Luke Lewin Davies

April 27 2022

"Ward, Crumpsall Workhouse, c.1897", CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The council of the unemployed

In 1922, a small army of 120 unemployed men and women seized a building in Dublin. They hoisted a red flag out of a window, published a manifesto and established a Council of the Unemployed, chaired by Liam O’Flaherty – a self-professed tramp who would go on to become a successful novelist. While the published manifesto is lost to history, O’Flaherty’s memoirs offer a clue as to what its demands may have been, as throughout his writing he expressed an explicit interest in liberating workers from work, at one point declaring:


When we drop our old gods and worship the machine willingly, without reservation, it will free us from bondage to the earth, and from making bond slaves of the majority of our fellows.


O’Flaherty was not alone in campaigning for an end to ‘wage slavery’ – and in particular – embracing the unemployed lifestyle as a means of achieving this. On the contrary, during the early twentieth century a significant number of texts were published by homeless authors who similarly protested against the spectre of capitalist labour and celebrated the work-free lifestyle. For instance, in his 1936 memoir Half a Million Tramps W.A. Gape – who in 1930 established himself as ‘Secretary, Treasurer, speaker, and, in fact, head cook and bottle washer’ of a newly formed Hoboes’ Union – defended his decision to steer clear of a working life, and demanded that ‘all destitute persons’ be placed ‘on a standard of living comparable with what satisfies the average man’, regardless of whether they ‘pull as much weight […] in the productive field’. Along the same lines, in his 1939 memoir Spiv’s Progress the homeless author John Worby described his fellow ‘tramps and spivs’ as ‘rebels from everyday slavery’ – praising them for standing apart from ‘respectable people’ who he depicts as ‘slaves to the clock, with nothing before them but a lifetime of slavery’.

Freedom from work

In seeking to unearth forgotten texts like these, my research over the past few years has sought to provide a counterweight to tendencies within studies of radical literature and culture to overlook cultural works that question the pre-eminence of labour within capitalist society. Often, historians of radical cultures have subscribed to a conception of emancipation narrowly envisaged as the working-class appropriation of the means of production – freedom through work rather than freedom from work – echoing the defence of ‘the dignity of labour’ often made by prominent contemporary left-wing commentators. To take the example of early twentieth-century radical fiction, existing accounts typically foreground texts that chronicle the struggle to obtain employment (such as Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole) while perhaps failing to recognise the value of texts that ask more fundamental questions about the value of work (such as Jim Phelan’s Ten-a-Penny People, Chris Massie’s Penny Whipp, or H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods).


At the same time, however, there are some emerging signs of cultural historians refocusing their attention on works that search for freedom outside of the workplace. Three recent studies are worth mentioning for suggesting this possibility – though no doubt there are others that I am unaware of… First, Roberto del Valle Alcalá’s 2017 British Working-Class Fiction: Narratives of Refusal and the Struggle Against Work, which explores examples of working-class fiction including novels by Alan Sillitoe and Irvine Welsh that on some level function as a critique of our societal preoccupation with the value of work. Second, Alastair Hemmens’ 2019 The Critique of Work in Modern French Thought: From Charles Fourier to Guy Debord, which develops a critical analysis of radical French thinkers in the utopian socialist, surrealist, Marxist and situationist traditions who have raised questions about the role of labour within society. And thirdly, Abigail Susik’s 2021 Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work, which explores how artworks by Man Ray, André Breton, Simone Breton, André Thirion, Óscar Domínguez, Konrad Klapheck and others embody a surrealist refusal of work, partly in response to contemporaneous debates about overwork and its destructive effects.

Rewriting cultural histories

It seems clear, then, that efforts are being made to draw attention to radical cultural works and to cultural movements (be they literary, intellectual, artistic, or otherwise) that question the value afforded to waged labour within society – even if such examples continue to be against the grain. Still, it might be asked: why should this development concern us?


With growing understanding of the links between ‘productivist’ ideology and environmental destruction, as well as the oversight of women’s unwaged labour within social reproduction – the need to re-assess how ‘work’ is valued in contemporary society is now accepted by many. But are the efforts described above merely attempts to ensure that cultural studies remains topical by tuning in to this issue? Or can such inquiries genuinely contribute to the current political moment?


Predictably, I am inclined to argue for the latter. In particular, I would defend efforts to bring to light neglected anti-productivist cultures of resistance by suggesting that they bring the specific advantage of broadening our understanding and our expectation of what culture can achieve within the present struggle.


I might even go further by suggesting that what is perhaps at present lacking in efforts to reconfigure prevailing attitudes towards work is a clear sense of the role that culture can and should play within this fight: for instance, how cultural works can raise awareness; how they can broaden our understanding of related issues; and how they can help foster a sense of cultural identity. Rewriting radical cultural history in the manner proposed above is thus of value precisely because it can awaken us to these inherent possibilities. To return to my own research – the example of O’Flaherty and his unemployed army is of interest because it offers us a model of what can be achieved. A model that, of course, we might choose to reject or to emulate – but, either way, one that can help us to broaden our horizons.


Assuming, then, that we are willing to accept that cultural history can play a key role in the present moment – the question becomes: how to nurture this nascent development? And how to ensure that this commitment to engaging with these forgotten cultural histories extends beyond the perhaps limited domain of academic discourse?


Listed in order of appearance


  • W. A. Gape (1936), Half a Million Tramps. Routledge and Sons: London


  • John Worby (1939), Spiv’s Progress. J. M. Dent and Sons: London.


  • Walter Greenwood (1933) Love on the Dole. Cape: London.


  • Jim Phelan (1938) Ten-a-Penny People. Gollancz: London.


  • Chris Massie (1939) Penny Whipp


  • H. G. Wells (1923) Men Like Gods. Cassell: London.


  • Roberto Del Valle Alcalá (2017), British Working-Class Fiction: Narratives of Refusal and the Struggle Against Work. Bloomsbury: London


  • Alistair Hemmens (2019), The Critique of Work in Modern French Thought: From Charles Fourier to Guy Debord. Palgrave Macmillan: London


  • Abigail Susik (2021), Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work. Manchester University Press: Manchester

Luke Lewin Davies teaches at the University of Tübingen, and is the author of The Tramp in British Literature, 1850-1950. You can find him on Twitter at @lukelewindavies