Not that I love thy children, whose dull eyes
See nothing save their own unlovely woe,
Whose minds know nothing, nothing care to know,—
This is the opening verse of Oscar Wilde’s “Sonnet to Liberty.” Beyond its apparent cynicism, it elegantly encapsulates the acute miseries of youth—solipsistic, impatient, devoid of knowledge, and desperate for change. Published when Wilde was 27, the poem already bears the traits of his signature style: the lyric brevity, the cool aloofness, the effete fatigue, which is swept up by passion—“But that roar of thy Democracies… thy great Anarchies… give my rage a brother—!Liberty!”—only to settle on a note of human solidarity:
and yet, and yet,
These Christs that die upon the barricades,
God knows it I am with them, in some things.
This captures the torpor of a much older man, unable to summon the revolutionary energy himself, but not yet jaded enough to dismiss the effort. Though the poem seems to end with a shrug, its compassion stems from the fact that Wilde despised the aristocracy’s treatment of the lower classes in England, whose discontent drove them to act savagely. As if to affirm this, Wilde wrote a decade later: “Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal. He should decline to live like that.” Disobedience, he added, “in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”
These iconoclastic lines appear in an essay entitled “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (originally titled “The Soul of Man” at the behest of printers to avoid controversy). That essay, published 130 years ago this month, outlines Wilde’s vision for a utopian society based on a libertarian, anarcho-socialist model of government. To this day, it remains one of Wilde’s least read and least appreciated works, partly because of its assumed flippancy, and the fact that Wilde’s socialism appears to be at odds with his champagne life in high society. This has led many, like biographer Richard Ellmann, to describe Wilde’s politics—which remain opaque, despite the manifesto-like clarity of “The Soul of Man”—as springing from a “general hatred of tyranny” more than anything ideological.
There were indeed many socialists in London’s bohemian milieu who fancied themselves as radical vanguards. We know that Wilde attended Fabian Society meetings (though there’s no record of him ever speaking) and kept company with other socialists like William Morris and George Bernard Shaw. We also know he was acquainted with Russian revolutionaries who’d sought refuge in England, among them, Sergei Kravchinsky (who fled in 1880 after assassinating the chief of the Tsar’s secret police), and Peter Kropotkin, whose revision of Mikhail Bakunin’s school of anarcho-communism is believed to have inspired Wilde to write “The Soul of Man” in the first place.
“The Soul of Man” tap-dances between satire and sincerity, a dance Wilde perfected, thus leaving it inscrutable to many readers, beginning with its opening line that “Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others.” This apparent paradox opens up Wilde’s withering critique of charity, class, and the hypocritical piety of the English bourgeoisie. Most people, he wrote, “spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism,” and in a society ravaged by poverty, ugliness, and privation, they had little choice. Charity, far from curing poverty, actually prolongs it, accepts it, and assimilates it as normal, rather than treating it as an injustice. In order to relinquish the lower classes from their dependence on the pity of those above them, the goal should be to construct a society that renders poverty impossible.
At the forefront of this would be the abolition of private property. Just as the lower classes were tormented by a spirit of condescending charity, so too were the upper classes tortured by the interests of landed wealth. Property, Wilde claimed, is “extremely demoralizing” and “involves endless claims upon one, endless attention to business, endless bother.” This would be dramatized subtextually a few years later in his play The Importance of Being Earnest, about two-dimensional English gentlemen imprisoned in aristocratic life, who talk endlessly about namesakes, dowries, marriage, and inheritance, and in the end exchange liberty for financial security.
Property as an arbiter of social mobility all but ensures that true freedom—that is, true independence for rich and poor—is impossible. This prompted Wilde to declare that “Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism.” Though this too seems paradoxical, Wilde was fusing two distinct but overlapping traditions—English romanticism and Russian anarcho-communism. Wilde was descended from a long line of English radicals, like Wordsworth, Blake, and Shelley, all of whom were inspired by the French Revolution and fused the artistic sensibility with the rebellious spirit (Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, for example, carries an unmistakably anarchist message). But Wilde was a late-Victorian, and by the end of the 19th century, decorative high-style and cosmopolitanism had replaced reverence for the rawness of nature. He nonetheless retained the belief that the inspired condition was the gateway to liberation, and saw the artist as the “unacknowledged legislator” of the world. The politics outlined in “The Soul of Man” are thus more aesthetic than ideological. Wilde’s ideal society resembles a Hellenist’s dream, along the lines of Aristotle’s “Eudemonia,” in which people, relieved of the need to work, are free to think, feel, create, and pursue beauty and truth.
