The Victorian art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) believed that “wise work” has three characteristics: it is honest, it is useful, and it is cheerful.
Ruskin looked with admiration upon gothic architecture of the High Middle Ages. He determined, writes P.D. Anthony, in John Ruskin’s Labour, “that it required forms of social organization and forms of manual labour that are superior to those of contemporary society” and “which are essential to human development and happiness.” Modest masons and craftsmen working in their own limited spheres had the opportunity “to express themselves in magnificent creations which transcended the humble contributions of ordinary men.”
By 1854 Ruskin was contemplating “a great work” he meant “to write on politics—founded on the thirteenth century.” However Nicholas Shrimpton writes, in The Cambridge Companion to John Ruskin, that by the end of the decade he “had turned away from overt medievalism to a deeper, more implicit use of medieval assumptions. Pre-modern concepts, such as intrinsic value and the ‘just price,’ were applied to modern problems in a series of controversial books and lectures.”
In the 1870s Ruskin founded the Guild of St George. Its mission was to encourage arts education, independent craftsmanship, and sustainable agriculture among the working classes. He attempted to spread the message of the guild through a series of pamphlets collectively titled, Fors Clavigera. Shrimpton writes, “these texts would seek to suggest an alternative to the industrialism, capitalism, and urbanization of modern society.”
Ruskin’s program was the inspiration for the Arts and Crafts movement developed by William Morris in the 1880s. Morris’s philosophy was a somewhat uneasy amalgamation of Ruskinian and Marxist ideas. But Ruskin’s own critique of laissez-faire came from the Right, not the Left. “I am, and my father was before me,” he once wrote, “a violent Tory of the old school,” whose politics were marked by “a most sincere love of kings, and dislike of everybody who attempted to disobey them.” He was a strict Protestant, and although he had a religious crisis in middle age, Anthony writes, his “Christian faith developed and broadened as he grew older.”
From the perspective of the present day, when the interests of labor are considered the purview of the political Left, it is interesting to consider someone who devoted the whole of his considerable talents to the welfare of the working classes, for reasons of traditionalism and noblesse oblige. Shrimpton traces Ruskin’s thought, writing that he was not,
an ancestor of the British Labour Party…Neither the Marxian nor the Fabian branch of English socialism was significantly Ruskinian…his politics and economics belong to a different and more marginal tradition which stretches from the Ultra-Tories and Götzists…of the 1820s and ‘30s, through the Tory Young Englanders of the 1840s, to the Arts and Crafts and ‘back to the land’ movements of the 1880s, and the Guild Socialism and Distributism of the early twentieth century, with partial echoes in some of the Green or Ecological parties of the present day.
This entire “marginal tradition” has been pushed well outside the margins of political debate in the twenty-first century and our civic life seems poorer for it.
Anthony, P.D. (1983) John Ruskin’s Labour: A Study of Ruskin’s Social Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ruskin, John. (1866) The Crown of Wild Olive: Three Lectures on Work, Traffic, and War. New York: John Wiley & Son.
Shrimpton, Nicholas. “Politics and economics,” in O’Gorman, Francis (ed). (2015) The Cambridge Companion to John Ruskin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.