A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias. — Oscar Wilde, ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’
Oscar Wilde’s thoughts about politics and society have received comparatively little attention. He is known for many things: for being as an early proponent of Modernist aesthetics and propagator of the slogan “art for art’s sake”, an extravagant dandy and celebrity, aesthete and hedonist, who cultivated pederasty in the pattern of ancient Greeks. All these aspects of Wilde’s life have been documented in dozens of books, but Wilde’s views of socialism are little known. In his only political essay, ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ (1891), Wilde presented libertarian views and a rather peculiar vision of socialism as a social system that would replace a severely compromised capitalism in an indefinite future. With his characteristic aphoristic witticism, Wilde presents his vision of aesthetic socialism from the perspective of the artist, not the philosopher or ideologue, alleging that it will level the social and economic differences created by capitalism and in the process revive the creative talents of artists who may then pursue their vocations without fear of succumbing to commercialism and societal pressure.
The most prominent late Victorian advocates of aesthetic socialism were John Ruskin (1819-1900), William Morris (1834-1896), Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), all of whom criticised the dehumanising power of industrial capitalism. The ideas of aesthetic socialism, which were initially not associated with any particular political group, were advocated by a diverse group of social activists and writers who called for the moral and aesthetic development of the broad masses of people. Debates on the ethical and aesthetic dimensions of socialism appeared in England in the 1880s and 1890s, contributing, to a certain extent, to the creation of the Independent Labour Party and then the Labour Party.
Origin of Wilde’s radical views
Wilde came from a family with radical views and artistic interests. His mother, Lady Jane Francesca Wilde, was an active Irish nationalist, feminist, literary hostess, poet and translator, and his father, a famous laryngologist, wrote significant works in medicine, archaeology and Irish folklore. In the 1880s, Wilde was keen to mix not only with writers and artists but also with radical Darwinists, socialists, and anarchists. When Wilde visited the United States and Canada in 1882, he delivered lectures in which he expressed his views not only on literature and art but also on social issues. Wilde, like many other late Victorian intellectuals, watched anxiously the misery of the poor in London, where more than two million people lived on the brink of starvation. Wilde’s interest in politics first appeared in 1880 when he wrote his first play, Vera; Or, The Nihilists, which did not gain public recognition, but revealed his radical views. It was performed in New York only for a week in 1883 and never in London. The melodrama concerned the fate of the famous Russian Marxist writer and revolutionist Vera Zasulich (1849-1919). When, at the age of thirty-three, Wilde allowed himself to be seduced by seventeen-year-old Robbie Ross (1869-1918), a future journalist and literary critic, he became not only a devoted homosexual practitioner, but also, at least in his own opinion, a socialist radical — an anarchosocialist. It should be added that among all the important late Victorian intellectuals, he was the only one who openly declared an anarchist position, although he never joined any anarchist organisation.
Some of Wilde’s verses in Poems (1881) under the collective title Eleutheria (Freedom) also suggest that his interest was similar to that of late Victorian anarchism. They include ‘Sonnet to Liberty’, ‘Ave Imperatrix’, ‘Louis Napoleon’, ‘Quantum Mutata’, ‘Libertatis Sacra Fames’, and ‘Theoretikos’. Both the play Vera and the early poems point to Wilde’s growing interest in political radicalism in part due to the significant revival of socialist agitation in England during in the last quarter of the nineteenth century when a number of eminent intellectuals expressed radical views. In 1889, Wilde confirmed his socialist sympathies in a review of Chants of Labour: A Song-Book of the People, a volume of poetry edited by Edward Carpenter, in which he stated:
Socialism is not going to allow herself to be trammelled by any hard and fast creed or to be stereotyped into an iron formula. She welcomes many and multiform natures. She rejects none and has room for all. She has the attraction of a wonderful personality and touches the heart of one and the brain of another, and draws thus man by his hatred of injustice, and his neighbour by his faith in the future, and a third, it may be, by his love of art or by his wild worship or a lost and buried past. And all of this is well. For to make men Socialists is nothing, but to make Socialism human is a great thing. [Wilde in Goodway 69]
Although Wilde did not entirely share ‘the model of manly communal aesthetics popularized by Morris and Carpenter during the 1880s’ (Livesey 604-5), he welcomed the publication of Chants. In Wilde’s utopian thinking, socialism, unlike capitalism, gave individuals much greater personal freedom and the chance to remove barriers to self-realisation by allowing them to focus on higher things. In February 1890, Wilde gave a further vent to these views, when he published in the liberal magazine, The Speaker, edited by his friend Wemyss Reid (1842-1905), an enthusiastic review of Herbert A. Giles’s 1889 translation from the Chinese of a compilation of wisdom teachings by the Taoist thinker Zhuangzi (369-298 BC — Chuang Tzu in Wilde’s transliteration). In his review of Chuang Tzu's Mystic, Moralist, and Social Reformer, titled ‘A Chinese Sage’, Wilde wrote:
(T)his curious thinker looked back with a sigh of regret to a certain Golden Age when there were no competitive examinations, no wearisome educational systems, no missionaries, no penny dinners for the people, no Established Churches, no Humanitarian Societies, no dull lectures about one's duty to one's neighbour, and no tedious sermons about any subject at all. In those ideal days, he tells us, people loved each other without being conscious of charity, or writing to the newspapers about it. They were upright, and yet they never published books upon Altruism. [...] In an evil moment the Philanthropist made his appearance, and brought with him the mischievous idea of Government. [Wilde in Goodway 71]
In the writings of Chuang Tzu, Wilde finds inspiration for his anarchist or rather libertarian views about the rejection of all forms of authority and government, mistrust of philanthropy, and the critique of the accumulation of wealth as the origin of evil.
‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’
In the early 1890s, Wilde, like many late Victorian intellectuals, became fascinated by socialism and published a somewhat forgotten essay today, ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’, which begins with a brilliant paradox:
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.
Socialism, according to Wilde, enables every individual to accomplish personal goals without sacrificing oneself to others, especially to the poor, who are the inevitable product of the capitalist system. Wilde wanted to bring about such a redevelopment of society that poverty would be impossible.
Under Socialism all this will, of course, be altered. There will be no people living in fetid dens and fetid rags, and bringing up unhealthy, hunger-pinched children in the midst of impossible and absolutely repulsive surroundings. The security of society will not depend, as it does now, on the state of the weather. If a frost comes we shall not have a hundred thousand men out of work, tramping about the streets in a state of disgusting misery, or whining to their neighbours for alms, or crowding round the doors of loathsome shelters to try and secure a hunch of bread and a night’s unclean lodging. Each member of the society will share in the general prosperity and happiness of the society, and if a frost comes no one will practically be anything the worse. Upon the other hand, Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism.
Wilde did not accept the stereotyped thesis that the poor are automatically more virtuous than the rich. ‘There is only one class in the community — he wrote — that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor’.
In the first part of ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’, Wilde discusses the crisis of late Victorian capitalist society and the advantages of creating libertarian socialism, while the other part deals exclusively with art and the position of the artist in society. The most striking and paradoxical feature of the essay, even for those who were willing to accept the democratic form of socialism propagated by the The Fabian Society, was Wilde’s support of the anarchist tradition. In his essay, Wilde undermines the Victorian concepts of philanthropy and charity. He ridicules Victorian attempts to alleviate the destiny of poor people by creating welfare through such dummy institutions as the People’s Palace and Toynbee Hall. According to Wilde, charity is unhealthy because it degrades and demoralises the poor. However, Wilde’s arguments against private property are unclear and contradictory: he believes that private property has led to the imbalance between the material and the spiritual spheres and at the same time that it distorts individualism. What is more, he argues that socialism can only be justified as far as it fosters the growth of the individual and increases his and her freedom. Interestingly, Wilde clearly sees the danger that socialism could become authoritarian or even totalitarian:
Socialism, Communism, or whatever one chooses to call it, by converting private property into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition, will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism, and insure the material well-being of each member of the community. It will, in fact, give Life its proper basis and its proper environment. But for the full development of Life to its highest mode of perfection, something more is needed. What is needed is Individualism. If the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are Governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first.
Wilde’s aesthetic vision of socialism excluded private property in society although many Victorian and later thinkers, such as Hayek, associated private ownership with individuality and personal freedom. Wilde rejects this position, claiming that private property is a source of exploitation that leads to social inequality. “Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false. It has debarred one part of the community from being individual by starving them. It has debarred the other part of the community from being individual by putting them on the wrong road, and encumbering them.” In many respects Wilde’s view of socialism is very close to the individualist anarchism advocated by Max Stirner (1806-1856), a forerunner of nihilism, existentialism and individualist anarchism, and Benjamin Tucker (1854-1939), a proponent of American individualist anarchism and editor and publisher of the individualist anarchist periodical Liberty (1881–1908).
