From Fors Clavigera
by John Ruskin

Letter LXXXIX.


BEAUVAIS, August 31, 1880.

My dear Friends,

This is the first letter in Fors which has been addressed to you as a body of workers separate from the other Englishmen who are doing their best, with heart and hand, to serve their country in any sphere of its business, and in any rank of its people. I have never before acknowledged the division marked, partly in your own imagination, partly in the estimate of others, and of late, too sadly, staked out in permanence by animosities and misunderstandings on both sides, between you, and the mass of society to which you look for employment. But I recognize the distinction to-day, moved, for one thing, by a kindly notice of last Fors, which appeared in the Bingley Telephone of April 23rd of this year; saying, “that it was to be wished I would write more to and for the workmen and workwomen of these realms,” and influenced conclusively by the fact of your having expressed by your delegates at Sheffield your sympathy with what endeavours I had made for the founding a Museum there different in principle from any yet arranged for working men: this formal recognition of my effort, on your part, signifying to me, virtually, that the time was come for explaining my aims to you, fully, and in the clearest terms possible to me.

But, believe me, there have been more reasons than I need now pass in review, for my hitherto silence respecting your special interests. Of which reasons, this alone might satisfy you, that, as a separate class, I knew scarcely anything of you but your usefulness, and your distress; and that the essential difference between me and other political writers of your day, is that I never say a word about a single thing that I don’t know; while they never trouble themselves to know a single thing they talk of; but give you their own ‘opinions’ about it, or tell you the gossip they have heard about it, or insist on what they like in it, or rage against what they dislike in it; but entirely decline either to look at, or to learn, or to speak, the Thing as it is, and must be.

Now I know many things that are, and many that must be hereafter, concerning my own class: but I know nothing yet, practically, of yours, and could give you no serviceable advice either in your present disputes with your masters, or in your plans of education and action for yourselves, until I had found out more clearly, what you meant by a Master, and what you wanted to gain either in education or action,— and, even farther, whether the kind of person you meant by a Master was one in reality or not, and the things you wanted to gain by your labour were indeed worth your having or not. So that nearly everything hitherto said in Fors has been addressed in main thought, to your existing Masters, Pastors, and Princes,— not to you,— though these all I class with you, if they knew it, as “workmen and labourers,” and you with them, if you knew it, as capable of the same joys as they, tempted by the same passions as they, and needing, for your life, to recognize the same Father and Father’s Law over you all, as brothers in earth and in heaven.

But there was another, and a more sharply restricted reason for my never, until now, addressing you as a distinct class;— namely, that certain things which I knew positively must be soon openly debated and what is more, determined in a manner very astonishing to some people, in the natural issue of the transference of power out of the hands of the upper classes, so called, into yours,— transference which has been compelled by the crimes of those upper classes, and accomplished by their follies,— these certain things, I say, coming now first into fully questionable shape, could not be openly announced as subjects of debate by any man in my then official position as one of a recognized body of University teachers, without rendering him suspected and disliked by a large body of the persons with whom he had to act. And I considered that in accepting such a position at all I had virtually promised to teach nothing contrary to the principles on which the Church and the Schools of England believed themselves whether mistakenly or not to have been founded.

The pledge was easy to me, because I love the Church and the Universities of England more faithfully than most churchmen, and more proudly than most collegians; though my pride is neither in my college boat, nor my college plate, nor my college class-list, nor my college heresy. I love both the Church and the schools of England, for the sake of the brave and kindly men whom they have hitherto not ceased to send forth into all lands, well nurtured, and bringing, as a body, wherever their influence extended, order and charity into the ways of mortals.

And among these I had hoped long since to have obtained hearing, not for myself, but for the Bible which their Mothers reverenced, the laws which their Fathers obeyed, and the wisdom which the Masters of all men the dead Senate of the noblest among the nations had left for the guidance of the ages yet to be. And during seven years I went on appealing to my fellow-scholars, in words clear enough to them, though not to you, had they chosen to hear: but not one cared nor listened, till I had sign sternly given to me that my message to the learned and the rich was given, and ended.

