This bicentenary year is leading to a new focus on Ruskin, including a major exhibition in London, as well as a Dulwich Society talk by Lambeth archivist, Jon Newman. Brian Green’s articles in the last two issues have provided a narrative of Ruskin’s life, focusing on Ruskin’s art criticism, his links to Dulwich and his life in Denmark Hill and Herne Hill. This article will in contrast discuss Ruskin’s ideas. Ruskin was originally known as an art critic but in his 50’s developed an extensive literary output of social criticism before involving himself in a number of philanthropic projects of social reform. I have been puzzled as to why he is widely regarded as having a significant influence on the thinking of the first generation of socialist parliamentarians. As a political historian, this bicentenary has prompted me to re-examine his ideas and legacy.

Ruskin and Socialist thought

Ruskin’s reputation as a socialist thinker derives to some extent from a survey in 1906 by the journalist William Stead of the authors which Labour MPs claimed had influenced them, when Ruskin shared top billing with Thomas Carlyle. Ruskin’s 1860 book of essays Unto This Last is often quoted as his most influential work. This owed much to the following paragraph:

“There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest numbers of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest, who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.”

Ruskin is best categorised, like his friend Thomas Carlyle, as a ‘social romantic’. The main argument of Unto this Last’ and his later political and economic works, was that political economy should have a moral basis and that labour had inherent value which was not to be determined by a capitalist system based on profit. His approach was based on a biblically derived notion of social justice - the phrase ‘unto this last’ was taken from the parable of the vineyard in the Gospel of St Matthew. This perspective was shared by the mid-Victorian Christian Socialists such as Frederick Maurice, John Malcolm Ludlow, Thomas Hughes, Charles Kingsley and E V Neale and in fact can be traced back to a much earlier Christian tradition including the Christian economists of the early 19th century and many of the associates of Robert Owen, though Ruskin had a tendency to quote biblical and classical Greek sources such as Plato rather than his contemporaries. Ruskin instead mounted an attack on the classical political economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, not because of their analyses but because they perceived political economy as a science, disregarding the Ricardian socialists such as Thomas Hodgskin, William Thomson, John Gray and the Chartist, John Francis Bray, who introduced an explicit moral perspective into their Ricardian analysis of labour and value, authors whom Ruskin had apparently not read. Ruskin, while criticising the capitalist system, was however no socialist. He was strongly opposed to any concept of equality, public ownership or collectivism. In Fors Clavigara, letters ‘to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain’, published between 1871 and 1874, he supported private ownership of land with hereditary tenure and opposed those such as Alfred Russell Wallace who argued for land nationalisation.

As a ‘sage’ Ruskin was disengaged from contemporary politics. Socialising, so far as he socialised at all, was with painters and writers, and he appears to have had little or no contact with politicians of any party. He was of the view that he could influence the thinking of others through his writings. Perceiving himself as a Tory and an ‘illiberal’, he was in fact dismissive of both parliament, which he saw as a ‘talking shop’ and of social reform movements. Unlike the Christian socialists and positivists such as Frederic Harrison, who published his own study of Ruskin in 1902, he saw trade unions as divisive. Ruskin was also a strong opponent of democracy. In his view, order required a sovereign. At times, he argued for a theocracy, with a sovereign imposing order and moral behaviour on the populace. Like Carlyle and the positivists he had an admiration for great men (always men) - for heroes. He was a great admirer of Napoleon III and welcomed that Napoleon’s coup d’etat in 1851 to overturn the French second republic. One of his few explicit political interventions was his support in 1865 for the Jamaican Governor Eyre who was criticised by liberals such as John Stuart Mill and James Fitzjames Stephens for his violent suppression of a peasant rebellion which had been led by a Baptist preacher, Paul Bogle. Ruskin saw himself as a teacher rather than a politician. He saw his role as educating a new generation of teachers. One of his students was the historian Arnold Toynbee, who was later to inspire the university settlement movement including Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel. Ruskin tended to read his lectures to various assemblies. For example, his lecture ‘work’, later published in The Crown of Wild Olive was first read to the Camberwell Working Men’s Institute. ‘Traffic’ was delivered at Bradford Town Hall; ‘War’ at the appropriate venue of the Woolwich Royal Military Academy (Ruskin saw fighting as a ‘manly’ activity), and ‘the Future of England’ at the Royal Artillery Institution at Woolwich.

