The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

I wonder how many people have actually read Robert Tressell's once notorious book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists these days. I recently downloaded it as an ebook from the Gutenberg website, and found it an interesting read, if a bit of a slog - it is quite a long book.

It was once famous as a Socialist tract: written in 1910 but not published (and then in a truncated version) until 1914, after the author's death. It describes a year in the lives of workers for a house-painting firm in the fictional town of Mugsborough: though paid starvation wages and often out of work (they are employed on a casual basis, so no work, no pay) and forced to skimp their work to maximise their employer's profits, they accept that their lives will be hard and scorn the opinion of one of their number who frequently points out that they are being exploited for the profit of people who do no actual work. The Philanthropists of the ironic title are the workers themselves, because their efforts make money for their masters and not themselves.

As a description of working conditions in 1910, and the sheer dishonesty of the employers (charging for three coats of paint but only applying two, and pressuring the men to skimp on preparation, is the least of it) it is alarming: even more so the acceptance by the workers that their employers are their 'betters', and that their children will also suffer a hard life and should not expect better.

One of the protagonists details a vision of Socialism as the only solution - Government ownership of everything, payment in paper (at this time all coinage was metal) for work done and not for 'investment', and the need to avoid private ownership of property: the workers reject the concept as outrageous, feeling - quite illogically - that rich people have a right to be rich.

The book is well written, with a good deal of sardonic humour: but from the literary view it suffers from an almost complete absence of plot and a good deal of repetition to make its points. The working conditions it describes have largely disappeared, in particular the deference of the workers to their employers - two World Wars, a major Depression, and the social explosion of the 1960s were all things Tressell could never have anticipated.

And of course no-one would treat workers like that today... Just ask any illegal immigrant.

Posted: Tue - November 25, 2008 at 10:07 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM