Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The only show in town

How reformism brings revolution – Adrian McMenamin on what we can learn from a century old leftwing novel

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a book that has gone in and out of fashion: popular with British troops in the second world war it was said, perhaps romantically, to have been a major factor in 1945’s landslide before fading from view.

That began to change from the late 1960s after a BBC dramatisation. By the time I read it – in 1982 – it was widely acknowledged as a classic of working class literature, yet more copies were probably bought for show than actually opened.

Today it is touted around like the set text of Corbynista studies, but the hard left should have no exclusive claim on it.

Its publication in 1914 was on the eve of the great fork in socialist thought. Author Robert Tressell was a social democrat but then, so was Lenin. The tension in social democratic politics between those who argued for reform around a practical programme of social change, and those who held a millennial belief that the inevitable and imminent collapse of the capitalist order rendered such politics as close to treachery, was unresolved.

Reading Tressell’s book for me was a reminder of the triumphs of the first current – those who inherited the social democratic name. Free education at the point of need until 16 and beyond, free healthcare on the same basis, an equal franchise, health and safety at work: all things that would have made a huge difference to the lives of the men (and they were nearly all men) in the story.

Since then the roll call of reformist success has lengthened to include what amounts to little less than a revolution in attitudes to race, gender and sexual orientation.

I am not suggesting any of the great struggles have been won for all time – I cannot recall a grimmer time for progressives – but that does not excuse the far left reading of the novel as a reflection of an unchanged world of suffering and exploitation. To me that interpretation speaks of the Leninists’ unwillingness to admit that the social democrats were right.

Where the reformists made gradual changes the Leninists built prison camps and torture chambers and paid poverty wages to those who escaped starvation or murder. Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro – pick a Leninist and you pick a guilty man. They told the workers the future would be worth the suffering but burnt their savings because there was nothing to buy and poisoned the land, sea and air. They slaughtered their own kind as well as thousands of innocents in arguments about everything from train timetables to genetics. And for all their claims that ‘life has improved, life has become more joyous’ they made a massive contribution to the sum of human misery.

Their project collapsed in the 1980s, leaving social democracy as the only show in town and so many true believers ideologically marooned. I have no idea if any of the members and ex-members of various Leninist cults who cluster around Jeremy Corbyn call themselves social democrats with a straight face, but they have not convinced me.

Corbyn himself is too infused by new age quackery and too lacking in intellectual curiosity to have ever picked a side. What is more puzzling is the behaviour of so many who are genuine social democrats who now go with the Corbynite flow.

A hint is found in Tressell’s novel – where we find a socialist acting as paid orator for the Liberals. The labels may have changed but in the motive – career over principle – is constant.

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Adrian McMenamin is the former chief press and broadcasting officer for the Labour party. He tweets at @adrianmcmenamin

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Adrian McMenamin

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