Understanding Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism
The Essence of Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism
The main idea of the essay is the replacing of the slave/peasant class with automation (robots and machines) assisted by voluntary association, and then using the capital produced for the common good, to free the lowest class from poverty, insecurity, and indignity.
In other words, in this ideal system, the government would be in charge of helping to organize the labor and automation needed to do the “necessary” “producer class” jobs (whose fruits would then be shared by all), and that would then free “the many” from poverty and insecurity and give them room to seek their own path as individuals and creators of “luxury items”.
The idea is that this would be better than the wage slavery and chattel slavery that has been a main feature of just about every society since forever.
TIP: To be clear, we are reviewing Wilde’s work, not suggesting these ideas be embraced as gospel in isolation. I could make cases for why many safeguards would be needed to avoid a system like this becoming tyrannical or exploited, and cases for why this would pair well with a capitalist system (rather than acting as a replacement), and I’m sure the reader could too. The idea here is to understand what Wilde was saying first, and then to judge that idea second.
TIP: Although Wilde hardly discusses every aspect of this system, and does denote the idea of the elimination of private property, generally we can infer that capitalism could still be practiced for the non-necessary and luxury markets, just not for the necessary (in other words, he says there is no private property, but nothing beyond that demands his system actually has no private property or capital in terms of luxury items). So everyone gets to eat, people can work “dirty jobs” if they wish, and ideally no one is forced to do a job directly or indirectly, but also, not everyone automatically gets a Yacht and the government wouldn’t be in the Yacht business (or even in the luxury food or drink business). Here the bottom is lifted up, but everyone, including the top, is offered more liberty (not less). The whole idea is that the individual, not the collective, is the most important. A system like this, where the free market competes with the government indirectly, is hardly a “fully socialist” system.
TIP: Try to read the review below with an open mind. The concept is obviously a bit idealist, but it is also rather prophetic and “realist” given recent advances in tech, the nature of the class pyramid, and the discussions of a UBI. Wilde is applying a libertarian socialist ideology specifically. It is a mistake to equate this with authoritative socialism based on existing bias (especially given that roughly half the essay is about being against tyranny of all forms, be they oligarchical or Communist… which is more than we can say for some civil religions and political theories).
“Up to the present, man has been, to a certain extent, the slave of machinery… Now, I have said that the community by means of organisation of machinery will supply the useful things, and that the beautiful things will be made by the individual.”
Introduction to Oscar Wilde as a Political Thinker
Oscar Wilde wasn’t just a libertine aestheticist and playwright, he was also somewhat of a prophetic libertarian socialist, as can be confirmed by his 1891 political essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism.
This short essay, which one must assume (more than his non-political work or Platonic qualities) explains his harsh prison sentence, is an easy read that hardly needs a summary (read The Soul of Man Under Socialism in full here).
With that in mind, below are a few key points and passages that will offer you the gist of the work without having to read it.
First, let’s discuss the main theme in a bit more detail than we did above.
“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.”
The Main Theme of the Soul of Man Under Socialism
The soul of a man under Wilde’s non-authoritative individualist socialism, where socialism and automation replace demeaning jobs, extreme poverty, and insecurity, is an enlightened soul.
Wilde claims that this form of socialism will breed a type of individualism only known to poets like Byron, Shelly, and Wilde (only known to the sons of aristocrats, who never worked a day in their life, who never knew insecurity, and were instead free to dedicate themselves to individual expression, thinking, and learning).
“Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false“, as Wilde says. It has set up a sort of oligarchy / wage-slavocracy where good-hearted moral capitalists try to solve the ills of private property with private property itself (for example, they try to solve poverty with charity).
However, this noble effort of charity only creates a cycle in which the oppressed stay oppressed without realizing it (Wilde implies that the slave owner who treats their slaves well is the worst, because it covers up the true horror of slavery). When the slave mentality is compounded with propaganda, it creates a class who doesn’t even realize it isn’t free, a class whose ability to eat depends on charity and the weather (for example if one shovels snow, they can only work when it snows).
The idea of this form of socialism then is to replace Gilded Age capitalism with a non-authoritative form of individualist socialism in which economic and political power is never transferred to the state (but remains with the people).
