Ruskin Revisited


John Ruskin—writer, adventurer, and thinker—dominated the intellectual life of the Victorian era in a formidable and forbidding way. The word ‘polymath’ doesn’t do him justice.

This son of a prosperous wine importer was the leading art critic of his age and an artist in his own right, whose work helped launch the pre-Raphaelite movement which defined the British art of the period. He also found time to be a leading expert on geology and botany, an author of extensive travel guides, a world-renowned authority on architecture, a poet, and a project manager on roadbuilding, too. This is before we touch on his political or economic writings.

What he isn’t, these days, is a widely credited figure on the Left. Paine, Hardie, Morris, Robert Owen, even Oscar Wilde all get the respect they are due; not so Ruskin. As an Oxford graduate who inspired the college with his name, and a lecturer whose main audience was the middle classes, he is often written off an establishment figure and mere reformer; his achievements are considered little more than assisted place schemes, and perhaps the inspiration for the National Trust. Take his one-time self-description as ‘a violent Tory of the old school’ and one who had ‘a most sincere love of kings, and a dislike of everybody who attempted to disobey them’, and surely the case against him as any kind of figure for the Left is closed.

Wrongly so. For Ruskin, an eccentric worshipper of the past, was also one of the most penetrating critics of the capitalism of his present—and a voice for a more hopeful and harmonious future.

‘Occult Theft’

Ruskin’s most straightforwardly political work was ‘Unto This Last’, an extended essay from 1860 which explored ideas of the dignity of labour and the importance of the ‘just wage’. Like his other writings, it is overlooked today, but was much respected in the early Labour Party. In the Indian independence movement, Gandhi himself was moved write a translation of what he saw as a blast against the imperial overlords.

‘Unto This Last’ is a devastating takedown of the established ‘political economy’ of the day, the free market doctrines of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, underwritten by the utilitarianist philosophy of Mill and Bentham. Like our latter-day Yanis Varoufakis, Ruskin was an economist who wanted to save us from the economists. He denounces the entire basis of the rational, disinterested ‘science’ of economy as a sham, but notes that ‘as in the instances of alchemy, astrology, witchcraft, and other such popular creeds, political economy has a plausible idea at the root of it’, this being that human beings are motivated entirely by self- interest, and that social justice is a folly. In a withering aside, Ruskin states, ‘I neither impugn nor doubt the conclusions of the science if its terms are accepted. I am simply uninterested in them, as I should be in those of a science of gymnastics which assumed that men had no skeletons.’

Ruskin rubbishes Adam Smith’s notion that self-interest ultimately benefits all and highlights the oft-forgotten fact that the chief attraction of wealth for those who are rich is the direct power it gives over those who are not. Freedom for the rich means servitude for the poor, he writes, and ‘the art of making yourself rich, in the ordinary mercantile economists’ sense, is therefore and necessarily the art of keeping your neighbour poor.’

Ruskin goes on to say that undercutting wages is morally abhorrent, though he does not decry the wage-system itself, and, in this essay at least, specifically disavows the ‘socialist’ label. In fact, he denies he is in favour of the concept of equality, arguing instead that those of ‘better knowledge and skill’ should lead and guide. But where ‘Unto This Last’ has the most value today is in its exploration of ‘the capitalist’s’ deliberate and dishonest confusion of his own self-interest for that of society as a whole.

In society, Ruskin states, ‘the duty of the Soldier is to Defend, of the Pastor to Teach, of the Physician to Heal, and of the Merchant to Provide.’ It should be no more of the function of the latter to amass profits for himself than for the vicar to earn his stipend, yet in fact this pursuit of wealth now nullifies everything else. He then notes that the word ‘idiot’ comes from a Greek root signifying an individual with no use to state or society. In hoarding their wealth into ‘pools of dead water’, the capitalist is being both unproductive and idiotic in the true sense. We are literally ruled by idiots.

In societies governed only by demand and supply, for Ruskin, the rich are, ‘generally speaking, industrious, resolute, proud, covetous, prompt, methodical, sensible, unimaginative, insensitive, and ignorant.’ The poor, by contrast, are ‘the entirely foolish, the entirely wise, the idle, the reckless, the humble, the thoughtful, the imaginative, the sensitive, the well-informed, the improvident, the irregularly and impulsively wicked, the clumsy knave, the open thief, and the entirely merciful, just, and godly person.’ Good and bad in both camps to be sure—but one might have a hunch which side Ruskin prefers.

