Oscar Wilde was a Better Marxist than the Bolsheviks, Part 3

“‘Know thyself’ was written over the portal of the antique world.  Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be thyself’ shall be written.”

Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”

I have already made the argument that Karl Marx and Oscar Wilde share a particularly libertarian vision of socialism. I have also already speculated what Wilde’s socialism would have to look like. In this final part, I want to explore the view of individualism under socialism that makes it libertarian, particularly in the words of Wilde and Marx. Let’s begin with the question Wilde asks:

But it may be asked how individualism, which is now more or less dependent on the existence of private property for its development, will benefit by the abolition of such private property?

He answers:

Under [socialism], individualism will be far freer, far finer, and far more intensified than it is now… For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses.

Wilde’s answer reveals an existentialist’s view of socialism. For Wilde, individualism is self-making, rather than self-acceptance as is the individualism of Ayn Rand. That left-wing libertarianism is existentialist comes as no shock to anyone familiar with the neo-Marxist work of the nineteen sixties and their near obsession with young Marx. It is young Marx, the humanist, who celebrates the individual to come under socialism. The individual under capitalism is reduced to the base animal functions since the wages of a worker are reduced to subsistence, only these animal functions may be expressed. The norm then for the worker is to be a brute, an animal, for those are the only pleasures allowed for them. Marx writes,

[M]an (the worker) feels himself to be freely active only in his animal functions–eating, drinking, and procreating, or at most also in his dwelling and in personal adornment–while in his human functions, he is reduced to an animal. (99)

Individuality is not a given, it must be cultivated and requires resources to develop it. The goal of socialism, as we saw in part one, is to provide the resources that will satisfy the animal requirements and allow for the human individuality to emerge. The argument presented against this is that a fully realized individual, e.g. a Lord Byron, must have wealth to be fully realized and there is not enough wealth for everyone to be fully realized. Some people will have to content themselves with pushing the dirt around. Wilde argues against this that socialism is not interested in taking away opportunity as it is in extending it to everybody.


The question then becomes how? Right-wing advocates of capitalism argue that this is simply wishful thinking. It cannot be done. Not everyone can be a poet and philosopher. However, this argument is made on a particular set of unfortunate assumptions about the nature of humankind that amount to an anti-existentialism. The most important of these for our purposes surrounds the confusion between being and having, that is confusing self-realization for the possession of private property. Wilde writes,

[Under capitalism, humankind thinks] that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies, not in what man has, but in what man is. Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false.

This division between possession and essence is best described by the existentialists a half-century later. Using them to understand Wilde, we can conclude that individualism is living an authentic life, where possessions are merely possessions, things to be used in the pursuit of your life’s goals, not necessities that are merely useful. One must have a personality in order to decide what is useful, it cannot be defined for you by an outside agency, capitalist, socialist, or anything else. Individuality is authenticity and socialism is the necessary condition for it.

[Jesus] said to man, ‘You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your affection is inside of you. If only you could realise that, you would not want to be rich. Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot… And so, try to so shape your life that external things will not harm you. And try also to get rid of personal property. It involves sordid preoccupation, endless industry, continual wrong. Personal property hinders Individualism at every step.

Individualism is the call to be authentic, to author your own life, to care little for the direction others would have over your life. Contra religion, Wilde emphasizes that there is no set path to authenticity, no prescribable way to live your life.

Father Damien was Christlike when he went out to live with the lepers, because in such service he realised fully what was best in him. But he was not more Christlike than Wagner when he realised his soul in music; or than Shelley, when he realised his soul in song. There is no one type for man. There are as many perfections as there are imperfect men. And while to the claims of charity a man may yield and yet be free, to the claims of conformity no man may yield and remain free at all.

Individualism is what you make of yourself when you no longer have to labor for mere survival. The rich and the middle classes have to think about money all the time, it is how they make it, keep it, and spend it. When you have to think about money all the time you are unable to develop yourself, to become an individual. You are, in effect, reduced to making yourself whatever is easiest, most convenient, and most attractive to those upon whom your happiness depends. And under capitalism, this class includes everybody.

