A collection of political tales—first published in British workers’ magazines—selected and introduced by acclaimed critic and author Michael Rosen
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, unique tales inspired by traditional literary forms appeared frequently in socialist-leaning British periodicals, such as the Clarion, Labour Leader, and Social Democrat. Based on familiar genres—the fairy tale, fable, allegory, parable, and moral tale—and penned by a range of lesser-known and celebrated authors, including Schalom Asch, Charles Allen Clarke, Frederick James Gould, and William Morris, these stories were meant to entertain readers of all ages—and some challenged the conventional values promoted in children’s literature for the middle class. In Workers’ Tales, acclaimed critic and author Michael Rosen brings together more than forty of the best and most enduring examples of these stories in one beautiful volume.
Throughout, the tales in this collection exemplify themes and ideas related to work and the class system, sometimes in wish-fulfilling ways. In “Tom Hickathrift,” a little, poor person gets the better of a gigantic, wealthy one. In “The Man Without a Heart,” a man learns about the value of basic labor after testing out more privileged lives. And in “The Political Economist and the Flowers,” two contrasting gardeners highlight the cold heart of Darwinian competition. Rosen’s informative introduction describes how such tales advocated for contemporary progressive causes and countered the dominant celebration of Britain’s imperial values. The book includes archival illustrations, biographical notes about the writers, and details about the periodicals where the tales first appeared.
Provocative and enlightening, Workers’ Tales presents voices of resistance that are more relevant than ever before.
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* An Old Fable Retold
William Morris, 1884
In the days before man had completely established his domination over the animal world, the poultry of a certain country, unnamed in my record, met in solemn conference in the largest hall they could hire for their money: the period was serious, for it was drawing near Christmas, and the question in the debate partook of the gravity of the times; for, in short, various resolutions, the wording of which has not come down to us were to be moved on the all important subject, 'with what sauce shall we be eaten?
Needless to say that the hall was crowded to suffocation, or that an overflow meeting (presided over by working-class leaders) was held on the neighbouring dung-hill.
All went smoothly; the meeting was apparently unanimous and certainly enthusiastic, abundant wisdom was poured out on the all-important question, and the hearts of all glowed with satisfaction at the progress of the race of — poultry. The very bantam-hens were made happy by the assurance that their claims to cackling were seriously considered.
But when the hands of the clock were pointing to ten minutes to ten the excited audience, as they recovered from the enthusiasm produced by one of the great speeches of the evening, saw on the platform beside the chairman a battered looking and middle-aged barn-door cock, who they perceived was holding forth in a lugubrious voice, praising the career and motives of every advanced politician of the poultry yard. This bored the audience a good deal, but being used to it they stood it with patience for some time, till at last the orator's voice got rather clearer and louder, and he spoke somewhat as follows: — "Sir, I know I have little right to air my own theories (cheers) after the remarkably and clear exposition of the rights of poultry, which has been delivered in various ways on this platform to-night (loud cheers), but I am free to confess that one idea has occurred to me which seems to have escaped the more educated minds of our leaders to-night; (cries of Oh, Oh) — the idea is this!" Here he stopped dead, and amid ironical cheers tried nervously to help himself to water from the long-ago emptied decanter, then at last blurted out in a trembling, shrieking voice not without a suspicion of tears in it; "In short I don't want to be eaten at all: is it poss —"
But here a storm of disapproving cries broke out, amongst which could be heard loudest the words 'practical politics!' 'county franchise,' 'great liberal party,' 'municipal government for — Coxstead!' which at last all calmed themselves down into a steady howl of 'question, question!' in the midst of which the ragged, middle-aged cock withdrew, apparently not much more depressed than when he first stood up.
After his departure the meeting ended in all harmony, and a resolution was passed with great enthusiasm that the conclusions come to as embodied in the foregoing resolutions should be engrossed and forwarded to the farmer's wife (or widow was it?) and the head poulterer.
A rumour has reached us that while there were doubts as to the sauce to be used in the serving up, slow stewing was settled on as the least revolutionary form of cookery.CHAPTER 2
* Fables for the Times — I
THE MONKEYS AND THE NUTS
'Utile Dulci', 1884
A colony of monkeys, having gathered a store of nuts for the winter, begged their Wise Ones to distribute them. The Wise Ones reserved a good half for themselves, and distributed the remainder amongst the rest of the community, giving to some twenty nuts, to others ten, to others five, and to a considerable number none. Now, when those to whom twenty had been given complained that the Wise Ones had kept so many for themselves, the Wise Ones answered, "Peace, foolish ones, are ye not much better off than those who have ten?" And they were pacified, and to those who objected, having only ten, they said, "Be satisfied, are there not many who have but five?" and they kept silence. And they answered those who had five, saying, "Nay, but see ye not the number who have none?" Now when these last made complaint of the unjust division and demanded a share, the Wise Ones stepped forward and exclaimed to those who had twenty, and ten, and five, "Behold the wickedness of these monkeys! Because they have no nuts they are dissatisfied, and would fain rob you of those which are yours!" And they all fell on the portionless monkeys and beat them sorely.
