Fairy Tales for Young Socialists

A collection of political fables from late-19th- and early-20th-century Great Britain offers striking allegories that remain pertinent today.

Princeton University Press

Two years into Donald Trump’s presidency, some progressive parents (and savvy publishers) have turned to children’s books as a kind of palliative political education for the young during uneasy times. Among the recent offerings in this vein, there’s Jill Twiss’s A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, a defense of same-sex marriage and a satire of the children’s book written by Charlotte Pence, the vice president’s daughter, about the Pence family’s pet rabbit. There’s All Are Welcome, by Alexandra Penfold, a gentle and yet pointedly utopian portrait of a school day when children of all races and religious backgrounds assist one another in their tasks with kindness and tolerance. And of course, there’s Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted, an illustrated homage to glass-ceiling shatterers such as Sally Ride, Sonia Sotomayor, and Hillary Clinton, the author’s mother. Oppositional politics, in other words, is now available in colorful, digestible tracts for even the youngest readers.

But if attempts to steer children toward politics through literature feel somewhat of-the-moment, they aren’t new: More than 100 years ago, British socialists undertook a similar, if decidedly more militant, project. A new book, Workers’ Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories From Great Britain, exhumes several dozen fables and stories that first appeared in late-19th- and early-20th-century socialist magazines. The collection—edited by Michael Rosen, a British children’s author, political columnist, and (as it happens) the son of communists who fended off marching fascists at the Battle of Cable Street—contains an assortment of moral tales, mysteries, and reworkings of traditional folk legends by a variety of authors. Intended to educate and inspire children and adults alike, these stories, Rosen writes in his introduction, “reveal the fault lines and viewpoints that ran through the world of socialists then, but which persist today.” As plain-language, kid-friendly introductions to socialist politics, they are at once intriguing historical artifacts and, in a few cases, striking allegories that remain pertinent now, even on the other side of the Atlantic.

Though there’s currently no socialist movement in the United States comparable to the one that existed in the United Kingdom at the dawn of the 20th century, Bernie Sanders’s unexpectedly popular 2016 presidential campaign helped spark a resurgence of interest in the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist group in the country. The organization reached 50,000 members in September 2018 and includes a crop of young politicians such as the Virginia House of Delegates member Lee Carter and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Many Millennials, in particular, have lost faith in capitalism, as the economy in the aftermath of the Great Recession has been characterized by enormous inequality, more than $1 trillion of student debt, and a labor market becoming more reliant on gig and low-wage work. While on paper the country has recovered from the downturn, those gains have mostly gone to the topmost income brackets, while the majority of working people continue to contend with stagnant (or even declining) wages and rising costs of living.

The stories in Workers’ Tales were, of course, written in a very different historical and economic context, and more than a few of them—the parable venerating the labor of woodcutters, for instance—haven’t quite managed to transcend it. At the same time, the best of the stories aim broadly to upend the presumption of capitalism as the natural and rightful order of society, and thus feel surprisingly timeless in ways that are, by turns, delightful and depressing.

In one such story, a colony of monkeys gathers a stockpile of nuts and turns to their leaders, the Wise Ones, to determine how best to divide the harvest among the group. After setting aside the bulk of the nuts for themselves, the Wise Ones dole out the remainder among the other monkeys, granting some of them 20 nuts apiece, some 10, some five, and others none at all. When the monkeys that have been allotted 20 nuts complain that the Wise Ones have hoarded far more for themselves, the Wise Ones remind them that they should be grateful for having more than monkeys with only 10—and so on down the line. Finally, when the monkeys with no nuts at all demand a share, the Wise Ones claim they are trying to steal from the others, causing the monkeys with nuts to attack those with nothing. Though racial animus isn’t an explicit part of this story, the Wise Ones’ exhortations to the monkeys in the middle to direct their economic resentment downward rather than upward nevertheless recall the racially inflected bootstrap rhetoric of America’s modern right wing, which frequently castigates “welfare queens” and “illegal immigrants” for ripping off hardworking taxpayers.

