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Key Concepts in Looking Backward

These comments are designed to amplify classroom conversation about the impact of Looking Backward on public life. To learn more about Bellamy's utopian novel, visit my Bellamy Resources page.

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:

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.

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:

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.

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.

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?

We leave 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.