21 January 2014 — New Left Project
Despite its title, Wilde’s 1891 essay ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism,’ first published in the Fortnightly Review, advocated not state socialism but anarchism: there were to be no laws, no prisons, no punishments, no family, in short no authority over the individual. In Wilde’s utopia everything necessary or useful was to be manufactured by communally-owned machines, while people were to be left free to choose their own occupations, cultivating leisure and pleasure, ‘the making of beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight.’
Wilde’s radical argument for the communal ownership of the means of production and the abolition of private property was not based on values of altruism or the brotherhood of man; on the contrary, the chief advantage of socialism (to use Wilde’s chosen term) was to be that it would relieve mankind from the ‘sordid necessity of living for others.’
Though grounded in deeply humane values, Wilde’s essay eschewed sentiment and sentimentality. Competitive capitalism had left many on the brink of starvation, forced to work as beasts of burden, he explained, their lives devoid of ‘grace of manner, or charm of speech, or civilization, or culture, or refinement in pleasures, or joy in life.’ There was to be no appeal to charity, which simply perpetuates an immoral system by alleviating the worst of its effects, using private property to repair the ills caused by the institution of private property. Instead of romanticizing the poor, Wilde underlined the obscenity of lives degraded by starvation and overwork, contributing much to humanity’s material gain and nothing to its spiritual, intellectual or cultural life. But it is not only the poor whose lives are cramped and thwarted by capitalism, according to Wilde’s wide-ranging analysis of the ills and obscenities of the status quo: the wealthy too are thwarted from true self-development by the distorted values of a society which valued what one has above what one is.
Similarly, the exercise of power degrades those who exercise it, just as it degrades those over whom it is exercised. So, Wilde declares, all forms of government are wrong, from despotism to democracy—the latter, despite the high hopes once formed of it, being ‘simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.’ The true value of socialism is thus that it will lead to individualism—an individualism of self-realisation and self-development far removed from contemporary anti-statist opposition to taxation, state education or the regulation of labour. Under capitalism, Wilde explained, only the rich and fortunate few are free to realise their full human potential, and even they are liable to use up their energies resisting authority; but under socialism everyone would be able to realise their selves without interference or judgement. This is the true evolution of mankind: the free diversifying of types, living intensely and fully, their self-realization marked by Nature’s sign of approval, pleasure.
With its apparently careless references to ‘Socialism, Communism, or whatever one chooses to call it,’ it is all too easy to dismiss ‘The Soul of Man’ as a flippant exercise in superficial wit—as many contemporary reviewers did. The vagueness of Wilde’s terminology, however, was both entirely appropriate to still nascent and evolving systems of political thought, and neatly side-stepped the internal divisions and conflicts between contemporary radicals which led William Morris and Eleanor Marx, for example, to break away from H. M. Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation to form the Socialist League in 1884. The anarchist individualist agenda of ‘The Soul of Man’ is entirely consistent with the anti-authoritarian bent of Wilde’s other writings and with numerous incidental expressions of his political sympathies, from his friendships with such activists as Sergius Stepniak and Félix Fénéon, to his bailing of the troubled young revolutionary John Barlas. The essay is neither a personal declaration of allegiance nor a political manifesto—neither of those were remotely Wilde’s style—but rather a provocative intellectual engagement with and analysis of contemporary political and social principles and attitudes.
The radical ideas explored in the ‘The Soul of Man’ were informed by and engaged with a range of contemporary political thinkers. Wilde’s rejection of authoritarian state socialism aligned him clearly with Mikhail Bakunin, while his belief in the innate virtue of mankind, uncontaminated by the pernicious influences of private property, competition and punishment, closely paralleled William Godwin’s and Pierre Kropotkin’s arguments on the degrading effects of law, judgement and penalties. The influences and consonances which run between Wilde’s essay and a host of other radical political theorists and philosophers are multiple, but Wilde adopted and adapted elements from a wide range of sources without subscribing fully to anyone else’s set of values. So his rejection of public opinion, celebration of individual diversity and rejection of social orthodoxy as a constriction upon the free and healthy development of self, all echo central tenets of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay on ‘Self-Reliance,’ but Wilde went far further than Emerson in advocating the dismantling of all systems of private property and law. Wilde’s emphasis on the aesthetic pleasure of individual creation and his faith in the innate virtue of mankind are strikingly similar to William Morris’s 1884 lecture on ‘Art and Socialism’ and his utopian anarchist vision News from Nowhere (1890). But where both writers described modern man as enslaved to the machine, Wilde had none of Morris’s belief in the spiritual value of manual labour, declaring instead that ‘most of it is absolutely degrading.’ Wilde drew on J. S. Mill’s critique of public opinion and conformity in On Liberty (1859), a work to which ‘The Soul of Man’ owed much in terms of form and structure, but went far beyond Mill in not just setting severe limits to the state’s legitimate control but abolishing it altogether. Together with a wealth of such influences, perhaps one of the essay’s least predictable inspirations is Taoism, a source which Wilde openly acknowledged:
Individualism, then, is what through Socialism we are to attain. As a natural result the State must give up all idea of government. It must give it up because, as a wise man once said many centuries before Christ, there is such a thing as leaving mankind alone; there is no such thing as governing mankind.
