The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

by Robert Tressell


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The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is a novel by Robert Tressell first published in 1914 after his death in 1911. An explicitly political work, it is widely regarded as a classic of working-class literature. It was placed seventy-second in the 2003 The Big Read survey conducted by the BBC.

The book provides a comprehensive picture of social, political, economic and cultural life in Britain at a time when socialism was beginning to gain ground. It was around that time that the Labour Party was founded and began to win seats in the House of Commons.

The book advocates a socialist society in which work is performed to satisfy the needs of all rather than to generate profit for a few. A key chapter is "The Great Money Trick", in which Owen organises a mock-up of capitalism with his workmates, using slices of bread as raw materials and knives as machinery. Owen 'employs' his workmates cutting up the bread to illustrate that the employer - who does not work - generates personal wealth whilst the workers effectively remain no better off than when they began, endlessly swapping coins back and forth for food and wages. This is Tressell's practical way of illustrating the Marxist theory of surplus value, which in the capitalist system is generated by labour.

The house that is under renovation in the book, referred to frequently as the 'job', is known by the workmen as 'The Cave'. Given the author's interest in the philosophy of Plato, it is highly likely that this is a reference to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". A major recurring theme in Tressell's book highlights the inability and reluctance of the workers to comprehend, or even consider, an alternative economic system [other than free market capitalism]. The author attributes this inability, amongst other things, to the fact that they have never experienced an alternative system, and have been raised as children to unquestioningly accept the status quo, regardless of it being potentially inimical to their own interests. In Plato's work, the underlying narrative suggests that in the absence of an alternative, human beings will accept and submit to their present condition and consider it to be 'normal', no matter how contrived the circumstances.

Owen sets out his essential creed in the first chapter:

'... What we call civilisation - the accumulation of knowledge which has come down to us from our forefathers - is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil. It is not the result of the labour of the ancestors of any separate class of people who exist today, and therefore it is by right the common heritage of all. Every little child that is born into the world, no matter whether he is clever or dull, whether he is physically perfect or lame, or blind; no matter how much he may excel or fall short of his fellows in other respects, in one thing at least he is their equal - he is one of the heirs of all the ages that have gone before.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9789353429041
Publisher: Astral International Pvt. Ltd.
Publication date: 07/08/2019
Pages: 514
Sales rank: 894,879
Product dimensions: 6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 1.15(d)

About the Author

Irish writer Robert Tressell (1870-1911) was a house painter and the illegitimate son of a retired magistrate. He was born Robert Noonan in Dublin in 1870 and moved to England in 1901. He worked briefly in South Africa and began writing under the pen name Tressell.
His work is believed to have been largely based on his experiences of poverty, exploitation, and the fear that his daughter Kathleen would be consigned to the workhouse if he became ill.
The novel is set in the fictional town of Mugsborough, based on the southern English coastal town of Hastings, and the original title page of the book carried the subtitle: "Being the story of twelve months in Hell, told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell."
The book was completed in 1910, but no one had published it before the author's death in 1911. His daughter, determined to have her father's writing published, showed it to a friend, writer Jessie Pope. Pope's publisher bought the rights in April 1914.

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The ragged trousered philanthropists 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
jayne_charles on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was written nearly a hundred years ago, but it doesn't have the sort of overly-descriptive wordy feel of other books from that era. Tressell has a straightforward, almost childlike style, and accordingly the story is very accessible and easy to read.I would never consider myself a socialist (I have no left-leanings whatsoever!) so this book's great triumph is that it almost turned me red! The case that is made for socialism is compelling, you cannot but feel sympathy for the characters who are so badly treated by their employers, this maltreatment seemingly a direct result of the economic system in which they exist. In the 21st century, as we look back on, say, Eastern European history, we can see the flaws in the argument, yet when the activist arrived with his socialist propaganda I found myself mentally urging him on. My main criticism of the book is its repetitiveness (how many times do we need to hear how a decorating job was bodged, paint 'slobbered' on the wall etc etc?) and lax editing. This said, the author surprised me right at the end with a scene so touching and yet delivered with such incredible simplicity that the tears were fairly rolling down my cheeks.I'm still in favour of the free market, but I'm very glad to have read this book.
Pyobon on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Rather a polemic, but very readable, mainly for it's social history, but also for the clarity of its explanation of the roots of poverty
miketroll on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This novel is an icon of socialist literature, revealing the essence of the leftist mind set: pious, didactic, simplistic, smug.Tressell is especially fond of attacking the profit motive. This is absurd: who in this world engages in work with the intention of making a loss?
missjones on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The novel is an account of a year in the life of a group of housepainters in Hastings in the years before the First World War.The central character of the book is a housepainter named Owen who tries to rouse his workmates from their political apathy to embrace Socialism as the solution to their impoverished and precarious existence.Even if you don¿t agree with the Socialist theory espoused in the book you are quickly drawn in by Tressell¿s superb characterization and acute ear for dialogue. Anyone who has ever worked will recognize the characters and situations which are depicted so masterfully. Before I read the book I would never have thought that my working life would have anything in common with that of an Edwardian tradesman but the situations Tressell depicts are universal.An excellent book which I couldn¿t recommend highly enough.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book helps to remove the hypnotic mask of capitalism's social acceptance. This is achieved through a enjoyable and accessable style of writing that has the power to both pen hope and slam the door of harsh reality in the face of it. Enduring to the last.