“Taking responsibility to heart and then acting on it is, more often than not, the hardest choice to make. Just as being authentic sometimes means having to redouble one’s efforts in order to persuade others of the worth of your conviction when they would rather shout you down.”
We left the last post with freedom, responsibility and authenticity in our minds. We also had Sartre walking around the edge of ethics rather than leading step-by-step from a secure foundation through to a logical conclusion. So, in keeping with this spirit, and also the one that guides this series of posts, it makes sense to look for our cultural mirror in a work that has always been at the furthest edge of the canon but, by being there, has helped give shape and definition to that canon. The edge position occupied by The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is most readily understood due to the overtly political nature of its text. However, underneath there is also philosophical nature given form by one of the main protagonists, Frank Owen, who exemplifies in his words and deeds much of what Sartre shows us concerning responsibility and authenticity.
Robert Tressell’s novel begins with twenty-five “carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, bricklayers and painters, besides several unskilled labourers” working to renovate the new home of a local dignity in the fictional southern town of Mugsborough. The story is set at the turn of the twentieth century and is based very much upon Tressell’s own experiences. Frank Owen is quickly picked out amongst the throng when a discussion emerges concerning “fissical policy” and politics. Owen immediately confronts, and seemingly sets himself above, his colleagues:
“Does the fact that you never ‘trouble your heads about politics’ prevent you from voting at election times?”
We learn, as the text progresses, that Owen in contradistinction has taken the time and is very well apprised of politics. Tressell sides with Owen and writes a damning account of the other workers’ ignorance and how their minds are brainwashed by the media. Sociologically, Tressell’s account is remarkable in his concise assessment as it is also, apparently, timeless:
“None of them really understood the subject: not one of them had ever devoted fifteen consecutive minutes to the earnest investigation of it. The papers they read were filled with vague and alarming accounts of the quantities of foreign merchandise imported into this country, the enormous numbers of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade. These were the seeds which, cunningly sown in their minds, caused to grow up within them a bitter undiscriminating hatred of foreigners… The country was in a hell of a state, poverty, hunger and misery in a hundred forms had already invaded thousands of homes and stood upon the thresholds of thousands more. How came these things to be? It was the bloody foreigner!”
This is Owen’s base layer, to which he decides to tackle and find some way to correct. Discussions ensue throughout the work on the house in the break-times, no talking being allowed during work except when relevant to the job in hand. The first topic of conversation is the cause of poverty, to which the others ascribe all manner of red herrings. Over-population, drink, laziness, machinery, women, education, and early marriages were all trotted out causing Owen to reflect “Were they all hopelessly stupid? Had their intelligence never developed beyond the childhood stage? Or was he himself mad?” Taking a different route, Owen decides to define his understanding of poverty:
“What I call poverty is when people are not able to secure for themselves all the benefits of civilisation; the necessaries, comforts, pleasures and refinements of life, leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food.”
The response to this list of outrageous requirements reveals one of Tressell’s fundamental tenets: the blind acceptance of a social hierarchy by those near or at the bottom:
“Everybody laughed. It was ridiculous. The idea of the likes of them wanting or having such things.”
Owen’s response is to try and show his fellow workers that they should see themselves as equal to their ‘betters’: “We do our full share of the work, therefore we should have a full share of the things that are made by work.” Silence ensues as the others try to grapple with this novel idea and Owen takes the opportunity to push their minds further:
“As things are now, instead of enjoying the advantages of civilisation we are really worse off than slaves, for if we were slaves our owners in their own interest would see to it that we always had food…”
At which point, he gets cut short. However, maybe there’s advantage in that for us to also interject and remind ourselves that Owen was right. Before the advent of the Welfare State, unions that had to be listened to and various pieces of legislation designed to protect individuals, life was incredibly perilous for most employees. The threat of being laid off and without an income to provide for food, clothing, warmth and shelter loomed around every corner, especially when work was of a piecemeal nature. And, it was to this status quo, which his peers all seemed to sign up to without question, that Owen applies himself throughout the book as he tries to teach them that life could be otherwise if only they could allow themselves to think differently. In his quest, though, Owen finds his views are shot down and thwarted by all those around and he expresses frustration to Nora, his wife:
“And yet, all their lives they have supported and defended the system that robbed them, and have resisted and ridiculed every proposal to alter it. It’s wrong to feel sorry for such people; they deserve to suffer.”
