Letter 7 by John Ruskin to the Workers of Britain

DENMARK HILL, 1st July, 1871

MY FRIENDS, — It seldom chances, my work lying chiefly among stones, clouds, and flowers, that I am brought into any freedom of intercourse with my fellow-creatures; but since the fighting in Paris I have dined out several times, and spoken to the persons who sat next me, and to others when I went upstairs; and done the best I could to find out what people thought about the fighting, or thought they ought to think about it, or thought they ought to say. I had, of course, no hope of finding any one thinking what they ought to do. But I have not yet, a little to my surprise, met with any one who either appeared to be sadder, or professed himself wiser for anything that has happened.

It is true that I am neither sadder nor wiser, because of it, myself. But then I was so sad before, that nothing could make me sadder; and getting wiser has always been to me a very slow process (sometimes even quite stopping for whole days together), so that if two or three new ideas fall in my way at once, it only puzzles me; and the fighting in Paris has given me more than two or three.

The newest of all these new ones, and, in fact, quite a glistering and freshly minted idea to me, is the Parisian notion of Communism, as far as I understand it (which I don't profess to do altogether, yet, or I should be wiser than I was, with a vengeance).

For, indeed, I am myself a Communist of the old school — reddest also of the red; and was on the very point of saying so at the end of my last letter; only the telegram about the Louvre's being on fire stopped me, because I thought the Communists of the new school, as I could not at all understand them, might not quite understand me. For we Communists of the old school think that our property belongs to everybody, and everybody's property to us; so of course I thought the Louvre belonged to me as much as to the Parisians, and expected they would have sent word over to me, being an Art Professor, to ask whether I wanted it burnt down. But no message or intimation to that effect ever reached me.

Then the next bit of new coinage in the way of notion which I have picked up in Paris streets, is the present meaning of the French word 'Ouvrier,' which in my time the dictionaries used to give as 'Workman,' or 'Working-man.' For again, I have spent many days, not to say years, with the working-men of our English school myself; and I know that, with the more advanced of them, the gathering word is that which I gave you at the end of my second number— 'To do good work, whether we live or die.' Whereas I perceive the gathering, or rather scattering, word of the French 'ouvrier' is, 'To undo good work, whether we live or die.'

And this is the third, and the last, I will tell you for the present, of my new ideas, but a troublesome one: namely, that we are henceforward to have a duplicate power of political economy; and that the new Parisian expression for its first principle is not to be ' laissez faire ,' but ' laissez refaire.'

I cannot, however, make anything of these new French fashions of thought till I have looked at them quietly a little; so to-day I will content myself with telling you what we Communists of the old school meant by Communism; and it will be worth your hearing, for — I tell you simply in my 'arrogant' way—we know, and have known, what Communism is — for our fathers knew it, and told us, three thousand years ago; while you baby Communists do not so much as know what the name means, in your own English or French — no, not so much as whether a House of Commons implies, or does not imply, also a House of Uncornmons; nor whether the Holiness of the Commune, which Garibaldi came to fight for, had any relation to the Holiness of the 'Communion' which he came to fight against.

Will you be at the pains, now, however, to learn rightly, and once for all, what Communism is? First, it means that everybody must work in common, and do common or simple work for his dinner; and that if any man will not do it, he must not have his dinner. That much, perhaps, you thought you knew? — but you did not think we Communists of the old school knew it also? You shall have it, then, in the words of the Chelsea farmer and stout Catholic, I was telling you of, in last number. He was born in Milk Street, London, three hundred and ninety-one years ago, [... ] and he planned a Commune flowing with milk and honey, and otherwise Elysian; and called it the 'Place of Wellbeing,' or Utopia; which is a word you perhaps have occasionally used before now, like others, without understanding it [... ] You shall use it in that stupid way no more, if I can help it. Listen how matters really are managed there.

'The chief, and almost the only business of the government, is to take care that no man may live idle, but that every one may follow his trade diligently: yet they do not wear themselves out with perpetual toil from morning till night, as if they were beasts of burden, which, as it is indeed a heavy slavery, so it is everywhere the common course of life amongst all mechanics except the Utopians; but they, dividing the day and night into twenty-four hours, appoint six of these for work, three of which are before dinner and three after; they then sup, and, at eight o'clock, counting from noon, go to bed and sleep eight hours: the rest of their time, besides that taken up in work, eating, and sleeping, is left to every man's discretion; yet they are not to abuse that interval to luxury and idleness, but must employ it in some proper exercise, according to their various inclinations, which is, for the most part, reading.
'But the time appointed for labour is to be narrowly examined, otherwise, you may imagine that, since there are only six hours appointed for work, they may fall under a scarcity of necessary provisions: but it is so far from being true that this time is not sufficient for supplying them with plenty of all things, either necessary or convenient, that it is rather too much; and this you will easily apprehend, if you consider how great a part of all other nations is quite idle. First, women generally do little, who are the half of mankind; and, if some few women are diligent, their husbands are idle: then, — . . .'

