Oscar Wilde was a Better Marxist than the Bolsheviks, Part 3

“‘Know thyself’ was written over the portal of the antique world.  Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be thyself’ shall be written.”

Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”

I have already made the argument that Karl Marx and Oscar Wilde share a particularly libertarian vision of socialism. I have also already speculated what Wilde’s socialism would have to look like. In this final part, I want to explore the view of individualism under socialism that makes it libertarian, particularly in the words of Wilde and Marx. Let’s begin with the question Wilde asks:

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?

He answers:

Under [socialism], individualism will be far freer, far finer, and far more intensified than it is now… For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses.

Wilde’s answer reveals an existentialist’s view of socialism. For Wilde, individualism is self-making, rather than self-acceptance as is the individualism of Ayn Rand. That left-wing libertarianism is existentialist comes as no shock to anyone familiar with the neo-Marxist work of the nineteen sixties and their near obsession with young Marx. It is young Marx, the humanist, who celebrates the individual to come under socialism. The individual under capitalism is reduced to the base animal functions since the wages of a worker are reduced to subsistence, only these animal functions may be expressed. The norm then for the worker is to be a brute, an animal, for those are the only pleasures allowed for them. Marx writes,

[M]an (the worker) feels himself to be freely active only in his animal functions–eating, drinking, and procreating, or at most also in his dwelling and in personal adornment–while in his human functions, he is reduced to an animal. (99)

Individuality is not a given, it must be cultivated and requires resources to develop it. The goal of socialism, as we saw in part one, is to provide the resources that will satisfy the animal requirements and allow for the human individuality to emerge. The argument presented against this is that a fully realized individual, e.g. a Lord Byron, must have wealth to be fully realized and there is not enough wealth for everyone to be fully realized. Some people will have to content themselves with pushing the dirt around. Wilde argues against this that socialism is not interested in taking away opportunity as it is in extending it to everybody.

The question then becomes how? Right-wing advocates of capitalism argue that this is simply wishful thinking. It cannot be done. Not everyone can be a poet and philosopher. However, this argument is made on a particular set of unfortunate assumptions about the nature of humankind that amount to an anti-existentialism. The most important of these for our purposes surrounds the confusion between being and having, that is confusing self-realization for the possession of private property. Wilde writes,

[Under capitalism, humankind thinks] 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.

This division between possession and essence is best described by the existentialists a half-century later. Using them to understand Wilde, we can conclude that individualism is living an authentic life, where possessions are merely possessions, things to be used in the pursuit of your life’s goals, not necessities that are merely useful. One must have a personality in order to decide what is useful, it cannot be defined for you by an outside agency, capitalist, socialist, or anything else. Individuality is authenticity and socialism is the necessary condition for it.

[Jesus] said to man, ‘You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your affection is inside of you. If only you could realise that, you would not want to be rich. Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot… And so, try to so shape your life that external things will not harm you. And try also to get rid of personal property. It involves sordid preoccupation, endless industry, continual wrong. Personal property hinders Individualism at every step.

Individualism is the call to be authentic, to author your own life, to care little for the direction others would have over your life. Contra religion, Wilde emphasizes that there is no set path to authenticity, no prescribable way to live your life.

Father Damien was Christlike when he went out to live with the lepers, because in such service he realised fully what was best in him. But he was not more Christlike than Wagner when he realised his soul in music; or than Shelley, when he realised his soul in song. There is no one type for man. There are as many perfections as there are imperfect men. And while to the claims of charity a man may yield and yet be free, to the claims of conformity no man may yield and remain free at all.

Individualism is what you make of yourself when you no longer have to labor for mere survival. The rich and the middle classes have to think about money all the time, it is how they make it, keep it, and spend it. When you have to think about money all the time you are unable to develop yourself, to become an individual. You are, in effect, reduced to making yourself whatever is easiest, most convenient, and most attractive to those upon whom your happiness depends. And under capitalism, this class includes everybody.

There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor. What Jesus does say is that man reaches his perfection, not through what he has, not even through what he does, but entirely through what he is.

This notion of individualism echos Marx’s idea of freedom from alienated labor. As Erich Fromm said of Marx, “Socialism… was never as such the fulfillment of life, but the condition for such fulfillment… Marx says quite clearly in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, ‘communism as such is not the aim of human development.’ What, then, is the aim? Quite clearly the aim of socialism is man,” (60). Alienated labor is the particularly capitalist organization of labor which isolates rather than individuates human beings. It breaks people up into specializations, but it also breaks them down into parts, making laborers out of people, or, in a few cases, capitalists. No one is free to be who they want, everyone is compelled by a system designed from without. As Marx said, “alienated labor… alienates man from himself, from his own active function and from other men,” (101). Subjected to our alienated needs human beings become “mentally and physically dehumanized… the self-conscious and self-acting commodity.” In other words, we come to see ourselves and each other as things.

What makes capitalism dangerous is precisely the fact that owning capital seems to fully compensate for the loss. Possessions can be lost, but capital, self-replicating possessions, appear to be just as permanent as authentic being itself. Capitalism, like the Christian ideology it came from, emphasizes an asceticism that forbids individuality because this allows you to replace an authentic existence for a treasure trove of self-creating wealth. Of course, this only works if everyone is made, by incentive or force, to bow to their role in the system. Marx writes,

[The political economy of capitalism] is… [also] the science of asceticism. Its true ideal is the ascetic but usurious miser and the ascetic but productive slave…. The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre or to balls, or to the public house, and the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc. the more you will be able to save and the greater will become your treasure which neither moth nor rust will corrupt–your capital. The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the greater is the saving of your alienated being. Everything which the economist takes from you in the way of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth. (144)

For Marx, the aim of socialism then is liberation from this system. He writes in the manifesto,

All that we want to do away with is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and allowed to live only so far as the interest to the ruling class requires it.

Under socialism, one must not err into thinking that capital is somehow a substitute for individuality, but at the same time, one must not confuse individualism with selfishness. Long before Ayn Rand extolled the virtues of selfishness, Wilde argued that “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them.” Selfishness for Wilde is what altruism is for Ayn Rand. I have already shown that Wilde would have agreed that altruism is bad, but he would have disagreed that selfishness was any different. He condemns egoism, saying,

For the egotist is he who makes claims upon others, and the Individualist will not desire to do that. It will not give him pleasure.

This is because:

Individualism exercises no compulsion over man. On the contrary, it says to man that he should suffer no compulsion to be exercised over him. It does not try to force people to be good. It knows that people are good when they are let alone. Man will develop Individualism out of himself.

And therein lies the great difficulty with individualism, for the freedom to be oneself, is all too often accompanied by the desire to restrict the freedom of others. It was in the name of freedom that slave-holders denounced the abolitionists. “What right have they to take away my freedom to own slaves?” Or as Marx put it, “Freedom is so much the essence of man that even it opponents realize it… No man fights freedom; he fights at most the freedom of others.” Freedom requires the rights of all to freedom. It is not up to the capitalist to decide what a worker’s needs should be, and yet that is exactly what happens. For the capitalists require workers, as much as possible, to resemble the “self-acting commodities” they need them to be. Wilde writes,

[A] man is called selfish if he lives in the manner that seems to him most suitable for the full realisation of his own personality; if, in fact, the primary aim of his life is self-development. But this is the way in which everyone should live… Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognises infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of ones neighbour that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him. A red rose is not selfish because it wants to be a red rose. It would be horribly selfish if it wanted all the other flowers in the garden to be both red and roses. Under Individualism people will be quite natural and absolutely unselfish, and will know the meanings of the words, and realise them in their free, beautiful lives.


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