Ruskin's Views On Political Economy
From 'John Ruskin: Unto This Last and other writings' (1985) by Clive Wilmer

Ruskin's Unto this Last is first and foremost a cry of anger against injustice and inhumanity; the theories of the Political Economists had outraged his strongest moral convictions. But he was arguing against thinkers who claimed to have founded a science. To limit the book's message to questions of moral feeling would be to accept that he was what his critics called him, a sentimentalist who could not face reality. But the book is also a closely argued assault on the philosophical and scientific method the economists took for granted. Profoundly conservative, Ruskin was resisting the whole tendency of modern civilization on intellectual as much as on moral grounds. He objected to a method, peculiar to modern times, which worked by specialization. He argued that this deformed reality by isolating the object of study and detaching moral from material considerations. Ruskin's argument may be connected with his objection to liberal democracy, which he thought of as the political expression of an outlook that sees each man as the sum of his own interests, detached from a social context. But of course Ruskin, quite as much as Mill, was a child of the nineteenth century. It is therefore necessary to trace the origins of the intellectual tradition he represents. This may be done under three headings: the scriptural tradition of Protestantism, high Tory paternalism, and the Romantic movement.

The first and most important key to Ruskin's politics is to be found in his mother's Biblical instruction. Evangelical Protestantism insists that the Bible is the word of God and must be taken literally. The Ruskin of the economic writings was no fundamentalist — when he wrote Unto this Last he was hardly a Christian at all — but, brought up in that tradition, he could not escape the implications of Biblical teaching on questions of money, labour, food and the status of the poor. It was no longer possible to regard the Genesis stories as historical, but there was no reason why the moral teaching of the New Testament should not be taken literally. Consider this passage on the Parable of the Talents; all men are, he says,

. . . stewards or ministers of whatever talents are entrusted to them. Only, is it not a strange thing, that while we more or less accept the meaning of that saying, so long as it is considered metaphorical, we never accept its meaning in its own terms? You know the lesson is given us under the form of a story about money. Money was given to the servants to make use of: the unprofitable servant dug in the earth, and hid his Lord's money. Well, we, in our poetical and spiritual application of this, say, that of course money doesn't mean money, it means wit, it means intellect, it means influence in high quarters, it means everything in the world except itself. And do not you see what a pretty and pleasant come-off there is for most of us in this spiritual application? Of course, if we had wit, we would use it for the good of our fellow-creatures. But we haven't wit. Of course if we had influence with the bishops, we would use it for the good of the Church; but we haven't any influence with the bishops. Of course, if we had political power, we would use it for the good of the nation; but we have no political power; we have no talents entrusted to us of any sort or kind. It is true we have a little money, but the parable can't possibly mean anything so vulgar as money; our money's our own.
I believe, if you think seriously of this matter, you will feel that the first and most literal application is just as necessary a one as any other — that the story does very specially mean what it says — plain money . . . (from The Political Economy of Art, XVI, 98-99)

Literalism of this kind is uncommon and subversive. It blends, in Ruskin, with his peculiar honesty of temperament, an inability to turn away from what he had seen.

To the Biblical teaching of his mother was added the practical example of a high Tory father. John James Ruskin disapproved of his son's economic writings, and in later years their political differences put strains on their relationship. But the younger man consistently praised what he saw as his father's unfailing probity, and John James clearly provided him with a model of the honest tradesman. When the economic establishment reacted with alarm and contempt to the lessons of Unto this Last, it dismissed Ruskin as an amateur where practical business was concerned. There was small justification for this. Through his father, Ruskin had learnt as much about the operations of the market as Smith or Mill had; and though, detesting industry, he had little or no experience of its practice, his study of craftsmanship had taught him more about actual conditions of labour than was available to many 'professional' economists.

From his father he learned his political attitudes too. His autobiography begins with the words

'I am, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school'. First used in Fors Clavigera, pp. 306-7 below.

This Toryism, comparable to that of Swift and Johnson and Coleridge, is based on a belief in hierarchy, established order and obedience to inherited authority. He detested both liberty and equality, blaming them, more than privilege, for the injustices he condemned. Only those who held power by right, as he saw it, could be moved by a sense of duty to serve and protect the weak. This is a side of Ruskin that is likely to confuse and even repel the modern reader, in particular the radical who finds his apparent socialism attractive. But in the nineteenth century political attitudes were not so neatly shared out between left and right as they are — or seem to be — today. Modern capitalist economics were then thought progressive, being associated with the expansion of personal liberty. A radical liberal like John Stuart Mill, who championed democracy and the extension of personal rights and liberties, was also an advocate of doctrines which can be blamed for the degradations of the workhouse (Utilitarianism) and the extremes of Victorian poverty (laissez-faire). By contrast, Shaftesbury and Wilberforce, famous respectively for the Factory Acts and the abolition of slavery, were high Tories. State intervention in the economy and social welfare policies belonged to the right, for the right believed in the duty of government to govern — to secure social order and administer justice impartially.

