Wilde and Morris – Saving Socialism’s Soul
It is the province of art to set the true ideal of a full and reasonable life….a life to which the perception and creation of beauty, the enjoyment of real pleasure that is, shall be felt to be as necessary to man as his daily bread…
We are living through capitalism’s greatest crisis, witnessing what should be the death-throes of a discredited system, as bankrupt in credibility as it is financially. And yet Rightist political parties benefit from the chaos.A dead system has risen up and mugged us in such a crafty and audacious a way that we have been left dazed, staggering in a hazy psychosis. We are now showing all the symptoms of a kind of global Stockholm Syndrome. The parties of the Left are left floundering and flapping, wrong-footed by their earlier surrender to the disastrous deregulation of the neo-liberal project. There was a reason however, for this initial retreat, the cowardice that made this collapse possible. The popular conception of socialism had already been blasted and blackened, trod to the mud. An understatement: socialism has something of an image problem. If something is deemed to be even worse than the mess we currently find the world in, then it really must be in trouble.
The experience of the soi-disant Communist countries, the ‘actually existing socialism’ of the Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc, China, and assorted lower-league tyrannical basket cases is of course the greatest argument capitalism has for socialism ‘not working’. The Marxist replies that these regimes were perversions, distortions and contortions, that Marx should no more be blamed for Stalin and Mao than Jesus for Torquemada and Franco. True enough, though the fact nearly every Communist country came to fester a similar way suggests that the source text has, at least, a case to answer.
Most thinking people however seem to understand that these economic backwaters were the worst possible areas in which try out any socialist experiment, press the point and even most fair-minded Rightists will concede this point. No, the allergic reaction to socialism goes deeper than revulsion at the horrors of the Great Leap Forward or the Gulag. There is a nameless fear of uniformity, of regimentation of the human mind, a cold grey labyrinthine bureaucracy of the soul, a monochrome maze where individuality loses itself, shrivels and dies. Over the years a sturdy connecting corridor has been built in the world’s collective consciousness between ‘socialism’ and this netherworld, and the link cannot easily be severed. It’s a structure frightening and ruinous enough to convince millions of people to vote against their own economic interests. It isn’t just Stalinist Red Tape to blame for this. Amongst the social reforming Fabians of Britain, amongst the continental Social Democrats too, a species of socialism formed, which, when given a vague taste of power, seemed more about regulation, order and uniformity than freedom. A creed of liberation seems to have curdled into officialdom, Spartacus re-clothed as a jobsworth traffic warden.
Of course, if we do live in such a colour-drained petty tyranny of ticket-stampers, it is not socialists of any stripe who have installed it. Bureaucracy festers in a market economy just as much as a planned one, moreso once the legal classes get their mucky thumbs in the pie. The irony of surburban Daily Mail letter-writers complaining that “under socialism we’d all be the same” has not been lost on many. But just because they are duped and duplicitous, we still don’t somehow believe them to be entirely wrong. The lingering idea of coldness, of sterile desiccation, is still there. How to cleanse it? Where might we find the answer?
To the casual reader, Oscar Wilde would seem an unlikely response. Wilde has the reputation of an airy aesthete, a genius of frivolity, master of the mannerism and bon mot, but neither rabble-rouser nor theoretician. With a superficial glance at apparently superficial statements, an argument could be made to bear this out. The only banner Wilde seemed to wave was “Art for art’s sake” “all art is quite useless”. Where his reputation does touch on “political issues”, it is as his unwanted role as the great Liberal Martyr, persecuted by Victorian conservatism for his homosexuality (a fate and reputation which would surely have bored him for its drab worthiness. )
Yet this masks an essential truth: Wilde was a socialist, avowedly and dedicatedly so. The many audiences of his plays who see only the wit and wicked humour make a fundamental error. As Lord Darlington says to Lady Windemere “Life is too important thing to take it seriously.” Wilde may have been vehemently opposed to didactic art, art with a controlling and improving “message”. Nevertheless, razor sharp dissections of bourgeois society criss-cross his work, plays such as Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of No Importance swipe savagely at the grubby hypocrisies which stick the system together. They are all the more deadly for being subtle, yet the subtlety is such that many audiences do not even notice them. Only once was Wilde uncharacteristically direct in his politics, in a brief essay entitled The Soul of Man Under Socialism written in 1891. It remains his clearest and most candid vision of how he wished the world to be, what he thought it could be. It is also one of the most inspiring – and overlooked – arguments for socialism ever written.
Wilde’s most deadly weapon was always the paradox, which he wields in this text as soon as we start. The first line:- “The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is undoubtedly the fact that Socialism would relieve us from the sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody.” The chief argument of the anti-socialist down the ages has always been individualism, that living for others is an unnatural state. And here is Wilde, agreeing whole-heartedly.
On the same page, Wilde wrong-foots the reactionary even further, continuing the onslaught against unnatural altruism by laying into the whole pantheon of social reformers, philanthropists, and ‘do-gooders’ of the late-Victorian day. On one level this is the familiar argument of the revolutionary against the reformist – putting sticking plasters on society doesn’t solve the real problems, and instead makes revolution less likely. “Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of England, the people who do most harm are those who try to do good.” But Wilde is against this altruism for a more fundamental reason – he sees it as a distraction for people being true to themselves, in particular, for the few men living who are able to realise their greatness.
