“The Soul of Man Under Socialism” is a ridiculous essay, so much so that at points while reading it I had to check myself to make sure I wasn’t missing some irony that would make this Swiftian; I kept thinking “Wilde can’t possibly mean this!” First off, Wilde, the guy who is all about the arts—the less practical the better—is all about leisure, the fastidious copyrighter, the guy who argues in “The Critic As Artist” that, “It is to do nothing that the elect exist” (1136) is seriously arguing now that we should be socialists, all of us sharing in the burdens of society, free of the private property?
Something does not compute. But then again, Wilde consistently claims never to be consistent, and most of his essays end with the caveat that this is just what he’s thinking at the time, his momentary fancy, and he could change his mind, as he says in “The Truth of Masks,” “Not that I agree with everything that I have said in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree” (1173). So, anyone looking for a consistent Wildean philosophy or theory of art is going to be seriously disappointed. I’ve been frustrated myself with contradictory statements on plagiarism, both lauding and berating it at various points, which has made me question whether or not to ever cite Wilde in a critique of him, because he’s probably said the opposite somewhere else in his writings. However, though there have been contradictions and variations, throughout his essays there had been at least a consistency of themes, and—for lack of a better word—feeling: encouraging individuality, placing art on the highest level of human thought and activity, and emphasizing an accessibility of the common man to a capacity for refinement (through art).
Despite my initial misgivings, these themes run through “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” as well, and I suppose, aren’t as absolutely inconsistent with his conception of socialism as one might think, it’s just that his conception of socialism is absolutely bonkers.
Wilde opens the essay with his usual style of proclaiming totally the opposite of the expected, of, as Earnest in “The Critic As Artist” accuses of the refined Gilbert: “treat[ing] the world as a crystal ball. You hold it in your hand, and reverse it to please a willful fancy. You do nothing but rewrite history” (1121). This technique is clever and fun and can work well in the ephemeral realms of aesthetic philosophy and personal relationships, as people naturally contradict themselves all the time, and turning art upside down just gives us more art, but in the realm of political philosophy and practical matters like government, Wilde’s wild theories run up against grave fallacies. His basic conception of socialism is that there is no personal property (mostly because it’s a hassle to upkeep), and that there would be no authority, neither monarchy nor democracy, and that this would result in a far better, more peaceful, more intellectual society.
What do we do about crime? “It obviously follows that the more punishment is inflicted the more crime is produced…the less punishment, the less crime. When there is no punishment at all, crime will either cease to exist, or, if it occurs, will be treated by physicians as a very distressing form of dementia…” (1182). Really? Not only does it not follow that an increase in doing one thing will result in a reduction when the opposite is done, but also to go so far as to say, a lack of authority will result in no crime?
And how do we make people happy? And, “Wealthy people are, as a class, better than impoverished people, more moral, more intellectual, more well-behaved” (1180). (::Cough, cough:: power corrupts?) So, the obvious solution is to make everyone have all the advantages wealth provides.
Sounds good, right? People are hungry—the solution is to feed them. People need more time for doing fun things—everyday is Saturday! Makes sense. Here’s the problem, and the problem that most utopian society designs run up against—who does the work?
Wilde doesn’t take the easy (or typical) way out of this one, by saying we should share the labor, and by sharing we will ultimately have greater efficiency and fairness…; nope, for Wilde, and for the artist to flourish, ample leisure time is required. In fact, we should strive to do as much nothing as we can, which is the true mother of true art. What is Wilde’s answer to the problem of labor?
….Wait for it….
Yes, the machines should do all the labor of our age (in the 1890s). Who sweeps the streets? Machines. Who bakes the bread? Machines. Who works the fields? Still more machines!
“Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing….so, while Humanity is amusing itself…machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work” (1183).
I wonder if this is where Issac Asimov got his inspiration.
Later in the essay, Wilde gets away from Socialism and on to a critique of sensational journalism and society having any influence over the artistic Individual, which sounds much more Wilde-like. However, after his nuts socialism/anarchy introduction, it was hard not to picture the rest of what he said with the backdrop of a dystopian robot uprising.