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History of Political Economy 35.2 (2003) 358-359

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John Ruskin's Political Economy. By Willie Henderson. London: Routledge, 2000. 200 pp. $55.00.

Many historians of economic thought are likely to be unfamiliar with Ruskin's writings on political economy. Henderson seeks to acquaint the reader with Ruskin's contribution to and influence on the economic conversation of his day, ultimately concluding that Ruskin “can still be a source of ideas on economic and social justice” (175).

Henderson analyzes Ruskin's economic theory as presented primarily in three books, Unto This Last (1862), Munera Pulveris (1872), and Fors Clavigera (1871–84). Ruskin's economic works were initially complete commercial failures, as Henderson notes, but by the 1880s Unto This Last was selling more than 2,000 copies per year, and by 1910 more than 100,000 copies had been purchased. The obvious question that is not adequately addressed by Henderson is what accounts for the initial disregard of Ruskin's economic writings, their subsequent popularity from the 1880s through the early 1900s, and then their fall into relative obscurity?

Henderson tries to resuscitate Ruskin's economic works by examining them from a number of perspectives. One chapter discusses Ruskin and economic agency, two examine Ruskin's reliance on Greek authors, two compare Ruskin's writings to those of John Stuart Mill, and the final two chapters trace Ruskin's influence on the economists William Smart, John Bates Clark, and Alfred Marshall.

Most convincing is the link Henderson makes between Ruskin's writings and the Greeks, as Ruskin was indebted to Plato's philosophy and to Xenophon's economics of household and military management. Ruskin's work is more coherent once it is clear that his vision is one of an economy that should operate on the same principles of paternalism with which a household is managed. Ruskin describes himself as a Tory of the old school (40) and longs for the days when contented workers knew that their benevolent masters would provide for them. Ruskin, along with Thomas Carlyle and others, considered feudalism to be far superior to the alienation created in market societies. As David Levy (2001, 172–75) notes, Ruskin thought the slavery [End Page 358] of the market to be far more pernicious than the slavery that had existed in England and that then existed in other places.

Of course, Ruskin's philosophy explains why economists failed to take Ruskin's work seriously, as most economists consider models based on household management or military administration, at best, rudimentary. A model glorifying paternalism and the feudal past is immediately suspect. While Henderson does an admirable job of explaining the basis of Ruskin's economics, he does not adequately appreciate that the rejection of this premise is likely the source of Ruskin's obscurity among economists.

Least satisfying were the chapters that attempted to trace Ruskin's influence on Smart, Clark, and Marshall. While noting some similarities in the works of these authors and Ruskin, Henderson fails to convince that Ruskin had much influence on their ideas. William Smart was an early acolyte of Ruskin's, but even here Henderson admits that Smart abandoned Ruskin as he matured.

Despite some problems, the book provides a worthwhile illustration of what makes particular economists and their ideas popular and is recommended for those who would like to understand Ruskin's economic ideas. It is not likely that Ruskin's ideas resonated with many of his economic contemporaries, but his criticism of market capitalism found a ready audience in those who were searching for a nonsocialist antimarket alternative. Ruskin wrote with “brilliant rhetoric” and “dazzling prose” (45), apparently enthralling a reading audience who likely ignored, or perhaps never comprehended, his underlying theory.


W. D. Sockwell
Berry College


Levy, David M. 2001. How the Dismal Science Got Its Name. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.



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pp. 358-359
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2005
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