In 1906, when the first big batch of Labour MPs entered parliament, an enterprising journalist asked these and other left-liberal MPs what books and authors had influenced them. The name most often mentioned - 17 times - was John Ruskin. Marx was named only twice. It is surprising that these pioneers, most of whom were working class, should revere a dead Victorian art critic - all the more so because the Ruskin text they mentioned most often, Unto This Last, was a flop when it first appeared in 1860, and Ruskin's ultra-Tory, hierarchical anti-utilitarianism seemed unlikely to appeal to the working man.
Yet, from the 1880s onwards, Unto This Last was very widely read. In the worsening social and economic conditions that closed the 19th century, Ruskin's criticism of capitalism and his emphasis on value in co-operative use - as opposed to competitive exchange - supplied a moral language with which the labour movement could arm itself. Spread by university extension lecturers, some of whom had sat at Ruskin's feet at Oxford, the Ruskinian word was heard across the land. Ruskin College, training ground for at least one future deputy prime minister (Prescott, J), was founded in 1899; Toynbee Hall had been established in the East End of London in 1884 as a tribute to the foreman on Ruskin's notorious roadbuilding experiment in Oxford. Unto This Last proposed many of the features of a welfare state. Two denizens of Toynbee Hall, Clement Attlee and William Beveridge, were to turn Ruskin's utopia into a somewhat lesser reality.
In spite of all this, Ruskin's High Victorian language hardly speaks to us today. Few will recognise that the title Unto This Last is an allusion to the parable of the labourers and the vineyard owner in St Matthew's Gospel, with his unusual understanding of equal pay and the working time directive. Yet the evils of capitalism, industrialism and utilitarianism are still here. Finding a new way to express Ruskin's ethical counter-arguments is a problem for the Ruskin Foundation, responsible for the manuscripts and drawings in the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University and for Ruskin's Lake District house, Brantwood. As the celebrations marking the centenary of Ruskin's death in 2000 showed, academic interest in the man is significant, and his aesthetic and critical ideas are taken seriously. But his audience is a narrow, educated one. It's a readership comparable to those who read him in the 1860s, not the masses of the late 19th century, who were galvanised as much by his social criticism as his art.
Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the foundation hired Emma Bartlett, a former arts education officer, to investigate how to spread the Ruskinian word beyond academia. Bartlett had not read Ruskin. The first text she tackled was Unto This Last. "I was immediately struck by the way he used parables to make his points come alive," she says. "He wants you to see what happens if you are greedy or unjust." From this sprang the idea of turning Ruskin's 19th-century solemnities into a comic for the 21st century. The writer Kevin Jackson, who had already devised A Ruskin Alphabet, was approached. He suggested the cartoonist Hunt Emerson, a contri-butor to the Beano. In Emerson's hands, Unto This Last became How To Be Rich.
As a principled Ruskinian, Jackson worked pro bono to supply Emerson with the equivalent of a film script, turning Ruskin's own parables into mini-stories. Jackson admits to "having shamelessly swiped the idea of a dream-journey from Dante", with Ruskin as Virgil, leading their invention, Darren Bloke, to the light.
A first run of 15,000 copies of How To Be Rich has been printed. Ten thousand of these will be distributed free to secondary schools, together with packs suggest- ing ways in which pupils can re-engage with the great debate, started by Ruskin, about values and citizenship. One appropriate destination would be the House of Commons Library. It would be heartening to think that today's Labour MPs could also learn from Ruskin that "there is no Wealth but Life".
Teachers interested in ordering copies can contact Ruskin For All at Ruskin@lancaster.ac.uk
Robert Hewison, a trustee of the Ruskin Foundation, is writing a book on Venice and Ruskin