100 years after the death of Robert Tressell
One hundred years ago, a Dublin-born socialist named Robert Croker, also known as Robert Noonan and, most famously, as Robert Tressell, died in Liverpool, England and was buried with 12 others in a pauper’s grave. He was barely 40 years old.
He’s rightly remembered today for his only novel, ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’, generally hailed as a classic literary endeavour, which describes aspects of Edwardian English working class life from a Marxist perspective.
It’s a posthumously published book that, without resort to preaching or pedagogy, encapsulates the robbery that is the capitalist mode of production through an engaging story of employers and employees in a small English seaside town. Its narrative implies that social change is both necessary and possible, without ever being explicit enough about the means to achieve this.
One of its highlights, which unfolds in a naturalistic and humorous manner, is the exposition of ‘The Great Money Trick’, described by English playwright Howard Brenton as: “nothing less than Karl Marx's labour theory of value, a cornerstone of socialist thinking.” This is the scene in which the book’s central character, a decorator called Owen, explains to his workmates in the building trade how ‘a fair days work for a fair days wage’ in fact produces profits for the bosses at the expense of the workers. It’s an unsurpassed set-piece which has been translated for film, theatre and television.
Before proceeding, a brief explanation of the book’s title. ‘Ragged Trousered’ implies those meagre garments worn by the poor or workingmen. An earlier period in France might use the phrase ‘sans culottes’. ‘Philanthropists’ is a satire on the ‘great and the good’ who gave money to the ‘deserving poor’. In Tressell’s view, it’s the proletarians who are the ‘philanthropists’ because it is their unpaid labour in the form of surplus value which supports the collective class of capitalists.
After his death, it’s thanks to the efforts of his daughter Kathleen that Tressell’s handwritten, 1,600-page manuscript was eventually published, at first in a heavily-edited form (because of its socialist content, according to the original publisher, who, despite his prejudices, nonetheless recognised the literary worth of the work). It appeared in England and Canada in 1914, in revolutionary Russia in 1920, and in its full version in the 1950s.
Because the work so movingly describes the plight of the proletariat as an exploited class, it has become a treasured icon of the left whose function is to keep the proletariat in precisely that condition.
Written in the interregnum between capitalist ascendency and its decadence, by an author whose membership of the Social Democratic Federation gives free reign to today’s trade union and Labour Party (Social Democratic) politicians to claim continuity with its content, the revolutionary kernel of Tressell’s work has been buried in the tomb of recuperation.
At a centenary event in Hastings (South East England), where Tressell toiled and on which the fictional town of ‘Mugsborough’ in the novel is based, one could find local and national Labour Party politicians, trade unionists and other, more well-meaning folk, all laying claim to his legacy.
In a UK left-leaning national newspaper, the Guardian, the aforementioned left-wing playwright Howard Brenton could declaim: “The party Tressell joined, the SDF (Social Democratic Federation), was revolutionary. We know that path led to the disaster of the Soviet Union.”
But the SDF, despite being the UK’s ‘first Marxist-based’ party, was riddled with programmatic and practical ambiguities which saw the likes of Eleanor Marx and William Morris quit its ranks. And contrary to Brenton’s assertion, the ‘disaster’ of the ‘Soviet Union’ was not the result of the workers’ revolution there, but of its international defeat.
The support the majority of the SDF – including Tressell’s inspiration, the ‘Mugsborough rebel’ Alf Cobb - gave to British imperialism in World War One – and the relative failure of its members like British communists John McLean and Willie Gallagher to reinforce their internationalist attitudes with a corresponding organisational practice – only underlines the importance of coherent, Marxist revolutionary organisation, then and now.
The richness of Tressell’s literary and Marxist masterpiece – despite a certain sentimentalism evident in the ending – remains a challenge to today’s communists and sympathisers: how to communicate what we believe and fight for into forms – words, music ,film, whatever – which convey meaning without cliché or cant.
 See The British Communist Left (1914-1945) by Mark Hayes, published by the ICC (ISBN 1-897980-11-6)