John Ruskin, 1819-1900: A Socialist Perspective

John Ruskin, primarily remembered today as an art and architectural critic, was hugely influential amongst the labour movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His influence was acknowledged by William Morris, and a poll of the Independent Labour Party, in the first decade of the twentieth century placed Ruskin as the most important figure of influence in the membership.

Ruskin is far less read today than then, and, indeed, many on the left of capitalism are no longer comfortable with many of his views, particularly on issues of race and imperialism (Ruskin was one of few figures to support the savage suppression of the Jamaican Insurrection in 1865). Nonetheless, a good deal has been written about Ruskin this year, the centenary of his death. Exhibitions across the country are also running, including an exhibition “Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites” at the Tate in London. This particular exhibition in fact reveals a good deal about the more bizarre side to Ruskin’s views on art. Primarily (especially in his early years) the view that good artistic taste was a moral quality as art was the interpretation of divine truth. Representations that were “true to nature”, such as J.M.W. Turner’s were great, and those that were not were inferior works.

Obviously any reasoning contemporary of his, let alone socialists in the twenty-first century, would see such views as the nonsense they are. The religious obsession of many of Ruskin’s contemporaries, however, meant that he rapidly became a respected figure and critic.

So why was Ruskin of interest to the later labour movement and some early socialist pioneers?

The answer, and the reason for Ruskin’s subsequent decline as a respectable Victorian art critic, lay in the application of his views to the arena of political economy.

Between 1843 and 1860 Ruskin produced his multi-volume examination of art history, Modern Painters. But he became increasingly diverted by the ugliness of industrialisation, urbanisation, and poverty of a developing capitalist Europe, which seemed contrary to his moral and aesthetic religious view of the world. In the late 1850s, Ruskin’s thoughts began to turn from the nonsensical religious analysis of art to an examination of the conditions under which art was produced. He contrasted the works of gothic beauty in Stones of Venice (1851-3) with the squalid uniformity and imitation of industrial British architecture. The relation of labourer to his work in industrial capitalist society meant that production was totally separated from the workers’ creative faculties and art had become bastardised displays in private galleries for the appreciation of a privileged few. Ruskin’s conclusion that artistic and social decline were due to political and economic conditions produced works that was of interest to later critics of capitalism; most notably the political reformists that emerged from the labour movement in the late nineteenth century, but also early socialists like William Morris.

Ruskin, by around 1860 and the publication of his essays on political economy, Unto This Last, had reached the conclusion that the test of production and consumption was in its impact on human life and happiness. This was opposed starkly to the capitalist society in which he lived, of production for profit and subsequent overproduction amidst a grossly unequal society where the hardest poverty existed next to luxury and opulence. Though a very long way from any sort of socialist conclusions, Ruskin sought, against his inherited Tory political inclinations, to redefine the classical political economy of the era (not fundamentally different from the current orthodoxies). This laissez-faire, free trade political economy was, for Ruskin, a far too narrow reading of human nature, with the motive of human existence being reduced to the lowest terms of private gain and universal, supposedly “enlightened” selfishness. Despite the limited nature of these conclusions from a socialist perspective, they provoked an outcry from Ruskin’s contemporary ex-admirers who were alarmed at his straying beyond art in the application of his aesthetic and ethical values. A society which denied production for profit in favour of production for the benefit of humankind, would clearly not enable the privilege of a few to continue. Ruskin, however, never concluded that capitalist ownership of the means of production (whose political economy Ruskin thought was its ideological expression) was the defining feature of the existing condition of production. Instead, he concluded that the relinquishing of paternal responsibilities of industrial capitalists, no longer with a close pastoral tie to its labour force, was the problem (and here lies a possible link to later state capitalists and reformists who wanted the state to fill this role).

In seeking to redefine classical political economy Ruskin attacked its language and terms like “money”, “price”, “value”, “wealth”, and so on. Ruskin defined the term “riches” and identified social and political power as depending on economic inequality:

“Men nearly always speak and write as if riches were absolute, and it were possible, by following certain scientific precepts, for everybody to be rich. Whereas riches are a power like that of electricity acting only through inequalities or negations of itself. The force of the guinea you have in your pocket depends wholly on the default of a guinea in your neighbour’s pocket.”

Ruskin, however, failed to realise the class basis of the “force” and “default” of the guinea in the ownership and non-ownership of productive resources; failing to see a definite difference in interests between those who own property and derive privilege and those who, by their non-ownership of productive resources, are forced to sell their labour power for less than the value of what they produce.

If riches (being the power of the privileged in an unequal society) grew with inequality, wealth did not. “Wealth” defined by Ruskin was not more money or property, but that which contributes to the common benefit of humanity. Great wealth, as opposed to riches, by Ruskin’s definition, was therefore incompatible with the deprivation of body and mind of capitalist labour. Ruskin’s declared object was:

“to leave this one great fact clearly stated: THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers, of love, of joy, and of admiration”.

Socialists would not disagree with this statement necessarily. Clearly, human production should be for the common wealth and for human needs. But Ruskin’s belief that this could be achieved by a “noble” class of philanthropic industrialists is misguided in the extreme and a failure whose lesson his “followers” in the later reformist labour movement did not learn. But it is all too easy to see the appeal of this lazy idealism; that people had just forgotten their responsibilities; that the condition of the working majority was naturally one of subservience to benevolent masters. It simply avoids rational reasoning and substitutes it with a sentimental appeal to a past that was every bit as exploitative of the majority as the present (this sort of attitude is present today, particularly in the ranks of the capitalist left, about the post-World War II “golden age”). The twentieth century saw a whole host of reformists, headed by the Labour Party, just like this, trying to provide paternal support for an exploited working majority, robbed blind but expected to be grateful for a state handout when capitalism cannot even provide (profitable) work in a society and economy with potentially boundless useful work to be done.

A further, but equally flawed, aspect of Ruskin’s thought and influence was his appeal to nature and the simple pastoral life; clearly an attractive proposition for many workers in appalling living conditions. But the choice is not industrial or pastoral society, but between the democratic control of commonly-owned productive resources and production for profit for the benefit and privilege of the five percent of the population who presently control these resources.

So why the appeal to early socialists such as William Morris?

Here the answer lies in the rejection of much of Ruskin’s thought, most obviously much of his religious confusions and more dubious aspects of his political economy, and the acceptance of his aesthetic ideal; that things should be produced beautifully if they can and that art and labour should not be separate concepts. While Ruskin expected this within a pastoral capitalism, William Morris realised that this was only possible when workers controlled their own productive process (see esp. Art, Labour and Socialism) through the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources. A conclusion as relevant in 2000 as it was on Ruskin’s death in 1900.


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