Utopian Dreams: John Ruskin’s Social and Political Philosophy

John Ruskin ( 1819 – 1900 ) the eminent art critic was a leading light in the aesthetic movement of Victorian society championing such artists as J M W Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites. But during the 1850’s his attention increasingly became focussed on social and political issues. It was during this time that Ruskin started teaching at The Working Men’s College set up by the Christian socialists Frederick James Furnivall and Frederick Denison Maurice. In 1860 he had published, in the Cornhill Magazine four articles which started to encapsulate his thoughts and views on political economy. But because of widespread criticism of his expressed radicalism the publishers grew anxious about publishing more so Ruskin decided to complete the task himself and publish the complete work in book form entitled: Unto This Last. The title was taken from Matthew 20 ( Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard ) where the last of the workers, who have worked the shortest day are given equal pay with the first of the workers, who have worked the longest day. This egalitarian principle is one that Ruskin explores in greater depth in the work along with the issue of aggressive industrialization and its damaging effects on nature. Gandhi was given a copy of Unto This Last when he was a young lawyer in South Africa and it made a profound impact on his life:

“ The book was impossible to lay aside once I had begun it. It gripped me … I could not get any sleep that night. I was determined to change my life in accordance with the ideals of the book. “
M K Gandhi

Soon after reading Ruskin’s work Gandhi set about establishing the Phoenix community which was based on the values that Ruskin had promoted. At the settlement everyone was to receive the same wages without any marked distinction between the type of work undertaken or the race /creed of the participants, which for South Africa was quite revolutionary. Ruskin was in no doubt about the importance of this work: Unto This Last he once said: ” I gave up my art work and wrote Unto This Last … the central work of my life.”

Ruskin’s next published items in political economy were a series of essays in Fraser’s Magazine but unfortunately, like the Cornhill Magazine before, these were cut short but later collected and published as another book entitled: Munera Pulveris. This work sought to continue Ruskin’s growing criticism of capitalism and aggressive industrialization with an attack on the lassiez faire economic arguments of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. A further exploration in this genre was Time and Tide ( 1867 ) a collection of letters to Thomas Dixon in Sunderland which primary focused on wage labour and the plight of the laboring poor.

When Ruskin’s wealthy businessman father died in 1864 he left his son a considerable fortune which Ruskin vowed to use, in large part to ameliorate the suffering of the poorest sectors of society. He soon started this involvement with personal philanthropy by supporting, financially the social housing work of the reformer Octavia Hill. Other small scale work was also supported.

His hitherto written work on political economy was soon to find its greatest pragmatic expression in 1878 when he founded the Guild of St George. Two years previously Ruskin had purchase land near Sheffield for its base and named it St George’s Farm. At the heart of the guilds philosophy was the renunciation of modern capitalism and industrialization which was seen to enslave and restrict the growth of the laboring poor. This was to be replaced at St George’s by what was seen as a more benign, ethically driven culture that promoted the activities of medieval crafts and the material and spiritual betterment of the participants. Ruskin wanted to expose the profit motive behind industrial expansion and inspire people to reject Adam Smith’s notion of the division of labour and its resulting use of mass production techniques. Ruskin was not only concerned about the alienating effect this process had on individuals but society at large. He also objected to the increasing spread of urbanization into the country and the resulting pollution it brought in its wake. Ruskin’s utopian dream drew upon his deeply felt interests and enthusiasm for the historic, artistic, cultural life of Venice which he had visited and admired so much. Through the publication of the work: Fors Clavigera ( Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain ) Ruskin sought to recruit prospective members ( called companions ) to the guild. In hierarchical fashion Ruskin outlined different grades of Companions, all conforming to a uniform style of dress code. Principles of conduct that would regulate behavior were drawn up alongside the idea of the Guild’s own currency. Ruskin’s belief in the principle of universal education and its benefits to the individual and society at large was to be a central plank in his utopian dream. He proposed the setting up of schools for the children of companions but unfortunately, like the dress code of companions and the guild’s own currency it never found fruition. This was largely because Ruskin’s mental wellbeing was on a downward spiral resulting in a series of nervous breakdowns which had a debilitating effect on him. However the guild was far from an experimental failure because with a much modified operating ethos than the one Ruskin had originally planned the guild ran a successful co-operative venture in nursery and market gardening for nearly fifty years. Additionally with donations from wealthy benefactors and its own companions the guild was able to purchase other properties including eight cottages in North West Wales, twenty acres of woodland in Worcestershire, nine arts and craft style houses in Hertfordshire and other properties and arable land where guild companions, committed to living a Ruskinian lifestyle worked and resided.
Ruskin also established in Sheffield, St George’s Museum for working people which housed a large collection of valuable artwork, rare manuscripts, books, geological items, etc, for them to view and study. Attendance was free.

