Ragged edge

Robert Tressell was guilty of the sin of despair.

The political novel is rarely an unqualified literary triumph. Novels of political life cannot deal convincingly with political ideas. Plantagenet Palliser rises from backbencher to prime minister over the course of Trollope's six volumes with only one act of parliament to his credit. Novels of political ideas - unless they are set in imaginary worlds, which makes them science fiction - sacrifice plot, character and dialogue in order to argue the case that is their ideological theme. So it is with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Judged purely as a work of fiction, it lacks all distinction. And its arguments - although driven home with a repetitive intensity which was meant to make new converts - are so crudely simplistic that they are likely to appeal only to readers who share the author's beliefs before they open the book.

Yet, 100 years after Robert Tressell's death, his story of the downtrodden painters and decorators of Mugsborough retains an appeal that is more than antiquarian. As well as teaching us what one section of the nascent Labour Party believed, it reminds us that there was a time when radicals thought that policies had to be built on a comprehensive analysis of society's failures and the way in which they could be remedied. It is a practice that modern social democrats would do well to follow.

Tressell proclaimed his convictions on the title page. The ragged-trousered workmen are philanthropists because their true earnings exceed what they are paid. The difference between what their employment is worth and what they receive is "donated" to their employers. In one chapter, Frank Owen, the hero of the novel, elaborates on Marx's theory of surplus value with an explanation - illustrated with slices of stale bread (raw materials) and knives and forks (machinery) - of how control of the means of production and distribution enables capitalists (invariably called "lazy") to exploit working-class consumers by manipulating the market. Owen sets it all out to his sceptical workmates during the dinner break as they redecorate a "large three-storey building" that they call "the cave". It all reads like a badly digested lecture to the Hastings branch of the Social Democratic Federation of which Tressell was a member.

It is the influence of the SDF - the one Marxist element in the origins of the Labour Party - that makes Owen, and presumably Tressell, so contemptuous of the supine working class whose "apathy" enables the "brigands" of capitalism "to carry on their depredations undisturbed".

However, apathy is not their only crime. They are so gullible that they believe that the "fact that a man had made money [is] proof of his intellectual capacity". And they are potentially corrupt. "They all cursed Crass" - their tyrannical foreman - "but most of them would have been very glad to change places with him." The fault lies with the system, not with them. "Had one of them been in [Crass's] place they would have been compelled to act in the same way or lose his job." It is the demands of the system which explain, and almost excuse, the iniquity of individual capitalists. "The only way to compete successfully against other employers who are sweaters is to be a sweater yourself."

The result, according to Tressell, was a demoralisation of the poor which amounted to their total debasement. Thanks to the system, he writes: "They sat in their rags and ate their coarse food and cracked their coarser jokes and drank the dreadful tea and were content." Nobody who reads chapter 20 of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists could imagine that it was written in praise of the innate nobility of the working class or that the author believed in its members' ability to escape from depri­vation. The men who drink in the Cricketers' Arms are starvelings who will never awake from their slumbers until the revolution - led by the discerning elite - finally changes the whole of society.

So, in Mugsborough, "more or less all of the victims . . . were quite content, being persuaded that the Great System was the only one possible and the best that human wisdom could devise. The reason why they believed this was because not one of them had ever troubled to enquire whether it would be possible to order things differently." The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, so long the bible of sentimental socialists, exhibits attitudes towards the working class which come very near to contempt.

It explains why the SDF rejected the notion that the world could be changed through the decisions of a truly democratic parliament or that trade unions could materially improve the lot of their members. Its message is that, until the revolution overthrows the system, the debasement of the poor - no less than the greed and corruption of the rich - makes improvement impossible.

In the years since it was published - first in a politically sanitised form but finally, as recently as 1955, complete and unabridged - The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has been subject to every sort of criticism other than the one it most deserved. It has been accused of relegating women to a subservient position in working-class life - a role they undoubtedly occupied during the early years of the 20th century in which the story is set. It has also been criticised for the author's unconvincing attempts to reproduce the patois of the poor - a failure of which finer writers than Tressell, D H Lawrence and Thomas Hardy among them, are undoubtedly guilty. Yet its greatest weakness - the sin of despair - is generally overlooked. The edited, 1914 version ended with Owen's contemplated suicide. That - though an act of literary vandalism - captured the depressing spirit of the novel. The hope of gradual improvement, working men and women aspiring to better things and achieving them through organisation, pressure and persuasion, is completely discounted.

The importance of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is the emphasis it places on the need to change the whole social system. Its weakness is its assumption that the working class is too craven and corrupt to work gradually towards achieving that end. l

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983-92