This is notably different than Stalinist collectivism (where a despotic government forces industrial tyranny and is therefore even worse than the pure capitalism). Instead, Wilde’s theory is informed by Peter Kropotkin-style libertarian socialist anarchism and leaves lots of room for expressions like the capitalist production of luxury items (we can hardly imagine that Wilde wouldn’t have wanted to compete in the marketplace of ideas with his plays or not be rewarded for writing them).
With that in mind, obviously this whole essay is rather idealist (and one would assume Wilde would have extra considerations here in 2017), but 1. so anarchism and libertarianism in general are idealist, and 2. it makes it clear that socialism can, on-paper at least, be non-authoritative and actually breed individualism (two things that an oligarch will never admit).
FACT: Sparta had a constitution that was similar to what Wilde describes, albeit it was far more nationalist and less egalitarian.
The Themes of the Soul of Man Under Socialism Explained
Below is are some of the main themes in the essay, explained with quotes, roughly in the order they appear.
The idea that pure capitalism incentivizes people to do jobs that aren’t fulfilling just to avoid poverty and starvation. In other words, that what we can call pure oligarchical capitalism (Wilde doesn’t use that term, he explains it poetically) has led to a situation in which, “the majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation.”
The idea that charity is not a solution, it just makes it worse. “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 a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty.”
People are naturally driven to do good by their “moral sentiment” (so to speak), but pure capitalism only allows for the offering of charity and what we would today call “low wage” “dirty jobs“. He explains it well as, “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 things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good“.
Simply, using private property to undo the ills of private property is nonsensical. “It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.”
Under socialism, people will be free from that “kind form of slavery”. we don’t have to worry about charity, dirty demeaning jobs, and constant moral guilt, because machines will do the dirty jobs, and charity won’t depend on individual altruism and private property. “The security of society will not depend, as it does now, on the state of the weather… each member of the society will share in the general prosperity and happiness of the society, and if a frost comes no one will practically be anything the worse.”
Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism. In other words, when people are free from demanding jobs and insecurity, then everyone will be free to pursue their interests. This one of the key statements that makes Wilde’s political essay worth consideration (the others are his ideals of non-authoritative socialism and his thoughts on the purpose of automation).
In other words, this is less about the elimination of private property and more about anti-authoritarianism and individualism. Although Wilde does suggest the elimination of private property, it isn’t about forcing workers to do jobs. It is more about replacing those demeaning jobs with automation and socialism and freeing up people to do jobs like philosopher, artist, and innovator. Wilde disliked the idea of the state organizing labor and disliked the idea of charity, he would likely in retrospect support some degree of capitalism as his ends were utopian, humanist, and idealist (not centered around some commune of workers). “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 insure the material well-being of each member of the community. It will, in fact, give Life its proper basis and its proper environment. But for the full development of Life to its highest mode of perfection, something more is needed.
To be super clear here, Wilde is against tyranny and economic oppression in ANY FORM. He is saying, “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.” Wilde would have fully rejected Stalinism, he sought socialism in a form that favored individuals and their dignity, not states and their economic power.
The class that needs to spur on this form isn’t the oppressed (like Young Marx thought), it is the un-oppressed “abolitionists”. Wilde doesn’t want a slave revolt or workers’ revolution, he expects those who are already living socialist lives (like the upper-class, poets, and artists) to do the work of “agitating” and to expect no thanks as, “Misery and poverty are so absolutely degrading, and exercise such a paralysing effect over the nature of men, that no class is ever really conscious of its own suffering. They have to be told of it by other people, and they often entirely disbelieve them. What is said by great employers of labour against agitators is unquestionably true. Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation. Slavery was put down in America, not in consequence of any action on the part of the slaves, or even any express desire on their part that they should be free. It was put down entirely through the grossly illegal conduct of certain agitators in Boston and elsewhere, who were not slaves themselves, nor owners of slaves, nor had anything to do with the question really. It was, undoubtedly, the Abolitionists who set the torch alight, who began the whole thing. And it is curious to note that from the slaves themselves they received, not merely very little assistance, but hardly any sympathy even; and when at the close of the war the slaves found themselves free, found themselves indeed so absolutely free that they were free to starve, many of them bitterly regretted the new state of things. To the thinker, the most tragic fact in the whole of the French Revolution is not that Marie Antoinette was killed for being a queen, but that the starved peasant of the Vendee voluntarily went out to die for the hideous cause of feudalism.”
