October 14, 2021 Editor

Comrade Ruskin

How a Victorian visionary can save communism from Marx

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By Eugene McCarraher

August 26, 2019

photo above: John Ruskin in 1863

WN: This is a wonderful, encouraging article about the “Economics of Heaven.” It concludes with the words:

That’s why we need Ruskin’s sacramental economics more than ever. It offers an imagination, if not quite a program, for reclaiming the wealth of the world that is ours. We need, not disruptors or innovators, but communists of the old school.


Whose is the Wealth of the World but yours?” Thus did a radical firebrand address Britain’s industrial working class in the summer of 1880, urging them to seize the fruits of their labor: “Do you mean to go on for ever, leaving your wealth to be consumed by the idle, and your virtue to be mocked by the vile? The wealth of the world is yours; even your common rant and rabble of economists tell you that – ‘no wealth without industry.’ Who robs you of it, then, or beguiles you?”

The militant who penned these words was not Karl Marx, though he was then in London working on the last two volumes of Capital. Instead it was a self-professed “violent Tory of the old school” who held the post of Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford. His name was John Ruskin.

Ruskin had been writing open letters to “the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain” since the early 1870s. He titled these missives, somewhat enigmatically, Fors Clavigera, or “Fortune the Nail-bearer.” They covered an array of subjects: work, property, politics, and art. Addressing the working class as “My Friends” at the beginning of every epistle, he avowed his old-school Toryism in the tenth letter, proudly declaring “a most sincere love of kings, and a dislike of everybody who attempted to disobey them.”

Yet two months earlier, in a previous letter, the lover of monarchs and hater of rebels had proclaimed himself a “communist,” one who was “reddest also of the red.” To be sure, Ruskin used the word communist in a sense very different from the one it would carry after the Russian Revolution. In 1871, alarmed by (false) reports that the insurgents of the Paris Commune had destroyed many of the city’s churches and monuments, he rejected what he called “the Parisian notion of communism” – the belief that all property should be common property. Instead, he wrote, “we Communists of the old school think that our property belongs to everybody, and everybody’s property to us.” Therefore even “private” property was common in some way (one that Ruskin, alas, didn’t specify). Moreover, he believed that “everybody must work in common, and do common or simple work for his dinner.”

Like Marx and other communists of the nineteenth century, Ruskin was addressing some of the most intractable dilemmas of capitalist modernity. These included the expansion of industrial production at the expense of individual control and creativity, an enormous increase in wealth and productivity alongside poverty and despoliation, and an ideal of limitless technological progress that threatened to reduce the heritage of the past to oblivion. They also reflected a new, money-defined view of what it means to be human, one in which men and women are no longer valued as images of God but rather as sources of profitability and efficiency.

The soul of man is a mirror of the mind of God” – a mirror, he rued, “dark distorted, and broken.”

Marx believed that the resolution of these conflicts lay in the harsh but ultimately liberating trajectory of capitalism itself, whose own internal contradictions would necessarily goad the proletariat into revolution. (This is the deterministic notion at the heart of so-called scientific socialism.) By contrast, Ruskin rooted his opposition to the tyranny of mammon in a sacramental humanism that was emphatically Christian. For Marx, communism would be the tragicomic endpoint of capitalist development. But for Ruskin, communism represented “the Economy of Heaven”: a society that would recover the artisanal mastery destroyed by mechanization and would elide the distinction between private property and the common good. With the freely creative person at its center, Ruskin’s kind of communism was to be a political economy of love.

Despite his strict evangelical home and outwardly pious demeanor, Ruskin doubted the faith early on: his devotion “was never strong,” he once told a friend, and in his autobiography he confessed that, at age fourteen, he had mused that while angels might have visited Abraham, “none had ever appeared to me that I knew of.” He lived with this ambivalence while a student at Oxford. Over the 1840s and 1850s, as his intellectual career accelerated, Ruskin slowly sloughed off the faith of his upbringing, becoming, as he put it, “a conclusively un-converted man.”