The wise man was Chuang Tsu, a translation of whose writings Wilde had enthusiastically reviewed a year earlier, observing admiringly that Tsu ‘is a very dangerous writer, and the publication of his book in English, two thousand years after his death, is obviously premature, and may cause a great deal of pain to many thoroughly respectable and industrious persons.’
However familiar some of Wilde’s ideas and recommendations may have been, the playful, witty, paradoxical style of his essay marked it out from other contemporary writings. George Bernard Shaw was, perhaps, the writer who most closely shared Wilde’s love of destabilizing linguistic terms and intellectual clichés, challenging systems of thought by subverting the language in which they were expressed. In The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), a work based on lectures which Shaw claimed had inspired Wilde’s political essay, the Fabian socialist used paradoxical humour to similar ends, arguing like Wilde that only through selfishness can the individual become truly selfless, by ceasing to impose their own values upon others. Both writers denounced all notions of duty and self-sacrifice as corrupt and damaging constraints upon the individual’s personal and intellectual development—a doctrine which was particularly relevant to the late Victorian feminist attacks upon the imposed ideal of female self-sacrifice and self-abnegation.
However, unlike so many of the writers he drew upon, Wilde grounded his political arguments not just in principles of justice, humanity and freedom, but also in aesthetic values of beauty and pleasure, a perspective which is intrinsic both to the essay’s ideas and its style. Where Proudhon declared that ‘Property is theft,’ Wilde lackadaisically notes that ‘property is really a nuisance.’ Happiness and self-fulfilment for everyone are what socialism is most importantly to deliver. By freeing the artist from the constraints not only of financial necessity but also of public opinion, socialism is to offer the ideal environment for artistic self-expression, innovation and experiment. ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ reads as a manifesto for artistic modernism, for the liberation of art from the stultifying demands of conformity, popularity and classical imitation.
Crucially, the essay’s unstable, paradoxical, humorous style also undermined and subverted orthodox systems of value and conventional assumptions. Thus the virtues of the poor are to be regretted, whereas,
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. As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them, of course, but one cannot possibly admire them. They have made private terms with the enemy, and sold their birthright for very bad pottage.
Wilde was not only advocating civil unrest, he was discarding central pieties of capitalist free enterprise and self-improvement. While advocating individualism, Wilde was careful to distance himself from the capitalist free-marketers, who denounced any constraints upon individual wealth acquisition and self-determination in the name of social mobility, ambition and the self-made man. Wilde rejected wholesale the values of hard work, thrift and self-control which had made Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help (1859) a Victorian best-seller, and which have so long been appropriated to portray competitive capitalism as a meritocracy of opportunity and character-building freedom. Wilde airily eschewed such values, while challenging the self-righteous and complacent concept of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Why should those whose lives have been marred and made hideous by society’s laws support those laws? It is the ungrateful poor who should be admired for the courage and clarity of their thinking: ‘Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannize over their private lives.’ Significantly, it is the individual’s ‘personality’ which is to be fully realized under socialism rather than his or her ‘character,’ a word so often used to connote discipline and self-control rather than mercurial self-expression and the freedom of impulse.
The flamboyantly provocative style of Wilde’s essay enabled contemporary Victorian reviewers to dismiss it as a mere jeu d’esprit; as one reviewer commented in the Spectator (7 February 1891), ‘The article, if serious, would be thoroughly unhealthy, but it leaves on us the impression of being written merely to startle and excite talk.’ In England the essay received little notice at first, and the only reprint from the magazine edition during Wilde’s lifetime had a print run of a mere fifty copies. By 1912 it had, however, gone through three further editions, and was commended by Wilde’s admirers for its humanity, wisdom and lucidity. ‘The Soul of Man’ was far more enthusiastically and seriously received abroad. In France, where there was a close allegiance between anarchism and the artistic avant garde, Wilde’s political radicalism was well known, and his essay was quickly translated and published in Gustave Grave’s anarchist magazine La révolte. According to Wilde’s friend and biographer Robert Sherard (never the most reliable source, it should be said), millions of copies of the essay were sold across central and eastern Europe, and it was read enthusiastically by revolutionaries in Russia, Germany and Austria. In 1992 Peter Marshall in his history of anarchism, Demanding the Impossible, judged Wilde to be ‘the greatest of all libertarians’ on the basis of ‘The Soul of Man.’ The essay’s wit, humour and intellectual flair, which enabled contemporary English reviewers to brush it aside as a glib trifle, are exactly same qualities which have helped it linger in the memory, haunt, provoke and inspire. As Wilde happily acknowledged, his is an impractical scheme, but then,
A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.
This article is part of our series, The Soul of Man under Socialism.
Dr. Sos Eltis is Fellow at Brasenose College, University of Oxford. She is the author of Revising Wilde: Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) and Acts of Desire: Women and Sex on Stage, 1800-1930 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)