What then?

We will stop a minute, friends, if you please, for I want you before you read what then, to be once more made fully aware that this farmer who is speaking to you is one of the sternest Roman Catholics of his stern time; and at the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, became Lord High Chancellor of England in his stead.

'— then, consider the great company of idle priests, and of those that are called religious men; add to these, all rich men, chiefly those that have estates in land, who are called noblemen and gentlemen, together with their families, made up of idle persons, that are kept more for show than use; add to these, all those strong and lusty beggars that go about, pretending some disease in excuse for their begging; and, upon the whole account, you will find that the number of those by whose labours mankind is supplied is much less than you, perhaps, imagined: then, consider how few of those that work are employed in labours that are of real service! for we, who measure all things by money, give rise to many trades that are both vain and superfluous, and serve only to support riot and luxury: for if those who work were employed only in such things as the conveniences of life require, there would be such an abundance of them, that the prices of them would so sink that tradesmen could not be maintained by their gains;'

— (italics mine — Fair and softly, Sir Thomas! we must have a shop round the corner, and a pedlar or two on fair-days, yet); —

'if all those who labour about useless things were set to more profitable employments, and if all that languish out their lives in sloth and idleness (every one of whom consumes as much as any two of the men that are at work) were forced to labour, you may easily imagine that a small proportion of time would serve for doing all that is either necessary, profitable, or pleasant to mankind, especially while pleasure is kept within its due bounds: this appears very plainly in Utopia; for there, in a great city, and in all the territory that lies round it, you can scarce find five hundred, either men or women, by their age and strength capable of labour, that are not engaged in it! even the heads of government, though excused by the law, yet do not excuse themselves, but work, that, by their examples, they may excite the industry of the rest of the people.'

You see, therefore, that there is never any fear; among us of the old school, of being out of work; but there is great fear, among many of us, lest we should not do the work set us well; for, indeed, we thorough-going Communists make it a part of our daily duty to consider how common we are; and how few of us have any brains or souls worth speaking of, or fit to trust to; — that being the, alas, almost unexceptionable lot of human creatures. Not that we think ourselves (still less, call ourselves without thinking so) miserable sinners, for we are not in anywise miserable, but quite comfortable for the most part; and we are not sinners, that we know of; but are leading godly, righteous, and sober lives, to the best of our power, since last Sunday (on which day some of us were, we regret to be informed, drunk); but we are of course common creatures enough, the most of us, and thankful if we may be gathered up in St Peter's sheet, so as not to be uncivilly or unjustly called unclean too.And therefore our chief concern is to find out any among us wiser and of better make than the rest, and to get them, if they will for any persuasion take the trouble, to rule over us, and teach us how to behave, and make the most of what little good is in us.

So much for the first law of old Communism, respecting work. Then the second respects property, and it is that the public, or common, wealth, shall be more and statelier in all its substance than private or singular wealth; that is to say (to come to my own special business for a moment) that there shall be only cheap and few pictures, if any, in the insides of houses, where nobody but the owner can see them; but costly pictures, and many, on the outsides of houses, where the people can see them also that the Hotel-de-Ville, or Hotel of the whole Town, for the transaction of its common business, shall be a magnificent building, much rejoiced in by the people, and with its tower seen far away through the clear air; but that the hotels for private business or pleasure, cafes, taverns, and the like, shall be low, few, plain, and in back streets; more especially such as furnish singular and uncommon drinks and refreshments; but that the fountains which furnish the people's common drink shall be very lovely and stately, and adorned with precious marbles, and the like. Then farther, according to old Communism, the private dwellings of uncommon persons — dukes and lords—are to be very simple, and roughly put together,— such persons being supposed to be above all care for things that please the commonalty; but the buildings for public or common service, more especially schools, alms-houses, and workhouses, are to be externally of a majestic character, as being for noble purposes and charities; and in their interiors furnished with many luxuries for the poor and sick. And, finally and chiefly, it is an absolute law of old Communism that the fortunes of private persons should be small, and of little account in the State; but the common treasure of the whole nation should be of superb and precious things in redundant quantity, as pictures, statues, precious books; gold and silver vessels, preserved from ancient times; gold and silver bullion laid up for use, in case of any chance need of buying anything suddenly from foreign nations; noble horses, cattle, and sheep, on the public lands; and vast spaces of land for culture, exercise, and garden, round the cities, full of flowers, which, being everybody's property, nobody could gather; and of birds which, being everybody's property, nobody could shoot. And, in a word, that instead of a common poverty, or national debt, which every poor person in the nation is taxed annually to fulfil his part of, there should be a common wealth, or national reverse of debt, consisting of pleasant things, which every poor person in the nation should be summoned to receive his dole of, annually; and of pretty things, which every person capable of admiration, foreigners as well as natives, should unfeignedly admire, in an aesthetic, and not a covetous manner (though for my own part I can't understand what it is that I am taxed now to defend, or what foreign nations are supposed to covet, here). But truly, a nation that has got anything to defend of real public interest, can usually hold it; and a fat Latin Communist gave for sign of the strength of his commonalty, in its strongest time, —

