“The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody.”
Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”
Socialism is not the first thing I associate with Oscar Wilde. In fact, it’s not the fifth thing. The man in my mind is first a playwright, then a poet, novelist, artist, dandy, homosexual, Irishman, celebrity, and finally–with mild dubiousness–a social critic. Nevertheless, Oscar Wilde is exactly the socialist thinker we need today. His essay on socialism, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, offers a particular analysis of capitalism written with Wilde’s usual jaunty wit. While less theoretically precise than the work of, say, Peter Kropotkin, who presents anarcho-communism in a dense manner that was–consistently–a heavy influence on Wilde, the spirit of Man Under Socialism is more moving and more profound than the writer of The Conquest of Bread. Wilde’s picture of socialism is, perhaps, a trifle less anarchistic than Kropotkin, but still heavily emphasizes individual liberty and autonomy.
I think Oscar Wilde best fits the model of a libertarian socialist. The term may be apocryphally applied, but as is clear from his writings on socialism, individual freedom is an essential part of his socialist idyll. Wilde’s position, briefly summed, is that individuality is not to be taken as a given, as many right-wing libertarians would, but instead, individuality can only develop under a system that promotes general fairness and relative equality, viz. socialism. Wilde’s fascination with individual expression led him away from authoritarian socialists, like those that would only a few decades later come to power in Russia. It is dubious that Marxism leads only to the Bolshevik model of socialism, in fact, I would go farther and argue that Wilde’s brand of libertarian socialism is more consistent with Marx’s ideas than Bolshevik theory.
The Bolshevik’s denounced individuality because of its relationship to private property. They felt that it was an example of false consciousness, rather than a valid perspective. Wilde on the other said that socialism is valuable “simply because it will lead to individualism.” Like Marx, Wilde saw that individualism is the goal of socialism and that capitalism, for all its talk of individuality, really makes the vast majority of people live for the betterment of a few. For Wilde, the poor under capitalism are degraded by their relative poverty and so cannot be fully individuated, they must live for others (viz. the capitalists) or perish altogether.
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 not unlike Karl Marx’s vision in the Communist Manifesto:
In place of the bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, shall we have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
But looking after the well-being of each member requires that each member be treated individually and not as a mere member of the community. Wilde writes,
What is needed is individualism. If 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 is taking aim here at what Dr. Richard Wolff will later call “state capitalism”. It is a form of capitalism that retains the aspect of private property ownership but resolves to make the state the sole owner of all property. In effect, this is “concentrated capitalism”, and it is far worse than private capitalism. This concentrated form of capitalism–monopoly capitalism–is no better off when the monopoly is the state. And its failures are replete in the twentieth century.
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.
Wilde introduces a need for freedom into the idea of socialism. Authoritarian socialism, while good for the defense of the socialist state from the teeth of capitalist rivals, is ultimately self-defeating. Despite this, the attempt to force socialism without liberty was as popular in Wilde’s time as it was in the twentieth century.
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… It is only in voluntary associations that man is fine.
But still, the abolition of private property remained central:
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.
Compare this to Marx, writing nearly half a century earlier:
A being does not regard himself as independent unless he is his own master, and he is only his own master when he owes his existence to himself. A man who lives by the favor of another considers himself a dependent being. (138)
Marx, especially early on, was greatly concerned for the life of the individual. Socialism and communism were meant to liberate the individual, rather than dictate to individuals their duties and needs. Marx writes,
Alienation is apparent not only in the fact that my means of life belong to someone else, that my desires are the unattainable possession of someone else, but that everything is something different from itself, that my activity is something else, and finally (and this is also the case for the capitalist) that an inhuman power rules over everything. [Emphasis his] (151)
It does not matter to Marx if our life belongs to a private master or a public one, to live in the service of a lord, a landlord, or a capitalist is no worse than to live in the service of a state, a society, or a community. If it is wrong for one person to steal what is yours (your surplus value) it is just as wrong for ten-thousand people to steal it. And this is just as true when society is “free” as when it is controlled and directed by a governing body.
The “inhuman power” in Marx’s quote above is his name for the action of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”. The action governs the behavior of both capitalist and laborer so that neither is truly free. Wilde, like Marx and Smith, emphasizes this freedom for individual expression as necessary for a good life. Marx is a staunch individualist and his socialism is designed to bring about more, not less, individual expression. It is the same for the wealthy capitalist as it is for the working poor according to both Marx and Wilde. Although Marx merely mentions this fact as an aside in the parenthetical (above), Wilde puts it much more cheekily,
If [private] property had simply pleasures, we could stand it; but its duties make it unbearable. In the interest of the rich, we must get rid of it.
The real antagonist to individual expression is, according to Marx, the political economist, who reduces people to base functions in an economic system:
First, by reducing the needs of the worker to the miserable necessities required for the maintenance of his physical existence, and by reducing his activity to the most abstract mechanical movements, the economist asserts that man has no needs for activity or enjoyment…; and yet he declares that this kind of life is a human way of life. Secondly, by reckoning as the general standard of life… the most impoverished life conceivable, he turns the worker into a being who has neither senses nor needs, just as he turns his activity into a pure abstraction from all activity. Thus all working class luxury seems to him blameworthy, and everything which goes beyond the most abstract need (whether it be a passive enjoyment or a manifestation of personal activity) is regarded as a luxury.
Property creates roles, duties, and even the ideas of idleness and luxury. “What does a worker need ‘free time’ or ‘income beyond necessity’ for? Nothing as far as we can see?” But workers never feel the things they want are “luxuries”, they are simply the things necessary for a good life. Private property, for both men, was entangled with a notion of social rank from which it must be freed before it can be fair. Wilde writes,
In a community… where property confers immense distinction, social position, honour, respect, titles, and other pleasant things… man, being naturally ambitious, makes it his aim to accumulate this property, and goes on wearily and tediously accumulating it long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy, or perhaps even know of… considering the enormous advantages that property brings, one is hardly surprised. One’s regret is that society should be constructed on such a basis that man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him—in which, in fact, he misses the true pleasure and joy of living.
Rich or poor, your life under capitalism is not free to develop its own character. You inevitably live for others. You are forced into a set of classes, which according to Marx, narrow to a set of two: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. While I doubt we will ever come to see ourselves merely as class interests, as Marx predicted, there is no doubt that we do come to live in the “groove in which [we] cannot freely develop”. Wilde defines “class” as a social script, the deviation from which is difficult at best and deadly at worst. Anyone in contemporary America who is not white, straight, healthy, wealthy, and male knows what I am speaking of all too well. The point here is that it is capitalism which establishes what “success” looks like, and to succeed without fitting the model becomes increasingly improbable as capitalism becomes the hegemonic economic system.
In the third part of this series, I will look into this idea further, examining what it means to be an individual and how capitalism interferes with that process according to Wilde and Marx. For now, suffice it to say that Wilde, unlike the Bolsheviks, shared Marx’s underscoring of individuality and his disdain for life under the authority of another, be it the bourgeoisie or the state. The need for individual freedom, for both men, sprouts under any political economy but it flowers only in the soil of equality. In the next part, I will examine the pragmatics of socialism as Wilde and Marx saw it.