Moral. — The selfishness of the moderately well-to-do blinds them to the rapacity of the rich.CHAPTER 3
* Fables for the Times — II
THE POLITICAL ECONOMIST AND THE FLOWERS
A Political Economist, grown tired of writing books, bought a garden and resolved to devote himself to growing flowers on economic principles. The soil was very poor, but he sowed seeds and planted flowers, and bade them grow. They did their best; but in the summer they were but a sorry spectacle compared with those of the Ignorant Man in the next garden. The Ignorant Man, looking over the fence one day, and seeing a heap of manure in the Professor's garden, said to him, "Sir, why do you not improve the soil of your garden by spreading over it that manure in order that your flowers may have strength and beauty?" "My good fellow," responded the Professor, "you are a most immoral and unscientific gardener, though I forgive you on account of your ignorance. What! Would you treat all the plants alike, the strong and the weak, the good and the bad? Nay, but let them contend among themselves for the soil which they have, and when I see plainly which of them flourish best in this poor soil, to them will I shortly give more manure than they will know what to do with!"
Moral. — It was the Ignorant Man who took the prize at the Flower Show.CHAPTER 4
* Aristos and Demos
D. F. Hannigan, 1887
Once upon a time there lived a mighty monarch whose name was Aristos. He ruled over millions of subjects by whose labour he acquired enormous wealth. He dwelt in a gorgeous palace, where hundreds of white slaves attended on him, and the honour of men and the chastity of women were sacrificed to his all-devouring passions. Though in his life he ignored every moral law, Aristos considered it indispensable to have an established religion in order to awe and intimidate the multitude by impressing on their minds the belief that there was a connection between monarchy and the divine government of the world. A crowd of obsequious priests paid homage to the sovereign, and urged upon the people the necessity of blind obedience. The monarch's authority was further strengthened by the intrigues and sophistries of cunning lawyers, who invented a number of false maxims calculated to deceive the credulous masses, and to bewilder even the wise and virtuous. Amongst other things they laid down that "the king can do no wrong"; and that even to conceive the idea of dethroning the reigning sovereign was an offence more heinous than murder, to punish which the most horrible form of death should be devised.
By this system of monopoly and self-deification, Aristos kept the toiling millions down, and it was only when some terrible calamity, such as famine or pestilence, aroused the people to a sense of their miserable condition that anyone dared to question the right of the monarch to oppress, tax, murder and degrade his subjects. So strong is the influence of custom that many of the poor and weak who were ground down to the earth by tyranny of Aristos looked upon him as something more than a man: else (they asked themselves) how could he have such unlimited power? A curious notion took possession of some minds as to the very colour of the royal blood. Inasmuch as the blood of common people was red, they assumed that the blood of a king must be blue, though they might as readily have assumed that it was yellow or black. A privileged class sprung up in the course of time which owed its social eminence to the favour of Aristos. This class consisted mainly of persons who devoted themselves to upholding the royal authority. Titles of nobility were conferred upon these persons and they were known as the aristocracy. Though they possessed no great or noble qualities and were, as a body, ignorant, cowardly and sensual, the aristocracy looked down on the rest of the king's subjects as their inferiors, and only addressed them in terms of opprobrium or contempt. As the greater portion of the population was kept necessarily in a condition of abject poverty in order that Aristos and his parasites might live in luxury and splendour, all who did not belong to the privileged class had to earn a wretched livelihood by work of the most distasteful and exhausting description. Some of them were employed in sweeping the streets of large cities; others worked as miners in the bowels of the earth; many had to become the hired slaves of the aristocracy, who treated them worse than horses or dogs. Gradually a few of the toiling multitude yearned for some change in their condition, and, in the effort to emancipate themselves from the thraldom of the aristocracy, they were sometimes driven into acts of violence. These manifestations of discontent were punished as crimes, and the toilers who indulged in them were either put to death or immured in prison for the rest of their lives. The result of this repression was to strike a temporary dread of the law into the hearts of the masses who lived, or tried to live, by menial work. The king had a large army for the maintenance of which he taxed his subjects, exacting payment from the poor as well as the rich. He also employed many thousands of police and gaolers to enforce the criminal code, by means of which he had succeeded, for a time at least, in intimidating the discontented workers. To the latter, under these circumstances, the struggle to free themselves from the misery of their lot seemed a hopeless one. Many of them in despair abandoned their ordinary occupations and enlisted as soldiers in the king's army, deeming it better to die on the field of battle than to perish by disease or starvation. If they had not been plunged in the densest ignorance, the masses would, no doubt, long ere this, have risen up in revolt against the system which enslaved and degraded them. To educate them would have been the first step towards freedom. For this reason, Aristos and the aristocracy made education such an expensive luxury that no poor man's child could afford to learn anything except merely to read and write. Even this scanty modicum of knowledge was shut out from most of them. Finding no other means of softening the bitter hardness of their lives, the toilers, in a wretched fashion, began to imitate the vices of the aristocracy, and too often lowered themselves to a greater depth than poverty could ever lower them to by drunkenness and debauchery. Thus arose a trade by which intoxicating liquors were supplied to the unhappy beings who could only procure those vile stimulates by depriving themselves and their families of food. Other trades sprang up, too, in the course of time, through the exigencies of the toiler's lot, such as that of the petty usurer, the pawnbroker, and the auctioneer. The extravagant tastes of the aristocracy gave rise to other departments of commerce such as the sale of jewellery and lace. Most of these traders were a hybrid race consisting of persons who had made some money by pandering to the aristocracy, while a few of them were members of the privileged class, who had from some cause or another become impoverished. The growth of a commercial class instead of improving the condition of the toilers made it much worse, for the traders imitated the vices of the aristocracy, and compelling those who were poorest in the community to work for them, ground them down until life became perfectly intolerable. Suicides amongst the toilers or their children were common occurrences; and when the aristocracy read of such things in the newspapers they only laughed.
