Published in 1914, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists tells the story of a group of house painters, living hand to mouth. The preface, written by Jessie Pope, relates how the manuscript was delivered to him by a friend, and how he didn’t expect the novel would be up to much. After all, it was the work of a socialist house painter, who died before he could even see his novel in print. The author, Robert Tressall, I’ve never heard of before.
This is really a very nifty little novel, obviously relating the real life experiences of Robert Tressal. Despite the fact that it’s some 90 years old now, and that it relates the main character’s struggle to get his workmates behind the whole socialist program, the book is remarkably relevant to today. Not topically, but because so much of how people are treated at work still happens today. If anything, the book shows how nothing has changed. (A perfect example of how nothing has changed is Elizabeth Wynhausen's book Dirt cheap, published in 2005, which details her experiences working at the low end of the job market.)
As someone who has done their fair share of crappy jobs, I can attest to how real some of the emotions described in this book are. Like the humiliations of having to defer to people you can’t stand, being treated like a twit, being terrified of losing your job, and all the paranoia that relates to that fear. All of this is captured very acurately and neatly by Robert Tressall.
The book describes in minute detail all the miseries of poverty, with no welfare program like we have today. People sell off everything just to eat. It was heart breaking to read how some of the characters were reduced to the most desperate straits. Tressall doesn’t just tell you that people are poor, he also describes how weak their bodies become, how they can barely function – cook dinner, walk to work – because they are so run down.
When the main character, Owen, discovers that his alarm clock is broken, he is forced to get out of bed at four in the morning and walk down to the main street to look for the town clock so he can make sure he’s not late for work. Doing this, he runs into a policeman, who suspects him of being up to no good. The humiliations never end for these people.
If the book has a theme at all, it’s of the need for a socialist state. A large part of the novel shows Owen, the painter-socialist, trying to convince his uninterested workmates about how socialism could solve the problem of society’s poverty. Instead of being thanked for trying to enlighten them, he is constantly jeered at for talking a lot of rubbish. Secretly, in his own mind, Owen gets very angry with his workmates. He believes that their stupidity and ignorance holds up the whole capitalist system. The workers are all digging their own graves, their apathy cementing the positions of their exploitative employers.
Reading through Owen’s many lectures and speeches to his workmates, trying to win them over with his diagrams and illustrations sketched on the wall with characoal, it struck me that if you want to make a change in the direction of society, you need to have a simple idea that makes immediate sense to everyone, and that has an irrefutable moral basis. Instead, all Owen does is confuse everyone with his ‘money trick’ and other catchphrases. There’s nothing these workers can grasp onto as making common sense. And that’s why he loses them.
Another aspect of the book I liked is that it showed how abominably people behave in a hierarchy. Characters like Crass who try to get ahead suck up to their bosses like total creeps, then treat everyone below them like absolute garbage. Or there are those who are too guilty to get ahead and won't walk all over others. When Owen tries to get work doing his design work, he goes from business to business asking for jobs. Yet he feels terribly guilty that if he were to secure jobs from these other businesses, he would only be robbing the living off another man.
In the end, Owen tells off his boss for exploiting a young boy. He tells his boss that he will report him, and walks off his job. Having done this, he fails to find work, and sickness starts to kill him off. First though, he declares that he will take his child and wife with him (i.e kill them), because neither of them stand a chance in this capitalist world either.
The ending is a tad melodramatic, but this novel is not a melodrama at all. It’s social realism. This is a very interesting book, strangely still relevant today. For as long as employers continue to exploit workers, and there seems no end to that in sight, this book will remain relevant.