Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”

Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”, is full of interesting and challenging thoughts.  Wilde is quite right in a lot of it: his insistence that the abolition of property would do away with jealousy; that solving the problem of poverty is inseparable to the problem of crime; that one day machines must do the trivial tasks for man so that he can be free to pursue more noble pleasures.  Where I challenge him is where he fails to take his thoughts, even in their extravagance, far enough.

As machines must be purposed for manual labor so that man can dismiss it, Wilde first reasons that the ideal Personality of man will not have to concern himself with the poverty of others, because socialism will make the property of one the value of all.   That this will be done through consensual means is essential according to Wilde’s insistence on voluntary interaction, because the individual cannot thrive in his true potential under authority.  Neither, Wilde states, can he thrive while he must reach out a hand to his fellow man, for obligation obstructs the free development of personality.  For this reason, it must be relieved of such concerns while, instead, the State handles them: “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 individual is to make what is beautiful.”

The State is here put forth as a thing not just antithetical to individualism, but composed of something other than individuals.  It is reasoned that the State should do what is useful while individuals do what is beautiful, but it is not said how the State will organize labour and distribute necessary commodities without the involvement of individuals who, by Wilde’s own standards, must be working in a way which hinders personality: “Most personalities have been obliged to be rebels”, Wilde notes.  “Half their strength has been wasted in friction.”  But then who will be the personalities to mobilize the State?  And is there not to be had much friction, much grinding of antithetical forces, in the distribution of necessary commodities?  Let alone the process of those involved — and how many! — to decide what is and is not necessary and for whom?

The State itself, politics itself, the organization of men as a process, is not without friction.  By definition, if men were uniform than there would be no need to struggle for consensus.  But, as Wilde testifies, “There is no one type for man. There are as many perfections as there are imperfect men.”  What, then, is this remarkable world where man will at once distribute according to need and by consent while possessing different needs and, perhaps even, imperfect ones?  If “the note of the perfect personality is not rebellion, but peace”, then the realization of such a world will require the work of many rebellious persons who, having achieved it, must remain in conflict to defend.  By what process will we decide who among us must defend this world so that other cultured men can go about their lives ignorant of its preservation?  Wilde, perhaps with a sense of irony, answers the question for us: “The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible.”

Without slaves, one must hope for those men whose perfect personalities dictate to them the necessity of fighting for civilization.  I would, in earnest and humility, sign myself up for that permanent battle.  But I would argue further that every personality should have some scent of this rebelliousness in him, regardless; and that Wilde’s vision of an ideal world involving a lack of such friction is not just impossible but undesirable.  If, after all, human beings shared Oscar Wilde’s notion of what civilization is, his vision of the soul of man under socialism would then, and only then, be true, but its exposition would be useless.  It is only because conflict is inherent in human thought and action, and only because civilization and its defense demand and involve a constant dialectic, that Wilde’s interesting and thought-provoking essay can have extraordinary value for being just that.  And because his vision for humanity is so untrue, his essay will maintain its worth for generations still.  Wilde, again, anticipates this understanding:

“It will, of course, be said that such a scheme as is set forth here is quite unpractical, and goes against human nature. This is perfectly true. It is unpractical, and it goes against human nature. This is why it is worth carrying out, and that is why one proposes it. For what is a practical scheme? A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish.”

As one protests existing conditions by dreaming something outside them and refusing to play by their rules, so does one be an “Individual” in Wilde’s sense by rejecting existing standards: “Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest tradesman.”  Art today is at its dullest when the public finds it interesting; poetry is deemed effective precisely because it fails to have an effect; and the affected aesthetic is assimilable because anger reaches out to anger and is met with applause.  This is how the artist maintains a reputation of individuality while acquiescing to public taste: he sets himself apart from the audience while bellowing its thoughts in uncontroversial style.  In response to this, Wilde sees Individualist art as a “disturbing and disintegrating force [and] therein lies its immense value.  For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine. ”  Truly valuable will be that poetry which, when spoken, garners hate, and in doing so reveals the prejudice of the mob, or at least diminishes its numbers.

To me, Wilde’s understanding of the dialectical force within art, and how the artist “gains something by being attacked” because “he becomes more completely himself” contradicts his admittedly-impractical musings on civilization, which to him appears as Utopia: a static end that society progresses toward.  How is it that the artist gains by being attacked, slandered, or thrown through mud, however dirty, yet the ideal Personality wastes “half their strength” on friction?   Though elsewhere he (correctly) admonishes the institution of property for “confusing a man with what he possesses”, “so that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be”, he then posits civilization as a thing to be possessed rather than a state of being; as a permanence rather than a flux; as the mountain rather than the river.

It is here I do not understand how Wilde’s otherwise-pervasive insistence on the dialectic halts at his idealization of the perfect Personality.  Why is the civilized man aloof to conflict, and why is civilization something external to struggle?  I would insist that civilization is not a permanent state, or a thing to be had, but a constant play of opposing forces, of frictions, of, maybe even, wasted energy. I would insist that this is not just where it derives value, but is itself a valuable process — that this process is civilization; that the ideal Personality is one in constant opposition to existing conditions; that this is the only way to live; and that pretending one can be civilized while remaining separate from the struggle is a lie. And these artists, poets, authors, sculptors, play-wrights, and more, however cultured, however intelligent, however full in blossom, have not tended the soil, and neither deserve civilization nor know anything of what it means to be civilized.

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