No man any more has any care for the morrow, either for himself or his children, for the nation guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave.
—Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward
Looking Backward: 2000–1887, by Edward Bellamy (1850–1898) is far and away the most popular, most influential utopia novel ever written, and also one of the worst. In its endless reprintings, it has sold over a million copies and been translated into twenty languages. Soon after its appearance in 1888, some hundred books were published either attacking Bellamy’s vision of Boston in the year 2000 or defending it. About half of these books were utopias with such titles as Looking Ahead, Looking Beyond, Looking Within, Looking Forward, all even more preposterous than Bellamy’s.
William Dean Howells was so taken by Looking Backward that he wrote two utopia novels of his own, A Traveler from Altruria and Through the Eye of the Needle. Both books resemble Bellamy’s in their replacement of unbridled capitalism by a moneyless socialist state. The English poet and socialist William Morris was so infuriated by what he called Bellamy’s “horrible cockney dream” that he wrote News From Nowhere about a less regimented future society with more of an emphasis on crafts than on machinery.
Looking Backward had an enormous effect on Eugene Debs and the later American labor and political leaders who called themselves socialists. In an essay “How I Became A Socialist,” Debs thanked Bellamy for “helping me out of darkness into light.” The book left its mark on such American socialists and liberals as Norman Thomas, Upton Sinclair, John Dewey, Scott Nearing, Lincoln Steffens, Jack London, Charles Beard, Carl Sandburg, and Erich Fromm. Socialist leaders in England and Europe were also influenced by the book. Leo Tolstoy translated it into Russian.
Vernon Parrington, in the third volume of Main Currents in American Thought, devoted fourteen pages to a sympathetic account of Looking Backward. David Riesman, in his biography of Thorstein Veblen, told how Bellamy’s utopia altered the lives of Veblen and his wife, and persuaded Veblen to shift his academic training from philosophy to economics. The engineer Arthur Ernest Morgan, chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority under Franklin Roosevelt, and for sixteen years president of Antioch University, thought so highly of Looking Backward that he wrote Bellamy’s first biography. In Nowhere and Somewhere: How History Makes Utopias and How Utopias Make History (1946), Morgan discussed the influence of Looking Backward on the shapers of Roosevelt’s New Deal, especially on Adolf Berle, Jr., whose father was a friend and disciple of Bellamy. “Striking parallels may be drawn,” Morgan wrote,
between Looking Backward and various important aspects of New Deal public policy. It may be said with considerable force that to understand the long range implication of the New Deal one must read Looking Backward.
Heywood Broun, during his Soviet fellow-traveling phase and before he converted to Catholicism, wrote an effusive introduction to the Modern Library’s edition of Looking Backward. Bellamy’s utopia, Broun wrote, aroused his first interest in socialism. He thought its description of America in 2000 was “close to an entirely practical and possible scheme of life… . there is at least a fair chance that another fifty years will confirm Bellamy’s position as one of the authentic prophets of our age.”
Oscar Ameringer, known as the Mark Twain of American socialism because of his comic wit, had this to say in his autobiography If You Don’t Weaken:
Yes, yes, Looking Backward. A great book. A very great book. One of the greatest, most prophetic books this country has produced. It didn’t make me look backward, it made me look forward, and I haven’t got over looking forward since I read Looking Backward.
Krishan Kumar, in Utopia and Anti-Utopia, quotes John Dewey:
Bellamy was an American and a New Englander in more than a geographical sense. He was imbued with a religious faith in the democratic ideal. But for that very reason he saw through the sham and pretence that exists or can exist in the present economic system. I could fill pages with quotations in which he exposes his profound conviction that our democratic government is a veiled plutocracy. He was far from being the originator of this idea. But what distinguishes Bellamy is the clear ardor with which he grasped the human meaning of democracy as an idea of equality and liberty, and portrayed the complete contradiction between our present economic system and the realization of human equality and liberty. No one has carried through the idea that equality is obtainable only by complete equality of income more fully than Bellamy. Again, what distinguishes him is that he derives his zeal and his insight from devotion to an American ideal of democracy.
Bellamy was a shy, genial, slender, lifelong New Englander. The son of a Baptist minister, he began his career as a journalist. He became an attorney but never practiced. Several of his early novels and a raft of science-fiction tales are now totally forgotten, but Looking Backward became an instant bestseller, second in the century only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It has never been out of print. At the moment at least seven editions are available in the U.S., including a two-dollar Dover paperback.
Looking Backward is narrated by Julian West, a rich, politically conservative young man living in Boston in 1887 and engaged to Edith Bartlett. He suffers from insomnia. Because little noises keep him awake at night he builds a soundproof cellar and hires a mesmerist to put him to sleep. A servant is trained to wake him in the morning. While he is in a deep trance-like slumber, his house burns down. The basement vault is not discovered and it is assumed that West died in the fire.