And now I turn to you, understanding you to be associations of labouring men who have recognized the necessity of binding yourselves by some common law of action, and who are taking earnest counsel as to the conditions of your lives here in England, and their relations to those of your fellow-workers in foreign lands. And I understand you to be, in these associations, disregardant, if not actually defiant, of the persons on whose capital you have been hitherto passively dependent for occupation, and who have always taught you, by the mouths of their appointed Economists, that they and their capital were an eternal part of the Providential arrangements made for this world by its Creator.

In which self-assertion, nevertheless, and attitude of inquiry into the grounds of this statement of theirs, you are unquestionably right. For, as things are nowadays, you know any pretty lady in the Elysian fields of Paris who can set a riband of a new colour in her cap in a taking way, forthwith sets a few thousands of Lyonnaise spinners and dyers furiously weaving ribands of like stuff, and washing them with like dye. And in due time the new French edict reaches also your sturdy English mind, and the steeples of Coventry ring in the reign of the elect riband, and the Elysian fields of Spital, or whatever other hospice now shelters the weaver’s head, bestir themselves according to the French pattern, and bedaub themselves with the French dye; and the pretty lady thinks herself your everlasting benefactress, and little short of an angel sent from heaven to feed you with miraculous manna, and you are free Britons that rule the waves, and free Frenchmen that lead the universe, of course; but you have not a bit of land you can stand on without somebody’s leave, nor a house for your children that they can’t be turned out of, nor a bit of bread for their breakfast to-morrow, but on the chance of some more yards of riband being wanted. Nor have you any notion that the pretty lady herself can be of the slightest use to you, except as a consumer of ribands; what God made her for you do not ask: still less she, what God made you for.

How many are there of you, I wonder, landless, roofless, foodless, unless, for such work as they choose to put you to, the upper classes provide you with cellars in Lille, glass cages in Halluin Court, milk tickets, for which your children still have “the strength to smile —”* How many of you, tell me,— and what your united hands and wits are worth, at your own reckoning?

Trade Unions of England Trade Armies of Christendom, what’s the roll-call of you, and what part or lot have you, hitherto, in this Holy Christian Land of your Fathers? Is not that inheritance to be claimed, and the Birth Right of it, no less than the Death Right? Will you not determine where you may be Christianly bred, before you set your blockhead Parliaments to debate where you may be Christianly buried, (your priests also all a-squabble about that matter, as I hear,— as if any ground could be consecrated that had the bones of rascals in it, or profane where a good man slept!) But how the Earth that you tread may be consecrated to you, and the roofs that shade your breathing sleep, and the deeds that you do with the breath of life yet strengthening hand and heart,— this it is your business to learn, if you know not; and this, mine to tell you, if you will learn.

Before the close of last year, one of our most earnest St. George’s Guildsmen wrote to me saying that the Irish Land League claimed me as one of their supporters; and asking if he should contradict this, or admit it.

To whom I answered, on Christmas Day of 1879, as follows:

“BRANTWOOD, Christmas, ’79.

“You know I never read papers, so I have never seen a word of the Irish Land League or its purposes; but I assume the purpose to be that Ireland should belong to Irishmen; which is not only a most desirable, but, ultimately, a quite inevitable condition of things,— that being the assured intention of the Maker of Ireland, and all other lands.

“But as to the manner of belonging, and limits and rights of holding, there is a good deal more to be found out of the intentions of the Maker of Ireland, than I fancy the Irish League is likely to ascertain, without rueful experience of the consequences of any and all methods contrary to those intentions.

“And for my own part I should be wholly content to confine the teaching as I do the effort of the St. George’s Guild, to the one utterly harmless and utterly wholesome principle, that land, by whomsoever held, is to be made the most of, by human strength, and not defiled,** nor left waste. But since we live in an epoch assuredly of change, and too probably of Revolution; and thoughts which cannot be put aside are in the minds of all men capable of thought, I am obliged also to affirm the one principle which can and in the end will close all epochs of Revolution,— that each man shall possess the ground he can use and no more,— USE, I say, either for food, beauty, exercise, science, or any other sacred purpose. That each man shall possess, for his own, no more than such portion, with the further condition that it descends to his son, inalienably right of primogeniture being in this matter eternally sure. The nonsense talked about division is all temporary; you can’t divide for ever, and when you have got down to a cottage and a square fathom if you allow division so far still primogeniture will hold the right of that.

