Philip Booth’s blog article about Pope Pius IX reminded me of another historical figure who predicted, with an astonishing degree of accuracy, what life would be like in a socialist state.
Eugen Richter (1838-1906) was a long-standing deputy in the German Reichstag and a prolific classical-liberal activist. If there was one matter which Chancellor Bismarck and the socialist opposition agreed on, it was their joint condemnation of Richter, who lucidly exposed the fallacies of both sides.
In 1891, Richter published the short novel Images of the Socialist Future, which describes the socialist transformation of a society. The story is told from the perspective of a worker, who in the beginning is enthusiastic about the socialist victory which opens the novel. Gradually he realises that things are going badly wrong, but he reassures himself that the ills are all just ‘temporary’. Until, finally … but I am not going to reveal the ending here.
In a nutshell, the idea is that as the price mechanism – an impersonal mechanism of coordinating individual actions – disappears, it can only be replaced by diktat. But neither do the ‘strongmen’ possess precise knowledge of local conditions, nor do their orders go with the grain of people’s interests and preferences.
Hence, the system must increasingly rely on control and stiff punishments. The invisible hand of the marketplace is replaced by an iron fist. (Richter thus preludes much of The Road to Serfdom, which was published half a century later.) In the end, even emigration is outlawed and the border guards are turned into firing squads.
An interesting feature of Richter’s novel is that the new rulers are not described as power-hungry or otherwise repugnant characters. They appear to be quite decent people who are genuine about their beliefs. The totalitarian tendencies of the society cannot be blamed on ‘abuse’ and ‘power in the wrong hands’ – they are an intrinsic feature of socialism.