Socialism is not normally the word associated with Oscar Wilde. The image we have of him is that of a non-political dandy who conquered late 19th century high society with his brilliant conversation and wit, only to fall from favour because of his conviction in 1895 for sexual indecency.
Yet as his biographer, Richard Ellman, points out, 'From as early as 1881, when he was in his late 20s, to the middle of 1895, when he was 40, literary London was put out of countenance by this outrageous Irishman from Dublin (via Oxford), who declared he was a socialist and hinted he was a homosexual, while patently mocking wise saws on all subjects. He declined, in a public and ceremonious manner, to live within his means, behave modestly, respect his elders, or recognise such entities as nature and art in their traditional apparel.'
This brings out Wilde's rebelliousness. It suggests that the trial which sent him to prison for two years and broke his health was not simply personal victimisation. It was revenge on a man who challenged society's sexual codes and its class basis.
Wilde was tried for a sexual offence which had only come onto the statute book ten years earlier. It was part of the tightening up of sexual morality in the late 19th century which accompanied the re-creation of the family, and family values, as the bedrock of society. It identified the 'sexual deviant' as the antithesis of proper 'manliness'. Young men, like the hero of E M Forster's novel Maurice, dreaded the thought that they were 'unspeakables of the Oscar Wilde variety'.
Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensberry, escaped prosecution. The charges against Wilde involved male prostitutes who were put under pressure by Queensberry to testify and save their skins. The unwritten assumption was that it was Wilde, with his low connections, who had perverted a youthful aristocrat.
Nor was the Irish dimension missing. The prosecution counsel who badgered and finally cornered Wilde in the witness box was Edward Carson, an old classmate of Wilde from Trinity College Dublin. But Carson had no sympathy for Ireland's wrongs, as Wilde had. Carson was a fanatical Ulsterman. The reputation he gained as a result of the trial he used in the years before the First World War to organise reactionary military opposition to Irish Home Rule.
The trial, then, was not just about morality. It was about class and nation. Wilde was the enemy within. Prosecuting and breaking him was a way of trying to lay the spectres which were returning to haunt British society for the first time since the death of Chartism in the early 1850s.
By the early 1890s the confidence of the British ruling class had been shaken. The 1880s had marked the beginning of the Great Depression, which particularly affected agriculture. Britain's global pre-eminence was under challenge from economic rivals. The ideology of free trade and liberalism, which had hitherto been taken for granted, was being questioned and not just by alternatives such as protectionism. Socialism began to revive as social peace dissolved in bitter class antagonism. And Irish nationalism, which had never died, took on fresh vigour, with famine once again stalking that land.
Wilde's arrival in the London of the 1880s coincided with the first few tremors of the impending storm. The ruling class could sense that its hegemony over society might be less secure than it supposed. Only this explains its reaction to Wilde and the threat it eventually saw in what he was both saying and doing.
It was against Victorian artistic values that Wilde first revolted. He rejected ugliness and the subordination of art to usefulness. Like the critic John Ruskin, who had influenced him at Oxford, he saw in the debasement of 19th century art the debasement of society itself. Unlike Ruskin, however, he did not want art to find some true morality but for art to free itself altogether from morality. In that way the individual could fully emerge from the cramped conditions imposed by convention.
His rejection of Victorian art paralleled that of another of Ruskin's disciples, William Morris. But, initially at least, Wilde's rejection took a different route. Where Morris's rebelliousness took him towards socialist organisation and activity, Wilde's took him towards propagandising for 'art for art's sake'.
This is the best known aspect of Wilde's life and writings. He argued that human beings should cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities, their appreciation of beautiful artistry. His arguments were designed to shock. To assert that 'all art is quite useless' and that 'all art is immoral' was his provocative way of slaughtering the sacred cows of Victorian thinking on the subject. Life, he was saying, should consist of more than adherence to dull and restrictive notions of what was useful or moral. It should aspire to the freedom of art and the variety of experience it contains.
