From the October-December 1956 issue of Forum
Most people think of Oscar Wilde as the writer of The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Importance of Being Earnest or that great poem. The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Few think of him as a propagandist of socialism, or even a revolutionary thinker. Very few have taken seriously an essay written in 1891—The Soul of Man Under Socialism, and yet this short work has much to commend it.
Wilde was not a “professional revolutionary"; he had little understanding of economics, and had probably never read a word of Marx. He was a “Utopian.” Still, even to-day, The Soul of Man is worth reading—even by scientific socialists.
Socialism and Reformism.
Wilde was no reformer. Of the “very advanced” school of reformers he said: "They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive"; or, he added, by amusing the poor. But, he continued, this is not the solution to the problem of poverty—it is an aggravation. "Accordingly, with admirable, though redirected, intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.”
Wilde also felt that the worst slave-owners were those who were most kind to their slaves, who were the most altruistic and charitable, as they prevented the horrors of me system being realized by those who suffered from them. “Charity,” he wrote, creates a multitude of sins.” The only real and lasting answer to poverty was to reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty would be impossible; to establish Socialism (or Communism) where “each member of the society will share in the general prosperity and happiness of the society . . . ”
Individualism and Authority.
By converting private property into common property and substituting co-operation for competition, society will become a healthy organism; it will give life its proper basis, its proper environment. Socialism, thought Oscar Wilde, will lead to Individualism, or what we would probably term “individuality”—the free expression and development of each individual in his society. Socialism would be, must be, a completely free society, a way of life free from authority and coercion. He saw authority and compulsion as the negation of a society of free individuals, as the enemy of “Individualism.” He writes: —
“What is needed is Individualism. If the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power if, in a word, we are to have Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first. At present, in consequence of the existence of private property, a great many people are enabled to develop a certain very limited amount of Individualism. They are either under no necessity to work for a living, or are enabled to choose the sphere of activity that is really congenial for them, and gives them pleasure. These are the poets, the philosophers, the men of science, the men of culture—in a word, the real men, the men who have realized themselves, and in whom all Humanity gains a partial realization.”
But the great majority, says Oscar Wilde, have no property; they are compelled to do uncongenial work, “and to which they are forced by the peremptory unreasonable, degrading tyranny of want. They are the poor . . . ” Later in the essay Wilde returns to this lack of Individualism in our present- day society and the dangers of authoritarianism in future society. For, he says: —
“ It is clear . . . 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 freedom at all . . . Every man must be left quite free to choose his own work. No form of compulsion must be 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.”
Wilde thought that private property had crushed “Individualism ” and the creative spirit in general. But, with the abolition of private property, there would be a healthy and beautiful Individualism; for no one would waste his life accumulating things and symbols of things. Most people exist, but in a socialist world they would really live.
Here Wilde runs parallel with Engels when the latter says that with the seizing of the means of production by society, man for the first time emerges from mere animal conditions into really human ones—from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom. “Man, at last the master of his own form of social organization, becomes at the same time lord over Nature and his own master—free” (Socialism, Utopian and Scientific).
Engels and Wilde.
Engels was a “ scientific socialist.” He was in the main scientific, analytical, in his approach to social problems. Wilde was not. He saw poverty, degradation, a lack of freedom or “ Individualism,” and he did not like it. It revolted him. He looked upon Socialism not only as the solution to the problems thrown up by private property but as something desirable in itself, as something beautiful, ennobling. Engels saw it as the logical outcome of social processes.
But for all that, The Soul of Man Under Socialism does give us something. It warns us of the dangers of authority; and it gives us a vision of a future society where all can develop their individual capacities quite freely. Wilde was probably the last of the “Utopians”—and the most human. Let us also be a little “utopian” at times. “ Progress is the realization of Utopias.”
Peter E. Newell