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The Confused Socialism of Oscar Wilde

Tags Free MarketsMedia and CultureOther Schools of Thought

11/23/2007Matthew McCaffrey

Like many intellectuals at the turn of the 19th century, Oscar Wilde was both interested in the problems of society and a proponent of socialism.

Though Wilde was more concerned with criticizing Victorian society via his satirical works than puzzling over the problems of social organization, he did briefly examine social philosophy in his little-known essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism.

Wilde's approach is hardly praxeological — in fact, he assays the problem of socialism from the perspective of an artist rather than an economist or philosopher — but nevertheless, his essay is instructive, and has much to teach about both the confusion of the intellectuals vis à vis socialism, and, ironically enough, about the problems of state power in general.

Wilde approaches the problem of the organization of society with his characteristic wit and charm. Any admirer of his canonical works will recognize in The Soul of Man Under Socialism his penetrating insight as well as his talent for criticism. What makes Wilde's essay so remarkable is that, even as he errs regarding his arguments, upon closer examination one observes that he in fact possesses deep insights that might remain hidden to the casual reader.

Wilde's discussion runs the typical socialist-intellectual gamut as far as the "benefits" of socialism are concerned. He bypasses all problems of production, assumes that under socialism machines will perform every (unpleasant) type of labor, and claims that socialism will bring about generally utopian conditions for all mankind. There are more than a few economic fallacies either stated or implied in his essay.

It is not economic problems, though, but problems of the artist, that are the central focus of Wilde's essay. According to Wilde, the great end of socialism is to establish "Individualism," by which Wilde means every man's ability to pursue his own artistic goals without having to submit to the "Tyranny of want."[1]

This variety of argument — that submission to a collective will results in individualism — is typical both of Wilde's essay and of socialist thinkers in general, and reminds us of the talent for paradox for which Wilde is so well remembered. Nevertheless, Wilde's claim warrants additional scrutiny.

Wilde's contention that socialism will lead to individualism is based upon the understanding that the socialist state will not interfere with the lives of its citizens: in Wilde's vision of socialism, men will be free to pursue their own artistic goals without fear of any sort of coercion, and will thus reach the utmost heights of artistic self-expression. Wilde fails to realize that under the socialist state, the artist is only at liberty to produce that which the state deems appropriate.

In a very real sense, the legitimacy of any state depends upon its ability to influence intellectual currents, and one of the surest methods of affecting this influence is through the manipulation of the artist. As Mises pointed out, "No censor, no emperor, no pope, has ever possessed the power to suppress intellectual freedom which would be possessed by a socialist community."[2]

We may observe the socialist suppression of the artist historically — in Communist China, for instance — but even without examples it is apparent, when one reflects on the nature of the socialist state, that censorship is inevitable. "There can be no freedom in art and literature where the government determines who shall create them," declares Mises,[3] reminding us that what is produced by the printing press will ultimately be decided by those who own and control it — in the case of socialism, the state planners.

Also, Wilde's assertion that after the transformation of society into a socialist state the creative faculties of the artist would be awakened seems (at best) a rather dubious claim. "Literature is not conformism, but dissent," as Mises observed.[4]

It is not capitulation to the status quo that allows for the development of the artistic impulses, but rather rebellion against the status quo. How could artistic dissent be possible in a society where (by definition) the central planners dictate the occupations of the citizens, and direct as many actions as possible towards the accomplishment of their own goals? It quite simply could not. Although Wilde's own literary career was a veritable litany of dissent, this fundamental insight remained curiously lost to him.

In addition to confusions, self-contradictions are also commonplace in Wilde's argument, such as the following: "It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair."[5]

Passing over the vague claim regarding the "evils" of private property, it is worth noting that Wilde appears to be defending property against those who would make noninstitutional attacks against it. Nevertheless, Wilde's solution to the violations of private property is not to abolish those violations, but rather to abolish property itself! To claim that in order to eliminate the "evils" presented by private property, one must commit the ultimate act of "immoral[ity] and unfair[ness]" — the institutional violation of all property-owning individuals in society — seems absurd, by Wilde's own logic.

Another example of this confused attempt to justify socialism derives from Wilde's definition of selfishness, a trait to which Wilde attributes most social problems, and one which he hopes to eliminate from society altogether. Selfishness, says Wilde, "is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live."[6]

In society, claims Wilde, this type of selfishness enables certain individuals to dominate the lives of others, through the employment of various shades of coercion. Wilde correctly asserts that to ground society on the desire of the few to coerce the many is unjustifiable. Yet this hardly squares with his desire to forcibly abolish private property for all persons in society by establishing socialism. To coerce another individual into giving up his property for the sake of "society" (as must be the case in the socialist state) would be profoundly anti-individualistic, let alone coercing all individuals within society to live as the socialist planners deem fit. Such an act would be, according to Wilde's own definition, the ultimate act of selfishness, and thus this particular line of reasoning is also self-contradictory.

