Jenny Farrell reviews the novel Milkman, a peripheral view on a besieged working-class community during the North of Ireland Troubles, which has won the Man Booker Prize
Belfast-born author Anna Burns has won the 2018 Man Booker Prize for her novel Milkman. The Booker’s chair of judges, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, described it as “incredibly original”, and “None of us has ever read anything like this before.” Burns is the first North of Ireland winner of this award, previous Irish authors being Iris Murdoch, Roddy Doyle, John Banville, and Anne Enright.
Any novel about the Troubles makes a statement feeding into the way history will record those times, new generations will see them. Not only is there an Official Version, there are also the real experiences of both communities and various versions within each of these. Milkman must be seen in this context.
Milkman reads like a dystopian novel. We are in a time and place where names are not mentioned, places not named, people referred to in terms of their relationship to the anonymous narrator, or by another designation. Almost everything is expressed indirectly, by innuendo. In this way, the narrative style of the novel reflects the coded talk of Belfast, where names reveal an either/or identity, and pronunciation is a shibboleth.
The world presented is both dystopian and Belfast at the same time, specifically Catholic working-class Ardoyne, in the 1970s, because those times were as horrendous as they are described here. Anna Burns conveys this, highlighting the madness, by using a surreal narrative style. She also goes off on frequent tangents before returning to the main storyline. This can make for challenging reading on the one hand, but also earned the judges’ approval on the other.
Ardoyne is a Catholic enclave in Protestant North Belfast, one of a number of Catholic areas in Belfast that are completely isolated and therefore more vulnerable. Ardoyne is written into the novel in many ways, in the unnamed, geographical detail and above all, in the way people speak. The title itself expresses the book’s Belfast and North of Ireland theme: Milkman refers to the clandestine transportation of explosives in milk crates into the Catholic areas.
Of course, the word ‘Catholic’ is never used, and neither is ‘Protestant’. Instead, there are ‘renouncers-of-the-state’ and ‘defenders-of-the-state’, those who look ‘across the border’, the others ‘across the water’. The suggestion is that the micro-culture of everyday life is the same in both communities. However, the narrator expresses the experience of the nationalist working-class community. Reflecting general, incorrect usage, the narrator refers to the two Christian denominations as opposite religions. The twain only meet in the city centre in ‘mixed’ bars and, unexpectedly, in the French evening class. Here, the teacher struggles to get students to see the apparently familiar differently. Indeed, the students are sent out to really look at a sunset – the only vivid colour in the novel, the colour that defines the book’s striking cover.
Milkman himself is a 41-year-old paramilitary sexual predator, who is stalking our narrator. She is an 18-year-old daughter of a widowed working-class mother in this particular community. It is a community under siege by the British state and its “defenders”. However, the narrator is explicitly on the margins of this community, and this is her perspective. She does not relate the experience at the centre of the community, which is probably why the novel has not been happily received by all. Her viewpoint is that the ‘renouncers’ have control over her as they do over the entire community. She is not involved in the renouncers’ activities, yet there is little she can do to separate herself and live an independent life. Milkman and another paramilitary pursue her, indeed attempt to coerce her. At the same time, the narrator does not hide the fact that this crazy situation results from the aggressive, humiliating and controlling treatment of the community by the armed forces of the occupying state.
The absence of colour, of smells, and taste, is very noticeable. People in this place and at this time do not experience life fully. This is a half-life in the shadows, a deprived life, diminished by severe restrictions, curfews, unnerving total observation by state and ‘renouncers’, brutality and violent deaths. Indeed, killings and deaths due to the all-pervasive violence far outweigh natural deaths. Every family here has lost at least one relative, frequently more. Readers, who remember those days, know how true this feels. Even children cannot imagine non-violent deaths. However, the novel does not detail these graphically. The violence is not shown, just its effect on the people within the community, its toll on their personal freedom and entitlement to human living.
Part of this dystopian feeling of greyness and absence of humane living comes from the novel’s statement that people feel unentitled to happiness, especially to a fulfilling, loving relationship with a partner. Relationships are broken off when partners get too close. This adds significantly to the feeling of a life that is lived on the margins, an incomplete life. Only the burst of colour when the students of the French class are sent to really see the sun set over Belfast Lough indicates that another way of life is possible, one which is cross-community.
Despite the sense of entrapment, some of the community in this novel rebel, and some do look for happiness. The narrator is known for reading books while walking, books that are removed from the 20th century. She wants nothing to do with this reality around her and actively tries to separate herself from it. This is not entirely successful. Others who stand out for resistance are women – both the traditional housewives who break the curfew and engage in bin-lid banging to alert neighbours to danger. Early feminists also make an appearance in the story.
Milkman is a reminder of the bad old days. It documents aspects of the working-class experience of the Troubles. Other experiences, like that at the centre of the community, are not Burns’s theme. This novel reflects in a surreal tone the experience of a young woman on the periphery of her community, but not entirely on her own. It is an experience defined above all by the military force of the imperialist British state, and the responses such violence and oppression creates in the besieged and divided population.
Jenny Farrell writes about Bertolt Brecht's anti-war play "Mother Courage and Her Children", first performed in Germany 70 years ago. The play has retained its relevance as a warning against war.
Brecht began writing this work on the day the Nazi army occupied Warsaw. He had watched as fascism took hold of broad sections of the German populace, and Hitler’s fascists prepared for war. Brecht chose the Thirty Years' War as the historical background for “Mother Courage”. His focus was on the victims of war: the ordinary soldiers, the farmers, cooks, recruiters, sergeants, field preachers, and the plebeians - those who will feed the cannons sooner or later.
Mother Courage is a small trader, who buys goods and sells them to the troops with whom she is travelling, while trying to ensure her patchwork family’s survival. At first she succeeds in doing so, through her wit and repartee, and through her realism and pragmatism - qualities that identify her as part of the lower classes. When she finally loses her children, one after another, it is invariably due to her profiteering, her last-minute deals, her false priorities. It is her business that leads to the death of her children.
The children’s qualities - fearlessness, honesty, naivety and willingness to help - contribute to their demise in this war. Mother Courage, who risks everything for her business - hence her name - tries to reconcile the irreconcilable. Her failure, at the end of a seemingly endless war, is predictable. And yet she herself draws no consequences. She learns nothing, even when she exclaims that war should be cursed. In the end, she harnesses herself to her cart, which becomes the play’s central symbol. Business must go on. That she thereby contributes to the continuation of war never enters her mind.
But there is a counterpart, her daughter, the mute Kattrin. Initially, she seems like a pitiable victim, but she observes her mother's actions, registers the disappearance of her brothers and draws her conclusions. In the end, when Catholic troops are about to attack and slaughter the sleeping population of Magdeburg, she wakens them by beating her drum. She opposes war and acts when she sees the opportunity. She could be called the true ‘Courage’. Her deed is a beacon against the acceptance of war as fate, suggesting the possibility of a society not determined by war and profit.
The Berlin premiere of “Mother Courage” performance took place on 11th January 1949. Looking back later, with the rise of the Cold War, and with the Korean War in progress, Brecht wrote: "A new war threatens. Nobody talks about it, everyone knows about it. The majority of people are not for war.”