Ruskin and practical Socialism

Ruskin in his later years supported a number of reform projects, believing that change came from philanthropy and from benevolent employers. He is remembered for the Hinksey road building project in Oxford when he led a group of Oxford students (including Arnold Toynbee, WH Mallock, Alfred Milner and Oscar Wilde). As far as I am aware this was his only intervention in civic life in Oxford in his many years as an Oxford academic. In a detailed study of Victorian radical and liberal politics in Oxford, I could find no record of Ruskin’s attendance at any reform meetings in the city (though one source refers to his attendance at one of Morris’ university lectures), although he did found a school of drawing and the trade union college in Oxford is named after him at the instigation of the American philanthropists, Charles Beard and Walter Vrooman, who founded it in 1899, the year before Ruskin’s death. Ruskin is also known for providing financial support for Octavia Hill’s housing management scheme in Marylebone - Ruskin became a landlord, as well as buying land in Sheffield for an agricultural colony through the St George’s Guild, a project based on medieval guild principles, reflecting Ruskin’s medieval romanticism and his anti-urbanism, both of which were to be shared by William Morris. Morris however differed from Ruskin, whom he admired, by also engaging in productive as well as literary activity in running William Morris and Company as a retailer of internal design products such as tapestry and furniture for the top end of the market. He was also a political activist, polemicist, protester and journal editor and founder and leader of the Socialist League and the Hammersmith Socialist Society.

Ruskin’s only engagement with working class socialists was in the Sheffield project and this experience was not a happy one. His connection was with Henry Swan, a Sheffield engraver, who Ruskin had met when he was teaching drawing at the London Working Men’s College in 1855. In 1875, Ruskin funded Swan to buy a cottage in Walkley in Sheffield, to run a one room museum for the St George’s Guild, comprising pictures, manuscripts and books from Ruskin’s personal collection. In April 1876, Ruskin visited the cottage museum to meet a group of Owenite co-operators who had formed a Mutual Improvement Society which met at the Hall of Science initiated by the Chartist councillor and journalist Isaac Ironside. The group also included George Harrison Riley, an engraver and newspaper editor, who had been involved in the First International and had also met Walt Whitman in the United States. Riley had edited the International’s journal in London and now ran a journal called The Socialist, which was more Whitmanite Christian Socialist than Marxist. Ruskin however disapproved of Riley’s communistic tendencies, arguing that any attempt to ‘communise’ a neighbour’s property ended up in ‘ruin and shame’. The Sheffield socialists were originally interested in establishing a community to engage in cooperative manufacture such as boot-making. The project however, possibly under Ruskin’s influence, turned to agriculture with Ruskin funding the purchase of a farm on the outskirts of Sheffield at Totley. Swan recommended a group of tenants. Unfortunately, the group comprised bootmakers, ironworkers and opticians who knew little about agriculture. The group also wanted to operate as a collective, making decisions by majority vote. Ruskin objected to this and he considered the project should be run by a ‘simple and orderly tyrant’. The group wanted to give Ruskin his money back. Ruskin however appointed Riley to take over the project, which was resisted by the co-operators. Riley then threatened the co-operators with violence. They complained to Ruskin who refused to intervene, at which point the co-operators said they were no longer responsible for the farm. Edward Carpenter who had moved to a farm nearby and knew the Sheffield socialists, commented that ‘the would-be Garden of Eden had become a scene of such confusion that Ruskin had to send down an ancient retainer of his (with a pitchfork instead of a flaming sword) to bar them all out’. This was his Scottish gardener, David Downes. Carpenter tried unsuccessfully to intercede on Riley’s behalf. Riley returned to America, where he returned to following Whitman (of whom Ruskin had apparently been unaware). Downes managed the farm till 1886, at which point it passed to George Pearson, a socialist friend of Carpenter’s. Apparently, the incident led to Ruskin’s nervous breakdown in 1878. Ruskin’s authoritarian approach to the Sheffield socialists contrasts with Carpenter’s much more successful libertarian engagement with the same group.


Much of Ruskin’s influence on earlier socialists was in fact indirect and through ethical socialists such as Morris and early members of the Independent Labour Party such as Thomas Barclay, who in 1888 published a pamphlet summary of Ruskin’s teachings (a pamphlet which in my view is much more readable than Ruskin’s own writings), Fred Jowett, who inherited Ruskin’s anti-parliamentarianism, Katharine Conway, John Bruce Glasier and even Tom Mann, before he turned from the ILP to Communism. However, the fact that Phillip Blond, the author of the 2010 critique of contemporary politics Red Tory and director of the think tank Respublica, also cites Ruskin as a precursor, demonstrates that his legacy is not just limited to the political left. Ruskin’s approach to craft and his hatred of mechanisation not only influenced the arts and crafts movement, but also more recent thinkers, such as the philosopher Richard Sennett, whose Ruskinian work of 2009 is entitled The Craftsman. Frederic Harrison may have referred to Ruskin as a ’medieval reactionist’ and an ‘aristocratic absolutist’ but Ruskin’s social theory still has some supporters.

Go to top