Peter A. Muckley
C/Hernani, 36, 2A
"With them, in some things": Oscar Wilde and the Varieties of Socialism.
These Christs that die upon the barricades,
God knows it, I am with them in some things.
-Sonnet to Liberty.
At a glance, it appears outrageous to assume any serious link between the bon viveur, wit and aesthete Wilde and that amorphous mass of subversive sentiment, arising in the nineteenth century, known as socialism. That the original of Bunthorne or the "court jester of the English aristocracy" (Ellmann 293) should bear any relation to the violence of a Ravachol --the "horrid Political Economy" of the "horrid, horrid German" Marx, or even the bluff, Evangelical Utilitarianism of a Keir Hardy-- would seem, at the least, to have to be argued. Even should a tenuous link be conceded, on the basis of Wilde's having written The Soul of Man Under Socialism, yet it could still be plausibly maintained that such a work was but a jeu d'esprit, simply another witty paradox from the pen of one for whom paradox attained the status of a commonplace.
This, for instance, would be the view of Mark Nicholls, whose Importance of Being Oscar sees nothing more in the socialism of Vera: or the Nihilists than "a non-sequitur" which Wilde "had derided" (153). Anyone, then, wishing to claim Wilde for the cause, as it were, is certainly forced to make his case and make it not merely by citing works but by appeal to those anathemas of modernist criticism, sincerity and intention. In short, he must produce evidence from the texts and prove beyond reasonable doubt that Wilde's advocacy of socialism was both truly intended and sincerely held. From a detailed study of The Soul of Man Under Socialism together with reference to the entire corpus of Wilde's works, from Vera: or the Nihilists (1880) to "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (1898), and some excursions into biography, such a brief can, as we shall see, be convincingly made.
Perhaps the most obvious thing about Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was that, long before he was a cause célèbre or even an Oxonian, he was an Irishman. Although both his parents were Protestants, and hence by implication "conservative" --the Protestant Ascendancy has traditionally been so from Swift via Burke to Yeats-- yet to be Irish is to be political, and Wilde's mother, as "Speranza", had written nationalist poetry which helped inspire the revolutionary outbursts, during the great famine of 1848. In this context, it should not be forgotten that nationalist and socialist revolutions, at least until the Paris Commune of 1871, were not clearly distinguishable (Edwards 16). From his mother, and his Irishness, then, it is nothing extravagant to claim that Wilde would inherit both an interest in politics and an attachment to the underdog. Ironically, his Irishness would be acted out when he faced Carson, the fundamentalist Protestant monster at his trial, in part because of his sympathy for the rent-boys he had frequented in the dingy dives of London.
Again, it is known that Wilde's mother liked to trace her maiden name, Elgee, back to the Italian Alighieri of Dante. Given Wilde's own flair for the romance of names, as evidenced by his plays, and his near worship of his mother --"how deeply I loved and honoured her"-- it is not difficult to see foreshadowed here his own "romantic", poetic flirtation with revolutionary politics.
Whether flirtation presupposes affectation must, for the moment, remain an open issue. It is sufficient to have established for Wilde a birthright of radical political commitment and the poetic medium as its mode of expression. Significantly enough, Wilde's first and last published literary productions took a poetic form. "Ravenna," his Newdigate Prize winning poem of 1878, is relevant to the revolutionary case in that it concentrated, in section four, on Byron and Liberty. Byron, as the very type of personality "wasted in friction," was to figure largely in Wilde's plea for the implementation of socialism in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, written some thirteen years after "Ravenna." This shows the tenacity with which personalities as archetypes kept a grip on Wilde's mind. This point will require further expansion when we come to deal with Kropotkin and Christ. Here, it is important to note the equation of Byron with Liberty and their embodiment in poetry which, at a stroke, reveals both Wilde's debt to his mother and the life-long continuity of his themes and motifs. "Ravenna" has a further bearing on Wilde and socialism in that he shared the Newdigate accolade with both Arnold and Ruskin, previous winners, whose aesthetics, transformed, were to be the very keystone of the later Wilde's Utopian Socialism.
