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Edward Bellamy's expectant vision: Where he was right and wrong:
Review of Looking Backward
by Dana Williams

 

Edward Bellamy's novel "Looking Backward" is an interesting synthesis of condemnation for the American Industrial Revolution and a prophetic vision of the post-capitalist American society more than one century later. It strives, and succeeds, to make a strong statement of distaste against the problems of the author's era and concurrently proposes what the future could look like if people unite together in an effort against society's downward spiral of morality and culture.

The main character of the story, Julian West tells of the conditions of his age and is told of how "things worked out" by his guide in 21st Century American, Doctor Leete. This interwoven dialog portrays the dismal reality of the late 19th Century and how that reality could potentially be reversed.

On a theory-level, the ideas that are proposed as solutions to the many terrible and detrimental elements of the American Industrial Age are completely understandable and expected. The growth of socialism in the world, and its transportation to the US seeps into the revolutionary rhetoric of "Looking Backward" in the most primary ways. The enormous economic disparity of the day, which ironically is increasing again today, translated easily into a problem that was at the root of capitalism's unfairness. The exploitation of the workers, and indeed the whole lower class and majority of society from West's age, spurred on a massive movement of socialist thought and union organization. This solidarity often met resistance from the power brokers of that time: the Robber Barons, the politicians who were bought by the Barons, and the educated class that served as a buffer between the super-rich and the super-poor.

These fundamental problems led many socialist thinkers to envision a utopia (ironically, "utopia" is translated as "no where") in which these problems would be no more than a memory and society would be organized as a non-exploitive and equality-laden place. Bellamy's answer to these problems takes shape as a society that has reached utopia and has solved the issues of the Industrial Revolution. Worker strife and abuse have been done away with, as have the plundering by the rich and their correspondingly lofty lifestyles. All members of American society now happily interact for the benefit of all, by working in the labor force for a portion of their lives and then spending the rest in leisure to pursue the finer things in life, according to their interests.

A few things stand out as missing in the end product of Bellamy's vision, elements of modern society we consider "good things". There are not many, but there exists facets of thought and consideration which, in retrospect, are suspiciously missing or lacking in his version.

Gender liberation is one of the most prominent of these, although he does more than his contemporaries do to address the issue of subtle sexism and gender discrimination. He does fall short of some other socialists and anarchists in this respect, notably Emma Goldman who confronted these issues head-on, and would not be satisfied with "concessions", even the ones Bellamy made. No matter how noble his assertions are in respect to the status of women in society, he portrays the lead female role in his book as a person who does not follow the labor obligations and rights he ascribes women; rather Edith Leete seems content to sharpen her skills as a shopper and entertain Julian West (pg. 90). Thus she behaves in a way much less independent than nearly all women in our present society.

Another issues that are not addressed are the issues of race, which prevail even today. It is reasonable to assume that the problems related to race are also ones that are inherently linked with class, and thus have been eliminated in Bellamy's view, although he doesn't make a strong statement to that effect.

His general assertion of Christianity as the religion of the state is a bold one (at least in our day and age), but keeps with his own preference and bias. The present state of religious affiliation is much more diverse than Bellamy could've predicted, where more than 20 million Americans claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. Even so, more than 80% of the US today still considers itself "Christian", with a religious dedication that is much more dubious than those numbers could allude. He does not mention whether or not there is separation of church and state, or if there is even religious freedom, but simply asserts that people "have God" (pg. 112).

Bellamy's vision is often very insightful and surprisingly accurate with many predictions. He predicts credit cards, but since he is portraying a socialized society, he does not have his credit cards backed by the same financial institutions that ours are. To an extent, he creates a form of social security, although the age of retirement in our world is much later than in his, 65 compared to 45 (pg. 146). This social security is broadly defined as the ability for every member of the retired industrial army to live out the second half of their lives pursuing their personal interests, evidently without need to contribute more to society.

"Looking Backward" is able to offer a feasible vision of the 21st Century, had the world woken up to its problems and dealt with them in a rational matter. Such, is not the case, and thus things have worked out differently than Bellamy may have hoped. The fact that his industrial army is engaged in tasks and jobs that are now often done by machinery, or at the very least, people interacting in highly mechanized processes, shows that his emphasis (and the attitude of the time) was that people were the cogs of industry and society, and utilizing machinery more than "man"-power was as unthinkable as it was undoubtedly offensive.

The lack of machinery in Bellamy's future world is hardly surprising. The progress of industrialization was not that far along in the way of elaborate systems or assembly lines. Robotics and high-end machine tools were things that hardly even graced fantasy novels of the time. The fact that the world evolved to utilize such tools heavily says quite a bit for how corporations viewed their business. For example, technology is perfectly happy to be used for the purpose of eliminating remedial work, or it is perfectly happy to be used to remove management and make complex decisions: technology is a morally neutral thing, and how it is judged depends on how it is utilized. In our case, technology was used to force the worker into even more repetitive and specialized tasks, while the levels of control above them grew rapidly and diversified. Thus, it is easy to see why Bellamy had his industrial army all on common footing doing jobs with similar intensities-- he had not foreseen the continual growth of industry to the point where its technology would overtake and make many workers and their tasks obsolete.

The novel catches the very best of the revolutionary fervor that was stimulating the intellectual left of the time. Its approach is theoretical, yet not definably Marxist in orientation. In fact, Bellamy neatly side steps the attitudes of the Russian Bolsheviks who would be, within 30 years, the first to attempt the creation of a utopia based upon revolution through heavy-handed and dictatorial means. These means will overwhelm and split the revolutionary socialist movement of the world and lessen its potential for equalizing wealth disparities and the possibility for social justice.

Unfortunately, unions get sold short (pg. 183) and are not endowed the potential to accomplish widespread good. This is most likely due to Bellamy's view of unions, which at his time were weak and disorganized in comparison to the powerful labor movement the US saw in the 1930's.

Doctor Leete's bold statement of anarchists being subsidized and sponsored by capitalistic interests is a rather inane hypothesis (pg. 182). The "red flag" that they waved (which is more recently recognized by a black flag) was completely unrelated and in no way sponsored by corporate powers. Although the anarchists of the time were loud in advocating the overthrow of the state, their acts of violence were few and far in-between. The majority of the hysteria surrounding their actions was most likely brought up and exaggerated by the powers-that-be to lessen the inspiration they were starting to create in the socialist camps by their radical solutions.

The subsequent return to the 19th Century is a chapter of amazing inspiration as West finally realizes in his dreaming how wrong everything was in society. Everything clicks into place in his mind as he rebels against it all at the dinner table of upper class, and therefore hostile, people. He is finally successful at seeing the error of his prior viewpoints and his changed attitude is finally codified as he stands against all that he believed in his past life. This revolution in thinking is similar to our contemporaries looking into history and seeing the extreme misery and suffering of our ancestors, and wanting to try our hardest to improve the future. Bellamy, in "Looking Backward", simply takes an approach to this mentality which is a radical reorganization of society and the destruction of the capitalist economy.

Bellamy's vision is strong in utopian thought and affected by the biases in his life and times. He comes up with potent suggestions and solutions, and while some of his predictions are off mark, this can be easily attributed to the fact that his utopia has, unfortunately, not yet come about.