A long awaited update - and much more.
Dave Harker's new work is the first is the first book-length study of Robert
Tressell to be published since F C Ball's 1973 biography One of the Damned,
which came out in 1973 and has been out of print for many years. More
importantly, perhaps, it is the first substantial subsequent study that,
whilst drawing on Ball's work, has examined it critically and looked beyond it
to primary sources. In this endeavour, Harker has benefited greatly from his
access to the ever-expanding archive compiled and administered by Reg Johnson,
whose late wife, Joan, was Tressell's grand-daughter and last surviving direct
The value of Fred Ball's astonishing efforts in tracking down the manuscript
of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, restoring it as closely to its
author's original intended text as could reasonably be expected, given the
limited resources available to him, and collating the biographical detail he
gathered over a period of over thirty years is immense. This should not,
however, be allowed to hide the fact that his research was incomplete, and his
conclusions occasionally flawed. More recent essays that have failed to take
account of this do no justice to Ball by treating his findings as gospel
rather than building on them and augmenting them. The most recent and
exciting exception to this is Jonathan Hyslop's discovery of the documents
relating to Tressell's divorce case, in South Africa.
The first section of Harker's book provides an updated narrative of the life
of the author and the early history of the manuscript, its original discovery
by those who were in a position to bring about its publication and the two
editing processes that it was subjected to in order to produce the severely
mangled 1914 edition and the even more drastically abridged one shilling
edition first published in 1918. All of this is told against the background
of a lively account of the socialist and labour politics of the time, which
continues as Harker relates the book's subsequent history through its
publication record and the stories of those who read it and whose lives were
radicalised by it. Ball's story is incorporated skilfully into this, as are the arcane ideological manoeuvrings of the various incarnations of the UK communist parties and their Trotskyist opponents. Overall the narrative is one of betrayal, the betrayal of ideals and of the people whose protection and advancement lies at the core of the socialist ideal as embodied in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, culminating in the ultimate betrayal that is New Labour. Surveys of Labour MPs still indicate that Tressell's work is the favourite book of the Parliamentary Labour Party but one wonders how long it is since any of them actually read it!
Like Tressell, Harker is strong on diagnoses but less so on detailed remedies for the ills of the system that now dominates global culture, but also like Tressell he ends on an upbeat, with a timely call to arms and a plea for unity amongst those who crave the dismantling of capitalism and the construction of Tressell's dream of a Co-operative Commonwealth.
Anyone who wants to know all that is currently known about Tressell and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, or to read an accessible summary of British Labour history, should buy/read this book.
Incidentally, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists seems to be availble in the US only as an expensive import, even though it is beginning to figure on University syllabuses. Time for a campaign to get it back in print over there I think.