Did you know Oscar Wilde was an anarchist?

Date:
Happy Birthday to Oscar Wilde! Born this date - the 16th of October - in 1854 in Dublin, he studied at Trinity, then Oxford, moved to London, living mostly there, and died in penury in Paris 1900. He was a very successful playwright (as well as a journalist, poet, and lecturer), a London celebrity, and is most famous for his play 'The Importance of Being Earnest', novel 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', epigrams, and, sadly, his persecution for being gay which was his ruination.
 

Though eminently quotable, there was more to Wilde than his turn of phrase and artistic flair. Many know his remark that 'to live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all', but few know its proper context. It is quoted from an essay entitled 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism' in which Wilde espouses his politics - those of libertarian socialism. Commonly understood as an apolitical aesthete, Wilde's radical political views are quite a well kept secret - like George Bernard Shaw's socialism, and to a lesser extent George Orwell's socialism. In fact, he signed Shaw's petition for a pardon of the anarchists arrested, and later executed, after the Haymarket Affair in Chicago, 1886. Wilde was a huge admirer of the famous Russian anarchist communist Peter Kropotkin, describing him in De Profundis as 'a man with a soul of that beautiful white Christ which seems coming out of Russia'.

This influence is visible in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, a wide-ranging discussion of individualism, art, and their relation to society. Naturally, it is teeming with Wilde's characteristically delightful, and often playfully flippant, wit. It is home to such quotes as 'The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing', 'Charity creates a multitude of sins', 'Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue', and 'In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press'.

Central to Wilde's worldview is individualism. All things are judged according to how they advance or stifle it. 'Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known', and even more strongly 'Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its immense value. For what is seeks to disturb is a monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine'. To him, socialism is a means to the optimal development of individualism, while capitalism is oppressive and fosters a false individualism.

Wilde repeatedly denounces private property for how it stultifies individualism. He states that while it may present the opportunity for personal development among a fortunate few, it denies this to the many by the 'degrading Tyranny of want', and in fact often encumbers the wealthy by 'putting them on the wrong road' to the empty and wearisome chase of more property. This weighs far more heavily on the poor as 'there is only one class in the community 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'.

It's important to note what Wilde - and socialists generally - means by the phrase 'private property'. Wilde uses it in the text interchangeably with 'capitalism'. He doesn't mean what is often called 'personal property' (your house, car, clothes, computer, etc.) but means what some call 'absentee private property': unoccupied land, rent, interest, factories and offices owned but worked by other people, and so on. It is private property which allows a property developer to own a block of hundreds of apartments while houseless people wallow in the streets, which allows bosses to control a workplace regardless of how much work they do, which allows banks to rub two millions together and get another one, which creates privation in a world of plenty.

Wilde is keen to emphasise that a fundamental change in society is required, and not patchwork: 'It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the insitution of private property ... The proper aim is to try and resconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible'. He laments that swathes of good people spend their lives treating the symptoms of an ill-configured society, while the underlying ailment persists. Wilde chiefly targets private charity in this regard, but the criticism often equally applies to legal reforms.

Also if fundamental change is to be made, namely a transformation into a socialist society, that socialism must be libertarian, that is to say built from the bottom up, as much as possible decentralising power, and respecting the autonomy and consent of individuals. '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 wrote this around 25 years before the existence of the USSR). As Wilde notes, 'all association must be quite voluntary. It is only in voluntary associations that man is fine.' To him 'the State is to be a voluntary association that will organise labour, and be the manufacturer and distributor of necessary commodities'.

This critique of authority continues into his condemnation of prisons and our society's understanding of crime. He says 'a community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment, than it is by the occurence of crime' (this is in the spirit of Kropotkin's assertion that 'prisons are universities of crime, maintained by the state'). Wilde thinks that crime is another example of the underlying ailment persisting while merely the symptoms are treated (although, unlike with charity, treated very harshly): 'Starvation, and not sin, is the parent of modern crime ... But though a crime may not be against property, it may spring from the misery and rage and depression produced by our wrong system of property-holding'. Once this unjust system is replaced by a more humane system which meets people's needs, most crime, since it is a peculiar byproduct of the old system, will be eliminated. Furthermore, the residual crime will be treated with compassion as a kind of medical problem, rather than with cruel and repressive punishment: 'When there is no punishment at all, crime will either cease to exist, or if it occurs, will be treated by physicians as a very distressing form of dementia, to be cured by care and kindness'.