Aristotle’s society rested on the necessary existence of a slave class in order to produce the time needed for leisurely reflection. Wilde, living at the height of the industrial revolution, saw the movement towards mechanization as the inevitable fulfillment of this theory: “Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible,” he wrote; “Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising… on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.” But like Marx and Engels before him, he could not help seeing the ways in which this promise had been inverted, as the mechanical age transformed human beings into automatons. “There is something tragic,” he wrote, “in the fact that as soon as man had invented a machine to do his work he began to starve.” The sad recognition that humans work for their inventions, rather than the other way around, remains a feature of technological progress, as is the hope that robots (which means “forced labourer” in Czech) will one day free humanity of all menial, spiritually unsatisfying work.
Liberation—of the body, the mind, the senses—is the real daemon in Wilde’s work, and the driving force behind the “The Soul of Man.” Socialism, Wilde claimed, would allow people to “realize their personality.” In this respect he was well ahead of the stylized, hedonistic rebellion of the 1960s. The slogans of ’68, written on the walls of the Latin Quarter by students occupying the Sorbonne, for instance (“Take your desires for reality,” and “Underneath the pavement, the beach”) could have been taken straight from the Wildean playbook.
These dreams are impeded in an acquisitive society in which, or so Wilde argues, a man is forced to “wearily and tediously” accumulate wealth, “long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy, or perhaps even know of.” This critique resides nicely between Rousseau’s description of the fraudulent, death-fearing bourgeoisie and Marcuse’s idea of self-actualization through Eros. The goal of life is not to accumulate property in fear and anxiety, but to embrace the rarity of being: “‘Know Thyself’ was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be Thyself’ shall be written.” This is Rousseau in a nutshell. It is also one of the definitions Lionel Trilling gave of “authenticity,” as the condition we pursue after we’ve left religion behind and satisfied the material needs of our civilization.
The great conflict within the Left during the 19th century was between anarchist and statist visions for socialism (this was the bone of contention between Bakunin and Marx, and for many revolutionaries long after). Wilde was rightly phobic of any authoritarian system of government (“All authority is quite degrading”), and his famous shrug that socialism would require “too many evenings” presaged the ideology’s tendency towards dullness and bureaucracy. Again, Wilde’s aesthetic sensibilities were his guide: he rightly suspected that state-socialism would lead to a drab collectivity, one that would celebrate philistinism, and impeach humour, irony, and negative capability.
This turned out to be truer than he could have anticipated, with the ascension of the one-party bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, and the rise of the provincial Georgian, Stalin, over the bohemian Trotsky. During this same era, the radical style of the Russian avant-garde in the 1920s was squashed by the state-mandated aesthetic of Socialist Realism. Wilde, who’d written a critique of its antecedent, social realism, in “The Decay of Lying” saw such naturalism as a genre ennuyeux that oppressed the imagination: “To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.”
What was almost a fetishized persuasion to the romantics, near-parody by the end of the 19th century, would later become a full-blown cult under communism. In light of this, communism’s kinship with kitsch hardly seems a coincidence. As Clement Greenberg pointed out in his landmark essay, “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” the latter proved a more suitable mode for an authoritarian state, as “Kitsch keeps a dictator in closer contact with the ‘soul’ of the people.” The cult of the green and the grey, the wheat field and hammer-wielding workers would come to define the ultimate banality of socialism. Milan Kundera called it “Totalitarian Kitsch” in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and when his character Sabina—an artist suffering under the school of socialist realism in Prague—cries that the whole world is becoming ugly, this is precisely what she means.
