A Late Victorian Utopia – Wilde’s Socialism in Context By James Thompson

23 January 2014 — New Left Project

For Oscar Wilde, 1891 was a busy year. In addition to ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism,’ published that February in the Fortnightly Review, Wilde released four books, wrote Lady Windermere’s Fan and penned the bulk of Salome. ‘The Soul of Man’ is now read, when it is read at all, through the prism of ‘Oscar Wilde’—gay martyr, canonical playwright and official member of the Irish literary pantheon. A certain effort is required to recall the circumstances of its appearance. But by revisiting the intellectual and cultural world in which it first arrived, we can come to see it—and, perhaps, its author—afresh.

At the time of the essay’s publication, Wilde was a hard working man of letters: well-known as essayist, reviewer and editor, deeply fashionable as dinner party guest, and much criticised as the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the first version of which had featured in Lippincott’s Magazine the previous year.  He had received his greatest acclaim for The Happy Prince and Other Tales in 1888; the era of literary superstardom and social annihilation was yet to come.  

It was not the first time Wilde had written for the Fortnightly Review.  The Fortnightly was a leading example of the prestigious periodicals that were central to intellectual life in Victorian Britain. Many of the classics of nineteenth century political thought, including J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism and Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, originated as articles in monthly or quarterly journals. ‘The Soul of Man’ entered the world alongside the conservative W. H. Mallock on ‘Public Life and Private Morals,’ E. J. Dillon on ‘Russian Finance’ and Alice M. Gordon on ‘The Development of Decorative Electricity.’ Under the editorship of Frank Harris, the Fortnightly was more radical than most of its competitors, but it shared their commitment to a unitary view of human knowledge embracing and intermingling arts and sciences.

In his prior work for the periodicals, Wilde had often worn a mask, delighting in the dialogue form adopted in his essays for the Nineteenth Century on ‘The Decay of Lying’ and the ‘The Critic as Artist’—the first of which shared its country house setting with Mallock’s breakthrough satire, The New Republic. These earlier pieces dealt in the teasing paradoxes conveyed by the term Wildean, and also evident in ‘The Soul of Man.’ As in ‘The Soul of Man,’ conventional pieties are mocked, only to resurface in modified form. ‘Altruism’—a prized late Victorian virtue—appears as ‘unhealthy and exaggerated,’ leading to the ‘aggravation’ of poverty and impeding the necessary reconstruction of society.  Part of the commendation, however, of Wilde’s socialist individualism is precisely that it will reveal the natural ‘absolutely unselfish’ character of men, rendering them much less egotistic than currently—or, in other words, engendering altruism.

Inversion of established judgments recurs throughout ‘The Soul of Man,’ whether it be upholding the virtue of disobedience, regretting the loss of individuality inherent in the pursuit of property or noting the pointlessness of practical schemes. This element of Wilde’s literary performance is highly familiar, but can still distract from recognition of the more symptomatic features of his work. ‘The Soul of Man’ reflects a number of broader currents in late nineteenth century British intellectual life. Its evolutionary language—’evolution is the law of life’—with its repeated emphasis on ‘growth’ and ‘development’ was commonplace in the political debates of the 1880s and 1890s, whilst its appeal to ‘a form of freedom’ that fosters ‘the full development of personality’ paralleled the emphasis on self-realization present in political argument influenced by philosophical idealism. The close of the essay, with its ringing claim that ‘the new Individualism is the new Hellenism,’ needs relating to Wilde’s oft-advertised Platonism—but this in turn, as Jose Harris has importantly argued,[1] was itself a widely canvassed position in late nineteenth century intellectual life.