In this play, Brecht put on stage his ideas of a theatre that would regain its social meaning by developing practicable models of human existence. He wanted his audiences to see the characters on stage no longer as incapable of change, and helplessly at the mercy of their fate. He wanted them to realise that people are determined by their circumstances. And that not only can people change, but so can the ways they relate to each other, and the world that they create for themselves.
‘The most precious thing' said Rosa Luxemburg, 'in the sharp ebb and flow of the revolutionary waves is the proletariat's spiritual growth.' Jenny Farrell presents two letters by Rosa Luxemburg, murdered one hundred years ago in Berlin by the proto-Nazi Freikorps.
Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, founder members of the German Communist Party and fearless anti-war activists, were murdered on 15 January 1919. It is not difficult to discover the details of their political and public lives. However, we would like to honour their memory by highlighting their spiritual and ecological awareness, through presenting two private letters by Rosa Luxemburg to the Russian-born Sophie Liebknecht, wife of Karl Liebknecht.
These letters reveal the private person, the inner landscape of Rosa, an aspect rarely explored in the letters of Marxist writers. The correspondence highlights her sensitivity towards the way we express our humanity in our relationship with the natural world, and that our political, economic and cultural struggles for a humane existence are not ends in themselves, or merely material struggles. They are also moral and psychological struggles for an empathic, compassionate life, for an almost ecstatic, peaceful unity with oneself, with others and with nature.
1. Vronke, 2 May 1917
My dearest little Sonyusha!* Your dear letter arrived here in perfect time yesterday, 1 May. It and two days of sunshine have done much to cheer me up. For my heart was very sore these last few days, but now things are looking up again. If only the sun would stay that way! I am outside almost all day, strolling around in the bushes, searching every corner of my garden and finding all kinds of treasures. So listen: Yesterday, May 1st, I met – guess who? – a radiant common brimstone! I was so happy that my whole heart pounded. It flew up to my sleeve – I wear a purple jacket, and the colour probably attracted it – then it bobbed up and down the wall. In the afternoon, I found three different beautiful feathers: a dark grey one from a redstart, a golden one from a yellowhammer and a greyish-yellow one from a nightingale. We have many nightingales here, I heard the first one early on Easter Sunday, and since then it comes to the big silver poplar in my little garden every day. I put the feathers in a lovely blue box for my small collection: I also have feathers there that I found in the yard of Barnimstraße** – from pigeons and chickens, and also a beautiful blue one from a jay in Südende***. The “collection” is still quite small, but I like to look at it sometimes. I have already decided to whom I will give it.
This morning I discovered a hidden violet right next to the wall I was walking past! The only one in my whole garden. How does Goethe put it?
A violet in the meadow stood, With humble brow, demure and good, It was the sweetest violet.
I was so happy! I am sending you it here, with a kiss pressed lightly on it, may it bring you my love and my greeting. Will it still be little fresh when you get it? ...
Then this afternoon I met the first bumblebee! A very big one in the new shimmering black fur jacket with golden yellow belt. It hummed in a deep bass and flew first to my jacket, then in a big arc high above the yard. The buds of the chestnuts are so big, rosy and swelling, shiny with juice, in a few days they will probably pop out their leaves, which look like little green hands. Remember, last year, how we stood in front of such a chestnut with young leaves and you called in droll desperation: “Rosa! (You roll the “R” even more than I do), what can you say? What can you say at such delight?”
And another discovery made me happy today. You may remember, last April I phoned you both urgently at 10 o’clock in the morning to come to the Botanical Gardens and listen with me to the nightingale giving a whole concert. We sat quietly hidden in dense shrubs on stones beside a tiny streamlet; but after the nightingale, we suddenly heard a wistful call, which sounded something like this: “Gleegleegleegleeglick! I said it sounded like some moor or water bird, and Karl agreed, but we simply couldn’t work out what it was. Just think, one morning a few days ago, I suddenly heard the same lamentation near here, so that my heart throbbed, impatient to find out what it was. I had no peace until I discovered today: it’s not a water bird, but the wryneck, a grey woodpecker. It is only a little bigger than the sparrow and has its name because it tries to frighten its enemies by strange gestures and head contortions. It lives on ants only, which it catches with its sticky tongue like the anteater. The Spanish call it hormiguero – the antbird. Mörike by the way wrote a lovely funny poem on this bird, which Hugo Wolf set to music. I feel like I’ve been given a gift, knowing what the bird with the sad voice is. Perhaps you could let Karl know about this, he would be delighted.
What do I read? Mainly scientific books: plant and animal geography. Just yesterday I read about the causes of songbirds disappearing in Germany: it is due to increased rational forestry, horticulture and agriculture, slowly destroying all their natural nesting and feeding habitats: hollow trees, wasteland, scrub, and withered foliage in gardens. It was so painful to read this. I’m not worried about their singing for people, but the image of the silent, unstoppable demise of these defenceless little creatures hurt me so much, I had to weep. It reminded me of a Russian book by Prof. Siber about the destruction of the Redskins in North America, which I read in Zurich: Slowly but surely, civilised people drive them off their land and submit them to silent, cruel annihilation.
I must be unwell that everything shakes me so deeply now. Do you know? Sometimes I feel that I am not a real person, but some bird or other animal in a failed human form; inwardly I feel much more at home in such a small shred of garden as here, or in a field amongst bumblebees and grass than - at a party conference. I can tell you all this: you will not immediately sense a betrayal of socialism. You know, I will hopefully die for the cause anyway: in a street battle or in prison. But my innermost self belongs more to my coal tits than to the ‘comrades’. And this is not because, like so many bankrupt politicians, I find a refuge, a rest in nature. On the contrary, here too I find so much cruelty at every turn that I suffer a great deal. Imagine, for example, that I simply cannot forget the following little episode. Last spring I was on my way home from a walk across fields, in my quiet, empty street when I noticed a dark little spot on the ground. I bent down and saw a soundless tragedy: a large dung beetle lay on its back and defended itself helplessly with its legs, while a whole load of tiny ants swarmed over it and consumed it – alive! I looked at it, took out my handkerchief and began to chase away the brutal beasts. But they were so cheeky and stubborn that I had to fight a long battle with them, and when I had finally freed the poor wretch and taken him far onto the grass, two legs had already been eaten away ... I fled tormented, feeling that I had done him a very dubious favour.
There is long twilight in the evenings now. How I usually love this hour! In Südende I had so many blackbirds, here I can’t see or hear any. I fed a pair all winter and now it has disappeared. In Südende I used to stroll the street around this time in the evening; it is so beautiful when even in the last violet rays of daylight the rosy gas flames suddenly flicker in the lanterns and look so strange in the dusk, as if they were a little ashamed of themselves. Then the indistinct shape of a porter’s wife or a maid scurries through the street, quickly running to the baker’s or grocer’s to fetch something. The shoemaker’s children, with whom I am friends, used to play in the street in the dark until they were robustly summoned home from the corner. At this hour there always used to be some blackbird that couldn’t find rest and suddenly screeched or babbled like a naughty child, s startled rom sleep and flying noisily from tree to tree. And I stood there in the middle of the street, counting the first stars, reluctant to go home, leaving the balmy air and the twilight in which day and night nestled so softly together. Sonyusha, I will write to you again soon. Put your mind at ease and be cheerful, everything will be fine, even with Karl. I will write to Mathilde about your household worries and do whatever I can. Goodbye until the next letter, my dear little bird.
