The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

June 2024 Forums General discussion The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Viewing 9 posts - 1 through 9 (of 9 total)
  • Author
    Posts
  • #252266
    rodshaw
    Participant

    I’ve belatedly got round to reading this book, and what a good read it is. I knew that it was vaguely supposed to be about socialism but I hadn’t realised how closely many of the ideas in it expressed by two of the main characters, Barrington and Frank Owen, reflect those of the WSM. I recommend the book to anyone who hasn’t read it.

    Socialism is first expounded by Owen in a series of informal talks he (somewhat reluctantly in some cases) gives to his fellow workers. By taking on the role of all capitalists and getting some workmates to represent all workers, he ably describes The Great Money Trick, whereby workers are paid less than the value of what they produce, and then have to use what they are paid to buy back those same products, which keeps them poor while making their employers rich – hence the philanthropy.

    Later in the book, Barrington takes over. He expounds a rather iffy idea of the role of the State, which would gradually take over more and more functions from the capitalists by buying them out, in the meantime competing with the rest. These functions would end up being run by workers for workers. An abundance would be produced, there would eventually be overproduction and this would lead to shorter working hours. Everyone would be paid the same and do 25 years’ service, and “those who do nothing shall have nothing”. There is no mention of “from each according to ability, to each according to need”.

    I daresay Tressell had at least partly in mind Marx’s description in The Communist Manifesto of a socialist transition period, with Tressell’s “money” being akin to labour vouchers, but there are no hints in the book that the State would disappear. It would become bigger and bigger until it ran everything. But this book was written before the Russian revolution (at which Tressell would no doubt have been aghast) completely distorted the idea of the State and of socialism itself, and Barrington’s idea of the State is more akin to a worker-organised administration rather than a coercive organ of the ruling class.

    The SPGB had been in existence for a few years when the book was written but Tressell doesn’t seem to have grasped the idea that with socialism there would no longer be a need for a State at all, or money for that matter.

    Barrington also suggests that socialism would be worldwide as and when other countries followed the same example, but he certainly imagines, contrary to what the WSM maintains, that it could be established in one country alone, and that until other countries followed suit, a defensive army and navy would need to be maintained, although in no circumstances would this be used for aggression.

    Tressell is scathing about reformism, the hypocrisy of religious institutions and the futility of charity, but is a bit mealy mouthed about core religious beliefs and thinks that a socialist society would be able to follow the basic tenets of Christianity. (In so far as these do not relate to belief in a god or afterlife, I suppose this could be partly true. And the point is made that there would be no discrimination – people who wanted to believe in their gods would be left to do so).

    At times Owen shows a contempt for working class ignorance, which leads for a while to despair – but he and Barrington end up remaining convinced that views can be changed and that socialism is possible.

    There are many dismal descriptions of destitution in the book, but also a great deal of humour. In particular, the description of the meeting to organise The Beano is hilarious.

    The objections to socialism raised by Owen and Barrington’s workmates are for the most part ably dealt with. They are the same as we still hear today – what about people who won’t work, what about human nature, you can’t live without money or leaders, etc. etc. What a pity we have to be addressing those same objections over 100 years on!

    #252294
    Moo
    Participant

    What a coincidence! I’ve just finished reading that (631 page) book for the first time, too.

    The names of the capitalists in that book are also hilarious (I might get some of these wrong): Mr. Rushton; Mr. Didlum; Mr. Sweater; Mr. Botchit; Mr. Smeariton; the Duke of D’enclosedland. My personal favourite is (if I remember correctly) one of the women who work for the charity: Mrs. N.B Seel.

    There’s an argument about whether the people of this land should be classed as subjects or citizens; however, they should be classed as mugs for supporting their own exploitation, like the workers of Mugsborough (the fictional town in the story).

    #252311
    twc
    Participant

    Actually, the charity lady is Mrs M.B. Sile — imbecile.

    This is satire. The lady is named, like many of Robert Tressell’s characters, for the role she plays under capitalism, here in an imbecilic charity.

      … a jumbled list of items of expenditure, subscriptions, donations, legacies, and collections, winding up with “the general summary showed a balance in hand of £178.4.6’. (They always kept a good balance in hand because of the Secretary’s salary and the rent of the offices.)

      After this very explicit financial statement came the most important part of the report: “Thanks are expressed to Sir Graball D’Encloseland for a donation of 2 guineas. Mrs Grosare, 1 guinea. Mrs Starvem, Hospital tickets. Lady Slumrent, letter of admission to Convalescent Home. Mrs Knobrane, 1 guinea. Mrs M.B. Sile, 1 guinea. Mrs M.T. Head, 1 guinea. Mrs Sledging, gifts of clothing”—and so on for another quarter of a column, the whole concluding with a vote of thanks to the Secretary and an urgent appeal to the charitable public for more funds to enable the Society to continue its noble work.

      Meantime, in spite of this and kindred organizations the conditions of the under-paid poverty stricken and unemployed workers remained the same. Although the people who got the grocery and coal orders, the “Nourishment”, and the cast-off clothes and boots, were very glad to have them, yet these things did far more harm than good. They humiliated, degraded and pauperized those who received them, and the existence of the societies prevented the problem being grappled with in a sane and practical manner. The people lacked the necessaries of life: the necessaries of life are produced by Work: these people were willing to work, but were prevented from doing so by the idiotic system of society which these “charitable” people are determined to do their best to perpetuate.