Worse than this, though, Owen thinks about putting his small family, including his young son, Frankie, out of their own particular misery when he reads in the newspaper of a “Terrible Domestic Tragedy” committed by a man, whose home was devoid of furniture, food or any sign of hope, who took the lives of each member of his family before taking his own.
Owen, however, holds the dark thoughts about his fellow sufferers and his own personal condition at bay and at times seems to keep going just to spite and argue with his colleagues. When Bob Crass states, “Machinery is the real cause of poverty”, Owen, one feels, is almost compelled to point out his wrongheadedness:
“Machinery is undoubtedly the cause of unemployment, but it’s not the cause of poverty: that’s another matter altogether… Poverty consists in a shortage of the necessaries of life. When those things are so scarce or so dear that people are unable to obtain sufficient of them to satisfy all their needs, those people are in a condition of poverty. If you think that the machinery, which makes it possible to produce all the necessaries of life in abundance, is the cause of the shortage, it seems to me that there must be something the matter with your minds.”
As the day-to-day drudgery of their work continues, Owen stance shifts and he takes less of a confrontational position that begins to show in his choice of pronouns. ‘We’ and ‘us’ replace ‘they’ and ‘your’ as he aligns himself with his peers rather than distancing himself from them. Talking to Will Easton, whilst they are both in the same room painting, an ‘illegal’ undertaking in there foreman’s eyes, Owen asks:
“Do you think it’s right for us to tamely make up our minds to live for the rest of our lives under such conditions…?”
Easton’s reply misses the point as he believes that “trade hasn’t always been as bad as it is now”. Going further off-track, Easton recalls when they could work fourteen and sixteen hours a day, as if that would solve their problems. Owen, rather than adopting his previous ‘take no prisoners’ approach, tries to open Easton’s mind:
“But don’t you think it’s worth while trying to find out whether it’s possible to so arrange things that we be able to live like civilised human beings without being alternately worked to death or starved?”
At this moment Owen, as well as moving beyond confrontation, starts to see his fellow workers as people who could conceivably change their thinking if encouraged and shown how. And with this new vision from Owen, perhaps we can start to see a glimmer of responsibility for those he worked with coming to the fore?
Steadily, Owen begins a process of attempting to talk to his colleagues during their breaks, in a way that they can understand. He is heckled and argued with along the way, but continues the next day if shouted down on the previous. Progress is made apparent by Tressell, when we witness Easton talking with Joe Philpot and Fred Harlow:
“’There’s no doubt Owen knows ‘is work,’ remarked Easton, although ‘e is a bit orf is onion about Socialism.’
‘I don’t know so much about that, mate,’ returned Philpot. ‘I agree with a lot that ‘e ses. I’ve often thought the same things meself, but I can’t talk like ‘im, cause I ain’t got no ‘ead for it.’
‘I agree with some of it too,’ said Harlow with a laugh, ‘but all the same ‘e does say some bloody silly things, you must admit.’”
Two steps forward, one step back? A little while later, after Owen shows them what he he’s named the ‘Great Money Trick’, Harlow starts to show signs of understanding:
“I begin to think that a great deal of what Owen says is true. But for my part I can’t see ‘ow it’s ever goin’ to be altered.”
Owen’s views and opinions are slowly showing signs of taking root in some of his peers, whilst others still cast aspersions. He is even nicknamed the ‘Professor’, by a few but rises to the occasion by jocularly taking to the ‘pulpit’, a small pair of steps arranged by Philpot:
“Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, it is with some degree of hesitation that I venture to address myself to such a large, distinguished, fashionable and intelligent looking audience as that which I have the honour of seeing before me on the present occasion.”
His good humour is rewarded by the laughter of those gathered in the room sitting on upturned pails, planks stretched across step-ladders lying on their sides, and other jerry-rigged temporary seating. Crass, who has been biding his time over the past few days, however unleashes the contents of a cutting from the Obscurer newspaper which he believes delivers a hammer blow to Owen’s ideas about Socialism. Owen doesn’t flinch and declares: “That isn’t an argument against Socialism – it’s an argument against the hypocrites who pretend to be Christians” and flings it back to Crass and some of the others whom he knows practice just such hypocrisy. As an open atheist, in a time when such free-thinking pretty made you an outcast, this was potentially a danger play to make. However, Owen doesn’t fall foul and is allowed to hold forth further due to the inability of Crass to pit his wits much further than reading out the newspaper cutting.