Wilde himself lived the artistic life, particularly in the early 1880s when his first book of poems came out, with knee breeches, silk stockings, brightly coloured handkerchief and tie, extravagant hat and exotic flower in his buttonhole. As he explained in his mock-serious advice to the young in 1894: 'One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art... To love oneself is the beginning of a life long romance.' This was style as revolt against convention.
He was jeered at rather than condemned in the early 1880s. Gilbert and Sullivan wrote an operetta parodying the aesthetic movement, in which Bunthorne (Wilde) walks down the Strand with a lily in his hand. Though one critic of the period, lumping together very different elements, denounced all this as the fleshly school of poetry, the kind of hysteria against moral and sexual 'decadence' which featured at Wilde's trial was still in the future.
Victorian society could reluctantly live with the image of the languid, self-obsessed and narcissistic aesthete. And if Wilde had retreated into art as a refuge from the awfulness of life in the late Victorian period, he might have been little more than a literary footnote to history.
But Wilde did not rest content with aestheticism. His commitment to art took him towards an engagement with social issues, not away from them. He never renounced style and wit but paradoxically he took them seriously as weapons. It led him to socialism (though unlike William Morris never into the movement).
How did this happen? If Wilde refused to retreat into art, he also refused to retreat into ancestor worship. In this crucial matter he differed fundamentally from Ruskin. Ruskin had idealised the feudal order of the Middle Ages as exercising a responsibility towards the poor absent from the market economy of the 19th century. Ruskin's motto was, turn the clock back to the period before capitalism and democracy and revive the virtues of aristocracy. Wilde's position, on the other hand, was to proclaim his belief in the modern. In so doing he forged a strategy for his assault on those at the top.
One of the more breathtaking contradictions in Victorian society was that it preached the virtues of utility and morality but for others. Its great aristocratic leaders led neither useful nor particularly moral lives. Therefore to live the life of idleness seriously was not only a kind of protest against the work ethic which exposed the hypocrisy at the heart of society. It was also a parody of aristocratic manners and pretensions.
That is why the central character in Wilde's plays, his novel and his critical writings is so often someone who has the means to experience the pleasures of art that not having to work for a living allows but who can use the detachment which this privileged freedom gives them to fire darts at Victorian society.
Again and again, these darts hit their target. In A Woman of No Importance (1893) Lord Illingworth sums up the landed aristocracy and their fox hunting culture in a devastating phrase. They are, he says, 'the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable'. He also mocks the claims of politicians to sympathise with the sufferings of the poor. To the character who says that the East End is a very important problem, he replies, 'Quite so. It is the problem of slavery. And we are trying to solve it by amusing the slaves.'
In The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) the ruling class targets require no detached observer to expose them to mockery. They do it themselves. Lady Bracknell, who is firmly attached to the status quo, profoundly approves of a central character's ignorance, which she sees as a very desirable characteristic for society as a whole. 'The whole theory of modern education', she pronounces, 'is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.'
The plays, for all their use of dramatic conventions bring out the corruption of the ruling class, its hypocrisy and oppressive treatment of women. This witty exposure of the ruling class comes with an aristocratic drawl. That doesn't make it any the less effective but it points to a question which Wilde is often accused of ignoring. The life of idleness, which his champions of art flaunt in opposition to the dominant ideology, rests on the same class basis as the class being mocked. Doesn't that therefore prove that Wilde's revolt into art was essentially an elitist reaction against society?
No careful reading of Wilde's work as a whole will support this. He did not timidly restrict his message to the chosen few. He did a lecture tour of the US and his letters show warmth and respect for the democratic values of the republic and its people. After a somewhat alcoholic dinner held in his honour at the bottom of a mine he commented on 'the amazement of the miners when they saw that art and appetite could go hand in hand knew no bounds'. When he saw a notice over a piano in a casino which said, 'Please don't shoot the pianist; he is doing his best,' he wrote that, 'I was struck with this recognition of the fact that bad art merits the penalty of death, and I felt that in this remote city, where the aesthetic applications of the revolver were clearly established in the case of music, my apostolic task would be much simplified, as indeed it was.'