I embrace you.
* Russian pet name for Sophie (Sophie was a native Russian speaker, Rosa was very fluent)
** The Women’s Prison in Berlin
*** The district in Berlin where Luxemburg lived
Translated by Jenny Farrell
2. Wrocław prison, mid-December 1917
Yesterday I lay awake for a long time – these days I can’t fall asleep before 1 a.m., but I have to go to bed at 10, because the light goes out then, and then I dream to myself about various things in the dark. Last night this is what I was thinking: how odd it is that I’m continually in a joyful state of exaltation – without any particular reason. For example, I’m lying here in a dark cell on a stone-hard mattress, the usual silence of a church cemetery prevails in the prison building, it seems as though we’re in a tomb; on the ceiling can be seen reflections coming through the window from the lanterns that burn all night in front of the prison. From time to time one hears, but only in quite a muffled way, the distant rumble of a train passing by or quite nearby under the windows the whispering of the guards on duty at night, who take a few steps slowly in their heavy boots to relieve their stiff legs. The sand crunches so hopelessly under their heels that the entire hopeless wasteland of existence can be heard in this damp, dark night.
I lie there quietly, alone, wrapped in these many-layered black veils of darkness, boredom, lack of freedom, and winter – and at the same time my heart is racing with an incomprehensible, unfamiliar inner joy as though I were walking across a flowering meadow in radiant sunshine. And in the dark I smile at life, as if I knew some sort of magical secret that gives the lie to everything evil and sad and changes it into pure light and happiness. And all the while I’m searching within myself for some reason for this joy, find nothing and must smile to myself again – and laugh at myself. I believe that the secret is nothing other than life itself; the deep darkness of night is so beautiful and as soft as velvet, if one only looks at it the right way; and in the crunching of the damp sand beneath the snow beneath the slow, heavy steps of the sentries a beautiful small song of life is being sung – if only one knows how to listen properly.
At such moments I think of you and I would like so much to pass on this magical key to you, so that always and in all situations you would be aware of the beautiful and the joyful, so that you too would live in a joyful euphoria as though you were walking across a colourful meadow. I am certainly not thinking of foisting off on you some sort of asceticism or made-up joys. I don’t begrudge you all the real joys of the senses that you might wish for yourself. I would just like to add to this my inexhaustible inner cheerfulness, so that I could be at peace about you and not worry, so that you could go through life wearing a star-speckled cloak, to protect you from all things petty, trivial and alarming.
If you enjoyed these letters, you can read more here.
Jenny Farrell reviews The Student, a modern Russian film which is now available on DVD.
Russian cinema today explores capitalism against the backdrop of a past socialist experience. Open-minded visitors to former socialist states, and particularly to Russia, will come across this living memory and frequently an acknowledgement of the loss of humanist values since the defeat of socialism in Europe. It is interesting too, in this context, that the much favoured Western, seriously reductionist, identification of socialism with Stalin, is not the way it is remembered where it was once lived. Instead, the recollection is more multi-facetted and uppermost for many is a more people oriented society, with work, homes and a future. Many of those who were educated in this social system, retain a general understanding of Marxism from their school/ university days. This is the context for contemporary Russian cinema and specifically for Kirill Serebrennikov’s 2016 film “The Student”, available now on DVD.
Based on Marius von Mayerburg’s play Märtyrer (Martyr), the storyline is about a teenage school student, Venya, who causes havoc arising from his literal interpretation of the Bible. He has not been exposed to religion by his atheist single mother but by the school’s religion teacher. The film shows just how fundamentalist the Christian Bible can be read. Venya demands and achieves a change in girls’ swimwear for swimming classes. He correctly identifies in the school’s young biology teacher, Elena, as his natural enemy, whose death he will consider. She is the only force within the school who actively opposes this new-found ideology. Elena uses scientific arguments against a growing Christian fundamentalist force within the school. The priest and religion teacher on the other hand actively encourages Venya.
Instead of sharing the biology teacher’s scientific standpoint, the principal suggests to her following a protest by Vanya against Darwin’s theory of evolution: “Why don’t you discuss this with the holy father? … To teach the children both creation theories…. You should really talk to the father to find a compromise.” This scene, which develops hilariously, shows where such irrational ideological ‘pluralism’ can lead. Past knowledge is surrendered because the arguments have been lost, or are suppressed.
When Venya starts sermonizing in the history class, the teacher comments: “People used to believe in something, but everything changed, they needed money, and they forgot about communism. Now there is something to believe in again.”
At least half of Venya’s lines are direct quotations from the Bible and chapter and verse are always blended on to the screen. Some of these quotes go like this: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have come to bring the sword, to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother. As for my enemies who didn’t want me to rule over them, slaughter them in my presence.” (Matthew 10:34) Thus, the film is a refreshing reminder that any accusations of fundamentalism in non-Christian religions, must be seen in the context of the past history and the continuing potential for, indeed reality of Christian fundamentalism. While the youthful Venya comes across as even more fundamentalist than the priest, the latter nevertheless encourages him to join the priesthood as this needs men like him.
The film possesses a distinctly realist feel. This is achieved for example by many unbroken, long, restless takes by the highly acclaimed DP Vladislav Opelyants, as well as hand-held sequences. The lighting is notably realistic and captures the cool natural daylight of Baltic Kaliningrad, where the film is located. The concrete breakwaters of Kaliningrad’s pier suggest ruins, in the context perhaps the ruins of the Soviet Union. In addition, Serebrennikov used a large number of nonprofessional actors. The musical score communicates dissonant and tragic elements that contrast ironically with the sinister sounding Slovenian metal rock hit ‘God is God’ over the opening menu and closing credits.
Increasingly, the school slowly appears to be changing into a church. The teaching staff, with the exception of Elena, have no arguments to counter the growth of fundamentalist religious ideas, no ideological defence. What hope is there? Only the film can tell.
Jenny Farrell celebrates the life and work of the African Marxist writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
Ngũgĩ turned 80 this year. He was born into colonial Kenya in 1938 and witnessed in his youth the Mau Mau War of Independence, which ended in1962.
Ngũgĩ has written prolifically. His first major novel Weep Not Child was published in 1964, followed by The River Between and A Grain of Wheat in 1967. Arguably his most famous (non-fiction) book is Decolonising the Mind, about the constructive role language in national culture, history, and identity.
In 1967, Ngũgĩ became lecturer in English Literature at the University of Nairobi, where he taught until 1977. Here, he campaigned for the change of name from English to simply Literature department, to reflect a change of focus from English to world literature, with African and third world literatures at the centre. The text On the Abolition of the English Department became one of many challenging the colonial inheritance:
If there is need for a ‘study of the historic continuity of a single culture’, why can’t this be African? Why can’t African literature be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it?
The year 1977 was a dramatic turning point in Ngũgĩ’s life. His novel Petals of Blood was published, depicting neo-colonial Kenya uncompromisingly. The same year Ngũgĩ co-authored the savagely critical play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), performed open-air with actors drawn from the workers and peasants of the village.
The play’s presentation of the inequalities and injustices of Kenyan society, and its identification with the cause of ordinary Kenyans, led to Ngũgĩ’s imprisonment without charge at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison on December 31, 1977. During his incarceration, Ngũgĩ decided to abandon English and start writing in his native Gikuyu. He writes about his experiences in his memoir, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1982). In it, Ngũgĩ relates a signal act of resistance: his writing of Caitani Mutharabaini (1981) on prison toilet paper - translated into English as Devil on the Cross (1982).
