I invite you to contemplate and compare two rather different visions of socialism as embodied in utopian novels that appeared at the same period -- the late nineteenth century -- in the United States and Britain. Today, a century and a quarter later, they both seem outdated in many ways, but the divergent approaches to socialism that they represent still exist.

Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: From 2000 to 1887 was first published in Boston, Massachusetts in 1888. The novel is available online here. William Morris' News from Nowhere first appeared in serial form in the journal Commonweal of the Socialist League, starting in January 1890. Morris intended it as a critical response and alternative to Bellamy's utopia, so it makes sense to consider the two works together. News from Nowhere is available online here. In the same source you will find many other writings by Morris that are still worth reading: I especially recommend his 1884 lecture 'How we live and how we might live'.

These then are the main readings for this feature. Below I present two additional articles that will enhance your understanding of Bellamy and Morris:

-- 'Looking back on Edward Bellamy' by Adam Buick, from the July 2016 issue of The Socialist Standard;

-- William Morris' critical review of Bellamy's utopia, from the June 21, 1889 issue of Commonweal (I have slightly abridged this text; the original version is here).


Adam Buick, Looking back on Edward Bellamy

In 1888 a book by Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, was published which had an enormous impact at the time. It could even be said that it marked the take-off of modern socialist ideas in America.

Bellamy was a New England journalist and writer who had travelled widely. His utopian novel is based on the story of a rich young Bostonian, Julian West, who is sent to sleep by mesmerism and does not wake up until the year 2000, by which time a far-reaching economic and social revolution has taken place in America.

As explained to him by his host, Dr Leete, all land and industry is now the collective property of the whole community and run as a public service to supply people’s needs. People no longer work for wages, and money has been abolished. Instead, everybody is required to serve in an industrial army between the ages of 21 and 45 and in return receives an annual credit, which is equal for everyone, in the form of vouchers entitling them to draw a given amount of goods and services from the common store. Differences between the nature of jobs would be taken into account by adjusting the number of hours the people doing them would be expected to work. The functions of government, Dr Leete explains, now reduced essentially to the organization of production for use are exercised by the general council of the industrial army whose members are elected by those who have retired from industrial service, i.e. by the over-45s.

Bellamy depicted a technologically advanced society, imagining some technological advances that would have taken place between 1888 and 2000, for instance moving pavements, music piped to every house, and goods delivered to homes by pneumatic tubes. Reality (airplanes, motor cars, radio, television, electronic computers, internet, mobile phones, etc) turned out to be much more amazing than anyone in 1888 could have imagined, but this strengthened rather than weakened Bellamy's case.

Although the industrial army aspect is over-painted (and Bellamy himself watered it down in his later writings), all the essential ideas of the socialist movement as it was to develop in America were there: collective ownership of all land and industry on a national scale, production for use not sale or profit, social service instead of working for wages, economic equality, industrial administration replacing political government.

Bellamy himself never referred to himself as a socialist, apparently feeling that the foreign associations of the word would put off American public opinion which he was seeking to convince. He referred to his system variously as 'national co-operation', 'nationalized industrial system' and even as 'public capitalism'. The movement which sprang up on the basis of the ideas expressed in his book was called the 'Nationalist' movement. Nevertheless, his was a powerful indictment of private capitalism and its effects on the propertyless majority which it both created and exploited. Many of those influenced by Bellamy were not afraid to call themselves socialists. In fact they easily moved from his Nationalist movement to Socialism, including Daniel De Leon who joined the Socialist Labor Party in 1890 and became its leading figure till his death in 1914.

The attraction of Bellamy’s book was that it put forward a solution to the social problems, brought about in America by the development of industry under capitalist conditions since the Civil War, and which did not reject industry and industrialization, but which on the contrary fully accepted them as providing the means to supply plenty for all.

When people like De Leon left the Nationalist movement and became socialists, they did so not because they disagreed with the goal but because they disagreed with Bellamy’s strategy for reaching this goal. Bellamy thought that a 'nationalized industrial system' could come about gradually through the trustification of industry and then the piecemeal nationalization of these trusts, and steadfastly refused till his death in 1898 to entertain talk about socialism and the class struggle. He got no further than supporting the People’s Party (Populists); in fact most of the Nationalists who did not go over to calling themselves Socialists were absorbed into the Populist movement.

De Leon and the others who broke away over this issue saw Bellamy’s system, which they were not afraid to call socialism, being achieved through the working-class victims of the competitive system organizing politically and industrially to dispossess the private capitalists, so making all means of production the common property of the community (or rather of ‘the nation’ as they sometimes revealingly put it). Like Bellamy, they envisaged 'political government' being replaced by 'industrial government', though their conception of this latter was more democratic than Bellamy’s since they envisaged the members of this 'central directing authority' being elected by those working in the various branches of industry, an idea Bellamy had rejected in Looking Backward as being bad for the discipline of his 'industrial army'.