We can’t be clear enough for the right-wing American liberal reader, just as Wilde couldn’t be clear enough to his late 1800’s reader, this form of Wilde-libertarian-socialism fully rejects Authoritarian Socialism (he would rather see pure capitalism than Stalinism). “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 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. And by work I simply mean activity of any kind.”
The idea here is that this would be a non-compulsory and non-authoritarian form meant to foster individualism. “I hardly think that any Socialist, nowadays, would seriously propose that an inspector should call every morning at each house to see that each citizen rose up and did manual labour for eight hours. Humanity has got beyond that stage, and reserves such a form of life for the people whom, in a very arbitrary manner, it chooses to call criminals. 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.”
No really, Wilde fully realizes the benefits of private property and individualism, he just also admits the suffering masses lack this and is trying to solve that problem. “But it may be asked how Individualism, which is now more or less dependent on the existence of private property for its development, will benefit by the abolition of such private property. It will benefit in this way. Under the new conditions Individualism will be far freer, far finer, and far more intensified than it is now. I am not talking of the great imaginatively-realised Individualism of such poets as I have mentioned, but of the great actual Individualism latent and potential in mankind generally. For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses. It has led Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies, not in what man has, but in what man is. Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false.”
The idea is to replace the desire for accumulating lesser things with a freedom to focus on greater things (which for some people would still be lesser things, but hey, to each their own). “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.”
Wilde then goes on for a bit about Christianity and its relation to the themes he has noted so far. An important part of this is the idea that the poor are like Jesus, suffering now for great gains for later generations. Another idea is that Jesus didn’t force Rome to be socialist, but rather acted with humility and understanding. The section is very readable and interesting, but doesn’t add much to the theory. “‘Know thyself’ was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be thyself’ shall be written. And the message of Christ to man was simply ‘Be thyself.’ That is the secret of Christ.”
Wilde then very clearly states that: no, no really right-wing reader, really though for real, this is by no means suggesting that we give the government excessive power (this is libertarian socialism, not libertarian oligarchical capitalism). “Individualism, then, is what through Socialism we are to attain to. As a natural result the State must give up all idea of government. It must give it up because, as a wise man once said many centuries before Christ, there is such a thing as leaving mankind alone; there is no such thing as governing mankind. All modes of government are failures. Despotism is unjust to everybody, including the despot, who was probably made for better things. Oligarchies are unjust to the many, and ochlocracies are unjust to the few. High hopes were once formed of democracy; but democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people. It has been found out. I must say that it was high time, for all authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised. When it is violently, grossly, and cruelly used, it produces a good effect, by creating, or at any rate bringing out, the spirit of revolt and Individualism that is to kill it. When it is used with a certain amount of kindness, and accompanied by prizes and rewards, it is dreadfully demoralising. People, in that case, are less conscious of the horrible pressure that is being put on them, and so go through their lives in a sort of coarse comfort, like petted animals, without ever realising that they are probably thinking other people’s thoughts, living by other people’s standards, wearing practically what one may call other people’s second-hand clothes, and never being themselves for a single moment. ‘He who would be free,’ says a fine thinker, ‘must not conform.’ And authority, by bribing people to conform, produces a very gross kind of over-fed barbarism amongst us.”
The state only acts as the robots will act (or automation as Wilde called it in 1891). The state acts as the producer class only, the luxury class is then where the class pyramid exists (side-note: that is a rather genius take on Plato’s Republic). “Now as the State is not to govern, it may be asked what the State is to do. The State is to be a voluntary association that will organise labour, and be the manufacturer and distributor of necessary commodities. The State is to make what is useful.”
The machine is the new slave (sorry robots), man should neither be a slave to machine or replaced by him in relation to wages, instead, automation will allow for this new form of socialism. “And I have no doubt that it will be so. Up to the present, man has been, to a certain extent, the slave of machinery, and there is something tragic in the fact that as soon as man had invented a machine to do his work he began to starve.”
Wilde goes on about automation (I don’t want to underplay this, his idea of replacing the bottom of the class pyramid with machines is the best idea in the book; it is actually a socialist idea that might work some day).