In 1880 Ruskin started recovering from his mental breakdown – which had plagued his life – and resumed his work Fors Clavigera. Additionally he was still pursuing his writing on art and architecture, engaging with public lecturing and fulfilling a number of important roles in the art world including the Slade Professorship at Oxford.

Ruskin was never afraid of confronting controversy, a few years earlier he had initiated a road repairing scheme for Oxford undergraduates. Many participated in the arduous work including Oscar Wilde, Arnold Toynbee, Alfred Milner, W G Collingwood and Alexander Robertson MacEwen. The main aim of the project was to teach the virtues of manual labour.

Ruskin’s influence in society was widespread. In attempting to revive rural crafts Ruskin supported St George’s Mill on the Isle of Man, which produced traditional cloth goods. He also supported the efforts of spinning and weaving in the Lake District. William Morris and C R Ashbee took a great deal of interest in Ruskin’s work and clearly this exposure influenced their work in the arts and crafts movement. Ruskin’s writing on the preservation of the countryside and the conservation of historic buildings was taken up by his friend Octavia Hill who went on the found the National Trust.

Many utopian socialists tried to put Ruskin’s radical ideas into practice including the Ruskin colonies in Florida, British Columbia and Tennessee.

Ruskin’s reputation is indisputable, his thoughts and writings influenced an entire generation in so many different areas of life and later his political thoughts fed through to impact on the birth of the British Labour Party. Schools, colleges, universities across the world have been named after him as well as many academic awards for excellence. .” Proust was deeply appreciative of Ruskin’s thoughts and ideas, so much so that he translated his work into French and Tolstoy said he was: “ …one of the most remarkable men not only of England and our generation, but of all countries and times. “

A CRITQUE OF RUSKIN’S POLITICAL IDEAS
Many socialist would argue that Ruskin’s criticism of capitalism didn’t go far enough. For although he saw the division of labour adopted by the burgeoning industrial factory system as a cold, alienating process that undermined the value and dignity of the working population he just wanted to replace it with a parochial form of medieval guild system that still kept workers tied to a master. The socialist writer Paul Mitchell wrote: “ Ruskin’s life epitomises the nineteenth century paternalistic, romantic Tory who looked back to the Middle Ages and its religious certitudes…”
Ruskin’s emphasis at St George’s, simply expressed was based on one: hierarchy, structure and control through obedience to the wishes of the master of the guild ( Ruskin himself ). Two, a set prescribed routine of behaviour. Three, specifically designed uniform clothing for members to visually reinforce and circumscribed the their place within the predetermined and limiting organization, and finally an alternative culture that was deliberately designed to set it apart from mainstream society both ideologically and geographically. All this, it could be argued, was encroaching on the territory cult status – an adherence to a quasi-religious belief system that kept people subjugated and subservient to some ‘ higher ‘ ideal drawn up by one, single charismatic leader. Engels, like Ruskin thought that the nineteenth centuries widespread growth of capitalism, industrialisation and urbanisation brought about new challenges and conflicts that a new political order had to confront and transform but this was within a Marxist, not a Ruskinian framework. Engels remarked that: “….sentimental Tories, for the most part are utopian visionaries, wallowing in reminiscences of the extinct patriarchal cottage-industry exploitation and its concomitant piety, homeliness, hidebound worthiness and its set patterns….”

Whether we see Ruskin’s model as an authoritarian, patriarchal, neo-feudalistic, inadequate attempt to provide an antidote to the worse excesses of capitalism and industrialisation or an empowering, enlightened response that could provide a new road map to a new life we will never know because the Guild of St George had, to a large degree a short, minimal impact life. But one thing is for certain, Ruskin had a vision of a better, more socially just existence based on his sincere conviction that there was a nobility in physical work which should be recognized and appreciated by all.

“ There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the function of his own life to the utmost, has always the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.”
Ruskin