Confusions and contradictions aside however, Wilde's legendary wit and discernment do manage to shine through brilliantly in his attacks on government authority. Despite the fact that he thought the advent of socialism would lead to a utopian state of personal liberty, he still manages to perceive with all the force of a great satirist the problems of state power.[7]

Wilde displays a distrust of state power that would rival any modern-day libertarian. Consider this statement: "if governments are 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."[8]

Again, Wilde's confusion is the key to understanding this statement and extracting from it the considerable truth it contains. Wilde fails to grasp that socialism by definition requires the transfer of economic power from the individual to the collective, i.e., the state. And yet Wilde's insight here is tremendous: if he understood socialism as it is, then by comparing primitive man to the authoritarian state, he would in many respects be agreeing with Mises's thesis that establishing socialism would be tantamount to the abolition of society.

In response to the claim that the state must be authoritarian, Wilde replies, "It is to be regretted that a portion of our community should be practically in slavery, but to propose to solve the problem by enslaving the entire community is childish."[9]

This witty remark once again highlights the confusion in Wilde's argument — he clearly understood that authoritarianism is a form of slavery, but he could not, for whatever reason, realize that the socialist state epitomizes problems of authoritarianism and institutionalizes them. The central confusion appears to arise not from Wilde's (reasonable) ends, but rather, his (contradictory) means: for example, for Wilde to pursue the goal of impoverishment is certainly noble in some sense, but to do so through manipulating certain powers of the state — which he admits only exacerbate the problem — is, to use Wilde's own words, simply childish.

Wilde's most profound insight, however, arrives as he realizes that it is not certain varieties of state power that are harmful, but rather the authority of the state as such:

All modes of government are failures. Despotism is unjust to everybody, including the despot, who was probably made for better things. Oligarchies are unjust to the many, and ochlocracies are unjust to the few. High hopes were once formed of democracy; but democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people. It has been found out…. The form of government that is most suitable to [man] is no government at all … all authority is equally bad.[10]

After examining these remarks it appears that Wilde was perhaps far more an opponent of socialism than he was its champion, and although he was no anarchocapitalist, Wilde clearly understands the problems inherent in any system of coercive power. Even though he is incorrect to equate socialism with the abolition of the modern state, his great passion for truth allowed him to understand that, not only is there no state-mandated panacea for the ills of society, but that it is, in fact, the very exercise of coercive power in the first place that causes many of society's ills.

Wilde would have agreed with the Austrians that only a society based upon voluntarily agreements and mutual exchange can ensure lasting peace and prosperity. One cannot help but wonder what a conversation between Oscar Wilde and Murray Rothbard would have been like.

It is not that Wilde was a poorly informed socialist activist, but rather that he was — in an appropriately ironic and cynical sense — the consummate socialist intellectual.

Wilde's confused approach to socialism serves to reminds us that socialism is a fundamentally confused and contradictory ideology (at best) seeking liberal ends through conservative means — attempting to end impoverishment, for instance, via the mandate of the state.

It is lamentable that such a great writer should have been misled by the socialist zeitgeist of his day; fortunately however, Wilde — unlike many of his contemporaries — did manage to retain some of the great insights of the liberal tradition, albeit in a rather confused manner. In terms of their confusion and foolish pride, intellectuals before and since Mises's demolition of the socialist system seem to have taken their cues from Wilde, though unfortunately with far less wit or insight.


[1] Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Leicester: Gallery Press, 1987, p. 1019. Praxeology demonstrates to us that all humans act, and consequently that all humans act to remove some sort of felt uneasiness. Hence, talk of the "Tyranny of want" is meaningless inasmuch as it refers to social organization, because want is ineradicable, and thus any "tyranny" which it exercises must also be permanent, making such phrases effectively meaningless.

[2] Mises, Ludwig von. Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Press/Liberty Classics, [1922] 1979), p. 169.

[3] Mises, Ludwig von. Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War (Spring Mills, PA.: Libertarian Press, [1944] 1985), p. 52.

[4] Mises, Ludwig von. The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. Grove City: Libertarian Press, 1994, p. 40.

[5] Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Leicester: Gallery Press, 1987, p. 1019.

[6] Ibid, p. 1040.

[7] Interestingly, under Wilde's version of socialism the state ceases all governing functions, and is only (!) responsible for the production of commodities. This blatantly contradicts his claim that governments should not possess economic power.

[8] Ibid, p. 1019.

[9] Ibid, p. 1021.

[10] Ibid, p. 1026, 1037–6. Wilde responds to claims that his system is utopian with the following: "Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at…" Ibid, p. 1028.


Matthew McCaffrey

Matt McCaffrey, former Mises Research Fellow, is assistant professor of enterprise at the University of Manchester.