He concludes that in cheating the worker of the just wage one is in effect stealing from him, and coins the memorable term ‘occult theft’: a theft secreted by law and sanctioned by society, and all the more disgraceful for it. From this foundation, a fundamental critique of all our current society’s structures necessarily follows.

Archetypal Kingliness

In later life Ruskin followed his earlier logic and became more radical with age, taking as ever the less-travelled route. His 1870s letters to the workmen of England, which he titled Fors Clavigera, become increasingly forceful in their insistence that working men should form their own movement, forging their own destiny and taking back what is rightfully theirs but has been ‘robbed’ from them—their wealth, ‘consumed by the idle’, and ‘mocked by the vile’.

In these same letters Ruskin calls himself ‘a communist of the old school, reddest of the red… full crimson, Tyrian red.’ This proclamation is often read ironically, coming as it does in a passage attacking the French Communards for allegedly burning down churches (which he says should instead be enjoyed by all). Yet when he goes on to state that that which is held in common should be grander than that in private hands, and that instead of a ‘common poverty’, we should have a ‘common wealth’, there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. It is in the same letters that Ruskin makes his contentious claim, ‘I am, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school.’ But his ire is directed against the then-Liberal paper the Telegraph, supportive of Gladstone and free trade. More seriously, he professes that his is the Toryism of the Romantic novelist Walter Scott, and goes on to explore the nature of ‘kingliness’ in Scott’s novels, a virtue Ruskin considers exemplified by duty, honesty, valour, and, crucially, protection of the weak—all qualities he considers long lost to the ruling class of the present. Nor does Ruskin signal at which stage they were lost. It seems a king, for Ruskin, is a concept, rather than a man, an archetype of virtue rather than any specific monarch who has lived.

Ruskin and Marx

Ruskin was not just a political writer; the subjects on which he wrote were eclectic. This arguably gives the insight when they do turn to the political all the more authority. A scholarly exploration of the role played by iron in nature and society, for example, suddenly diverts into an attack on its usage in the spike-topped railings of London, which Ruskin considers darkly emblematic of the division and injustice of the day.

One of his most popular books was ‘Sesame and Lillies’, a transcript of speeches in Manchester and a paen to the importance of books and learning. Ostensibly apolitical, the book becomes another Romantic riposte against the capitalist utility of the day; education, says Ruskin, is an end in itself, not a mere preparation for employment. It is also a fiery defence of the concept of the free public library for all.

Ruskin was a restless advocate of the virtues of Gothic style and architecture, best displayed in his three-volume treatise on Venetian art and architecture The Stones of Venice. His chapter on ‘The Nature of Gothic’ argues one of the movement’s most admirable features was the freedom of expression, and autonomy of vision, given to its artisans and craftsman, which is contrasted with the preceding Greco-Roman slavery responsible for the classical style. Ruskin finds this independence both creates work of greater beauty and gives fuller expression and meaning to the workman himself. ‘You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him,’ he writes. ‘You cannot make both.’

The free Gothic artisan is also contrasted to the increasingly regimented, stratified, and exploited factory worker multiplying under modern capitalism, which Ruskin sees as an affront to the very nature of humanity, a ‘degradation of the operative into a machine, which, more than any other evil of the times, is leading the mass of the nations everywhere into vain, incoherent, destructive struggling for a freedom of which they cannot explain the nature to themselves.’ For Ruskin, nature was sacred, humanity and the natural world indivisible. Industrial capitalism was an affront to both.

He goes on to argue that ‘division of labour’ is an inaccurate term, since it is not the labour divided but the men. ‘Divided into mere segments of men—broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin, or the head of a nail…’ This is the estrangement from human nature wrought by capitalism, the ‘alienation of labour’ described by Marx, but brought to life in more poetic language. To my knowledge there is no evidence that either one of Marx or Ruskin had read the other, but they came to the same realisation, much like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace’s parallel discovery of evolution.

Ruskin the Romantic

The soulless utilitarianism of the market which so horrified Ruskin has reached its grim zenith in today’s surveillance capitalism: souls lost in code, the elements commodified, the blind pursuit of profit threatening not just to despoil but to destroy the natural world altogether. Ruskin was a Tory in some ways, yearning for an imagined past with an idealistic hierarchy. He was certainly a Romantic in all senses, with a greater love for a divine concept of nature than any abstract notion of progress.

But it is from this Romantic vision, his realisation that ‘there is no wealth but life’, that a radical vision emerges, as revolutionary as it is inspiring. The value of a an exquisitely expressed moral rage, of revolt captured in beautiful prose should not be underestimated: to neglect this is our movement’s loss, and society’s loss.

[First published in Tribune magazine, 2022]