Fast forward to the fall of 2000. Dr. Leete, a retired physician, has built a house on West’s former property. An excavation reveals the hidden cellar and within it the perfectly preserved body of West. He has slept for 113 years. This notion of someone entering the future by way of a big sleep had been used many times before—“Rip Van Winkle,” for example—and would be used again, notably by H. G. Wells in his dystopia When the Sleeper Wakes and by Woody Allen in his 1973 movie Sleeper.
After being aroused from his hypnotic trance, West becomes the guest of Dr. Leete, his wife, and his daughter, Edith. West is attracted at once by the “faultless luxuriance” of Edith’s figure and her “bewitching” face. The rest of the novel is a detailed account of the brave new world of 2000 in which West is now amazed to find himself. Dr. Leete has an annoying habit of laughing at almost everything that West has to say about nineteenth-century Boston, and Edith blushes at West’s slightest remarks. The romance between Julian and this second Edith is embarrassingly mawkish. It turns out that she is the great-granddaughter of the earlier Edith, and there is even a hint that she is West’s former fiancée reincarnated. Did Bellamy intend “E. Leete” to be a pun, as Everett Bleiler suggests in his massive Science Fiction: The Early Years?
Like Marx’s Das Kapital, which had little influence on Bellamy, Looking Backward gives a fairly accurate picture of the evils of a totally unregulated capitalism. The nation’s economy in the late nineteenth century was in the grip of gigantic trusts. Graft was rampant in big cities. Labor unions were just getting organized and there were bitter, bloody strikes. The air was dense with coal smoke. Anarchists were blowing up buildings. Everywhere there was enormous wealth alongside slums and miserable poverty.
Julian West’s famous allegory of the coach appears in the first chapter of Looking Backward. It likens nineteenth-century America to a “prodigious coach” that is being pulled slowly over rough terrain by workers who are harnessed like beasts to a long rope. The coach’s driver is hunger. By lashing the workers, hunger forces them to keep pulling. Riding on the coach in comfortable seats are the rich capitalists. When workers faint from hunger, the riders urge them to be patient. If they become injured or crippled, the rich, out of compassion, give them salves and liniments. They agree it is a great pity that the coach is so hard to pull. The gap between themselves and the poor is rationalized by the “hallucination” that they are made of “finer clay” than the rope pullers.
West’s account of the vast changes that have taken place in the twentieth century is, as in all utopias, a bizarre mix of hits and misses. Its most spectacular hit is not its vision of America in 2000, but its description of a command economy that strongly resembles the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, especially their dream of the Communist state they believed would follow a temporary but necessary “dictatorship of the proletariat.” It’s as if West awoke not in Boston but in Lenin’s Moscow!
In the early years of the twentieth century, as Dr. Leete informs West, the great monopolies grew larger and more powerful. No violent worker revolution occurred as in Russia. Unregulated capitalism slowly evolved until the state took over the monopolies and all other means of production to become one monstrous trust, the country’s sole capitalist and land owner. The profit motive was gradually replaced by a patriotic desire on the part of everyone to serve the government. Political parties, labor unions, banks, prisons, and retail stores all vanished. In the absence of greed, there was no government corruption. Even prostitution became extinct. Everybody loved everybody. Crime faded away except for a few unfortunate souls who are mentally ill. They are treated in mental hospitals.
As in the land of Oz, money has totally disappeared. As the nation’s sole employer, the government pays no wages. Instead, it provides each citizen with an annual allotment of goods and services. Everyone carries a cardboard credit card that is punched each time a purchase is made or a service rendered.
Edith takes West to a building where samples of all available goods are on display. Their prices, strictly controlled, are in dollars and cents, but these numbers, like algebraic letters, are no more than symbols to aid government accounting. There is no advertising. A buyer tells a clerk what he or she wants, orders are sent through pneumatic tubes to a warehouse, then the goods are shipped through larger tubes to spots from which they are delivered to houses.
There are no household servants. Washing is done in public laundries. Medical and health care is completely socialized. You may choose your doctor. His pay, in the form of goods, is the same as everyone else, including laborers. Public kitchens provide food for home meals, though most people take their main meal at government-run restaurants.
Prizes go to workers for exceptionally good work. If they refuse to do their job properly they are put in solitary confinement on bread and water. Work hours are short and vacations regular. Those too ill to work are placed in “invalid corps” where they do whatever they can. The lame, sick, and blind all receive the same goods as others. There is no longer a division between rich and poor. From each according to his abilities, as a popular Marxist slogan had it, and to each according to his needs.
