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Workers’ Tales:
Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain

edited by michael rosen
princeton, 328 pages, $19.95

When I was a girl, I had a picture book, The Day the Fairies Went on Strike. This 1981 confection by Linda Briskin and Maureen FitzGerald, with charmingly ragged illustrations by Barbara Eidlitz, told a simple story of fairies overworked by their selfish bosses, the Mefirsts. They meet a little girl whose mother is on strike and decide to follow the mom’s example. They win reduced workloads so they can better meet little girls’ wishes. Perhaps under the influence of this book, I staged my own strike at school, demanding the right to wear shorts during P.E. My one-child picket line (my sign read, NO SHORTS—NO SMILES!) was not exactly a protest against economic injustice; it was also significantly less successful than the fairies’ efforts.

Briskin and FitzGerald were working in a fine old tradition. In Workers’ Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain, Michael Rosen collects more than forty short stories published in socialist-leaning magazines between 1884 and 1914. These tales vary widely in both genre and quality. The best capture the nightmarish scene of industrial-age London (one is even called “Nightmare Bridge”), a city where riches rested atop an abyss of desperation. The worst stories descend into clumsy propaganda, like the allegory penned by Labour party pioneer Keir Hardie, in which heroic Jack Clearhead wields the sword of the I.L.P. (Independent Labour Party) and transforms the cruel giants Mon-o-Poly and Com-pe-Tition into the “genial fairies” Emu-Lation and Collec-Tivism.

Conflicting philosophies jostled under the banner of “socialism”: both “utopian notions of what an ideal society could look like” and “the actions of organized groups of working people”; both secularism and multiple, competing forms of Christian socialism; both eugenics and pastoralism; anarchism and temperance and anti-colonialism. The variety represented in the collection reflects these variegated beliefs and communities. Haunting tales like “When Death Crossed the Threshold” suggest a cross between parable and horror story. Science fiction stories convey a socialist ideal of progress: “The May Day Festival in the Year 1970” depicts a collectivized utopia where the “food centre” serves eggs and bacon in the “breakfast receptacle.” The fairy tales and vignettes are often pastorals, visions of a green and golden England where one could “live on berries and mushrooms.” Some stories focus on political and economic concepts, and end up proving that it’s very difficult to write good children’s stories that focus on political and economic concepts. In other stories, socialism consists in honoring the suffering and heroism of poor people. These tales express the belief that all men are brothers and lament that love of money has made Great Britain an empire of Cains.

These divergent approaches and impulses are, in some respects, ­irreconcilable. It’s hard to come up with a politics that will ­marry “Princess Capital” to the hero ­Fairplay, and bring back the lost England of country solitude and shepherds’ songs. These writers are, without exception, more convincing in depicting present suffering than in outlining plans for future relief. And yet over the course of the collection, a moral and spiritual worldview takes shape, the first phrases of a creed. 

Rosen writes, “This is socialism at its most hopeful, perhaps at its most innocent, untouched by world war, Stalinism, or the Holocaust.” Today, these stories’ depictions of socialist revolution seem shockingly unchastened. None of these authors had witnessed a socialist government that held power; none of them had seen a socialist revolution succeed. Justice was always something denied to the poor, not something socialists in power are expected to define and enact. 

The writers bold enough to imagine socialism with the responsibilities of victory come up with plot twists so transparently self-comforting that it’s hard to believe they didn’t immediately discredit socialism in the eyes of even the youngest readers. Very rarely does anyone suffer in what’s presented as a cataclysmic social change. In several stories, the oppressors actually kill themselves, which seems like an admission that the likely reality would be too grim to depict for kiddies. 

The only institutional authority in these stories is the Party. Other politicians are interchangeable mountebanks fleecing the poor; priests are lackeys of the rich. (Though Christian socialism is mentioned in the introduction, these stories tend to be stridently atheist.) Charity is condescension, a display of power and an attempt to justify the status quo.

One of the collection’s recurring insights is the difference between “charity that is twice cursed” and the sacrifices made by poor people for one another. F. J. Gould’s “The Man without a Heart” tries all kinds of different vocations in order to remedy his heartlessness, from kingship to scholarship to charity. But not even feeding crowds of famished people from the excess of his wealth makes his heart move in his breast. Only when he agrees to “take the lowest place” and perform “hard toil” as a woodcutter with a poor family does his heart beat. As Tom Anderson says at the end of “Mary Davis,” “It is the poor, children, who help the poor.”

The charity depicted so caustically in this book does not transform the giver’s life. It doesn’t require living with poor people, and it doesn’t require suffering. Rich people’s pangs of conscience are the symptom of a deep societal sickness; charity that preserves the giver’s power over the receiver is laudanum, when what’s needed is open-heart surgery.

These authors reject charity without solidarity in part because they believe that constraint is better for human beings than luxury. (“He would have been a real good fellow if he had not been so prosperous,” one author says.) They recognize the miseries of labor, from the brash girl maimed in the industrial laundry in “Mary ­Davis” to the street-sweeper scrambling to kick others off his tiny territory in “Chips.” But they are united in their belief that work makes people better, and rich people’s idleness makes them bad. Countless tales argue that, as one author put it, “When men and women, boys and girls, set about their work feeling that it is part of the work of the great world, and must be well done, even the commonest duties become beautiful.” The rich and powerful are always scheming to work less; the heroes make things themselves. Keir Hardie, the son of a servant and a ship’s carpenter, who started working when he was seven, may not be a great writer of children’s allegories—but he knows you shouldn’t trust anyone who has “a perfect hatred of work.” His heroes know “the joy of service” as well as the “pleasurable thrill of comradeship.” 

In American political debates, a “culture of poverty” has been blamed for a host of social ills, from violence to fatherlessness. By contrast, in this collection we see a culture of poor people that is solidaristic and hardworking. The temptation these powerless people face is despair, to which many of them succumb. The authors Rosen has gathered seem to assume that mere socialist belief will be strong enough to prevail against any new temptations brought by success. (If economic conditions determine the condition of men’s souls, and the poor are better than the rich, why are we trying to end poverty?) There is one story missing from this collection: a phantasmagoric tale in which men who started out as brothers in victorious struggle are transformed inexorably into managers, welfare inspectors, corporate cronies, and apparatchiks.

These authors don’t yet know they should be asking how to preserve an inner constraint, a preference for the lowest place. And yet in suggesting that the lowest place is the best for us, they strike a note rare in contemporary socialisms. A specter is haunting this book, unnamed, despised, but unforgotten: the specter of the Beatitudes.

Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C.

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