Sailing to Utopia: Oscar Wilde on Altruism and Anarchism

Gustave Dore. Dudley street, seven dials. Busy street scene with sets of shops which can be seen on the right. The shops are selling shoes which are lining up on the floor around the opening from under the ground. Children and their mothers are in front of them. This image was first published in 'London, a Pilgrimage' 1872, on p.158.
Seven Dials, by Gustav Dore (1872) Wikimedia, Public Domain

In Fortune Linsey McGoey asks Do today’s philanthropists hurt more than they help?. The article quotes Oscar Wilde:

In his essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde berated the tendency of benefactors to use their charity as a bulwark against redistributive demands.

“The best among the poor,” Wilde wrote, “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.”

Wilde’s essay covers much more ground than this, however, ranging from the purpose of living, the effects of contemporary capitalism, the possible results of mechanisation and the question McGoey cites as one of the biggest questions facing 19th-century philanthropy, the ironic possibility that “growing charity simply exacerbated economic inequality by thwarting demands for better wages and the right to unionize.”

To that question, Oscar Wilde gives an emphatic yes. Many people are truly concerned with poverty and are going as far as spoiling their lives in an attempt to relieve it. “But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.” Just as slave owners who were kind made slavery seem less horrible and therefore encouraged it to persist, altruists perpetuate the system that creates poverty.

Moreover, Wilde says,

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.

Socialism is the cure for these ills, but Wilde’s socialism is anarchistic. He rejects Authoritarian Socialism, that is, “governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power” because:

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.

Much like Nietzsche, Wilde’s central concern is with the “men who have realised themselves, and in whom all Humanity gains a partial realisation”: the poets, the philosophers, the men of science, the men of culture. Unlike Nietzsche, Wilde believes that everyone has a chance to realise themselves. The poor are currently prevented from doing so by the harsh requirement to make enough to live on. This crushes them – deliberately so, since this makes them more obedient. Ironically the rich are often prevented from self-realisation too, by the duties and cares of possessing property. In addition, society measures worth by possessions, meaning that people are distracted from what really matters. “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. It has debarred one part of the community from being individual by starving them. It has debarred the other part of the community from being individual by putting them on the wrong road, and encumbering them.

Oscar Wilde Wikimedia, Public Domain
Oscar Wilde Wikimedia, Public Domain

In this individualistic world without property “marriage in its present form must disappear”, as will authority and punishment. Wilde discusses art and the attempts of the public to affect the artist. This, Wilde says “comes from the natural inability of a community corrupted by authority to understand or appreciate Individualism.” Once the corruption is removed, Public Opinion will not “constrain and impede and warp the man who makes things that are beautiful.” People will be able to approach art in the correct spirit. “The work of art is to dominate the spectator: the spectator is not to dominate the work of art.”

In living too, the acceptance of individualism will be freeing. People will be able to live as they wish to, and without feeling the selfish urge to make others live like us. The ability to allow others to live freely is stifled by the stress of competition and “by the immoral ideal of uniformity of type and conformity to rule which is so prevalent everywhere, and is perhaps most obnoxious in England.”

So how this to be achieved? The State will still exist, says Wilde, but in a different form. It will no longer be coercive. It will not punish, nor will it assign tasks for people to do.

The State is to be 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.

There is of course the problem of how the manufacture of the useful will be accomplished. Wilde looks to technology:

Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.

Under capitalism, machinery throws men out of work, and gives the owner more profits than he had before. Under Wilde’s socialism, the machines will work for everyone, ensuring no-one has to do drudge work.

There are obvious objections to Wilde’s account. Even if one accepts his view that human nature is or can become entirely peaceful and free of envy, the usual issues of a centralised economy still need answering. How will the government know how much of the useful items to make – a problem especially acute where the useful and beautiful overlap, such as clothing, furniture, even buildings. What about large resource-hungry items, such as kilns for potters, materials for monumental builders or even, at the extreme end of the scale, Large Hadron Colliders? Will machinery ever be able to do all the work we don’t want to do? Care of those who need it is one example where dexterity, control and intelligence would be required.

If there is a model of the type of society Wilde wants, it’s probably one withStar Trek‘s unlimited energy and replicator technology providing the useful; but supporting a hugely varied, deeply creative society encompassing many different ways of living. Is that a plausible future?

Wilde turns these arguments on their head to argue that, if a suggested future seems plausible, then it is not ambitious enough:

It will, of course, be said that such a scheme as is set forth here is quite unpractical, and goes against human nature. This is perfectly true. It is unpractical, and it goes against human nature. This is why it is worth carrying out, and that is why one proposes it. For what is a practical scheme? A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish. The conditions will be done away with, and human nature will change.

Wilde sees humanity on an endless quest, much as Nietzsche sees the ideal man. For Wilde, the quest seems full of promise, “boldly going where no-one has gone before”.

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.

His lines have “a poignancy for modern readers that it did not have for Wilde himself, who was too trustful and too hopeful to have foreseen a century of war, holocaust, and tyranny in Europe” (Duddy, p. 284).

Further Reading

1909 edition of Wilde's "Soul of Man" Project Gutenberg, Public Domain
1909 edition of Wilde’s “Soul of Man” Project Gutenberg, Public Domain

Oscar Wilde (1891) The Soul of Man under Socialism ( (Project Gutenburg)

Thomas Duddy (2002) A history of Irish Thought, London: Routledge, pp. 282-4.

Guardian: George Orwell on Oscar Wilde’s anarchic genius

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