Saturday 16 October 2010

Happy birthday Oscar Wilde, the Fabian anarchist

"Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even 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."

Thanks to the Google home-page's celebration I saw that today is Oscar Wilde's 156th birthday today, though he lived to see only 46 of them himself before his early death 110 years ago.

Wilde has become a famous name to whom many witticisms - whether his own or those of others - can be attributed. He wrote some unperformable plays, but his best are as funny as anything on the English stage. His novel The Picture of Dorian Gray seems to become more contemporary as time passes. Politically, Wilde is now primarily a symbol of the gay rights movement, the best-known symbol of the cruelty of a Victorian era which saw him imprisoned, broken and dead at 46.

That means that his broader attempt to contribute to political thought have largely been forgotten. Yet Wilde was also a Socialist, if of an unusual kind: a Fabian anarchist whose ideal was that "socialism itself will be of value because it leads to individualism"

It is not surprising that Wilde found his fellow Fabians too conservative in their demands, too willing to play the long game in pursuit of a gradualist transformation over time. As with HG Wells later, the individualism of the artistic vision does not always sit well with the collective pursuit of political change.

And Wilde's complaint that "the problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings" would still find many sympathetic ears in the Labour party today.

His own socialist anarchism was set this out most fully in his 1891 tract, The Soul of Man under Socialism (which can be read in full from the Google Books website).

The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely any one at all escapes


With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.

Hence too his attack on poverty and on the limits of its altruistic and charitable relief.

The virtues of the poor may be readily admitted, and are much to be regretted. 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.

All of this should be done without coercion, and pretty much without any government by the state at all.

It is clear, then, that no Authoritarian Socialism will do. For while under the present system a very large number of people can lead lives of a certain amount of freedom and expression and happiness, under an industrial barrack system, or a system of economic tyranny, nobody would be able to have any such freedom at all. It is to be regretted that a portion of our community should be practically in slavery, but to propose to solve the problem by enslaving the entire community is childish. Every man must be left quite free to choose his own work. No form of compulsion must he exercised over him. If there is, his work will not be good for him, will not be good in itself, and will not be good for others. And by work I simply mean activity of any kind ...

But I confess that many of the socialistic views that I have come across seem to me to be tainted with ideas of authority, if not of actual compulsion. Of course, authority and compulsion are out of the question. All association must be quite voluntary. It is only in voluntary associations that man is fine.

One may not get too far looking to Wilde for political economy, or for any detailed account of the means to achieve his ends.

On his advocacy, the abolition of private property and the mechanisation of all unpleasant work, such as sweeping roads, to create the possibility of an admirably if implausibly artist-centred view of the world.

Yet there are broader resonances and echoes in his idealistic demands for an important foundational liberal socialist project today: that, if what matters is freedom, then a primary mission of our politics is to create the conditions in which we have the ability to decide for ourselves the central meaning and purpose of our own lives. This autonomy needs to be distributed widely, fairly and equally across our entire society, if such opportunities for self-authorship are not to be crushed and denied, whether by poverty, or by other forms of legal or public coercion such as that which Wilde himself experienced.

As Wilde writes:

'Know thyself' was written over the portal of the ancient world. Over the portal of the new world, 'be thyself' shall be written.


More broadly, I believe we can and should champion Wilde as one of the many voices who symbolises of the enduring pluralism of Fabian traditions - an antidote to the caricature of a purely statist project, painted grey-on-grey, where the Webbs' busy devotion to socialist duty could never leave any time for trivialities or aesthetic pursuits. This has been a caricature used by Fabian themselves to redress the balance, most effectively in Tony Crosland's liberal Fabian complaint against the idea of ""total abstinence and a good filing system" being the route to a socialist utopia. Yet the challenge was itself within an enduring Fabian tradition.

It is well known that Fabians were influential in founding the Labour Party, the London School of Economics and the New Statesman. Less often remembered is that Fabians - especially Harley Granville Barker and Shaw - also led the campaign to create a National Theatre.

In terms of political philosophy, there are points of connection between Wilde's anarchism - and earlier visions of a socialist aesthetic, such as those of William Morris - and the later mutualist traditions of those like GDH Cole which feared that social democracy could end up becoming a creed of bureaucracy and centralisation.

Wilde should be celebrated as one voice from these more mercurial and inchaote traditions within the Fabian fold. These could never claim to emulate the concrete institutional and political achievements of the Webbs, in writing Labour party constitutions and offering blueprints for the welfare state.

These competing traditions did not really try. But they can provoke thought too - in their insistence that the socialist left has always been about a variety of traditions of both moral and mechanical reform.

Utopias are unfashionable. They can be dangerous, certainly. They are often now feared for the more pragmatic reason that they could prove a distraction from what can and should be done now. Yet vision and gradualism need not be fundamentally opposed either. Demands for the seemingly impossible - votes for women and the working-classes; the end of mighty Empires and struggles for human rights; the transformation of attitudes on race and sexuality; demands to end social institutions like the Workhouse and create others like a universal NHS - have often changed the script about what proves politically possible in the real world.

There is no reason to accept that they can not do so again. So part of Wilde's value is in staking again the claim for utopia to remain part of the political map.


Anonymous said...

"As with HG Wells later, the individualism of the artistic vision does not always sit well with the collective pursuit of political change."
Am I to infer from this statement that the intention of The Fabian Society is to bring about socialism through a progressive change over many years?
Wasn't Ed Miliband and and his right-wing bro members of the Fabian Society? How does that sit with a progressive movement towards a socialist and ultimately Utopian ideal?
I am confused as to how you feel the New Labour project and its disciples can in any way be seen as progressive. The Milibands were an intrinsic part of it inception and ongoing design. David was responsible for some of the most mendacious attempts to stifle justice I have ever seen and yet you still give this man the time of day.
It must be so wonderful to talk of socialism while enjoying the trappings of capitalism.
As for those who truly see socialism as the only real political option, this fluffy ideal of inching there is nonsensical and naive. So sip your champers and talk of the plight of the poor while making sure to rub shoulders with those in the know and keep your notions of a new tomorrow while promoting and propagating the New Labour message and talking of Ed as if he understood what socialism meant. Because we know he doesn't understand what poor means.
Off you trot to your meetings 'in the club' and feel guilty about your affluence, but woe betide anyone who genuinely tried to lead the way to a real socialist society!

13eastie said...

Of course, Wilde's unfortunate fleetingness gave him the luxury of being able to espouse socialism prior to its actual implementation anywhere.

Happily for us, his merry delusion did not progress to hypocrisy or denial.

His groundless Utopian supposition that socialism "will be of value simply because it will lead to individualism" was hopelessly wrong.

Certainly the succession of visits to Russia which he might have made during the 20th century would have enabled him to witness the almost absolute triumph of the state over the individual under socialism; no more so than for those who shared his own peculiar modes of expression.

Loathe as we should be to label a great man a hypocrite, we should instead content ourselves that he was neither a true Fabian nor a socialist.

Michael - as far as Red Ed's brand of "socialism" is concerned, we might suppose that his father's arm-chair Marxism and coincidental dissonant pursuit of individual wealth has been of some instruction...