The 19th century was a high time for utopian literature. In Russia, the most infamous was probably Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What is to Be Done? (1863), a transcendently awful novel whose ideas were properly mocked by Dostoyevsky in The Demons. The book nonetheless had a huge influence on generations of radicals, including Lenin, who apparently read it five times in one summer and later wrote that it “completely reshaped” him. This led the literary scholar Joseph Frank to conclude that, “Chernyshevsky’s novel, far more than Marx’s Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution.” Martin Amis, doubling down on this in Koba the Dread, wrote that “Humiliating though it may feel, we are obliged to conclude that What Is To Be Done? is the most influential novel of all time.” Although it too advocated the creation of small cooperatives and the election of a vanguard class, the novel showcases a deep contempt for the peasantry and prescribes a dull, ascetic utilitarianism. We don’t know if Wilde read Chernyshevsky’s novel, but he was almost certainly aware of it due to his connections with Russian anarchists, and “The Soul of Man,” with its sympathy for the poor and celebration of aestheticism, easily reads like a critique of its most unredeeming features.
Another utopian project kickstarted in the 19th century was Zionism. One of the early advocates for a Jewish state was Max Nordau, who founded the World Zionist Organization with Theodor Herzl in 1897. But in 1892, Nordau published Entartung (Degeneration), a bitter and neurotic polemic on the fin-de-siecle era of European culture. At the receiving end of his disgust was Wilde, whom Nordau elected as the chief “comrade” in the “art of the Decadent”—taking aim at his flamboyant style, flourishing ego, his “malevolent mania for contradiction,” and not least of all, his homosexuality. Nordau also advocated a cultic naturalism, and attacked Wilde for his mockery of nature in “The Decay of Lying.” Wilde ignored Nordau for years, and managed to summon a response only when his defenses were at their lowest, after his imprisonment in Reading Gaol: “I quite agree with Dr. Nordau’s assertion that all men of genius are insane,” he said, “but Dr. Nordau forgets that all sane people are idiots.”
Nordau was an authoritarian personality who attempted to connect literary and artistic developments with notions of social “disease.” Degeneration, which was dedicated to the phrenologist Cesare Lombroso, belongs to the lowest order of pseudo-Darwinian cultural criticism, based on eugenically charged ideas of purity and ethnic integrity. This made it a favourite of the Nazis, who reprinted it heavily in Germany during the 1930s (apparently unbothered by Nordau’s Jewishness). German National Socialism, which was pathologically preoccupied with fears of degeneration, would assign it the name of “cultural bolshevism,” which ran the gamut on everything from avant-garde art, to socialism and homosexuality, almost anything one could associate with somebody like Wilde. We can thus see that an interesting “horseshoe” of all state ideologies is their contempt for culture: “cosmopolitanism” was a crime in the Soviet Union in the 1930s; and to this day, saying that someone is “Hellenized” remains one of the deepest insults in orthodox Zionist circles.
Wilde, for whom “Individualism [was] the new Hellenism,” would have feared a Ministry of Culture more than anything, and he was at his most prescient in predicting that under an authoritarian government, the first autos-da-fé would be for artists and intellectuals. Under Wildean socialism, everyone could elevate themselves to the level of artists (in such a society, every snob would be a man of the people). More than that, a person would be able to live life itself as if it were a work of art—what Wilde called the “Kingdom of Romance” in “The Decay of Lying,” his most comprehensive defense of Greek ideals.
Like many works of utopian literature, “The Soul of Man” perplexes readers, striking them as romantic and obviously impractical. But this was the whole point, in fact, and why the essay addresses itself to the soul of man. Its blueprint for perfection is unrealistic precisely because the genre all but demands it. Most works in the genre—even More’s Utopia and Plato’s Republic—have their tongues slyly in their cheeks. But this doesn’t mean they aren’t playing with Promethean fire. Wilde, who knew better than anyone that sometimes the only path to a serious subject is through wit, also knew that utopian thinking becomes dangerous the moment it turns truly prescriptive (as in the case of Chernyshevsky’s novel). The goal rather, is to tug at the brainstem, to get us to consider what is possible, which is among the noblest and most necessary human activities. Wilde understood intuitively the moral power of the imagination and commanded that we live with ours wide open. For that, he is the true author of that old dictum that aesthetics are the ethics of the future.
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