The reclaiming of African languages as keepers of memory, of African history, became central to Ngũgĩ’s postcolonial struggle. He comments in relation to the slave trade:
The first thing that happened to African people [in the Americas] was forced loss of language and names.
Ninety percent of Africa’s resources are consumed in the west. But somehow the vocabulary has turned it the other way around – it’s the West that ‘helps’ Africa. A few things are returned and they call it ‘aid’.
Amnesty International successfully campaigned for Ngũgĩ’s release a year later, in December 1978. But he had become intolerable to the Moi dictatorship (1978-2002). A plot to kill him forced Ngũgĩ into exile, first in Britain (1982 –1989), and then the U.S. (1989-2002). There were also actual attempts on his life.
His novel, Matigari (1986) describes a man who, having survived the war for independence, hopes for a new and peaceful future. He finds his people still dispossessed and his corrupted land ruled by misery and fear. Hilariously, Dictator Moi, believing the novel’s main character to be an actual person, issued an arrest warrant for him!
Ngũgĩ continued to write prolifically. In 2006 the English translation of the Gikuyu language novel, Murogi wa Kagog, Wizard of the Crow, was published.
This epic comic novel set in the fictitious African “Free Republic” of Aburĩria, scathingly details the corruption, brutality and self-negation of neocolonial African dictatorship. Similarities with Kenya are not accidental, yet its scope encompasses more. It outlines the experience of the African continent in the 20th century, the slavery of its peoples, the colonial legacy as feeding into the neocolonial present:
…the Ruler’s rise to power had something to do with his alliance with the colonial state and the white forces behind it. (…) his friends in the West needed him to assume the mantle of the leader of Africa and the Third World, for Aburĩria was of strategic importance to the West’s containment of Soviet global domination. The Ruler accused the Socialist Party of forming one link in the chain of the Soviet ambitions. Aburĩria did not fight Western colonialism in order to end up under Eastern Communist colonialism, he declared (…) It is said that in only a month he mowed down a million Aburĩrian Communists, rendering the Ruler the African leader most respected by the West …
The leader of the underground resistance movement is a woman, Nyawĩra, who from the start emphasises a class analysis of society and the need and possibility of change. This courageous person finds a partner in Kamĩtĩ, whose opposition to the status quo grows over time as he gets to know and love her.
He brings to the relationship a tremendous amount of humour, a willingness to hide, heal and mock by impersonating a witch doctor, as well as knowledge of the medicinal properties of African plants. Together they forge the main positive and hope-giving force in the novel. They are supported by other brave people in the community, including some who grow into this role, some who change sides and those who do not betray. The most heroic among those resisting the many manifestations of the regime are women, who are shown to oppose and overcome domestic violence and other controlling relationships.
It is absolutely clear that Ngũgĩ cannot conceive of true African liberation without that of women – they are instrumental in bringing this about. Their emancipation is intrinsic to the liberation and freedom of their country. In fact, a women’s court to punish perpetrators of domestic violence is established as part of the Movement for the Voice of the People.
Nyawĩra puts this in Marxist terms:
I believe that black has been oppressed by white; female by male; peasant by landlord; and worker by capital. It follows from this that the black female worker and peasant is most the oppressed. She is oppressed on account of her colour like all black people in the world; she is oppressed on account of her gender like all women in the world; and she is exploited and oppressed on account of her class like all workers and peasants in the world. Three burdens she has to carry. Those who want to fight for the people in the nation and in the world must struggle for the unity and rights of the working class in their own country; fight against all discriminations based on race, ethnicity, color, and belief systems; they must struggle against all gender-based inequalities and therefore fight for the rights of women in the home, the family, the nation, and the world ….
Throughout this satirical novel the West’s involvement with the corrupt regimes in Africa is highlighted, here in particular with the Global Bank, from which they hope to secure an enormous loan, which in turn will lead to unparalleled austerity. However, the country’s political instability ultimately prevents this. When the country’s autocracy begins to crumble, the West plans a military coup.
Yet, Ngũgĩ rejects Western journalists’ favourite image of Africa:
they believed that a news story from Africa without pictures of people dying from wretched poverty, famine, or ethnic warfare could not possibly be interesting to their audience back home.
He underlines the humanity of the people above all and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere is referred to positively in this novel. Nyawĩra and Kamĩtĩ’s ability to laugh together at the absurdity of the regime is in itself a sign of their strength, courage and moral high ground. By rejecting the generalised Western media African stereotype, Ngũgĩ enables the reader to draw parallels to other dictatorships around the world, mentioning those of Marcos, Pinochet and Apartheid South Africa at the very end of the book.
One of the most memorable moments in the novel is when one of the characters on the government side becomes afflicted by a psychological condition that makes him want to become white. Kamĩtĩ, as Wizard of the Cow, manages to ‘cure’ him by demonstrating that white is not white and he could easily end up a homeless white ex-colonial, after having renounced his name and language, in an ironic self-imposed re-play of the fate of the slaves. Ngũgĩ’s point is not just satirical, but also poignant in the careerist’s willingness to negate himself.
Although the government men are corrupt, superstitious and paranoid as well as willing to kill indiscriminately for personal gain, they are not beyond grasping where all this will ultimately lead to:
The Global Bank and the Global Ministry of Finance are clearly looking to privatise countries nations, and states. They argue that the modern world was created by private capital. (…) What private capital did then it can do again: own and reshape the Third World in the image of the West (…) The world will become one corporate globe divided into the incorporating and the incorporated. We should volunteer Aburĩria to be the first to be wholly managed by private capital, to become the first voluntary corporate colony, a corporony, the first of the new global order.
What is distilled in these quotes is written into the fabric of the novel, from where it inscribes itself indelibly into the reader’s imagination and becomes much more. The text is enriched with African fable-telling and humour. And one thing is made perfectly clear: there is no magic. It is a hilarious, exciting and brilliant read – it is a masterpiece.
Jenny Farrell introduces a little-known short story by Liam O'Flaherty
11 November 2018 marks the centenary of the ending of World War I. During that bloody slaughter, the propagandists described it as the “war to end all wars”. One hundred years and as many wars on the militarists in the USA and Europe, many of them the authors and overseers of the present conflicts from Afghanistan to Yemen, meet to promote this so-called “Great War” as something noble.
There is nothing noble or honourable about such carnage. It is therefore appropriate to re-publish below a very short story, “The Discarded Soldier”, by the world famous novelist and short story writer Liam O’Flaherty, which presents the real and barbaric nature of war.
Liam knew what he was writing about. He not only fought in the trenches of Flanders as a member of the British army’s Irish Guards, but was wounded and shell-shocked in September 1917. His abhorrence of war is expressed poignantly in this text and his avant-garde 1929 novel “Return of the Brute”.
What is also interesting about “The Discarded Soldier” is it was published for the first – and probably only - time in The Daily Worker on 27 June 1925. A daily columnist of the paper had requested this internationally renowned Irish author to pen the piece. Liam could hardly refuse, as The Daily Worker’s columnist was none other than his brother, Tom O’Flaherty.