In Poems (1881), the "Sonnet to Liberty" appeared. The closing lines ran, "These Christs that die upon the barricades/God knows it I am with them, in some things" (ppp). Christ is seen as a revolutionary sacrificing himself for those on the side-lines, like Wilde, who "remain unmoved." The poet makes it clear that he feels a romantic, passionate affinity to revolution --"thy great Anarchies, / Mirror my wildest passions"-- and not any intellectual commitment to revolutionaries; "whose dull eyes / See nothing save their own unlovely woe." A similar situation obtains in The Soul of Man Under Socialism where aesthetics will take the place of passion and the argument will turn on relieving "us from that sordid necessity of living for others" (ppp). Again, however, we note Wilde's recourses to archetype; the Christ-figure. In De Profundis, he will allude to Kropotkin as "a man with a soul of that beautiful white Christ which seems coming out of Russia." Dull eyes here have metamorphosed into soul. Thus, Wilde finally yokes together Christ and the revolutionary some sixteen years after the identification had first taken hold of his imagination.
Whether Wilde thought on Christ, he tended to think also of the revolutionary and, in a curious trinity, when mentioning the revolutionary, he would conjure up the figure of the criminal. Richard Ellmann has remarked how Wilde began to see himself as a criminal after his homosexual affair with Robert Ross in 1886. In "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," humanity at large is seen as culpable and is only saved by the sacrifice of one who bravely accepts the consequences of his guilt and atones for the rest with his death.10 In this poem, as in the "Sonnet to Liberty," the poet is an onlooker but it is not hard to imagine that ultimately the Christ-revolutionary-criminal symbiosis is at the heart of Wilde's own self-image. Some such personal mythos would certainly account for Wilde's not fleeing England whilst he had the opportunity. It would also explain his, somewhat grotesque, assertion to have "stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of" his age for, viewed in this light, he could be the John the Baptist for Gide and Genet. All this, however, is over-speculative. What primarily concerns us is that Wilde, at some deep level of his imagination, considered himself criminal and scapegoat, both of which figures invariably, for him, converge in the revolutionary. Vera, the nihilist, sacrifices herself for her lover and dies crying "I have saved Russia!": "Christs... die upon the barricades"; Kropotkin is "that beautiful white Christ" and the murderer dies for the communal sins of the prison inmates. From such a perspective, Wilde's commitment to revolution seems not so much a question of sincerity as a mythical complex.
Even granting all the above, it might still be objected that mythic constructs, except perhaps in the case of Shelley, have little to do with a political movement. To such an objection, the reply must be somewhat circuitously made. In effect, it must involve a detailed consideration of what was meant by socialism from the 1880's to Wilde's advocacy of a socialist society in 1891. Only in this way will we be able to understand what Wilde and his contemporaries would take the term to encompass.
The word itself was first used in England by Robert Owen, in a discussion with the Reverend J.H. Roebuck, at Manchester, in 1837. It then fled to France where its usage was finally established by Reybaud in his Socialistes Modernes (1840). Both the word and the idea were to remain on the Continent for many years, more especially after the ignominious collapse of the Chartist Movement in 1848. In a very real, even corporeal, sense, when socialism made a recrudescence in England, in the 1880's, it did so imbued with a very continental spirit.
In 1881, Johann Most, a German anarchist, was involved in a sensational trial, in London, over articles published in his newspaper, Freiheit, which praised the assassination of Czar Alexander II of Russia. In the same year, H.M. Hyndman founded the Democratic Federation, later the Social Democratic Federation, under the influence of the German Karl Marx. On Bastille Day, 1881, the Anarchist International was established by, among others, the Russian Anarchist, Prince Peter Kropotkin. The next decade saw the most creative period of British socialism in transition. It was not until Keir Hardy was elected to the House of Commons in 1892 and was voted chairman of the newly formed Independent Labour Party in 1893 that socialism in England was to become a gradualist, domestic phenomenon. In the interim, it was eclectic and ebullient, in some ways analoguous to the literature of the period which drew sustenance from Flaubert, Verlaine, Zola and Ibsen.
