by Sam Buntz
The great British writer, John Ruskin–child prodigy, aesthetic theorist, essayist, philanthropist, painter, and socialist–once said, “You must either make a tool of the creature or a man of him. You cannot make both.” This was the opinion of a person whose Socialism was not that of Karl Marx, let alone that of Joseph Stalin. When Communism took hold in Russia, the question the revolutionaries asked themselves was not, “How do we use Socialism to make life a truly beautiful, interesting, and enjoyable experience?” it was “How do we extract the maximum amount of efficient labor out of each human cog?” They wanted to do the reverse: to make people tools and not people. Even Marx himself, in reality, did not see the essence of Socialism as a union of mutual understanding between people, which would then allow a universal strengthening of the relationship between each man or woman and his or her own soul–he saw it mainly as a way of making people come back into contact with their labor, to find meaning in their work. Well, fair enough, as far as it goes–but he did not see that a positive relationship with one’s labor was the direct result of the relationship one had with oneself, as developed and perfected through art and spirituality. Marx doesn’t seem to me to have been a man who had any sense of what life could be other than an attempt to adequately provide human beings with the requisite amount of vitamins and minerals and with fairly non-boring work. John Ruskin, on the other hand, had an absolute sense of life. (As a side-note–this is a particularly relevant discussion considering the controversies surrounding the Occupy movement and what approach it should be taking. Not that I am involved in it in any way whatsoever–I just wanted to make the discussion feel more timely, as I think it is.)
I walk by Memorial Hall in Cambridge nearly every day and am reminded by its example of how Ruskin sought to revive Gothic architecture with a Victorian twist, and give humanity structures it could feel at home in, as opposed to the post-modern slabs of concrete that intentionally heighten the sterile feeling of modern urban life–the differences between Marx and Ruskin actually riddle the landscape around us. However, the socialists of the 20th Century clearly chose, by and large, to follow Marx, and proceeded to choose even less wisely among his true disciples–Stalin ruled, and Ramon Mercader assassinated Trotsky with an ice axe. But while it lasted, British Socialism in the 19th Century was a far different affair–William Morris, Oscar Wilde, Ruskin, and others helped spearhead Socialist initiatives that still managed to take the human need–the need to be more than piano key, to be a free person–seriously. People were treated as though they had desires and aspirations that needed to be fulfilled in places other than a factory or a farming collective. To see the contrast, look at the icy architecture and rightfully-forgotten poetry of Stalin’s faithful lackeys and “futurist” toadies, and compare them with the furniture and buildings produced by Ruskin’s “Arts and Crafts” movement.
Shamefully, contemporary socialists too often echo the anti-human pronouncements of the Soviets. The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky once attacked individualism, writing, “Who needs a ‘1’? / The voice of a ‘1’ / is thinner than a squeak… / A ‘1’ is nonsense. / A ‘1’ is zero.” Today, Tony Kushner, the Socialist playwright who wrote Angels in America, likewise notes, “The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction.” I liked Angels well enough, but this completely turns my stomach. Contrast this blather with the words of Oscar Wilde, who, with some humor, wrote, “The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely anyone at all escapes.”
Wilde, of course, does not mean that we shouldn’t have compassion for people–as he explains further on in the essay, we are right to yield to the claims of our charitable feelings, but we are not right to set them up as the aim and goal of human existence. After all, they wouldn’t be necessary if we didn’t make somebody poor or sick or subject people to any of the other refined tortures of which humankind is capable. Like Socialism, Christianity has too often been misinterpreted in the same mode that Wilde warns against. It actually says, as I understand it, that people must throw off the support of the wider society and enter into the community of believers because that gives one the time and space–the right atmosphere–to become more of a fully-developed personality–to become more like God, in other words. Take that metaphorically or however you will, but it should be the aim of Socialism as well. George Bernard Shaw (another prominent Socialist) lamented, “[W]hat is the use of writing anything, if there is not a Will which finally moulds chaos itself into a race of gods?”
But Christianity and Socialism have both ossified into the means of doing the opposite–church institutions and Marxist rallies too frequently make sentimental conformity and dependence of mind their central features–the lowest common-denominator interpretations of the Bible and of Das Kapital are the rule. Service to others becomes just another dull round of meaningless duties–buying the stairway to heaven with one Jesus-point after another–rather than a way of helping one another in order to reduce our common burden and find more to time to explore our own individuality–to perfect ourselves in song, dance, poetry, or what have you. As it is, Socialism is the enterprise of morbid statisticians and filth-besmeared neo-druids. Christianity is more of a mixed bag–it has its true saints, living even today–but it is still, on the whole, too timid, too staid to permit the individual to cast off clerical authority and stake out his or her own relations with the Divine.
This is our current situation: we are forced to choose between a heartless, money-centered individualism–with no real sense of beauty, or of the higher ethical purposes and more developed pleasures of the senses which money ought to serve–represented by the Tea Party, and, on the other hand, various forms of leftist ideology that lack imagination, futilely trumpeting for the triumph of Ralph Nader-style politics. But one of the most lovely things about Ruskin’s or Wilde’s socialism is that it isn’t something that relies on the outcomes of elections–it is something that like-minded people (the “children of light” in Luke’s phrase) may simply do together–they combine their efforts in order to reduce their shared workload (ideally and depending on the quality of their planning) and leave more time for the cultivation of art and the spirit. It can be done in a city block or in the middle of the woods.
If and when this occurs–and it already has occasionally in history–people will come to know what the descent of the Holy Spirit–experienced by the disciples at Pentecost–actually means. The imagination will burn up all the rotten old fetters that restrain it and overwhelm all the bad art and bad science that continually try to convince the human race that it isn’t really at the center of Creation. For there is nothing more plainly written in Nature than that the human being is Her own perfection–the universe become conscious of itself. And the beauty of this form of Socialism is that it allows this consciousness to flower, to gain more and more of an understanding of its own goodness, beauty, and ultimate limitlessness. Otherwise, too long constrained, it turns in on itself and lacerates itself with shame, remorse, and un-deserved misery–with exactly those circumstances which we continually witness all around us.