Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter and the Socialist Eros

by Christopher Brooke, Josephine Quinn

Oscar Wilde's socialism was inextricably bound up with his thinking about love and desire.

First published: 27 January, 2014 | Category: History, Philosophy and Theory

Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay, 'The Soul of Man under Socialism,' is, obviously, a wonderful piece of English prose. But as a contribution to socialist political theory, it can be somewhat puzzling.[1] Many of us expect our socialism to come hand in hand with a commitment to egalitarianism and democracy. Yet much of the essay is a celebration of the very finest artists, and one of its only explicit remarks about democracy is that ‘it has been found out.’ ‘High hopes were once formed of democracy,’ Wilde writes, ‘but democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.’[2] If Wilde sounds like any of his near contemporaries in this essay, it is his fellow anti-moralist Friedrich Nietzsche, and Nietzsche is as incisive a critic as we have of egalitarianism and democracy—and one who, unlike Wilde, rejected all forms of socialism, too. 

Instead of running with the Nietzsche comparison, we might prefer to view what Wilde has to say through the lens of Karl Marx. Some of Wilde’s formulations do indeed sound a bit like the kind of thing the young Marx might have written in the early 1840s, had he had very a different style of writing, with their shared emphases on creative self-expression and the way in which the regime of private property obstructs the free development of personality. And for those who think that Marx was neither much of a democrat nor much of an egalitarian, there are further opportunities for exploring the affinities between their respective positions. But any such inquiry is likely to get bogged down in Marxological warfare—the view that Marx is an undemocratic anti-egalitarian is controversial—and that in turn is likely to get in the way of a clear view of Wilde’s contribution. 

What we want to do in this short essay, then, is to illuminate some of what is going on in 'The Soul of Man' by situating it with respect to two contemporary alternative versions of socialism: first, that of the Fabian Society, the most influential of all the late Victorian socialist groups, and, second, with the perspective offered by Edward Carpenter. Carpenter, like Wilde, is better known today for his role in the history of gay liberation than for anything to do with his socialism, and indeed, both men’s socialisms were, as we shall indicate below, closely bound up with the ways in which they thought about love and desire. Yet their arguments pulled in different directions. To take a single example, where Wilde denounced democracy, Carpenter enthusiastically embraced the ideal, and one of his longer works, a prose poem much influenced by Walt Whitman, was called Towards Democracy. What we suggest here is that we can read Wilde and Carpenter as offering different responses to the account of socialism presented in the pages of the 1889 Fabian Essays

Wilde and Carpenter may not have met one another, though their lives certainly intersected. Wilde published a favourable review of Carpenter’s socialist songbook, Chants of Labour, in the Pall Mall Gazette in February 1889, for example, and Carpenter delayed the publication of his first major essay on what he called ‘Homogenic Love’ because of the public impact of Oscar Wilde’s trials in 1895. ‘From that moment,’ he later wrote, ‘a sheer panic prevailed over all questions of sex, and especially of course questions of the Intermediate Sex.’[3] Even if their paths didn’t literally cross, both men participated in the same wider milieu of British socialism, in particular with the world of the Fabians. Edward Carpenter had been one of the founders of the Fellowship of the New Life in 1883, and the origins of the Fabian Society can be found in a split from that group in January 1884, with George Bernard Shaw saying of the two sides to the split, ‘One to sit among the dandelions, the other to organise the docks.’[4] Over the remainder of the 1880s, the Fabians came to repudiate anarchism, and also moved away from Marxism.[5] Wilde attended their meetings in 1888, and the following year their major publication appeared, a volume of Fabian Essays edited by Shaw, who also provided two essays and a postscript, with further contributions from Sidney Webb, William Clarke, Sydney Olivier, Graham Wallas, Annie Besant and Hubert Bland. 

