Hierarchical utopias : Ruskin's Fear of Democracy
by Gill Cockram
(University of London)

In 1878 John Ruskin founded the Guild of St George as the agency through which he hoped to bring about social change. Quoting frequently from Sir Thomas More, Ruskin set out his utopian vision as a form of agrarian communism tempered with an authoritarian power structure. I'd like to argue that despite Ruskin's anti-democratic stance, his ideal society could be accepted by utopian socialists because he was seen as reviving the communitarian tradition initiated by Robert Owen.

Ruskin set out the details of his utopian scheme in Fors Clavigera, a series of letters addressed to 'The Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain.' These letters, in fact, represent his efforts to gain support for his utopian society, the Guild of St George. Alarmed by the nature of the Paris Commune of 1871, Ruskin set about giving his interpretation of the 'communism of the old school' of Sir Thomas More, and in 1878, he began to formulate his own plans for an ideal community.

The society Ruskin envisaged encapsulates his political ambiguity. He made urgent demands for economic justice, but within a hierarchical social structure. As he commented in Fors: We will have no liberty; but instant obedience to known law, and appointed persons: no equality; but recognition of every betterness that we can find, and reprobation of every worseness.

The members of this ideal community, in return for 'spiritually rewarding' labour, would enjoy fixed rents and favourable working conditions. Ruskin hoped that the readers of Fors would become active supporters and participants in the establishment of the guild.

When the new liberal economist, J.A. Hobson first read Ruskin in the early 1890's, he took from him two essential, related principles, which he termed organicism and humanism. The way in which Hobson translated this organicism in political terms cannot be overemphasised as it is crucial in understanding Ruskin's influence, not only on Hobson, but on other radical reformers.

Ruskin's organicism stemmed from the Romantic tradition which predates Darwinian/Spencerian socio-biological analogy. It rested on a Romantic concept of an integrated society, which was mutually sustaining but hierarchically structured. There was no question of competitive 'survival of the fittest' individualism in Ruskin's organic society. Indeed, a greater part of his seminality lies in the fact that, following the example of Owen, he was a profound influence on the later interpretation of social Darwinism which suggested that co-operation rather than competition was central to the evolutionary process.

Ruskin and Utopianism

Ruskin's ideal social order was set out in Time and Tide and Fors Clavigera. It is here that the communistic elements of his thinking become apparent. He refers in Fors to the underlying themes of work and property, which dictate his model society. A man's property, he writes, consists of good things, honestly acquired and skilfully used. Nothing stolen or taken by force can rightfully be called 'property'. In order to achieve this condition society has a duty to educate its members. A healthy society was dependant upon the provision of education and the maintenance of morality with a state prohibition on marriage between 'undesirables.'

Education, Ruskin insisted, should also be state controlled and it should be be 'free, liberal and technical' in orientation. It was also to include a responsibility for the physical well-being of the children. As Ruskin commented in Time and Tide: ' I hold it for indisputable, that the first duty of a State is to see that every child born therein shall be well housed, clothed, fed, and educated, till it attain years of discretion.' Schools should be situated, when possible, in the countryside and have enough land to enable physical exercise. Alongside the basic subjects children should be taught moral conduct and principles of good behaviour and in all cases their education should eventually be career-orientated.

As always, Ruskin concentrated on the nature of work men do as providing the key to social order but his emphasis on clear lines of social and industrial demarcation led to accusations of 'New Feudalism.' Ruskin did not want a stereotyped caste system; there were always to be opportunities for those indicating a special aptitude to develop their particular skills. Indeed, he was one of the earliest advocates of 'equality of opportunity' through education despite his unshakeable conviction of innate differences of ability and class, a principle of social stratification he developed from Plato.

Ruskin completely dismissed 'the thesis that all work is in itself equally worthy and ennobling,' a ploy, he thought, which was used to dignify manual labour and quell discontent. He considered some jobs were totally mindless and degrading but that there were some persons who were suitable for nothing else. It seems here that Ruskin, like Carlyle, is considering 'slavery' although his essential humanity rebelled against the harshness of this contingency, and he hoped that in an improved society degrading work would be reduced to a minimum level.