Indeed, Wilde is every bit as much a believer in the Great Man – the intellectual and spiritual Titan who stands above and beyond the herd – as that other great aphorist Nietzsche. Wilde mentions Keats and Flaubert earlier in the piece, and Byron, Shelley, Victor Hugo and Baudellaire later as among the few who have managed to ‘keep out of the reach of the clamorous claims of others, to stand ‘under the shelter of the wall’ as Plato puts it, and so to realise the perfection of what was in him, to his own incomparable gain, and to the incomparable and lasting gain of the whole world.’ The difference between the two is that Wilde thought it desirable, and thought it possible, that everyone should be able to follow in this perfection, that all could became ‘real men, the men who have realised themselves’. He believed we all had the capacity to be ubermensch, supermen.
The present state of class relations, the rank injustice of the division between masters and men is shown to have an enslaving effect on the owners almost as much as the owned. “Property is really a nuisance... Property not merely has duties, but has so many duties that its possession to any large extent is a bore.” He goes on to note even the greatest men such as Caesar and Marcus Aurelius were made less great by the ‘waste’ of having to exert their authority on others. Note however, that Wilde is still making the claim that the few who have managed to realise themselves are among the wealthy and moneyed. Here Wilde goes against the Leftist grain again with an apparently disdainful view of the working classes as they are. “There is only one class that thinks about money more than the rich – the poor.” Wilde says that the poor have no wit or cultivation “no grace of manner or charm of speech”, but his real scorn and contempt is saved and savoured for the ‘decent, hard working poor’, those who are contented with their lot. “They have made private terms with the enemy, and sold their birthright for a very pad potage. They must be extraordinarily stupid.” On the other hand, Wilde has much time for those poor who are “ungrateful, discontented, disobedient and rebellious. They are quite right to be so.”
It is safe to assume he would have quite approved of our recent riots, however indiscriminate the targets. Violent, arbitrary, aimless : at least they were rebelling in some way. Rather rambunctious rebellion than craven compromise. There is a great schism within the broad church of socialism on the role of those that Marx termed the “lumpenproletariat” can play in a revolution. One tradition states that only the organised working-class, the unionised workers, united and resolved can achieve anything either within, or against capitalism. The lumpens, the long term unemployed, the criminals, confidence tricksters, prostitutes, beggars and other assorted outlaws are an objectively conservative force which will always be bought off by the rich, “a tool of reactionary intrigue.” Such was Marx’s view, and phrase. The wider labour movement has been in broad agreement. Bakunin took the opposite stance. He thought that organisation in itself always corrupted, always led to hierarchy. Given this, the unionised were more likely to be co-opted by the state, and that the more lawless the workers, the more independent: and therefore the more revolutionary. A century later, Huey Newton and the American Black Panthers thought so too, despite being ideologically closer to Maoism than anarchism.
Wilde, it seems, was in agreement. On his lecture tours of the USA he found his favourite audience in the town of Leadville, Colorado, an utterly lawless Wild West crew of prospecting miners, hustlers and prostitutes – “the best dressed men in America” as he termed them (they loved him back, admiring his ability to drink them under the table, and naming a sliver mine after him). His exploration of the underworld of the rent boys of London brought him further contact with the criminal classes. He came to admire the transgressive in general – larceny in person and lawlessness in the abstract (“genius steals”), as a bulwark against bourgeois morality. We will return later as to whether this necessarily makes Wilde an “anarchist”, but suffice to say this is part of Wilde’s view that “man’s original virtue is disobedience”. And as such he has no time for a state modelled on obedience, however “progressive”, whether Stalinist or Fabian.
Wilde is strikingly prophetic in his denunciations of what he describes here as “authoritarian socialism”. He says again that in the present state of affairs, at least some men with the advantages of privilege manage to find themselves, to realise their potential “If the Socialism is authoritarian; if there are governments to be armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have industrial tyrannies, than the last state of man will be worse than the first.” At least some can have freedom now, in this state, no-one would at all. Wilde sees no virtue at all in the equitable distribution of misery. The collectivism of compunction which existed in Soviet Russia or Mao’s China was precisely the nightmare scenario he was warning against. It seems clear though that Wilde actually thought the sheer unattractiveness of this made it unlikely. “I hardly think any Socialist, nowadays, would seriously propose that an inspector should call every morning to see that each citizen rose up and did manual labour for eight hours”. He may have ‘hardly thought’ it, but at the same time Wilde wrote this there were plenty of socialists who had just such a vision in mind – and sadly their type were to proliferate, and in some areas to predominate. No wonder that The Soul of Man was an inspiration to many revolutionaries rebelling against the Tsars of Russia, but was later suppressed and banned by Stalin himself.