1881-1891 witnessed the publication of socialist "classics" in pamphlets such as the Fabian "The New Life" (1883), Shaw's "What's in a Name?" (1885) and "The Impossibilities of Anarchism" (1891). These three reveal the tendency of British socialism in miniature. The first embraces diversity and calls idealistically, but not in sectarian fashion, for "the cultivation of a perfect character in each and all"; the second admits the legitimacy of nihilists and anarchists to be included in the fraternity but wishes they would change their names; the last denounces the anarchists as Utopian dreamers, the stigma they carry to this day in the eyes of socialists and communists alike. The decade also produced the "great books" of socialist theory and socialist visions: Shaw's An Unsocial Socialist (1883); Stepniak's Russia under the Tsars (1885) and The Russian Storm-cloud (1886); the English edition of Marx's Das Kapital (1887); Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889), edited by Shaw; Morris' News from Nowhere (1890); and Kropotkin's Mutual Aid (1890). The same peiod gave rise to the first socialist newspapers. Apart from Most's Freiheit, these included: Justice, begun in 1884, Morris' Commonweal (1885), Kropotkin's Freedom (1886), the Fabian Basis (1887), and Blachford's Clarion (1891). The inpression conveyed by this astounding efflorescence is one of luxuriant vitality and optimism. By 1893, however, lines had been drawn and boundaries had hardened. When Shaw, the gradualist socialist, Hyndman, the Marxist, and Morris, the aesthetic Libertarian, attempted a gesture of public solidarity in A Joint Manifesto (1893), it was truly, in Shaw's words, "not worth a farthing," so mutually exclusive had the three become.
Socialism in this unique period then must be construed in its widest, and most colourful, sense. It included the whole spectrum of left-wing radical aspirations from nihilism to authoritarian Marxism. To the "leisured classes," socialism was "the threat."15 Dismissing, or unaware of, fine distinctions, they tended to view every act from the dynamite conspiracies of 1883 and the explosion in the Commons in 1885 to the Trafalgar Square Demonstrations (1886) and the London Dock Strike of 1889 as the machinations of blood-thirsty anarchists. At least, for purposes of repression and denunciation, it suited them to do so. That this image of socialism predominated in the cultivated consciousness is adequately attested to by Henry James' ludicrous The Princess Casamassima (1886).
It is to Wilde's credit that, in The Soul of Man, he could accept the popular notion and use it to reinforce his justification of socialism. "Agitators," he says, for instance, "are a set of interfering, meddling people." Here, he voices the accusation of the "great employers" but goes on to prove "that is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary". This he does by citing the case of the Boston Abolitionists who "had nothing to do with the question really." In accepting his adversary's premise and arriving at a diametrically opposed conclusion, Wilde reveals a favourite tactic. In choosing the example of slavery, however, he achieves many things at once. He first of all, equates slavery with economic slavery. He speaks as a "great employer" and, of course, the Manchester Cotton Magnates had been pro-slavery in the 1860's. Further, he enlists the sympathies of the philanthropic and humanitarian among the higher orders. In effect, his argument reduces to "you are either pro-slavery or pro-socialism, and if the former you must be a great employer."
That Wilde could ably defend even a caricature of socialism does not necessarily indicate that his own version of it was either crude or eccentric. If we retrace the socialist renaissance, outlined above, and relate it to The Soul of Man, it will be seen that Wilde had thought carefully concerning the issues and had elected his own particular brand of socialism. For instance, he would have no quarrel with Pease's early Fabian "cultivation of a perfect character" programme. The essence of his own socialism is that "through it each man will attain to his perfection". He obviously has Hyndman and the Marxists in mind when he peremptorily avers "no Authoritarian Socialism will do." His vision of voluntary association is a direct descendant of Morris' News from Nowhere and Kropotkin's Mutual Aid. The belief that private property is personally degrading is characteristic of Kropotkin too. The emphasis on the aesthetic, while overwhelming in Wilde's essay, may be traced back to Morris, who lectured on Art and Socialism from 1883-1884, and Oscar's Oxford days with Ruskin. The reliance on machinery to relieve men of the necessity of performing menial tasks, while belonging to the Utopian tradition and ultimately deriving from Bacon's New Atlantis, has Renan's L'Avenir de la Science (1890) as its immediate forebear. Wilde's socialism is then principally an aesthetic theory underwritten by anarchist beliefs. As socialism, in this decade, his is not eccentric though it is synthetic, but, then again, so was his aesthetic credo and his hero, Des Esseintes.
