Pictures of the Socialistic Future

Eugen Richter (1838-1906) is not a name that prompts immediate recognition, at least not in the English-speaking world.  He was, in the late 19th century, the preeminent advocate for free markets and institutions in German politics.  He took a stance, as libertarians do today, criticizing both left and right.  He was outspoken both against the socialists (Marxists) as well as against the conservative, Bismarck, especially opposing his tariffs.  He did this as a journalist, but also in the arena, with a seat in the Reichstag, as leader of various short-lived political parties, such as the Freisinnige Partei (Free-minded Party).

In 1891 Richter wrote a popular work, Sozialdemokratische Zukunftsbilder: Frei nach Bebel, literally “Social-democratic future pictures, freely adapted from Bebel.”  August Bebel (1840-1913) was a near-contemporary of Richter, and founder of the German Social Democrats.  Social Democrats back then were pretty much hard-core Marxists and remained so until after WWII.   So, to avoid confusion, the English translation of Richter’s book is titled, Pictures of the Socialistic Future.

This is a remarkable book, one that has aged quite well.  Richter gives us here a diary of a Berliner, a middle-aged, middle-class everyman, a bookbinder with wife and children and an elderly father, a man who is sympathetic to Bebel and the socialist platform, a man who is comfortable in his position, but knows that others struggle, and so is happy the day the revolution comes and with it a new government and new institutions to bring this vision to fruition.  The book continues, in diary form, given day-by-day snapshots of the ups and downs, from the euphoria of the revolution to the…well, one would not expect Richter to give this story a happy ending, would we?

What surprised me about his unfolding (and unraveling) of socialism is that all the leaders have the best intentions and proceed methodically on the soundest of socialist principles.  There is no evil dictator here, only a benevolent socialist leader, democratically elected.  This is not The Road to Serfdom.  The downfall of this socialist vision comes nevertheless, rotting from within, from economic inefficiency, from misplaced incentives, from malingering, and from the denial of human nature.  There is an intimation of the Economic Calculation Problem here, the core economic flaw of socialism, illustrated in fictional form long before economists like Mises would describe it rigorously.

This is a quick and easy read.  Henry Wright’s 1893 English translation, though it will send you headed for the dictionary on occasion, still works quite well.  The new e-book edition, by the Mises Institute, comes with a short introduction by Bryan Caplan.  If you want more on Richter’s life and thought, Ralph Raico wrote a piece, “Eugen Richter and Late German Manchester Libreralism: A Reevaluation” in The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol. 4, 1990, pp. 3-25.

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