Where Owen takes his ‘congregation’ or lecture next, I believe, shines a Sartrean light. Whether the theme of hypocrisy was playing on Tressell’s mind or whether he just wanted to go where his narrative was flowing, we shall never know. He died from pulmonary tuberculosis as soon as the manuscript was completed in 1911, at the tragically early age of forty. Owen’s words, in the text, however, give insight into the undercurrent of his thinking, if we substitute “I” [Owen] when he uses “The Socialist” or “he”:
“The Socialist… pleads for the changing of the system. He advocates Co-operation instead of Competition: but how can he co-operate with people who insist on competing with him? No individual can practise co-operation by himself! Socialism can only be practised by the Community – that is the meaning of the word.”
Owen, if I read Tressell’s work correctly, has discovered that if he truly believes in Socialism then he must find a way to co-operate with others, even if, frustratingly, their first instinct is to reject his ideas. This is the demoralising path that he must tread if he is sincere in his belief in Socialism. And, such sincerity, of course, is only a theoretical stand-in for Sartre’s reworking of authenticity. To be a Socialist on one’s own is not to practice Socialism. So, with the arrival of this self-evident truth comes Owen’s entry into authenticity. Maybe because of this realisation that he needs others to understand in order for Socialism to attempt any kind of potential, he applies himself with more vigour to the task of explaining the cause of poverty to his audience and creates what Tressell, quite blandly, called The Oblong. Essentially, a chart to show pictorially how the products of labour get shared out amongst different sectors of society, The Oblong gives an anchor for the others to grapple intellectually with as Owen tries to educate them as to how the nation’s wealth is created and into whose pockets most of that wealth gets distributed:
“They were compelled to do a little thinking on their own account, and it was a process to which they were unaccustomed… Several men had risen from their seats and were attentively studying the diagrams Owen had drawn on the wall; and nearly all the others were making the same mental effort.”
Owen hadn’t quite achieved a eureka moment, though, because as Tressell makes clear, “they were trying to think of something to say in defence of those who robbed them of the fruits of their toil.” Resistance brought forth no tenable opposition, however.
What happens next in the novel, for Owen, is a series of more personal involvements with his colleagues. He lends pamphlets and books on Socialism to those who ask, he buys and distributes pamphlets, and even got attacked by an angry mob during the election season. Throughout, he is dogged by doubt and depressive thoughts, but his actions continue to display the authenticity he has found. Two of his actions stand out, right at the last in the novel, which demonstrate how Sartrean responsibility had also come to pass within Owen’s outlook and life.
Since the separation of Easton from his wife, Ruth, Owen and Nora have had Ruth and her child living with them. This state of affairs has unsettled Easton and he wants her back. However, at the start he thinks it should be on his terms. Owen “unable to control his resentment of the other’s manner” steps up and seizes responsibility for his fellow worker and tells him what’s what:
“As far as I understand it, you had a good wife and you ill-treated her… The responsibility for what has happened is mainly yours, but apparently you wish to pose now as being very generous and to ‘forgive her’ – you’re ‘willing’ to take her back; but it seems to me that it would be more fitting that you should ask her to forgive you.”
To give Easton his due, he listened to Owen and acted accordingly. Owen’s next conquest and display of responsibility occurs when he finds the undernourished and poorly developed fifteen year-old apprentice, Bert White, hard at work without any fire to warm him in an out-building at Rushton’s firm. Owen countering Bert’s protests, that he has been told not to burn any of the waste wood because it is needed elsewhere, throws some timber into the fireplace and lights it. Owen then seeks out Rushton to reprimand him regarding his ill treatment of the young lad. Telling Rushton that he’ll have him prosecuted if he ever makes Bert work without a fire in winter again, Owen stands up to be counted and allows his words and actions to take another stance of responsibility. Rushton, just as Easton before him, knuckles under and acquiesces, but only after giving Owen a sleepless night of terror as he dreads the prospect of being laid off for insolence.
Taking responsibility to heart and then acting on it is, more often than not, the hardest choice to make. Just as being authentic sometimes means having to redouble one’s efforts in order to persuade others of the worth of your conviction when they would rather shout you down.
These are my personal views on ethics and they are not intended to represent the views of Conway Hall Ethical Society.
Dr. Jim Walsh