We have shown how the question of Wilde's sincerity, in his espousal of socialism, collapsed into a deep-seated personal mythos. We must now substantiate the validity of the ideological genesis given here. The Soul of Man was first published in The Fortnightly Review in February 1891. In "The Supplement" to the April 1891 issue of Kropotkin's Freedom, a reviewer asked, "Is Oscar, too, among the Anarchists?" He went on to note "...the neat, incisive sentences are like so many skilful sword-thrusts. Most of them are dealt for the liberty of Art, but to Mr. Wilde, Art is inseparable from life."19 Contemporary anarchists, then, were the first to claim Wilde as one of their own. That he was at least "with them, in some things" has already been established with reference to Kropotkin and De Profundis. His most characteristically Kropotkin pronouncement finds expression in The Soul of Man concerning authority. "All authority," Wilde writes, "is quite degrading." This was not a sentiment Wilde assumed for its shock value, nor was it a perfectly phrased epigram that would merit repetition and yet it was indeed repeated and in a very sombre context, thus vouching for its authenticity. In a letter to the Daily Chronicle, on the fate of child prisoners, we find: "Authority is as destructive to those who exercise it as it is to those on whom it is exercised." This is of the essence of Kropotkin's call for voluntary association in Mutual Aid.22
That Wilde's aesthetic socialism derives from Ruskin and Morris, and is of an early origin, may be seen from what he learnt from Ruskin's road and bridge building experiments round Hinksey in 1874. Wilde was then a student at Oxford and worked on the projects. He was later to say, "I felt that if there was enough spirit among the young men to go out to such work as road-making for the sake of a noble ideal of life, I could from them create an artistic movement that might change... the face of England." At a glance, we find yoked together social concern, noble spirit and fine aesthetics; the trinity informing The Soul of Man Under Socialism. In that text itself, we find Morris present though not named. His is "the dyer's hand" producing "beautiful colour" and "the artist's brain" weaving "beautiful patterns" in the section on the decorative arts. In this context, it is pertinent to remark that the only direct reference to socialism in Wilde's letters is linked to the name of Morris and, further, in De Profundis, that Morris' "stained glass and tapestries" are seen as manifestations of the "soul of Christ." Morris, then, is not only the precursor of Wilde's aesthetic socialism but also figures in the socialist-Christ complex we established earlier.
Where Wilde most radically diverges from Kropotkin, Ruskin and Morris is in his attitude to machinery. To all these thinkers machinery was the Evil One. Wilde, on the contrary, considered machine technology essential in the task of liberating man from menial chores. He probably took this idea from Renan. L'Avenir de la Science was written in 1848 but not published until 1890. From The Soul of Man, we learn that Renan was the very type of the "fine critical spirit." In De Profundis, his Vie de Jesus is dubbed "that gracious fifth gospel" and his name constantly recurs throughout Wilde's letters. It is, then, most probable that Wilde owes to him the idea of machinery setting man free from sordid labour.
It is testimony to Wilde's realism that he did not shun the awkward truth that "cultivated leisure" implies slavery. By making machines slaves, he sought to face the issue squarely while overcoming it. In this, he was to foreshadow such socialist thinkers as H.G. Wells, while further exemplifying his own belief that socialism could be the "new Hellenism." Machines acting the part of Greek slaves and men becoming living art forms is a vision open to the charge of Utopianism. Wilde accepted the indictment but argued "progress is the realization of Utopias". Indeed, the telephones, trains and early cars of the '90's would probably have seemed Utopian to Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), just as the washing-machine, dish-washers and electric irons, which have set modern women free from the house, might seem Utopian to Wilde, in his turn. In his assertion that "Utopia is... the one country at which Humanity is always landing," then, he is being farsighted. He, unfortunately, like all the men of his century, including Marx, was unable to foresee that scientific progress did not necessarily entail social equity; that the proliferation of machines may make humanity nor more humane but more machine-like. He could not see that vast technological improvement might lead to increased centralization, government control and bureaucracy or globalization, capitalist control and the human wasteland.
