Oscar Wilde, a Socialist?

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Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its
immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit,
and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.”

Oscar Wilde

 

A dull belief in progress and an aestheticized withdrawal from the world were two sides of the same
ideological coin, minted by the capitalist transformation of the 19th century at a time when the
individual, barely invented, seemed already to be giving ground again. When in 1881 the young
English dandy Oscar Wilde crossed over to America for a reading and lecture tour, Americans had
taken up position behind their pragmatism and the “Cincinnati Commercial” sneered: “If Mr. Wilde
should leave his lilies and narcissusses behind and come here out west to Cincinnati we’ll show him
how to deprive 30 hogs of their intestines in one minute.” To be sure, this brutal statement encapsulated
in miniature the reciprocal relationship between entrepreneurship and decadence, but it misses its
target: Oscar Wilde!

To the contrary Wilde’s essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, (published eight years later) would
have revealed the velvet-clad popinjay to be a sober proponent of technological progress, a progress
absolutely necessary for socialism to lead to individualism, as machines would then be doing the dirty
work. He writes, “Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the
slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends”. Eventually aestheticism, claiming Wilde as its
ancestor, arrived at Fascism in the form of Marinetti’s futurism, where the individual, in the cult of the
machine, celebrates its own liquidation. But Wilde’s relationship to mechanization is an instrumental
one and resembles that of Majakowsky, who said: “The machine era doesn’t require hymns praising the
machine but demands that the machine is mastered in the interest of the era.”

Whereas for Décadence the cult of the individual means the escape from social and political reality
(supplying future fascism with ideas on how to transform that reality), Wilde makes the transformation
of this reality an initial and indispensable requirement for individualism. In other words, no true
individualism without socialism!

Each successive generation was to have its own distinctive agenda on how to disappear the homo
politicus, the enlightenment proponent, certainly the socialist, behind the decadent “flower poet”. It is
no wonder then that Wilde’s essay, described by Karl Kraus in a 1904 issue of “Die Fackel” as “The
deepest, most noble and most beautiful creation of this genius murdered by philistinism”, and termed
by him as the “true gospel of modern thought”, is at the same time his most ignored. Wilde’s
contemporaries dismissed this radical manifest as the decadent lark of a charming contrarian, who for
the winter season of ’91, was trying out the somewhat untimely pose of social anarchist. The
aestheticizing reception of the Fin de siecle, in its eagerness to reduce Wilde to a spiritual forebear of
its own escapism, couldn’t help but block out the socialist in him. And a “left” interpretation only
compounded this injustice by not being able to see him and his essay other than through exactly the
same filter as those aestheticists did.

The fact that Wilde, whose dialectically honed scorn castigated the deficiencies of the society he lived
in as well as all forms of superficial display of morality by the lash of his tongue and the point of his
pen, displayed in his private life and social intercourse extraordinary sensitivity and generosity, can
only bewilder those who can’t conceive of a contradictoriness between humaneness and moralism. His
Irish compatriot George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), a confessed socialist and crushing bore, was quite
surprised when only Wilde of all English intellectuals was willing to sign his petition for the reprieve of
the Haymarket anarchists. All the other “heroic rebels and skeptics on paper” did not find the courage
to declare themselves publicly. Shaw stated: “It was a completely disinterested act on his [Wilde’s] part
and it secured my distinguished consideration for him for the rest of his life.” The author of these
words, a man for whom Wilde had shown somewhat less respect when he diagnosed “He has no
enemies but is intensely disliked by his friends”, was a prominent member of the Fabian Society, one of
the three most important organizations of a socialist movement which had started to form when social
divisions intensified in the 1880’s and which had started to channel Marx.

The British economy was at that time experiencing a drastic contraction. Competition from continental
industry and in particular the importation of cheap agricultural products from the US (improvements in
deep-sea navigation and refrigeration technology had flooded the British Market with cheap wheat and
meat) put downward pressure on prices while protective tariffs hampered the export of British
products. From 1851 till 1881, employment in agriculture contracted by half; the proletarianization of
the masses reached a new dimension in the final transformation from an agricultural country to an
industrial one and culminated in violent class struggles whose theoretical superstructure matured only
gradually from civilization-critical reverie to full fledged anti-capitalist theorizing.

Already by 1872 the liberal thinker John Stuart Mill had prophesied: “The social problem of the future
we considered to be, how to unite the greatest individual liberty of action, with a common ownership in
the raw materials of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labor.”
What an insult then that even nowadays lip service is paid at IMF banquets and in the communiques of
the more trivial anti-globalist literature to the novelty of such insights!

