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Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378
Andrew.Wood@sjsu.edu


Summary of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward

Bellamy, E. (1888/1997). Looking backward. New York, NY: Dover Thrift Edition.

Edward Bellamy wrote his utopian novel largely in response to the growing crisis he recognized between workers and bosses that resulted in bloodletting such as the 1886 Haymarket Riot. Like most social reformers of his day, he warned that 'man's inhumanity toward man' would lead to social collapse. He rejected the notion that social inequity is innate to the human condition. Moreover, he rejected the notion that progress, "was a chimera of the imagination, with no analogue in nature" (p. 31). [Note: all quotes are from the Signet Classic edition]. Bellamy's Parable of the Coach illustrates most powerfully the sense that humanity, driven by hunger, forces brothers and sisters to claw against one another in a vein attempt to gain a seat atop a social transport careening toward disaster.

In the twentieth century of Bellamy's imagination, Nationalism - the Great Trust - offers a response to rampant individualism. The unified nation led by a single capitalist cures labor crises by completing the inevitable convergence of human industry: "The great city bazaar crushed its country rivals with branch stores, and in the city itself absorbed its smaller rivals till the business of a whole quarter was concentrated under one roof, with a hundred former proprietors of shops serving as clerks" (p. 53). This Great Trust is more than a government. The new nationalism results in nothing less than a fraternal fatherland:

No man any more has any care for the morrow, either for himself or his children, for the nation guarantees the nature, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave. (p. 74)

While we will explore the implications of this fatherland on individual freedoms more fully in future conversations, let us examine four key themes to this new order: (1) centrality of public life, (2) equality of labor, (3) elimination of money, and (4) scientific socialism. Thereafter we'll examine three themes of national socialism in Looking Backward.

The centrality of public life

The centrality of public life refers to the notion that value in human relationships may be found in mutual cooperation, not individuality. Given the troubling economic times of the 1880s, this sentiment can hardly seem revolutionary. Rather, it might have appeared as a necessary salve to the crises of public life. The results of this centrality of public life emerge only when contrasted with the relative austerity of private life:

You will find illustrated here . . . what I said to you in our first conversation, when you were looking out over the city, as to the splendor of our public and common life as compared with the simplicity of our private and home life . . . To save ourselves useless burdens, we have as little gear about us at home as is consistent with comfort, but the social side of our life is ornate and luxurious beyond anything the world ever knew before. (p. 115)

As Bellamy further illustrates in his image of nineteenth century drudges carrying hundreds of thousands of individual umbrellas to avoid the rain, the citizens of Boston 2000 have constructed mechanical and social umbrellas that cover each individual. Referring again to Bellamy's parable of the coach, we turn to a second theme of Looking Backward, the equality of labor.

The equality of labor

In Looking Backward, shared labor is the engine of social order.

Our entire social order is so wholly based upon and deduced from [compulsory national service] that if it were conceivable that a man could escape it, he would be left with no possible way to provide for his existence. He would have excluded himself from the world, cut himself off from his kind, in a word, committed suicide. (pp. 58-59)

The role of labor in this imaginary society may best be compared to Thomas More's Utopia. Recall in that idealized notion of public life how each individual must work to gain the fruits of social labor. Moreover, labor confers the rights of citizenship and, as a corollary, brings a certain degree of suspicion on those who do not work in their assigned places. However, in Bellamy's Looking Backward, the joys of harmonious concert, not the fears of reprisal, are what motivate the workers of his industrial army: "The worker is not a citizen because he works, but works because he is a citizen" (p. 100). The value of labor in Boston 2000 is not lost on women either. Aside from the needs of motherhood, women are also required to fill the ranks of the industrial army. However, given that Bellamy's is a Victorian utopia, certain sexual inequities manage to endure.

The Elimination of Money

In contrast to the subtle sexism that remains in his utopia, money cannot be found in Bellamy's Looking Backward. In its place, a system of wealth distribution ensures that all labor is valued equally.

A credit corresponding to [a citizen's] share of the annual product of the nation is given to every citizen on the public books at the beginning of each year, and a credit card issued him with which he procures at the problic storehouses, found in every community, whatever he desires whenever he desires it. (pp. 72-73)

All citizens who work receive the same credit. Naturally, some work is deemed more difficult than others. The role of government, therefore, is to adjust working conditions (hours, vacations, and the like) to ensure that no necessary job goes unfilled because of its excessive difficulty. Even so, no worker earns any more credit than another and none can exploit the stored labor of his colleagues. With the elimination of wealth, Boston 2000 enjoys relatively no crime or social disorder.

Scientific socialism

The optimism necessary to imagine this perfected society emerges from scientific socialism, the assumption that a well managed society marked by machine-like efficiency can ensure equality and improvement in the human condition. Scientific socialism is a response to the excesses of individualism as perceived by nineteenth century social reformers. Why, they asked, should the technical specifications necessary for perfected government be left to human will and idiosyncrasies? Can we not leave technical matters to machines, or at least to governments that function like machines?

As the machine is truer than the hand, so the system which in a great concern does the work of the master's eye in a small business, turns out more accurate results. (p. 55)

We visit Edward Bellamy's imaginary Boston with the optimistic notion that human will is not predetermined, that human destiny is not etched in stone. Unlike John Winthrop's Puritan Boston that tried to reconcile God's will with human ambition, Looking Backward places the fate of humanity in its own hands. Once we have learned to fashion better machines and build better cities, we can rebuild human souls: "the conditions of human life have changed, and with them the motives of human action" (p. 57). As we will soon discover, of course: the ability to so radically reshape the human condition brings with it tremendous risks. To that point we now turn.

Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward envisions an optimistic form of national-socialism. Nationalism refers to an all-inclusive state, a father-land who cares for its people. Socialism refers to liberation of the individual potential. This form of government seeks to represent the will of the people writ large. In place of laws, banks, and artificial customs, an individual in this new age is directly represented by the state. As with More's Utopia, even the family is merely a temporary liaison between individual and state.

The account of every person, man, woman, and child, you must understand, is always with the nation directly, and never through any intermediary, except, of course, that parents, to a certain extent, act for children as their guardians. (p. 176)

Bellamy, of course, died long before the most horrifying implications of his idealized public life came to pass. Twentieth century experiments with fascism, communism, and other forms of collectivism, seem eerily similar to Bellamy's optimistic text. In his forward to the Signet Classic edition of Looking Backward, Erich Fromm outlines three common critiques of Bellamy's utopia - it is undemocratic, mechanized, and static. As we will see, these critiques are not just philosophically grounded; they reside in history as well.

Looking Backward is Undemocratic

In a manner similar to Plato's Republic, Edward Bellamy rejected what he saw as rampant individualism - the selfish impulse of people, companies, and governments to pursue their own interests to the detriment of human happiness. Universal suffrage, by extension, was merely institutionalized mob rule in Bellamy's eyes. The United States of the idealized future has dispensed with most legal and political offices - even as it has retained many of the names of its former self. Thus, a president may be found in the year 2000, but he does not answer to public whims. Rather, the president emerges as a general from the industrial army, selected from its retired ranks. All voting is limited to retired citizens who, like college alumni, have no vested interest in the impact of their decisions save the overall benefit to their alma mater. After all, as Dr. Leete explains, discipline would be ruined "if the workers had any suffrage to exercise, or anything to say about the choice. But they have nothing" (p. 133). To contemporary ears, this dimension of Looking Backward may seem troubling. However, the vote has been replaced by a much more enticing reward: the assurance that government is run by experts.

Looking Backward is too Mechanized

This notion of government-by-experts assumes a perfected form of bureaucracy in which all decisions are made with efficiency and precision. Consider Bellamy's description of central government: "The machine which they direct is indeed a vast one, but so logical in its principles and direct and simple in its workings, that it all but runs itself" (p. 129). To some critics, the result is a system in which human beings act as machines. Throughout the book, references to the efficiency of scientific government compare perfected human institutions to machines: "Supply is geared to demand like an engine to the governor which regulates its speed" (p. 162).

Certainly, this vision would have appealed to nineteenth century readers who grew tired of continual financial and political strife that followed the seemingly inept leadership of their public officials. The question, however, remains about the role of ethics and humanism within the mechanical government. One answer found in the twentieth century was fascism - a political system strangely foreshadowed by Bellamy:

The organization of the industry of the nation under a single control, so that all its processes interlock, has multiplied the total product over the utmost that could be done under the former system. [It may be compared] with that of a disciplined army under one general - such a fighting machine, for example, as the German army in the time of [Prussian general] Von Moltke. (p. 165)

As we see merely less than four decades after Bellamy's utopia is published, Europeans who have grown tired of economic misery will adopt the same mechanized response and pay a terrible price.

Looking Backward is too Static

The underlying paradox of Bellamy's novel is his desire to envision perpetual improvement within a stable society. To be sure, Dr. Leete depicts an age of innovation after the supremacy of the Nationalist party:

There ensued an era of mechanical invention, scientific discovery, art, musical and literary productiveness to which no previous age of the world offers anything comparable. (p. 117)

Such a new age naturally follows the scientific socialist notion of a utopia of progress. This utopia posits an individual who has been freed of the Great Chain of Being and the vicious cycles of hunger and human depravity. Yet, upon realizing this worker's paradise, what change may follow? One may find significant insight in Dr. Leete's discussion of Congress in the year 2000.

We have no legislation . . . that is, next to none. It is rarely that Congress, even when it meets, considers any new laws of consequence, and then it only has power to commend them to the following Congress, lest anything be done hastily. If you will consider a moment, Mr. West, you will see we have nothing to make laws about. The fundamental principles on which our society is founded settle for all time the strifes and misunderstandings which in your day called for legislation. (p. 145)

The Nationalized United States, leading a world of utopian nations toward the inevitable path of human improvement, has not yet mastered nature. Dr. Leete speaks of occasional natural disasters that may slow production. He accounts of changes in popular taste and even the rare occurrence of crime (generally blamed on genetically deficient families). But the future of his world looks pretty much the same as its present: "the material prosperity of the nation flows on uninterruptedly from generation to generation, like an ever broadening and deepening river" (pp. 162-163).

This organic metaphor may seem strange, given the mechanistic proclivities of Ballemy's Looking Backward. However, as we will explore later in the semester, most idealized forms of public life hide a machine under their well-tended gardens. In this utopia: "Let but the famine-stricken nation assume the function it had neglected, and regulate for the common good the course of the life-giving stream, and the earth would bloom like one garden, and none of its children lack any good thing" (pp. 216-217). Looking Backward offers a compelling vision, one that was adopted by millions of Americans and a host of utopian movements prior to the First World War. However, even as we long to stroll Bellamy's wide boulevards and look upon his grand buildings, we must also look backward unto the world that actually followed the path envisioned by the utopian's fanciful dream.