Tuesday, January 24, 2017

High on Tressell (1970)

Book Review from the October 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

Robert Tressell and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Jack Mitchell: Lawrence & Wishart, 45s.

Interest in the scope and background of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has grown steadily since the publications, in 1951 and 1955 respectively, of F.C. Ball’s biography Tressell of Mugsborough and the full version of the book as Tressell—Robert Noonan -wrote it. Previously, little or nothing had been known about this most widely read of all books about working men since its appearance in 1914. Now, a further book on Tressell by Ball is promised: in 1967 The Times revealed that Tressell’s daughter Kathleen, thought to have been killed in an accident in 1919, was still alive: in August this year, The Guardian published details of surviving examples of Tressell’s decorative painting.

Mitchell’s book is an attempt at detailed critical analysis of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. It has an astonishingly patronising foreword by Raymond Williams, and its endeavour is to place the Philanthropists among the great works of literature. Mitchell takes a classification suggested by Arnold Kettle, in an article called "Dickens and the Popular Tradition”, in which the classical nineteenth-century novelists are divided as belonging to "bourgeois critical realism” or “popular critical realism”. The difference is in “sensibility”, or the writer’s class awareness. The height of popular critical realism is "proletarian humanism”, and Mitchell sees this as reaching its peak in Dickens in the nineteenth century and Tressell in the twentieth.

In developing this theme, there are some interesting references to nineteenth-century working-class novels which are little known today. Mitchell says they failed because working-class sensibility was insufficiently developed before the last years of the century. Between 1889 and 1906, however: "The advent of imperialism revolutionised the situation.” The foundation of the Labour Party was a cultural as well as a political landmark: "It is not by chance that it precedes the break-through of the British working class in the narrower field of literary culture”— that is, the writing of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists—“by only five years”. The working class was about to wage fierce war. Mitchell writes: “By 1914 it was touch and go which would come first, world war or social revolution.’’ In this light, Tressell’s book is a vital self-criticism of the working class as it prepared for the struggle.

This is all dreadful nonsense. It throws into relief the weakness of Mitchell’s study of Tressell—that it is anything but critical. Starting thus from the belief that The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was the expression of “a realisation that in the long run they (the working class) were destined to take over the cultural heritage and with it the human leadership of the nation”, Mitchell praises it on every count and in the highest terms. The comparisons in which it is eulogised are themselves breathtakingly uncritical at times. For example "The two greatest anti-capitalist writers in Britain at that time, Shaw and Tressell”—though later Mitchell speaks of Tressell’s implicit exposure of the Fabian propaganda whose popular exponent, in fact, was Shaw. And what of Dickens, to whom Mitchell continually returns as the genius of popular humanism before Tressell? George Orwell has pointed out that Dickens never penned a decent picture of a working man or woman; the case is strong that Dickens radicalism was rooted in fear of the mob.

All the same, there is a good deal which is interesting in Mitchell’s examination of the structure of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. As he says, its central situation is the labour process. The characters are carefully arranged to show all the stages of a manual worker’s life, from the apprentice to the discarded old man. Attitudes to labour are crucial points in the book’s criticism of capitalism. The boss-figures are Anti-Man, in Mitchell’s phrase, precisely because they are destructive of men’s attachment to and satisfaction from labour. Influenced by William Morris, Tressell made art part of labour: and in this sense Owen’s decoration of the drawing-room in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a symbolic victory.

One of Mitchell’s more telling comparisons is between Tressell’s work and that of the “Naturalist” writers of the late nineteenth century. At first glance, the insistent accumulation of detail—the minute descriptions of rooms, buildings. clothes—reminds one of, say, Zola. But Zola’s picture was always of a slice of life whereas Tressell, as Mitchell points out, aims to show life itself under capitalism. While Zola lifts stones to reveal the horrors under them, Tressell’s mass of detail points to “the abnormality of the normal”: the horror of the stones themselves. Mitchell draws attention too to the exclusion by Tressell of any human personal element which might admit the possibility of bridge-building between the classes. Tressell’s insistence always is on the capitalist system as the culprit; grotesque as his boss-characters are, they remain the system’s creations.

Those who are interested in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists will, and ought to, read this book. Despite the parallels it draws with Fielding, Bunyan. Swift, Gorky, Hardy and others—besides Dickens—it does not succeed in its intention of giving the Philanthropists an exalted place in literature. Nor is there any reason really for seeking to do so. Tressell’s work is a gem in its field. If it were a literary masterpiece, perhaps we should not lay claim, as we all do, to innumerable copies given away and lent to people at work. Mitchell lays on his claims thickly, apparently high on enthusiasm for Tressell. One sees, however, the political malpositions from which the claims arise - and wonders whether such a structure of illusion would have been tolerable to Tressell himself.
Robert Barltrop

The Age of Discontent (1923)

