Oscar Wilde, enemy of property (Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images)
If you see it up close, it’s no utopia
True socialists do not want a better world, they want a perfect one. That is why they so often view piecemeal amelioration with disdain or even hostility, and why they are willing to sacrifice the happiness of a present generation for the imagined bliss of a generation to come in the distant future. To adapt the Fool’s words in Twelfth Night very slightly: Present mirth hath no laughter. What’s to come is very sure. In delay there lies plenty . . .
If you tell a socialist that hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in the last few decades by means the very opposite of those of socialism, he will immediately retort that many millions have also not been lifted out of poverty, as if there had ever been, or could ever be, a time in which all people benefited equally from improving economic conditions, or as if poverty were the phenomenon that needed explanation rather than wealth. Until everyone is lifted from poverty, no one should be. Oscar Wilde, in “The Soul of Man under Socialism” (1891), wrote that “it is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.” The only real solution to the problem of poverty, according to him, was the abolition of property itself; and until it was abolished, the person who used his money in this way was the very worst and most dangerous kind of exploiter, for he disguised the fact of exploitation from the exploited by rendering the exploitation bearable.
Wilde’s text is in many ways a locus classicus of a certain kind of thought that, though (or perhaps, more accurately, because) it is deeply adolescent in nature, retains its appeal in a world that is perennially unsatisfactory to its inhabitants, and not necessarily to the worst-off among them. Wilde — a very clever man, of course — had observed that the character of human beings was not always good but attributed this disappointing fact to the influence of the institution of private property. Abolish private property and “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.”
This is obviously akin to the Marxist idea that man will become truly himself only after the institution of Communism. What exactly man was until then (which also means what he is now, since Communism has still not been instituted) is not quite clear, but it is nothing very flattering to him, indeed it implies a contempt for the vast mass of humanity past, present, and almost certainly to come. Speaking for myself, I have lived among or ministered to the wretched of the earth for much of my career, but it has never occurred to me for a single instant that they were anything less than fully human, every bit as human and individual as I was myself.
It will be a marvellous thing — the true personality of man — when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flowerlike, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord. It will never argue or dispute. It will not prove things. It will know everything. And yet it will not busy itself about knowledge. It will have wisdom. Its value will not be measured by material things. It will have nothing. And yet it will have everything, and whatever one takes from it, it will still have, so rich will it be.
It seems to me astonishing that anyone could believe such drivel, let alone a man as intellectually gifted as Wilde; but it is far from difficult to find intellectuals who concur, for example Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian superstar philosopher who is sure to draw crowds of young admirers to his passionate denunciations of the world as it is wherever he goes. It seems that utopian dreamers are like the poor, we have them with us always.
Having denounced the effects of private property on the human personality, Wilde (I take him only as an example) proceeds — in effect like Marx and Engels before him — to imagine the wonderful results that the abolition of private property under socialism will have for personal and intimate relations:
Socialism annihilates family life, for instance. With the abolition of private property, marriage in its present form must disappear. This is part of the programme. Individualism accepts this and makes it fine. It converts the abolition of legal restraint into a form of freedom that will help the full development of personality, and make the love of man and woman more wonderful, more beautiful, and more ennobling.
As it happens, I have closely observed this more wonderful, more beautiful, and more ennobling love of man and woman under conditions, de facto, of socialism, as well as the abolition of legal restraint — that is to say, all legal structure or social obligation in family relations — with its supposedly full development of personality, and it was not quite as lovely as Wilde (or for that matter Marx and Engels) imagined or depicted, to put it mildly. In fact it was appalling, for reasons that surely any moderately sensible person above the age of 20 would have expected and understood. The absence of restraint did not conduce even to liberty, as another Anglo-Irish writer, Edmund Burke, pointed out almost exactly a century before Wilde:
Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
Clearly, there is a possibility of intellectual regress as well as progress. The people who lived Wilde’s dream whom I saw close up as a doctor working in a poor part of a British city lived under a socialist regime as complete as, though less authoritarian than, that of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Their housing, education, health care, and income derived from the collectivity, not from anything that they did themselves. They lived in the utmost security — the public services would always be there for them — except, perhaps, when they left their homes, when they might be attacked by their peers. It is true that they clung to a certain amount of private property, but it consisted mainly of clothes, a few white goods, the electronic apparatus of mental distraction, and some valueless furniture. Even Wilde could hardly have meant that people should not possess their own clothes; and in fact they lived in an environment that was remarkably equal. Their material standard of living had been successfully dissociated from any effort that they might make.
Their sexual relations were precisely as lacking in legal restraint as Wilde had envisaged. In this respect, he was a prophet; but unfortunately, the rest of his vision was sadly lacking in acuity or verisimilitude. The people being deprived of any economic or contractual reasons for the exercise of self-control and believing they would never be any better- or worse-off if they exerted themselves (except perhaps by crime), relations between the sexes, once subject to restraints of the kind that Wilde wanted removed so that the full beauty of the human personality could emerge, became fluid in the worst possible way. It was unknown for the father to remain present throughout the childhood of his offspring; serial step-fatherhood became a very common pattern. Jealousy, the most powerful instigator of violence between men and women, increased to an astonishing extent. Man was not so much a wolf as a sexual predator to man. Trust disappeared and violence took its place. A social environment was created in which a cycle of relative (if not absolute) poverty, which was a supposed justification for socialism in the first place, now existed as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. If socialists so loved the poor that they wanted to preserve them in their poverty, they could hardly have done better.
Socialism is not only, or even principally, an economic doctrine: It is a revolt against human nature. It refuses to believe that man is a fallen creature and seeks to improve him by making all equal one to another. It is not surprising that the development of the New Man was the ultimate goal of Communist tyrannies, the older version of man being so imperfect and even despicable. But such futile and reprehensible dreams, notwithstanding the disastrous results when they were taken seriously by ruthless men in power, are far from alien to current generations of intellectuals. Man, knowing himself to be imperfect, will continue to dream of, and believe in, schemes not merely of improvement here and there but of perfection, of a life so perfectly organized that everyone will be happy, kind, decent, and selfless without any effort at all. Illusion springs eternal, especially among intellectuals.
This article appears as “Preserved in Their Poverty” in the June 3, 2019, print edition of National Review.