Oscar Wilde was a Better Marxist than the Bolsheviks, Part 2

“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue.  It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”

In the first part of this series, I showed that both Oscar Wilde and Karl Marx respected individual freedom so much that they saw it as the essence of socialism. Each man envisioned a future that enabled the fullest expression of individuality. Far from the authoritarian socialism of the Bolshevik model; Wilde had libertarian socialism in mind. Neither man was particularly explicit about what socialism would look like, each preferring to paint in broad strokes his vision of the future. In all likelihood, neither probably knew what socialism would look like so much as they knew what was wrong with capitalism. There is thus no way to compare blueprints. We may, however, see socialism in a negative, that is by knowing what they said socialism is not, and how each believed we get from capitalism to socialism.

It may seem surprising that not even Marx advanced a state-ownership of private property model; one that placed society above individuality and authoritarianism over liberty. State-ownership of the means of production was capitalism for Marx, who thought of the state as the keeper of bourgeois interests. Neither did he think that the dictatorship of the proletariat could be anything other than universal, democratic, and brief. A democratic dictatorship is an anarchic phase that all revolutions necessarily go through. Think of the American Revolution before the constitution, when the Contential Congress claimed self-sovereignty and began issuing dubious laws. The dictatorship of the proletariat under the Bolsheviks came to mean “the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors…”, as Lenin put it. No longer would the people rule themselves, they would be ruled by the vanguard of intellectual elites acting as saviors for a whole class of people who revolted quite sufficiently without them. This was socialism in name more than in substance.

Real socialism is supposed to differ from capitalism. Capitalism cultivates economic dependence, suppresses actual political decision-making for indirect democracy, and through these methods stifles individuality. Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of poverty under capitalism. From the perspective of capitalism, poor people are “superfluous”, to use Thomas Malthus’ term, or “redundant”, to use Margret Thatcher’s. They are not needed by the economic system and therefore the system is unable (or more accurately, unwilling) to support their continued existence. Capitalist logic dictates that it is the duty of the poor to die, even in the midst of great plenty, if their labor is unnecessary to capitalists. This ruthlessness of capitalism has been defended by Malthus et. al. but generally it is deplored by mainstream society, including a great many wealthy capitalists themselves. Poverty for most people is a social problem that requires a social solution. Wilde writes,

Misery and poverty are so absolutely degrading, and exercise such a paralysing effect over the nature of men, that no class is ever really conscious of its own suffering. They have to be told of it by other people, and they often entirely disbelieve them.

Poverty is so destructive that those who are in it fail to recognize the social mechanisms that produce their deplorable state; rather like how a drowning person loses sight of everything but keeping their head above water, the poverty-afflicted can only struggle desperately from moment to moment. Disobedience and rebellion, those mechanisms of human progress, require the intervention of others who can help them discover their plight. Wilde writes,

What is said by [capitalists] against agitators is unquestionably true. Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary.  Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation.

This is the role Marx set for himself. Just as the chains of slavery were not, and could not be taken off by the slaves themselves, abolitionists became necessary. Socialist agitators awaken the proletariat–who at that time, may well have been fully employed and yet completely destitute–from false consciousness, or the conviction that this was the best that they could hope for in life or all they were worth or that the iron law of wages meant there just wasn’t enough for them even if they doubled production.

But it is not only the poor who suffer under capitalism. Another problem is the threat of poverty, which leaves even the richest insecure. Wilde again,

An enormously wealthy merchant may be—often is—at every moment of his life at the mercy of things that are not under his control. If the wind blows an extra point or so, or the weather suddenly changes, or some trivial thing happens, his ship may go down, his speculations may go wrong, and he finds himself a poor man, with his social position quite gone. Now, nothing should be able to harm a man except himself.  Nothing should be able to rob a man at all.

The threat of poverty drives the rich the way a jockey drives a horse. No one, no matter how wealthy, is immune to the threat. Poverty must be done away with, must it not?

Socialism obviously offers a solution, but capitalism provides its own. Charity and altruism are the bulwarks of capitalism. Wilde saw this as a fraud. Like Ayn Rand and Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilde realized that the exercise of mercy is just another form of power and control, a way to make others live for you. Altruism is anti-socialist! Charity hurts the poor. It strings them along without the hope of liberation. Wilde writes,

[People] try to solve the problem of poverty… by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing [them]… The proper aim [of socialism] is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible… Charity degrades and demoralises.