Then Wilde goes on about the nature of art and propaganda. This is summed up by the quote, “In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press.” It is hard to summarize, but he basically says “the public, due to its situation, doesn’t understand true art very well, and this sort of creates a nightmare regarding propaganda and shaping public opinion in the capitalist state… In so many words, he spends paragraphs not saying (not a quote), “people aren’t very cultured and this is used against them by oligarchs to get them to fight against their own interests, not just political, but on every level”. “I need hardly say that I am not, for a single moment, complaining that the public and the public press misuse these words. I do not see how, with their lack of comprehension of what Art is, they could possibly use them in the proper sense. I am merely pointing out the misuse; and as for the origin of the misuse and the meaning that lies behind it all, the explanation is very simple. It comes from the barbarous conception of authority. It comes from the natural inability of a community corrupted by authority to understand or appreciate Individualism. In a word, it comes from that monstrous and ignorant thing that is called Public Opinion, which, bad and well-meaning as it is when it tries to control action, is infamous and of evil meaning when it tries to control Thought or Art.”
In other words, the problem with democratic capitalist society is that the oligarchs and tyrants shape public opinion and low-wage hard labour depresses and corrupts individualism, so we actually have an oppressed oligarchical collective of wage slaves who vote against their own interests. Again, me thinks this explains the prison sentence (where Wilde was forced into hard labour for acting upon being gay and soon after died).
To end, Wilde then goes on again about all the themes reaffirming that this is anti-authority, humanist, Christian, individualist, etc. So then, let us end this in Wilde’s own words:
“The evolution of man is slow. The injustice of men is great. It was necessary that pain should be put forward as a mode of self-realisation. Even now, in some places in the world, the message of Christ is necessary. No one who lived in modern Russia could possibly realise his perfection except by pain.
A few Russian artists have realised themselves in Art; in a fiction that is mediaeval in character, because its dominant note is the realisation of men through suffering. But for those who are not artists, and to whom there is no mode of life but the actual life of fact, pain is the only door to perfection.
A Russian who lives happily under the present system of government in Russia must either believe that man has no soul, or that, if he has, it is not worth developing.
A Nihilist who rejects all authority, because he knows authority to be evil, and welcomes all pain, because through that he realises his personality, is a real Christian. To him the Christian ideal is a true thing.
And yet, Christ did not revolt against authority. He accepted the imperial authority of the Roman Empire and paid tribute. He endured the ecclesiastical authority of the Jewish Church, and would not repel its violence by any violence of his own. He had, as I said before, no scheme for the reconstruction of society. But the modern world has schemes. It proposes to do away with poverty and the suffering that it entails. It desires to get rid of pain, and the suffering that pain entails. It trusts to Socialism and to Science as its methods. What it aims at is an Individualism expressing itself through joy.
This Individualism will be larger, fuller, lovelier than any Individualism has ever been. Pain is not the ultimate mode of perfection. It is merely provisional and a protest. It has reference to wrong, unhealthy, unjust surroundings. When the wrong, and the disease, and the injustice are removed, it will have no further place. It will have done its work. It was a great work, but it is almost over. Its sphere lessens every day.
Nor will man miss it. For what man has sought for is, indeed, neither pain nor pleasure, but simply Life. Man has sought to live intensely, fully, perfectly. When he can do so without exercising restraint on others, or suffering it ever, and his activities are all pleasurable to him, he will be saner, healthier, more civilised, more himself. Pleasure is Nature’s test, her sign of approval. When man is happy, he is in harmony with himself and his environment.
The new Individualism, for whose service Socialism, whether it wills it or not, is working, will be perfect harmony. It will be what the Greeks sought for, but could not, except in Thought, realise completely, because they had slaves, and fed them; it will be what the Renaissance sought for, but could not realise completely except in Art, because they had slaves, and starved them. It will be complete, and through it each man will attain to his perfection. The new Individualism is the new Hellenism.”
In other words, Oscar Wilde’s Socialism is a non-authoritative evolution of socialism where authoritative governments and a slave (or low-wage class or peasant class) is replaced by machines so everyone is free to be individuals and to live to their full potential. Oh, how awful. 😀