'Privatus illis census erat brevis,
Commune magnum;

which you may get any of your boys or girls to translate for you, and remember; remembering, also, that the commonalty or publicity depends for its goodness on the nature of the thing that is common, and that is public. When the French cried, 'Vive la République! ' after the battle of sedan, they were thinking only of the Publique, in the word, and not of the Re in it. But that is the essential part of it, for that 'Re' is not like the mischievous Re in Reform, and Refaire, which the words had better be without; but it is short for res, which means 'thing'; and when you cry, 'Live the Republic,' the question is mainly, what thing it is you wish to be publicly alive, and whether you are striving for a Common-Wealth, and Public-Thing; or, as too plainly in Paris, for a Common-Illth, and Public-Nothing, or even Public-Less-than-nothing and Common Deficit.

Now all these laws respecting public and private property, are accepted in the same terms by the entire body of us Communists of the old school; but with respect to the management of both, we old Reds fall into two classes, differing, not indeed in colour of redness, but in depth of tint of it — one class being, as it were, only of a delicately pink, peach — blossom, or dog-rose redness; but the other, to which I myself do partly, and desire wholly, to belong, as I told you, reddest of the red-that is to say, full crimson, or even dark crimson, passing into that deep colour of the blood which made the Spaniards call it blue, instead of red, and which the Greeks call Ancient Greek being an intense phoenix or flamingo colour: and this not merely, as in the flamingo feathers, a colour on the outside, but going through and through, ruby-wise; so that Dante, who is one of the few people who have ever beheld our queen full in the face, says of her that, if she had been in a fire, he could not have seen her at all, so fire-colour she was, all through.

And between these two sects or shades of us, there is this difference in our way of holding our common faith (that our neighbour's property is ours, and ours his), namely, that the rose-red division of us are content in their diligence of care to preserve or guard from injury or loss their neighbours' property, as their own; so that they may be called, not merely dog-rose red, but even 'watch-dog-rose' red; being, indeed, more careful and anxious for the safety of the possessions of other people (especially their masters) than for any of their own; and also more sorrowful for any wound or harm suffered by any creature in their sight, than for hurt to themselves. So that they are Communists, even less in their having part in all common well-being of their neighbours, than part in all common pain: being yet, on the whole, infinite gainers; for there is in this world infinitely more joy than pain, to be shared, if you will only take your share when it is set for you.

The vermilion, or Tyrian-red sect of us, however, are not content merely with this carefulness and watchfulness over our neighbours' goods, but we cannot rest unless we are giving what we can spare of our own; and the more precious it is, the more we want to divide it with somebody. So that above all things, in what we value most of possessions, pleasant sights, and true knowledge, we cannot relish seeing any pretty things unless other people see them also; neither can we be content to know anything for ourselves, but must contrive, somehow, to make it known to others.

And as thus especially we like to give knowledge away, so we like to have it good to give (for, as for selling knowledge, thinking it comes by the spirit of Heaven, we hold the selling of it to be only a way of selling God again, and utterly Iscariot's business); also, we know that the knowledge made up for sale is apt to be watered and dusted, or even itself good for nothing; and we try, for our part, to get it, and give it, pure: the mere fact that it is to be given away at once to anybody who asks to have it, and immediately wants to use it, is a continual check upon us. For instance, when Colonel North, in the House of Commons, on the 20th of last month (as reported in the Times), 'would simply observe, in conclusion, that it was impossible to tell how many thousands of the young men who were to be embarked for India next September, would be marched, not to the hills, but to their graves; any of us Tyrian-reds 'would simply observe' that the young men themselves ought to be constantly, and on principle, informed of their destination before embarking; and that this pleasant communicativeness of what knowledge on the subject was to be got, would soon render quite possible the attainment of more. So also, in abstract science, the instant habit of making true discoveries common property, cures us of a bad trick which one may notice to have much hindered scientific persons lately, of rather spending their time in hiding their neighbours' discoveries, than improving their own: whereas, among us, scientific flamingoes are not only openly graced for discoveries, but openly disgraced for coveries; and thatsharply and permanently; so that there is rarely a hint or thought among them of each other's being wrong, but quick confession of whatever is found out rightly.