Wilde’s antipathy for this vision stemmed from a hatred not just of tyranny, but for utilitarianism, for grey functional necessity in all its forms. For this ultimate aesthete anything which smelt of soul-shrivelling drudgery of utility was poison to his nostrils. When Wilde said earlier that “all art is quite useless”, he meant it as the highest form of compliment to art. In this essay he states “the Renaissance was great, because it sought to solve no social problem, and busied it self not with such things, but suffered the individual to develop freely”. The ‘dignity of labour’ seems to have little appeal for Wilde (recalling his earlier witticism “a man who calls a spade a spade should be compelled to use one.”)
Wilde had a life-long aversion to the regimentation of the old Latin Roman world, preferring instead the free intelligence of the Greeks (and Athens rather than Sparta.) Here he says that the Greeks were right to say that civilisation needs slaves – but that machines are now the new slaves. The machine is key to Wilde’s vision of liberation, saving people from soulless drudgery, from living to work rather than working to live, allowing them to spend time exploring their own true potential. Wilde’s actual criticism of capitalism’s depredations is generally non specific and allusive, he is at his most exact in decrying the fact that at the moment machines only exacerbate the problem, they put people out of work but do not give them leisure in return. After the revolution this “surplus value” will be given back to the people, machines will serve man rather than the other way around.
A familiar criticism of socialism is that it engenders conformity, the hive mind and “tyranny of the majority.” In fact, this is a criticism levelled not just at socialism, but at democracy itself, and has been directed by the libertarian down the years at the conformity of societies from Atlee’s UK to Eisenhower’s USA. De Tocqueville’s criticisms of American democracy were an early warning of the tyrannising dangers inherent to a mass society. Again, the avowedly libertarian Wilde is in full agreement. “Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people, by the people, for the people." Perhaps the majority of the second half of the essay is given to a defence of the individual, not against oppressive government, but against the tyranny of public opinion, the drab ochlochracy of the press pack. “In the old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But it is still very bad, and wrong, and demoralising.”
The press is the grand villain of the piece, not for its defence of the powers-that-be, but for its low, utilitarian pandering to public opinion and prejudice. With signature deftness of paradox, the public are credited with an insatiable habit for curiosity for everything except that which is worth knowing, “and the journalist, with his tradesman-like habits, supplies their demand.” This is a denunciation of the tabloid mentality, the double-faced prurience and puritan morality which has persisted down the years and which was to devour Wilde himself in the end. These journalists are in the gutter, but their eyes follow the sewers, not the stars. His point here though, is rather more profound than a critique of Paul Dacre, Kelvin Mackenzie and their spiritual forbears. The press is merely the clearest and most obvious example of pandering to the public rather than challenging them, of playing to the gallery, feeding on the underbelly of the lowest common denominator. Art and politics are just as guilty, and the enervating effect of the herd who must be heard is even greater. Poetry, declares Wilde, is only of quality in Britain because the public don’t care about it and so leave it alone, novels and drama are soiled with the influence of public opinion. This may appear to be snobbery. On one level, it is. But Wilde is keen to stress that the collective opinion of the “educated” is even more harmful than that of the wider masses. His true point is this: a piece of art should be true to the artist, it should be made to for the artist, not his audience. Hence “Thackeray’s ‘Esmond’ is a beautiful work because he wrote it to please himself. In his other novels... he is too conscious of the public, and spoils his work by appealing directly to the sympathies of the public...”
The implication of this message in art is that true genius is unique. The implication in politics is that the individual must not be stifled in any way. This does not mean that people should be free to trample on others, as in the infantile, one-eyed, self-interested and self-contradictory arguments of modern day so-called libertarians (those who conveniently forget that finance capital is only given meaning by the reviled state itself. ) It does mean as complete a freedom from restraint by the state as is possible. Just as crucially, it also means freedom of the constraints of physical want and need, from the talons of finance.
Perhaps a more controversial view from the socialist perspective, is that, if the crowd is usually wrong, then it takes an exceptional individual or group to make change. Wilde is adamant about this – slaves never freed themselves, it was outsiders with unpopular ideas which achieved emancipation. He makes such a demon of popular opinion that popular morality itself takes on a devilish form, to the extent that Wilde claims that to be accused of ‘immorality’ is the highest compliment that can be paid, whether to art or individual (to be respectable is to be repellent, as Lady Bracknell cattily remarks of Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest.)
Again Wilde seems to be with Nietzsche here, both in his desire to escape the slave morality of the masses (a continual theme in his plays), and also his defence of history being shaped by powerful personalities, Carlyle’s “great men.” Nietzsche had said that madness was rare in individuals but in “groups, parties, nations and epochs, is the rule.” Much earlier than in this essay, Wilde had said that “To disagree with three-fourths of the British public is one of the first requisites of sanity.” We needn’t go into the obvious ways in which such a message is prone to perversion, except to say Wilde’s defence of absolute freedom in every area of human life is something of an inoculation against any usurpation by dictators, that his elitism of individuality should not equate to a political elitism. His absolute individualism is an inoculation against oppression, whether that tyranny is brought about by government or money power.
"Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinion, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation” said Wilde later in De Profundis, text more tormentedly personal of course, but the message was essentially the same. Society as it stands does not allow people to be what they want to be, and that is its greatest crime. In The Soul Of Man, Wilde holds that being absolutely true to yourself was the most essential message to be found in the teachings of Jesus Christ and the greatest goal of any society. The pain which Jesus’ endured is no longer necessary, and the self which we reach will be a new state, beyond the necessity of sacrifice. It is hard to deny that such a vision is utterly removed from any bureaucratic statistopia. It is equally hard to deny that it is quite as equally far removed from a capitalism where the poor are shackled to the rich, and all are shackled to commerce. “It will be a marvellous thing, the true personality of a man” when it finally appears.
In fairness to Marx, he too could offer the odd glimpse into the liberated society which he envisaged socialism would lead to, and in his vision too it was one in which the true potential of the individual was unleashed. In the German Ideology, he wrote that in a society un-encumbered by the division of labour and bolstered by plentiful and bountiful resources, that a man could would be able to "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner... without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic." Sadly this was an all too rare insight into the end goal of the purest liberty which Marx had in mind. Can this absence really be unrelated to the abysmal tyrannies committed blindly in the man's name? In The Soul Of Man, Wilde gives full untrammelled voice to the liberation dreams hidden largely in Marx's head, as the German spent his devoted his energies to what we might call with wry understatement "the details" of society as it is, how and why revolution was to occur. Marx inspired action where Wilde only dreamt. But dreams are necessary too. As with much of Wilde’s writing, one feels the presence of a large and loving wisdom, a generous genius, all the more profound for being informal and approachable. To hear this voice speak out for the cause of equality and liberation is a truly a liberation in itself, and a release.
If Wilde's essay is dreamlike in its idealism, and in its unique beauty, it is amorphous like a dream too. When it comes to what communism will “look like”, Wilde gives more of the specifics in aesthetics and principle lacking in Marx, but he is as vague as the man himself in concrete examples of the how the society is to function. Still, no-one ever came to Wilde to seek the steely rigours of practical instruction. Yet to another great Victorian polymath, quite a few people often did.
William Morris loomed as large over the intellectual world of late 19th century Britain as did Wilde, though his shadow fell on different areas. Both were writers, both were poets, and both had a very particular aesthetic vision which was to prove as inspirational as it was divisive. Morris’ pastoral view of England, a bucolic arcadia with a rustic, rural and Nordic spirit, was every bit as influential as Wilde’s iconoclastic and urbane art for art’s sake. But the more practically minded Morris was a craftsman and draughtsman as much as a dreamer and thinker, a man whose textile designs are more well-known to the wider public today than his writings. Morris was the high overseer of the arts and crafts movement, a print-maker and editor or the highest distinction, and a founder member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Morris was more a joiner than Wilde in more ways than one.
Wilde neither joined nor applied for membership of any political parties or societies. Like a later, wise-cracking left-winger, he probably wouldn’t belong to any that would have him. Morris by contrast was a leading figure in both the Social Democratic Federation and the later Socialist League, the earliest organisations in Britain to have fought for a fully realised socialism in both name and form. His temperament tended more to the aesthetic than the ascetic, and he was happier conversing on art with his friends the pre-Raphaelites than reviewing policy documents. Nevertheless he was not averse to the organisational side of the political world, and proved an effective leader. He helped build organisations with the same methodical care in which he produced beautifully bound editions of Chaucer, and, with his inspirational lectures, did as much as any other one man to promote the popularity of the socialist cause in the century’s later years. Perhaps it should not be surprising then that Morris should seek to combine his literary and artistic sensibilities to his proselytising for a freer and more equal world. To him there was no contradiction between the two. The result of this marriage of aesthete art and political purpose was his 1890 novella News from Nowhere.
The inspiration for News From Nowhere was a negative one. The American lawyer, writer and socialist Edward Bellamy had written his own utopian fantasy novel Looking Backward, which sought to imagine the perfected future society which a socialist revolution would bring about. In Looking Backward, America is transformed into a machine-led society of plenty-for-all, a rationalised utopia organised from the centre. Unemployment and poverty are banished, great rationalised and nationalised chain stores provide citizens with all they need. Morris reviewed the novel in the Socialist League magazine the Commonweal, and his reaction, while polite, was unmistakably hostile. It was not just the impersonality of Bellamy’s vision which unnerved him, nor the centralisation, with all the propensity for dictatorial abuse which that entailed. It was the fact that Bellamy saw work itself as an evil to be vanquished, a primitive throwback to be banished in his labour-saving, leisure oriented utopia. This was deeply unsatisfying to Morris, and was determined to offer an alternative view as to the promised land where socialism might lead. News From Nowhere was the response.
Its plot was a response too. Just as in Looking Backward, News from Nowhere features a narrator who is spirited away from the dingy present to a fantastically improved future. But unlike the earlier book gleaming mechanised world of Bellamy, that very futuristic future, Morris’ hero at first seems to be stepping not into the future at all, but further into the past.
