Jonah Miller takes a look at some fictional writings by Marxist authors
Stieg Larsson, the Swedish journalist whose posthumously published Millennium trilogy has sold millions of copies, wanted to leave his assets to the Communist Workers League (now called the Socialist Party). He had been a member for most of his life, edited a Trotskyist journal, and was widely recognised as an authority on far-right activities in Sweden. His novels are about a left-wing journalist uncovering corruption in the establishment, helped by ‘The Girl’ of the English translations, Lisbeth Salander, an angry bisexual hacker. They are good crime thrillers, but the enemy is abuse of the system, not the system itself; it’s fiction that happened to be written by a Marxist, not Marxist fiction.
The classic Marxist novel in English is Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Written in the early 20th century, it describes a year in the lives of a group of decorators in a small southern town, from ‘Plenty of Work’ in summer (when a few are lucky enough to get the odd job) to winter’s mass unemployment and near starvation. Working-class suffering is presented clearly and movingly, with sensitivity not sentimentality. Husband and wife talk through their debts and living costs in precise detail, the sense of despair growing as we realise how little they can cover with meagre and unreliable incomes. The foreman, nicknamed Misery or Nimrod, stalks silently among the workers, trying to catch one pausing for breath so he can sack them and bring in a cheaper replacement. The pool of labourers desperate enough to work for almost nothing is bottomless.
Not for the likes of us
One of the most skilled men, Frank Owen, is a socialist. Tressell has been criticised by some for his brutal criticism of the working class, usually through Owen’s voice: ‘He hated and despised them because they calmly saw their children condemned to hard labour and poverty for life, and deliberately refused to make any effort to secure for them better conditions than those they had themselves.’ They are portrayed as class conscious – they see the ‘benefits of civilisation’ enjoyed by the rich as not for ‘the likes of us’ – but not conscious as a class collectively opposed to the domination of labour by capital. Another decorator, Barrington, is also a socialist, though he comes from a wealthy family (he hides this from the others until late in the novel). His speech is written in perfect standard English, while the accents of the others come through as ‘praps’, ‘wot’, ‘arf’ and, best of all, ‘hoblong’. The exception is Owen, who is a worker from a family of workers, like the others, but unlike the others has books in his house and apparently no accent. Some of Tressell’s rants about the refusal of the working class to do something to change their condition are hard to take, but he makes clear where the real enemy is: ‘Blame the system’.
Tressell doesn’t just show us the decorators’ hardships, he explains them. In the preface, he wrote: ‘I designed to show the conditions resulting from poverty and unemployment: to expose the futility of the measures taken to deal with them and to indicate what I believe to be the only real remedy, namely – Socialism.’ He went on to say he knew there were already many books dealing with these subjects, but that his was different, because it was ‘not a treatise or essay, but a novel.’ The product of these intentions is a realistic story steeped in Marxist theory. ‘The Great Money Trick’, performed by Owen to the other workmen during a rare break, neatly illustrates the labour theory of value and the reality of a capitalist society. Owen plays ‘the capitalist class’ and three others ‘the working class’. The capitalists have some bread – raw materials – and a few knives – the machinery to turn raw materials into the ‘necessaries of life’: little squares of bread. They give these to the working class, who carry out the labour to produce those necessaries, before returning them to the capitalists (‘the things you produce will of course be mine’), and getting paid with money, a halfpenny each. Then, because the ‘necessaries of life’ are necessary, the working class buys the little squares of bread from the capitalist class at one halfpenny per square, and consumes them. At the end of a day’s work, the working class have nothing (exactly what they started with), while the capitalist class has not only regained the money paid out in wages, but also has a surplus of the ‘necessaries of life’ which can be sold to others for profit, even if the capitalist class consumes twice as much as each of the workers. Almost all of the non-workers in Tressell’s novel are fat.
Tressell puts his Marxist analysis and socialist solution into Owen’s mouth, and also makes him almost saintly; unlike the other workers, he doesn’t drink or neglect his wife (the women in the book suffer most of all), and suffers from illness, poverty, and despair at the obstinacy of those who refuse to listen to his political ideas.
In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), Alan Sillitoe created a very different working class hero. Arthur Seaton’s life is dominated by drinking and affairs with other men’s wives. He has a secure job in a factory and a salary that covers his lifestyle. It’s a postwar world, very different to that of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, in which working class families have ‘television sets, enough to live on, council houses, beer, and pools – some have even got cars.’ But there are snakes in the garden. In the factory, workers slow down when the rate-checker passes so he won’t raise the number of pieces they have to produce each day, ‘you earned your living in spite of the firm, the rate-checker, the foreman’ and spent days ‘filling your mind with vivid and more agreeable pictures than those round about’ to get through the grim monotony and physical strain of the work. Arthur asks his friend ‘Any news?’ and gets this answer: ‘Not much. A kid was drowned in Wollaton Cut. A man got three months hard for shoplifting. There was a road smash at Radcliffe. A collier got killed in the pit…’ His motto is ‘It’s a fine world sometimes, if you don’t weaken.’ Life may have been better after 1945, but the bad times bubbled just under the surface.
There’s nothing as explicit as The Great Money Trick in Sillitoe’s book, but Marx can be glimpsed for a moment in Arthur’s ‘fabulous wardrobe of which he was proud because it had cost him so much labour.’ The clearest political statements involve defiance and dynamite: ‘One day they’ll bark and we won’t run into a pen like sheep.’ ‘Ay, by God, it’s a hard life if you don’t weaken, if you don’t stop that bastard government from grinding your face in the muck, though there ain’t much you can do about it unless you start making dynamite to blow their four-eyed clocks to bits.’
The world is made up of ‘In-law blokes like you and them’ and ‘Out-law blokes like me and us’.
