Happy 158th! Revisiting the Socialism of Oscar Wilde
In Oscar Wilde's witty world, nothing is ever what it seems. Dorian does not age, but his portrait does. Algernon "bunburys" while his friend Jack pretends he is Earnest. A woman of no importance can prove to be very important indeed. And sometimes, as Lady Windermere realizes, the good may have elements of the terrible and vice-versa. It is fitting then that Wilde himself, as his acquaintance George Bernard Shaw discovered, was hardly the typical Oxford-educated, wealthy Anglo-Irish Protestant “Dublin snob.”
On the occasion of Wilde’s 158th birthday on October 16, let's take a look at a work that critics and historians have stashed away as carefully as Dorian Gray did his fatal portrait. Here, it’s the “S” word: not “sodomy” (for which Wilde was imprisoned for two years) but rather “socialism.”
At first glance, the very title of his essay, The Soul of Man under Socialism, leads us to expect a critique of socialism--particularly as Randians and proponents of free-market capitalism have argued ad nauseam that socialism represses one’s soul. Our assumptions are nonetheless shattered by Wilde’s ready commiseration with the poor — just like in his “Happy Prince” and other children’s tales. With socialism, “hunger-pinched children” and “hundred thousand men out of work” — especially those compelled to “do the work of beasts of burden”--would no longer crowd the doors of “loathsome shelters.”
As it was, Wilde had little patience with the “compassionate conservatives” of his day, for much like Engels and Marx, he considered charity a "ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution" — a statement that rings even truer today, considering that only a fraction of charitable donations ever make it to the intended recipients. Recommending “thrift to the poor” was “both grotesque and insulting.” Should the “best amongst the poor” be grateful for meager scraps? Hell, no. Better yet to be “ungrateful, unthrifty, discontented, and rebellious,” for such a man has more of a “real personality" than the seemingly “virtuous poor” who prove themselves "extraordinarily stupid" by making "terms with the enemy" and selling "their birthright for very bad pottage." No doubt Wilde would also find those 99%ers voting for the interests of the 1% “extraordinarily stupid” too.
Not surprisingly, then — in contrast to his blustering, wealth-obsessed Lady Bracknell — Wilde applauded the French Revolution, quipping that the real tragedy was not that "Marie Antoinette was killed for being a queen," but rather that "the starved peasant of the Vendee voluntarily went out to die for the hideous cause of feudalism." Indeed, the necessity of protest could not be overestimated — even if "to the great employers of labourers" agitators were "a set of interfering, meddling people" who "sow the seeds of discontent." Agitators are "so absolutely necessary" because "Without them....there would be no advance towards civilization." Perhaps that’s why Wilde heartily backed the Haymarket Affair anarchists of 1886.
More unique still is Wilde's claim that socialism will inevitably foster individualism. If anything, the uber-capitalist Victorian society “obsessed with property, power, and rank” was a true individuality killer, making “gain not growth its aim." Too few glean that "The true perfection of man lies, not in what man has, but in what man is" — a conclusion that is shared today by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, both of whom have decried in their bestseller, The Narcissism Epidemic, our own collective Dorian Gray-like preoccupation with the accumulation of goods and thrills rather than personal growth.
And really, as Wilde mused, what is the use of a man “killing himself by overwork in order to secure property," especially if a speculation were to go bust or a ship to sink — just like in the crisis of 2008 and the BP oil spill? Too bad some of our “overdressed” and “overeducated” 1%ers who committed suicide after their losses never got this message. In fact, after reminding his readers that “Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man” whereas “real riches cannot,” Wilde shoots ahead with those priceless, oft-quoted words: "To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all."
In Wilde's unique anarchist, non-authoritarian version of socialism, the State would somehow magically perform all the necessary labor, thereby allowing “Humanity” to spend its time "amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure" — making "beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight." The poor would no longer suffer hunger — just as the rich would no longer suffer the burdens and responsibilities demanded of wealth and property — or, indeed, to resort to furtive “bunburying.”
Power for power’s sake would be eradicated, for “all authority is quite degrading” as it “degrades those who exercise it and degrades those over whom it is exercised.” Crime would disappear as deprivation, anger, and social unrest borne of frustration would eventually cease. (London riots of 2011, anyone?) Not least, punishment itself would be abolished because “a community is infinitely more brutalized by the habitual employment of punishment, than it is by the occurrence of crime”: ideas that would be expressed more movingly in his poem, Ballad of Reading Gaol, and his Daily Chronicle articles on prison reform after his incarceration for “gross indecency” in 1895.
Perhaps more significantly still, artists would not feel compelled to please powerful patrons or the public since "the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist.” Here, one needs only to think of the endless churning of vapid Hollywood blockbusters and rewrites of "Pride and Prejudice." The new world would be one where everyone was free to “live as one wishes to live.”
At the end of the day, “selfishness,” Wilde reminds us, “is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live”; better to let “other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them.” Just like his selfish giant whose garden flourishes when he finally opens up his castle garden to the neighboring children, we need to learn that “when man is happy, he is in harmony with himself and his environment.”
All chimerical, right? But Wilde had already anticipated this reaction, observing, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia....leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.” Progress is truly “the realization of Utopias.” After all, this is how prisons have become less brutal. How the “New Woman” of Wilde’s day have come to occupy public office. And how “the love that dares not speak its name” not only speaks loudly and proudly today, but marries and adopts too. That is why the struggle for the rights and subsistence of the 99% are important, and why they must continue—in earnest.
Frances A. Chiu earned her doctorate at Oxford University and is an assistant professor at The New School.