Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, 1888. This book should be read in conjunction with The Ideal City, by Dr. Cosimo Noto, published in 1903 and also reviewed here at Sirius.Reviews. Looking Backward is a prescient look at a social and economic ideology that ultimately took form as the Soviet Union. Presented in fictional form by a young man of 1887 who undergoes an accident causing him to regain consciousness in the year 2000 after profound social changes, Bellamy, through the mouth of a medical Dr. Leete, describes a Communist society before the term gained currency. Bellamy does not merely describe a fanciful utopian society, as most reviewers of this book mistakenly assert, but makes a serious effort to explain how his proposed new system of universal Socialism will actually work and “easily” and “simply” solve every aspect of modern life and economic production.
In the new society, private transactions, private employment, and private property are outlawed: “The nation is the sole capitalist and landowner.” In great detail he describes a “cradle to grave” welfare system where all citizens’ needs are taken care of by the state. Reminding one of digital money, he calls for replacing currency with a system of government “credit cards” which provide every citizen with access to a network of government warehouses and retail outlets of laundries, kitchens, clothing shops, and every other good or service that the public may need, and which, being banned, no longer exist in any private capacity. Even “private” homes no longer have kitchens to produce food but the citizens must seek out a government kitchen if they wish to eat, thus freeing wives from their former domestic “slavery,” their children too being carted off to state day-cares. Where special need or hardship require a transaction between two private individuals, such transactions must be minutely examined by state burocrats “to guarantee its absolute equity” and avoid exploitation of man by man, much like today’s “loan modifications.”
His solution for all things is “the nation”, i.e., the state. The nation—note its identity with the formerly overtly Stalinist publication “The Nation” which still publishes today—hovers over all as the new Socialist God, which in Bellamy’s imagination is as bountiful as a spring cornucopia, miraculously flooding its citizens with food, clothing, shelter, and every other manner of material and cultural requirement, all justified by truisms such as “mutual dependence” is “the universal rule,” stating that is no such thing as truly individual “self-support,” and that all people belong to “one human family.”
These statements are true enough on their face value and constitute radical assertions in 1887 America and were perhaps inadequately acknowledged in the 19th century, but in Bellamy’s book these simple maxims are taken to absurd extremes to the detriment of personal responsibility and accountability and gloss over the almost infinite complexities of how to organize and govern complex modern society. The fundamental enigma of today’s intricate industrial economies, which Bellamy entirely fails to comprehend, is ascertaining what motivates human beings to work. Having dispensed with money, dismissing it as “merely a medium of exchange,” Bellamy replaces it with what amounts to a system of barter, with the state holding an absolute monopoly on everything.
But money is far more than merely a medium of exchange. It is the linchpin of the system of reward which induces people to voluntarily assume the heavy burden of providing goods and services to others, a system which Bellamy-type Fabian socialists dismiss as exploitive capitalism. Dispense with money and one is left with the other side of the coin—terror and the gulag. These are the only two ways to motivate human beings, which every mother knows but apparently some men like Bellamy do not: rewards or punishments. Without reward, which, for most adults means the inducement of money, the only remaining method for motivating society is the bayonet and barbed wire. While the latter may work to motivate individual adults, as Mafia chiefs know, they absolutely do not work on a national level any more than in a private home raising children. Nothing shows this more clearly than the juxtaposition of gulag-ridden starving North Korea which emits a continual stream of embittered emaciated refugees, while South Korea is happy, rich, and content.
What Bellamy fails to understand is that “the nation” is an abstraction that produces nothing. Well-armed healthy young men may risk their lives on behalf of the nation for a brief period, but there is nothing in human history to suggest that people will abandon their primary interests, which remain always with self and family, to labor for decades on behalf of a larger abstraction such as “the nation”. Even soldiers will not fight without pay. Having obviously never run a business himself and thus failing to comprehend what motivates people, Bellamy blithely assumes that the government workers in his vast network of government burocracies will be honest, enthusiastic, and hard-working. But the experience of modern Communist societies, not to mention most government burocracies in capitalist countries, demonstrates that such functionaries, if they bother to show up at all, will pilfer, steal, convert to their own use, and create artificial shortages in order to demand additional cash payments sub rosa from the public rather than execute the grandiose goals of the state in its latest Five-Year Plan.
In his naivete, Bellamy tosses away the Constitution, democracy, lawyers, juries, voting, private commerce, a free press, individual autonomy, marriage, and even the military, presuming that the result will be economic plenitude, social justice, international peace, and no more crime since all will then be equal. In their stead he proposes an “industrial army” of workers, both men and women, who will be forced into physical labor till the age of 45, and subjected to rule by a power elite composed of middle-class bourgeois professionals like the good Dr Leete, “guild” representatives (read “union bosses”), and a super-elite of technocrats and engineers reminiscent of the engineer-dictator Cabal in the movie “Things To Come”, who together will form what amounts to a ruling and self-regulated Communist Party. A secret police called the “Inspectorate” completes the picture, which will maintain discipline over the industrial army by imprisoning those who resist the national labor corvee, and those who for whatever reason are perceived to be slack in their enthusiasm for work. These are tossed into prisons where they are limited to bread and water until they regain their enthusiasm for laboring for free for the state.