But the point in which we dark-red Communists differ most from other people is, that we dread, above all things, getting miserly of virtue; and if there be any in us, or among us, we try forthwith to get it made common, and would fain hear the mob crying for some of that treasure, where it seems to have accumulated. I say, 'seems,' only: for though, at first, all the finest virtue looks as if it were laid up with the rich (so that, generally, a millionaire would be much surprised at hearing that his daughter had made a petroleuse of herself, or that his son had murdered anybody for the sake of their watch and cravat), — it is not at all clear to us dark-reds that this virtue, proportionate to income, is of the right sort; and we believe that even if it were, the people who keep it thus all to themselves, and leave the so-called canaille without any, vitiate what they keep by keeping it, so that it is like manna laid up through the night, which breeds worms in the morning.

You see, also, that we dark-red Communists, since we exist only in giving, must, on the contrary, hate with a perfect hatred all manner of thieving: even to Coeur-de-Lion's tar-and-feather extreme; and of all thieving, we dislike thieving on trust most (so that, if we ever get to be strong enough to do what we want, and chance to catch hold of any failed bankers, their necks will not be worth half-an-hour's purchase). So also, as we think virtue diminishes in the honour and force of it in proportion to income, we think vice increases in the force and shame of it, and is worse in kings and rich people than in poor 28; and worse on a large scale than on a narrow one; and worse when deliberate than hasty. So that we can understand one man's coveting a piece of vineyard-ground for a garden of herbs, and stoning the master of it (both of them being Jews); —and yet the dogs ate queen's flesh for that, and licked king's blood! but for two nations — both Christian — to covet their neighbours' vineyards, all down beside the River of their border, and slay until the River itself runs red! The little pool of Samaria! — shall all the snows of the Alps, or the salt pool of the Great Sea, wash their armour, for these?

I promised in my last letter that I would tell you the main meaning and bearing of the war, and its results to this day: — now that you know what Communism is, I can tell you these briefly, and, what is more to the purpose, how to bear yourself in the midst of them.

The first reason for all wars, and for the necessity of national defences, is that the majority of persons, high and low, in all European nations, are Thieves, and, in their hearts, greedy of their neighbours' goods, land, and fame.

But besides being Thieves, they are also fools, and have never yet been able to understand that if Cornish men want pippins cheap, they must not ravage Devonshire — that the prosperity of their neighbours is, in the end, their own also; and the poverty of their neighbours, by the communism of God, becomes also in the end their own. 'Invidia,'[Envy] jealousy of your neighbour's good, has been, since dust was first made flesh, the curse of man; and 'Charitas,' the desire to do your neighbour grace, the one source of all human glory, power, and material Blessing.

[. . .] war between nations (fools and thieves though they be) is not necessarily in all respects evil[. . .]

But Occult Theft, — Theft which hides itself even from itself, and is legal, respectable, and cowardly, — corrupts the body and soul of man, to the last fibre of them. And the guilty Thieves of Europe, the real sources of all deadly war in it, are the Capitalists — that is to say, people who live by percentages on the labour of others; instead of by fair wages for their own. The Real war in Europe, of which this fighting in Paris is the Inauguration, is between these and the workman, such as these have made him. They have kept him poor, ignorant, and sinful, that they might, without his knowledge, gather for themselves the produce of his toil. At last, a dim insight into the fact of this dawns on him; and such as they have made him he meets them, and will meet.

Nay, the time is even come when he will study that Meteorological question, suggested by the Spectator, formerly quoted, of the Filtration of Money from above downwards.

'It was one of the many delusions of the Commune' (says today's Telegraph, 24th June) 'that it could do without rich consumers.'

Well, such unconsumed existence would be very wonderful! Yet it is, to me also, conceivable. Without the riches, — no; but without the consumers? — possibly! It is occurring to the minds of the workmen that these Golden Fleeces must get their dew from somewhere. 'Shall there be dew upon the fleece only?' they ask: — and will be answered. They cannot do without these long purses, say you? No; but they want to find where the long purses are filled. Nay, even their trying to burn the Louvre, without reference to Art Professors, had a ray of meaning in it — quite Spectatorial.