Awakening one day following an evening discussing what a future society might look like with his friends at the Socialist League, middle-aged, middle class Londoner William Guest takes a walk along the Thames to find it oddly cleaner than usual. Taking a boat ride with a curiously dressed, handsome oarsman, Guest travels up the river to find the rickety habitations thrown up by industrialisation remarkably absent, “the soap-works with their smoke-vomiting chimneys had gone; the lead works gone, and no sound of riveting and hammering came down the west wind from Thorneycroft’s.” In their place are verdant greenery interspersed with beautifully designed medievalesque houses. Guest is as unnerved by this as he is by the fact that his oarsman (also dressed in a style closer to the 1400s than the 1800s) seems mightily amused when Guest suggests payment for the ride.
"I think I know what you mean. You think that I have done you a service; so you feel yourself bound to give me something which I am not to give to a neighbour, unless he has done something special for me. I have heard of this kind of thing; but pardon me for saying, that it seems to us a troublesome and roundabout custom; and we don't know how to manage it.”
The ruggedly handsome oarsman, whose name it transpires is Dick, takes warm pity on the on the confusion of the relatively haggard Guest, and takes him on a quick tour of the hamlet style commune in which he and his fellow healthy, youthful and cheerful citizens live. Guest sees citizens displaying arts, crafts and furniture they have made themselves at stalls, giving or exchanging wares but expecting no payment in return. He sees craftsmen working on benches and then relaxing in the woods afterwards, and finding equal satisfaction in each activity. It becomes clear than many people he meets are a good few years older than they look, such is the succouring and flourishing environment in which they dwell. Seeing that Guest’s confusion is still intense given the alien world from which he has arrived, Dick and his girlfriend Clara, another vivacious and hearty character give him over to the more detailed instruction of an older man; the wry and avuncular Hammond. Seeing that Guest is truly an outsider, from what is in effect another world, he explains as patiently as he can.
Hammond explains that in today’s world money is meaningless, and that small, autonomous interdependent communities produce what they need and trade with one another. Cities have in effect have dissolved, there is no distinction between town and country, habitations are distributed precisely where people want and need them, enmeshed within surrounding nature.
Central authority does not exist, decisions are based entirely at a local level. “I must now shock you by telling you that we have no longer anything which you, a native of another planet, would call a government.” Marriage and divorce are no more, free and equal relationships are forged between men and women at will, based on mutual affection alone. This may seem the least radical of Morris’ ideas to us today, upon its earlier readings it was probably the most. Morris tells Guest how Dick and Clara have been lovers for many years but for a while they grew apart and each had other partners between them, before realising that they were in the end happier together. Entrapped as the earlier reader would have been in the draconian bonds of Victorian marriage, Guest can hardly fathom the sexual freedom on display. “Socialist” though he is, he finds it as hard to accept this as to accept that people can work without payment. How can you get people to work when there is no reward for labour? Hammond explains the reward is “the reward of creation. The wages that God gets, as people might have said in time agone. If you are going to ask to be paid for the pleasure of creation, which is what excellence in work means, the next thing we shall hear of will be a bill sent in for the begetting of children.”
Morris’s society is a world revolving heavily around “work”, but work is no longer seen in any way as something divorced from enjoyment, as something that has to be done to ward off starvation or to accumulate abstract wealth. Work is no longer a chore. From an early age children are taught to create things which they love, and which make them happy. If their surroundings do not suit them, they are taught to make their own. Some may find it more amenable to fashion pottery, some to write poetry, some to assemble brickwork, some to cook, some to perform athletic feats. But to all, a sense of art is integral, not additional to life.
Everyone is encouraged to try their hand at everything, so they are not limited to one path of expression, and to have a large degree of self sufficiency. And yet, equally importantly, people are allowed to pursue their own desires and enthusiasms so that the activities which they spend most time on are the ones they enjoy the most, and which in turn they can excel at to the best of their abilities. The boy who enjoys welding with brass will turn his love into an essential service for the community, in just the same way that the girl who enjoys poetry the most will create this into a commodity for those who enjoy it. Crucially though, she is not writing the poems to please others, but to please herself. Division of labour is gone, all work is now a “hobby”, or rather more than that - a thing of enjoyment and fulfilment. Yet in being harnessed for the community becomes so much more than that. The same principle is applied to physical work and mental work, to music and exercise, to the serious and the jocular, so that people are able to achieve the very zenith of what they are capable, hence the beautiful bodies and minds on display. This society would contain “Neither brain-slack brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers” to quote a phrase Morris uses elsewhere.
One of the great innovations of Marx’s writings was the theory of alienation, the fact that workers, toiling for wages on work completely divorced from their own needs, become separated from their essence, their very being. While this alienation has been fascinatingly explored by many, from Lukacs to Debord and the Situationists, it is much rarer to see an explanation of what humanity would look like with the alienation removed. Morris sought to achieve this through the bucolic natives of News from Nowhere. These were not just men and women working how, where and why they wanted, these were self-contained artists, producing their own aesthetic surroundings producing their own reality, rather than living in another’s.
