Oscar Wilde? H. G. Wells? George Bernard Shaw? Michael Walzer? Arnold S. Kaufman? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Some forms of socialism are implemented via a participatory process. An engaged citizen would attend meetings, learn about different approaches, discuss topics, formulate policies, build consensus, and vote. These tasks can be quite laborious. Here are two versions of a critical statement:
- Socialism would take too many evenings.
- The trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.
This saying has been attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde, the science fiction author H. G. Wells, and the prominent playwright George Bernard Shaw. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900. H. G. Wells died in 1946. G. B. Shaw died in 1950. QI has not yet found convincing evidence that this remark was made by any of these three luminaries.
The earliest match found by QI appeared in the journal “Dissent” in 1968. Political theorist Michael Walzer published “A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen: Two Cheers for Participatory Democracy”. Walzer asserted that: “Self-government is a very demanding and time-consuming business”, and he referred to “meetings of study groups, clubs, editorial boards, and political parties where criticism will be carried on long into the night”. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1
Socialism, Oscar Wilde once wrote, would take too many evenings. This is, it seems to me, one of the most significant criticisms of socialist theory that has ever been made. The fanciful sketch above is only intended to suggest its possible truth. Socialism’s great appeal is the prospect it holds out for the development of human capacities.
The statement attributed to Wilde was not enclosed in quotation marks; hence, it was possible that Walzer was using his own words to present a paraphrase or summary of Wilde’s viewpoint. Currently, QI does not know the underlying source, and QI hopes that this article can be used as a starting point for future researchers who will make additional advances.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1969 the collection “The Bias of Pluralism” appeared, and it included an essay titled “Participatory Democracy: Ten Years Later” by Arnold S. Kaufman which cited Walzer’s piece and printed a variant statement: 2
There is another problem to which too many participatory democrats are oblivious. As Michael Walzer has pointed out, many good citizens will find time to “take long walks, play with their children, paint pictures, make love, and watch television,” even if doing so means taking time away from valuable meetings. For them, participatory democracy simply takes too many evenings. 3
3. “A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen,” Dissent (May-June 1968), 243-247.
In 1970 the collection “Beyond the New Left: A Confrontation and Critique” edited by Irving Howe, appeared. The 1968 essay by Walzer was reprinted; therefore, the saying and its ascription to Oscar Wilde achieved further distribution: 3
In 1971 the collection “Higher Education for Everybody?: Issues and Implications” included an article by Harris Wofford Jr. titled “Minds Like Jefferson’s” which credited H.G. Wells instead of Wilde: 4
Participatory democracy, as H. G. Wells said of socialism, takes too many evenings.
In 1972 “Freedom and Beyond” by John Holt attributed a version of the saying with the word “trouble” to Wilde: 5
It reminds me of what Oscar Wilde said about socialism: “The trouble with socialism is that it would take too many evenings.” We’ve got to make some decisions about what things need a meeting.
In 1973 a columnist writing in “The Daily Tar Heel” of Chapel Hill, North Carolina tentatively credited George Bernard Shaw: 6
Voting is just a small part of democracy. Those who vote, but will not participate by discussing, writing, petitioning, and reading about important issues will sacrifice control over their lives to a small group who would like to control.
G.B. Shaw (I think) once said that the problem with socialism is that it takes too many evenings.
In 1974 syndicated columnist by George F. Will ascribed the saying to Wilde: 7
Oscar Wilde’s aphoristic criticism of socialism — “It would take too many evenings” — meant that it is uncivilized to allow politics to become a dominating preoccupation.
In 1985 a columnist in a Calgary, Alberta, Canada newspaper credited Wilde with a variant using “weekends” instead of “evenings”: 8
The trouble with socialism, noted Oscar Wilde many generations ago, is that it takes too many damned weekends.
In conclusion, the article presents a snapshot of current research. The earliest known citations are too late to provide substantive support for the ascriptions to Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw. Michael Walzer popularized the saying, and its origin remains uncertain.
Image Notes: Illustration of clock faces from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Neville Morley whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. The quotation is also number Q914 on the list of unsolved queries posted on the website of top researcher Nigel Rees.)
- 1968 May-June, Dissent, A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen: Two Cheers for Participatory Democracy by Michael Walzer, Start Page 243, Quote Page 243, Dissent Publishing Corporation, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1969, The Bias of Pluralism, Edited by William E. Connolly, Participatory Democracy: Ten Years Later by Arnold S. Kaufman, Start Page 201, Quote Page 209 and 212, Atherton Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1970, Beyond the New Left: A Confrontation and Critique, Edited by Irving Howe, A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen by Michael Walzer, Start Page 135, Quote Page 136, The McCall Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1971, Higher Education for Everybody?: Issues and Implications, Edited by W. Todd Furniss, Minds Like Jefferson’s by Harris Wofford Jr., Start Page 90, Quote Page 92, American Council on Education, Washington D.C. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1972, Freedom and Beyond by John Holt, Chapter 4: Some Tensions of Freedom, Quote Page 39, E. P. Dutton & Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1973 November 17, The Daily Tar Heel, Nation’s first priority, impeach Nixon by Gerry Cohen, Quote Page 8, Column 6,Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1974 August 9, The Ithaca Journal, A Passion for Power by George F. Will, Quote Page 12, Column 4 and 5,Ithaca, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1985 July 8, Calgary Herald, NDP’s race for second place lost by Gerry Caplan, Quote Page A9, Column 1, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