      If the people who expect to be praised and glorified for being charitable were never to give another farthing it would be far better for the industrious poor, because then the community as a whole would be compelled to deal with the absurd and unnecessary state of affairs that exists today—millions of people living and dying in wretchedness and poverty in an age when science and machinery have made it possible to produce such an abundance of everything that everyone might enjoy plenty and comfort. If it were not for all this so-called charity the starving unemployed men all over the country would demand to be allowed to work and produce the things they are perishing for want of, instead of being—as they are now—content to wear their masters’ cast-off clothing and to eat the crumbs that fall from his table.

    “Ragged trousered” is a euphemism for “ragged arsed” (= a “down-and-out”). The author’s pen name suggests the trestle on which painters stand when working overhead. The name of the protagonist, Frank Owen, hints at “utopian socialist” Robert Owen.

    The most accursed nickname is reserved for Mr Hunter, the general foreman or “manager” of Rushton [= rush it on ] & Co., Builders and Decorators. Behind his back, the men call him Nimrod — “the mighty hunter [= overseer] before the Lord [=Rushton]” (Genesis 10: 8-12).

    This extraordinary novel repays returning to from time to time.

    • This reply was modified 2 weeks, 2 days ago by twc.
    • This reply was modified 2 weeks, 2 days ago by twc.
    • This reply was modified 2 weeks, 2 days ago by twc.
    • This reply was modified 2 weeks, 2 days ago by twc.
    #252317
    rodshaw
    Participant

    Some of the conversations between the capitalists are hilarious too. They are as thick as two short planks, showing that, despite what some of the workers think, you don’t have to be clever to be rich.

    E.g. in a discussion on evolution: “Well, I ses, if it’s true that we’re hall descended from monkeys, I ses, I think your family must ‘ave left orf where mine begun”.

    And their childlike views on science: “If it was true that the world is spinnin’ round on its axle so quick as that, if a man started out from Calais to fly to Dover, by the time he got to England he’d find ‘imself in North America, or p’r’aps farther off still”.

    “And if it was true that the world goes round the sun at the rate they makes out, when a balloon went up, the earth would run away from it! They’d never be able to get it back again!”

    #252568
    twc
    Participant

    “Childlike views on science”

      “If it was true that the world is spinnin’ round on its axle so quick as that, if a man started out from Calais to fly to Dover, by the time he got to England he’d find ‘imself in North America, or p’r’aps farther off still”.

    Tressell paints these capitalists as buffoons. Nevertheless they are confronting the foundational contradiction of modern physics, here expressed in technical terms…

    Suppose that you dropped a ball from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, about 50 metres up.

    It takes 3 seconds for a ball to fall 50 m from rest (Galileo’s equations of falling bodies):

      ½ g t2 = 50 metres; or t = 3 seconds

    In those 3 seconds, a spinning Earth would move about 1 km to the East (geometry of a spherical Earth of radius R):

      R cosine(<Pisa’s latitude>) / 24 hours = 1 km in 3 seconds

    Now the Leaning Tower is connected to the Earth.

    But what about the falling ball? It is apparently unconnected to the Earth. Why doesn’t it hit the ground a kilometre to the West of the Leaning Tower?

    The contradictory answers…

    1. because the Earth doesn’t spin — Aristotle around 300 BCE;
    2. because an object in “free fall” is in reality “unfree” in the sense that it inherits a spinning Earth’s [tangential and rotational] motion — Galileo reached this conclusion around 1900 years later.

    Modern astronomical science had arisen out of the self-consciously anti-physical epicycles of Ptolemy and Copernicus through the proto-physical ellipses of Kepler’s planetary laws.

    Galileo’s investigations laid the solid physical foundations of modern astronomy, which Newton extended to the Solar System and beyond.

    Coriolis Effect

    Postscript. The Earth’s rotation has a minor influence on the path of a “free falling” ball — the “Coriolis effect” — which amounts to a 6 mm deflection in a 50 m fall at the latitude of Pisa; but that is another story.

    • This reply was modified 1 day, 2 hours ago by twc.
    • This reply was modified 1 day, 2 hours ago by twc.
    • This reply was modified 1 day, 2 hours ago by twc.
    • This reply was modified 1 day, 2 hours ago by twc.
    • This reply was modified 1 day, 2 hours ago by twc.
    • This reply was modified 1 day, 2 hours ago by twc.
    • This reply was modified 1 day, 2 hours ago by twc.
    #252579
    Moo
    Participant

    According to my uncle (who I borrowed the novel from), Robert Noonan (Tressell) was a member of the Social Democratic Federation (which the SPGB broke away from).

    #252586
    Bijou Drains
    Participant

    You might find FC Ball’s biography of Tressell “One of the Damned” very interesting.

    Although, I believe, some of the information Ball put forward is disputed, it is a very interesting read.

    There is also the biography of Tressell’s daughter, Tressell and the Late Kathleen: A Biographical Memoir and a Message of Hope, which adds even more information

    #252590
    imposs1904
    Participant

    There was also a book written in the early 2000s by an SWPer, entitled ‘Tressell, the Real Story of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’.

    There was critical review of said book in the December 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard:

    https://socialiststandardmyspace.blogspot.com/2006/02/robert-tressell-and-ragged-trousered.html

    #252602
    Moo
    Participant

    Thanks for the feedback, comrades.

Viewing 9 posts - 1 through 9 (of 9 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.