As the book’s plot unwinds in its charming way, just as even the most hard-headed capitalist may find it hard to refute some of its arguments, so even the most idealistic utopian may find it unlikely that such a society could ever genuinely be created. Guest himself shares this incredulity with his host. It is at this point, when Hammond begins to explain the history of how the commonwealth came about, that the tale takes on a sterner tone. He explains at some length how the capitalists did not give up their wealth through education, through persuasion, or any sudden spasm battalions of philanthropy on their part. On the contrary, Hammond recounts how capitalist Britain was wracked through heroic strikes from the working classes which lead to increasingly violent and vicious repression from the rulers. This bloody impasse eventually leads to all out civil war, leaving carnage in its wake. In a fairly brief aside he mentions thuggish pro-government leagues bought off by the bosses to put down the masses, which go by the name of the “Friends of Order”, an eerie augur of Fascism. This struggle eventually comes to an end after several years, when the workers begin to generate their own self governing communities which win over more and more converts. Eventually the capitalists simply cannot afford to buy off the loyalties of sections of the proletariat any more. As their capital supplies dwindle, and communities become increasingly more self sufficient, they lose their potential to either bribe or blackmail the wider populace.
Whatever one makes of this scenario, it certainly takes News from Nowhere out of the realms of the abstract utopia, or for that matter prissy pacifist idealism. On the contrary, it places the plot in a specifically Marxist framework of class war, fleshing out for the first time what such a violent struggle might look like in practice. Morris did indeed consider himself a follower of Marx, but found equal inspiration in the teachings of John Ruskin. The great genius art critic (a teacher of Wilde at Oxford) was as influential to Morris for his theory of man being degraded by an urban environment as he was in his arguments that all work should be pleasing as well as productive, “labour without joy is base, joy without labour is base.” He wanted to expunge the arid abstraction from Marx, and the lingering desire for social hierarchy in Ruskin. News from Nowhere is Morris’s audacious synthesis of the father of scientific socialism and the self-professed “violent Tory of the old school”.
As William Guest wakes after his blissfully inspiring sojourn with Hammond, Dick and Clara, he finds himself back in dingy industrial London, sad to leave them, but hopeful for the future. And so this seminal tract ends with the very conventional plot device of the ‘ambiguous dream’, at the end of what is in some ways a quite traditional story. Quite apart from its ideological controversies, it has been quite as divisive as a piece of art. Its vision of a hopeful future served as a great beacon of idealism inspiring many thousands to take up a lifelong struggle of a freer and more equal future . At its best its arcadian idyll can give the socialist reader the feeling that the ghosts of old England are on their side, that the cause of a just future has found its greatest ally in the ancient past. Its pastoral prose style has found admirers who are not socialists themselves.
On the other hand it has had its detractors as well. George Orwell for one was unimpressed with what he termed its “watery melancholy”, meaning the very satisfaction and self-containment of its characters made them insipid. Orwell made this observation in an essay which maintained that describing a perfect, or even a particularly happy society in inspirational terms was so hard as to be nearly impossible. There is perhaps a certain lack of spark in the prose, but perhaps this is, as Orwell says, the sheer impossibility of capturing utopia in print. Dystopias are far more vivid, as he and others proved. When challenged with imagining an ideal world, even Swift, the greatest of imaginative writers, could only create those very wise, very dignified, very dreary horses, the Houyhnhnms. Morris managed better than most.
What would Wilde himself have made of it? As far as I know there is no record of this. Wilde was certainly an admirer of Morris himself, of much of his work and his aesthetic vision. One biographer speculated whether the playwright visited the engraver on his deathbed, it transpires this was probably not true, though the pair were certainly on warm correspondence terms in earlier years. It does seem likely though that a man whose work is rife with waspish worldly-wise aphorists like Lord Henry Wooton, Jack Worthing and Mrs Erlynne, may have found Dick, Clara and the whole rustic crew a little too clean living for his tastes.
There were other fundamental differences. Wilde’s attitude to nature is ambivalent; witheringly contemptuous of “wearisome, uncomfortable nature” which he finds hopelessly inferior to art in The Decay Of Lying, and yet later finding sublime wonder in natural simplicity near the end of De Profundis. Wilde seems to swing both ways here, but taken as a whole his essentially sophisticate worldview seems as urban as it is urbane, elementally distanced in sensibility from Morris’ communism of carpentry. For Morris, nature was supreme, an organic ideal to which humanity should aspire. A different palette of thought was being drawn from in both men. Wilde’s well of cultural inspiration was essentially cosmopolitan; pagan Greece and the Catholic Europe of Italy and France. The Europe which inspired Morris was that of the North, he espoused an organic, medieval rural idea of the British isles which he saw as interwoven with the ancient sagas of Scandinavia. Wilde was Classical, Morris was Gothic. Visions of the future inspired by these two quite separate and unique imaginations were bound to have their differences.
The line about a man calling a spade a spade being compelled to use one does not indicate in Wilde a man who sees any intrinsic value to manual work, however fresh and free the environment where the digging takes place. The Soul of Man claims that the Greeks were correct on the need for slaves, and that we now have machines to play such a role. Morris, by contrast, sees machinery itself as an anonymising tool of the market, which would, to coin a phrase, “wither away” once socialism had arrived. Morris found fulfilment in labour, Wilde sought to escape it altogether. This is a major schism to put it mildly, and in that area at least, it seems likely Wilde may have preferred Edward Bellamy’s labour –saving utopia closer to his Hellenic ideal than Morris’s pastoral paradise.
