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A Book’s Review: „The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists“

Aktualisiert: 17. Mai 2020

I like to introduce you here to a highly recommended read.

Its up-to-dateness is truly stunning.

British strikers in the early 20th Century.

“The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” was written in 1910 by Robert Tressell and first published in 1914.

The author was a labourer with socialist convictions, who left home without completing his schooling and worked as a painter and decorator in South Africa and later England.

He died aged forty in 1910 of tuberculosis, just after having finished his novel, that had been rejected by several publishers.

His only daughter managed to publish his unprecedented work some years later.

The book is about a couple of workers in the what he calls ‘decorating trade’. It gives detailed insight into their lives’ realities during the period of one year.

The all-knowing narrator alternates between the perspectives of several protagonists. They are all occupied with daily life and the reader is thus introduced into various family situations, relationship issues, money-, health- and alcohol problems, the death of dear ones and so on. The unimaginable atrocious working and living conditions are described in detail. The book also describes socialist ideas, which some of the workers begin to share with their fellow workmen.

Sadly, most of the workers don’t respond positively to these ideas.

Furthermore, the book is a description of the societal life in a provincial town and describes how politics, religion and trade was handled at that time. The accent of the workers is also transcribed and imparts the story with an authentic atmosphere. It is also full of irony and funny puns, with people called “Sir Graball” and “Mrs. Knobraine”.

The book is a masterpiece of eloquence, wit and subtle observations. Its information about the everyday life and struggles of the working class is outstanding and enlightening, yet sober and not at all romanticising. Tressell manages to describe the world he himself lived in so accurately and vividly, that it is easy to empathize with every character in the book. He aptly depicts their talks about politics, mainly socialism.

These passages are remarkable, for I never have read so simple and plausible an explanation as his. This is even more fascinating against the background that Tressell was not at all an intellectual in the sense that he had received a formal education. In one aspect, the book is a testimonial of his genius and also of his desperation in light of the circumstances of the worker’s lives.

In the context of Conscious Evolution this piece is surprisingly valuable because it describes so clearly the mechanisms of “wishful thinking” and “paradigmatism”. It is somehow an in depth display of the capitalistic conditioning: Any change would be a good one and here comes a new and promising paradigm, something that has to be tried out in a practical experiment, and what do they do? Without any arguments against it, they live in denial of their desperate situation and villainize the socialists, as if they were the source of evil and injustice.

To me this is also a very accurate description of the states of mind of contemporary people.

I find it amazing that Tressell himself was aware of this structural mechanism: The slave who defends the masters.

Accordingly, Tressell describes the different kinds of “madness”:

There is the first kind, the rich and ruthless profiteers, whom the author regards as “criminal lunatics who injure others as well as themselves”. That reminds of today’s stock brokers and CEOs.

The second kind is the kind that starts naively looking for salvation, to then heartbrokenly realizing that there can never be an end to the rat race, and so become hedonists and drunkards who feel but indifference to the state of the world. People that remind us of today’s average consumers.

Then there are those who are not quite heartbroken. They appear to be conscious and open for a conversation about socialism, which they sympathize with; yet, that makes no difference to their actions. In Tressell’s words: “…They were subject to most extraordinary hallucinations and extravagant delusions, the commonest being that the best thing which the working people could do … was to elect their Liberal and Tory employers…” Tressell continues that they are not open for criticism at all, and that they find pleasure in always switching between a hopeful mania (“This time it’ll get better”), and a melancholic depression when they find out that it doesn’t. This group reminds us inevitably of what we call “the borderline switch”, which prevents consistent action.

The last kind are the socialists. Their madness is being of the opinion that they could reason with people who are so obviously not willing nor able to change their credos.

We sincerely hope that this group does not equate to Conscious Evolutionists! And we think it doesn’t, because Tressell, like modern day’s Mark Fisher, in spite of his brilliant analysis doesn’t give advice how to deal with this issue. In contrast to this, we don’t argue with people in cracker-barrel philosophy debates, but only work in practical experiments with those who are willing to commit to the working hypothesis of the essay. According to our experience, this approach raises consciousness and understanding and leads to alterations of behaviour.

Another remarkable parallel is how the Rich of the town tried to find a way to minimize the numbers of people who applied for charity. They changed the conditions that the workers had to go to an office and had to answer around one hundred questions about their identity, their living conditions and the work they had done before, imposing strict measures for entitlement. The procedure they devised was so tedious and degrading that the number of applicants dropped.

It inevitably reminds one of “Hartz IV” and social welfare in Germany.

All in all, I highly recommend this book to you. It is a classic that I read with pleasure, and it might shatter some prejudices about workers and conditions of that time, as well as towards socialism. After all, Tressell’s statements are perfectly executed and he manages to show the flaws of the system without pointing the finger to individual culprits. Like when he shows that workers are in a worse position than slaves: “For if we were slaves, our owners in their own interest would see that we always had food.” In capitalist society, “we are being allowed to be starved to death.”

With the intimate connection of the heart warming stories of the “philanthropists” and modern day life, the book is easy to sympathize and identify with.

The only disappointment is that a new version in German doesn’t exist, but you may find a used one (search “Die Menschenfreunde in zerlumpten Hosen”).

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