There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor. What Jesus does say is that man reaches his perfection, not through what he has, not even through what he does, but entirely through what he is.

This notion of individualism echos Marx’s idea of freedom from alienated labor. As Erich Fromm said of Marx, “Socialism… was never as such the fulfillment of life, but the condition for such fulfillment… Marx says quite clearly in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, ‘communism as such is not the aim of human development.’ What, then, is the aim? Quite clearly the aim of socialism is man,” (60). Alienated labor is the particularly capitalist organization of labor which isolates rather than individuates human beings. It breaks people up into specializations, but it also breaks them down into parts, making laborers out of people, or, in a few cases, capitalists. No one is free to be who they want, everyone is compelled by a system designed from without. As Marx said, “alienated labor… alienates man from himself, from his own active function and from other men,” (101). Subjected to our alienated needs human beings become “mentally and physically dehumanized… the self-conscious and self-acting commodity.” In other words, we come to see ourselves and each other as things.

What makes capitalism dangerous is precisely the fact that owning capital seems to fully compensate for the loss. Possessions can be lost, but capital, self-replicating possessions, appear to be just as permanent as authentic being itself. Capitalism, like the Christian ideology it came from, emphasizes an asceticism that forbids individuality because this allows you to replace an authentic existence for a treasure trove of self-creating wealth. Of course, this only works if everyone is made, by incentive or force, to bow to their role in the system. Marx writes,

[The political economy of capitalism] is… [also] the science of asceticism. Its true ideal is the ascetic but usurious miser and the ascetic but productive slave…. The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre or to balls, or to the public house, and the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc. the more you will be able to save and the greater will become your treasure which neither moth nor rust will corrupt–your capital. The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the greater is the saving of your alienated being. Everything which the economist takes from you in the way of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth. (144)

For Marx, the aim of socialism then is liberation from this system. He writes in the manifesto,

All that we want to do away with is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and allowed to live only so far as the interest to the ruling class requires it.


Under socialism, one must not err into thinking that capital is somehow a substitute for individuality, but at the same time, one must not confuse individualism with selfishness. Long before Ayn Rand extolled the virtues of selfishness, Wilde argued that “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them.” Selfishness for Wilde is what altruism is for Ayn Rand. I have already shown that Wilde would have agreed that altruism is bad, but he would have disagreed that selfishness was any different. He condemns egoism, saying,

For the egotist is he who makes claims upon others, and the Individualist will not desire to do that. It will not give him pleasure.

This is because:

Individualism exercises no compulsion over man. On the contrary, it says to man that he should suffer no compulsion to be exercised over him. It does not try to force people to be good. It knows that people are good when they are let alone. Man will develop Individualism out of himself.

And therein lies the great difficulty with individualism, for the freedom to be oneself, is all too often accompanied by the desire to restrict the freedom of others. It was in the name of freedom that slave-holders denounced the abolitionists. “What right have they to take away my freedom to own slaves?” Or as Marx put it, “Freedom is so much the essence of man that even it opponents realize it… No man fights freedom; he fights at most the freedom of others.” Freedom requires the rights of all to freedom. It is not up to the capitalist to decide what a worker’s needs should be, and yet that is exactly what happens. For the capitalists require workers, as much as possible, to resemble the “self-acting commodities” they need them to be. Wilde writes,

[A] man is called selfish if he lives in the manner that seems to him most suitable for the full realisation of his own personality; if, in fact, the primary aim of his life is self-development. But this is the way in which everyone should live… Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognises infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of ones neighbour that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him. A red rose is not selfish because it wants to be a red rose. It would be horribly selfish if it wanted all the other flowers in the garden to be both red and roses. Under Individualism people will be quite natural and absolutely unselfish, and will know the meanings of the words, and realise them in their free, beautiful lives.

 

Oscar Wilde was a Better Marxist than the Bolsheviks, Part 1

“The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody.”

Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”

Socialism is not the first thing I associate with Oscar Wilde. In fact, it’s not the fifth thing. The man in my mind is first a playwright, then a poet, novelist, artist, dandy, homosexual, Irishman, celebrity, and finally–with mild dubiousness–a social critic. Nevertheless, Oscar Wilde is exactly the socialist thinker we need today. His essay on socialism, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, offers a particular analysis of capitalism written with Wilde’s usual jaunty wit. While less theoretically precise than the work of, say, Peter Kropotkin, who presents anarcho-communism in a dense manner that was–consistently–a heavy influence on Wilde, the spirit of Man Under Socialism is more moving and more profound than the writer of The Conquest of Bread. Wilde’s picture of socialism is, perhaps, a trifle less anarchistic than Kropotkin, but still heavily emphasizes individual liberty and autonomy.

I think Oscar Wilde best fits the model of a libertarian socialist. The term may be apocryphally applied, but as is clear from his writings on socialism, individual freedom is an essential part of his socialist idyll. Wilde’s position, briefly summed, is that individuality is not to be taken as a given, as many right-wing libertarians would, but instead, individuality can only develop under a system that promotes general fairness and relative equality, viz. socialism. Wilde’s fascination with individual expression led him away from authoritarian socialists, like those that would only a few decades later come to power in Russia. It is dubious that Marxism leads only to the Bolshevik model of socialism, in fact, I would go farther and argue that Wilde’s brand of libertarian socialism is more consistent with Marx’s ideas than Bolshevik theory.

The Bolshevik’s denounced individuality because of its relationship to private property. They felt that it was an example of false consciousness, rather than a valid perspective. Wilde on the other said that socialism is valuable “simply because it will lead to individualism.” Like Marx, Wilde saw that individualism is the goal of socialism and that capitalism, for all its talk of individuality, really makes the vast majority of people live for the betterment of a few. For Wilde, the poor under capitalism are degraded by their relative poverty and so cannot be fully individuated, they must live for others (viz. the capitalists) or perish altogether.

Socialism, Communism, or whatever one chooses to call it, by converting private property into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition, will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism, and ensure the material well-being of each member of the community.

This is not unlike Karl Marx’s vision in the Communist Manifesto:

In place of the bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, shall we have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

But looking after the well-being of each member requires that each member be treated individually and not as a mere member of the community. Wilde writes,

What is needed is individualism. If socialism is authoritarian; if there are governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have industrial tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first.

Wilde is taking aim here at what Dr. Richard Wolff will later call “state capitalism”. It is a form of capitalism that retains the aspect of private property ownership but resolves to make the state the sole owner of all property. In effect, this is “concentrated capitalism”, and it is far worse than private capitalism. This concentrated form of capitalism–monopoly capitalism–is no better off when the monopoly is the state. And its failures are replete in the twentieth century.

It is clear, then, that no authoritarian socialism will do. For while, under the present system a very large number of people can lead lives of a certain amount of freedom and expression and happiness, under an industrial-barrack system, or a system of economic tyranny, nobody would be able to have any such freedom at all.

Wilde introduces a need for freedom into the idea of socialism. Authoritarian socialism, while good for the defense of the socialist state from the teeth of capitalist rivals, is ultimately self-defeating. Despite this, the attempt to force socialism without liberty was as popular in Wilde’s time as it was in the twentieth century.

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… It is only in voluntary associations that man is fine.

But still, the abolition of private property remained central:

With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world.  Most people exist, that is all.

Compare this to Marx, writing nearly half a century earlier:

A being does not regard himself as independent unless he is his own master, and he is only his own master when he owes his existence to himself. A man who lives by the favor of another considers himself a dependent being. (138)

Marx, especially early on, was greatly concerned for the life of the individual. Socialism and communism were meant to liberate the individual, rather than dictate to individuals their duties and needs. Marx writes,

Alienation is apparent not only in the fact that my means of life belong to someone else, that my desires are the unattainable possession of someone else, but that everything is something different from itself, that my activity is something else, and finally (and this is also the case for the capitalist) that an inhuman power rules over everything. [Emphasis his] (151)

It does not matter to Marx if our life belongs to a private master or a public one, to live in the service of a lord, a landlord, or a capitalist is no worse than to live in the service of a state, a society, or a community. If it is wrong for one person to steal what is yours (your surplus value) it is just as wrong for ten-thousand people to steal it. And this is just as true when society is “free” as when it is controlled and directed by a governing body.

