The Soul of Man Under Secularism
July-August 1991By Christopher Lasch
Christopher Lasch is Watson Professor of History at the University of Rochester and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. His latest book is The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics.
My title comes from a little book by Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism, which was published almost exactly 100 years ago, in February 1891. Wilde's intention, as always, was to dazzle and scandalize his readers, and his title served as a typically Wildean affront to respectable opinion. It linked a concept derived from religion, the soul, with an aggressively secular ideology that drew much of its inspiration from Marx's famous condemnation of religion as the opiate of the people.
This was perhaps the only Marxist dictum that Wilde could endorse without reservation. He was hardly an orthodox socialist. "We are all of us more or less Socialists now-a-days," he told an interviewer in 1894; but his own version of the socialist creed celebrated the artist, not the horny-handed son of toil, and conceived of socialism, moreover, as the best hope for a new kind of individualism -- a "new Hellenism,"as he referred to it in the closing pages of his noncommunist manifesto. Orthodox Marxists ridiculed his aesthetic brand of socialism, but Wilde had the last laugh. His religion of art has survived the collapse of the Marxist utopia. Of all the secular religions that emerged in the 19th century, this one turned out to be the most durable -- in its own way, the most seductive and insidious as well.
Socialism, as Wilde understood it, was simply another name -- in 1891, in the social circles in which Wilde was at home, a deliberately provocative name -- for the elimination of drudgery by machines. Wilde had no patience with those who proclaimed the dignity of labor. "There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labor at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading."In the future, it would be done by sophisticated machinery. The progress of science and technology would gradually eliminate poverty, suffering, and injustice. The collectivization of production would liberate the poor from want, but it would also liberate the rich from the burden of managing and defending their property. If manual labor was degrading, property was a "bore," in Wilde's opinion. "Its duties make it unbearable. In the interest of the rich we must get rid of it. "No less than manual labor, the administration of property distracted people from the real business of life -- the cultivation and enjoyment of "personality." Once the state took over the production of useful objects, individuals could devote themselves to the production of "what is beautiful." The "true personality of man" would come into its own.
It will grow naturally and simply, flowerlike, or as a tree grows.... It will never argue or dispute. It will not be always meddling with others, or asking them to be like itself. It will love them because they will be different.... The personality of man will be very wonderful. It will be as wonderful as the personality of a child."
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