'If we must choose between a Titian and a Lancashire cotton-mill' (wrote the Spectator of August 6th, last year, instructing me in political economy, just as the war was beginning), 'in the name of manhood and morality, give us the cotton-mill.'

So thinks the French workman also, energetically; only his mill is not to be in Lancashire. Both French and English agree to have no more Titians, — it is well, — but which is to have the Cotton-Mill?

Do you see in the Times of yesterday and the day before, 22nd and 23rd June, that the Minister of France dares not, even in this her utmost need, put on an income-tax; and do you see why he dares not?

Observe, such a tax is the only honest and just one; because it tells on the rich in true proportion to the poor, and because it meets necessity in the shortest and bravest way, and without interfering with any commercial operation.

All rich people object to income-tax, of course; — they like to pay as much as a poor man pays on their tea, sugar, and tobacco, — nothing on their incomes.

Whereas, in true justice, the only honest and wholly right tax is one not merely on income, but property; increasing in percentage as the property is greater. And the main virtue of such a tax is that it makes publicly known what every man has, and how he gets it.

For every kind of Vagabonds, high and low, agree in their dislike to give an account of the way they get their living; still less, of how much they have got sewn up in their breeches. It does not, however, matter much to a country that it should know how its poor Vagabonds live; but it is of vital moment that it should know how its rich Vagabonds live; and that much of knowledge, it seems to me, in the present state of our education, is quite attainable. But that, when you have attained it, you may act on it wisely, the first need is that you should be sure you are living honestly yourselves. That is why I told you, in my second letter, you must learn to obey good laws before you seek to alter bad ones: — I will amplify now a little the three promises I want you to make. Look back at them.

(I.) You are to do good work, whether you live or die. It may be you will have to die; — well, men have died for their country often, yet doing her no good; be ready to die for her in doing her assured good: her, and all other countries with her. Mind your own business with your absolute heart and soul; but see that it is a good business first. That it is corn and sweet peas you are producing, — not gunpowder and arsenic. And be sure of this, literally: — you must simply rather die than make any destroying mechanism or compound. You are to be literally employed in cultivating the ground, or making useful things, and carrying them where they are wanted. Stand in the streets, and say to all who pass by: Have you any vineyard we can work in, — not Naboth's? In your powder and petroleum manufactory, we work no more.

I have said little to you yet of any of the pictures engraved — you perhaps think, not to the ornament of my book.

Be it so. You will find them better than ornaments in time. Notice, however, in the one I give you with this letter — the 'Charity' of Giotto — the Red Queen of Dante, and ours also, — how different his thought of her is from the common one.

Usually she is nursing children, or giving money. Giotto thinks there is little charity in nursing children; — bears and wolves do that for their little ones; and less still in giving money.

His Charity tramples upon bags of gold — has no use for them. She gives only corn and flowers; and God's angel gives her, not even these — but a Heart.

Giotto is quite literal in his meaning, as well as figurative. Your love is to give food and flowers, and to labour for them only.

But what are we to do against powder and petroleum, then? What men may do; not what poisonous beasts may. If a wretch spit in your face, will you answer by spitting in his? — if he throw vitriol at you, will you go to the apothecary for a bigger bottle?

There is no physical crime at this day, so far beyond pardon, — so without parallel in its untempted guilt, as the making of war-machinery, and invention of mischievous substance. Two nations may go mad, and fight like harlots — God have mercy on them; — you, who hand them carving-knives off the table, for leave to pick up a dropped sixpence, what mercy is there for you ? We are so humane, forsooth, and so wise; and our ancestors had tar-barrels for witches; we will have them for everybody else, and drive the witches' trade ourselves, by daylight; we will have our cauldrons, please Hecate, cooled (according to the Darwinian theory) with baboon's blood," and enough of it, and sell hell-fire in the open street.

(II.) Seek to revenge no injury. You see now — do not you — a little more clearly why I wrote that? what strain there is on the untaught masses of you to revenge themselves, even with insane fire?

Alas, the Taught masses are strained enough also; — have you not just seen a great religious and reformed nation, with its goodly Captains, — philosophical, sentimental, domestic, evangelical-angelical-minded altogether, and with its Lord's Prayer really quite vital to it,-come and take its neighbour nation by the throat, saying, 'Pay me that thou owest'?

Seek to revenge no injury: I do not say, seek to punish no crime: look what I hinted about failed bankers [... ]

Learn to obey good laws; and in a little while you will reach the better learning — how to obey good Men, who are living, breathing, unblinded law; and to subdue base and disloyal ones, recognizing in these the light, and ruling over those in the power of the Lord of Light and Peace, whose Dominion is an everlasting Dominion, and His Kingdom from generation to generation.

Ever faithfully yours,