The “inhuman power” in Marx’s quote above is his name for the action of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”. The action governs the behavior of both capitalist and laborer so that neither is truly free. Wilde, like Marx and Smith, emphasizes this freedom for individual expression as necessary for a good life. Marx is a staunch individualist and his socialism is designed to bring about more, not less, individual expression. It is the same for the wealthy capitalist as it is for the working poor according to both Marx and Wilde. Although Marx merely mentions this fact as an aside in the parenthetical (above), Wilde puts it much more cheekily,

If [private] property had simply pleasures, we could stand it; but its duties make it unbearable. In the interest of the rich, we must get rid of it.

The real antagonist to individual expression is, according to Marx, the political economist, who reduces people to base functions in an economic system:

First, by reducing the needs of the worker to the miserable necessities required for the maintenance of his physical existence, and by reducing his activity to the most abstract mechanical movements, the economist asserts that man has no needs for activity or enjoyment…; and yet he declares that this kind of life is a human way of life. Secondly, by reckoning as the general standard of life… the most impoverished life conceivable, he turns the worker into a being who has neither senses nor needs, just as he turns his activity into a pure abstraction from all activity. Thus all working class luxury seems to him blameworthy, and everything which goes beyond the most abstract need (whether it be a passive enjoyment or a manifestation of personal activity) is regarded as a luxury.

Property creates roles, duties, and even the ideas of idleness and luxury. “What does a worker need ‘free time’ or ‘income beyond necessity’ for? Nothing as far as we can see?” But workers never feel the things they want are “luxuries”, they are simply the things necessary for a good life. Private property, for both men, was entangled with a notion of social rank from which it must be freed before it can be fair. Wilde writes,

In a community… where property confers immense distinction, social position, honour, respect, titles, and other pleasant things… man, being naturally ambitious, makes it his aim to accumulate this property, and goes on wearily and tediously accumulating it long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy, or perhaps even know of… considering the enormous advantages that property brings, one is hardly surprised. One’s regret is that society should be constructed on such a basis that man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him—in which, in fact, he misses the true pleasure and joy of living.

Rich or poor, your life under capitalism is not free to develop its own character. You inevitably live for others. You are forced into a set of classes, which according to Marx, narrow to a set of two: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. While I doubt we will ever come to see ourselves merely as class interests, as Marx predicted, there is no doubt that we do come to live in the “groove in which [we] cannot freely develop”. Wilde defines “class” as a social script, the deviation from which is difficult at best and deadly at worst. Anyone in contemporary America who is not white, straight, healthy, wealthy, and male knows what I am speaking of all too well. The point here is that it is capitalism which establishes what “success” looks like, and to succeed without fitting the model becomes increasingly improbable as capitalism becomes the hegemonic economic system.

In the third part of this series, I will look into this idea further, examining what it means to be an individual and how capitalism interferes with that process according to Wilde and Marx. For now, suffice it to say that Wilde, unlike the Bolsheviks, shared Marx’s underscoring of individuality and his disdain for life under the authority of another, be it the bourgeoisie or the state. The need for individual freedom, for both men, sprouts under any political economy but it flowers only in the soil of equality. In the next part, I will examine the pragmatics of socialism as Wilde and Marx saw it.

 

 

The Wealth of Nations, Revisited

A Contradiction of Interests

I’m not sure if this is a real contradiction or not. But it seems to me that Adam Smith has a perspective problem. Smith famously argues that what is best for the individual is best for the society, and yet at the same time he argues that slavery is not best for the society because slaves lack individual incentive to work hard. This may be true, but it certainly seems to serve as a counter-example to the notion that what is best for the individual is what is best for the society. For when he suggests this, we must sincerely ask, which individual? The slave or the slaveholder?