Before finally leaving Wilde's affinity to various socialist mainstream ideas and his debt to previous radical thinkers, we might note one further possible source of inspiration and that a somewhat arcane one, the Chinese Taoist Anarchist, Chuang Tzu. Tzu's work, reviewed by Wilde in 1890 under the title Mystic, Moralist, and Social Reformer, openly rejects philanthropy, a favourite Wildean bugbear, dismisses governments and holds the ideal state of man to be "contemplative inaction." Masolino D'Amico mantains that in Tzu, "Wilde found a kindred spirit and probably the first suggestion towards the writing of his own social essay". Certainly, Tzu's "contemplative inaction" finds an echo in Wilde's own "cultivated leisure is the aim of man." Nor is such a borrowing alien to the whole spirit of socialism itself, at this time, which, as we have seen, was characterized by its diversity of influences. What is of note is that both "contemplative inaction" and "cultivated leisure" are strongly reminiscent of Pater's ideas on art; thus we are led to the problem of Wilde's aesthetics.
That Wilde was a socialist strikes many people as absurd. That he was an aesthete is hardly likely to be denied. Could a necessary bridge be constructed between the one and the other, this would, to a considerable extent, establish the case for Wilde the socialist. Ellmann has shown how Wilde's aesthetic had a, usually, unresolved tension at its core. There was the Ruskin-Morris strain which implicated art in the transactions of society and the more "ivory-tower" aspect, stemming from Pater, which led to the famous dictum "All art is quite useless". One way in which he attempted to reconcile the two was to say that "Life imitates Art." Thus, "silly boys" having read "the adventures of Jack Sheppard or Dick Turpin... alarm old gentlemen... by leaping out on them in suburban lanes." In a more sinister instance, Dorian Gray commits heinous, though unnamed, sins after being corrupted by a book. In Wilde's own life too, his aesthetic of criminality converted into his being judged a criminal. Art, then, despite disclaimers, was, for Wilde, an intensely social activity and its task was to allow chaotic life to assume form.
The current forms of life, for the majority of men, were then as now dictated by economic necessity and were depleted and degraded. Self-expression, the very quintessence of art for Wilde, was denied to working-men for conditions thwarted their developing any real Self worth expressing. Crime and rebellion were therefore viewed by Wilde as two of the few means of personality development and expression open to the poor; "Crime... under certain conditions, may be said to have created individualism"; "the best among the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so." It is existing circumstances which are responsibile for this. Wilde's espousal of socialism is, for him, a natural concomitant of this espousal of individualism. As Ellmann says, "he encourages society to make individualism more complete than it can be now, and for this reason he sponsors socialism". Viewed thus, socialism is an integral part of his aesthetic theory and not merely a flamboyant decoration to it. From this it follows that those who take Wilde seriously as an aesthete, and this must include even the somewhat flippant Nicolls, must also take him seriously as an advocate of socialism.
Wilde himself considered The Soul of Man as, in the main, an aesthetic treatise. This is testified to in a letter to Jules Cantel, the translator. Wilde writes, "L'Ame de l'Homme, qui contient une partie de mon esthetique". That it was also considered by contemporaries as a serious political work is revealed by the fact that, in Russia at least, it had gone through many editions by the time Ross visited that country in 1911. The Russian intelligentsia, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, saw art and politics as inextricably united and, in this instance, we must concur with their judgement. One is tempted to say that even the tone of the essay obliges us to do so. Tone, however, is perhaps too intangible a quality to base any conclusive argument on. A consideration of a work closely connected in time to The Soul of Man may offer us a surer basis.