Other tales attempt to pull back the curtain on money as nothing more than a social construct. The story “The New Shilling” takes the perspective of an anthropomorphic piece of silver that, perplexed that workers must trade him for their necessities, sermonizes that as money has no inherent value, he would be better off as a button, an item that’s both functional and decorative. Likewise, in the story “A Terrible Crime,” a group of townspeople discovers that a recently deceased wealthy man has been printing counterfeit money and distributing it to the idle rich, who use the money to purchase the townspeople’s labor. First they’re outraged at this forgery; then they begin to wonder what, exactly, distinguishes his money from the “real” kind. “Why, then, curse Forgery without at the same time cursing Rent, Profit, and Interest?” one enlightened citizen asks.

At points, tales like these can start to feel glib—after all, it’s not as if capitalism would immediately vanish if everyone simply opened their eyes to the lie of money. Even so, as the growing number of proponents of modern monetary theory would attest today, there is a certain truth to the idea that money is only what we make of it. Under a fiat system like the United States’, the value of currency is determined by regulation; in theory, the government could simply create more money to fund the social services that conservatives often claim are out of the national budget.

The stories that document the growing pains of the socialist movement, including its squabbles over the utility of electoral politics, have present-day corollaries as well. In the collection’s opening story, “An Old Fable Retold,” a group of chickens gathers to debate which sauce they should petition to be cooked in come Christmastime, scoffing at the naive idealism of a young chicken that pipes up to ask why they must be killed and eaten at all. It’s a send-up of self-defeating reformism that, from the perspective of the members of the American left campaigning today for single-payer health care and tuition-free education, might easily describe the lukewarm pragmatism of Democratic Party centrists. Then there’s “The History of a Giant,” in which a giant named Labour discovers that while his associates Liberal and Tory both profess to have his interests at heart, usually around election time, neither group will let him propose legislative changes in Parliament that might actually improve his lot in life. (Again, the average American worker today might say the same of Democrats and Republicans.) The only solution, Labour comes to understand, is an independent party.

In 1893, the same year “The History of a Giant” was published, socialists in the U.K. did in fact establish the Independent Labour Party, which merged with other groups in 1900 to become what is now the Labour Party. But since then, whatever socialist revolution was under way has stalled, particularly following the rise of neoliberalism through the 1980s and the turn to New Labour under Tony Blair. This historical distance occasionally casts a pall on Workers’ Tales. For instance, “The May-Day Festival in the Year 1970,” originally published in 1911, portrays a socialist future in which happy citizens, now living in a world free of want, reflect upon the rampant poverty and despotic bosses of the bad old days of capitalism. Though clearly meant to be inspiring, the tale now feels wildly off the mark: By the end of the actual 1970s, Margaret Thatcher had become prime minister. She would famously go on to institute mass privatization and austerity programs in the name of stimulating the free market, and would also oversee the violent suppression of the coal miners’ strike of 1984 and 1985, which marked the death knell of a militant labor movement in the U.K.

Given this history, how useful, exactly, were and are political fairy tales? To be sure, literature has a track record of occasionally inspiring important reforms. At the turn of the 20th century, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle sparked a public outcry in the U.S. that led to the Meat Inspection Act and other bills. In the U.K., Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, published around the same time as the stories in Workers’ Tales, led to a wave of animal-welfare activism around the treatment of carriage horses. The stories in Workers’ Tales, as Rosen notes in his introduction, can’t directly claim such success; instead, their value lies in the fact that they were the product of—rather than the catalyst for—vibrant and optimistic political organizing.

This, perhaps, is where the stories are most dissimilar to the politically minded children’s books of today, which tend not to be embedded in robust movements but instead seem to want to conjure them. In a fractious political climate, it’s understandable that anxious parents are attempting to summon a kinder future by whatever means they can, including exposing their children early on to books that espouse values of social justice. But even as some of the stories in Workers’ Tales find new relevance in the current age of economic polarization, their particular historical context might also serve as a reminder that cultural production can only complement, not replace, the work of politics. As a socialist might say, it’s more often the case that material conditions shape culture than the other way around.