Many, many – possibly showing my age hear but – many moons ago, whilst doing an A level in government and politics, my teacher recommended I read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
Despite leaning to left so far at the time I am amazed I didn’t fall over, I had never heard of the book – which promotes socialism over capitalism as the only real option if the working classes are to ever have a decent standard of living and reap the rewards of their labours.
I immediately went out and read it, though it wasn’t the easiest book to get through, and it has stuck with me ever since. I remember it made me angry at times, sad at others, and utterly depressed for most of it. Life for the characters in this book was harsh, bleak, and – often – short. They worked hard (or rather were worked hard) for little pay and, when they didn’t work, there was no safety net to catch them.
Recently, it came up in conversation and I decided maybe the time was right to read it again. I couldn’t remember the plot, I realised, but still had images of the painters and decorators the story centres around in my head and also one scene in particular where someone dies hadn’t ever left me.
As soon as I started reading, the story came back to me pretty much straight away, as did the indignation I felt for and the frustration I felt with the characters. They are treated so badly – yet they don’t stand up and say no. Of course, with no welfare state to protect you and plenty of other men willing to take your job, it’s probably no surprise.
This isn’t a subtle book. It’s one that beats you over the head with it’s message, which it repeats pretty consistently throughout the book to make sure you get it. It paints a picture of a world I wouldn’t want to live in – one that in the grand scheme of things isn’t that long ago. Reading it, part of me thinks how far we’ve come – with employee rights and state benefits – whilst part of me wonders if we’ve come very far at all and if we are maybe just more comfortable in our chains thanks to satellite TV and smart phones.
Reading back over what I’ve written I realise I’ve gotten quite feisty, which is what the book was no doubt written to do – to light a fire and wind me up (in a political way). It is how I felt back as a teenager and how I hope other people will feel reading it.
Despite being over a 100 years old a lot of the messages in it are relevant and just need looking at with a modern eye. I’m not saying we should all storm the barricades but I am saying, after reading it, in this capitalist world maybe we should think about how we treat each other and those that work for us / wish us. This one is worth a read if the news of more cuts to welfare make you feel uncomfortable or you are a political bent – though appreciate it’s not for everyone.
[…] The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, a book I read in my late teens and found still had the same impact today. Written a 100 years ago it takes on the plight of the working man and makes an impassioned argument for socialism. […]
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