When William Morris reviewed Looking Backward in the Socialist League's paper, Commonweal, on 22 June 1889 he made the point that one of the dangers of socialist utopian novels was that some people would take them as a description of what socialism was going to be like rather than as seeing them as the author's preference as to what he or she would like it to be (a point to remember, as Morris himself made clear, when reading his utopian novel News from Nowhere written precisely to propose an alternative vision of the future to Bellamy's).

In his review Morris criticized the regimentation and centralization Bellamy depicted and, like other socialists of the time, challenged his view as to how socialism would come about. Above all, he criticized Bellamy's attitude to work. Like many others, Bellamy saw work as something inherently unpleasant that people had to be obliged to do and which society should aim to minimize. Morris's view, on the contrary, was:

'I believe that the ideal of the future does not point to the lessening of men's energy by the reduction of labor to a minimum, but rather to the reduction of pain in labor to a minimum, so small that it will cease to be a pain.'

Morris point is a reasonable one but views similar to Bellamy's still circulate amongst critics in America of capitalism, for instance in the Zeitgeist movement (which wants to automate everything) and Parecon (which is based on the assumption that nobody will work without some form of compensation as an incentive).

This said, Looking Backward was an important work in the development of the socialist idea in America, which in turn had an influence on its development in Britain and other parts of the English-speaking world.

                    front cover of Bellamy's utopia                    frontispiece of Morris' utopia

William Morris, Bellamy's Looking Backward

Since, therefore, both Socialists and non-Socialists have been so much impressed with the book, it seems to me necessary that the Commonweal should notice it. For it is a `Utopia.' It purports to be written in the year 2000, and to describe the state of society at that period after a gradual and peaceable revolution has realized the Socialism which to us is but in the beginning of its militant period. It requires notice all the more because there is a certain danger in such books as this: a twofold danger; for there will be some temperaments to whom the answer given to the question "How shall we live then?" will be pleasing and satisfactory, others to whom it will be displeasing and unsatisfactory. The danger to the first is that they will accept it with all its necessary errors and fallacies (which such a book must abound in) as conclusive statements of facts and rules of action, which will warp their efforts in futile directions. The danger to the second, if they are but enquirers or very young Socialists, is that they also accepting its speculations as facts, will be inclined to say, "If that is Socialism, we won't help its advent, as it holds out no hope to us."

The only safe way of reading a utopia is to consider it as the expression of the temperament of its author. So looked at, Mr. Bellamy's utopia must be still called very interesting, as it is constructed with due economical knowledge, and with much adroitness; and of course his temperament is that of many thousands of people. This temperament may be called the unmixed modern one, unhistoric and unartistic; it makes its owner (if a Socialist) perfectly satisfied with modern civilization, if only the injustice, misery, and waste of class society could be got rid of; which half-change seems possible to him. The only ideal of life that such a man can see is that of the industrious professional middle-class man of to-day, purified from their crime of complicity with the monopolist class, and become independent instead of being, as they now are, parasitical. It is not to be denied that if such an ideal could be realized, it would be a great improvement on the present society. But can it be realized? It means in fact the alteration of the machinery of life in such a way that all men shall be allowed to share in the fullness of that life, for the production and upholding of which the machinery was instituted. There are clear signs to show us that that very group whose life is thus put forward as an ideal for the future are condemning it in the present, and that they also demand a revolution. The pessimistic revolt of the latter end of this century led by John Ruskin against the philistinism of the triumphant bourgeois, halting and stumbling as it necessarily was, shows that the change in the life of civilization had begun, before any one seriously believed in the possibility of altering its machinery.

It follows naturally from the author's satisfaction with the best part of modern life that he conceives of the change to Socialism as taking place without any breakdown of that life, or indeed disturbance of it, by means of the final development of the great private monopolies that are such a noteworthy feature of the present day. He supposes that these must necessarily be absorbed into one great monopoly that will include the whole people and be worked for its benefit by the whole people. It may be noted in passing that by this use of the word monopoly he shows unconsciously that he has his mind fixed firmly on the mere machinery of life: for clearly the only part of their system which the people would or could take over from the monopolists would be the machinery of organization, which monopoly is forced to use, but which is not an essential part of it. The essential of monopoly is, 'I warm myself by the fire which you have made, and you (very much the plural) stay outside in the cold.'

To go on. The hope of the development of the trusts and rings to which the competition for privilege has driven commerce, especially in America, is the distinctive part of Mr. Bellamy's book; and it seems to me to be a somewhat dangerous hope to rest upon, too uncertain to be made a sheet-anchor of. It may be indeed the logical outcome of the most modern side of commercialism - i.e., the outcome that ought to be; but then there is its historical outcome to be dealt with - i.e., what will be; which I cannot help thinking may be after all, as far as this commercial development is concerned, the recurrence of break-ups and re-formations of this kind of monopoly, under the influence of competition for privilege, or war for the division of plunder, till the tide comes and destroys them all. A far better hope to trust to is that men having once got it into their heads that true life implies free and equal life, and that is now possible of attainment, they will consciously strive for its attainment at any cost. The economical semi-fatalism of some Socialists is a deadening and discouraging view, and may easily become more so, if events at present unforeseen bring back the full tide of "commercial prosperity"; which is by no means unlikely to happen.