The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in July 1890 and in book form in April 1891. It, therefore, both preceded and succeeded The Soul of Man Under Socialism. In it appeared the character Lord Henry Wotton who is something of a Jamesian "ficelle" or authorial spokesman. Wilde writes of the characters, "Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry what the world thinks of me; Dorian what I would like to be --in other ages, perhaps." That is, Basil is the Ruskin and Lord Henry the Pater side of Wilde. Lord Henry, then, is Wilde's public voice. Many of Lord Henry's observations re-emerge almost verbatim in The Soul of Man as Wilde's own opinions. It is well-known that Wilde often quoted himself once he had formulated a paradox which appealed to him, but it is the vital, though minor, variations between Lord Henry's dicta and Wilde's own that concern us here. Lord Henry, for instance, says, "I can sympathise with everything, except suffering." Wilde writes, "Sympathy with joy intensifies the sum of joy in the world, sympathy with pain does not really diminish the amount of pain." In spelling out the latent humaneness of the shocking paradox, Wilde is showing us the private man behind the public image. He also shows that Lord Henry is essentially himself in cynical guise. When Sir Thomas alludes to the problem of the East End, Lord Henry replies, "It is the problem of slavery." This, as we have seen, is Wilde's view in The Soul of Man. When asked what changes he would propose, Lord Henry answers, "I don't desire to change anything in England except the weather." Here, Wilde diverges radically; he will keep the weather and alter everything else. "Under Socialism," he maintains, "the security of society will not depend, as it does now, on the weather." The similarities and differences between Wilde and Lord Henry, here noted, are proof of Wilde's sincerity in The Soul of Man, for, after all is not Lord Henry's life the very exemplum of what Life as Art should be, unlike Dorian's which "succumbs increasingly to vulgar self-gratification" or Basil's which is at the mercy of nature? Because his life is a work of art, Lord Henry is the only character to escape unscathed in the novel.
Lord Henry, then, lives the life of art which Wilde proposes for everyman in his socialist tract. The opinions contained therein must therefore be seen as sincerely held and of a piece with the whole of Wilde's moral, aesthetic and ethical outlook on life. Socialism, for Wilde, is not merely a pose but a logical extension of his whole belief system to the problems of social existence.
We have already hinted at the type of socialism Wilde was interested in. It was anti-authoritarian and relied heavily on the application of science to essential but menial societal labours such as crossing-sweeping, an example Wilde uses perhaps thinking of Dickens' Jo. Wilde's critique of all forms of government from oligarchy to ochlocracy is masterful and well-nigh unanswerable. The role he gives to the State, "the State is to make what is useful; the individual is to make what is beautiful," is in total conformity with his artistic code. It also helps point up the main thrust of his thought; anti-utilitarianism. Wilde's "all art is quite useless" is similar to the splendid challenge to John Stuart Mill: "what use is a new-born baby?" It is this anti-utilitarian, albeit eudemonistic (generally equated with utilitarianism), basis of Wilde's thought which accounts for his hatred of philanthropy and democracy. It is also in this that his originality as a socialist thinker resides and which sets him off from Karl Marx or the so-called "scientific socialists." This originality may be summed up by saying that Wilde is solely, and quite rightly, concerned with the autonomous value of man. Socialism is not an end in itself, only the individual is both means and end. This perforce causes Wilde to endorse anarchism and communal association, as Kropotkin or Nestor Makhno did.
This affinity of Wilde's outlook with Russian Anarchism was to continue right up to his writing of De Profundis, as noted earlier. When suffering came to play a major part in his worldview, his kinship with Russian thinkers was to be strengthened. Already, in The Soul of Man, he had written, "A Nihilist who rejects all authority because he knows authority to be evil, and welcomes all pain, because through that he realizes his personality, is a real Christian". In Reading Gaol, Wilde was to move ever closer to this nihilistic stance himself. It is essential to recall, once again, that socialism, at this time, still embraced anarchism and nihilism. It is quite likely, though not definitely established, that Wilde met the celebrated Russian Nihilist, Stepniak, who was a friend of Shaw's. Certainly, Wilde's Vera, based on Vera Zasulich, a close friend of Stepniak's, and Wilde's American acquaintances were points of common interest between the two men. Then again, Wilde was the sole signatee of Shaw's petition to reprieve the Chicago Anarchists after the "Haymarket affair" in 1886. All these things go to prove that Oscar Wilde's socialism was a form of anarchism and that anarchism, at this time, was very much a part of the socialist movement.
