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September 24, 2010

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Blast from the Past: A Warning about Socialism
by Gene Epstein on September 24, 2010

[This review appeared in “Balancing the Books” at Barrons.com.]

Pictures of the Socialistic Future tells an engrossing story about a socialist paradise that swiftly degenerates into a societal dungeon. Originally published in an English translation back in 1893 — which adds immeasurably to its resonance — it has been reissued recently in paperback by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a research center on free-market economics.
Utopian and dystopian fiction is often weakened by cardboard characters. Not so in this case. German author Eugene Richter (1838–1906), a libertarian politician and journalist none of us is likely to have heard of, was not only blessed with uncanny insight about the realities of socialism, he had a novelist’s ability to create engaging characters.
The story is narrated by a middle-aged bookbinder named Schmidt, who initially welcomes the “entirely new and glorious times … in store for us” as socialism takes over Germany. As events unfold, he grows increasingly troubled, providing reasoned analysis suffused with denial that borders on the comic. Vowing to “set down, in a humble way, some little account of the beginning of this new reign of brotherhood and universal philanthropy,” he never reveals his first name. But we hear about his son, Franz, daughter, Annie, daughter-in-law, Agnes, and his “better half, Paula,” while experiencing his pain as he recounts their reversals at the hands of the new socialist order, climaxing in his own tragic end.
This is not a socialism of Stalinist murderers, but of social engineers who unhesitantly subordinate freedom to their egalitarian ideals, a path that leads inevitably to totalitarianism, material impoverishment, and violence. When the government’s plan to confiscate all financial assets leaves the narrator’s daughter-in-law, Agnes, “inconsolable,” Schmidt sympathizes, explaining that “for a long time past she has been industriously saving up.”
But after the confiscation decree is issued, he reports that “it was in vain that my wife sought to comfort [Agnes] with the thought of the opulent dowry which the Government meant all newly married couples to receive.” Of course, the government goes increasingly broke and fails to deliver.
After the government asks all citizens to register their preference for a job, with all wages set at perfect equality, Schmidt sadly reports: “Those who have manifested a desire to become cleansers of sewers are, numerically, not a strong body.”

The solution is to hold a lottery, with losers taking the more onerous jobs. When Franz derides these “man-raffles” as demeaning, Schmidt is forced to concede the point. But he resorts to the argument that plenty of people will volunteer for onerous jobs once the “spirit of Socialism” is “fully awakened.”
Then the government bans emigration and starts shooting people who try to escape across the border.
So compelling is this story of emerging socialist horror that it briefly lulled me into imagining that the whole world read this novel in 1893, and was duly warned against installing such an evil system. Alas, history didn’t quite happen that way.

Gene Epstein, former chief economist for the New York Stock Exchange, is economics editor at Barron’s magazine. See his interview in the Austrian Economics Newsletter. See Gene Epstein’s article archives.
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This review appeared in “Balancing the Books” at Barrons.com.
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