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.”

William Morris, Strawberry Thief, printed textile, 1883

Ruskin scholars generally pass over this communism as incoherent or ironic. But I want to argue that it was neither. Instead, it represents a road not taken in the history of movements for a just social order. Today, amid renewed outrage over the depredations of globalized capitalism, it’s high time to rediscover Ruskin’s vision for how people should live and work together.

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.

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.

The Un-Convert

Like so many other scourges of the bourgeoisie, Ruskin grew up in a bourgeois family. His father, John James, was a successful wine merchant who was fond of Romantic writers, especially Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. His mother, Margaret, was a rigorous evangelical who insisted on his memorizing large parts of the Bible. Thanks to his father’s lucrative business, Ruskin had the leisure to read and travel widely. Apart from scripture, he immersed himself in Homer, Shakespeare, Gibbon, and Bunyan, and he visited Scotland, France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy before he was fifteen. Enthralled by the paintings of J. M. W. Turner, young John also took to drawing and writing about nature, filling notebooks with sketches and publishing his first articles on art before he was twenty.

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.

Conveyed in a Christian idiom, Ruskin’s Romanticism surfaced first in his five-volume Modern Painters (1843), and then leavened his forays into social criticism and political economy. Artists such as J. M. W. Turner, he asserted in volume one, perceive in nature “that faultless, ceaseless, inconceivable, inexhaustible loveliness, which God has stamped upon all things.” Beauty, he wrote in the second volume (1846), “whether [it] occur in a stone, flower, beast, or in man … may be shown to be in some sort typical of the Divine attributes.” “In the midst of the material nearness of these heavens,” he declared in volume four (1856), we “acknowledge His own immediate presence.” Because Ruskin saw the sacred in nature, he saw it in humankind as well. “The direct manifestation of Deity to man is in His own image, that is, in man,” he wrote in volume five (1860). “The soul of man is a mirror of the mind of God” – a mirror, he rued, “dark distorted, and broken.”

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).

William Morris, Medway, printed textile, 1885

Early critics of industrial capitalism objected at least as much to dispossession and degradation as they did to poverty and misery. Already in the Luddite uprisings in the 1810s, hundreds of weavers in Nottingham and Yorkshire smashed textile machinery as a protest against mechanization. Around the same time, utopian socialists such as Charles Fourier lamented the elimination of play and creativity from work – the logical culmination of industrial labor, the literal de-humanization of production.

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.

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.

But because Marx believed in “progress” through the dialectical unfolding of history, alienation was, in his view, a progressive step toward the destination of communism. Because it enabled technological innovation and generated material abundance, the arduous and often violent process of proletarianization was, Marx insisted, historically necessary and beneficial. Placing the industrial proletariat on what Hegel had called “the slaughter-bench of history,” capitalist automation made martyrs of workers for the sake of a golden future: the communist utopia of abundance, free time, and mechanized emancipation from labor. By the time Marx published the first volume of Capital (1867), machinery was for him both a “demon power” and a historical vehicle to the “realm of freedom.”

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.