We have so far argued that Wilde's socialism was sincere and have seen that it was related to: his inheritance as an Irishman --"the great Celtic school" as he dubbed himself and the Fabian Socialist Shaw; a deeply held mythic complex he evolved; and his well articulated aesthetic credo. We have identified his brand of socialism and positioned it within the context of contemporary, mainstream socialist thought. It now remains to trace the arguments and divisions of The Soul of Man Under Socialism to make clear how important a place to give to the socialism there presented, and to assess it in terms of Wilde's life as a whole.
The essay, of some 15,000 words in length, consists of seven major sections. Section one presents the basic arguments for socialism. Wilde states, "Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others" and so allow each individual to realize "the perfection" of what is in him. He holds, "the proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible... Each member of the society will share in the general prosperity and happiness of the society." This will be done by abolishing private property and relying on science to do the work. He goes on to say, "Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to individualism." He then makes an extremely interesting assertion: "by converting private property into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition [socialism] will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism." The idea of a restoration and the key-word "organism" give the whole text balance and a kind of inevitable circularity. They establish the classical Greek view of society and thus recur to the mind when, at the conclusion, Wilde asserts, "The New Individualism is the new Hellenism."
The next two sections are taken up with an attack on "Authoritarian Socialism" and a vision of the propertyless, machine-run society. All this takes up only twenty-seven short paragraphs of the fifty-six. The bulk of the work deals with art. We have already formed a bridge-link between Wilde's aesthetic theory and his socialist commitment. Here, it is as well to back off a little from our previous assertions. As the outline of Wilde's only essay remotely connected with socialism illustrates, even here, socialism is of secondary importance. Wilde is interested in art and, as he shows, great art can be, and has been, produced under many different forms of government. Socialism would be an ideal but is not a necessary condition for aesthetic perfection. Wilde advocates it out of his profound humanitarianism and, no doubt, some desire to épater le bourgeois. Socialism is only once mentioned in his letters. He was never actively engaged in any political movement nor even in political debate and so on.
A great deal, in other words, must be conceded to opponents of a "socialist Wilde." Nevertheless, Oscar Wilde did entitle his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism and he did argue from a once reputable socialist standpoint. There is, moreover, plenty of evidence in his plays to show his concern for social and political issues. This evidence usually takes a comic form as in Bunbury's being "the victim of a revolutionary outrage," education leading to "acts of violence in Grosvenor Square" or Jack's discovery reminding "one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution." Still, the very persistence of these social comments is testimony to their hold on Wilde's imagination. The fact that "acts of violence" did in fact break out in Grosvenor Square in 1968, while certain Universities were being reformed, should serve to remind us that Wilde was not only a playful social critic but an extremely perceptive one. Unfortunately, the socialism he considered "childish" came to pass and, in the country where his soul-mates dwelt, one did not, it is true, find "an inspector" calling "every morning at each house to see that each citizen rises up and does manual labour for eight hours but found things much worse: the hell of the Gulag Archipelago and a world of warlords and mafiosos.
1Bunthorn, the comic character in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience (1881), was often considered to be a caricature of Wilde. It was, initially, to publicise this play that Wilde visited the United States. See The Annotated Oscar Wilde. Ed. H. Montgomery Hyde. London: Orbis, 1982 (11).
All quotations from Wilde's works are taken from this edition unless otherwise stated.
2James Joyce on Oscar Wilde in Richard Ellmann, James Joyce. Oxford: The Oxford UP, 1967 (293).
3The Annotated Oscar Wilde, op. cit. (341).
4Ravachol was a French anarchist. The three men chosen here are to represent the different types of socialism which recur throughout the text. These are, respectively, Anarchism, Marxism and gradualist Socialism.
5Mark Nicholls, The Importance of Being Oscar. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980 (153).
6Such was Shaw's implied opinion. See Archibald Henderson, George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century. New York: Appleton, 1956. (302).
7 The Communards of Paris, 1871. Ed. S. Edwards. New York: Cornell UP, 1974 (16).
8 The Letters of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Henry Holt, 1962 (458).
9 The Annotated Oscar Wilde. Ed. Montgomery Hyde.
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