Socialism and the Individual

An Interpretation of Oscar Wilde's "The Soul of Man Under Socialism''

William Thur&on Brown

Principal "The Modern School"


Published by "THE MODERN SCHOOL"



my dear friend and comrade, Emil Zimmerman, in recognition of his rare qualities as a man and of a cherished personal friendship, this booklet is gratefully inscribed by the Author.



Ail Interpretation of Oscar Wilde's "The Soul of Man Under Socialism.

William Thurston Brown.

Whoever will think for a moment about the history of the human race as a whole will see one thing very clearly: it has been the history of illusions. History may almost y be summed up in two phrases: forming illusions and getting rid of illusions. You can see this in the life of every human child, for the life of a child epitomizes the life of the race—thus far. All the thinking of childhood. practically, is an illusion. Almost nothing that it sees or thinks about is what it seems to be. Everything is different from what it seems to be—to a child. And the growth of a child's mind is a steady losing of illusions. No child can have any such thing as a normal development of the mind without giving up illusions and finding facts.

You have only to stand outside a school building—say the High School—where many boys and girls are finishing all the schooling they will ever have—you cannot stand outside one .of these school buildings and watch these boys and girls, without knowing that


life as they see it is an illusion. What they see isn't life at all. They haven't touched life yet at all. They are like butterflies and birds and flowers. They know no care, for the most part. They don't begin to know life. They have had no chance. We are giving them no chance. But most of them, don't you sec, are going to have a rude awakening. Even then, they will not know any more about real life than they do now. but they will know what the world means, and they will know what life is going to be made to mean for them.

Suppose you and I right now and here could unroll the scroll of the future and see all that life or existence is going to mean just for the handful of boys and girls in one of the High Schools of this city ten or twenty or thirty years from now. Suppose I could tell you even the chief details of the lives of these boys and girls within the next twenty years. We couldn't endure to know it. Suppose they themselves could get a glimpse of that same future, could know today all that lies ahead of them within the next twenty years. Suppose they eould see their own faees as they will appear twenty years from now—juit those of them who will live that long. Why, half of them probably would



die of the shock which that glimpse would give them. There are few people today who could endure to know all that lies ahead in their own lives.

' And yet, it need not always be so for any

human being. It will not always be so. The ! time is coming, I believe, when even with a

full knowledge of all that the future has in store no human being will have any fear or dread or loss of sleep. Such a thing is conceivable, and what is conceivable is possible. Nothing whatever is too good to be true.

There are two illusions which we men and women can very well spare, which we an? • outgrowing fast. Let me tell you about them. One of these illusions—one that has existed for considerable time—is this: that there is somewhere in the universe a Being who cares for every human creature, for every child that comes into the world. This is an illusion which has been associated for some time with what is called the religious life of the world—not always so associated, indeed only for a comparatively limited time. Thaf illusion is not the product of religion—it would be truer to say that all that is best in religion is the product of this illusion. This illusion is unquestionably the product


of that, mysterious emotion of human hearts, that finest, dearest flower of human life, which we call love. It. was love, human love, that projected this illusion out into the infinite spaces and with it created God. Do you remember that exquisite sentence of In-gersoU's about immortality? Said this prince of poets: "Immortality is a word that Hope through all the ages has been whispering to Love." And again he says: "In the night of death Hope sees a star, and listening Love can hear the rustle of a wing." This illusion that there is somewhere a Being, a Person, all-powerful, all-loving, in whose care all the world lies safe and secure—that illusion was born of human love. I don't wonder it has endured so long. Indeed, I wouldn't give a rap for anything you can name which somehow is not related to love. Only that which is born of love is or ever can be of supreme worth.

And yet, this belief, in the form in which it exists, is still an illusion. More than that, we have reached a time when that illusion must begin to give way to something better. There is something better than that illusion. And that something better is the concrete reality which the illusion at best only symbolizes. Really, while this illusion of a loving and all-powerful God was and is a noble one, the noblest the mind of man ever conceived till now, it does not hold the future. There is a nobler one. and that is the conception that human beings themselves possess all the power which they have imagined in a God, and that if they would ever have such a reality, they themselves must make it. But it doesn't always happen that illusions do give way to something better. The illusions of our childhood are often, if not always, better than anything we later find to be reality. And the tragedy of things is that illusions must fade and only nightmares take their place. If life is worth while it is because it can be used to put an end to these nightmares of misery and sorrow and replace them with hope and happiness.


