Some notes on Robert Tressell

Two people hold a large colourful banner of Robert Tressell in the style of trade union banners

Dave Walton (aka David Wise) on Robert Tressell, his novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and the era it was written in.

Submitted by Fozzie on July 13, 2022

Some notes on Robert Tressell which may prove helpful in some kind of introduction to the German edition of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Robert Tressell was writing at a time – the early years of the 20th century – when the workers’ movement in Britain and Ireland was at one of its lowest ebbs ever. Not much was taking place. The big and often violent miners’ strike of 1896 was nothing but a memory. Reaction was rampant. Laws against workers taking any kind of action, particularly strike action was practically out of the question as most such activity at the time was union led.

The Asquith Conservative government of the day gave itself powers to sequester all union assets. A lot of the unions were small outfits with not much money and thus they faced bankruptcy and liquidation. Finally, a tiny union at the Taff Vale company in South Wales took on the Taff Vale Railway Co and declared a strike. In response, the government seized all the union funds, the union ceased to exist and the strike collapsed.

The shock waves spread like wildfire throughout the employed and the message was loud and clear: either shut up or put up.

This then was the immediate background to Tressell’s dark and foreboding book. The workers had given in to this terrible pressure and began to somewhat accept it as their lot. It was therefore easy to characterise them as "mugs" – to use the American expression – and Tressell’s Hastings on the south coast of England (and where he’d worked as a painter and decorator) thus becomes Mugsborough. In retrospect, it’s perhaps easy to see as somewhat patronising and there’s very little scope given in the book to the transformation of the submissive and conned subject once direct action is undertaken.

However, in many respects it was the very misery engendered by such submission that was gradually to galvanise the workers and transform them and, as a by-product, produce a more combative, centralised, as well as as a more recuperative trade union movement with something like a "never again" as Taff Vale, casualism and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists became canonised in a labourist ideology which provided suitable and applicable rhetoric/credentials for any aspiring left wing trade union bureaucrat and leftist Labour politician in an ascendant state capitalism.

Quoting Tressell became an almost obligatory career move. Nay, it was even more: an essential under-pinning of the One Nation Toryism which guaranteed some kind of worker protection. And a long-lingering sentiment has remained well into these rampant, neo-liberal times. It’s been said that Tressell’s book was one of the favourite books of John Major, the last Conservative Prime Minister!
But this by then was an exception.

Generally though, the book retained its quasi-mythic status until the 1980s. The laws enacted against workers in the early 70s and which were overthrown by wave upon wave of strikes, in fact reinforced this status (c/f the pamphlet about Tressell commemorating his new statue in Liverpool put out by old-style Liverpool TU members).

Finally though the 1980s did produce a more enduring anti-worker legislation which has ferociously remained creating an atmosphere of resignation and stupidity reminiscent of Taff Vale times. In practise though these laws now are far more draconian than ever they were in the early years of the 20th century. Hopefully, we all can remember with what intense fury, violence and even aborted uprisings these laws helped engender in the Britain of the 1980s. The workers were defeated and the laws increased.

The present absence of struggle is, of course, predicated on this defeat. The stakes were high and in retrospect it’s easy to see all the manifold failures of our side. Most were blatantly obvious even at the time and a belief in following trade union directives in the final analysis – when the chips were really down – was fatal. It’s our fault we lost; nobody else can be blamed. A lot of the miseries a la Tressell have returned with a vengeance and a name you were weary of hearing endlessly repeated, knowing what an opportunistic aura it possessed, has again acquired cutting edge.

What must be remembered about the early 20th century in these islands was that the period of outright repression was a prelude to one of the most explosive periods in our history – what became known as The Great Unrest between 1909 to 1914. Robert Tressell died in Liverpool on the eve of the outbreaks.

However, from 1905 onwards signs of trouble were in the air. The aborted 1905 revolution in Russia caused consternation in ruling circles in Britain. An incoming Liberal government in 1906 (which many said at the time was elected due to the shock waves emanating from Russia) quickly drafted legislation scrapping the nastiest aspects of the previous governments labour laws. It was a palliative to what they perceived to be a changing mood. By 1909, the Liberal government enacted a piece of legislation which became known as The Peoples’ Budget. It was the first systematic form of state capitalist protection against the worst ravages of the market on workers’ lives that a British government had come up with and old age pensions etc became a statutory right.

It was a case though of the state giving too little too late in an attempt to forestall workers taking independent action… In no time these islands were in uproar from one end to the other. Strikes and riots broke out everywhere. Police were killed and gunboats were sent up the Mersey to put down insurrection in Liverpool. The army shot dead striking miners in West Yorkshire and the city of Hull in east Yorkshire experienced a huge orgiastic riot which sent shock horrors throughout the Christian establishment as not only did they witness the burning of the city but mass fucking in the streets… School kids refused to go to school organising against teachers etc. The accounts of this period are spare in the annals of English social history and the best is probably Stanley Dangerfield’s, The Strange Death of Liberal England

Then in Dublin in 1913, the famous transport workers strike broke out fitfully organised by the anarcho-syndicalists replete with the first armed workers’ militia of the 20th century patrolling the streets of the Irish capital for many weeks. (Moscow and St Petersburg had seen armed insurrection without a prior organised militia).

It’s been said recently by some of those Anglo-American new breed of academic autonomist historians that the out break of hostilities among the belligerent powers in Europe in 1914 wasn’t really a war over the carve-up of imperial markets but a dire necessity in order to forestall social revolution. Although this argument has the merit of dethroning the time-honoured Social Democratic and Leninist economic and political perspective, it’s possibly over the top. The only proletariats’ in Europe on the offensive in the years prior to the inter-imperialist world was were those of Britain, Ireland and Russia and in the latter country, strikes and barricades were only just happening after a lapse of seven years. In the same period, Germany, France and Italy were relatively quiet.

D.W. 1999.