A Hundred Years of Philanthropy: Robert Tressell in the New World 1

A Hundred Years of Philanthropy: Robert Tressell in the New World

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2014 marks the hundred-year anniversary of more than just the Great War. In April 1914, before the Archduke Franz Ferdinand misplaced some important pieces of his neck in a vague corner of Central Europe, a book was published in the UK that would come to be known as the ‘Socialist Bible’: a benchmark of working-class literature, a paperweight for countless Labour ministers’ desks and a slow-burning success for an entire century. Robert Tressell (pseudonym for painter-decorator Robert Noonan) never lived to see the success of his classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but its influence not just on the working men who first passed it around the factory floor but on later novelists (from George Orwell to Alan Sillitoe) and on generations of political thinkers has been exponential. The drive of the novel is inescapably direct; in fact, it slaps the reader repeatedly across the face. As Noonan’s labourer protagonists scrimp, scamp and squirm under the impossible pressures of their poverty and the despotic grip of their superiors, one man (a mirror of Noonan himself) tries in vain to convince his comrades of an alternative life: a life of socialism. Unfortunately, Noonan’s dream of a ‘co-operative commonwealth’ came true in the form of the October Revolution and the steady construction of the most disastrous social experiment of recent memory. The collapse of the USSR has closed the possibility of Communism in the West, and following the brutality of Lenin’s great failure, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists demands re-examination. It is a book that continues to inspire students and trade unionists all over the country, but the question is: should it?

Noonan’s wage slaves, working only to prop up the system that degrades and exploits them, are caricatures of both our ancestors and ourselves. Each fulfils an aspect of the Marxist worldview: the subjugated worker, the brown-nosing foreman, the overseer, the fatcat boss, and in the centre, the hero: the progressive political mind. Other motifs resonate with poignancy: the fatalism of the alcoholic, the spin and scare of the media, the distracting nature of the immigration question… But despite this, Noonan’s reach into the twenty-first century falls short. He writes from a world before Britain’s disassembly of the working-class, before the dole, before the NHS, before our advanced secularisation, and with no idea of the way technological progress would shape the migration of working Brits from the factories to the offices. The Marxist formulae energised by Noonan’s rants now address a system that, at least aesthetically, has been entirely transformed. Though the modern catastrophist attitude towards capitalism still remains, our revolutionary spirit (despite the hot air of anarchists and well-wishers) has been filtered through commercial culture, self-alienation and increased comfort, and appears now strained and diluted on over-priced t-shirts. But that is not all. Though Noonan’s audience (the original British working-class) has been liquidated by history, and his ideology seems to move closer towards extinction, something pertinent remains. Noonan was different from his peers: he was highly-skilled, educated, and an artisan. Now, the same gulf separates the swollen, disenchanted middle-classes from their great-grandparents, bridged by the shared burdens of English pessimism and zero-hour contracts. Noonan responds to this vacuum with a wish to educate and socialise the masses he has stooped to join. In 2014, the drifting of intelligent young people into working-class lifestyles helps romanticise life and divert otherwise predictable trajectories (school, university, office work, marriage, property, children, yoga, death), whilst draining life and potential. The pain is alike, and in the pages of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists it both burns and ignites. Noonan’s balance of action and hopelessness is the same that still rotates around the modern liberal rhetoric of the graduate population; that, for the moment, is the ultimate legacy of the man who chose to describe and lament the bitter taste of capitalism.


One hundred years on, the demand for an economic shake-up continues to grow. The difficulties faced by Noonan’s protagonists, as well as the modern ennui we have inherited from the twentieth century, are still shared by people all over the world. But his solution is redundant. As difficult as it is to accept, the socialism envisioned by Marx and Engels has no further place in the Western world as it exists today. As the Russian writer Ayn Rand pointed out through her own ensemble of political caricatures (in We the Living [1936] in particular), it is not only the practice of Communism that has failed humanity: it is its core tenets. There is no answer to be found in an eighteenth-century system of economics; it is in fact harmful to believe that there is. What The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists gives us is a perspective of our world as one that has changed, and it is the task of modern novelists and readers to construct practical, original ideas for the future to come. This future, revolutionary or otherwise, needs to be constructed now. The failure of socialism in the UK, as well as its success in the USSR, is a lesson we cannot afford to ignore.

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