“But though possession is, and must be, limited by use (see analytic passages on this head in ‘Munera Pulveris’), Authority is not. And first the Maker of the Land, and then the King of the Laud, and then the Overseers of the Land appointed by the King, in their respective orders, must all in their ranks control the evil, and promote the good work of the possessors. Thus far, you will find already, all is stated in Fors; and further, the right of every man to possess so much land as he can live on especially observe the meaning of the developed Corn Law Rhyme

“Find’st thou rest for England’s head
Free alone among the Dead?”***

meaning that Bread, Water, and the Roof over his bead, must be tax- (i.e. rent-) free to every man.

“But I have never yet gone on in Fors to examine the possibly best forms of practical administration. I always felt it would be wasted time, for these must settle themselves. In Savoy the cottager has his garden and field, and labours with his family only; in Berne, the farm labourers of a considerable estate live under the master’s roof, and are strictly domestic; in England, farm labourers might probably with best comfort live in detached cottages; in Italy, they might live in a kind of monastic fraternity. All this, circumstance, time, and national character must determine; the one thing St. George affirms is the duty of the master in every case to make the lives of his dependants noble to the best of his power.”

Now you must surely feel that the questions I have indicated in this letter could only be answered rightly by the severest investigation of the effect of each mode of human life suggested, as hitherto seen in connection with other national institutions, and hereditary customs and character. Yet every snipping and scribbling blockhead hired by the bookseller to paste newspaper paragraphs into what may sell for a book, has his ‘opinion’ on these things, and will announce it to you as the new gospel of eternal and universal salvation without a qualm of doubt or of shame in the entire loggerhead of him.

Hear, for instance, this account of the present prosperity, and of its causes, in the country of those Sea Kings who taught you your own first trades of fishing and battle:

“The Norwegian peasant is a free man on the scanty bit of ground which he has inherited from his fathers; and he has all the virtues of a freeman an open character, a mind clear of every falsehood, an hospitable heart for the stranger. His religious feelings are deep and sincere, and the Bible is to he found in every hut. He is said to be indolent and phlegmatic; but when necessity urges, he sets vigorously to work, and never ceases till his task is done. His courage and his patriotism are abundantly proved by a history of a thousand years.

“Norway owes her present prosperity chiefly to her liberal constitution. The press is completely free, and the power of the king extremely limited. All privileges and hereditary titles are abolished. The Parliament, or the ‘Storthing,’ which assembles every three years, consists of the ‘Odelthing,’ or Upper House, and of the ‘Logthing,’ or Legislative Assembly. Every new law requires the royal sanction; but if the ‘Storthing’ has voted it in three successive sittings, it is definitely adopted in spite of the royal veto. Public education is admirably cared for. There is an elementary school in every village; and where the population is too thinly scattered, the schoolmaster may truly be said to be abroad, as he wanders from farm to farm, so that the most distant families have the benefit of his instruction. Every town has its public library; and in many districts the peasants annually contribute a dollar towards a collection of books, which, under the care of the priest, is lent out to all subscribers.

“No Norwegian is confirmed who does not know how to read, and no Norwegian is allowed to marry who has not been confirmed. He who attains his twentieth year without having been confirmed, has to fear the House of Correction. Thus ignorance is punished as a crime in Norway, an excellent example for far richer and more powerful governments.”