The brothers came from the Irish speaking Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. Both were writers and both were involved in the communist movement. Both were founding members of two separate Communist Parties: Tom of the CPUSA and Liam of the CP in Ireland.
“The Discarded Soldier” was never collected and is virtually unknown.
In an advertisement in The Daily Worker on 13 June 1925, Tom describes Liam as “a young proletarian writer who has already won an international reputation through his books and short stories. (…) One of those short stories, dealing with the civil war in Ireland, in which he fought on the side of the Republicans, is listed in the collection of the best short stories produced In Great Britain during 1923. (…) the now only twenty-six years old … left a little fishing village in the Arran Islands on the west coast of Ireland at an early age for college, where he was trained by the Jesuits for the propaganda mission. He is anything but grateful to his tutors, as his writings show.”
We have Seosamh Ó Cuaig to thank for rediscovering this story. He is the chairperson of the Liam and Tom O’Flaherty Society in Ireland that was founded in 2013. It was while researching Tom O’Flaherty that he came across “The Discarded Soldier”. Interestingly Seosamh, like Liam and Tom, is a native Irish speaker and hails from Connemara on the coast of Galway Bay, at the mouth of which lie the Aran Islands, the O’Flahertys’ birthplace.
We share in the great pride and pleasure that People’s World, the successor to The Daily Worker, today republish this story from its early days.
THE Discarded Soldier had crawled to his garret to die. He lay on his ragged bed. He had lit the candle beside him to light him into eternity. His head peering from the bedclothes was a portrait of death. The face was pale and wan and haggard, like the face of a drowning man, sinking into a dark river in the moonlight. The light of his candle was his moon burning fitfully.
The Discarded Soldier hugged himself close trying to find warmth. His lean hands wandered over the clothes, drawing them closer around his body trying to shield himself from the cold draughts. The veins on the hands stood out like blue snakes, crawling outside the flesh. Death was in his eyes. They were pale blue spots, with red facings, stuck in deep hollows. They were half closed with weariness.
THE hands dropped wearily on the clothes.
POOR Discarded Soldier. Poor useless cannon fodder. Poor scrapped tool of capitalism. But a few years back, he was a strong youth with bright eyes and smooth sleek body perfect in every limb and then … The recruiting sergeants came and looked at his body and they wanted him to fight the war for capitalism. They brought him from the freedom of his lonely home by the sea. They herded him into a battalion with others. He was sent among the monstrous guns, that spat out death. He was marched through fields sodden with blood to the trenches, where men lay huddled in holes, watching through the night for death.
He was cheered and petted by fair ladies. They called him a hero. They sang to him. They feasted him. Fat men pinned medals on his breast – for valour they said.
Then again he was hurled against unknown enemies, pushed from behind, cursed, urged on, beaten, imprisoned when he complained, sent on again to kill, amid the roar of guns, and the mud of the trenches.
THEN at last he was caught by a bursting shell and hurled into the air, amid red-hot bolts of steel and showers of earth and smoke. He was crushed into a jabbering mass of pulped flesh. He was no longer a hero. He was a wreck. Capitalism did not want him. The ladies no longer cheered him. They brought him flowers in the hospital for a few months and then forgot. The ribbons faded on his breast. He was cast into the great city, homeless, unwanted, penniless.
Capitalism no longer needed him. Capitalism forgot him. Capitalism imprisoned him when he demanded food. The servants of capitalism beat him with clubs, when he cried for bread. They called him a Bolshevik, a public menace, a scourge of society. They threatened to throw him into a lunatic asylum.
So he crawled into the garret to die, dreaming of his home by the sea – dreaming of the freedom of his youth and the warm sun.
THERE was not even romance in his ghastly death. He was not thinking of romance. He was thinking of his home and the sunlight. The hunger gnawing at his bowels made him weaker. It brought a mist before his eyes and transformed the noises that echoed in his ears. He was carried away from his garret to his home by the sea.
The distant noises of the city traffic seemed to him the noise of the breakers at night rolling toward a rocky shore. The recollection brought a smile to his lips. He became delirious. He could see the dawn breaking now in his home. He could see the waves – gentle now and cheerful – surging calmly over the sandy beaches in an awed whisper.
Then the sun rising in the east, over the hills, glistening on the dew-covered crags. The sun. The beautiful warm sun. The dying man tossed away the clothes. He wanted to bare his bosom to the sun. He stretched out his limbs with a sigh of gratitude. He wanted to bare every muscle to the regenerating warmth.
THEN he listened. Ha. There it was. The song of the lark as the bird soared into the fleecy clouds, singing its morning song of joy. He smelled the wild flowers, that grew by the sea. He saw the glistening sea weed on the rocks, bared by the receding tide. He smelled the salt sea breeze that swept over the ocean.
Ha! He would soon get well, since he was back again in his home. He would soon be able to run and jump and shout as of old. No more hunger. No more tramping dirty, ugly streets. No more fetid smells in the slums. No more war, no more roaring guns, no more killing. Joy. To be back again in the sun – the great glorious sun that warmed him.
BUT, ah! The sun was too warm. The dying man licked his parched lips with his tongue. The drought of death was in his throat. His tongue was thick with it. His veins were on fire now. The fever of death was upon him – eating him and he thought that it was he sun. His brain grew dizzy. Then he smiled again. His head turned sideways on the pillow.
His lips set in a smile.
He saw himself approaching a mountain spring, beneath a towering cliff that sheltered him from the overpowering heat of the sun. He wanted coolness now and water. There it was in front of him – the water rippling out from the base of the cliff, gurgling like wine from a bottle. He knelt on the grassy knoll beside the spring. He stooped until his head was among the water-cress. The stream was at his lips smothering him.
THEN as the water lapped his lips, he stretched his limbs taut to enjoy the exquisite draught and … His spirit faded into the eternal night. The Discarded Soldier was dead.
This short story was originally published in the 27 June 1925 edition of The Daily Worker in Chicago. It was re-published for the first time since then by that newspaper's predecessor, People's World, on 9 November 2018. It re-appears here with permission.
This link takes you to an evocative reading of the story by Fionnghuala Ní Choncheanainn, filmed by Eoin McDonnell in an atmospheric Aran setting, at our annual O’Flaherty festival on Inis Mór in 2014. More information about our society is available here.
Jenny Farrell pays tribute to the communist writer José Saramago, whose vision of another, possible world is still relevant today.
Twenty years ago, on 8 October 1998, the communist writer José de Sousa Saramago was the first Portuguese author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The first fifty years of Saramago’s life were defined by the fascist dictatorship that ruled Portugal from 1926-1974 and his active resistance against it. Born the son of landless peasant labourers in a village north east of Lisbon, Saramago grew up in poverty, trained and worked as a mechanic, civil servant, metalworker, production manager at a publishing house and a newspaper managing editor. He joined the Communist Party in 1969 and remained a lifelong member. He wrote for and helped edit the Communist Party paper for a time and stood as a Communist in the 1989 local elections.
The “Carnation Revolution” of 1974, which put an end to the fascist regime, was much more than the transition from dictatorship to bourgeois parliamentary democracy. The first government to take power was largely Communist-led. Monopolies were nationalised, the large landowners in the Alentejo were expropriated and the land was given to the agricultural workers. Workers’ control was granted by law and the colonies were given independence. Although these socioeconomic achievements could not be maintained, they set an example that still applies today: another world is possible. This vision of an alternative to capitalism, and human resilience, is an important theme in Saramago’s work.