Yet Ruskin’s “un-conversion” was from evangelicalism, not from Christianity. His evolution from art critic to political economist – or rather, his blend of the two vocations – marked an effort to pursue the traditional calling of the prophet in modern times. Like many other Victorian intellectuals, Ruskin was shaken by discoveries in geology, biology, and the historical criticism of the Bible. Some of his contemporaries – Herbert Spencer, Charles Bradlaugh, T. H. Huxley, George Eliot – embraced secularism, while others – John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement – affirmed orthodoxy. A third group, which included William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Carlyle, pioneered a Romantic religiosity that perceived the supernatural within nature: Blake’s “heaven in a wild flower” and Wordsworth’s “sense sublime / of something far more deeply interfused.” The Romantics were the modern heirs of the Christian sacramental imagination – the belief that visible, material reality can mediate the grace of God. This was the faith that Ruskin came to embrace.

Work and Workers

The broken mirror of human divinity was most evident, for Ruskin, in the industrial division of labor. As a host of historians has explained, the Industrial Revolution that commenced in the mid-eighteenth century was a social process as well as a technological one. Driven by the capitalist imperative to lower costs and increase profits, manufacturers realized that they needed to master the production process itself. Succumbing to competition from the early industrialists, artisans and craftsmen who controlled their own tools were dispossessed from the means of production and transformed into wage laborers in factories – “proletarians,” in Marxist terms. Now that the link between workers and their tools was broken, labor could be “degraded,” rationalized, and broken down into discrete elements – and then relocated from humans to machinery. In this way, the industrial division of labor eroded artisanal skill by mechanizing or automating production. The factory embodied capital’s power over the minds and movements of workers. To early industrialists, this was part of the point. In the words of Andrew Ure, who in 1835 wrote one of the first texts on industrial management, factory work would not only enhance profits and productivity but also “restore order among the industrious classes” and “strangle the Hydra of misrule” (The Philosophy of Manufactures).

The young Marx analyzed the dehumanizing effects of industrialization in some of his writings of the mid-1840s. The essence of humanity, he contended, was “free, conscious activity,” a versatile and even artisanal creativity that “forms things in accordance with the laws of beauty.” If I create “in a human manner,” Marx writes, I make something that bears the mark of “my individuality and its peculiarity”; I delight in satisfying your need, and my personality is “confirmed both in your thought and your love”; I realize “my own essence, my human, my communal essence.” The ultimate aim of work is not just production, but the flourishing of a good human life.

The implication, of course, was that capitalist economics is a science of death – a necro-science that taught us to desire competition, envy, avarice, and corruption. Repudiating these “Laws of Death,” Ruskin famously insisted that “there is no wealth but life.”

Capitalism renders such flourishing impossible by “alienating” the worker from his essence. Alienation is, for Marx, not primarily a psychological malady but rather a social and material deprivation. Because the capitalist owns and controls the means of production – which is to say, for Marx, the means of humanity – he takes for himself not only the wealth that the worker produces, but also “the very act of production itself,” the worker’s mental and manual virtuosity. Alienation is Marx’s account of the dispossession and degradation of craftsmanship that the capitalist achieves through the industrial division of labor.

While Ruskin, like the young Marx, thought of human work in artisanal terms, his communism stemmed from a very different assessment of the impact of industrialization. This requires some explication. Despite claiming to be a “violent Tory,” Ruskin was no reactionary, as many of his critics (then and now) have contended. “I am not one who in the least doubts or disputes the progress of this century in many things useful to mankind,” he insisted (The Two Paths, 1859). What mattered was how to distinguish “the progress of this century” from regression into barbarism. To Ruskin, the industrial division of labor, far from liberating human beings, constituted their disfigurement and profanation. He argued that mechanization – mandated by the imperative of profit – effected “the degradation of the operative into a machine” (The Nature of Gothic). Human beings were ingenious, intrepid, and imperfect; the precision of motion dictated by industrial machinery reduced people to machines themselves. “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.” If you want pliant, efficient workers, “you must unhumanize them,” Ruskin warned – which meant that you must desecrate the image and likeness of divinity.

In 1862, Ruskin wrote his most cogent and controversial work on political economy, a collection of four essays titled Unto This Last. It sketches out the theological groundwork for his Romantic communism. Going further than Carlyle, who called economics “the dismal science,” Ruskin refused to even acknowledge economics as a science, likening it to “alchemy, astrology, witchcraft, and other such popular creeds.” Economics is untrue, not just dismal, he maintained, because it got human nature wrong: a human being is not a rational utility-maximizing calculator but rather “an engine whose motive power is a Soul.” Because its starting point was false, economics was like “a science of gymnastics which assumed that men had no skeletons.” As with human beings, so with the rest of the world: everything “reaches yet into the infinite,” Ruskin mused, and the earth resonates with “amazement” – a measureless, inexhaustible wonder at what Gerard Manley Hopkins would call the grandeur of God.