A more perfect system for corruption, cronyism, ruthless dictatorship, economic collapse, and wholesale slaughter as top committee-men vie for power and purge their competitors’ followers from the Party, could hardly be devised. This of course is the eternal illusion of the Left. Complex problem involving the motivation or accountability of human beings? Wave a magic wand, institute a buro of secret police, and pronounce “Problem solved!”, just as Lenin’s answer to every problem was “Threaten to shoot them,” and if they still resist, “Shoot them!” Even the experience of Communist Cambodia with its mountains of bones does not discourage the naive dreams of such power-mad schemers. Gross negligence and industrial accidents? In Bellamy’s view, these will no longer happen once the taint of individualism disappears. Yet a century of experience shows that state entities injure people and pollute the environment just as often if not more than private interests. Just witness Chernobyl, the nuclear melt-down which occurred in the “workers’ paradise,” the Communist Soviet Union, which collapsed after sincere attempts to implement just that sort of a “paradise.”
How to mediate among political interests? Simply abolish the vote. What could be simpler? states Bellamy. Corruption among officials and dishonest judges? Not to worry, Bellamy assures us—another government burocracy will fix that too; the Inspectorate will remove the bad ones. Who will remove corrupt secret police? Bellamy does not say, but it’s plain that in Bellamy’s system there is always another morally pure state agency ready to intervene or govern the others. How will an agency have the legal power to intervene against the secret police if there is no system of checks and balances, no Supreme Law of the land dividing and balancing power? Bellamy has no answer to this most important of questions regarding the stability of his novel system.
Whatever trace of independence that Soviet buros may have retained after the Revolution of 1917 was subverted by Stalin precisely because he was head of the Soviet secret police and once he had removed his rivals in the Party, no legal limitation remained on the scope of his power. One of the clearest indicators of a would-be dictator is his call to eliminate lawyers. Because once you remove the lawyers, you remove the laws; remove the laws and you remove the judiciary; remove the judiciary and you remove the Constitution; remove the Constitution with its system of checks and balances and you remove the boundaries to political conflict and enable single-party rule, political dictatorship, enslaved labor corvees, and economic collapse.
Despite his utopian statism, Bellamy remains a product of the 19th century. Although he speaks of “one human family,” and anticipates perfect international cooperation under an “international council” like the U.N., he refers to less developed countries as “the more backward races” who, being “primitive,” will need generations of guidance and education from the industrial nations before they can join the international system, which will eventually end in one world government. He entirely misses the possibility that states can band together to form commercial monopolies, like happened with OPEC, just as readily as private corporations, or “trusts.”
He accuses capitalism of forcing people into unwanted occupations, but then ironically sets up a labor corvee of everyone except professionals like medical doctors and engineers (there are no more lawyers in his system), and threatens them with prison camps if they fail to cooperate.
He frees women from the “slavery” of domestic service to husbands and children, but then enrolls the lower-class women in the labor corvee subject to prison camps if they fail to labor, while upper-class women like Dr. Leete’s wife will spend their time shopping, eating out, and frequenting book stores and the theater, since Bellamy apparently does not see women becoming professionals themselves or participating in politics. But of course, in the new Utopia, there is no more politics, since everyone agrees on everything and there are no more disputes anywhere to be mediated by politicians and lawyers. The Inspectorate will see to that by means of “bread and water.”
In classic 19th century outlook, women in his system will remain the “wards of the future,” morally superior to rough laboring men, guarding the morality of the masses, prim in their behavior, completely passive in their relations to men as good upper-class women should be, never letting a fellow know what her true preferences might be, and it seems devoted to preserving the purity of the Anglo race and Christianity. Bellamy gives no thought to the true ramifications of his ideas: likelihood of a collapsing birth rate, rising abortions induced by the necessity of women working, interracial relations, rampant divorce, and the entry en masse of women into positions of authority once the state has forcibly removed them from the home. He plainly sees women’s “virtue” and men’s chivalry toward these essentially passive relics of Victorianism, continuing ad infinitum.
All in all, an ingenious literary work, written with facility and imagination, but naïve in the extreme, falling far short of the writer’s intentions, which were to sketch an actual framework for how society could function in the wake of universal nationalization by the state. He should not be excused by the fact that we can view his ideas from a century of hindsight because his ideas remain as popular today among the Woke PC Cult as when he wrote them, in fact more popular. This book and its pernicious ideas should remain in the dustbin of history where they belong.