Oscar Wilde: the soul of man under socialism

 Oscar Wilde was a well known critic of many aspects of the nineteenth century writer Britain in which he lived. Especially interesting from a WSM point of view are the views that he expressed in his essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism. Wilde’s description of socialism was as a world without private property. He clearly favoured this kind of society, commenting that

“It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institutions of private property”.

He does not state that socialism is a world without money. His criticism of charity, however, does imply that the capitalist system should not be reformed but abolished:

“Their remedies do not cure the disease; they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease”.

Although written just over one hundred years ago it is remarkably apt for the contemporary world. Wilde continues:

“For what are called criminals nowadays are not criminals at all. Starvation, and not sin, is the parent of modern crime”.

This is far removed from the traditional values in nineteenth century Britain which we still hear about, as is his condemnation of contemporary attitudes to the poor. He comments:

“sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less”.

Anticipating criticism of this view, he argues that “no Authoritarian Socialism will do”, meaning socialism cannot be forced on people and can only be achieved when the majority want it:

“Socialism, Communism, or whatever, one chooses to call it, by converting private property into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition, will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism, and ensure the material well-being of each member of the community”.

This is as good a definition of socialism as we will find. As well as material well-being, socialism will, for Wilde, also help to bring about a positive brand of ‘individualism’ in which every people can fulfill their individual potential:

“One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

This personality or “spirit,” is what Wilde means by the ‘Soul of Man.’ With the end of war, hunger and poverty, people will take for granted the material things of this world and concentrate on “not in what man has but in what man is.”

Wilde sees machinery as vitally important for this type of society, since it can do most, if not all, of the work:

“At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man.”

Wilde predicts that this will leave man to enjoy:

“cultivated leisure—which, and not labour, is the aim of man—or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight.”

Whilst a socialist world may still require plenty of useful work to be done, it is true that technology can help humanity. Instead of studying new ways for us to kill each other, scientists can concentrate on developing things which would improve the quality of life for everyone. As Wilde puts it:

“The state is to make what is useful. The individual is to make what is beautiful”.

Wilde defines the state as

“an association that will organize labour and be the voluntary manufacturer and distributor of necessary commodities”.

To use the word state was a mistake as he did not mean a government and argued that “the state is not to govern”. For Wilde, the “state” simply meant the co-operation of humans to provide what we need.

The Soul of Man serves as a good introduction to socialism, and is clearly still relevant today:

“They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor. But this is not the solution; it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.”

Researcher: Nigel Green