The state operates like a vast military complex. Every man is conscripted at age twenty-one to serve as a common laborer. At twenty-four, all persons, male and female, are given tests to determine their natural aptitudes and wishes. State-run colleges train them for a profession. Some choose “brain work” such as music, art, science, writing, and so on. Workers are free later to change jobs and to live where they like. Retirement is compulsory at age forty-five. October 15 is Muster Day on which those of twenty-four enter the work force and those of forty-five are mustered out.
All books and newspapers are published by the government, though there is no censorship and one may write anything he or she pleases. Authors pay for first printings. If a book or periodical sells well, the author receives a royalty in the form of goods. Red Ribbons are awarded to outstanding brain workers.
There is no jury system, no attorneys. Legal decisions are made by judges appointed by the president. State governments have vanished. A congress meets once every five years, though just what it does is unclear because new laws are no longer needed. All schools and colleges are run by the state.
What about religion? There are no churches or clergy, no denominations or sects. Persons are free to express their religious opinions in sermons delivered over a telephone system, but the dominant religion is a vague sort of theism, based on the ethical teaching of Jesus to love God and neighbor, much like the deism of the founding fathers.
Fossil fuels have been replaced by electric power that provides heat and light. The air is free of pollution. Chimneys are nowhere to be seen. Wars have become relics of the past, replaced by what William James called its “moral equivalent,” working for a better world. All the world’s great nations have become command socialisms with universally honored credit cards. There is free trade, free emigration, and the stirrings of a world government. Everyone speaks a native language and a universal language, the nature of which is not specified. Democracy of a sort exists by voting at various government levels. The president, chosen by a small group of peers, serves for five years.
The novel’s plot takes a surprising turn at the end. West falls asleep and wakes up back in nineteenth-century Boston convinced that his visit to 2000 was only a dream. He tries to interest others in his dream’s utopia only to be ridiculed and thought mad. He then wakes up to find himself back in Boston in the year 2000, the real world, to marry Edith and live happily as a lecturer on the sins of capitalism.
Bellamy never used the word “socialism,” a term he hated because it suggested European influences and violent revolutions. He called his ideology nationalism. It is hard now to believe, but so persuasive was his rhetoric that over 150 groups called Nationalist Clubs or Bellamy Clubs sprang up throughout the land. There was even a short-lived Nationalist Party. Two journals promoting nationalism flourished for a few years: The Nationalist (1889–1894), and Bellamy’s own monthly, The New Nation (1891–1894). There were other periodicals that debated nationalism. The populist movement, embodied in the People’s Party, owed a great debt to nationalism.
Not much is said in Looking Backward about the role of women in 2000 except that they serve as an auxiliary force in the industrial army under a female general. A much more detailed account of the status of women appears in Equality (1897), Bellamy’s lengthy sequel to Looking Backward. West continues as narrator. The book makes clear that women enter the work place as equal to men in all respects except for participation in athletic games. Edith, for example, works on a farm. Bellamy supported the suffrage movement, and the early feminist leaders considered him one of their heros.
In Looking Backward, Edith dresses in nineteenth-century attire so as not to disturb Julian, who is in a perpetual state of shock over everything he sees. In Equality, Edith reveals to Julian the clothes she actually prefers. They are men’s suits with trousers. Clothes in 2000 are made of paper and discarded after being worn. Also made of paper are shoes, carpets, sheets, draperies, dishes, even pots and pans. When discarded they are recycled to be used in making other things.
Girls, we are told, take over their mother’s last name with their father’s name as their middle name. Boys do the reverse. Women have free choice over the number of children they desire, though Bellamy is silent about birth control methods and abortions. The pessimism of Malthus has been answered by a stable world population. Blacks are nowhere mentioned in Looking Backward. In Equality, in a section headed “The Colored Races and the New Order,” it is explained that after the freeing of slaves they were soon absorbed into the new order as equal to whites in all respects, although there continues to be no social “commingling” of the two races.
Equality’s chapter 19, “Can a Maid Forget Her Ornaments?” (a quotation from Jeremiah 2:32), is pure Veblen. Women no longer wear rings or other costly jewelry to serve as badges of wealth. Since there is no longer a distinction between rich and poor there is no need for such displays. Conspicuous waste has gone the way of the profit motive. When West mentions that in his day persons actually thought that diamonds and other precious stones were intrinsically beautiful, Dr. Leete’s reply could have come straight out of Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class:
“Yes, I suppose savage races honestly thought so, but, being honest, they did not distinguish between precious stones and glass beads so long as both were equally shiny. As to the pretension of civilized persons to admire gems or gold for their intrinsic beauty apart from their value, I suspect that was a more or less unconscious sham. Suppose, by any sudden abundance, diamonds of the first water had gone down to the value of bottle glass, how much longer do you think they would have been worn by anybody in your day?”
One of Bellamy’s most successful predictions is what he calls an electroscope. Although its sounds and images come over telephone cables, it is connected to a worldwide network of wires so that it functions exactly like today’s television. Not only does it allow home owners to enjoy music, plays, operas, and lectures, but it also permits viewers to see live news events wherever they occur around the world.
