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Millennial Review I: Looking Backward: 2000 — 1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888)

Looking Backward: 2000 — 1887

By Edward Bellamy 

16 Jan, 2000

Millennial Reviews


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Looking Backward: 2000 - 1887
Edward Bellamy
Originally published in 1888

I had read Looking Backwards before as a child. When I got my new copy, I discovered that I had little recollection of the plot, aside from the minor aspect that a man of the 19th century goes to sleep and wakes up in an utopian America in the year 2000. Perhaps this is because, as I discovered on rereading the book, there is very little plot at all, the book consisting of the naive man from the 19th century asking questions about the milieu he finds himself in and his host, Dr Leete, answering them at some length.

Not terribly surprisingly very few of his predictions for the20th century panned out. Bellamy was probably a happier man having died in 1897 than he would have been had he lived to be an old man in the mid part of the 20th century, as, oh, H.G. Wells did. Unlike a lot of books of this sort, I think there are a few places in the book where the incorrect assumptions he made are explicit:

Large organizations are simpler than small ones and therefore less complex to run which leads in his view inevitably to monopolies forming without end and those monopolies being eventually best run as a single organization. This might as well be the nation-state, since it would encompass the whole of any nation-state's economy. In Bellamy's future, the nationalization happened entirely peacefully.

He has a few other odd views [Debt is bad. Credit is bad.]but I think the paragraph above is the foundation of the book.

His utopia has something to offend everyone:

All business is run by the state. All financial transactions are with the state as well. Although everyone has credit cards, only the owner of the card may use the money on it: credit can't be transferred to other people.

[I think that somehow the Federation of Planets got infected by Bellamites post Genetic Wars, as they have the double talk about not having money.]

The status of women is far better than in the 19th century but is still not equal to men [Although they have the same income, so the terribly patronizing attitudes might not be as galling as I expect]. In many ways, oddly reminiscent of Heinlein's attitudes, actually, except that Heinlein had females with real political power and that does not seem to be the case in Looking Backwards.

Ever wonder, by the way, where Heinlein might have gotten his views of the Marxist theory of labour as given in Starship Troopers? It would not greatly surprise me to find out there was a copy of Looking Backwards in Heinlein's library. Everyone works as hard as they are able and gets the same annual pay. People who are more productive do not get more pay as people are expected to work as hard as they are able. There's an interesting comment on this, if I can find it:

"The way it strikes people nowadays is, that a man who can produce twice as much as another with the same effort, instead of being rewarded for doing so, ought to be punished if he does not do so."


The entire labour force is nationalized and run like an army.

Whether or not they have an army is unclear. I thought they did but later on he says they don't. They must have some means of projecting force, as only the industrial nations have his social system and they are guiding the less advanced nations upwards.

It wouldn't be a 19th century utopia without eugenics but unlike the 20th century versions, Looking Backward 's eugenics are voluntary and entirely administered by women. It isn't that weak and frail are bundled off and killed [They have their own labour force paid as well as the rest] but that good women won't marry unfit men. Also heh. Bet it sucks to be one of the workers who gets promoted slowly. Of course, all marriage is for love but what woman could love an unfit man or punish her future children by having kids by him?

There are no lawyers. Big operations are too simple to need a complex body of laws, you see.

There are no parties, nor elections as we know them. The folks who run things are the post 45 year old retirees who appoint the administrators from their own numbers. A comparison with university administrations of the 19th century is made and we all know how utopian university admin is.

Red anarchists turned out to be paid tools of the Big Business.

There are very few criminals, the economic causes of crime having been eliminated and the criminals who do commit crimes are assumed to be ill and treated accordingly.

On the plus side, if there is any evidence of race-prejudice, I missed it.

This communist America is, of course, a Christian America because the values it follows are entirely compatible with and indeed can come from Christianity. There is no State church, though.

I loved the book trade: the author pays out of pocket to have his book published. The hyper-efficient production methods mean a little money makes a lot of books and because everyone has the same income, nobody has an unfair advantage wrt getting their books published. If people buy the book in quantity, the author may be able to get enough free time to write more books.

There's an analogue to cable radio with uplifting music and sermons. We know that these people had full social and cultural lives but aside from one or two scenes we don't see much of that aspect. I did think it off putting that at least one character expressed a great reluctance to show off her own musical talents because they were not nearly as good as what was on the telephone.

A plus: people only work until 45 and work fewer hours before then.

The structure of the book doesn't lend itself to any great excitement, except for the final chapter in which it appears the entire book was a dream and the narrator is back in the horrible 19th century.There's a particularly flaccid romance [In its way, similar to the one in Door into Summer] and most of the Q&A is terribly dry but I still don't feel like I wasted the time I spent rereading Looking Backward. Yes, I think the author was economically deluded and no, very little of what he predicted came to pass but most of the books I read might be said to have the same flaws in a century. If nothing else, discussions of why he was wrong might be illuminating.