Sunday, December 02, 2018

Michael Rosen - Workers' Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain

How do socialists raise awareness among workers about their ideas? It's a question that has bedevilled generations of radicals and activists. Today the Internet has transformed the way that left-organisations try to connect with and influence their target audience, and while there remains, in my opinion, a crucial place for socialist publications - books, pamphlets and newspapers - the nature of these has changed a great deal.

One important difference is that today's socialist publications rarely publish fiction or poetry. But as this fascinating collection of stories from the late 19th and early 20th century shows this was very different in the past. Michael Rosen is a well-known children's author, socialist writer and an academic specialising in education and literature. He has examined hundreds of old publications to show how the use of fiction was a fundamental part of socialist education. These take a number of forms, as Rosen explains:
The main body of these [fictional works] involved a recycling of the traditional literary forms like the fairy tale, the fable, the parable, the allegory and the moral tale. Along with these we find a few examples of the mystery tale. The home for most of this output was in the newspapers, magazines and journals of socialist groups and parties.
It is not difficult to imagine the short stories here published alongside reports of strikes, appeals for solidarity and analysis of the contemporary world. The stories often assume knowledge of particular stories - fairy tales like Jack in the Beanstalk, or Alice in Wonderland. More importantly I think they assume an understanding of the tropes of these story forms - giants for instance are often common characters. One thing I found fascinating is that these stories were not necessarily aimed at children, or even adults with limited education. They were intended to be read, enjoyed and, crucially in my opinion, they probably lent themselves to be retold. It is easy to imagine these tales being read, told and retold at work or in the pub. They also reflect a common belief among the socialist movement that radical change was about education and these stories were a contribution to that.

The use of metaphor and allegory is common, and sometimes read a little crudely. For instance, the left MP Keir Hardie wrote a story Jack Clearhead: A Fairy Tale for Crusaders, and to be Read by them to their Fathers and Mothers, in 1894. It tells the story of the Dullheads who become the slaves of the Sharpheads who own all the resources. The hero of the tale Jack, meets a good fairy who gives him a sword with which to fight for justice. To make the sword's magic work he must chant the rhyme: "Sword, sword fight for me. I belong to the ILP." The reference to the Independent Labour Party must have felt a little forced even in 1894!

But this doesn't always make for a bad tale. I enjoyed the 1907 story Happy Valley which told of a world that was "still beautiful" where "instead of ugly factory chimneys belching forth hideous smoke, fair gardens and orchards made the air sweet and fragrant, and the sun shone golden on the corn". To this idyll comes the giant Monopoly and his two dwarf assistants Capital and Competition. Between then they transform the land into a capitalist nightmare of pollution, hunger and poverty, until the hero, a young man called Fairplay is able to lead a group of followers "after them the women and children" and an army of fairies to kill the giant and drive off Competition. Capital however turns out to be a beautiful princess cursed to be ugly until freed. Fairplay and Capital marry and "worked for the people, and were happy ever after".

It is interesting that many of these stories reference back to an time of a rural idyll, ruined by the coming of industry and capitalism. It reminded me of the way that some radical thinkers use an imagined, or semi-imagined past as a way of encouraging radicalism in the present. Recently I read George Rudé writing about English protest movements in the 18th century:
But the forward-looking elements was still skin-deep even in such riots, and popular protests... still looked to the past; or, in EP Thompson's phrase, the 'plebian cluture'... 'is rebellious, but rebellious in defence of custom'.
Not all the stories are such clear radical versions of fairy tales. Some of them employ metaphor brilliantly. The Peasants' and the Parasites is a lovely story of the literal backbreaking work of the lower classes supporting the ruling classes - the landowners, the church and the lawyers. Others are less obviously telling a moral story or making a political point such as When Death Crossed the Threshold a 1903 story about a family whose mother is dying and the figures of Life and Death intervene.

It also interests me that some of these stories are clearly influenced by new styles of fiction. At least two use forms that were to be come relatively common in Science Fiction. Readers of Arthur C. Clarke's famous short-story Report on Planet Three will find a socialist parallel in the 1909 story A Martian's Visit to Earth which has an alien reporting back on colonial England. Similarly the 1911 imagining of a  future socialist world in The May-Day Festival in the Year 1970 reminded me of Marge Piercy's classic Woman on the Edge of Time, and of course was itself clearly influenced by William Morris' News From Nowhere.

While reading these stories two further things struck me. Firstly there is an air of innocence to them. Capitalism is full of poverty, hunger, unemployment and cruelty - but war is a distant thing. These stories are all written before the First World War and the mass murder of working people in the trenches. Similar stories written in the post-war period would have talked much more about mass bloodshed in the name of capital. Secondly, and perhaps related to this, the question of reform or revolution is not an issue. For many of these writers the transition to socialism involves the removal of a few bad kings or monsters - the question of how that change might take place in the real world is mostly absent.

This is a fascinating and remarkable book that tells us a great deal about the early Socialist movement in Britain. Today these tales might seem dated and often simple. But they represent earnest efforts to communicate the basic ideas of socialism by writers who felt that changing the world was an absolute necessity. Socialists today might be operating in different circumstances but the need for radical change has never been more apparent. This fantastic book is a reminder that we build on the work of thousands of others who often tried innovative and unusual ideas to put their ideas across.

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