No political label quite fits Ruskin's politics. Though he detested the Liberals, he was far from being a supporter of the Conservatives. His 'Toryism' was such that it could, in his own lifetime, inspire the socialism of William Morris and the founders of the Labour Party; and when he called himself a 'conservative', he usually meant a preserver of the environment — what we should call a 'conservationist'. The truth is that, despite an exceptional consistency of view, throughout his life, on most matters of principle, his specific opinions changed and developed as he grew older. His attitudes to war and imperialism and the rights of women, for instance, oscillate wildly between reaction and radicalism; and he in effect concedes the ambiguity of his position when, in Fors Clavigera (pp. 294 and 306-7 below), he calls himself, with conscious irony, both a Communist and a Tory. This complexity is partly due to the fact that Ruskin was never a political animal. One of his biggest failings as a social critic is his undiscriminating contempt for all political movements. At the same time, much of his strength derives from his indifference to partisan attitudes, which gives him the clear-sightedness of the boy who could not see the Emperor's new clothes.

This virtue is one of the qualities Ruskin shares with the only contemporary writer to have influenced his social views. It is thanks to Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) that the Romantic nostalgia he inherited from his father took on a radical tinge. Carlyle called Political Economy 'the Dismal Science' and condemned it from a broadly Romantic viewpoint. But he also understood the industrial age and, in the 1830s and 40s, stood almost alone as the new philosophy's systematic opponent. Born in the same year as Keats, Carlyle was the only important English Romantic to survive into the Victorian era. Before the 1830s, when he began writing the apocalyptic history and social criticism for which he is now remembered, Carlyle had been mainly concerned with interpreting the literature and philosophy of modern Germany to the British public. Then, in early middle age, he turned his Germanic transcendentalism to practical use. He had early lost his faith in Christianity but continued to believe in God. His philosophy retains the doctrines of predestination and divine justice, which he had learnt from his austerely Calvinist parents. He combines them with an unusually severe version of Romantic pantheism: not the Wordsworthian adoration of nature that Ruskin had imbibed, but belief in divinity as the indwelling principle of order in the universe. Man, in Carlyle's system, was a spiritual being who achieved his destined state of blessedness by following the moral imperative at the heart of his nature. To do so meant disregarding the prospect of material satisfaction. Thus, the idea of 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number' as the end of all social endeavour was morally abhorrent to Carlyle. Man's moral nature, as he saw it, was expressed through work. To deny him work — as laissez-faire governments, influenced by the economists, seemed to be doing — was not only injustice. It was a crime against nature.

Carlyle was probably the first thinker to insist that human beings have a right to work. He also thought they had a right to be governed. Laissez-faire, in his view, was the devil's philosophy. It was simply a way of saying that those with authority to govern need not do so. The distress of their subjects could simply be disregarded. But a nation's economy, as Carlyle understood it, was as much a social organism as its institutions. If parliaments could be reformed, why not economies? To counter the lethargy of modern government, he argued for government by great men and condemned the weakness of democracy. The hero as leader springs from Carlyle's metaphysics; he is a man who by his actions reveals his superiority to all other men, embodies in effect the will of God.

Ruskin's beliefs differed from Carlyle's in detail and in tone. Both men were authoritarian (if compassionate) and both were driven by the Protestant work ethic. But where Carlyle's obsession with men of power — which led him to the belief that 'might is right' — anticipates fascism, Ruskin believed in government by the wise. Carlyle was indiscriminate in his praise of work. Ruskin, equally convinced of its importance, looks at the quality of work and sees division of labour as a form of slavery. The terms of the discussion in Unto this Last are frequently Carlyle's, but it is conducted at a level that is profounder and less portentous. Carlyle had attacked the economists for the covert introduction — in an overtly scientific argument — of ideological values. But he had no head for the detail of their argument. It is the detail that Ruskin sets himself to demolish — the specifically economic issues. What moves us in Unto this Last is the way precise analysis unites with irony, passion and imagination. This has much to do with Ruskin's prose, which has also gained from the influence of Carlyle. There is an urgency that is new to Ruskin. The lyrical passages are there, but the prose is more functional than in Modern Painters and the tone more intimate. The combination of these contrasting elements gives the book an emotional and intellectual range beyond anything in Carlyle.