In ‘The Critic as Artist,’ Wilde has Gilbert ally progressive historicism to aestheticism, insisting that while ‘ethics, like natural selection, make existence possible,’ it is ‘aesthetics, like sexual selection, [that] make life lovely and wonderful.’ Aesthetic experience was integral to self-realisation in ‘The Soul of Man,’ though both poetry and science made for ‘real men.’ In keeping with this account of self-realisation, Wilde upheld ‘cultivated leisure’ rather than labour as ‘the aim of man,’ and was scathing about the drudgery that constituted work for many. Ethics and aesthetics were more than complementary: in Wilde’s portrait of the soul of man under socialism the ethical and the aesthetic were as one, for ‘pleasure is nature’s test, her sign of approval.’ Perfect harmony with himself and his environment was possible for man, and would be provided by the ‘new individualism’ that Socialism would deliver. Here, and in his willingness to link and to trust socialism and science, Wilde recalled earlier socialist thinkers rooted in the Aufklärung(‘Enlightenment’) whose legacy he championed.

One important context for Wilde’s arguments is supplied by those Gilbert refers to, in ‘The Critic as Artist,’ as ‘my friends the Fabianists.’ Wilde’s essay on socialism is often linked to the work of noted early Fabianist George Bernard Shaw. This comparison with his fellow Irishman and wit is inevitable, but a wider sense of Fabian thinking is needed here. Fabianism has been satirised by H. G. Wells to Tony Crosland and beyond as a dry creed in which bad food and good record keeping were equally prominent. This is far from helpful in understanding the Fabianism of the 1880s when the realization of the ethical was passionately debated, and significant support existed within the London society for non-collectivist socialism. In these early years, as Ian Britain has made clear,[2] Fabian interest in culture was far from confined to Shaw, and there was a significant overlap between membership of the Fabian Society and the supposedly more ethically minded Fellowship of the New Life. William Clarke, who participated in both, exemplifies the early Fabian commitment to culture, not least in his fondness for Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose commitment to ‘whim’ is echoed by Vivian in Wilde’s ‘The Decay of Lying.’ In judging George Meredith ‘the one incomparable novelist we have now in England,’ Wilde matched the enthusiasm of the Fabian journalist Hubert Bland, who included two novels by Meredith in his list of the 13 best in the English language, along with Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth, which Vivian eulogises in ‘The Decay of Lying.’ In championing Algernon Swinburne as de factopoet laureate after Tennyson’s death, Wilde epitomised progressive opinion. Later, when requesting Dickens for the library in Reading gaol, he concurred with both progressive and popular sentiment in late Victorian Britain.

‘The Soul of Man’ expresses an ethical and aesthetic socialism cast in the modish languages of evolution and self-realization. It reflects the intellectual milieu of 1880s and early 1890s London radicalism in its yearning for an ethical and beautiful life that conflicted with contemporary commercial society. Its vision of the state under socialism as merely a ‘voluntary association’ for the organisation of labour for the production of necessities was a not uncommon position in the rich debates amongst socialists since the early 1880s. Wilde’s individualism has elements of both salesmanship and provocation, but also articulates the threat posed by private property and vigilant censoriousness to the forging and flourishing of a distinctive personality.  It is characteristic that Wilde recommended in a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette that nothing by John Stuart Mill ought to be read, with the single exception of On Liberty.

In placing ‘The Soul of Man’ in some of its original contexts, the intention is not to imprison the text in the past. Wilde’s concern with the necessary conditions for living well and his sense of the crowding pressures of modern society resonate still. The sociologically rich political thought developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth century—Wilde, along with Tocqueville, Mill and Weber, albeit with more and better jokes, included—engages us and the world in ways unavailable to much formal political philosophy. We do, though, understand Wilde’s essay better if we revisit it in its contemporary context and so, if only briefly, free ourselves from reading it through the prism of Wilde’s subsequent tribulations, and the enduring myths they spawned. 

This article is part of NLP’s series, The Soul of Man under Socialism.

James Thompson teaches modern British history at the University of Bristol.  He is mostly working on the visual culture of modern British politics. 

[1] Jose Harris, ‘Platonism, positivism and progressivism: aspects of British sociological thought in the early twentieth century,’ in E. F. Biagini ed., Citizenship and Community: Liberals, Radicals and Collective Identities in the British Isles, 1865-1931 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 343-60.

[2] Ian Britain, Fabianism and Culture: A Study in British Socialism and the Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

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