I have never actually read an entire work by Oscar Wilde. I’ve read quotes of his, like everyone has, but never an entire piece by him. So, I decided to fix that and so I read his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism recently.
It’s an excellent work, and somewhat depressingly, seems but for a few topical references like it could have been written yesterday. Granted, it is very idealistic, perhaps even naïve, in the ease with which he forecasts creating a socialist Utopia, but the problems he identifies are quite familiar.
It is curious to compare Wilde’s line of thinking about the importance of alleviating poverty to free people for artistic endeavors, and the use of welfare today. For instance, I understand that Britain has been undergoing welfare reform similar to that implemented in this country by President Clinton. The emphasis in these reforms is placed on increasing incentives to work, and ensuring that those on welfare take jobs.
I am not sure what Wilde would think of this. This passage from his essay, in particular, springs to mind:
“I hardly think that any Socialist, nowadays, would seriously propose that an inspector should call every morning at each house to see that each citizen rose up and did manual labour for eight hours. Humanity has got beyond that stage, and reserves such a form of life for the people whom, in a very arbitrary manner, it chooses to call criminals. 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. All association must be quite voluntary. It is only in voluntary associations that man is fine.”
(As George Orwell pointed out in his review of this essay, in the 20th century Socialists did just this.)
The point of welfare reform is to see to it that welfare is a stop-gap measure to help people out while they try to go back to work. That’s not the goal Wilde had when he looked at poverty. Not that I wish to imply he’s right. He was an idealistic, dreamer/poet. And he’s been dead for over a century. It may very well be that the people reforming welfare have a better idea of how a modern society ought to work than Wilde did.
Wilde wanted people to be free to exercise their minds and imaginations; to be freed from the pain of poverty to use their minds. He wanted to cultivate an artistic and intellectual society through socialism; and more specifically, the abolition of private property.
But, of course, we know better nowadays. The abolition of private property does not usher forth a Utopia, it only destroys incentives. The part of Wilde’s essay in which he warns “If the Socialism is Authoritarian… then the last state of man will be worse than the first” is, ironically, a description of the Soviet Union thirty years before it was created. Clearly, if nothing else, socialists utterly failed at the implementation phase. At worst, their plans were inherently flawed.
So, as I see it, there are two facts that emerge from this essay. Firstly, it seems, in my opinion, to describe problems which are still visible in the world at present. Secondly, it proposes solutions which we, knowing what Wilde could not, recognize as either impractical or not solutions at all.
Which leaves only the questions: are the problems outlined by Wilde still present in modern society and if so, what other solutions are there?
P.S. It may also interest readers to compare the ideas in Wilde’s essay with those espoused by the bygone authors discussed in this post.