Oscar Wilde's socialism


Paris has had its fair share of famous people die in it. Most of them have ended up in the Pere La Chaise cemetery and Oscar Wilde is one of them. Of all the people buried there, that was the one grave I had to see when I entered that cemetery on a brisk March morning. I admire him because he was the master of that Irish pastime of extracting the Michael.

He was at first lauded by a society which would later reject him; as much for what he believed as for what he did. He believed his mourners would be outcasts because he never felt part of a society that holds homophobia as an attribute rather than what it really is, a disease.

"I think I am rather more than a Socialist. I am something of an Anarchist, I believe..."

Oscar Wilde was also inspired by politics. He was not blind to the obvious early failings of modern day society. The poverty he wrote about over a century ago, in 'The soul of man under Socialism', exists on the streets of Dublin today. Throughout this winter I've walked to work past bodies huddled under blankets in St. Stephen's Green, wheezing with bronchitis in the frosty air.

Wilde wrote about the poor in relation to charity "the best amongst them are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient and rebellious....Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly fed animal. He should decline to live like that, and should either steal or go on the rates which is considered a form of stealing".

Wilde was living in a time when an estimated 2 million people were living in poverty in London. The solution would come under socialism, where property would be converted from private into public wealth and society would be restored to "its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism, and insure the well-being of each member of the community." In the meantime for the poor "why should they be grateful with the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table?"

"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 was certain of what kind of future he wanted for humanity. As the quote above indicates he did not wish to see an industrial tyranny rise in the name of Socialism. "All modes of Government are failures", he maintained, while social democracy is "the bludgeoning of people by the people for the people". His main obsession was with what he termed "individualism". I think it's fair to interpret this as a will for freedom. "Socialism itself will be of value because it will lead to individualism."

He opposed the locking up of people because they had committed crimes against property, arguing "a community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment rather than the occasional occurrence of crime".

He aslo took up the case of possibly the most famous political prisoners of his era. Along with George Bernard Shaw, he signed a petition for the release of the Haymarket martyrs (anarchist trade unionists executed for their role in the 8- hour day movement). He saw through the lies and the rail-roading they were receiving in that court in Chicago.

"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at."

Wilde lived his life never once renouncing his beliefs or his choices. His politics have been hidden over the years since he died in 1900. He wrote his essay on 'The Soul of Man under Socialism' over one hundred years ago, yet the ideas expressed are still vitally relevant. He expressed the idea that we all exist and only some of us really live. Some of us live because we're pushing for a different world to the one that surrounds us. Read him and remember "Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue."

Dermot Sreenan

Yet all is well; he has but passed
To Life's appointed bourne:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity's long broken urn
For his mourners be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

This article is from Workers Solidarity No 53 published in January 1998