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 descendant. 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.
Dave Harker has written a lengthy treatise on Tressell, he has covered the politics and sociology. However he has completely ignored the reason why Sweater's house was called 'The Cave'and thus ignored Tressell's interest in Plato, which he refers to as being a copy on the shelf. Harker should have read it, particuarly the allegory of the cave. Within the cave, Plato speaks of the immobilised prisoners, chained with their eyes and limbs fixed on the wall, in a perpetual state of dealing with the trivia of the petty miseries of men, while ignoring the call to leave this state and go to find the truth. On page 693, the men whom Sweater tyrannises, harness themselves to his victory ride, instead of the horses, dragging his coach through the mud and pouring rain all the way to the Cave. Most of them were accustomed to acting as beasts of burden, the wolves had an easy prey. This incidence follows from the election, where truth was discussed and not found, men preferring not to leave what they knew, even if for freedom. Perhaps their eyes would be so blinded as not to be able to see anything. Once enlightened the freed prisoner would want to return (Owen)to free his fellow bondsmen. They however, would attack any who sought to free them. Please Dave Harker, look at what you missed.