The Communist-led government was replaced in 1975 by one led by the Socialist Party, and Saramago lost his job as newspaper editor. He then devoted himself exclusively to writing. However, he became increasingly pessimistic about Portugal’s political course. When the government under Anibal Silva refused to endorse Saramago’s book The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991) for the European Prize for Literature, stating it was too anti-religious to be supported by Portugal, Saramago left Portugal and lived in Lanzarote until his death in 2010.
This was no withdrawal from politics. He continued to lampoon capitalism’s hypocrisy publicly, criticizing the EU and International Monetary Fund, defending the Palestinians against Israeli policies, and founding the European Writers Parliament along with Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.
His main contribution to anti-capitlaist art lies in his writings, however. Raised from the Ground (1980) is a novel about working people’s life under a dictatorial regime, which takes over and occupies land. Blindness (1995) depicts an entire population going blind, and is about how people individually cope and attempt to survive shocking events, and Seeing (2004) explores a post-blindness election, where the people cast their ballot papers, returning them blank.
Each novel is different, yet they repeatedly deal with living in the extreme and inhuman conditions of class society, and what hope we have for a better future. However, on this anniversary, let us leave it to Saramago himself to speak about his writing. Here are some extracts from his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he won in 1998, aged 76. The speech is in itself part of the body of his literary achievement.
How Characters Became the Masters and the Author Their Apprentice … Then came the men and women of Alentejo, that same brotherhood of the condemned of the earth where belonged my grandfather Jerónimo and my grandmother Josefa, primitive peasants obliged to hire out the strength of their arms for a wage and working conditions that deserved only to be called infamous, getting for less than nothing a life which the cultivated and civilised beings we are proud to be are pleased to call – depending on the occasion – precious, sacred or sublime. Common people I knew, deceived by a Church both accomplice and beneficiary of the power of the State and of the landlords, people permanently watched by the police, people so many times innocent victims of the arbitrariness of a false justice. Three generations of a peasant family, the Badweathers, from the beginning of the century to the April Revolution of 1974 which toppled dictatorship, move through this novel, called Risen from the Ground, and it was with such men and women risen from the ground, real people first, figures of fiction later, that I learned how to be patient, to trust and to confide in time, that same time that simultaneously builds and destroys us in order to build and once more to destroy us. … The Stone Raft – separated from the Continent the whole Iberian Peninsula and transformed it into a big floating island, moving of its own accord with no oars, no sails, no propellers, in a southerly direction, “a mass of stone and land, covered with cities, villages, rivers, woods, factories and bushes, arable land, with its people and animals” on its way to a new Utopia: the cultural meeting of the Peninsular peoples with the peoples from the other side of the Atlantic, thereby defying – my strategy went that far – the suffocating rule exercised over that region by the United States of America … A vision twice Utopian would see this political fiction as a much more generous and human metaphor: that Europe, all of it, should move South to help balance the world, as compensation for its former and its present colonial abuses. That is, Europe at last as an ethical reference. The characters in The Stone Raft – two women, three men and a dog – continually travel through the Peninsula as it furrows the ocean. The world is changing and they know they have to find in themselves the new persons they will become (not to mention the dog, he is not like other dogs …). … Blind. The apprentice thought, “we are blind”, and he sat down and wrote Blindness to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures. Then the apprentice, as if trying to exorcise the monsters generated by the blindness of reason, started writing the simplest of all stories: one person is looking for another, because he has realised that life has nothing more important to demand from a human being.
The book is called All the Names. Unwritten, all our names are there. The names of the living and the names of the dead.
Forty-five years ago, on 11 September 1973, the Chilean military under the command of General Pinochet and backed by the USA, overthrew the democratically elected, socialist government of Salvador Allende.
Allende had won the election in September 1970, and was faced even before taking office with the enmity of the Chilean right, and the US government. The CIA planned a coup almost immediately after Allende’s victory.
Allende’s platform was one of for radical transformation: land redistribution, the nationalisation of major corporations (particularly the US-owned copper holdings), and fundamental changes in health, education and housing provisions. His government was well into this programme when initially middle-ranking military officers and later businessmen and generals put a violent end to Chile’s socialist reform.
During the 1973-90 Pinochet dictatorship, 3,095 people and about 1,000 "disappeared", Chile's Truth and Justice Commission has stated. Bodies are still being found today.
Victor Jara, communist and celebrated singer, was one of about 5,000 people arrested in the immediate aftermath of the coup, who were taken to the Chile stadium in the capital. There he was tortured and his hands broken. Even at that horrendous hour, Jara resisted and tried to give hope to those about to die, by singing „Venceremos”, the unofficial national anthem of the Unidad Popular movement, and the prisoners sang with him.
Along with many of his compatriots, Jara was murdered in this stadium. When Joan Jara went to identify her husband’s body, she found it riddled with bullets, with the wrists and neck broken and twisted.
Victor Jara was born 85 years ago, on September 23, 1932 into a family of farm workers. He learned Chilean folk traditions from his mother, Amanda, learnt to play the guitar and piano, became a singer, and joined the Nueva Canción Chilena (Chilean New Song) movement. The movement began as a small folk club, Pena Los Paras, led by Violeta Parra, an important influence on Jara in the late 1950s. Parra created a new kind of folk music in Chile, combining modern song with traditional forms. She established peñas, musical community centers. These launched many revolutionary artists.
Victor’s widow, Joan Jara comments:
The spring of his songs lay in a deep identification with the dispossessed people […], a deep awareness of social injustice and its causes and a determination to denounce such injustice […] in addition to the need to do something to change things
In Jara’s Manifiesto, written shortly before his death and released posthumously, he sings:
I don't sing for love of singing, or because I have a good voice. I sing because my guitar has both feeling and reason. It has a heart of earth and the wings of a dove, it is like holy water, blessing joy and grief. My song has found a purpose as Violeta would say. Hardworking guitar, with a smell of spring.
My guitar is not for the rich no, nothing like that. My song is of the ladder we are building to reach the stars. For a song has meaning when it beats in the veins of a man who will die singing, truthfully singing his song.
My song is not for fleeting praise nor to gain foreign fame, it is for this narrow country to the very depths of the earth. There, where everything comes to rest and where everything begins, song which has been brave song will be forever new.
Victor Jara was murdered on 16 September 1973, aged forty. To his dying breath, he used his art to sing on behalf of the people. His last song was smuggled from the stadium of death by survivors:
There are five thousand of us here in this small part of the city. We are five thousand. I wonder how many we are in all in the cities and in the whole country? Here alone are ten thousand hands which plant seeds and make the factories run. How much humanity exposed to hunger, cold, panic, pain, moral pressure, terror and insanity? Six of us were lost as if into starry space. One dead, another beaten as I could never have believed a human being could be beaten. The other four wanted to end their terror one jumping into nothingness, another beating his head against a wall, but all with the fixed stare of death. What horror the face of fascism creates! They carry out their plans with knife-like precision. Nothing matters to them. To them, blood equals medals, slaughter is an act of heroism. Oh God, is this the world that you created, for this your seven days of wonder and work? Within these four walls only a number exists which does not progress, which slowly will wish more and more for death. But suddenly my conscience awakes and I see that this tide has no heartbeat, only the pulse of machines and the military showing their midwives' faces full of sweetness. Let Mexico, Cuba and the world cry out against this atrocity! We are ten thousand hands which can produce nothing. How many of us in the whole country? The blood of our President, our compañero, will strike with more strength than bombs and machine guns! So will our fist strike again!
