Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris: Work across the 'River of Fire'

By Knowles, Rob | History of Economics Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris: Work across the 'River of Fire'


Knowles, Rob, History of Economics Review


for between us and that which is to be, if art is not to perish utterly, there is something alive and devouring; something as utterly, there is something alive and devouring; something as it were a river of fire that will put all that tries to swim across to a hard proof indeed ... (cited in Thompson 1977, 244).

This imagery is from William Morris (1834-1896) writer, poet, artist, artisan, and socialist calling for courage in confronting the daunting work of transforming industrial capitalist society to a better socialist future; a transformation from 'old art' to 'new art'. The reference to 'art' here is a reflection of Morris's developed view of art as a holistic manifestation of the condition of human society and of its deep connection with 'work' or labour (Morris [1884] 1969, 94-5). The intransigent and deeply embedded barrier which Morris saw before him in his mission to contribute to transforming society was the Political Economy of his time. (1) It was a similarly daunting 'river of fire' which had earlier confronted the prophetic 'man of letters', historian and social critic Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) and the equally prophetic and incisive social critic and art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900).

Although the view of a politics of transformation or reform and the politics of a future society was distinctly different between these men, it was not nearly as different as many superficial readings of their work has suggested (Williams [1958] 1983, 146-9; Rosenberg 1974, chapter IX). And while their comparative politics is a subject which begs for a new history, it cannot be explored here. Further, the far-reaching breadth and interconnection of ethical, economic and political thought which each of these men enunciated makes it impossible here even to summarise, let alone analyse, their 'constructive work' in total. For each of them, however, the concept of 'work' was central to their prescriptions for a future society and their writings on 'work' or 'labour' (these expressions were used interchangeably by these writers) was perhaps the most resilient and overt positive intellectual relationship between them.

The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate, through focusing on the concept of 'work' as a central factor in economic thought and in social reality, that Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris profoundly shared a view of the future of work. (2) Connecting these three politically disparate thinkers through their understandings of work is unique within histories of economic thought. It also seems that mention of their shared ideas with respect to work has not appeared in any economic writings since the social reformer J.A. Hobson linked 'Emerson, Carlyle, Zola, Ibsen, William Morris, and Tolstoy' as of common mind with Ruskin regarding his 'gospel of good work' (Hobson 1904, 305). (3) Most often the ideas of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris are considered separately from each other or they are grouped in pairs in writings on economic thought, if they are mentioned at all. It is common to find Carlyle associated with Ruskin, or Ruskin associated with Morris, but all three men are never linked with respect to their constructive economic ideas in histories of economic thought. (4)

The three writers are however often linked in literary or aesthetic discourses, and typically they are grouped within a 'tradition' of ideas or a literary genre. Discussion of their economic ideas often appears in a general way within such discourses but this has clouded the way their economic thought has been perceived. It will therefore be necessary in this essay first to cut a path through the literary, aesthetic, and political rhetoric which has surrounded their ideas since much of their work was written. Only then will it be possible to see more clearly the economic ideas of the actual persons who stood on the banks of the 'river of fire' and how they stood in relation to each other.

The critiques expounded by Carlyle, Ruskin and Morris of the economic dimensions of the society which they confronted will not be dwelt upon here because they are relatively well known or at least readily accessible (see, e. …

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