Gandhi and Ruskin

‘Unto This Last’, I translated it later into Gujarati entitling it ‘Sarvodaya’ (the welfare of all). I believe that I discovered some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book of Ruskin and that is why it so captured me and made me transform my life. — Mahatma Gandhi

John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) established his reputation as Britain’s foremost art and architectural historian in the nineteenth century, with the publication of ‘Modern Painters’ and other books. From 1857, with the delivery in Manchester of a series of lectures called ‘The Political Economy of Art’, Ruskin changed his career and work from that of an art critic defending the Pre-Raphaelite painters to that of a social critic bent on exposing the superficial Christianity of Victorian England. His favourite and one of his shortest books, ‘Unto This Last’, was begun in 1860 as a series of essays for Cornhill magazine. His purpose in these powerful polemics was to attack the underlying assumptions of political economy and in particular the concept of ‘economic man’. The hostility of the British establishment to their publication forced the editor to curtail their appearance after the fourth essay.

Ruskin’s critique of economic man centres on the simplicity and the artificial nature of the construct. First, the concept only identifies the materialistic and base needs of human beings and neglects the importance of higher moral values and needs. He illustrates convincingly that all commercial transactions have an underlying moral and social aspect. Indeed, he makes a prescient case for fair trade and ethical investment in his defence of the moral and legal restraints — such as usury laws — governing pre-industrial economies. The powerful conclusion he draws is that real wealth is not money or gold. Real wealth is life, because only people working with nature can create those use values necessary to support and advance life.

Gandhian economics build upon Ruskin’s critique of political economy. Gaudi’s architecture in Barcelona also drew inspiration from Ruskin’s philosophy. Schumacher and other environmental thinkers have drawn extensively from his heretical views and his plea that ethics should be put back into economics.

Taken from the winter 2009 edition of the NEF’s ‘Radical Economics’

Categories: Gandhian Economics


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