With his assembled ranks of craftsmen Ruskin anticipated a reciprocal arrangement whereby the workers would produce the quality of goods that an educated society of consumers would demand. Quite how this would function effectively, Ruskin does not make clear, but it is implied both in Fors and Time and Tide that voluntary cooperation of individuals should be the basis of action. Trade Unions should be transformed into Labourers Unions or Guilds, each responsible under the direction of elected advisors for the quality of the goods produced and the conditions of the workforce. Membership of these guilds, Ruskin insists, should be 'entirely optional,' leaving consumers free to buy from outsiders 'at their pleasure and peril.' Guilds were also to control the retail trade, and all necessary public works were to be owned and administered by the public for the benefit of the public. No private speculation was to be allowed.

In the organisation of agriculture Ruskin was eminently a practical reformer and his insistence upon fixity of rent and security of tenants' improvements as the most urgent needs, indicates a firm grasp of the existing agricultural situation. He was very familiar with continental agricultural processes and Fors in particular is full of 'shrewd criticism and suggestion.'

Ruskin's greater plan for agriculture within his ideal state does, however, further indicate his political ambiguity. He tempered feudalism with security of tenure and freedom to cultivate for a 'peasant class.' He observes in Fors letter xiv:

The right action of a State respecting its land is, indeed, to secure
it in various portions to those of its citizens who deserve to be trusted
with it, according to their respective desires and proved capacities.

Ruskin writes that 'great old families' should be maintained by the State and not live off the rent of tenants. There is no indication of the true status or occupation of this feudal aristocracy, living in the midst of virtually independent peasant farmers paying rent to the State, nor are we told how they would justify the State incomes they receive. That is, as Hobson comments drily, 'apart from living beautifully.

Ruskin's reforms for agriculture differ vitally from those for commerce and manufacture. The quasi- feudalistic system he advises in agriculture is not consistent with the growth of a voluntary state within a state he advises for industry. This in itself is a remote possibility, but the changes he advocates for the land system would require State coercion, and a practical nationalisation of the land subject to state control. This, as Hobson observes, is evidence of the way in which Ruskin tends to 'oscillate between voluntary co-operation and State action.' But this, to a certain extent, is due to a natural development in Ruskin's thinking. The preface to Unto This Last shows the government in control of functions, which later in Time and Tide and Fors, Ruskin assigns to voluntary guilds. However, it becomes obvious through an examination of Ruskin's idea of the governing role of the 'upper classes,' Hobson writes, that he never definitely abandoned the idea of limited State Socialism for a thoroughly thought-out scheme of voluntary co-operation.

Ruskin seemingly accepted the 'upper classes,' and sought to moralise and elevate them into a condition which will justify their social and industrial supremacy. There is an inconsistency in Ruskin's advocacy of fixed pay for fixed appointments and his later insistence in Fors that the professions formally ascribed to his upper classes should be paid anything but a pittance as they are peripheral to the real business of sustaining life.

Ruskin's reference to feudalistic hierarchies can be partially explained through an understanding of his interpretation of anarchism. In Ruskin's terms, an anarchic society, in direct contrast to a feudal one, was an individualistic state where people took no responsibility for anyone but themselves and their immediate family. This was a very dubious form of liberty for the underprivileged and no one called for state intervention more loudly than Ruskin.

Ruskin obscured the importance of this message, as he so often did, with his colourful rhetoric which exposed him to the ridicule of many who, according to Hobson, had neither 'the humour or the sense' to follow his 'dialectics of reform.' His proposals, Hobson claimed, though not always 'clear and consistent' in outline have yet a 'powerful coherence and a genuinely practical value.' This can be observed in the way in which society had begun to move toward an adoption of his schemes. Any inconsistencies in his thinking can largely be explained by the course of events between his earlier and later writings, for by the time Ruskin published Fors Clavigera he had become very disillusioned and convinced that no-one was listening to him, hence the note of despair. As a form of catharsis he concentrated on small practical schemes while never losing sight of his greater vision of 'an enduring and united Commonwealth.' This, with his profound awareness of human nature, he never realistically expected to materialise, but was still determined to establish in Hegelian fashion, as a higher ethical ideal and a lasting injunction to mutual responsibility.