The similarities however, are more striking than the differences. Classical and Gothic aside, both were Romantic. These were visions of socialism which both showed a profound understanding of how inequality and the market economy poisons human relationships, distorting life into a warped mirror of its own debased priorities and limiting possibilities. While abhorring capitalism, they both warned against a vision of an alternative which would set against the power of capital an equally oppressive power of the state, the “industrial tyranny” of augur. Most importantly, both were visions in which the autonomy of the individual was sacrosanct, in which the absolute freedom of the individual to be what they wanted to be was inviolable. Marx may have wanted this too, but the ambiguities surrounding his wishes have led to the darkest of consequences.
While Morris was the more practical man, he was every bit as committed as Wilde to the aesthetics of human happiness, and to the principle that art and culture were central to society, not just a by-product. Both were passionate in their belief in the sanctity of the independent human spirit. The sheer stupefying dullness and uniformity which characterised the societies of post-war Poland, of Honnecker’s East Germany, of Czechoslovakia following brave Dubcek’s defeat, would have been as alien to them as muck to marble, with less similarity in form and spirit than the bile of Pat Robertson has with the Sermon on the Mount.
It is not suggested here that either The Soul of Man or News From Nowhere are a stand-in or replacement for the great works of the socialist canon, that Marx and Tawney can be thrown from the window, or that lyrical dreams are a substitute for the lived experience of struggle. Nor is either work without important flaws. Wilde’s vision is beautiful, but its reliance on the Great Man, on outside agitators as the only agent of change, is frankly elitist. News from Nowhere on the other hand is so tied into Morris’s particular ruralist outlook as to put anyone who actually quite likes living in a city (not an insignificant number of people) off the idea of socialism altogether. What they are however, apart from being brilliantly inspiring revelations in themselves, are magnificent correctives to the high-handed excesses of other thinkers, so heavy is the air of freedom about them.
Some would claim it is not correct to classify the pair as socialists at all, but rather as anarchists. Certainly those within the modern Left Anarchist tradition passionately claim them for their own. In their denunciation of state tyranny and advocacy of decentralised community power allied to their egalitarianism, it is very clear there is at the very least much common ground. Wilde and Morris, while clear on the way their ideal society would look, were not prescriptive as to their method of travel. Wilde gave no indication at all. Morris clearly believed a violent revolution would be necessary to uproot and overturn the capitalist system, but issued no prescription against accessing the levers of power to move society towards this direction. Anarchists denounce any function of the state, or participation in Parliamentary process. The heroic achievements won by social democracy: full employment, free healthcare, support for the weak and disabled (now being systematically destroyed) were great steps towards the empowerment of both working people as a group, and towards unleashing the potential of individuals to lead the lives they want to lead, emancipated from the slavery of poverty. Of course Wilde and Morris would have thought these measures didn’t go nearly far enough, but I still believe they would have treasured these achievements, not scorned them.
Take a look at the index of any dictionary of witty quotations, and Wilde is likely to be one with the most entries, or in the top five at any rate. Jostling with him for position is likely to be that other great Anglo-Irish wit; George Bernard Shaw. The pair were contemporaries and friends – on one occasion when Shaw launched a petition to free the Haymarket Martyrs (anarchists jailed in America), Wilde was the only one to sign it. Shaw went on to outlive Wilde for half a century, and his vision and version of socialism was the one which came to predominate. For Wilde, this was a tragedy, for Shaw, a dubious vindication by default. For socialism, it was a disaster.
If the driving force behind Wilde’s socialism was liberty, the controlling passion for Shaw was order. Of course he could write the most brilliant denunciations of the horrors inflicted by poverty on the workers, or on the absurdities of sexual inequality. But it was the chaos of capitalist society which he opposed more than its injustice. It was the wanton inefficiency of unemployment which irked him more than the human misery it caused.
In Wilde’s wit there is always a warmth, no matter how sharp the surface. Shaw’s barbs have an icier quality to them, the air of a sarcastic schoolmaster chiding his children for disappointing him -yet again. Shaw didn’t see himself as a poet, but as grand designer, the great engineer of the human soul (as Stalin himself said a writer should be), re-sculpting it in his own image. He had no faith in the working-class as an agent of its own liberation, and his attitude to individual proletarians in his plays was one of ill-concealed contempt. No, the only way that workers, and society as a whole could be saved was by the benign tutorship of the enlightened, rationalised middle-class, by individuals, in short, such as his good self. It was this corrosive spirit which formed the kernel of the Fabianism which has so sullied the soul of socialism in this country.
I simplify perhaps, but not too much. When one moves beyond the UK and into the realms of international politics, it is hard to overstate how detrimental and deleterious Shaw’s attitude was. He was, of course, one of the main cheerleaders for the Stalin regime, apologist-in-chief for the crimes of Communism, the myopic scar which was to disfigure sections of the Left, and bring the rest into disrepute by association. His was a rather worse betrayal however, than those many Communists of the 20s and 30s who had misguidedly come to see the Soviet Union as carrying out the Marxist mission. Shaw did not even believe in revolution - never had - far too messy, too combustible. He had little time for Marx - but he did have time for Stalin. He admired the tyrant, without even endorsing the thinker who gave the tyrant spurious justification. Here after all was another great engineer of humanity, a “great man” who “got things done”. A man of destiny who didn’t allow such trifles as the value of liberty or the sanctity of human life to get in his way.