I take this account from a book on the Arctic regions, in which I find the facts collected extremely valuable, the statements, as far as I can judge, trustworthy, the opinions and teachings what you can judge of by this specimen. Do you think the author wise in attributing the prosperity of Norway chiefly to her king’s being crippled, and her newspapers free? or that perhaps her thousand years of courage may have some share in the matter? and her mind clear of every falsehood? and her way of never ceasing in a task till it is done? and her circulating schoolmasters? and her collected libraries? and her preparation for marriage by education? and her House of Correction for the uneducated? and her Bible in every hut? and, finally, her granted piece of his native land under her peasant’s foot for his own? Is her strength, think you, in any of these things, or only in the abolition of hereditary titles, the letting loose of her news-mongers, and the binding of her king? Date of their modern constitutional measures, you observe, not given! and consequences, perhaps, scarcely yet conclusively ascertainable. If you cannot make up your own minds on one or two of these open questions, suppose you were to try an experiment or two? Your scientific people will tell you and this, at least, truly that they cannot find out anything without experiment: you may also in political matters think and talk for ever resultlessly. Will you never try what comes of Doing a thing for a few years, perseveringly, and keep the result of that, at least, for known?

Now I write to you, observe, without knowing, except in the vaguest way, who you are! what trades you belong to, what arts or crafts you practise or what ranks of workmen you include, and what manner of idlers you exclude. I have no time to make out the different sets into which you fall, or the different interests by which you are guided. But I know perfectly well what sets you should fall into, and by what interests you should be guided. And you will find your profit in listening while I explain these to you somewhat more clearly than your penny-a-paragraph liberal papers will.

In the first place, what business have you to call yourselves only Trade Guilds, as if ‘trade’ and not production, were your main concern? Are you by profession nothing more than pedlars and mongers of things, or are you also makers of things?

It is too true that in our City wards our chapmen have become the only dignitaries and we have the Merchant-Tailors’ Company, but not the plain Tailors; and the Fishmongers’ Company, but not the Fishermen’s; and the Vintners’ Company, but not the Vinedressers; and the Ironmongers’ Company, but not the Blacksmiths’; while, though, for one apparent exception, the Goldsmiths’ Company proclaims itself for masters of a craft, what proportion, think you, does its honour bear compared with that of the Calf-worshipful Guild of the Gold Mongers?

Be it far from me to speak scornfully of trade. My Father whose Charter of Freedom of London Town I keep in my Brantwood treasury beside missal and cross sold good wine, and had, over his modest door in Billiter Street, no bush. But he grew his wine, before he sold it; and could answer for it with his head, that no rotten grapes fermented in his vats, and no chemist’s salt effervesced in his bottles. Be you also Tradesmen in your place and in your right; but be you, primarily, Growers, Makers, Artificers, Inventors, of things good and precious. What talk you of Wages? Whose is the Wealth of the World but yours? Whose is the Virtue? 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? Whose fault is it, you clothmakers, that any English child is in rags? Whose fault is it, you shoemakers, that the street harlots mince in high-heeled shoes, and your own babes paddle barefoot in the street slime? Whose fault is it, you bronzed husbandmen, that through all your furrowed England, children are dying of famine? Primarily, of course, it is your clergymen’s and masters’ fault: but also in this your own, that you never educate any of your children with the earnest object of enabling them to see their way out of this, not by rising above their father’s business, but by setting in order what was amiss in it: also in this your own, that none of you who do rise above your business, ever seem to keep the memory of what wrong they have known, or suffered; nor, as masters, set a better example than others.

Your own fault, at all events, it will be now, seeing that you have got Parliamentary power in your hands, if you cannot use it better than the moribund Parliamentary body has done hitherto.

To which end, I beg you first to take these following truths into your good consideration.

First. Men don’t and can’t live by exchanging articles but by producing them. They don’t live by trade, but by work. Give up that foolish and vain title of Trades Unions: and take that of Labourers’ Unions.

And, whatever divisions chance or special need may have thrown you into at present, remember, there are essential and eternal divisions of the Labour of man, into which you must practically fall, whether you like it or not; and these eternal classifications it would be infinitely better if you at once acknowledged in thought, name, and harmonious action. Several of the classes may take finer divisions in their own body, but you will find the massive general structure of working humanity range itself under these following heads, the first eighteen assuredly essential; the three last, making twenty-one altogether, I shall be able, I think, to prove to you are not superfluous:— suffer their association with the rest in the meantime.