Oscar Wilde’s powers of intellect shine foremost in his aphorisms. He is reflexion’s short-distance
runner. In the longer stylistic form of the essay, which requires compositional constancy, he quickly
tires and loses himself in intellectual arbitrariness. The most powerful passages in his socialism-essay
are those which engage in criticism of the existing, whereas he exhausts the reader whenever he
indulges in gushing utopianism. The Soul of Man Under Socialism charts a fantastically zig-zagging
course, lifting off in a brilliant criticism of morality only to sag abruptly as an individualist-anarchist
reading of Christ’s legacy. And just as one is about to put aside this treatise (translated into German by
Gustav Landauer and Hedwig Lachmann), Wilde rears up again in an ingenious polemic against art
journalism (which must have been of particular delight to Karl Kraus) and belatedly, he bestows upon
us a few mosaic tiles of an aesthetic theory. To reconstruct the logic behind these thematic leaps is quite
challenging. And in between we have the incessant and wearisome apologia of the artist-individual
who, liberated from his dependence on work and the goodwill of the public, counts his riches not in
property but in his existence as such. That richness of the human essence — to quote an elder
contemporary of Wilde — by which “a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form – in short, senses capable
of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man)…[are].. either
cultivated or brought into being”. He who wrote this in his early years did not hide behind bouquets of
lilies and bunches of narcissi from an ignorant world but was dodging his creditors in his Manchester
mansard in obscurity: a certain Karl Marx.

What then is the nature of Wilde’s individualism and is it even graspable through the templates of a
leftist criticism of decadence? Is it concealing nothing less than the libertarian Victorian version of the
selfish market player? Is there a hidden affinity behind the rejection of all authority and the demand for
the dismantling of tariff walls? He was accused of giving a damn about economic analysis and socialist
perspective and was just putting an anarcho-socialist varnish onto his “l’art pour l’art”. Besides, he was
merely puffing up the artist’s minority position into a general principle of society. However many
weaknesses Oscar Wilde might have shown, some of his radical insights can still, especially today, be a
thorn in the side of a left which at best– if it addresses property relations at all — begs for a slowing
down of the dismantling of the welfare state. It would have been pertinent to receive those radical
insights during his lifetime when the corrosive ferment of moralism was already starting to seep into
burgeoning English socialism and the bourgeois leftist intelligentia were more and more in thrall of a
sentimental social utopianism. The aestheticist libertarian socialist and primordial eco-socialist,
William Morris (1834-1896), an important spiritual instigator for Wilde, demanded, for example, in his
rejection of industrial society a reorganization along the lines of craftsmen communes. Being the
adamant advocate of modernity that he was, such petty-bourgeois desires of regression, together with
its romanticizing of prior forms of societal organization, of the authentic and of the naturally beautiful,
seemed nothing if not silly to Oscar Wilde. Mockery of nature idolatry runs through his entire oevre; he
doesn’t allow nature to be seen as anything other than an imitation of art. He carries this amusing
paradox to extremes in his philosophical dialog The Decay of Lying, when he contends that the famous
London fog was really an invention of the impressionists. “Where the cultured catch an effect, the
uncultured catch cold.”

Even though Wilde shouldn’t escape blame for generalizing from the position of the artist, when, under
the influence of William Morris and the critic and art theoretician John Ruskin (1819-1900), he
proclaims the oneness of individual self realization and artistic creativity for no less than everybody;
even so is it rather presumptuous to require an artist and aesthete to write about something other than
the conditions of production familiar to him. Countless newspaper columns failed solely because their
authors mistook themselves for economists, political scientists, or philosophers. Wilde is writing from
the position of the artist depraved by the necessity to sell on an exploitative market. And his seemingly
unadulterated anarchist rejection of all authority refers less to political organization than to a derivation
of his subjective dealings with state censorship and the subtle repression by the art and culture market,
a selective pressure asserted by popular taste but directed by the former two institutions.

