Some years after Edward Bellamy published his utopian socialist novel, Looking Backward, G. K. Chesterton made a comment that might summarize that book. “A good novel,” Chesterton argued, “tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” I have read no other utopian novels and have no idea how Looking Backward compares in terms of literary merit. That being said, the only reason I can think of to read the novel is to understand the mind of Edward Bellamy—and, more than that, of his age.
Edward Bellamy was a 19th century Christian Socialist. He and his book have been mostly forgotten, although his cousin Francis Bellamy has been better remembered (sort of). Francis wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. What people don’t remember about Francis was that he, like Edward, was a Christian Socialist. Once a Baptist minister, Francis was defrocked for preaching socialism from the pulpit. That detail didn’t keep Francis’s Pledge of Allegiance from becoming popular, however, which goes to show just how mainstream socialism (then indistinguishable from communism) was becoming. We often think of socialism in relation to 20th century totalitarian governments, but its roots go far deeper into the American past.
Some of Bellamy’s ideas come off as decidedly grim to modern readers. One of the characters in Looking Backward remarks, “The demand for ‘panem et circenses’ preferred by the Roman populace is recognized nowadays as a wholly reasonable one. If bread is the first necessity of life, recreation is a close second, and the nation caters for both.” Hunger Games readers, please stand up.
Bellamy’s all-powerful “nation” was mere speculation in the 1870s. Since that time, we have seen totalitarian states rise and fall, while other governments borrow aspects of socialism and find that it creates as many problems as it solves. Typically, Bellamy believed that the evil side of man’s nature was a product of his circumstances:
Soon [it] was fully revealed…that human nature in its essential qualities is good, not bad…[that humans are] images of God indeed, not the travesties upon Him they had seemed. The constant pressure, through numberless generations, of conditions of life which might have perverted angels, had not been able to essentially alter the natural nobility of the stock, and these conditions once removed, like a bent tree, it had sprung back to its normal uprightness.
Human history is ugly, asserts Bellamy—and so far we agree with him. But he argues that improved living conditions will fix humanity’s problems. A character casually observes, “All this merely shows, my dear fellow, how much easier it is to do things the right way than the wrong.” Christianity—of the sort that doesn’t preach socialism from the pulpit—holds to the opposite position. If recent history shows us nothing else, it is much easier to do things the wrong way than the right.
Bellamy also suggests the belief in eternal progress common to progressives both of his era and our own. The one sermon in Looking Backward consists mostly of self-congratulation on how much more enlightened the utopians were compared to their ancestors: “The betterment of mankind from generation to generation, physically, mentally, morally, is recognized as the one great object supremely worthy of effort and of sacrifice. We believe the race for the first time to have entered on the realization of God’s ideal of it, and each generation must now be a step upward.”
Upward to what? demanded Chesterton. Heaven, suggests Bellamy. He doesn’t argue that humans can create heaven, but he seems to believe that they can create a prelude to it. Bellamy’s society is nominally Christian, but it is not mass religious conversion that so drastically improves it. Rather, efficient economic systems and a benevolent government are the source of the solution. Interestingly, in Bellamy’s utopian world, the huge companies of the 19th century paved the way for the omnipotent government of the 20th. I’ve heard arguments that big business and big government go hand in hand; but I didn’t expect them to be accidentally corroborated by a 19th century socialist.
Although incredibly popular in its own time, Looking Backward won’t win any prizes for plot or characterization. Still, it offers an intimate look at the innocence that once characterized socialism. Edward Bellamy thought it was high time to build a society around men’s better impulses, rather than their worse ones. With a few safeguards in place, the perfect society could be achieved. Now—for good or ill—we know better.