Individualism, then, is what through Socialism we are to attain to. As a natural result the State must give up all idea of government. It must give it up because, as a wise man once said many centuries before Christ, there is such a thing as leaving mankind alone; there is no such thing as governing mankind. All modes of government are failures. Despotism is unjust to everybody, including the despot, who was probably made for better things. Oligarchies are unjust to the many, and ochlocracies are unjust to the few. High hopes were once formed of democracy; but democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people. It has been found out. I must say that it was high time, for all authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised. When it is violently, grossly, and cruelly used, it produces a good effect, by creating, or at any rate bringing out, the spirit of revolt and Individualism that is to kill it. When it is used with a certain amount of kindness, and accompanied by prizes and rewards, it is dreadfully demoralising. People, in that case, are less conscious of the horrible pressure that is being put on them, and so go through their lives in a sort of coarse comfort, like petted animals, without ever realising that they are probably thinking other people’s thoughts, living by other people’s standards, wearing practically what one may call other people’s second-hand clothes, and never being themselves for a single moment. ‘He who would be free,’ says a fine thinker, ‘must not conform.’ And authority, by bribing people to conform, produces a very gross kind of over-fed barbarism amongst us.
This vision of socialist society as a voluntary association of free people most probably derives from William Morris’s utopian novel, News From Nowhere (1890) and from the social views of the Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921). The originality of Morris as a visionary thinker lies in his understanding of the primacy of art in society. He claimed that art cannot be restricted to hanging pictures on the wall. In his vision of aesthetic socialism, art permeates every element of everyday life; in the aesthetic planning of cities, protection of the countryside, as well as proper maintenance of roads and channels. In the new socialist England, art is ubiquitous. In his novel, Morris takes a position on one of the most common charges against socialism, the alleged lack of motivation for working in an ideal communist society. Morris’s response is that every work in socialism should be creative and a permanent source of pleasure. In this respect, he differed from Wilde, for whom all physical work was a necessary evil, a source of exploitation and social injustice.
On the other hand, Wilde’s emphasis on aesthetic issues is consistent with Morris’s views. For Morris, art and socialism are inextricably linked. Morris condemned capitalism for deepening the differences between the poor and the rich, and also because capitalism diminished the role of art in human life. In Morris’s utopian socialism real beauty is born out of the pleasure of working. Wilde, who shared this view, wrote in his essay:
Now as the State is not to govern, it may be asked what the State is to do. The State is to be a voluntary association that will organise labour, and be the manufacturer and distributor of necessary commodities. The State is to make what is useful. The individual is to make what is beautiful. And as I have mentioned the word labour, I cannot help saying that a great deal of nonsense is being written and talked nowadays about the dignity of manual labour. There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities, and should be regarded as such. To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours, on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine.
Here Wilde most radically departs from Morris and Ruskin in their approach to machines. For those thinkers the machine was evil. Wilde argued that machines would replace people in exhausting jobs, and would give them the opportunity to develop their individual talents. He believed that technology would liberate man from mechanical physical work. He could have taken this idea from Ernest Renan, whose L'Avenir de la Science, written in 1848, was not published until 1890. In his essay, Wilde portrays a vision of socialist society where people are deprived of private property and are free from executing tedious and exhausting physical work because it will be performed by machines. Machines will provide useful things, while beautiful things will be created by individuals.
All unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery. Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing. At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man. There is no doubt at all that this is the future of machinery, and just as trees grow while the country gentleman is asleep, so while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure — which, and not labour, is the aim of man — or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work.
Unlike Morris or Ruskin, Wilde has no objections to factory production, which will be mainly done by machines. Unlike Morris, who did not portray in his novel News from Nowhere the vision of a modern socialist technology-based society, but an idyllic medieval rural utopia, Wilde assumes that socialism would create a society in which machines would perform all tedious and heavy physical work and people would be free enough to take care of their own creativity.
Wilde’s essay ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ is his best-known comment on socio-political issues, but the vision of the future socialist society presented there is rather vague and contradictory. It has little in common with the political ideology of late Victorian socialists and anarchists, but its strong attack on the idea of philanthropy and charity is in line with contemporary arguments about the political solutions to social problems. Perhaps Wilde’s decision to write an essay on socialism, as Lawrence Danson contends (93), was due to the success of The Fabian Essays published a year earlier, which proclaimed the need for a gradual creation of a socialist state through reforms but without revolutionary changes. The Fabians talked about increasingly centralised, mechanised and socialised production. William Clarke in The Fabian Essays presented a vision of the transition from ‘individual to collective’. Such a combination of centralisation and mechanisation, as described in The Fabian Essays, gave Wilde the basis to create his vision of socialism, in which physical work was to be automated. In addition, Wilde could have also borrowed some ideas from Grant Allen’s article ‘Individualism and Socialism’ published in May 1889 in the Contemporary Review, where the author, contrary to the Fabians, was in favour of individualism. Admittedly, for a short period of time, Wilde watched with interest the activity of the Fabian Society. He personally met George Bernard Shaw, one of the most important ideologues of this group of moderate socialists, who wanted to make evolutionary and not revolutionary changes in social structure. In 1888, he even participated in the meetings of the Society. However, he soon contended that it was too conservative.