Sillitoe was more obviously Marxist in his short-story, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959), about a young man imprisoned for burglary who is encouraged by the governor to run in prison competitions. He goes along with it, training regularly and saying he’ll try to win the Borstal Blue Ribbon Prize Cup (All England), which the governor wants so badly, but feels constant class awareness and class hatred. The world is made up of ‘In-law blokes like you and them’ and ‘Out-law blokes like me and us’. ‘And if I had the whip-hand I wouldn’t even bother to build a place like this to put all the cops, governors, posh whores, penpushers, army officers, Members of Parliament in; no, I’d stick them up against the wall and let them have it, like they’d have done with blokes like us years ago’. He finally acts on these feelings on the day of the big race, by cruising past the competition with ease, then slowing down and eventually stopping to let them pass him, just before the finish line and in full view of the governor and his friends. The story ends with him having served his time and back to robbery, a life in which the only certainty is solidarity: ‘if I don’t get caught the bloke I give this story to will never give me away; he’s lived in our terrace for as long as I can remember, and he’s my pal. That I do know.’
Sillitoe’s characters are instinctive radicals, without books or theory, and his stories are about working-class life, not Marxism. This might be seen as an indicator of what was to come: as Marxist ideas bled out of the Labour party and mainstream politics in the later twentieth century, many left-wing writers turned towards fantasy, sci-fi and history, and novels about present-day work and working grew rarer (in 2004 the Canadian Colin McAdam wrote Some Great Thing, about a plasterer, which is good but not at all political). Now, the leading socialist writer is probably China Miéville, firmly in the sci-fi tradition. Iron Council (2004) is the third of his novels set in the Bas-Lag world, and jumps between radical activists in the industrial, violent city-state New Crobuzon, and the Iron Council, a group of railway workers whose strike turned into a year’s long exile, laying and taking up tracks to keep their train moving, remembered as mythical heroes at home. There are robotic humans, purpose-built with bizarre limbs or other extras for work, aquatic and flying creatures that speak and think, bits of magic, and places where the basic laws of space-time don’t work properly. But through all this the central plot is from real human history. The symbolism of the ever-rolling train isn’t hard to grasp, especially after it gets frozen in time not far from New Crobuzon so people can come to see the perpetual movement of the revolutionary tradition. The Iron Council’s status as inspirational forbears could be based on 1789, 1871, 1917 or any number of others. And when revolt actually happens within New Crobuzon, barricades go up and bits of the city declare allegiance in perfect imitation of nineteenth-century France. It’s a tribute to heroes of the past dressed as a futuristic fantasy.
Iron Council has passages about work and the relations of production, but the focus is revolution, not its cause or aims. This approach works fine for Miéville, because it’s clear that the revolution is left-wing and many of his readers probably are already. In other cases, a less clear connection between revolution and the oppression that leads to it can have strange consequences. In Seeing (2004), by the Portuguese writer José Saramago (a life-long member of the communist party), a revolution takes place when the vast majority of the electorate in an unnamed European capital cast blank votes. There are no barricades or any other signs of the tradition Miéville prizes, instead the government panics, officials evacuate the city and place it under a blockade. At the close, a woman suspected of somehow orchestrating the ‘subversive’ movement is shot by a state assassin. We don’t get to hear the people who cast blank votes talking, so we don’t know if there was a movement or if, as the title suggests, the whole thing happened spontaneously when the population opened their eyes to the inadequacy, hypocrisy, and absurdity of the parties on offer at the polling stations. When the rubbish-collectors go on strike for a pay rise flatly rejected by the council, people emerge from their houses ‘sweeping their own patch of pavement and street, from the front door as far as the middle of the road’. Is this a kind of collective action? Or a statement of independence from the actions of government? Saramago offers few clues, and they are all cryptic.
Change through reading
Seeing is a brilliant book, but it’s no more likely to radicalise someone’s politics than Stieg Larsson’s crime thrillers. Clearly that isn’t the only category to judge Marxist fiction by, but it is worth thinking about. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is said to have altered many people’s opinions. Ricky Tomlinson, of television’s Royle Family fame, claims to be one of them and describes it as a book ‘about the relationship between the haves and the have nots’. The novels I’ve talked about by Sillitoe, Miéville and Saramago are Marxist fiction of one kind or another, but none of them get so close to the core of what it’s about, largely because that wasn’t their aim. Tressell might have written in his preface: ‘this novel explains what Marxism means in the lives of workers.’ His book is about a real, specific time and place, unlike the more recent Miéville and Saramago, whose drift away from the idea of work makes them less direct, less instantly applicable.
Another Saramago novel, The Cave (2000), is about a rural artisan potter and his family, following their sad, inexorable, absorption into the commercialised city. It has more to do with work than Seeing does, but less to do with politics. Like Seeing, the title is important. The Cave refers to Plato’s allegory of the cave: a group of people have lived all their lives chained up in a cave, facing a blank wall, they watch shadows from the world behind passing across the wall, which is as close as they get to reality. People in Saramago’s novel are cut off from reality by consumerism. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists begins with the men working on a house called ‘The Cave’. They are cut off from the reality of injustice by wrong-headed belief in Liberals and Conservatives and what’s appropriate for ‘the likes of us’. In Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, when Arthur Seaton gets beaten up for an affair with a married woman, he realises ‘in his life there had never been any such thing as safety…If you lived in a cave in the middle of a dark wood you weren’t safe, not by a long way.’ The symbol of the cave distinguishes between knowing what’s really going on in the world and not knowing, or seeing and blindness. Frank Owen is infuriated by his fellow workers because he thinks they are blind, not only because they don’t realise how oppressed they are, but because they don’t see the clear socialist solution. Tressell’s book, more than any of these others, helps the reader to see, to turn from the wall of the cave and see the world for what it is, unjust.