Oscar Wilde: Rediscovered Radical

Peter Drucker

Oscar Wilde
by Richard Ellman
London; Hamish Hamilton, 1987; New York, Vintage, 1988

The Soul of Man Under Socialism
by Oscar Wilde
Original edition 1891; many later editions.

OSCAR WILDE HAS been seen as an archetypal gay man by both gay people and their enemies. As an archetype, he has been seen almost exclusively as gay wit or gay martyr. He was both. But he was also a visionary radical.

His radicalism was somewhat hidden in his own time by the devices of fairy tales and riddles he resorted to. Like Bukharin and Lukács in Moscow in the 1930s, he used “Aesopian language to evade censorship. Richard Ellman’s thorough biography now allows us to see the radicalism under the camouflage.

Wilde’s radicalism was multidimensional: national, sexual, aesthetic, and economic. He never forgot that he was an outsider—not only as a homosexual but also as an Irishman. He wrote that Irish art would regain its ancient splendor only when Ireland regained its independence He supported Charles Stewart Parnell’s home rule movement, empathizing with Parnell in his disgrace when his affair with a married woman was exposed in 1889.

The challenge to Victorian morality is clear in Wilde’s plays. A Woman of No Importance attacks head-on the double standard that tolerated men’s extramarital sexuality but punished women’s.

The Importance of Being Earnest, superficially so lighthearted, has a wicked underside: It mocks the established morality represented by Lady Bracknell (who complains, “Few girls of the present day have any solid qualities, any of the qualities that last, and improve with time,” i.e. stocks and bonds); it celebrates Algernon Moncrieff’s unashamed pursuit of love and pleasure.

Wilde supported the early feminist movement as editor of The Woman’s World, and supported his wife Constance as an independent writer and activist. He eloquently defended love between men in his testimony against Queensbury: “It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it.” True, Wilde never felt able to explicitly defend sex between men. On the other hand, in a climate more repressive than we can imagine, he never stooped to condemning or disavowing any form of sexuality, as people in search of respectability do even today in the lesbian/gay movement.

Victorians who condemned homosexuality as unnatural also demanded “naturalism” in the arts. Wilde’s critique of naturalism helped open the way for modernism. As Ellman shows, Wilde’s mature estheticism of the 1890s was not amoral, but put forward “a ‘higher ethics’ in which artistic freedom and full expression of personality were possible.”

The colorfulness and distinctiveness of Wilde’s dress and behavior contributed to his image as an eccentric artist. But although the way of life that Wilde crafted for himself was out of working people’s reach, he saw it as ultimately available and important for working people. The underlying impulse at work, with Wilde as with his revolutionary socialist contemporary William Morris, was to replace the drab, constricting physical environment of Victorian England with one that would be both rational and beautiful. Like Nietzsche, Wilde warned against mass culture; unlike him, Wilde argued that not only elite but even the exploited could aspire to a freer culture.

The most neglected side of Wilde’s radicalism is his socialism, perhaps because it is so hard to classify. He apparently did not know about Marxism; he mixed his socialism with idiosyncratic Christian ideals; he flirted with the Fabian Society. George Woodcock has claimed him as an anarchist.

But The Soul of Man Under Socialism should be considered as Wilde’s legacy to the whole socialist movement. Especially those socialists who define socialism as economic planning instead of human liberation should be urged to read it.

Wilde could be watching the collapse of East European dictatorships when he says, “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.”

For him socialism is something different He equates it with “lndividualism”–with the understanding that human beings are “naturally social.” His vision resembles the “real community-foreseen by Marx and Engels, in which “individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.”

The real possibility of such a society, he explains, results from the development of technology under capitalism, but until capitalism is abolished, technology throws people out of work instead of freeing them from drudgery.

Wilde is dear as well as sarcastic about the need for working class rebellion: ‘The best among the poor…are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient and rebellious… Disobedience, in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man’s original virtue.” With the overthrow of capitalism, he foresees the abolition of marriage and the replacement of the coercive state “with a voluntary association that will organize labor.”

For Wilde, socialism’s fundamental value is the freedom it creates for individual and collective development:

“It is a question whether we have ever seen the full expression of a personality, except on the imaginative plane of art … It will be a marvelous thing—the true personality of man—when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flower-like, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord…It will have nothing. And yet it will have everything and whatever one takes from it, it will still have, so rich will it be. It will not be always meddling with others, or asking them to be like itself. It will love them because they will be different. And yet, while it will not meddle with others, it will help all, as a beautiful thing helps us by being what it is.”

No wonder that an English court seized its opportunity in 1895 to sentence Wilde to two years at hard labor. Ostensibly the trial had nothing to do with politics or esthetics. When Wilde’s lover’s father Queensbury insulted Wilde publicly as a “posing Somdomite [sic]” Wilde sued for libel, lost, and was then tried and convicted of “indecency and sodomy.” Besides the fact that criminalizing sex between men is anti-gay by definition, a determination to destroy Wilde and everything he stood for was manifest in the press coverage and above all in the judge’s harsh sentence. In the conditions of imprisonment that Ellman describes, it constituted a deliberate death sentence.

All the more reason for revolutionaries to reclaim Wilde now. In Ellman’s concluding words, ‘Now, beyond the reach of scandal, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, and so right.”

September-October 1991, ATC 34