“Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” – Notes for an event on Robert Tressell’s legacy

“Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” – Notes for an event on Robert Tressell’s legacy

The novel, “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” was written between 1906 and 1909. Abridged versions were issued in 1914 and 1918 but the full book was not published until 1955.

As the attached notes say -The book is a semi-autobiographical “socialist classic” … In the course of the book, Tressell outlines the life conditions of a group of workers and their families. The central group of characters are employed by a capitalist (and his notional “company”) in various capacities around painting, decorating and other aspects of building maintenance/improvement. The book is set in the fictional town of Mugsborough, based on Hastings where the author lived and worked for the last period of his life. It presents a vivid description of the hardships faced by the working class and the author presents a cogent argument that the alternative is the replacement of capitalism by socialism – a “Co-operative Commonwealth”.

The book has been an inspiration for generations of socialists with its clear message that capitalism means misery for the majority and that a better world, cleaned of exploitation and oppression, is both necessary and possible.

The attached notes are based on a contribution to a meeting of the Liverpool-based “Socialist Theory Study Group” held early in 2020. They were minimally edited and distributed by local Angry Workers at a memorial event at Tressell’s grave in Rice Lane City Farm, Liverpool on 31st October, 2021.

In the last year of his life, Tressell moved to Liverpool planning to emigrate to Canade. His health declined and like many other workers and their families, unable to find sufficient waged work in one of the main ports of one of the most powerful imperialist nations, he was forced to spend his last months in the brutal degradation of a Workhouse.

The other 12 names on the tombstone were also impoverished workers who shared the unmarked (for six decades) “paupers’ grave”. That was one of many similar unmarked burial places for “the poor” in that area which was jointly administered by the Prison (still there, Walton Jail) and the Workhouse. A few yards away are half a dozen neat, admittedly quite small, headstones from about the same period – the early years of the 20th century. These marked the burial places of the pets belonging to the Prison Governor ….

‘Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!”‘ – Karl Marx, 1865

Supplementary thoughts on “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” and the ongoing “Great Money Trick”– by Liverpool and North Wales Angry Workers

Background

These notes were prepared in response to a document written by Dave Lowes circulated before the February, 2020 meeting of the Liverpool-based Socialist Theory Study Group. The Socialist Theory Study Group has continued to convene in virtual meetings every month during the pandemic restrictions. Previously presented notes were around the question of money as it exists currently and comparing it with the presentation of the subject in the “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”.

The book is a semi-autobiographical “socialist classic” first published in 1914, three years after the death of its author, Robert Tressell. In the course of the book, Tressell outlines the life conditions of a group of workers and their families. The central group of characters are employed by a capitalist (and his notional “company”) in various capacities around painting, decorating and other aspects of building maintenance/improvement. The book is set in the fictional town of Mugsborough, based on Hastings where the author lived and worked for the last period of his life. It presents a vivid description of the hardships faced by the working class and the author presents a cogent argument that the alternative is the replacement of capitalism by socialism – a “Co-operative Commonwealth”.

The argument for socialism is directed to the readers mainly via the case put forward by the two foremost socialists in the work group, Frank Owen and George Barrington.

Owen, Barrington and the continuing “Great Money Trick”

During the novel, Owen at three points (Chapters 15, 21 and 25) develops the case for “money being the cause of poverty”. It is clear in these expositions that Tressell/Owen is explaining that the use of money is central to the capitalist system through its key function in both commodity production and the wages system. Only after these theoretical building blocks have been presented is Socialism presented as a systemic alternative in Chapter 45, “The Great Oration” – an ironically, declamatory form of language and humour that pervades the book.

As has been pointed out in a previous presentation, Barrington rather than Owen presents the full socialist case. This happens soon after Barrington “comes out” as a Socialist after a local capitalist taunts and derides the Socialists at the summer “beano” – a works outing. Fortunately, it is beyond our current remit to muse on any significance that it is not Owen, a skilled artisan, but Barrington, by birth a (petty?) bourgeois, who Tressell allows to deliver the “Great Oration”.

In common with the presentations made in the later chapters, the first (in Chapter 15) takes place during the workers’ lunch break. Owen presents arguments based on a drawing containing two squares, one larger than the other. The larger square represents the large majority of the population in Britain, those who “work for their living: and in return for their labour they receive money: some more, some less than others”.

At this point Owen argument focuses on the ownership of land and resources rather than the means of production. “… the majority must pay rent to the few for the privilege of being permitted to live in the land of their birth” and “[the minority] have monopolised everything that it is possible to monopolise”; they have got the whole earth, the minerals in the earth and the streams that water the earth”.

He also talks about the nature and effect of competition between capitalists, a theme which directly affects the conditions of the workers Owen is addressing.. “the successful tenderer has usually cut the price so fine that to make it pay he has to scamp the work, pay low wages, and drive and sweat the men(sic) whom he employs … The result is a job which – if it were done properly – would employ say twenty men for two months, is rushed and scamped in half that time with half that number of me”.

Having used the time allowed, Owen points to his wider argument which will be returned to in the later chapters. ” Landlordism and Competing Employers are … only a small part of the system which produces luxury, refinement and culture for a few, and condemns the majority to a lifelong struggle with adversity, and may thousands to degradation, hunger and rags”. he had already presented a similar prėcis earlier, “The majority work hard and live in poverty in order that the minority may live in luxury without working at all”.

Those arguments remain valid today. The continuing relevance of the novel is underpinned by the further explanations, in which money is far more central, that are made subsequently. The presentations explain that money is intrinsically connected to the proletariat’s condition as a class of wage slaves. It is that relationship between classes which remains unaltered today – the role of money in underpinning the rot and degradation of the capitalist system remains as true in 2020, more than a century after the novel was written.

