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Richter’s Socialist Dystopia

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Source: Introduction to Richter's Pictures of the Socialistic Future (Freely adapted from Bebel), trans. Henry Wright, Introduction by Thomas Mackay (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1907).

INTRODUCTION by Thomas Mackay

IT has been suggested by the publishers that the English translation of Eugene Richter's clever little satire requires a word of introduction, on this, its new appearance, in a cheap and popular form. In 1893, the year of its first issue here, Socialism, though a burning question in Germany, was not an urgent controversy in this country. Since 1893 many things have happened, and this must be the excuse for the superfluity of a preface.

In 1893 Socialism in this country was a subject for academic discussion. In 1907 it has its representatives and its party in parliament, and it may soon arrive within the range of practical politics. This may bring about a great reconstruction of parties. Eugene Richter was the leader of the Liberal Party in the German Reichstag. The German elections of 1907 show that the rift between the Socialist party and the Liberals, of which the satire of Richter is an earlier indication, has grown more pronounced. The same clearing of the issues has been going on in France. The republican ministry, under M. Clemenceau, seems to have broken definitely with M. Jaurès and his Socialist followers. France, above all others, is the country of clear thought and accurate expression, and more and more the insistent logic of systematic discussion has brought out the fact that Liberalism is the real antithesis to Socialism. The French writers, also, who have shown themselves the most determined opponents of Socialism and Collectivism, such as M. M. P. Leroy-Beaulieu, De Molinari, and Yves Guyot, have been proud to describe themselves as disciples of the Liberal School of Economists. So it naturally comes that the phrase l'enemi c'est le libéralisme is an accepted commonplace in the mouth of the advocates of Socialism. That this truth will emerge as the result of sustained and serious controversy, here in England, is equally certain. It is the confusion of desultory discussion, in a subject-matter where the details have not been presented to us by experience or authoritative exposition, that still obscures the issue. Richter's meritorious attempt to paint for us a picture of the Socialist future supplies an omission which the socialists do not attempt to repair, and his little book may arrest attention and suggest difficulties in quarters which cannot be reached by more weighty and philosophical criticism.

In these days of social and political introspection, mankind, if not governed, is largely influenced by ideals, and ideals are provided for us by the Liberal and by the Socialist parties. Conservatism, which, after all, is the habitual attitude of the English nation, seems to hold the balance, and stands for no special ideal, but rather for the practical experience which notes that reformers' dreams are not always fulfilled, and that it is salutary, in the first instance at any rate, to look askance at things which are new.

The ideal of the Liberal leads him to look for a regeneration of our social economy through a fuller development of the economic competence of the individual. This is the fundamental conception of the Liberal creed, of which a somewhat imperfect expression (so, at least, it is now said by those who have been taught by events), under the title of the Manchester school or the school of laissez-faire, exercised so wide an influence during the greater part of last century. The instructed Liberal will now admit that complete individual freedom, the goal of the earlier visionaries, though a thing to be sought and desired, is not a thing to be obtained per saltum by a society which has behind it a long record of subjection—through periods of customary communism, serfdom, militarism, and the personal incompetencies of character which these entail. Progress he regards as the gradual disentanglement and emancipation of the race from these influences. The mere fact that we have reached a point when the generous conceptions of Socialism have been accepted as welcome aspirations of our social conscience is, to the liberal philosopher, proof of the advance and improvement of human character, under a system in which the desire of personal freedom has been the chief formative and disentangling influence. Society, he will argue, is merely the environment within which, through the discipline of the ages, human individuality is seeking to learn the rule which will give it the opportunity of attaining its fullest expression. To the enthusiast for liberty—the true Liberal—the valuable thing is the free experience of the individual and the discipline which that teaches.

The Socialist, on the other hand, asks us to see a vision of progress in which correct social conduct appears to be habitual and almost automatic—a rule of life so firmly established that it can be cut loose from the personal responsibility and self-discipline which is its origin, and subjected to the autocratically inspired discipline that emanates from that fortuitous centre of authority which men call the State. The social liability thus undertaken for a subject population, the rate at which it is contracted, and the extent to which it may grow, is not under any control of the State, but must ever be the direct result of individual action prompted by individual motives. If the pressure of personal responsibility and self-discipline is removed, can excesses of unsocial conduct be controlled, can the risks of life be met, by a substitution of collective for personal calculation, contrivance, and effort? The Socialist is sanguine that he can give a satisfactory answer to such questionings.