What is true in Smith’s slave argument is that it is not best for the slave to be a slave, and correspondingly it would not be best for a society that the slave be so either. The slave’s disincentive to work would lead to less work performed in general, and correspondingly to a less productive society. However, is that which is best for the slaves or the best for the slaveholders? As a slaveholder, owning many slaves is what is best individually. If the rule holds, we must conclude that owning slaves is what is best for society. Is this not a contradiction? It cannot be both best and not best for a society to have slaves. Perhaps we could claim that being a slaveholder requires the existence of slaves, which we just said were not beneficial to society. But then the question becomes, why should we take the slave as “the individual” and not the slaveholder, as Smith clearly does? 

Smith’s problem seems to be one of perspective. The value of the rule that societies do best when people are free to pursue their own interests is debatable. It may depend entirely on which individuals’ perspectives we adopt. Is it better that a landlord is allowed to collect rent or that every person own the property they live in? Is it better than an employer negotiate wages before the sale of the product or that laborers are paid in accordance with their efforts? These perspective questions shoot holes all through the idea that liberty is the best policy and its more general precept that individual interests can be used as the best guide for social action.

The Utopia of Competition

It seems to me that competition itself becomes romanticized under most libertarian writers. The reason for this is if they use it as a cure-all for many economic injustices. The assumption works like this: as long as the rules are fair, then competition will lead to the best possible use of resources. And so it would, as long as we had some way to ensure the fairness of the rules. What does it mean to be fair? Who decides what is fair? On what basis is that decision to be made?

One can always succeed in competitions through two different methods. The first method is exactly what the libertarian writers imagine, a system where everybody follows the rules, the rules are fair, and then the winner deserves what they get, and this would work out best for society, just as Adam Smith suggested. The reason is that if everyone competed this way, we would all benefit from the maximized effort competition elicits. But unfortunately, there are no umpires or referees in economics, no one to turn to and say, “Hey, that’s not fair!”.

The second method for success in competition is free and unrestricted. Players follow their own best self-interest, and when the “rules” of fair play get in the way, they abandon them. In this method, one might succeed by making their competition under-perform or advance themselves through some form of subterfuge. This method focuses on distinguishing oneself by making all of the others look worse. This, of course, is a natural tendency of free competition that ultimately degrades society.

So we have a choice. Either competition is regulated to enforce an external set of rules that foster fair-play or economic competition is not good for society. If we were to have the former, a sport-like instead of war-like competition, then we would have to insist that the players do not get to dominate the body that makes up the rules. In real terms, this means that businesses would have to have minimal effect on political determinations of economics.

The Fable of the Bees?

It is perhaps ironic that Mandeville’s “The Fable of the Bees” features so heavily in Smith’s thought. The poem presents the idea that it is private vice (greed) that drive humanity to the public good (prosperity). The irony is not what climate change and over-use of pesticide have done to the bees, but the fact that Mandeville chose bee’s as his perfect society turned waywardly toward virtue to the ruin of all.

Bees are hive-minded totalitarians. The structure of bee society is based on homogeneity. The hive is comprised of nearly identical genetically speaking. The small individuality comes in the form of castes: the Queen, the product of royal jelly is tasked exclusively with all the breeding for the entire colony; the drones, a small subset of males, whose only function is impregnating the Queen; and the workers who do everything else to make the colony run. There is some break down among the work performed by the workers but this too is regulated exclusively by age. The high organization by nature is related to the Orwellian suppression of individuality inherent in bee society.  

There is no private vice in bee society because there is no individuality. Private vice requires individuals whose interests, even if entirely dependent on the efforts of others for their survival, can still conceive of themselves outside of the society. If private vices are public virtues then it perhaps proves that what is best for the individual is not what is best for society and vice versa. For it seems that public vices can just as well be private virtues.