But the other illusion of which I want to speak is the illusion of progress. This is an illusion which must be credited not to the Church, but to a so-called science or philosophy. It may almost be said that the 19th century worshipped Progress, and the 20th century thus far has shown no signs of breaking away from that established religion. The discovery of the law of evolution and the opening of such marvellous vistas of facts and knowledge fairly intoxicated the think-

ing part of the world. And so Progress was well-nigh deified. Everyone was crying Progress! Progress! as if that were the end and aim and crown of life. Some of us are discovering that this is an emptier illusion than that of a God of love, that it is a moral and ethical misfortune.

It is worth while to know that the men who first discovered this law of evolution had no illusions stich as their followers have had. Herbert Spencer defined evolution, not as a change for the better, but merely as a change without any moral content • at all, which is exactly true. And the great-hearted Huxley, one of the fairest fruits the tree of human life has borne, grasping firmly that whole body of evolutionary teaching, could see nevertheless that it held no promise of real improvement in the human lot. And he declared: "Even the best of modern civilizations appears to me to exhibit a condition of mankind which neither embodies any worthy ideal nor. even possesses the merit of stability. I do not hesitate to express the opinion that if there is no hope of a large improvement of the condition of the greater part of the human family; if it is true that the increase of knowledge, the winning of a greater dominion over nature which is its consequence, and the wealth which follows upon that dominion, are to make no difference in the extent and intensity of want with its concomitant physical and moral degradation among the masses of the people, I should hail the advent of a kindly comet which would sweep the whole affair away."

The notion of progress, as thus far held, is an illusion—one of the worst we can possibly cherish. Indeed, it is right now and here the greatest cUrse of the world, in an intellectual sense, for millions on millions of people—and most of all, the accepted leaders of public opinion, the moralists and politicians —are completely hypnotized by this notion of progress as having moral value. They assume that progress is the supreme good. The growth of cities, the building of great railway lines, the multiplication of people, the increase of wealth, the invention of machinery, the discoveries of science, the applications of electricity—this whole mad rush of human life after things is accepted by practically the whole of society, as an evidence of real progress, as something essentially good. They think we are going forward, that the world is becoming better, happier, worthier, that life is being enriched by these things. The fact is, that not oil* of

these inventions or discoveries, nor all of them together, has added a particle to the happiness or welfare of the. world—not a particle. Progress is the most fatal illusion the mind ever contemplated. There is no such thing yet as progress. There is change, to be sure. But no man can think of all that society today is: its wealthy and its poor, its heartless masters and its wage-slaves, its boulevards and its slums, its Newports and its ghettos—no one can think of it all and believe for a moment that it has any beauty or worth or sacredness anywhere. Society today is one universal sacrilege, one universal Moloch, one universal moral pestilence. Instead of worshipping good, these deifiers of progress and success are worshipping evil. Their God is a devil. You can see at a glance how completely the whole fabric of the Christian Church and its religion has been corrupted by this notion of progress. That notion has destroyed every vestige of virtue the Church ever had, and all its notions and teachings are now squared with this devil's creed of progress. If the Christian Church in the United States had one small ray of real vision in it, one remnant of the belief which it professes, one heart-beat of moral power, the contemplation of the facts concerning those striking workers in Lawrence, Mass., would precipitate a revolution here which would not leave one single institution of capitalist exploitation anywhere. That no such revolution takes place is prima facie evidence that the whole religious institution is as dead as an Egyptian mummy!

There is no greater or more imperative need today than that we abandon our illusions—every one of them. We shall not even begin to see or realize the substance of which these illusions are the shadow until we turn our backs on the illusions, cease to cherish them, and set about resolutely to know what is real. If we will do that, we shall discover that the prophecies of those men of the 18th century who were preach-inf democracy as the fulfillment of all good were utterly mistaken. Democracy—the very thing they had in mind: universal suffrage, popular political control—has proved another illusion. There is not a particle more of happiness or even of contentment under our American democracy than there is under Russian despotism—not so much. There is no more of misery, of hopelessness, of degeneration, under czarism in Russia than there is under universal manhood suffrage in the

United States. Russia with all its dark and dense ignorance, with all its unspeakable police system, has given to the world a literature which is incomparably richer, stronger, more virile, than America has produced in all its history. Russia has no slums today that compare with ours. The most damnable conditions on earth today are to be found in the big cities of the world's most democratic nations: France, England and the United States.- The one nation which boaste of its opportunities above all the rest—the arch-hyprocrite of Christendom, the United ' States—has a greater death-rate in its industries than all the nations of Europe together, has a greater disregard for, a lower valuation of, human life than any other civilized government on this globe. The preachers of democracy and free competition were mistaken. It was a lemon that was handed to the world in the democracy founded on private property.

We are facing right now the inevitability of another change in society, in the whole order and . administration of. things: the change from individual ownership of social tvealth to sofcial ownership. And yet, it is open to question whether it will produce all ?re expect it to produce, unless it is aocom-