Happily there is no problem so weighty, so profound, or so important, that its discussion cannot be relieved by a touch of humour. Herr Richter's humour, his translator remarks, is Teutonic. This means, we apprehend, that the mock-heroic vein in which his narrative is couched is admirably preserved throughout. This, indeed, is its great artistic merit. We all recognise the magnanimity and generosity of our Socialist friends. Some of them, even in the private relations of life, may be as admirable as their sentiments, and it is an irrelevant waste of time to dispute their public spirit and virtue. There is, however, no authoritative exposition of the Socialist programme; and this, after all, and not the magnanimity of its doctrine, is the subject on which we require information. It we declare our difficulty in accepting as practicable the abolition of money and the substitution of a labour-note currency, as required by Marx, we are reminded, fairly enough, that Marx's views have been demolished by his disciple, Edward Bernstein, a new leader of German Socialism, and that they are rejected by English Fabians. The policy of Fabians, German and English, is essentially a hand-to-mouth policy. It is hostile to the private employment of capital, but it has put forward no comprehensive plan for carrying its views into effect. It is, moreover, pertinently objected by the more logical or anarchical Socialists (the section represented by such writers as Prince Krapotkine in his recently published Conquest of Bread) that, by an extension of municipal trading, all that is compassed is the substitution of the rule of the political boss for the rule of the private capitalist, a plan which merely shifts the centre from which the tyranny of the enforced subordination of industry emanates. The Liberal controversialist, therefore, who wishes to criticise in detail the proposals of his opponents, is placed in a difficulty. He admits the imperfections of existing society; he accepts the laudatory estimate which the Socialists give of their own motives, but owing to lack of authoritative exposition, he is driven to work out for himself the details of the Socialist policy.

This Herr Richter has done in an admirable manner. A very complete verisimilitude is sustained throughout his story, and the humour never degenerates into farce. He is as serious as was Defoe in his description of Robinson Crusoe, and if the reality of the picture is less convincing, that is due, not to the unskilfulness of the author, but to the incongruous and unthinkable nature of the Socialist theory, when attempt is made to reduce it to practical details.

On one other point the attention of the reader should dwell. Those controversialists, who, so to speak, argue with their feet on the solid earth, are under a disadvantage, as compared with their aerial and cloud-encompassed opponents, in that they accept the society of to-day as necessarily the father of the society of to-morrow. They recognise the defects and in-equalities of the existing system, but the best remedy they can offer is admittedly a gradual and imperfect one. On the other hand, the Socialist is not fettered by any need to refer to defects which may arise in his Utopia. Experience has never had an opportunity of testing its principles in the concrete, and it is difficult to criticise a fabric which is still in the womb of the future. The Socialist future is recommended to us as a land of milk and honey, but how is human kind to be driven to and shepherded in these pastures? "When I am King," said honest Jack Cade, "there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me, their lord." In the modern instance, this lordship of Jack Cade, the political "boss," is kept studiously in the background, but the point is all important; for without discipline and regulation, and force at the back of it, and of the most rigid and exacting kind, the machinery of Socialism will not work at all. We are weary of accounts of the equity and beneficence of the Socialist State, but complete silence is observed as to its darker possibilities and to the infraction of our liberties which it necessarily implies. This is a legitimate point for criticism, and Herr Richter has worked it out hypothetically—the only way in which it is possible for us to do so—and with grave and laborious industry.

The time indeed has come for a serious joining of these issues. The philosopher, the critic, the economist, and the humourist are all under obligation to throw what light they can on the subject-matter of this controversy. Herr Richter's ingenious picture of the Socialist Utopia is a valuable contribution to the elucidation of the problem of what would happen if human nature and mortal affairs were all totally different from what they at present are. If the inquiry seems to end in a reductio ad absurdum, it is not our author's fault.

T. MACKAY.

Last modified April 10, 2014