For Wilde, this was cruel self-aggrandizement on the part of the wealthy. Charity makes the rich feel better and that is all it does. The Malthusians among us will no doubt object that it is by the generosity of the capitalist that any poor exist at all. The neoliberal will add that, actually, it is by the self-interest of the capitalist that the working poor, those paupers, have even the meager means to survive. But for Wilde, as for Marx, this is telling the slaves, those who sow the seeds, raise the crops, harvest the food, and prepare and serve the meals, that they should be grateful for the master’s benevolence in providing them sustenance. Wilde writes,

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… Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.

The poverty-ridden people unable to recognize who or what is making them poor, have but two options for survival: to steal or submit to capitalism’s picture of humanity. Wilde suggests the choice is between living as a human being and as a pet, writing,

It is safer to beg than to take, but it is finer to take than to beg… 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.

To the Randian libertarian, who locates the fatal flaw in the idea of altruism itself, a break with capitalism is not necessitated. To these anti-socialist libertarians, one must boot-strap oneself out of poverty, either by accepting their worth as whatever crumbs fall from the rich man’s table or by asceticism. Against this position, Wilde writes,

Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal.

The problem for this libertine brand of capitalism is the loss of human dignity that it entails. One may not need to be “grateful” because one lives by one’s own lights but without socialism, that life must be debased. What is the point of living by one’s own labors if one cannot earn a respectable living with nearly super-human effort? What is the point of individualism when it reduces individuality to mere animal subsistence?  Indeed, it is not finer to take than to beg?

Rejecting capitalism’s cold comforts and Bolshevik authoritarianism, we are left only with a particularly libertarian form of socialism. The socialism of Wilde approaches something like the minimal state of Robert Nozick, but unlike Nozick’s, a state incompatible with exploitation.

Individualism, then, is what through Socialism we are to attain to. 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. All modes of government are failures.

Wilde was very nearly an anarchist, however, the state remains as a

…voluntary association that will organise labour, and be the manufacturer and distributor of necessary commodities. The State is to make what is useful. The individual is to make what is beautiful.

How exactly the state and individual efforts are to be arranged, Wilde leaves us to speculate. Which to his credit he acknowledges:

Is this Utopian? 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 realisation of Utopias.

Still glimmers of what Wilde envisions come through. Wilde, like Marx, sees the unlimited potential of mechanization to free human beings, but only under socialism where its benefits are shared by all. Mechanization eliminates manual labor and frees human beings from toil.

There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities…. To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours, on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine… Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.

How close is Wilde to Marx’s vision of socialism? In the third volume of Capital, near the end, Marx argues that “the realm of freedom” his ideal society of free individuals, cannot begin until freedom from want and thus compulsion is achieved.

Just as the savage must wrestle with nature, in order to satisfy his wants… so civilized man has to do it, and he must do it in all the forms of society and under all possible modes of production. With his development the realm of natural necessity expands because his wants increase; but at the same time the forces of production increase, by which these wants are satisfied. The freedom in this field cannot consist of anything else but of the fact that socialized man, the associated producers, regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power; they accomplish their task with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most adequate to their human nature and most worthy of it. But it always remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins the development of human power, which is its own end, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can flourish only upon that realm of necessity as its basis. (Fromm, 60)

Marx paints a picture of socialism where humans produce rationally rather than in an alienated way. That is, they produce for themselves what they want, not necessarily what the capitalist would profit by the most. They produce associatively, which may or may not be competitive, but without the ruthless competition of capitalism. This clearly rules out the possibility of a state-run, bureaucratic socialism. The individual must be the central agent and the goal of socialism. Socialism then is merely meant to alleviate human beings from the struggle with nature, and so allow us to create ourselves for ourselves. Socialism will be known when economics serves the needs of society the same way it serves the needs of capitalists under capitalism. For Marx and Wilde, socialism is a machine for serving the basest of human needs, our animal needs. It is not here to tell us how to satisfy them, only to ensure that they get satisfied.