From the March 1923 issue of the Socialist Standard

In an age such as ours, in an age, that is, which is the necessary preliminary (long or short) of a drastic social change, there must inevitably be a distinct and increasing tendency for people to adopt a critical, to a large extent a negative, attitude towards all social institutions and activities. No matter in what sphere of life one may move, it will be found that the evils of Capitalism, no longer hidden, but becoming more and more glaringly insistent, are the theme for attack even amongst the most superficially-minded people. Among members of the working-class, of all descriptions, whether they be manual workers, on managerial and clerical staffs, civil and domestic servants, housewives, writers, artists, and scientists, is to be found a sense of dissatisfaction, more or less articulate, with things as they are. To-day, the commercial manager, himself usually as much a member of the working-class as his youngest errand-boy, has lost the sense of security he had a comparatively few years ago, when his position was almost considered a sinecure, and now looks with something like terror towards the results that will be shown on his prospective yearly balance-sheet. The clerks under him murmur in their usual semi-fearful way at the high cost of living and their decreasing salaries. Domestic servants are beginning to see something degrading in their flunkeyism. Every grade of manual worker is seething with discontent. Writers, from the hack-journalist to the novelist and poet, artists, scientific men, are beginning to realise that the work they are allowed to do in the world is branded by its usefulness to their capitalist employers; and some of them, at any rate, see nothing in their expression of their art and scientific knowledge except a prostitution to the necessity for earning a livelihood. In the most unlikely quarters and from the most unusual sources, arises a cry of discontent, of bitterness, of despair. Most of the plays worth taking into consideration nowadays voice a feeling of rebellion against existing institutions. The lighter entertainments are satires on the vices and foibles of certain sections of society. Novelists and poets in their writings portray characters and characteristics nauseating to the ordinary normal man and woman, contending, with a good deal of truth, that in so doing they are only expressing the tendencies of the age. In scientific papers, scientific men can be found deploring the bodily, mental, and what they call "moral” degeneration of the people both in the upper and lower strata of society, and advocating in a half-hearted and unconvincing manner reforms for the betterment of the race. Publishers and theatrical managers nowadays find that the books and plays that pay best are those that attack some phase or other of modern society. With their usual opportunism and eye to business, they give the public what it seems to want, and what it seems to want at the present time is an articulate expression of its inarticulate acute discontent. There is, say, a reaction against war, and you have staged a play such as the “Trojan Women”; or a reaction against the tyranny and brutality of power or riches, and you get a play such as "The Cenci,” or a novel such as Beresford’sPrisoners of Hartling”; or the orgies of a certain section of high society become a little too notorious, and you get the novels of a Stephen McKenna or a Compton Mackenzie.

What, it may be asked, has this to do with Socialism. It seems that these people are, in a feeble and unscientific way, following the lead of the Socialist when he criticises and condemns, scientifically and in the light of his Socialist knowledge, Capitalism and all its numerous and intricate ramifications. Unlike the non-Socialist, the Socialist has looked below the surface, has probed deep into the very entrails of modern capitalist society, and has found that the evils, which have now become too glaring to be ignored by anyone possessing the least grain of intelligence, are the outcome of our present social system. The degeneracy of mind and body, the misery of striving to keep up appearances without adequate means to support such appearances, the vicious and abnormal tendencies prevalent amongst all sections of people, the excessive amount of unemployment, and its consequences of poverty and degradation, the prostitution of a man’s knowledge and ability and of a woman’s body, have their present source in the capitalist system of production for profit, or production of wealth to benefit a small minority, leaving out of account the vast majority of the populace.

As the ills and misfortunes from which the working-class suffer become less possible, and at last impossible, of being hidden away, as they grow less susceptible to the “dope” and narcotics emanating from the Press, the pulpit and the platform, the expressions of discontent and rebellion— always lying dormant in a social system such as the present one—increase in volume and intensity. But, apart from the Socialist, none of these people, whether writer or artist, scientist or “ man-in-the- street,” however loudly he may voice his dissatisfaction with things as they are, has either the courage or the ability to put forward a constructive policy to take effect when Capitalism falls.

The non-Socialists see certain evils in the world, evils which grow more glaring as the years pass, and all they can do is to say in effect, “Let us destroy these abominable evils, and if, in doing so, we, at the same time destroy associations of peoples, even if we thereby wipe out mankind itself; better chaos or annihilation, than the degradation and prostitution of life as it is to-day." The Socialist, however, has no desire for social chaos or atavism, or total annihilation; these visions of despair would drift into nothingness if people could only be brought to understand—to understand themselves and the social system under which they live and which makes them the unhappy beings that they are. We are endeavouring to give to our non-Socialist fellow-workers an exposition of life as it now is, as it might soon be, and as eventually it will be. What we. desire is a sane and healthy system of society, to be erected on the dead ashes of the system which is passing, wherein no man shall be called upon to sacrifice his ability and no woman her body in order to obtain the wherewithal to live; wherein the workman, the artist, the scientist (possibly a trinity in one person) may unite with, and dovetail into, one another, in the production of wealth, which would be the property of an appreciative and enlightened humanity; not, as now, the property of a few unworthy and unappreciative parasites.
F. J. Webb.