How hard it is to sing when I must sing of horror. Horror which I am living, horror which I am dying. To see myself among so much and so many moments of infinity in which silence and screams are the end of my song. What I see, I have never seen What I have felt and what I feel Will give birth to the moment…
In July of this year, 45 years after their crime, eight retired officers were sentenced to 15 years in prison for Jara’s murder.
Jenny Farrell reviews a new German film about the rise of fascism in Germany.
Winner of the Golden Globe for best foreign language film, In the Fade by Turkish-German director Fatih Akin, is one of the more important new political films on the state of Germany today.
It is loosely based on the NSU (National Socialist – i.e. fascist – Underground) trials, which were concluded this summer after dragging on for over five years. On trial was a group of neo-Nazis who had randomly killed nine people with a migrant background, and also a policewoman; undercover police officers were involved to the point of colluding with the killers. The most notorious of the neo-Nazis and the person on whom the trial focused, is Beate Zschäpe; two of her accomplices had died in the meantime. Only Zschäpe received a life sentence.
Akin pares down the actual events and trial to make his point. He creates a plot around one family, the assumptions of the police and the mechanisms of the court. Diane Krüger excels in her role as the victim’s widow seeking justice. Connections between the German fascists and Greece’s Golden Dawn party represent a growing network of rightwing extremism in Europe. The film is alarmingly relevant.
Where it falls behind real life is that things are even worse in actuality. The film stopped short of showing undercover state involvement, the failure of the legal system to bring this to light in the trial. Another question that arises as we see a terrifying increase of neo-Nazi presence on the streets and parliament of Germany, is how is this rise of fascism possible again? Where does it come from? How can it infiltrate society once again? Why is it not stopped? How can it be stopped? The film offers no answers to these questions. But it is a cinematic contribution to such a discussion and stirs viewers to think about racism, fascism and highlights the acute need for action to stop this.
The film has recently been released in its English version on DVD.
Jenny Farrell discusses one of the great working class novels in English literature, a literary exposure of the 'Great Money Trick' - the exploitation inherent in capitalism.
Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is the first important working-class novel in English literature. It was written between 1906 and 1910 and first published posthumously in abridged editions in 1914 and 1916. Its full text only appeared in in 1955.
Working class readers have widely embraced the novel as an important text about their experience, written from their own point of view. The birth and growth of the working-class theatre is inseparable from The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: the first of many adaptations for the stage was made by the Workers’ Theatre Movement in 1930-31. The book has been republished very many times. No other working-class novel in Britain can claim a history faintly approaching this.
Robert Tressell’s life
Its author, Robert Tressell, was born Robert Croker in Dublin in 1870, later changing his name to his mother’s name, Noonan. By 1875 he was living in London, trained as a signwriter and decorator, and married Elizabeth Hartel in 1891; daughter Kathleen was born a year later. From 1894 Tressell spent a number of years in South Africa, where he was involved with the Trade Union movement.
He returned to England in 1901, around the time of the Boer War, in which he had helped organise the Irish brigades to fight on the side of the Boers against the British. In the meantime, he had divorced Elizabeth and received custody of Kathleen, with whom he now settled in Hastings.
Tressell was a member of the only Marxist group in Britain at his time, the Social-Democratic Federation, and had a reputation as a socialist educationalist, writer of leaflets and painter of banners. Over the next few years, he was in and out of employment as a painter and decorator, gaining a high reputation for his signwriting skills. His health began to deteriorate, as TB developed. Tressell died in a workhouse hospital in February 1911 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
Wall painting from St. Andrews Church, Hastings. Robert Tressell was employed by Burton & Co to carry out the decoration of the chancel in 1905.
Tressell wrote the Philanthropists in the evenings, and described it as “the story of 12 months in hell, told by some of the damned”. He states in the preface, “There are no scenes or incidents in the story that I have not either witnessed myself or had conclusive evidence of.” The 1,674 pages long, handwritten manuscript was turned down by three publishers. In 1913, after Tressell’s death, Kathleen showed the manuscript to Jessie Pope. Pope edited the manuscript drastically, deleting many socialist references. Her publisher then took on the book, paying Kathleen £25 for the rights.
The start of social realism
With the transition from industrial to monopoly capitalism at the end of the 19th century, a realist working-class writer of Tressell’s calibre could no longer accept the old type of plot. There are no personal “stories” between members of opposed classes – only money. Together with this honesty of portraying typical characters in typical circumstances, and the development of a collective as “hero”, Tressell revolutionised the genre and contributed to the foundation of social realism in the English novel.
The Philanthropists has no ‘story’ in the traditional sense. Instead it is an epic portrait of working-class existence in the newly ‘matured’ age of imperialism, set between 1902-1904, during the slump after the boom of the Boer War, with mass unemployment and rampant destitution. An impoverished, unorganised group of workers is at the centre of the novel – for this first time in the history of the English novel. Their class consciousness is at a primitive level – they are duped by the capitalist and imperialist media, for example by what they read in The Daily Obscurer, with its demagogy and jingoism. Throughout, Tressell castigates them unmercifully for the ‘philanthropic’ acceptance of their destitution, their acquiescence that culture and the achievements of civilisation are not for “the likes of us” and that their children should inherit this lot.
Economic, political and cultural hegemony
The boss Rushton (rush-it-on) and his middle-men force the workers to hurry and slobber the work, use inferior materials, while charging for excellence, and looting the premises for their own benefit. They also threaten the casual labourers with unemployment, effectively the workhouse and pauperism. The same bosses control the disorganised workers at a political level through the city’s council and through the church. It is a literary expression of Marxist theory, a fictional expression of the approach of the Culture Matters website, showing how the bosses’ economic power is copper-fastened not only by their hegemony of the political spheres, but also through appropriation and domination of cultural spheres – the church and the pub.
The life of the centre-stage class is traced from the cradle to the grave, from Easton’s baby, Frankie, to Bert, and right through to Jack Linden, who dies in a workhouse and is buried a pauper after a life of hard labour. The novel also develops fully individualised women characters. Nora Owen is as class conscious and conversant with Marxist ideas as her husband.
While the working-class characters are fleshed-out individuals, whom the reader follows into their home lives, the bosses are simply types. This is a refreshing reversal of the usual pattern of individualised middle-class lives and worker stereotypes. In this way, the breadth of depiction is matched by deep insight into the interior of working-class life.
Before The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, fictional proletarian characters lived a far less rich life than the great middle-class figures of the bourgeois realists. In the Philanthropists, we are presented with individuals with a personal – and in the case of Owen, inner – life which is rich, humane and full of drama. We are presented with a conviction that the working class way of life has the potential to encompass all aspects of truly human living. The ruling class, by contrast, is put beyond consideration as a human way of life, its purpose being to block the working-class from free development, and to impose both physical and political degradation.