Ruskin and the Political Arena

Any assessment of Ruskin's influence has to include an analysis of his political persuasion, for despite his denial of any form of categorisation the orientation of some of his most prominent disciples is a significant indicator to the contrary.

Apart from an originality of artistic analogy, Ruskin was not breaking any new ground in exposing the injurious effects of competition, nor in proposing an organic society as a corrective. But while Ruskin's main intellectual commitment was to an ideal of Gothic freedom of expression, like Carlyle he feared the outcome of total democracy and chose to ignore the possible ambiguity of rejecting laissez faire competition while favouring the unrestricted vital forms of nature. In fact, there is no real ambiguity. Like many of his fellow Romantics, Ruskin recognised the requirement of a degree of order in the realisation of any ideal society, especially within the context of nineteenth century industrialisation.

Raymond Williams argued that both Ruskin and Carlyle could only find their organic metaphor by looking back. This is almost certainly true in Carlyle's case, but less so with Ruskin. His organic imagery came initially from his theory of art and nature, but it was almost certainly Carlyle who reinforced his Platonic rejection of democracy.
Ruskin's fiercest opposition to radicalism was reserved for J. S. Mill, yet the Mill of later years was very close to Ruskin's views in both political and economic reform. Indeed, Ruskin himself did not seem to realise how far he was removed from Carlyle in both historic and economic criticism. Carlyle, despite some awareness of corruption among the governing classes, did not even begin to analyse the intricate connection between politics and industry as Ruskin did.

In his attention to detail, Hobson compared Ruskin with Mazzini who, he says, was the only other person who had exposed economic injustice as the root cause of moral and social disorder. Their main difference Hobson writes, lay in their plan of reform. Mazzini suggested that the people should basically be responsible for both economic and political government, but Ruskin, even though he could see the results of economic injustice more clearly than Mazzini, could never accept popular government. This rather surprises Hobson who comments on how close Ruskin came at times to admitting the inevitability and even the rightness of democracy. He certainly was not, like Carlyle, wedded to the idea of benevolent despots. Instead, he continued to pin his hopes on 'the voluntary self-reformation of the governing classes' and the encouragement of individual effort among the 'lower orders.' Democracy was never really on the agenda in Ruskin's form of socialism. As Hobson comments:

In a word, the Socialism, to which Mr Ruskin looks, is to be
imposed by an hereditary aristocracy, whose effective co-operation
for the common good is to be derived from the voluntary action
of individual land-owners and employers. There must be no movement
of the masses to claim economic justice; no use of Parliament to
'nationalise' land or capital, or to attack any private interest.

The governing classes, who Ruskin considered to be living idly on the fruits of economic exploitation, were therefore to be invited to become aware of their moral and social obligation. In this, Ruskin shares a doctrine with the Comtist Movement who also wished to impose an educated aristocracy on their ideal society. Frederic Harrison is representative of a small body of dissident intellectuals who followed Ruskin in wishing to bring much needed moral reflection into the arena of social reform. Although Harrison was neither a Christian nor a socialist, his aspirations for society had many points in common with those who claimed to be both and his authoritarianism was, like Ruskin's, intended ultimately to generate greater social harmony, albeit at the expense of individual liberty. Hobson, however, was much more aware of the fragile political balance between liberty and welfare.