From the Great Money Trick to the Great Oration

Owen, in Chapter 21, entertains and attempts to educate his fellow workers by demystifying the wages system. Involving his colleagues in an exercise where pieces of bread are the commodified products of production and a few low value copper coins are money he exposes its true nature as a device whereby the capitalist class extracts surplus value from the working class. For the purposes of his presentation, Owen entitles this exploitation as the “Great Money Trick”.

During a later lunch break Owen explains, in Chapter 25, the nature of poverty by clarifying the unequal access to “the benefits of civilisation and necessaries of life”. This is illustrated by an oblong showing the unequal distribution of all that is produced between different layers of society.

Those who enjoy the vast majority of these products are drawn in two fifths of the oblong. The content of both is entertainingly quirkish. The first includes “Tramps, Beggars, Society People, The ‘Aristocracy’, Great Landowners, All those possessed of hereditary Wealth. the second collection of parasites are “Exploiters of Labour, Thieves, Swindlers, Pickpockets, Burglars, Bishops, Financiers, Capitalists, Shareholders, ‘Ministers’ of Religion”.

A far smaller amount of the total product is available to the much bigger number of people that Marxists would recognise as proletarian. Owen splits these into three categories – “All those engaged in unnecessary work, All those engaged in necessary work – the production of the benefits of civilisation and, thirdly, [the] Unemployed.” As an aside Owen explains to the other workers the relationship between those three categories. In particular , the difference between necessary and unnecessary work remains a useful popular introduction.

Of course, Owen’s presentation is not merely sociological. He revisits and reinforces his earlier explanation: “The total value of the wealth in this country during the last year was £1,800,000,000, and the total amount paid in wages during the same period was £600,000,000. In other words, by means of the Money Trick, the workers were robbed of two-thirds of the value of their labour.”

During Owen’s presentations he receives regular retorts from the workers who side with the various then existing “parties of the bourgeoisie” (Liberal and Tory) or often simultaneously with religion-inspired obfuscation. There is a repeated barb that Owen has not explained how the existing order can be replaced.

Barrington responds to this objection in his “Great Oration” (Chapter 45). The Oration is a rich vision of a post-capitalist future. A century later, it is clear that the presentation is of “of its time” advocating a socialist economy based on a state-run National Service brought into existence by “Revolutionary Socialists” in Parliament. Such formulations for the “Co-operative Commonwealth” are totally unsurprising as very few had grasped the significance of the Workers’ Councils that had appeared during the 1905 Russian Revolution. Neither Tressell nor his readers had yet lived through the full blown horrors of capitalism’s imperialist phase. Although Barrington makes reference to increasing militarism he could not anticipate the bloodshed and misery of the First World War or the nature of the proletarian revolutionary wave that ended it and briefly challenge the capitalist world.

Regarding money, the key message is teased out during the discussions with the other workers. Barrington has described the increasing domination of a state administered paper currency over the capitalist precious metal-based coinage. Although, Barrington continues to refer to the paper currency as “money” he has to explain that in fact, money would be negated. Very succinctly he outlines – ” … no one will be able to hoard up or accumulate the paper money because it will be dated, and will become worthless if it is not spent within a certain time after its issue”. That argument clearly defines that money, as it has existed during class society, will have no place in the future co-operative world.

Indeed, Barrington’s description appears to anticipate the concept of “labour time vouchers” –

The gist of it originated in 1930, when the GIK (Group of Internationalist Communists of Holland) published “Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution.” Jan Appel had done the first draft, and later the scheme was laid down in more details, by Paul Mattick in particular.
Its main principle is the “introduction of the Average Social Hour of Labour as a unit of economic regulation and control. […] all money will be declared worthless and only labour certificates will give entitlement to social product. It will be possible to exchange this “certificate money” only at the cooperative shops and warehouses. The sudden abolition of money will bring about a situation in which, equally suddenly, all products must have their appropriate ASRT (Average Social Reproduction Time) stamped upon them.”
(https://libcom.org/library/value-time-communism-gilles-dauvé)

A century after Tressell

The Study Group discussion will focus on “Modern Monetary Theory”, attempts to explain and extrapolate from the current global financial fiasco whereby a credit/debt bubble has grown exponentially, now amounting to more than 250 trillion (250 followed by 12 zeroes) US Dollars (www.cnbc.com, 15/11/2019).

This situation has developed alongside half a century of unresolved capitalist crisis, the first key signal being the collapse of the post-war dollar-based financial system based on the Bretton Woods agreement. As Dave summarised, that system was based on the US Dollar being “as good as gold”.

In the period since then the world capitalist system has struggled in an increasing “dog eat dog” scenario while all states, each intertwined with their “own” capitalist institutions, have attempted to defend their national interests and profitability.

The crisis of 2007-8 saw a response based on states taking over huge amounts of debt and subsequently accelerating the growth of the financial bubble to today’s absurd proportions.

Irrespective of the Alice in Wonderland financial casino based on speculation and “financial instruments” the essential reality for the working class continues to revolve around the global system where our conditions of existence are based on the sale of our labour power. After 100 years of us failing to achieve the “Co-operative Commonwealth” the bourgeoisie continue to dominate workers’ lives with their “Great Money Trick”. Just as Tressell and his characters foresaw, there remains a desperate need for the revolutionary reconstitution of society, eliminating the wages system and producing for use rather than profit. Money and all the other filth created by class society will be swept aside in favour of a sustainable human future.

Keith I Taylor
February 2020

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AngryWorkersWorld
Jan 12 2022 12:41

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