The book’s individual hero, Frank Owen, named after the utopian socialist Robert Owen, is a committed socialist who puts all his effort into converting his workmates to his way of thinking. His dinner break lectures on capitalism and socialism form an enriching commentary on the events of the novel. However, Owen is depicted as part of this labour collective, made up also of opportunists, the non-socialist rank and file, as well as highly class conscious workers, forming an organic, complete image of the working-class. He shares the same qualities as the other workers, only more developed and conscious: this is his socialism. In this realistic, heterogeneous portrayal of the working class, Tressell is like his contemporary, Maxim Gorky.
As Alan Dent remarks in his Introduction to the recent collection of poems by Martin Hayes, although work is a central reality in life for most people, it is rarely depicted in art. Never before in the English realist novel had the actual labour process been central to the depiction of class struggle. For the first time, Tressell reverses the assumption that life begins where work ends – work is essential to a fully lived human life. A character’s attitude to labour is a touchstone of his/her humanity. Labour means nothing to Rushton, Sweater and the bosses. Crass, Slyme and other labourers display the least humanity, betraying and tricking their mates, and toadying to the bosses. In all the decent workers, pride in their work and their efforts to do it properly, despite threats of instant sacking, emerges damaged but basically intact.
Owen’s decorative painting of the drawing room in the Moorish style is a supreme example. He takes the annihilating material environment, the central tool of capitalist oppression, and turns it into a vessel of creative proletarian living, an opportunity to express his humanity through his work. In the struggle over how the work should be done, Owen lays down the law to the bosses: during the period of this work, Owen achieves his fullest humanity and the bosses lose control of him and the entire situation.
In the character of the socialist and humanist Owen, Tressell succeeds for the first time in giving vital, realistic embodiment to his hero William Morris’s idea of the kind of human being that is the salt of the earth. In presenting the labour process as a legitimate subject for art, Tressell introduces an element, which points far into the future of socialist and communist culture.
In this way, Tressell echoes the anti-capitalist thinking of not only Morris, but also Carlyle and Ruskin before him. For both Ruskin and Morris architectural decoration was the universal form of human self-expression, direct forerunners of Owen. As a worker-writer, he stands in the radical Burns, Blake, Clare and Chartist tradition. Standing on all these shoulders, Tressell breaks new ground with the creation of a working class group hero, with labour at the heart of the action, and with the creation of the revolutionary novel.
The struggle and partial victory of the workers is a theme of many of the best sections of the book, for example the one entitled “Filling the Tank”. While the pub is primarily part of the ruling class armoury for controlling workers in their ‘private’ lives, and milking them for their pitiful wages, there is a moment where the Semi-Drunk and the Besotten Wretch compete in a game of rings and shove-ha’penny. On this occasion, the Besotten Wretch turns this degrading environment to a positive purpose, where the workers take charge and really enjoy themselves, living at their own terms. An example of the ‘cultural struggle’, perhaps?
Another example is young Bert’s magic-lantern “Pandorama”, depicting the cruelty of capitalism. With it, he entertains the fully comprehending children at the Christmas party, who then burst out into jingoistic songs, such as the hilariously ironic “Rule Britannia”, containing the words “Britons never shall be slaves”. The children’s’ immediate understanding of the irrationalities of capitalism contrasts ironically with Owen’s relatively meagre success among his workmates, despite using similar dramatic propagandist theatrics.In all these examples, Tressell shows humanity in the face of degradation, and the workers’ ability to come to grips with their environment, however unpromising.
Owen’s lectures on socialism are a further instance. Although he only reaches some of the workers, the portrayal of the others is not negative. They engage with him and take an active part in these lectures, by helping to dramatize the examples. These scenes take on the nature of theatrical enjoyment and their collective reaches its highest development.
The Great Money Trick
Perhaps the most central of these dramatized lectures is where Owen explains to the astonishment of his fellow workers that “Money is the real cause of poverty”. To prove this, he shows them “how the Great Money Trick is worked”. Using bits and pieces from the dinner baskets, Owen illustrates his point, the creation of surplus value:
You say that you are all in need of employment, and as I am the kind-hearted capitalist class, I am going to invest my money in various industries, so as to give you Plenty of Work. (…) For doing this work you will each receive your wages …
These blocks represent the necessaries of life. (…) you will have to buy them from me …
As the working classes were in need of the necessaries of life, and as they could not eat, drink or wear the useless money, they were compelled to agree to the kind Capitalist’s terms (…) having consumed the necessaries they had bought with their wages, there were again in precisely the same condition as when they started work – they had nothing. (…) The kind-hearted capitalist consumed twice as much as any one of them and his pile of wealth continually increased (… he …) takes the machinery away from them and informed them that as owing to Over Production all his store-houses were glutted with the necessaries of life, he had decided to close down the works.
And so it goes on, like a chorus on the events of the novel.
While Tressell shares a great deal of common ideological and artistic ground with his peer Gorky, he also inherits a specifically English tradition, especially from Dickens. One example is his use of composite images, which contain the phenomenal power of social generalisation. While these images work fully at their own level, they often become symbolic of a more general social phenomenon.
For example, an important theme in the novel is the scamping of work. Misery commands the men nonstop to “slobber it on” – to cover dirt, cracks and structural weaknesses for long enough to pocket the profits. While this is the typical capitalist work ethic, at another level it epitomises the general drive to alienation in capitalist society and culture. And at yet another level, it is a symbol for the entire imperialist enterprise, where putrefaction, corruption, fraud and structural weaknesses are covered with a shoddy façade of illusory luxury and ineffectual half-measures at reform and regulation.
Over one hundred years after its first publication, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists continues to be considered by most readers as a revelation, a novel of the utmost relevance today, as a book that describes the world as it is. All working people nowadays, especially the precariat, easily recognise the ‘slob-it-on’ work ethic of less resources, fewer people to do jobs, poor wages and conditions, part-time work, and the threat and reality of unemployment. All those people who sell their labour are essentially in the same boat. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists reveals the essence of an exploitative, capitalist system that is still in place.
In this way, the book represents exactly the kind of political art that is central to the Culture Matters project, because it expresses the truth in a counter-hegemonic fictional discourse about work and exploitation, a truth that so many other writers ignore, gloss over or even glorify. Just how it lives on is illustrated in the following poem, entered for the Culture Matters Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2018, sponsored by Unite:
The Song Of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist
by Graeme Darling
I've been working my arse off for years, So that parasites can sit on theirs, Counting all the money they have stolen from me. These venal cannibals are legal criminals, Cloaking their immorality in the joke of respectability. It's the same story in every capitalist trap; The most essential employees ( exploitees ) are treated like crap. Decent folk on scrimping wages strain, scrub and mop, While bloodsucking turds ride on their backs to the top. You don't need to know the Communist Manifesto To recognise injustice that's manifestly so. This situation blights every organisation, I'm telling you true; The higher the pay, the less work they do! I'm sick and tired of being trod into the ground, I'd turn this crazy pyramid the right way round. The bosses in armchairs should clean toilets and stairs, And experience an existence of struggling for subsistence. Along with a decent minimum, I'd have a wage maximum. Four to one should be the widest disparity; Anything more is an utter obscenity. This economic system of domination wreaks global exploitation; Our training shoes are made by kids in sweatshops, The Earth is ravaged for our phones and laptops. We must side with the oppressed of every form and nation; The universal kinship should be our motivation.
This article is indebted to my father’s study: Jack Mitchell, Robert Tressell and the Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, Lawrence & Wishart, 1969.