Saturday, 19 September 2015

A THINKER OF GREAT THOUGHTS.

To most readers of the "WORKER" the name of John Ruskin will be well known, but it is doubtful if so much can be said for even the titles of his books. For it is a sorrowful fact that the workers pay little heed to the words of their best teachers. Hustings politicians, newspaper leader writers, stump orators, and various other shallow talkers and scribblers, receive marked attention from the multitude, but the thinkers of great thoughts and the   speakers of wise words have few hearers. People who will wade through Courier leading articles in the morning and plod through columns of Sir Sammy and Sir Tammy in the evening will tell you— with the most exasperating evidence of meaning it, too— that Karl Marx and Lassalle, Carlyle and Ruskin, Gronlund, Henry George, and even Bellamy, are dry ! But, heaven be praised, the education of the masses proceeds apace, and they who have ears to hear are beginning at last to put them to some good use.
 Among the neglected great are none greater or more neglected than John Ruskin: — He is one of those Argus-eyed observers and uncompromising speakers of truth who are bound to offend all while fault is the common lot of all. Yet his censurers are, almost invariably, fitted with exquisite discrimination to the offence. Every extenuating circumstance is tenderly remembered, every aggravation of the fault is taken sternly into account. There in consists True Justice— highest of all moral attributes— Pitiableness, or mercy on the one hand ; Indignation, or Righteous Anger on the other.
 Particularly in his writings upon Social questions this noble characteristic is displayed. The follies and weaknesses of the proletarian are firmly reproved, but with tears in the reprover's eye, which give place, however, to an angry gleam when the reproof is turned against the well-to-do. But his fiercest scorn and his angriest invective are hurled against the Social System which debases all—the rich and poor alike.
 And yet, strange saying, it is mainly because of this perfection of criticism that Ruskin is so little read and so little appreciated ; mainly because in him the critical faculty is free from taint of class, nor warped this way nor that. The most popular political and social writers are the one-sided critics— you can in fact measure their popularity with close precision by their one-sidedness— for the great man of people are pleased to be exonerated from blame, and to have it all thrust upon the shoulders of the few. But the view of Ruskin is comprehensive ; he sees clearly that our wretched woeful system results not by the faults of the few only, but that it is the Sum Total of the contributing faults of all.
 It will be something new to many workers to learn that Ruskin is a Socialist, but the following extracts, which I have taken almost at random from "Munera Pulveris" will show quite clearly that he is a Socialist of a very high and of a very pronounced type. This, for instance, is what he thinks of our modern system of commerce :
 "Sin sticks so fast between the joinings of the stones of buying and selling that to 'trade' in things, or literally 'cross-give' them, has warped itself, by the instinct of nations,into their worst word for fraud; for, because in trade there cannot but be trust, and it seems also that there cannot but be injury in answer to it, what is merely fraud between enemies becomes treachery among friends; and 'trader' 'traditor' and 'traitor' are but the same word. For which simplicity of language there is more reason than at first appears, for as in true commerce there is no 'profit' so in true commerce there is no 'sale.' The idea of sale is that of an interchange between enemies respectively endeavouring to get the better one of another ; but commerce is an exchange between friends, and there it no desire but that it should be just, any more than there would be between members of the same family."
 To this he added a foot-note several years afterwards :
 "I do not wonder when I re-read this that people talk about my sentiment. But there is no sentiment about it. It is a hard and bare commercial fact that if two people deal together who don't try to cheat each other, they will, in a given time, make more money out of each other than if they do."
 " Munera Pulveris" was written, I think, some time in the fifties, yet even at that early date, when Henry George perhaps had not weaned himself from the charms of mud-pie making, Ruskin had discerned the true nature of rent. He is criticising a statement of the principles of rent made in the most orthodox manner by Professor Fawcett:
 "These principles the professor goes on contentedly to investigate, never appearing to contemplate for an instant the possibility of the first principle—the maintenance by force of the land obtained by force—being ever called in question by any human mind. It is, nevertheless, the nearest task of our day to discover how far original theft may be justly encountered by reactionary theft, or whether reactionary theft be indeed theft at all."
  He then proceeds to expose and denounce the iniquity of rent in a manner which cost him forever the friendship of the Duke of Argyll, and should have won him forever the gratitude of mankind.
 The law of supply and demand comes in for some rough handling, of which I give a specimen. He has been instancing examples where wages have been fixed otherwise than by "competition," and he continues :
 "In both real and supposed cases the so-called 'law' of vulgar political economy is absolutely set at defiance. But I cannot set the law of gravitation at defiance, nor determine that in my house I will not allow ice to melt when the temperature its above thirty-two degrees. A true law out side of my house will remain a true law inside of it. It is not therefore a law of nature that wages are determined by competition. . . . The fact which vulgar political economists have been weak enough to imagine a law is only that for the last twenty years a number of very senseless persons have attempted to determine wages in that manner, and have in a measure succeeded occasionally in doing so."
 The son of a capitalist himself and living all his life among the influences of Wealth, his words about Capitalism are yet among the hardest ever recorded. In the following sentence he deliberately accuses capitalists of the most fearful crime possible to human beings, the provocation of war for profit's sake.
 "Capitalists, when they do not know what to do with their money, persuade the peasants in various countries that the said peasants want guns to shoot each other with. The peasants accordingly borrow guns, out of the manufacture of which the capitalist gets a percentage, and men of science much amusement and credit. Then the peasants shoot a certain number of each other until they get tired, and burn each others' homes down in various places. Than they put the guns back into towers, arsenals, &c., in ornamental patterns (and the victorious party also put some ragged flags in churches.) And then the capitalists tax both annually ever afterwards to pay interest on the loan of the guns and gunpowder. And that is what capitalists call 'knowing what to do with their money,' and what commercial men call 'practical' as opposed to sentimental 'political economy.' "
      One more extract and I am done for the time, although I hope to be permitted in the near future to again occupy some WORKER space in similar manner. Anybody who has read Froude's glowing eulogium of nineteenth century civilisation as culminated in America will have afforded them by the following reverse picture from the hands of Ruskin a notable opportunity to study the interesting subject of comparative psychology :
   " It is the fashion at present to talk of the 'failure of republican institutions in America,' when there has never yet been in America any such thing as an institution, but only a defiance of institution ; neither any such thing as a res-publica, but only a multitudinous res-privata— every man for himself. It is not republicanism which fails now in America ; it is your model science of political economy, brought to its perfect practice. There you may see 'competition' and the 'law of supply and demand' in beautiful and unhindered operation. Lust of wealth and trust in it ; vulgar faith in magnitude and multitude ; instead of nobleness, perpetual self-contemplation issuing in passionate vanity; total ignorance of the finer and higher arts, and of all they teach and bestow, and the discontent of energetic minds unoccupied, frantic with hope of uncomprehended change, and progress they know not whither—these are the things that have have failed in America." H. E. BOOTE.

Worker 28 May 1892

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