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Knowles RW. Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris: Work Across the 'River of Fire'. 2001.
Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item: http://e-publications.une.edu.au/1959.11/8621
Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris: Work Across the 'River of Fire'
"for between us and that which is to be, if art is not to perish utterly, there is something alive and devouring; something as it were a river of fire that will put all that tries to swim across to a hard proof indeed..." (cited in Thompson 1977, 244). This imagery is from William Morris (1834-1896) writer, poet, artist, artisan, and socialist calling for courage in confronting the daunting work of transforming industrial capitalist society to a better socialist future; a transformation from 'old art' to 'new art'. The reference to 'art' here is a reflection of Morris's developed view of art as a holistic manifestation of the condition of human society and of its deep connection with 'work' or labour (Morris  1969, 94-5). The intransigent and deeply embedded barrier which Morris saw before him in his mission to contribute to transforming society was the Political Economy of his time. It was a similarly daunting 'river of fire' which had earlier confronted the prophetic 'man of letters', historian and social critic Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) and the equally prophetic and incisive social critic and art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900). Although the view of a politics of transformation or reform and the politics of a future society was distinctly different between these men, it was not nearly as different as many superficial readings of their work has suggested (Williams  1983, 146-9; Rosenberg 1974, chapter IX). And while their comparative politics is a subject which begs for a new history, it cannot be explored here. Further, the far-reaching breadth and interconnection of ethical, economic and political thought which each of these men enunciated makes it impossible here even to summarise, let alone analyse, their 'constructive work' in total. For each of them, however, the concept of 'work' was central to their prescriptions for a future society and their writings on 'work' or 'labour' (these expressions were used interchangeably by these writers) was perhaps the most resilient and overt positive intellectual relationship between them. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate, through focusing on the concept of 'work' as a central factor in economic thought and in social reality, that Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris profoundly shared a view of the future of work.