Looking Backward

by Edward Bellamy

Published by New American Library

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Somewhere in downtown Boston, a man named Julian West lies in suspended animation in an underground concrete cell. He's been there since the spring of 1887. On September 12, 2000, a retired physician named Leete will discover Julian's crypt, revive him and introduce him to the wonders of life in the last weeks of the 20th century.

Such, at least, is the premise of Looking Backward 2000-1887, a novel first published in 1888 by an ex-lawyer named Edward Bellamy. Not many people know of it now, but a century ago it was an enormous, million-copy bestseller. Hundreds of "Bellamy Clubs" sprang up all over the United States, dedicated to helping to bring about the author's vision of a fair, free society. Bellamy's program became that of the People's Party and won hundreds of thousands of votes at the turn of the century. The scholars and political thinkers of the next two generations saw Looking Backward as one of the most influential books of the century, right behind Marx's Capital. Whether to debate Bellamy's ideas, or to cash in on interest in Utopias, scores of other authors published their own visions of future paradise. Among them were H.G. Wells, Anatole France and (eventually) Woody Allen in his film Sleeper.

Looking backward now, within a year of the season Bellamy described, we can see how mistaken his prophecies were. But somehow the fault seems to lie not with him, but with us. It's not that his forecasts were wrong, but that we (and our parents and grandparents) failed to live up to them.

Bellamy was a Massachusetts-born son of a minister, with a strong sense of social justice. Educated as a lawyer, he left the profession after taking just one case, when he realized he would be called on to represent people he didn't believe in. Turning to freelance writing, he made a career for himself in the 1870s and 1880s, America's "Gilded Age" of enormous wealth and appalling poverty. His major work began as a pure fantasy, but evidently it took hold of his imagination and drove him to work out the details of a genuine Utopia.

America in the 1880s certainly didn't look like Utopia. Labor unrest was pandemic, corporations grew and merged and merged again and the government seemed unable or unwilling to intervene. In the beginning of his novel, Bellamy portrayed his world in the "parable of the carriage," in which he described society as a huge vehicle pulled along a hard road by a hungry majority, while a well-fed minority enjoyed seats on the carriage where they could criticize the ability and morality of those who pulled them.

His hero, Julian West, has an especially soft seat in the carriage. The last in a line of independently wealthy New Englanders, in 1887 he is a 30-year-old who's never worked a day in his life. He's about to marry, but the ancestral mansion is decaying; striking workers are slowing the construction of a new house in a better neighborhood. An insomniac, Julian has a local hypnotist put him into a trance; when he awakes in 2000, he concludes that a fire must have destroyed the house, leaving his underground bedroom untouched and unnoticed.

With a chronological age of 143, but biologically only 30, Julian finds himself in the care of the Leete family who now live on the site of Julian's former mansion. They show him a smokeless Boston of splendid public buildings and tree-lined streets. Before he can really explore it, however, Dr. Leete traps him into a series of endless monologues explaining what's going on in America at the end of the 20th century.

Julian learns that everyone in America (and in Mexico and most of Europe) belongs to an "industrial army." Every citizen stays in school until age 21, then does three years of basic labor and goes on to work in some self-chosen occupation until age 45. From then until death (at age 85 or 90), retired workers pursue their own personal interests.

Julian is amazed to learn that everyone gets the same salary, regardless of their job. If some jobs, like mining, are hard to fill, the government reduces the hours; easy work involves longer working days. The salary is plenty to cover basic expenses and is paid -- in advance -- in the form of a yearly credit card. The only demand on workers, whether highly talented or mentally defective, is that they do their best. A talented person who doesn't live up to his or her potential will come in for severe criticism; those who do excel will enjoy very high status and respect, but no additional income.

Women have their own designated occupations and are represented in government by a woman "general" who can veto laws that affect women. Modest households make housework unnecessary and since women are paid just as much as men, no woman needs to marry just to escape economic hardship. Public dining halls liberate women from shopping and cooking (and families can reserve private dining rooms complete with waiters).

Dr. Leete explains that all jobs have equal status; the waiter who serves him deserves as much respect as the doctor would when serving the waiter as a physician. People have every right to choose the work they most enjoy, and to change jobs when they like.

This state of affairs runs with what must be a gigantic bureaucracy, yet the government is far smaller than in the 19th century. It has no military, no legislators (or even lawyers) and few police. Crime -- without an economic motive for it -- amounts to a handful of cases of "atavism," throwbacks to primitive violent behavior. The economy produces anything for which there is a demand. Owning lots of private goods only creates domestic clutter and people prefer to spend money on public places and events.