Pursued for the sake of virtue, the true end of wealth was a bounty of “full-breathed, bright-eyed, and happy-hearted human creatures.”

That is why, for Ruskin, much of capitalist wealth is really “illth”: either because it is harmful in itself, or because the value of an object is mismatched to the virtue of its possessor. Such “illth” wreaks “devastation and trouble in all directions” – which is what one would expect from a fraudulent science.

That is why, for Ruskin, much of capitalist wealth is really “illth”: either because it is harmful in itself, or because the value of an object is mismatched to the virtue of its possessor. Such “illth” wreaks “devastation and trouble in all directions” – which is what one would expect from a fraudulent science.

Christian Communism

Ruskin’s sacramental economics forms the backdrop for his communism as described in Fors Clavigera. While both Ruskin and Marx identified the dislocation of workers from control over production as the fundamental injustice of capitalism, Ruskin’s “old-school” communism parted from that of Marx in two significant respects. First, for Marx, communism would be the consummation of a promethean project of industrial development – a project that actually required “mammon-service,” exploitation, and indignity. For Ruskin, by contrast, communism defied the historical necessity of avarice and its industrialized despotism. Second, where Marx emphasized communism as a form of property – common ownership – Ruskin emphasized communism as a principle of morality – as pre-modern communists had put it well before Marx, “from each according to ability, to each according to need.”

The political retreat of the churches allowed Marxist intellectuals and political leaders to claim the banner of working-class resistance. The consequences are only too well known: tyranny, barbarism, and misery, all resulting in millions of deaths.

But recall Ruskin’s shorthand definition of communism: “our property belongs to everybody, and everybody’s property to us.” What this suggests is a form of property that fudges the distinction between private and collective; indeed, it suggests that private property is never really “private.” Anything but ironic, Ruskin’s communism forces us to reconsider what we mean by “property” in the first place. As the anthropologist David Graeber reminds us, “property is not really a relation between a person and a thing. It’s an understanding or arrangement between people concerning things.” (Someone alone on an island, he muses, doesn’t worry about property rights.) If property is thus always a social relation, then property is private only because we’ve all agreed – or been forced to accept – that it should be. So it’s perfectly possible to imagine property systems in which what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine, depending on how we’ve defined our relationship.

There is a name for a form of social relation in which a person or people can claim rights to objects “owned” by another: usufruct. It’s common among archaic and tribal peoples: I own a tool, but if you need it, it’s yours as long as you don’t damage it. Ownership depends on use; property is a kind of social trust that we’ll all use things for the common good. As vehemently as most Christians believe that private (read: capitalist) property is part of the essence of creation, usufruct was a governing principle among ancient and medieval Christian writers. It’s there in Luke’s account of the early Christians (“No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had”); in Saint Basil’s injunction about surplus goods (“The bread that you keep belongs to the hungry, the cloak in your closet to the naked”); and in Saint Thomas Aquinas’s argument for the “universal destination of goods.”

Continuing in this Christian vein, Ruskin’s communism is usufruct applied to the means of production: ownership of any enterprise that produces goods or provides services – “wealth,” in other words – hinges on the value and valiance of the owners. Contrary to the principles of capitalism, anyone who produced or provided “illth” would be disqualified from ownership. At the same time, communist property, in Ruskin’s terms, requires there to be a beloved community of workers – not acquisitive individualists who accumulate profits by undercutting wages, endangering the biosphere, and degrading dexterity and skill. Thus, technological innovation would surely take a different form in artisanal communism, with “productivity” less important than cultivating mental and manual ingenuity. Nothing could be further from Marx’s vision of total automation and industrialization. Ruskin’s communism is the “Economy of Heaven,” in which men and women fulfill their human nature through the work of their hands.

Echoes of Ruskin’s thought reappeared in the 1960s and 1970s, when economists such as E. F. Schumacher advocated “intermediate technology” and “production by the masses” as alternatives to petro-industrial capitalism. In fact, Schumacher insisted that we needed nothing less than “a metaphysical reconstruction” – language that calls to mind Ruskin’s eye for the sacred in both economics and art.

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.