Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Republic of the Future: or, Socialism a Reality by Anna Bowman Dodd

If Ayn Rand had a sense of humor
Published in 1887, The Republic of the Future is a dystopian novella that criticizes and satirizes the socialist utopian literature of the late 19th century. It is an epistolary novel, written in the form of a series of seven letters from a Swedish traveler named Wolfgang to a friend named Hannevig. Wolfgang makes a trip to New York City in the year 2050 and reports to his penpal the various wonders he sees there. About a century and half prior to Wolfgang’s journey, America experienced a socialist revolution, and its government, economy, and culture were reorganized accordingly. Wolfgang’s Big Apple travelogue indicates that the brave new world of this would-be utopia isn’t all its cracked up to be.

From the very beginning it’s clear that Dodd has a smart and clever sense of humor. Her unflattering depiction of a socialist society is funny, much in the way that Upton Sinclair’s satirical depictions of capitalism are often quite humorous. As Wolfgang travels to America on a high-speed train through a glass underwater tunnel, he observes liberal reformers attempting to provide moral education to fishes and other aquatic creatures, in hopes that they will stop eating one another. When he gets to New York, he finds it to be a dull and dreary place where all the buildings look alike, as do the people who inhabit them. Due to the relentless emphasis on equality, any form of ostentation is frowned upon, so all architecture takes the form of unadorned cubicles. Even physical attractiveness is shunned, so men and women wear the same nondescript clothes and do their best to look like one another. In a society where no one can be servants, machinery does most of the work, leaving the populace with loads of time on their hands, which they don’t know what to do with because they’re not permitted to excel at anything. The socialist society that Dodd envisions is characterized by a total lack of individuality, thus removing the incentive for any achievement. This depressing state of affairs calls to mind the bleak, draconian dystopias of Ayn Rand’s Anthem or George Orwell’s 1984, but painted with a far more sarcastic brush.

It’s not all fun and games. In Chapters 5 and 6, Dodd takes the topic more seriously as she describes how this socialist regime came into power and examines more thoroughly its flaws and unkept promises. Surprisingly, Dodd not only criticizes socialism but feminism as well, asserting that equality of men and women undermines family values. Whether engaged in satire or censure, Dodd states her case intelligently. The Republic of the Future is neither a slapstick parody nor a crackpot diatribe. Though Dodd obviously exaggerates to make her points, and I agree little with her arguments, I still find her book to be better written than many of the utopian/dystopian novels of her era, either liberal or conservative.

It is interesting that this book actually predates such classic utopias as William Morris’s News from Nowhere and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. The Republic of the Future reads as if it were written in response to such works, but perhaps the opposite is true. Though this dissenting view may not have enjoyed the popularity of those more optimistic visions of the future, readers interested in the politically-tinged literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries will find Dodd’s book a rewarding read.
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