The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists — Robert Tressell

A hundred or so years ago, the English working classes had terribly rough lives.They spent half their time working under harsh conditions and the other half desperately looking for work. They never had enough food or clothing. But despite their ragged clothing they were content to spend their lives working for the betterment of their fellow men — in particular, their employers, who did no productive work themselves but instead spent their time cheating and exploiting their clients and employees.

That’s what this book is about — the unfairness, not of the exploitative ruling classes, but of the system that kept everybody in their place. Tressell, through his characters, rails against the system which forced so many people to toil themselves into an early grave while lazy people who did no work (aristocracy, landowners, business owners, etc) reaped all the benefits. The system is Capitalism, and the book offers impassioned arguments in favour of an alternative system, Socialism.

Apart from that, this is just a story of the lives of a few working-class people and how they cope with their mostly pretty appalling lives. The workers and their families seem plausible, but the bosses seem mostly to be caricatures, right down to their names (Botchit, Sweater, etc.). The authorial voice is savage on the hypocrisy of so-called Christians, and the passivity of many of the working-class people who believe that fairness and better conditions “ain’t for the likes of us”.

Despite the gloom and occasional oppressive air of hopelessness, the episodes are interesting and the characters are engaging, and the book does end on an upbeat note. I wonder what Tressell would have thought if he could have seen how things would be now, 100 years later. Conditions are certainly much better now for most people, but still I don’t think he would have been that happy.

Bonus! I found an excellent comic book interpretation of The Great Money Trick chapter by Andy Vine. It stands alone and gives a good flavour of the book. And the artwork works really well with the dialogue. Definitely worth your time!

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