The 'Four essays on the first principles of Political Economy' were written in the summer of 1860. Ruskin submitted them to the recently founded Cornhill Magazine in June of that year. The Cornhill was owned by his publisher, George Smith, and edited by the novelist Thackeray; both of them were, in a slight way, Ruskin's friends. The essays appeared as monthly instalments between August and November. As Ruskin tells us in his Preface, they were immediately 'reprobated in a violent manner': the critics savaged them and subscribers sent in letters of complaint. To give one example, the Saturday Review declared that the world would simply refuse to be 'preached to death by a mad governess' and denounced the essays as 'windy hysterics', 'absolute nonsense' and 'intolerable twaddle'. George Smith was seriously alarmed and instructed Thackeray to curtail publication: the essays were 'too deeply tainted with socialistic heresy to conciliate subscribers'. After the appearance of the third essay, Ruskin was informed 'that the magazine must only admit one Economical Essay more'. With Thackeray's permission, he
'made . . . the last one longer than the rest, and gave it blunt conclusion as well as I could — and so the book now stands'.
This means that, in spite of the fourth essay's concentration, Unto this Last remains in some sense a fragment. It is nonetheless a well-constructed and powerfully written work. To the end of his life, Ruskin considered it the best and most valuable of all his books. So as neither to dilute this effect nor to tamper with the evidence, he published it in book form unrevised. This explains why a few undertakings he makes in the earlier essays are never carried out.
Unto this Last appeared in 1862. Ruskin wanted it to be on sale by the time his next book started appearing in serial form. This was Munera Pulveris, an attempt to complete the arguments begun in the four essays. Where the latter are essentially destructive of the classical position, Munera Pulveris attempts to replace it with positive proposals. Ruskin had
'resolved to make it the central work of my life to write an exhaustive treatise on Political Economy'.
This ambition was never fulfilled, though some of Ruskin's devouter followers have claimed that these two books, read in conjunction with Time and Tide (1867) and Fors Clavigera (1871-84), constitute an exhaustively argued position. This is debatable. However, there can be no doubt that Ruskin was severely discouraged by the response his first essays provoked, even though the scale and hysteria of the opposition went a long way towards proving his arguments. Munera Pulveris, commissioned for Fraser's Magazine by a still more sympathetic friend — Carlyle's biographer, J. A. Froude — suffered the same fate as its predecessor, the series being cut short by the publisher. Most readers have conceded, too, that the proposals put forward in Munera Pulveris are disappointing when compared with the destructive force of Unto this Last, and that the conscientious sobriety of the style makes for uncharacteristically dull reading. The argument is clogged with dubious etymologies and references to Greek and Latin literature, both of which contribute to the suspicion that Ruskin no longer has his mind on nineteenth-century conditions. As for the later books, brilliant though in many ways they are, they are also eccentric and fragmentary and unpredictable, the work of a man on the verge of mental collapse. Moreover, by the time he wrote Fors Clavigera, Ruskin had stopped attending to significant developments in economics, and much of his thought had hardened into reaction.
To begin with, Unto this Last sold badly. Ten years after its publication, the first edition of a thousand copies was still not exhausted. Yet when the book was reissued in the standard edition of Ruskin's works in 1877, it sold two thousand copies in the first year and continued to sell at that rate for the rest of the century. This must be seen partly as a measure of Ruskin's fame and status, which were at their height in the later Victorian age. But his fame as an art critic was already secure before 1860. It was the reputation of his economic writings that had advanced, and it had done so because professional economists had begun to recognize the flaws in the classical position. The belief in accumulation of wealth as the source of prosperity had receded; Ruskin's insistence on the importance of consumption — and the consequent danger of under-consumption — had been widely accepted. His influence on socialist thinkers like William Morris and the economist Henry George was by this time established, but it was not only socialists who recognized that the problems of the market were inseparable from social and, therefore, moral questions. By 1910, over a hundred thousand copies of Unto this Last had been sold and it had been translated into French, German, Italian and — by a certain M. K. Gandhi — into Gujarati. When the first twenty-nine Labour MPs were elected to the House of Commons in 1906 a questionnaire was circulated among them which showed, according to Clement Attlee, that the book they considered had influenced them most deeply was Unto this Last. It is indeed possible to see Ruskin as an important influence on English social legislation for much of the twentieth century — notably on bills introduced by the government Attlee was eventually to lead. Writing of Unto this Last in 1964, Kenneth Clark said of Ruskin's social ideas that
'the greater part of them are now the truisms of the Welfare State'.
Twenty years later, Clark's use of the word 'truism' sounds complacent, and the comment has an oddly period flavour; the interim has seen the rise of monetarism, a resurgence of laissez-faire without the insistence on non-economic liberties. Yet Clark's observation is in substance true. Ruskin's influence on our society has been incalculable.