It happened, however, that in spite of evil laws, young men amongst the toiling masses learned some of the truths of science almost starving themselves to procure books; and at length a few of them had the courage to publish their thoughts and to denounce the oppression of the privileged class. These young men were prosecuted and severely punished, but the seed they had sown bore fruit. The people's hearts had been stirred and they thirsted for liberty.
The time arrived when an emancipator was born in the midst of the struggling, starving multitude. His name was Demos. He was poor and apparently helpless, but a spirit of divine energy inspired him. He was strong, courageous, intelligent, loving and indomitable. Some people said he was an archangel and compared him to St. Michael, but this was an idle superstition. He was only a man, but ah how much there is in that! Because he was a man he had no fear of Aristos and his myrmidons. He defied and despised them. He saw that the vile monarch who had kept his brethren so long in bondage had relied altogether on the power of money. With money Aristos had hired soldiers and police to terrify and coerce the millions whom he called his subjects; with money he had bought the support of his parasites, the aristocracy; and by monopolising all forms of wealth he had left the multitude no resource but slavery or death. There was one thing, however, that Aristos had forgotten, namely that labour is the origin of all wealth, and that without it no wealth, however enormous, can be preserved. This great fact flashed on the clear brain of Demos. He grasped the whole problem with his far-seeing intellect, and he saw the true remedy for all the evil wrought during the long reign of Aristos. He called some of the other young men around him and spoke to them earnestly.
"My friends," he said, "let us organise labour! That is the lever which moves the world! No king, no tyrant, no capitalist, can compete with organised labour. Let these wealthy despots coop themselves up in their palaces and their mansions, without us they cannot exist; their luxuries, their food, their lives depend on us. They have trampled on us for years. They have treated us as if we were inferior animals. They shall do so no more! We are men; we are workers; we inherit as men this earth and its produce. Let us crush this fabric under which we have groaned! Down with Aristos and his minions!"
Those who heard him cheered, and soon a great multitude had assembled. Demos showed them how by organisation they might destroy the artificial structure which, as if in mockery, had been called "society," and he taught them, in simple but eloquent language, that until now they had lived in the vilest slavery, because they knew nothing of the rights of man.
No apostle in olden days had ever more enthusiastic followers. The millions raised a mighty shout of exultation. They knew their power at last, and they resolved to level Aristos to the dust. Demos, who was as prudent as he was brave, saw the necessity for caution as well as courage. He had already prepared his plans. He had provided money and arms by agencies known only to himself and his trusted confederates. The multitude were undisciplined, but what are a few thousand soldiers and police against millions with arms in their hands.
The struggle was short lived. The aristocracy, most of whom were large landowners, feebly cried out to the police to help them. The police laughed and after firing into the air surrendered to the revolutionists at discretion. Not many lives were lost. Aristos shut himself up in his palace, but the people, in spite of the bayonets of the soldiery, forced their way in. They found him lying on a luxurious couch, stone dead. The system had perished along with it.
"Let us burn his vile body!" cried the people wildly.
"No comrades," said Demos solemnly. "Remember he was a man like each of ourselves, and if he trampled on his fellow men he will do so no more."
Some of those who followed Demos grumbled at these words, and the more fiery spirits suggested, as a sort of compensation for this disappointment, that all the aristocracy should be massacred.
"What?" burst out Demos with flaming eyes, "would you commit murder the very day you have gained your freedom?"
"They murdered our kith and kin," shouted several hoarse voices together.
"True," said Demos, "but we have destroyed the system. Is not that enough? If they submit to human laws we will pardon them; and they like us shall honourably toil. The goods of the earth are for all. Those only shall suffer who refuse to work for the good of all. The happiness of the whole community must be our only aim and object. The tyrant has passed away, and it now becomes our duty to erect upon the ruins of tyranny the Republic of Man."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Workers' Tales"
Copyright © 2018 Michael Rosen.
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Table of Contents
NOTES ON AUTHORS, 305,