Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Pictures of the Socialistic Future by Eugene Richter

From utopia to dystopia
Examples of utopian literature can be found as far back as Plato’s Republic, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that this category of fiction really ballooned into a full-blown genre. Because utopian literature predicts the future, there is always an element of science fiction to it, but most 19th-century utopias were more concerned with political and social change rather than scientific or technological advances. Many of the utopian novels of this era advocated socialism as the cure for mankind’s ills, among the most popular being American author Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Englishman William Morris’s News from Nowhere. In response to such rosy visions of socialism, Eugene Richter, a member of the German Reichstag (parliament), penned his novel Pictures of the Socialistic Future, published in 1891.

The story takes place in Germany, specifically Berlin at first, at an undetermined point in the near future. As the novel opens, Germany is embarking on a new socialistic path. Very little is said about the political turmoil that preceded this rebirth, but a scenario similar to the French Revolution is implied: The existing government has been overthrown, and it is now day one for the nation to construct a socialist society from scratch. All private property is confiscated, total separation of church and state is established, and policies are immediately rewritten to abolish class and implement total equality among the citizenry.

The beautiful thing about Pictures of the Socialistic Future is that for the first several chapters, it is difficult for the reader to tell whether Richter has written a pro-socialist or an anti-socialist narrative. The narrator is overwhelmingly in favor of the socialist transition and continually trumpets the egalitarianism and brotherhood promised by the regime change. In each chapter, however, a problem arises, and the narrator describes the socialist government’s solution, which often involves the rescinding of civil liberties. Early in the book, such difficulties include the confiscation of citizens’ life savings, workers forced into jobs against their will, and the splitting up of families for occupational relocation. At first, the narrator excuses these developments as unavoidable inconveniences necessary to bring about universal equality and social justice. As the novel progresses, however, the policies become more draconian, and the narrator starts to lose faith in the socialist ideology. Thus the utopia gradually devolves into a dystopia.

In many ways, Richter presents a worst case scenario of what could go wrong with socialism. For example, the chancellor of Germany resigns because he is too busy shining his own shoes and cleaning his own house to get any political work done. (He’s not allowed a housekeeper, because that would be elitist.) Most of the objections raised, however, are realistic, and some presage actual faults that materialized later in the Soviet Union and communist China. Though guilty of exaggeration at times, for the most part Richter keeps the plot well within the believable.

What truly sets Richter’s novel apart from so much of the utopian fiction of its era is that, in addition to all the political commentary and dead-serious satire, Richter also delivers a very engaging personal story about the narrator’s family. Unlike Bellamy’s and Morris’s novels, Richter’s is not the least bit boring. Prior to what would be more formally considered science fiction (George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or Ayn Rand’s Anthem, for example), Pictures of the Socialistic Future may be the perfect anti-socialist novel, just as Jack London’s The Iron Heel is the perfect pro-socialist novel. Like London’s masterpiece, Richter’s novel is an eloquent and thought-provoking read that provides a vivid look into the political climate of its era.
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