Shaw would take this ruthlessness and power-worship even further however, into sympathy not just for Stalin, but even for Mussolini, and, to a lesser extent, Hitler. In this rather rarer perversion, we see in even purer relief the moral and intellectual monstrosities which can be justified when socialism becomes nothing more the desire for a planned economy and opposition to the free market, divorced from the humanistic vision which should inspire it. The modern Right, particularly in America, is full of pseudo-libertarian quarter-wits yelping “Hitler was a socialist too! You’re all the same!”, while trying to prise Barack Obama into their demented and nonsensical Venn diagram. It is Shaw’s intellectual outrages with give this drivel currency. George Orwell observed that most Englishmen either considered Communism and Fascism as opposites, and so sympathised with one over the other, or else they saw them as the same, and opposed them both. Only Shaw, he ruefully remarked, saw them as the same and so supported them both for that very reason (“though Shaw is not an Englishman”.) This is where you can end up when the means engulfs the end, where your enemy’s enemy is always your friend.
Though they did not live long enough to give us hard proof, it is literally unthinkable to imagine either Wilde or Morris displaying the slightest sympathy for Stalin (let alone the Fascists.) Turning the tables, it is equally impossible to imagine Stalin, Mao, Hoxha or Gaddafi reading their works with anything other then seething contempt. Such effete decadence , such rebellious individualism, such unworkable idealism…The very fibre of their writing pulse with a humanity, a sheer will to freedom which these arid tyrants entirely lacked. But it is not just the Stalinists who lacked this basic vitamin of respect for individuality and autonomy. Many Fabians, Shaw among their number were very nearly as corrupted. The same corruption led to the enthusiasm which many of them had for eugenics, “re-scalpelling” society in the most sinister way possible. Take Shaw’s chilling phrase “the only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialism of the selective breeding of man.” The same inhumanity and inflexibility would lead others into anti-Semitism. Here is Shaw again: "This is the real enemy, the invader from the East, the Druze, the ruffian, the oriental parasite; in a word: the Jew.” It would be hard to dream up a clearer example of how a creed of liberation had been wrenched from its origins.
Stalinist and Fabian, revolutionary and reformer alike were to end up betraying the very basic tenets of socialism because they ended up the free autonomy of the individual human being. Arch-Fabian Beatrice Webb dismissed the 1926 General Strike, the nearest this country has ever came to revolution in the twentieth century, as “a monstrous irrelevance in the sphere of social reform”.The working man was not to be trusted, he was too brutalised by capitalism. He would be led to salvation either by a revolutionary vanguard political party run by intellectuals and warriors, or a reforming state run by intellectuals and bureaucrats. In rejecting individuality, they ended up jettisoning the fundamental freedom of the worker to live the life that he or she wishes to lead: the whole reason why the creed evolved in the first place.
The biggest defence of the true spirit of socialism is not in the example of any one leader, writer or thinker, but in the lived experience and struggle of the working people down the decades who have fought for fairer wages, more spare time to live their lives, freedom from being ravaged by want: what E.P. Thompson termed the “moral economy” of the masses. Nonetheless, the brave and bold example of a few magnificent, unique individuals did much to not only inspire a movement, but also made it truer to itself. Wilde and Morris are not alone here.
There are other inoculations against the viruses of Stalin and Shaw, other heroes. E.P. Thompson himself, the historian who did more than most to rescue the voice of ordinary people from “the enormous condescension of posterity.” Orwell of course, famous enemy of Stalinism, but an equal foe of Fascism, British imperialism and the brutalities of the free market. William Cobbett, the great agrarian writer, farmer and eternal rebel whose dogged and rugged individualism has been claimed by Tories, but whose unassailable fight for the underdog places him as a the champion of the common man against the powers-that-be, ( a man whose anti-intellectual outlook, taken in small doses, is a valuable corrective to the systemising excesses of the urban middle-class left.) Above all, the heroic stand of all those on the Labour Left, from Bevan to Foot, from Tony Benn to Dennis Skinner who have kept alive the strongest support for egalitarianism, and workers’ rights without ever falling under the Soviet spell.
All the same, the examples of Wilde and Morris offer a unique counterbalance of idealism and clarity, of insight and inspiration, warriors with words, grand sentinels of soul and mind. It is time to take heed. Movements for freedom, fighting the stagnant tyranny of the plutocracy are flaring the world over, armed insurrections, occupations, protests, strikes. The Occupy movements may be scorned for their blank-slate idealism, but at least they are finally free from the deadening sectarianism which has ultimately strangled every previous insurrection. They are not in thrall to dead Russians, and this is a good thing. Time for some dead English and Irishmen to be heard instead. Not Shaw though: his time is over, his day is done. Let’s let Wilde and Morris have their say.