'The Soul of Man under Socialism', by Oscar Wilde; included in "Essays and Poems of Oscar Wilde". Penguin Books 2s. 6d.
Oscar Wilde died before the Socialist Party had been founded. It would therefore be a barren exercise at this stage to debate whether Wilde was a Socialist in the exact meaning of that term. What is beyond doubt is that there is in this essay much that the Socialist will agree with. and much more that could form the basis of rewarding discussion. There is no need to be off by the title: by "soul" Wilde clearly meant nothing more than mind—his choice of words has no religious implications.
It is true that part of the essay has little to do with Socialism in any economic sense—nearly half of it is taken up by a diatribe against any attempt at dictation to the artist, whether by government or public opinion. But when Wilde keeps to what is directly relevant, it is a joy to read his sparkling prose, and to see how he hammers his points home.
What of the do-gooders, for example, who try to alleviate the ills of society by well-meaning charity? Wilde writes:
"Their remedies do not cure the disease; they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease. 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. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible . . . 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."
Of the poor, Wilde says:
"Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it."
As for those of the workers who accept their conditions, who have "made private terms with the enemy":
"I can quite understand a man accepting laws that protect private property, and admit of its accumulation, as long as he himself is able under those conditions to realise some form of beautiful and intellectual life. But it is almost incredible to me how a man whose life is marred and made hideous by such laws can possibly acquiesce in their continuance."
Wilde would have nothing to do with state capitalism that is now often passed off as "Socialism":
"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."
He saw that a revolutionary change in the economic basis of society was necessary, and that this would have inevitable repercussions in the social superstructure:
"When private property is abolished there will be no necessity for crime, no demand for it; it will cease to exist . . . Though a crime may not be against property, it may spring from the misery and rage and depression produced by our wrong system of property-holding, and so, when that system is abolished, will disappear . . . Crime will either cease to exist, or, if it occurs, will be treated by physicians as a very distressing form of dementia, to be cured by care and kindness."
Of the future economic organisation of society, Wilde remarks: "The community by means of organisation of machinery will supply the useful things, and . . . the beautiful things will be made by the individual." By individualism Wilde means the full development of man's personality, the possibility of which has been crushed by the institution of private property. The whole essay could be summed up in this paragraph from it:
"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."
This essay is a mine in which only half an hour's reading will reveal many Socialist gems.
Oscar Wilde's work is being much revived now on stage and screen, and it is well to be reminded that Salome and Lady Windermere were not his only creations. Wilde's The Soul of Man Under Socialism, for example, first published nearly 60 years ago, has worn remarkably well. Its author was not in any active sense a Socialist himself, but he was a sympathetic and intelligent observer; although his prophecies have not been fulfilled, they have not been made simply irrelevant by the passage of time.
Wilde's vision of Socialism, which at that date was probably shared by many people less articulate than himself, is Utopian and anarchistic. The abolition of private property, he says, will make possible the full development of the individual and set us free from "the sordid necessity of living for others". In the Socialist future, there will not only be no want and no insecurity, there will also be no drudgery, no disease, no ugliness, no wastage of the human spirit in futile enmities and rivalries.
Pain will cease to be important; indeed, for the first time in his history. Man will be able to realise his personality through joy instead of through suffering. Crime will disappear, since there will be no economic reason for it. The State will cease to govern and will survive merely as an agency for the distribution of necessary commodities. All the disagreeable jobs will be done by machinery and everyone will be completely free to choose his own work and his own manner of life. In effect, the world will be populated by artists, each striving after perfection in the way that seems best to him.
Today, these optimistic forecasts make rather painful reading. Wilde realised, of course, that there were authoritarian tendencies in the Socialist movement, but he did not believe they would prevail, and with a sort of prophetic irony he wrote: "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" – which, unfortunately, is just the kind of thing that countless modern Socialists would propose. Evidently something has gone wrong. Socialism, in the sense of economic collectivism, is conquering the Earth at a speed that would hardly have seemed possible 60 years ago and yet Utopia, at any rate Wilde's Utopia, is no nearer. Where, then, does the fallacy lie?
If one looks more closely one sees that Wilde makes two common but unjustified assumptions. One is that the world is immensely rich and is suffering chiefly from maldistribution. Even things out between the millionaires and the crossing-sweeper, he seems to say, and there will be plenty of everything for everybody. Until the Russian Revolution, this belief was very widely held — "starving in the midst of plenty" was a favourite phrase – but it was quite false and it survived only because Socialists thought always of the highly developed Western countries and ignored the fearful poverty of Asia and Africa. Actually, the problem for the world as a whole is not how to distribute such wealth as exists but how to increase production, without which economic equality merely means common misery.
Secondly, Wilde assumes that it is a simple matter to arrange that all the unpleasant kinds of work shall be done by machinery. The machines, he says, are our new race of slaves: a tempting metaphor, but a misleading, one, since there is a vast range of jobs – roughly speaking, any job needing great flexibility – that no machine is able to do. In practice, even in the most highly-mechanised countries, an enormous amount of dull and exhausting work has to be done by unwilling human muscles. But this at once implies direction of labour, fixed working hours, differential wage rates and all the regimentation that Wilde abhors. Wilde's version of Socialism could only be realised in a world not only far richer but also technically more advanced than the present one. The abolition of private property does not of itself put food into anyone's mouth. It is merely the first step in a transitional period that is bound to be laborious, uncomfortable and long.
But that is not to say that Wilde is altogether wrong. The trouble with transitional periods is that the harsh outlook which they generate tends to become permanent. To all appearances this is what has happened in Soviet Russia. A dictatorship is supposedly established for a limited purpose has dug itself in, and Socialism comes to be thought of as meaning concentration camps and secret police forces. Wilde's pamphlet and other kindred writings consequently have their value. They may demand the impossible and they may – since a Utopia necessarily reflects the aesthetic ideas of its own period – sometimes seem "dated"and ridiculous, but they do at least look beyond the era of food queues and party squabbles, and remind the Socialist movement of its original, half-forgotten objective of human brotherhood.