Forty years after the Communist Manifesto eviscerated capitalism and predicted its demise, a relatively unknown American writer shot to fame with a fascinating blueprint for its replacement.
Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward 2000 – 1887 was a literary, cultural, and political sensation. First published in 1888, it was an international hit and only the second U.S. novel to sell a million copies.
Bellamy’s book spawned a short-lived political movement, inspired the creation of utopian socialist colonies, and influenced prominent leftists such as Eugene V. Debs and Daniel De Leon.
More than 130 years later, it remains a source of inspiration for those who favor a more humane and equitable world.
Julian West, the central character in Looking Backward, is a well-heeled member of the Boston bourgeoisie whose charmed life is frustrated by frequent labor unrest and social dislocation among the working class.
Prone to bouts of debilitating insomnia, he often employs a “mesmerist” to help him sleep.
On one of these occasions, his hypnotic slumber lasts 113 years, during which society has been radically transformed into a classless, egalitarian paradise.
West finds himself in a place where there is no poverty or greed, no prisons or police, no war or armies.
The state-run planned economy has been “intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit.”
Dr. Leete, whose family discovers West and helps him navigate Boston in the year 2000, tells him: “The coarser motives, which no longer move us, have been replaced by higher motives wholly unknown to the mere wage earners of your age. Now that industry of whatever sort is no longer self-service, but service of the nation, patriotism, passion for humanity, impel the worker as in your day they did the soldier.”
Every worker, regardless of education or occupation, receives the same amount of “credit” to rent comfortable state-owned accommodations, shop in pleasant state-operated distribution centers, and dine in elegant state-run dining halls.
“A credit corresponding to his 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 public storehouses, found in every community, whatever he desires whenever he desires it,” Dr. Leete tells West. “This arrangement, you will see, totally obviates the necessity for business transactions of any sort between individuals and consumers.”
Citizens begin a 24-year period of “industrial service,” at the age of 21. Their “natural endowments, mental and physical” are used to determine what job each can do “most profitably to the nation and most satisfactorily to himself.”
Those in “harder trades,” such as mining, work fewer hours than those in “lighter trades” like office administration.
Although writing at a time of strict gender roles, Bellamy depicts women working side-by-side with men, for the same level of compensation, with a dedicated female leadership structure. Breaks from industrial service are granted for “maternal duties,” but women with children are still expected to “serve industrially some five, ten or fifteen years.”
While the vast majority embrace their industrial service, the few who do not receive harsh treatment. “A man able to do duty, and persistently refusing, is sentenced to solitary imprisonment on bread and water till he consents,” the reader is told.
Fortunately, this is one of the few hints of totalitarianism in the novel.
Freedom of expression, speech, and the press are respected. The arts and letters likewise operate without direct state control or censorship.
This new form of human organization – Bellamy called it “nationalism” to avoid scaring off people with the term “socialism” – is said to have been adopted in Europe, Australia, Mexico, and parts of South America.
Internationalism and peaceful diplomacy are proudly on display, but amalgamation appears to be the end goal.
“You must understand that we all look forward to an eventual unification of the world as one nation,” Dr. Leete tells West. “That, no doubt, will be the ultimate form of society, and will realize certain economic advantages over the present federal system of autonomous nations.”
As with most utopian novels, Looking Backward presents a care-free society in which all of life’s problems have been solved and none of humanity’s flaws remain.
It is easy to call into question the practicality, or maybe even the desirability, of Bellamy’s “nationalist” vision. But its infectious optimism is undeniable, and its continued relevance is striking.
Indeed, the author’s bold and imaginative belief in human advancement is something we need more of in these days of pandemic, climate emergency, neoliberalism, and rampant inequality.
But to build a better world, progressive forces need to unite under a single banner and focus on a common cause.
That seems unlikely to occur any time soon, given the way identity politics and individualism appear to have triumphed over egalitarianism and collectivism.
The longer we continue to balkanize according to race, culture, and gender identity, the less hope there is for anything approaching Bellamy’s utopia.
As De Leon observed more than a century ago, “The capitalist class is interested in keeping the workingmen divided among themselves. Hence it foments race and religious animosities that come down from the past.”