The great change having thus peaceably and fatalistically taken place, the author has to put forward his scheme of the organization of life; which is organized with a vengeance. His scheme may be described as State Communism, worked by the very extreme of national centralization. The underlying vice in it is that the author cannot conceive, as aforesaid, of anything else than the machinery of society, and that, doubtless naturally, he reads in to the future of society, which he tells us is unwastefully conducted, that terror of starvation which is the necessary accompaniment of a society in which two-thirds or more of its labor-power is wasted: the result is that though he tells us that every man is free to chose his occupation and that work is no burden to anyone, the impression which he produces is that of a huge standing army, tightly drilled, compelled by some mysterious fate to unceasing anxiety for the production of wares to satisfy every caprice, however wasteful and absurd, that may cast up amongst them.

As an illustration it may be mentioned that everybody is to begin the serious work of production at the age of twenty-one, work three years as a laborer, and then choose his skilled occupation and work till he is forty-five, when he is to knock of his work and amuse himself (improve his mind, if he has one left him). Heavens! think of a man of forty-five changing all his habits suddenly and by compulsion! It is a small matter after this that the said persons past work should form a kind of aristocracy (how curiously old ideas cling) for the performance of certain judicial and political functions.

Mr. Bellamy's ideas of life are curiously limited; he has no idea beyond existence in a great city; his dwelling of man in the future is Boston (U.S.A.) beautified. In one passage, indeed, he mentions villages, but with unconscious simplicity shows that they do not come into his scheme of economical equality, but are mere servants of the great centers of civilization. This seems strange to some of us, who cannot help thinking that our experience ought to have taught us that such aggregations of population afford the worst possible form of dwelling-place, whatever the second-worst might be.

In short, a machine-life is the best that Mr. Bellamy can imagine for us on all sides; it is not to be wondered at then that his only idea of making labor tolerable is to decrease the amount of it by means of fresh and ever fresh developments of machinery. This view I know he will share with many Socialists with whom I might otherwise agree more than I can with him; but I think a word or two is due to this important side of the subject. Now surely this ideal of the great reduction of the hours of labor by the mere means of machinery is a futility. The human race has always put forth about as much energy as it could in given conditions of climate and the like, though that energy has had to struggle against the natural laziness of mankind: and the development of man's resources, which has given him greater power over nature, has driven him also into fresh desires and fresh demands on nature, and thus made his expenditure of energy much what it was before. I believe that this will be always so, and the multiplication of machinery will just - multiply machinery; I believe that the ideal of the future does not point to the lessening of men's energy by the reduction of labor to a minimum, but rather to the reduction of pain in labor to a minimum, so small that it will cease to be a pain; a gain to humanity which can only be dreamed of till men are even more completely equal than Mr. Bellamy's utopia would allow them to be, but which will most assuredly come about when men are really equal in condition; although it is probable that much of our so-called 'refinement,' our luxury - in short, our civilization - will have to be sacrificed to it. In this part of his scheme, therefore, Mr. Bellamy worries himself unnecessarily in seeking (with obvious failure) some incentive to labor to replace the fear of starvation, which is at present our only one, whereas it cannot be too often repeated that the true incentive to useful and happy labor is and must be pleasure in the work itself.

I think it necessary to state these objections to Mr. Bellamy's utopia, not because there is any need to quarrel with a man's vision of the future of society, which, as above said, must always be more or less personal to himself; but because this book, having produced a great impression on people who are really enquiring into Socialism, will be sure to be quoted as an authority for what Socialists believe, and that, therefore, it is necessary to point out that there are some Socialists who do not think that the problem of the organization of life and necessary labor can be dealt with by a huge national centralization, working by a kind of magic for which no one feels himself responsible; that on the contrary it will be necessary for the unit of administration to be small enough for every citizen to feel himself responsible for its details, and be interested in them; that individual men cannot shuffle off the business of life on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the State, but must deal with it in conscious association with each other. That variety of life is as much an aim of true Communism as equality of condition, and that nothing but an union of these two will bring about real freedom. That modern nationalities are mere artificial devices for the commercial war that we seek to put an end to, and will disappear with it. And, finally, that art, using that word in its widest and due signification, is not a mere adjunct of life which free and happy men can do without, but the necessary expression and indispensable instrument of human happiness.

On the other hand, it must be said that Mr. Bellamy has faced the difficulty of economical reconstruction with courage, though he does not see any other sides to the problem, such, e.g., as the future of the family; that at any rate he sees the necessity for the equality of the reward of labor, which is such a stumbling block for incomplete Socialists; and his criticism of the present monopolist system is forcible and fervid. Also up and down his pages there will be found satisfactory answers to many ordinary objections. The book is one to be read and considered seriously, but it should not be taken as the Socialist bible of reconstruction; a danger which perhaps it will not altogether escape, as incomplete systems impossible to be carried out but plausible on the surface are always attractive to people ripe for change, but not knowing clearly what their aim is.