The great socialist author Robert Tressell died 100 years ago. Josh Roebuck, a sixth former who has just joined Counterfire, explains why Tressell’s classic, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, helped make him a socialist, and urges everyone to read it.
Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1911 various editions in print), 640pp. approx.
Robert Tressell died on February 3, 1911. Were Robert Tressell to step into our world today, he might for a moment believe that his dream of a better system had come about; that the working classes had finally cast off their shackles and overthrown their ‘betters’. In comparison to the poor wretches who made up the majority in Edwardian England, even the lowest of the working classes enjoys unimaginable wealth. But soon enough, he would see that they have merely exchanged shackles of iron for chains of gold; for although it is true that people no longer starve en masse, the gulf between rich and poor is still as vast as ever. For all that the last hundred years of civilisation has brought, the poor still spend their lives in service to the wealthy.
While he starved, too ill to work for his bread, Tressell wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The book is the tale of a group of men, the likes of whom could be found across the length and breadth of early 1900s England. These are simple men taught from a young age that it is perfectly acceptable for them to starve to death while their ‘betters’ gorged on finery. Any attempt to remedy this state of affairs is met with misunderstanding and hostility. Against this backdrop of poverty and ignorance, an attempt to explain a better way is made. Through the socialist characters of Owen and Barrington, Tressell explains the problems of capitalism and how society might be mended. Socialism is laid out in the simplest terms, so that even the most ignorant worker might be able to understand.
Tressell was not a professional author; his one book was refused publication until after his death. And it is certain that there are more skilled authors in this world. But I say now, truthfully, that no book I have read before has caused me such emotion as this. I felt anger at the heartless brigands that make up the town council, and at the apathetic masses that continue to elect them. I felt sorrow for those few who tried to present a better option, only to be met with hatred and derision. The whole book is incredibly real.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists tells the reader in very simple terms what must be done, and then urges them to go do it. Prior to reading it, I considered myself to be politically aware. I believed that while the current system is far from perfect, it is still the best we could have. Tressell opened my eyes to a better society, as I’m sure he did for many others. I believe that no intelligent person could read this book and not feel moved to change the system. I know I couldn’t.
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