Umbrellas have become obsolete because when it rains waterproof canopies are lowered over sidewalks and street corners. Water, electricity, and mail are, of course, free to all households. Horses have been replaced by trains and electric cars. West converses with a young farm lass who is plowing a field with an electric machine. Flesh eating has been abandoned for strictly vegetarian diets.
Several chapters in Equality describe West’s view of Boston and its suburbs from what is called an “air-car.” Submarines are mentioned. Of course, Bellamy could not conceive of atomic energy, although he does mention that past wars were fought by dropping dynamite from air-cars—the “ghastly dew” in a passage quoted from a Tennyson poem about the future. Nor should we fault Bellamy for not anticipating computers, the moon walk, space probes of planets, and all the other wonders of twentieth-century physics, chemistry, medicine, and genetics.
There is nothing about psychic phenomena in Bellamy’s two utopia novels, but throughout his short life he was fascinated by the paranormal. Extra Sensory Perception is featured in several of his short stories. “To Whom They May Come” tells of an island where natives communicate with each other only by telepathy, a notion that H. G. Wells exploited in his finest utopia, Men Like Gods. Miss Luddington’s Sister, one of Bellamy’s early novels, is about spiritualism.
Always in poor health, Bellamy died of tuberculosis at age forty-eight. Had he lived through the Russian Revolution he would probably have become a dedicated Communist. I do not know whether Lenin or Engels ever actually read Bellamy, although we do know they had only disdain for what they called utopian speculation.
In the final chapter of Equality, Dr. Leete does his best to counter the main objections that conservatives hurl against socialism: that it opposes religion, stifles incentives, discourages originality, leads to political corruption, violates civil rights, makes everybody behave alike, and so on. To the incentive objection, Dr. Leete’s unconvincing reply is that under socialism the old desire to maximize one’s wealth is replaced by the higher incentives of doing one’s work well and contributing to the common good. As it turned out, in every twentieth-century nation where a government, Marxist or fascist, took total control of the economy, the result was a cruel dictatorship in which not only did the predictions cited above prove accurate, but millions of citizens were needlessly slaughtered.
There are two big lessons to be learned from Bellamy’s vision of 2000. First, though admirable in its indictment of unfettered capitalism and in its enthusiasm for building a better world, it projected a cure as bad as, if not worse than, the disease. Bellamy’s two books reveal with great starkness how naïve and simple-minded were the early socialists both here and abroad. They had no inkling of how socialism would soon come to recognize the power of free-market competition and the baleful results of any effort to eliminate it.
Socialism is, of course, a fuzzy word, as impossible to define precisely as capitalism or Christianity. Bellamy’s vision has almost no resemblance to the democratic socialism of Norman Thomas, Michael Harrington, Irving Howe, John Kenneth Galbraith, and other leading American socialists, or to any of today’s socialist nations in which a rigorous democracy is combined with a mixed economy that is part free market and part government owned or controlled. In the opinion of Milton Friedman and many other conservatives, the United States is now a model of democratic socialism. In Freedom to Choose, Friedman points out that every plank in Thomas’s platform from the last time he ran for president has been fulfilled and is now accepted by both Democrats and Republicans. The ability of capitalism to overcome its dark past and become more benign was a development that neither Bellamy nor Marx could foresee.
The second lesson to be learned from Bellamy is that the future is unpredictable, with respect not only to science and technology but also to political and economic change. It’s a safe bet that the new millennium will swarm with stupendous surprises that no one now is even capable of imagining. G. K. Chesterton opens The Napoleon of Notting Hill, a fantasy set like George Orwell’s dystopia in 1984, with these wise words:
The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called “Keep to-morrow dark,” and which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) “Cheat the Prophet.” The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.
- The most recent fictional spinoffs from Bellamy’s utopia are two novels by the science-fiction writer Mack Reynolds: Looking Backward From the Year 2000 (1973), and Equality in the Year 2000 (1977). The hero, named after Bellamy’s, goes to sleep and awakes to find a world transformed by nuclear fission energy. Reynolds was an active member of America’s Socialist Labor Party.
- The books that probably had the greatest impact on Bellamy’s socialism were The Coming Revolution (1880) and The Cooperative Commonwealth (1884) by the Danish-born Laurence Gronlund, a promoter of the Socialist Labor Party. The plot of Looking Backward, though little else, may have been partly borrowed from a now forgotten utopian novel, The Diothas or a Far Look Ahead (1881) by Ismar Thiusen, pseudonym of John MacNie, professor of French and German at the University of North Dakota. The narrator is projected into the far future by mesmerism, where he marries a reincarnation of Edith, his former sweetheart.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 1, on page 19
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