This piece originally appeared on Neil’S personal blog
Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, is a strange read and it is so for a number of reasons, not least being the fact that it was published in 1888 and is about the socialist utopia the writer envisages for the 20th century. In it he predicts credit cards, radio, television and covered pedestrian malls.
Julian West, a middle class insomniac, employs the services of a hypnotist to put him to sleep at night. When he awakes, he finds he has slept over 100 years. It is the year 2000.
As well as being a critique of the social, economic and political situation of his own times, it is a romance and a science fiction fantasy.
Bellamy’s 20th century is a time when everyone shares in a common wealth. There are no wars, no private profit, no starvation, and retiral on full pension at 45 – so you can, just with that fact, see that his prediction was wide of the mark!
It’s a very 19th century idea of utopia. Everyone speaks in the way the educated middle classes spoke in the 19th century, the dialects of the working class having been eradicated by equality and education.
There is an equality of sorts between men and women – though his 19th century mind could only imagine an “imperium in imperio” organisation of the “weaker sex”. Women do work and are paid equally but their working hours are less and “careful provision is made for rest when needed,” because women are “inferior in strength to men and further disqualified industrially in special ways.”
Though these things are telling of the middle class Boston Bellamy is from, his ideas on state capitalist organisation and equality were revolutionary enough to make the book the third biggest seller of its day after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
One of the most interesting parts of the book for me comes towards the end when he revisits the 19th century. He takes a walk around Boston, commenting on advertising, the banking system and poverty. He then goes to his fiancée’s house where he sits at a luxurious dinner table. Someone in the company asks him where he has been:
“‘I have been in Golgotha,’ at last I answered. ‘I have seen Humanity hanging on a cross! Do none of you know what sights the sun and stars look down on in this city, that you can think and talk of anything else? Do you not know that close to your doors a great multitude of men and women, flesh of your flesh, live lives that are one agony from birth to death?
“Listen! Their dwellings are so near that if you hush your laughter you will hear their grievous voices, the piteous crying of the little ones that suckle poverty, the hoarse curses of men sodden in misery turned half-way back to brutes, the chaffering of an army of women selling themselves for bread. With what have you stopped your ears that you do not hear these doleful sounds? For me, I can hear nothing else.”
He looks around the table and sees the guests are shocked and he tells them he was not accusing them personally of the weaknesses of the 19th century system. The guests, rather than seeing his point, become “angry and scornful… ‘Madman!’ ‘Pestilent fellow!’ ‘Fanatic!’ ‘Enemy of society!’ were some of their cries…” He is then thrown out.
I don’t know about you, but I have been to parties like that.
After this revisiting of his former time he feels shame, “For I had been a man of that former time. What had I done to help on the deliverance whereat I now presumed to rejoice? I who had lived in those cruel, insensate days, what had I done to bring them to an end?”
This is an interesting read – giving an insight to the ideas that were being bandied about at the time and the belief that capitalism was in a state of imminent destruction. Bellamy was writing around the time when Marx’s ideas were becoming known to the world.
Looking backwards, perhaps, if all of those people with similar goals had come together and forced change, a time-traveller arriving today would not see the increase of death, destruction and broken lives that has actually happened.
Perhaps, if all of the people with the same goal come together in our time, a time-traveller in 100 years will find a utopia where “long ago oppressor and oppressed, prophet and scorner, had been dust. For generations rich and poor had been forgotten words.”
Read Bellamy’s works online – http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/b#a327
The Parable of the Water-Tank from the book Equality published in 1897