, however, the Labour Party did try to latch on to the book in a serious way. Kinnock wrote a preface to a new edition, but the text itself could not be changed. When converted into a play, however, it could be. One such "adaptation" was made by Stephen Lowe in 1978.

In the book, there is an election in which the two candidates are Sir Graball D'Encloseland (Tory) and Mr Adam Sweater (Liberal); Owen urges his fellow-workers to abstain and vote for neither, just as the SPGB would have done. In the play there is also an election, but this time there is no Liberal candidate only Sir Graball and a possible Labour candidate. Here's how Harker describes the ending of Lowe's play:

"Towards the end he [Harlow] announces: 'We're 'aving that public meeting, now, top o' the hill. 'Cos if we get enough support, London say they may put up a Labour man. There's still time'. Owen demurs: 'It's a dead end'. 'If we go into their game, if we enter the House of Parliament on the back of the Unions, they'll just buy us off. We've got to hold out for the works, not go for the crumbs. Even if we force capitalism to eliminate poverty completely, the cancer will still be in the air. Dog will eat dog. We've got to tear it out by the roots, and build a new world'. Harlow persists: 'Are you coming with us or what?" 'Owen raises the banner, on which is written Workers Unite'. 'They hold the tableau as the light builds to full. Blackout.'"

When members of our West London branch went to see this play (it's not the only stage version) in 1991, we were outraged at this ending, depicting as it did Owen as urging a Labour vote as the lesser evil to the Tories. We couldn't protest at this travesty in the auditorium, but two members ensured that anyone within earshot heard what they, as revolutionary socialists, thought about this as the audience left. Poetic justice was done when Labour didn't win the 1992 election.

Interestingly enough, Noonan's daughter, who was discovered in the mid-1960s to be still alive, stated, Harker records, that "her father's socialism was not that of the Labour Party, or that of Russian communism. 'Neither is the real thing'".

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was also popular amongst SPGB members and recommended by members to each other. Our criticism of its politics was the opposite to that of the CP: that it was a bit reformist (particularly objected to was the support of the SDF's policy of a Citizen Army). A review of the 1955 edition in the Socialist Standard of December that year commented:

"[Noonan's] Socialism was the hopeful reformism of the Social Democratic Federation. It would, however in this writer's view, at any rate be churlish to make that a major criticism. Here was a man who lived, suffered and was angry, would that there were many, many more."

As befits a member of the SWP, Harker has it in for the SPGB. Commenting on our formation, he says: "In 1904 another 140 dissidents were squeezed out of the SDF, but, sadly, rather than join the SLP they formed the even more sectarian Socialist Party of Great Britain". (Actually, by the SWP's criterion of "sectarian", the SLP was the more sectarian in that it did not allow its members to hold trade union office whereas the SPGB did.)

While he mentions (as noted, more than once) that Hicks and Jackson were ex-SPGBers he appears to be unaware that the Robert Barltrop he accuses of being one of a number of "UK intellectuals" who "patronised" The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, is also an ex-SPGBer, and was in fact a party member at the time he wrote the passage Harker criticises. In his book on Jack London (1978), Barltrop, after describing The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as "the most remarkable of all books about working-class life", had merely commented that Tressell was not a good writer. Hardly enough to merit the insult of being called an "intellectual".

While Harker reproduces all sorts of comments and reviews, he failed to track down the above review in the December 1955 Socialist Standard (by Barltrop in fact) nor an earlier one in November 1953. This is strange, as in an earlier statement announcing his book, Harker had criticised Noonan's policies for being too similar to the SPGB's:

"He drew on real Hastings stories, but left out or marginalized 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".

In view of this, he might have been expected to be interested in what the SPGB and SPGB members over the years thought about the book. Apparently not. Instead we are told that Tony Cliff (who probably never read the book) once indicated that he thought it was a useful way of getting to talk (down) to building workers. At one point, he criticises Eric Heffer (who later became a Labour MP) for staying with Labour in 1962--without seeming to realise that Cliff too remained a member of the Labour Party for a further six years (and urged workers to vote Labour until the 1990s).

Having said this, the book, for all its faults, will have to be read by anyone interested in Tressell and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.