“There is opposition between Liberals and Illiberals. I am a violent Illiberal; but it doesn’t follow that I must be a Conservative.”
John Ruskin (1819-1900)
I like Ruskin. Having spent quite a few hours on various rainy days, some time back, gawping at the Ruskin Collection, ogling at his paintings, artifacts and specimens, pawing at the few pieces of his collections that the public are allowed to touch I gained a renewed fondness for this Victorian art writer, general thinker and “Reactionary” Socialist.
Ruskin was a popular public figure of his day and very influential amongst the early British Labour movement. A poll of the Independent Labour Party, in the early 1900’s brought to light Ruskin as the greatest influence upon the Party’s members.
Ruskin was repulsed by the ugliness and cruelty of industrialization, nor could he abide a system that caused the deprived lives that the urban poor lived. Equally, he couldn’t stand the spreading urbanization that he saw devouring the British countryside and on all these counts I have always felt a great affinity to him.
From an aesthetic point of view contrasted the ugliness of the industrial age with the beauty of that before it. Like his good friend William Morris he saw individual creativity and craft work as so much more healthy than the dehumanized manufacturing processes of industry.
Ruskin rejected laissez-faire Capitalism and the philosophy of free trade (yes the awful things revived by the Neo-Liberals). He rejected the base motivations of the money-men with their nonsense philosophy of “enlightened selfishness”. Instead he proposed that we needed a society not based upon production for profit – but rather upon production purely for the benefit of humankind.
He believed in a paternal bond between the employer and the employee and he rejected prevalent ideas about the nature of wealth and about its value. For him real wealth was not money or property, rather it was that which contributes to the benefit of human beings – Capitalist wealth (which was acquired through the suffering of the poor workers) was thus thoroughly devalued for him.
“to leave this one great fact clearly stated: there is no wealth but life, including all its powers, of love, of joy, and of admiration”.
Ruskin hoped that a noble class of paternalistic, benevolent, philanthropic industrialists could arise and replace the greedy blood suckers who made their money through the suffering of others*. Yet he was not at all satisfied with the industrial state of affairs and he hoped to encourage a return to a simpler more agrarian way of life in Britain.
(* his good friend William Morris (1834-1896) took things a little further and considered it a good idea for the workers to have control through common ownership and democratic decision making – of course one good means of doing this with freedom from the state is through workers cooperatives)
John Ruskin was closely connected to the great British thinker and polymath Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) who became an effective second father to him. Thomas Carlyle was also a type of Reactionary or “Feudal” Socialist and these two strongly ethical men shared many ideas and had a deep intellectual harmony (despite the fact that one was an Evangelical and the other a Secular Deist). It has been said that Carlyle’s greatest achievement was in fact Ruskin.
Ruskin was one of the main sagely figures of the British popular imagination during his lifetime, but when he passed away in 1900 the public memory of this inspirational man suddenly faded, his politics, his aesthetics and his persona were left behind in the Victorian era. The world moved on towards our modern age. It was a pity that they didn’t take more notice of his advice.
Anyway more on Ruskin later God-willing…
“A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel.”
“It is better to lose your pride with someone you love rather than to lose that someone you love with your useless pride.”
“I believe that the first test of a great man is his humility. … really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them, but through them. … and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.”