21 January 2014 — New Left Project
Wit, provocateur, sharp social satirist. Oscar Wilde was, famously, all these things, but he was also a highly engaged participant in the radical political circles of late Victorian London. Nowhere was his stature as a serious political thinker more evident than in his 1891 essay, ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism.’
Beautifully crafted, ‘The Soul of Man’ is also one of the most insightful visions of and arguments for socialism ever written. It is also free to read in its entirety online. A few passages to whet your appetite:
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.
The virtues of the poor may be readily admitted, and are much to be regretted. We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so… a poor man who is ungrateful, unthrifty, discontented, and rebellious, is probably a real personality, and has much in him. He is at any rate a healthy protest.
The State is to make what is useful. The individual is to make what is beautiful. And as I have mentioned the word labour, I cannot help saying that a great deal of nonsense is being written and talked nowadays about the dignity of manual labour. There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading… All work of that kind should be done by a machine.
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.
Today we launch a series of articles on ‘The Soul of Man,’ understanding it in its historical context and assessing what we might make of its arguments today.
We open with an introduction to the essay and to Wilde by Sos Eltis, of the University of Oxford.