In trusting reform to an appeal to the social conscience of an enlightened aristocracy Hobson identifies two fatal errors in Ruskin's thinking. The first is the difficulty of persuading 'captains of industry' that their present conduct is dishonest. The great majority of them will, writes Hobson, remain 'intellectually incapable' of following the economic analysis of Ruskin or any other reformer, and those who are capable will 'refuse to do so.' There is, he writes, a great deal of difference in seeing what is right and doing it, especially if it involves the abandonment of a customary and agreeable line of conduct. Ruskin's aspirations are commendable but he is being over optimistic if he considers he can reverse the whole spirit of industry. Moreover, comments Hobson, a moral injunction to individuals will not overcome the ills of society - 'Social evils require social remedies.' The general will must be the engine of reform even if the appeal in the first instance is to the higher principles of the individual. Ruskin's invocation to the social conscience of 'captains of industry' will not solve the problem of economic injustice; they will simply respond that they cannot raise wages without raising prices, nor improve the quality of their goods for the same reason. Manufacturers are too closely caught up in the processes of competitive trade and risk losing their position in the business world if they do not conform.

Ruskin's fear of democracy and his insistence on a ruling elite is, says Hobson, 'a radical defect in his social thinking.' Order cannot be achieved by a form of moral injunction to individuals, but only as the product of the 'enlightened, rational, freewill of the people.' This is true socialism:

A so-called Socialism from above, embodying the patronage of
an emperor or of a small enlightened bureaucracy, is not Socialism
in any moral sense at all; the forms of government must be animated
by the social spirit, must be the expression of the common organic
genius of the people, if it is to have true vitality and meaning.

Ruskin, claims Hobson, is deluded about the true nature of democracy. He interprets it as meaning absolute equality with no room for 'reverence.' His peculiar predilection for total servility obscures his moral judgement and leads him to believe that any respect for superior qualities in others is incompatible with democratic government. In fact, says Hobson, rational democracy is dependant for its successful functioning on a recognition of these qualities therefore Ruskin's fears are unfounded. Absolute equality is not essential to democracy- the role of government leaders is to express the general will of the people. Ruskin's own formula of a hierarchically structured organism, in his words: The true strength of every human soul is to be dependent on as many nobler as it can discern, and to be depended upon, by as many inferior as it can reach, is in fact little different to Mazzini's democratic principle: The progress of all through all, under the leadership of the best and the wisest.

The Guild of St George was largely financed by Ruskin and was the umbrella organisation for a number of other projects, which enjoyed varying degrees of success. Although his agrarian schemes never really came to fruition for a variety of reasons, the Guild satisfied Ruskin's goal of founding communes and his initiatives inspired others to follow his example to some effect. His continued contempt for the democracy of collective decision-making was seen as no more than a quirk and he was influential on many members of the newly emergent labour party in the early 20th century. These labour MP's considered Ruskin's emphasis on giving workers a stronger sense of community and greater control over production made him 'the companion spirit' of Robert Owen. Although in no sense can Ruskin's practical attempts to establish agrarian communes be considered successful, the Guild of St George still exists as a charitable trust and its communitarian legacy persists today

In The Eagle's Nest Ruskin comments: 'Had Darwinism been true, we should long ago have split our heads in two with foolish thinking, or thrust out, from above our covetous hearts, a hundred desirous arms and clutching hands.' Lecture ix, March 7 1872.
2 Although in this, he was of course drawing from the Bible, the example of the Middle Ages, and from Carlyle. It was a view also professed later by Peter Kropotkin in Mutual Aid in 1902.
3 Ruskin, Fors Clavigera (1906 edn), Vol. 3, Letter 70, p. 411.
4 Hobson, John Ruskin (1898) p.156.
5 Ibid.
6 Ruskin, Time and Tide (1906 edn), Letter 13, p. 87.
7 Hobson, John Ruskin, pp. 158-9.
8 Ibid, pp 160-1. See also Hobson, The Social Problem, p. 198.
9 Hobson, John Ruskin, p. 163.
10 Hobson, Ruskin, p. 165.
11 Ibid., pp. 167-8
12 Ibid., p. 170.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid., p.174.
15 Ibid., p.174.
16 Hobson, Ruskin, pp. 193-4.
17 Ibid., p. 198.
18 Ibid., p. 199.
19 Ibid., p. 204.
20 Ruskin, The Eagle's Nest (1904 edn), p. 90.
21 Hobson, Ruskin, p. 209.