Wilde wrote this without knowing he'd one day wither inside a prison himself. He took a libel case against his lover's father, the Marquis of Queensbury, for publicly leaving a calling card terming Wilde a 'posing somdomite [sic]' (that's 'sodomite' mispelled). Queensbury hired a team of private investigators to dig up dirt on Wilde, tracking down male sex workers and coercing them into testimony by threatening them with the same charges. They characterised him as a pervert who descending upon young males and inducted them into homosexual depravity. The press went wild with the case, and there was much hysteria among the public, which in the stringency of 1890s Victorian London intense homophobia was very normal (various critics censured The Picture of Dorian Gray for its homosexual allusions). The 'posing sodomite' remark was upheld as both true and in the public interest (to protect young males, etc.). Wilde had to pay the Marquis' enormous legal costs and was made bankrupt.

As Queensbury's accusation was upheld, Wilde was charged - along with his lover - for 'sodomy' and 'gross indecency', convicted for the latter in a second trial, and sentenced to 2 years hard labour (a sinister irony in the light of his comment 'there is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading'. ... 'Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine'). The second trial finished with jeers of 'shame!' from the galleries. A conviction for 'sodomy' was punished by a life sentence, and before 1861 by execution. He was convicted for 'gross indecency' (basically any same-sex sexual act short of 'buggery'), under the same law by which Alan Turing was convicted and chemically castrated in 1952.

Returning to his politics, according to Wilde machinery is utilised perversely because of 'our property system and our system of competition'. Perversely in the sense that 'at present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man ... there is something tragic in the fact that as soon as man had invented a machine to do his work he began to starve'. He is rebuking the irrationality that the invention and implementation of more productive technologies could leave people – working class people that is – paradoxically worse off than before. How machines make workers jobless, and how instead of freeing up more leisure time we work as hard, or harder, than ever. In fact Wilde contended that 'cultivated leisure' is the aim of humanity, not a life of toil, and that this could be achieved by the proper organisation of society.

Cultivated leisure facilitates individualism, Wilde being very specific about the nature of the latter. 'Individualism will be unselfish and unaffected', by which he means one will respect the difference of others, and respect the difference in oneself by not trying to fit the norm. Wilde envisions a world where individuals sympathise more with the flourishing, the joy and freedom, of others than with their suffering (for one, because there will be less suffering). This is in contrast to the jealously and egotism which are nurtured by a society of authority and private property. 'The new Individualism, for whose service Socialism, whether it wills it or not, is working, will be perfect harmony', harmony in variety but not conformity. He illustrates these concepts through an idiosyncratic interpretation of Jesus as the arch-individualist, whose essential message is 'you have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself ... A man reaches his perfection, not through what he has, but what he is'.

It is because Wilde prizes the flourishing of the human spirit that he assesses society through the lense of an artist: 'People sometimes inquire what form of government is most suitable for an artist to live under. To this question there is only one answer. The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all'.

If this idea of fundamental social change, for the ultimate sake of personal flourishing, sounds utopian, Wilde has an important response:

'It will, of course, be said that such a scheme as is set forth here is quite unpractical, and goes against human nature. This is perfectly true. It is unpractical, and it goes against human nature. This is why it is worth carrying out, and that is why one proposes it. For what is a practical scheme? A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish. The conditions will be done away with, and human nature will change. The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes.'

As for Wilde's own personal development, in one sense he languished in prison, with its degrading toil and his destroyed reputation, but in another he evolved further. In De Profundis - a long letter written in Reading Gaol 3 years before his death - he describes a new humility, a lesser attachment to possessions and status, and a greater appreciation for the downtrodden and deprived:

'I am completely penniless, and absolutely homeless. Yet there are worse things in the world than that. I am quite candid when I say that rather than go out from this prison with bitterness in my heart against the world, I would gladly and readily beg my bread from door to door. If I got nothing from the house of the rich I would get something at the house of the poor. Those who have much are often greedy; those who have little always share. I would not a bit mind sleeping in the cool grass in summer, and when winter came on sheltering myself by the warm close-thatched rick, or under the penthouse of a great barn, provided I had love in my heart.'

He left prison somehwat spiritually renewed, but alas, he lived his last year materially impoverished, in disgrace, and miserable, and died of meningitis at the age of 46.

Oscar Wilde is another native outcast whose talent has been retrospectively claimed for national pride, and for tourism, despite Ireland's government enforcing the same law with which he was humiliated and imprisoned in Britain, and despite homosexuality only being decriminalised in 1993. It is reminiscent of the saying of James Connolly - Wilde was also a lifelong supporter of Irish Independence -  that 'Apostles of Freedom are ever idolised when dead, but crucified when alive.' The true way to honour and commemorate him would be to make his vision of individual freedom and artistic power a reality.

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