A review of an adaptation by Sophie Rickard (Author) and Scarlett Rickard (Artist) of the original work by Robert Tressell.
This is a story for today, a story of people struggling to pay rent, put food on the table and stay warm. Based on the original novel by Robert Tressell, who died in 1911 aged 40, it was published after his death by his widow and it has not been out of print since. This graphic adaptation by the Rickard sisters has given it a new life, making it accessible to a new generation looking for answers found generations ago.
The story is set around a group of workers who gather during their lunch breaks where they talk about their struggle to live and work. We find them in the kitchen of the house they are decorating (Tressell was himself a decorator), sat on step ladders laid on the floor as makeshift benches. There is a discussion on the causes of poverty and it is suggested that, far from money being the solution to poverty, money is actually the cause of poverty. By using the format of a graphic novel, the money trick is demonstrated brilliantly. A knife is used to represent the machinery of production, with slices of bread as the raw materials. The demonstration progresses, the penny drops and we can now all see why money is the cause of poverty.
People engaged in conversation about topics that matter were depicted in ancient times by writers like Plato. In those days there were fewer distractions. There was no ever-present media telling us what to think, so people talked to and learnt from each other, and were able to make up their own mind.
Between the workers’ lunchtime discussions, a very human story of working class life at the start of the 20th century unfolds with enjoyment, relationships, injustice, suffering and compassion. We see the workings of the town council where members line each other’s pockets, with a lone questioning voice dismissed with little or no consideration. Then there is the violence that those who wanted change suffered.
As the months pass topics are explored in different settings, but it all comes to together in chapter 17 with “The Great Oration” setting out what socialism is, with all the usual objections set out and answered in the following chapter.
Throughout the book there are clear echoes of the arguments set out by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto written in the 1840’s, that the suffering and hardship endured by the working class is entirely avoidable. In 1946 George Orwell, in the Manchester Evening News, described The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as “a book that everyone should read”.
Towards the end a character laments about an election and, as he does so, a familiar question is answered. Why is it that working people continue to elect Conservative governments?
“ .. they (the working class) have learned to think less of themselves, and don’t trust their own wits, they wholeheartedly trust those who rob them…. They must choose between the evidence and the stories they have been told. They feel safer trusting their masters than themselves… because it has been drilled into them” (p. 325)
Socialists today continue to struggle to make their case. As leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn suffered an unprecedented onslaught of abuse from the media, deliberately misrepresenting both his manifesto and what he personally stood for. The stories were believed by millions and so Johnston was elected. Discredited for his personal behaviour rather than the mismanagement of the pandemic and BREXIT, Johnston was eventually forced to resign. The media was then full of stories backing Truss, only for her to be discredited and driven out of office in just 50 days. The press are now busy conditioning the people to accept tax and price rises that will push many into poverty and some into an early death.
It is no accident that the title of the newspaper seen throughout the book is “The Obscurer”.
“It is not a wild dream for industries to belong to the community and be organised and directed by people elected by us” (p. 263)
During the 2nd World War, Britain was forced to turn to socialism, implementing a planned economy to share scarce resources. Today as the climate crisis escalates, and the need to manage our economy differently becomes ever more apparent, the move towards socialism becomes inevitable.
Many thanks and much appreciation to the Rickard sisters, they have produced a wonderful resource that so clearly sets out the case for socialism. It’s brilliant, just buy it and share it.