1. Shepherds.
2. Fishermen.
3. Ploughmen.
4. Gardeners.
5. Carpenters and Woodmen.
6. Builders and Quarrymen.
7. Shipwrights.
8. Smiths and Miners.
9. Bakers and Millers.
10. Vintners.
11. Graziers and Butchers.
12. Spinners.
13. Linen and Cotton-workers.
14. Silk-workers.
15. Woollen-workers.
16. Tanners and Furriers.
17. Tailors and Milliners.
18. Shoemakers.
19. Musicians.
20. Painters.
21. Goldsmiths.

Get these eighteen, or twenty-one, as you like to take them, each thoroughly organized, proud of their work, and doing it under masters, if any, of their own rank, chosen for their sagacity and vigour, and the world is yours, and all the pleasures of it, that are true; while all false pleasures in such a life fall transparent, and the hooks are seen through the baits of them. But for the organization of these classes, you see there must be a certain quantity of land available to them, proportioned to their multitude: and without the possession of that, nothing can be done ultimately; though at present the mere organization of your masses under these divisions will clear the air, and the field, for you, to astonishment.

And for the possession of the land, mind you, if you try to take it by force, you will have every blackguard and vaut-rien in the world claiming his share of it with you,— for by that law of force he has indeed as much right to it as you; but by the law of labour, he has not. Therefore you must get your land by the law of labour; working for it, saving for it, and buying it, as the spendthrifts and idlers offer it you: but buying never to let go.

And this, therefore, is practically the first thing you have to bring in by your new Parliaments a system of land tenure, namely, by which your organized classes of labouring, men may possess their land as corporate bodies, and add to it as the monks once did, and as every single landlord can, now; but I find that my St. George’s Guild cannot, except through complications or legal equivocations almost endless, and hitherto indeed paralyzing me in quite unexpectedly mean and miserable ways.

Now I hope all this has been clearly enough said, for once: and it shall be farther enforced and developed as you choose, if you will only tell me by your chosen heads whether you believe it, and are any of you prepared to act on it, and what kinds of doubt or difficulty occur to you about it, and what farther questions you would like me to answer.

And that you may have every power of studying the matter (so far as I am concerned), this Fors you shall have gratis;— and the next, if you enable me to make it farther useful to you. That is to say, your committees of each trade-guild may order parcels of them from my publisher in any quantities they wish, for distribution among their members. To the public its price remains fixed, as that of all my other books. One word only let me say in conclusion, to explain at once what I mean by saying that the pleasures of the world are all yours.

God has made man to take pleasure in the use of his eyes, wits, and body. And the foolish creature is continually trying to live without looking at anything, without thinking about anything, and without doing anything. And he thus becomes not only a brute, but the unhappiest of brutes. All the lusts and lazinesses he can contrive only make him more wretched; and at this moment, if a man walks watchfully the streets of Paris, whence I am now writing to you,— a city in which every invention that science, wit, and wealth can hit upon to provoke and to vary the pleasures of the idle,— he will not see one happy or tranquil face, except among the lower and very hard-labouring classes. Every pleasure got otherwise than God meant it got cheaply, thievingly, and swiftly, when He has ordered that it should be got dearly, honestly, and slowly,— turns into a venomous burden, and, past as a pleasure, remains as a load, increasing day by day its deadly coat of burning mail. The joys of hatred, of battle, of lust, of vain knowledge, of vile luxury, all pass into slow torture: nothing remains to man, nothing is possible to him of true joy, but in the righteous love of his fellows; in the knowledge of the laws and the glory of God, and in the daily use of the faculties of soul and body with which that God has endowed him.

PARIS, 18th September, 1880.

* See Fors for March of this year, p. 71, with the sequel.

** And if not the land, still less the water. I have kept by me now for some years, a report on the condition of the Calder, drawn up by Mr. James Fowler, of Wakefleld, in 1866, and kindly sent to me by the author on my mention of Wakefield in Fors. I preserve it in these pages, as a piece of English History characteristic to the uttermost of our Fortunate Times. See appendix to this number.

*** See ‘Fors,’ Letter LXXIV. p. 24 (note).