“There are three kinds of despots. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the body. There is the despot
who tyrannizes over the soul. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the soul and body alike. The first
is called the Prince. The second is called the Pope. The third is called the People.” – Oscar Wilde.
For Wilde, socialism, which, after all, necessitates the dying-off of the state, holds the promise of an
autonomy of art, an understanding that reveals Wilde as the vanguard of future avant gardes: “When
the public says a work is grossly unintelligible, it means that the artist has said a beautiful thing that is
new; when the public describes a work as grossly immoral, it means that the artist has said or made a
beautiful thing that is true. The former expression has reference to style; the latter to subject-matter. But
it probably uses the words very vaguely, as an ordinary mob will use ready-made paving-stones.”
Art shall not be beholden to ethics, not even a socialist one. The man who signed petitions for
anarchists and who had decried the barbarism of the penal regime of liberal England long before his
own incarceration (“If England treats her criminals the way she has treated me, she doesn’t deserve to
have any.”) speaks implicitly against a Littérature engagée which Sartre demanded and Adorno
repudiated, ie, against an art which papers over the requirements of the subject with a pathos of
sentiment: “It is always with the best intentions that the worst work is done.” To do away with such art
once and for all, Wilde doesn’t demand repressive measures but advocates for societal conditions which
render the pathos of resistance superfluous and which unburden the art laborer from being engaged in
societal causes.

And again it was Adorno, and even more so Horkheimer and Marcuse, who in the 1930s, when a pettybourgeois left deeply despised it, saw to a vindication of hedonism (and therefore of Wilde). To them,
hedonism seemed to be the last refuge of individual autonomy in an entirely administrated world which
demanded from the individual self-abandonment and submission to a voelkisch common good. And a
century before Horkheimer and Adorno ventured to connect Nietzsche and Marx, Wilde had already,
most likely without reading either one, preempted a rightist appropriation of resentment theory with his
demand for social revolution.

Modern day progressives, merely culturally and by sentiment left-leaning, are advised to take as
materialistic booster injection the first ten pages of The Soul of Man Under Socialism to heart. Why
would Oscar Wilde go the extra mile from the study of his luxurious house at No 16 Tite Street to insist
on the necessity of socialism? Was he weary of matching his literary esprit and fashion sense in an all
too limited pool of upper-class scions while so many potential intellectual sparring partners “do work
that is quite uncongenial to them, and to which they are forced by the peremptory, unreasonable,
degrading Tyranny of want and are compelled to do the work of beasts of burden.”
This could be read as a typical Wildean rhetorical device. But in his socialism essay, Wilde forgoes his
usual elegant witticisms and opens with the following shrewd line “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.“

And a few sentences further on: “The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and
exaggerated altruism [..].They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by
hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man
are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; [….] it is much more easy to have sympathy with
suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected
intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils
that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies
are part of the disease.”

In another passage, Wilde exposes pity as the lowest form of sympathy for it is always shot through
with “a certain element of terror for our own safety. Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a
friend, but it requires a very fine nature — it requires, in fact, the nature of a true Individualist — to
sympathise with a friend’s success.”

Whereas Nietzsche had laid bare the less than noble driving forces behind pity, Wilde goes one step
further and illuminates its ideological function in enshrining property relations. The goal were not the
Sisyphean labor of poverty relief, which really only provides sustainable relief to the existential crises
of the reliefers, but rather “The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty
will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as
the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the
system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so,
in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do
most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know
the life—educated men who live in the East End — coming forward and imploring the community to
restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such
charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right. Charity creates a multitude of sins.”

On the other hand, he didn’t deem wealth by itself morally corrupting. Quite the contrary, it was merely
an obstacle to individual evolvement because the responsibilities of capital — a thoroughly Marxist way
of thinking — were resting heavily on the shoulders of its owners and keeping them from enjoying its
fruits. In the interest of the rich alone, says Wilde, then private property is to be gotten rid of. It is the
rich and the poor alike who constantly have to think about money and whose degradation can have no
other effect than making them degraded creatures, amongst whom “there is no grace of manner, or
charm of speech, or civilisation, or culture, or refinement in pleasures, or joy of life.” The estranged
worker, according to Marx, “feels himself freely active in his animal functions only.” And how could it
be otherwise? Marx elaborates: “Certainly eating, drinking, procreating, etc., are also genuinely human
functions. But taken abstractly, separated from the sphere of all other human activity and turned into
sole and ultimate ends, they are animal functions.” Consequently, those who feel the need to morally
ennoble the demeaned objects of their socio-pedagogical libido tend to disallow for the demeaning
conditions which degraded them in the first place. The only virtue of the indigent which Wilde allows,
he also identifies as the principle of social progress: their disobedience: “[…] but the best amongst the
poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite
right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a
sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to
tyrannise over their private lives. […….] As for being discontented, a man who would not be
discontented with such surroundings and such a low mode of life would be a perfect brute.
Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through
disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

 

This essay was written in 1999, published one year later in konkret magazine in Germany and translated into English by my indefatigable and invaluable friend Joe Weinkirn.

 

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