Thus, according to Wilde’s vision, creativity and individualism are the prime goals of socialism. He defines individuality as the ability to pursue one’s artistic goals without succumbing to ‘the peremptory, unreasonable, degrading Tyranny of want’. Paradoxically, Wilde states that socialism would lead to individualism, and that the greatest individual for him was Jesus Christ, who advocated individualism and personality rather than attached importance to private property.
What Jesus meant, was this. He said to man, ‘You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your affection is inside of you. If only you could realise that, you would not want to be rich. Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot. In the treasury-house of your soul, there are infinitely precious things, that may not be taken from you. And so, try to so shape your life that external things will not harm you. And try also to get rid of personal property. It involves sordid preoccupation, endless industry, continual wrong. Personal property hinders Individualism at every step’.
Did Wilde treat Jesus as the first Socialist? Indeed, in the sermon on the Mount, Jesus according to St. Luke said: ‘Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God’. ‘For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God’ (King James Bible).
However, in his prophetic essay, Wilde did not so much express his belief in the value of socialism as in the freedom of the individual, especially that of the artist. Wilde calls for art not to imitate life directly, but to enrich it and stimulate new means of expression. As he wrote in ‘The Soul’, ‘Art is the most intense mode of Individualism that the world has known’. Wilde’s further reflections mainly concern the essence and scope of artistic creativity. ‘The true artist is a man who believes absolutely in himself, because he is absolutely himself’. We can therefore read ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ as a libertarian alternative to the proposals of the Fabian Society. For Wilde, socialism is a state in which barriers to self-fulfillment are systematically removed, releasing people from physical work so they can focus on higher goals. Wilde’s socialism meant organised mechanical production in such a way that human individuals did not have to perform heavy, tedious and non-creative jobs, but could enjoy an unlimited personal freedom based on his concept of anarchist-hedonistic New Individualism or New Hellenism.
‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ — the only political essay by Oscar Wilde — makes an interesting contribution to late Victorian discussions about the possible characteristics of a post-capitalist society. In his unusual, odd vision of socialism, Wilde argues that only a socialist system would guarantee freedom for creative development. After reading Wilde’s essay, however, the puzzled reader does not know whether the author actually deals with a theory of socialism or rather merely argues for his vision of New Hedonism, using the then-fashionable term ‘socialism’. Wilde’s essay seems to be a successful moral and artistic provocation aimed at philistine society by an artist wishing to promote Godwin’s extreme individualism and the aesthetic socialism of Ruskin and Morris, which can give him the right for an unlimited freedom in his private, public and artistic life.
In 1895, Wilde prepared a book edition of his essay under a slightly altered title, The Soul of Man. The new title, which, did not include the word ‘socialism’ expressed much better than the first one the real intentions of the author, who did not seem to be particularly interested in current political debates on socialism, and perhaps even less on political anarchism. Instead, he advocated ‘new Individualism’, ‘new Hellenism’, and ‘new Hedonism’, derived from the Platonic idea of beauty as a moral and aesthetic value, and the Epicurean notion of pleasure which emphasised subjective happiness.
References and Further Reading
Beer M. A History of British Socialism. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
Borland, Maureen. Wilde’s Devoted Friend: A Life of Robert Ross 1869-1918 Oxford: Lennard, 1990.
Brown Julia Prewitt. Cosmopolitan Criticism: Oscar Wilde’s Philosophy of Art. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1999.
Danson Lawrence. ‘Wilde as Critic and Theorist’, in Peter Raby, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Goodway, David. Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow: Left-Libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward. Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 2006.
Shaw George Bernard, ed. Fabian Essays in Socialism. London: The Fabian Society, 1889.
Sloan, John. Oscar Wilde. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Woodcock, George. Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Company, 1962.
Wilde Oscar. ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’. Project Gutenberg.
Last modified 16 November 2017