The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Robert Tressell
I did a mini-review of this after a few chapters because the author’s use of phonetic spelling for working class accents annoyed me. I thought it was hypocritical of the author to be contemptuous of the working classes. Having now finished it, it still annoys me, but I no longer think it’s hypocritical. The author is openly hostile to the working classes, accusing them of being complicit in their own poverty and the future poverty of their children.
This author is angry, with very good reason, and he’s angry at everyone; the working classes, the rich who are exploiting the working classes and the rich who are trying to help. There’s a character who is the only honest man among all the crooks on the local council. He tries to hold his colleagues to account for their corruption, and is rewarded with the moniker “Dr Weakling” by the author. The author has similar contempt for the middle classes honestly trying to be charitable to the poor.
The only character of whom the author approves is the protagonist, because he’s a Socialist. Now, I’m a big old Lefty so I’ve got no political axe to grind with this, but the book is very heavy on what was wrong with the current system, and very light on exactly how Socialism would improve things. The character who is a Socialist doesn’t even actively do anything different to his non-Socialist colleagues, apart from believe in Socialism and try to convert others. He does not hold out for higher wages or try to organise any collective action. He behaves exactly as they do, but is portrayed as a hero among villains simply because he espouses the correct ideology.
There’s still an awful lot that annoys me in this book, but every word is saturated in the author’s righteous anger, which makes it undeniably powerful. It’s a polemic, thinly disguised as a novel. As a novel, it’s rubbish. As a political argument, it’s incomplete. But as rhetoric intended to inspire change, by making people so angry that they want to get some shit sorted out, then it succeeded – it’s credited with helping to win the 1945 election for labour.