Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is a book that has made (or helped make) many socialists, at least in Britain. It has long been popular in our companion party, the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Set in a seaside town on England’s south coast – Hastings, thinly disguised as Mugsborough — it is a story of daily working class life in the early 20th century, interspersed with dramatized explanations of how capitalism works and how socialism could work better.
To a considerable extent the book is about the author’s own life, for Owen, the central character, like Tressel (pen name of Robert Noonan), is a house painter and socialist who is always trying to enlighten his fellow workers. Tressel died penniless of TB in 1911 and his book was first published in 1914 thanks to the efforts of his daughter.
Some may be puzzled by the book’s title. Trousers means pants. Philanthropist (Greek for ‘lover of mankind’) usually means a capitalist who gives money to supposedly worthy causes. The true philanthropists, argues Owen, are the workers who beg only to continue working for the profit of their employers.
While most of the characters in the story are men, there are moving sketches of Owen’s family life, such as an episode in which his wife is seduced by their lodger. On one occasion he sees a young worker being bullied by his boss and foresees, but is helpless to avert, the misery in store for his own sensitive son.
Many editions of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists are on sale. Or you can listen to the Audiobook that LibriVox has made available in four parts on Youtube. There are several other more or less relevant videos on Youtube. Of particular interest is a talk by the actor and musician Ricky Tomlinson. He too used to be in the building trades – a plasterer. He read The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists while in prison (it was given him by the warden!) — The Book That Made Me.