Trying to understand the arguments of someone whose worldview is opposed to yours is often an extremely difficult task. In our increasingly diverse and interconnected world, however, we have to try. Here we will examine the radical views of a brilliant mind, to show you how it can be done.
Who was Oscar Wilde?
Oscar Wilde was one of the greatest authors of the late 19th century. A poet of the first order, he wrote several works which are still widely read today, including Dorian Gray’s photo and The importance of being serious. His wit and humor are legendary, as is the story of his downfall, decline and death.
As a poet, Wilde was remarkably in tune with the social issues of his time. His proposed remedy for the various ills of Victorian England was a radical socialism which had not been tried for short periods before. His arguments are abstract and he only briefly mentions the financial details. However, they are still worth considering, if only to help us understand how a revolutionary spirit works.
Why was Oscar Wilde a socialist?
In his test The soul of man under socialism, Wilde begins his argument for collectivism from an odd starting point. He does not want a perfectly egalitarian society or one that subjugates the individual will to the common good. He is drawn to left-wing views because of his belief that “socialism itself will have value simply because it will lead to individualism.”
But how? Isn’t socialism the opposite of individualism?
Wilde believed that capitalism as it existed at the time, with the poor working for a pittance and the wealthy too preoccupied with business, prevented almost everyone from developing their personality, from reaching the heights of individual success and live life to the fullest.
He argued that giving control of the means of production to the community would free the poor from the horrors of poverty and the rich from the fear of bankruptcy. This would then allow people to explore their personality and live life to the fullest. As Wilde expresses it, in his ideal system, “One will live. To live is the rarest thing in this world. Most people exist, that’s all.
Considering recent studies showing how horrible worrying about money is for your health, he might have been onto something.
What about all this totalitarianism? Why didn’t he predict this?
Of course, he understands that an authoritarian socialism would fail to promote this individualism. He found the idea of ”economic tyranny” by the state to be a dangerous concept that would be worse than the Dickensian world he lived in. He demanded that all collectivization be done voluntarily and without coercion of any kind.
Writing this when he did, long before the totalitarian socialist regimes of the 20th century, his ideas were prophetic. Considering the force with which he opposed the centralization of economic power in the state, it would perhaps be better today to call him an anarchist.
Did these ideas have anything to do with his art?
Oscar Wilde was above all a writer and a poet. His essay reflects this. When he thinks of the few human beings who have been able to fully actualize themselves as individuals up to this time, he lists artists such as Lord Byron, Percy Shelly and Victor Hugo. His ideal world is designed to create artists.
In the spirit of Wilde, freeing the individual from slavery for starvation wages or maintaining large estates to avoid the fate of the poor will allow everyone to focus on creative pursuits. This, in turn, will promote the development of the individual. His utopia is, as historian George Woodcock put it, “the society most favorable to the artist.”
Wilde sees no conflict between the ideal world for the artist and for the promotion of individualism since he also says that “art is the most intense mode of individualism the world has ever known.”
What did he think of the reform of capitalism?
Wilde was writing at the end of the Victorian era, when the poor were thrown into workhouses and the starving had little recourse but the sympathy of others. While he would find modern capitalism more humane than the classical variety he endured, his most radical desires, such as freeing the wealthy from the duties of corporate management, would remain unfulfilled even in the most fundamentally reformed capitalist system.
Moreover, he seems to see reform as a disservice to those who need help the most. According to him, helping the poor only prolongs their suffering. By making the situation of the poorest a little more comfortable, the charitable alleviate the symptoms of poverty, but not the disease.
Oscar Wilde was a writer of unusual wit and ability. His praise of the individual and his distaste for the injustices of England at the height of its power propelled him towards an anarchist outlook long before the trials of the 20th century darkened the dreams of many leftist idealists.
His arguments, though dated, show us the workings of a revolutionary spirit similar to those we often encounter but rarely understand. His points, though often utopian, are still essential to consider as we look to the future. As he said:
“A map of the world that doesn’t include Utopia isn’t even worth taking a look at, because it leaves out the only land where Humanity still lands. And when Mankind lands there, it looks out and, seeing a better land, sets sail. Progress is the realization of utopias.