Throughout his career Wilde engaged with social issues. His first play was a sympathetic treatment of Russian terrorists. He defended Irish independence under difficult circumstances, as when Lord Cavendish a family acquaintance was murdered by terrorists in Phoenix Park, Dublin. 'When liberty comes with hands dabbled in blood it is hard to shake hands with her.' was his first reaction. But he added, 'We forget how much England is to blame. She is reaping the fruit of seven centuries of injustice.'
None of this suggests that Wilde recoiled from contact with ordinary life or with the political issues of the day. Even more importantly this concern with the nature of society modified his approach to art. He began to see that there can be no placing supreme value in art without the most profound change in social relations. Indeed, simply to be an aesthete is to deny the value of art itself.
Signs of this discontent are evident in what is often assumed to be his manifesto for aestheticism, The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890). In this novel the worship of aesthetic feeling by the hero, Dorian, leads to disaster for those he loves. By turning himself into a timeless art object (while his portrait, hidden in the attic, ages) he makes himself into a monster. His self-murder at the end (he stabs his portrait) is a recognition of the limitations of what the individual can do in our kind of society.
In his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891) Wilde spells out an alternative for the individual. For the individual truly to flourish (and therefore realise the value of art) there has to be the abolition of private property and the creation of a non-authoritarian socialist society.
Critics sometimes argue that Wilde's interest in socialism is superficial (yet another plea for individualism) or that he is merely imitating arguments put forward by other socialists of the period whom he knew, like his fellow Irishman George Bernard Shaw. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In his essay, we come across some familiar Wildean paradoxes about the virtues of selfishness and the vices of altruism. But here they are concretised. What is wrong with altruism or charity is that it depends on a rotten system: 'It is immoral to use private property to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.' Worse than that, it demoralises the recipients:
'We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives. Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.'
Wilde goes on to praise disobedience and rebellion as the way in which progress has been made and expresses amazement that anyone should put up with their condition. He agrees that agitators are 'interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is why', he continues, 'they are so absolutely necessary.' What he finds most tragic about the French Revolution is 'not that Marie Antoinette was killed for being a queen, but that the starved peasant of the Vendée voluntarily went out to die for the hideous cause of feudalism'.
He does not repeat the mistake of Shaw and other Fabians and see socialism as a top down system of government. On the contrary, the conversion of private property into public wealth must bring about the freest possible development of every individual. 'Private property has crushed true individualism and set up an individualism that is false. It has debarred one part of the community from being individual by starving' and it has distorted whatever individualism is possible as a result of some being relieved of poverty. 'The individual is to make what is beautiful.' So who, it might be asked, will do the dirty jobs? Wilde's socialism is here an advance over Morris's, who still hankered after the dignity of labour in a pre-mechanical age. 'There is nothing necessarily dignified', he states bluntly, 'about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure... Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine.'
Wilde was aware that under private property human beings are slaves to the machine and that the consequence of a machine being able to do the job of 500 men is mass unemployment. 'Were that machine the property of all, everybody would benefit by it... At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man.'
Is this utopian? Wilde answers his own question. 'A map of the world that does not include utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of utopias.'
No wonder Wilde had to be crucified. Not only did he turn his wit on society, he argued that there was a need for a different kind of society. This was not art for art's sake. It was art for a new kind of human personality. Wilde's tragedy is that he fought his battle within the very social institutions he despised up to and including the law court where he attempted to turn the trial into a satire on his persecutors. He could not win that battle on his own. We ought to remember Wilde not as a gay icon, an early exponent of camp, but as a rebel who made the case for socialism all the more effective by his devotion to art.