Bellamy sometimes shows a startling foresight. Not only does his society run on credit cards, but production operates on a "just in time" basis that minimizes waste. Barely a decade after the invention of the telephone, he imagines live music being piped in by phone to private homes, with a wide range of selections available at any hour of the day or night. On Sundays, people stay home to hear popular preachers deliver their sermons. Gigantic department stores (all within easy walking distance) offer samples of goods; customers order what they want and it's delivered to their homes.

Some of his throwaway lines are equally startling. In the industrial army, every person deserves a basic level of support simply by being a person, one of the heirs to human knowledge and wealth accumulated over centuries. A talented person who doesn't achieve his potential is despised; a disabled person who does what he can is admired. No one, even children, is economically dependent on any other person -- though parents raise their children lovingly. School is mandatory through post-secondary -- among other reasons, says Dr. Leete, because every child deserves to have educated parents.

Bellamy's vision of literary life almost anticipates Web publishing. Anyone can publish, but new authors must pay for publication out of their own credit and they set their preferred royalties -- knowing their books won't sell if the price is too high. If sales are good, authors get "furloughs" from their regular jobs and can continue writing and publishing. Popular endorsement is the only real yardstick of literary merit, with the whole country voting to award the coveted "red ribbon" to the most esteemed writers, artists, engineers, physicians and inventors.

Literature itself is dramatically different from that of the 19th century. Julian West is spellbound by a novel lacking all the traditional problems: no contrasts drawn from "wealth and poverty, education and ignorance, coarseness and refinement, high and low, all motives drawn from social pride and ambition, the desire of being richer or the fear of being poorer, together with sordid anxieties of any sort for one's self or others." Instead the author has written "a romance in which there should, indeed, be love galore, but love unfettered by artificial barriers created by differences of station or possessions, owning no other law but that of the heart."

Immigration is wide open; if it's a young immigrant, the receiving country pays the immigrant's homeland for the costs of education. If it's a retired migrant, the receiving country gets the benefit of another pension, paid by the homeland. (Bellamy explains international trade fairly plausibly, but he doesn't say how the "advanced" nations deal with the less advanced, which presumably still have armies.)

Perhaps most surprising, this state of affairs has come about without violence. Dr. Leete explains that the trend to monopoly in the late 19th century led finally to a single national monopoly which owns everything and employs almost everyone. (Individuals in groups can pay out of their credit cards to buy the services of preachers, artists, and newspaper editors.)

One reason for Bellamy's wide appeal was that he explicitly rejected labor organizations and class warfare as the means to achieving his Utopia. A "Nationalist" movement, embracing all classes, has set up this new society and organized it along military lines while abandoning the military itself. (The first Bellamy Club was composed of retired army officers in the Boston region.) His trust in technical fixes appealed to a country dazzled by the progress of technology. Bellamy's Nationalism had no taint of European Marxism or other foreign ideas, but it had a solid faith in work-created wealth as the basis of morality. As socialist as it seems, his 20th-century America seems like a very libertarian kind of country.

A commentator says that Nationalism would have worked in a society of Edward Bellamys, but not in one of ordinary people. While his book made him rich, Bellamy poured almost all his income into promoting his ideas as a serious political agenda. When he died in 1898 of tuberculosis, Nationalism was still a going concern, competing well against both the mainstream parties and against more aggressive ideologies. Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, it lost ground first to traditional working-class socialism and then to communism -- which must have looked like a travesty of Bellamy's vision.

Looking backward now on the book and the age it helped to shape, it's striking to see the similarities with our own time. Our papers tell us about ever-bigger mergers, ever-richer concentrations of capital. Less loudly, they remind us about the growing gap between rich and poor, the insecurity of daily life. Our young people go from college into jobs as waiters, but respect themselves far less than Dr. Leete's young waiter did.

Bellamy and millions of others saw the problem and tried to do something to solve it, to work out a practical system that would both increase wealth and share it. They refused to keep pulling the carriage with no reward but the criticism of the passengers.

A century later, and after decades of apathy, Bellamy's kind of social activism may be reviving. The protests in Seattle, Washington, late in 1999 about the World Trade Organization echoed Bellamy's sense of justice, though the violence of some protesters looked like "atavism" as Bellamy would have defined it. He would have seen the WTO as a kind of parody of his national monopoly, rationalizing trade and production but not really solving the problem of wasteful competition.

When we look backward to 1888, just a century before the fall of communism, we can see that there was, perhaps, another way we might have tried. It too might have failed, but surely not as grotesquely and brutally as our Utopias -- communist and capitalist -- have failed. Perhaps the future will look backward at Seattle as the start of yet another quest for a free, fair society. | January 2000


CRAWFORD KILIAN is the author of 11 science-fiction and fantasy novels, all of which are listed on his Web site. His most recent book is Writing for the Web (International Self-Counsel Press, 1999).