The Fabians looked forward to a world of increasingly centralised, mechanised and socialised production. In his contribution to the Fabian Essays, Clarke described the passage ‘from individual to collective industry,’ tending towards ‘huge monopolies’ with ‘well defined aggregations of capital on the one hand, and dependent machine minders on the other.'[6] Besant, in her contribution, set out a Fabian industrial programme to address this situation. The County Councils provided the ‘machinery without which Socialism was impracticable,’[7] and these were slowly to extend their authority over the organisation of production in their areas. This combination of centralisation and mechanisation gives us an outline sketch of Wilde’s conception of socialism, in which as much work as possible was to be automated. Wilde further envisaged an end to the system of private property, insisting that this last reform would not only benefit those who had previously lacked property but also those who hadn’t, for, as Lady Bracknell would later complain in The Importance of Being Earnest, ‘What between the duties expected of one during one’s lifetime, and the duties exacted from one after one’s death, land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure.’[8]

In his review of Chants of Labour, Wilde had remarked that ‘to make men Socialists is nothing, but to make Socialism human is a great thing.’ We can read 'The Soul of Man,' then, as a supplement to the Fabian programme that ruminates on this interesting and difficult challenge. For Wilde, socialism is a world in which the barriers to self-realisation have been systematically stripped away, freeing us to concentrate on higher things. But what kind of higher things? Here, it is helpful to fast-forward to 1895, to Wilde's famous impromptu speech at his second trial:

The Love that dare not speak its name’ in this country is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy… It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect… It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the ‘Love that dare not speak its name,’ and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it. 

This is a classic statement of the ‘Socratic eros,’[9] an aesthetic conception of same-sex affection which had been spun out of the ideas put into Socrates’ mouth by Plato in, especially, his philosophical dialogue Symposium, and which was especially popular at the University of Oxford, where Wilde had studied in the middle 1870s. This was an eros that originated in sexual desire, but which, as it developed, came to transcend bodily concerns entirely, as the love of an individual’s own beauty and virtue became first the love of all beautiful and virtuous people and things, and, subsequently, a philosophical understanding of the idea of the beautiful and the good. The Socratic eros not only had an impeccable academic pedigree—it went back, literally, to the original Academy—but was also potentially useful, at a time when sexual activity between men was illegal: the 1885 Labouchère Amendment created the vaguely-specified criminal offence of ‘gross indecency,’ which was subsequently used to convict many gay men, including Wilde himself. It offered an ideology of affection between men that sought to displace attention away from sex towards more rarefied, intellectual concerns. 

The eros of 'The Soul of Man' is not necessarily a same-sex eros. Wilde remarks that ‘marriage in its present form must disappear’ along with property, and that this will work to make ‘the love of man and woman more wonderful, more beautiful, and more ennobling.'[10] But it is nevertheless a recognisable version of the Socratic eros, depicting a world in which human beings are able to transcend material concerns in order to concentrate on the development of personality, artistic expression, higher spirituality, and the appreciation of the beautiful. This is what Wilde calls the ‘new Individualism,' which is also, and significantly, ‘the new Hellenism.'[11] (Reading the essay through the lens of the love that dare not speak its name also helps make sense of, for example, Wilde’s impassioned defence of privacy against the prurience of the popular press.)[12]

To draw attention to Wilde’s Socratic eros casts a particular light on what is going on in 'The Soul of Man.' But we can pull Wilde’s socialism into a sharper focus when we consider it alongside aspects of Carpenter’s alternative socialist vision, and his alternative version of same-sexual politics. For if Wilde wrestled with the difficulty of how to make Fabian socialism human, Carpenter sought a different kind of socialism altogether. 

Socialism for Wilde, as we have seen, was a world in which machine production freed individuals to focus on what was beautiful. ‘The State is to make what is useful. The individual is to make what is beautiful.’[13] But Carpenter rejected this dichotomy. Like William Morris, he was one of those socialists who worried about the eclipse of craft skills and the associated virtues of artisanal production that wholesale mechanization would necessarily entail. ‘Work in a free society would be done because it was useful,’ Carpenter wrote, and, ‘of course I here include what is beautiful under the term useful—as there is no reason why one should separate what satisfies one human need, like the art-need, from another human need, like the hunger-need.’[14]

As this contrast suggests, Wilde and Carpenter considered the question of necessities in opposing ways. Socialism, for Wilde, organised production in such a way that dealt with the realm of necessity, leaving individuals to live in a realm of freedom. The ‘chief advantage’ of socialism, he wrote, in the famous opening sentence of his essay, was precisely that it should ‘relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others.'[15] But for Carpenter there was nothing that was sordid either about dealing with necessities, or about living for others. 

This is clear from his pamphlet on ‘Homogenic Love,' in which he set out an alternative vision to that of the exponents of the Socratic eros of how same-sex relationships might flourish. Carpenter there argued that lovers in an egalitarian ‘comrade-union’—a far more straightforwardly physical affair than that envisaged by the Socratics—made for excellent citizens. The relationship ‘satisfies and invigorates the two lovers and yet leaves them free from the responsibilities and impedimenta of family life’ in such a way that they might ‘supply the force and liberate the energies required for social and mental activities of the most necessary kind.’[16]

For Wilde, in conclusion, it was socialism that made possible the very best kinds of affectionate relationships. For Carpenter, it was the other way around. 

This article is part of NLP’s series, The Soul of Man under Socialism.

Christopher Brooke teaches Politics at Bristol University. His book, Philosophic Pride: Stoicism and Political Thought from Lipsius to Rousseau was published in 2012 by Princeton University Press, and Ideas of Education: Philosophy and Politics from Plato to Dewey, edited with Elizabeth Frazer, was published by Routledge in 2013.

Josephine Quinn teaches Ancient History at in the Classics Faculty at Oxford University, where she is a fellow of Worcester College. The Hellenistic West, edited with Jonathan Prag, was published in 2013 by Cambridge University Press, and she is currently finishing a book about the Phoenicians.

[1] What follows draws in part on a longer article. See Josephine Crawley Quinn and Christopher Brooke, ‘“Affection in Education”: Edward Carpenter, John Addington Symonds and the politics of Greek love,’ Oxford Review of Education 37.5 (October 2011), pp. 683-98. References to 'The Soul of Man under Socialism' will be to the Penguin Classics edition of Oscar Wilde, De Profundis and Other Writings, Hesketh Pearson, ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986).

[2] The Soul of Man under Socialism, p.  30.

[3] Edward Carpenter, My Days and Dreams (London: Allen & Unwin, 1916), p. 196.

[4] Quoted in Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (London: Verso, 2008), pp. 89-90.

[5] See, e.g., Mark Bevir, The Making of British Socialism (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 134.

[6] William Clarke, ‘Industrial,' in Bernard Shaw, ed., Fabian Essays (London: The Fabian Society, 1889), p. 67.

[7] Annie Besant, ‘Industry under Socialism,' in Ibid., p. 153.

[8] Cf. 'The Soul of Man under Socialism,' pp. 21-22. For discussion, see Christopher Hitchens, ‘Oscar Wilde’s Socialism,' in Unacknowledged Legislation (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 9-16.

[9] Linda Dowling, Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (New York: Cornell University Press, 1994), chap. 3.

[10] 'The Soul of Man under Socialism,' p. 29.

[11] Ibid., p. 53.

[12] Ibid., pp. 40-42.

[13] Ibid., p. 32.

[14] Edward Carpenter, ‘Transitions to Freedom,' in his edited collection, Forecasts of the Coming Century (Manchester: Labour Press, 1897), p. 181.

[15] 'The Soul of Man under Socialism,' p. 19.

[16] Edward Carpenter, Homogenic Love, and its Place in a Free Society (Manchester: Labour Press, 1894), p. 44.

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?