Book Review: “Looking Backward from 2000 to 1887” by Edward Bellamy (1887)

“This is the tenth day of September in the year 2000, and you have slept exactly one hundred and thirteen years, three months, and eleven days.” (19)

As generally happens whenever I feel compelled to read a classic, I finally found a friend who agreed to read with me a book that’s sat on my shelf for nearly two decades. I’ve felt drawn to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward from 2000 to 1887 for its promise to describe an economic and moral utopia achieved by mutual commitment to hard work and brotherly love. Of course, as utopian literature goes, this tale is as fascinating as it is misguided. This short review will look at the plot, the possibilities, and the problems of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward.

Insomniac Julian West falls to sleep through hypnosis in his virtual bomb-shelter of a bedroom in 1887, only to be woken by the happily retired Dr. Leete after being found through excavation in the year 2000. The two spend the next week or so discussing the vast changes that have taken place in Boston and the United States (and really among a number of nations throughout the Western world), while Julian also slowly falls in love with the good doctor’s daughter, Edith. The utopia that Dr. Leete describes (and at one point argues might be the Millennial Kingdom described in Scripture, 130) consists of a nation devoid of the need for money in which all manufacturing and business is organized nationally, the workforce army made up of every citizen exuding equal work for equal compensation in the form of non-transferable credit cards. This system draws out every man’s “natural” desire for hard work through the appeals of patriotism, brotherhood, and personal honor while, at the same time, expelling virtually all selfishness and crime by having already killed off “the root of all evil” (204), money.

The possibilities described in this book are certainly fantastic, but for the sake of study are also worth noting. For example, Bellamy’s future utopia is one in which the nation’s workforce is organized as a true yet non-violent military of ranks and branches under a single employer, the nation itself. This results in a unification that destroys all need for wasteful competition, for the nation has become “the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed…the one capitalist in the place of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the final monopoly in which all previous and lesser monopolies were swallowed up, a monopoly in the profits and economies of which all citizens shared.” (35) The result is an economy of mutual effort and mutual gain vastly improved from that of the 19th century, which Dr. Leete at one point illustrates with “the private umbrella…when everybody lived for himself and his family”: “There is a nineteenth century painting at the Art Gallery representing a crowd of people in the rain, each one holding his umbrella over himself and his wife, and giving his neighbors the drippings, which he claims must have been meant by the artist as a satire on his times.” (97) Dr. Leete summarizes the nation’s advances not only materially but also socially this way: “The solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity.” (85)

With his eyes bent on the future, Bellamy also evidenced some unique foresight for his times, offering predictions that are actually far less fantastic than his Utopian possibilities. For example, he predicts the use of the radio, describing a telephone that connects concert halls to homes, to which old-fashioned West exclaims: “It appears to me…that if we could have devised an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will, we should have considered the limit of human felicity already attained, and ceased to strive for further improvements.” (72) Bellamy also describes the fatal effects that national chains would eventually have on small businesses, though in his socialist opinion this would have been a godsend: “Such small businesses as still remained were fast-failing survivals of a past epoch, or mere parasites on the great corporations, or else existed in fields too small to attract the great capitalists. Small businesses, as far as they still remained, were reduced to the condition of rats and mice, living in holes and corners, and counting on evading notice for the enjoyment of existence.” (33) Bellamy also hints at a world when normal buying and selling would be so simplified that all middlemen between manufacturer and consumer would be obliterated, not unlike the next stages in the real-life Amazon.com phenomenon (67).

The problems with Edward Bellamy’s Socialist-Communist utopia are numerous, though they all seem to stem from the reality of fallen human nature. I’ll relate now several passages that deal with Bellamy’s infantile hope for a better humanity regarding their “natural” work ethic, the deletion of specific sins and curses from the Fall, a gradual growth into perfection, and the creamiest little passage on common-sense eugenics.

Regarding mankind’s natural work ethic—which the existence of greed, money, and capitalism had so effectively strangled to death for so many millennia—Bellamy relates the following notes from Dr. Leete and Julian West:

  • Leete: “We require of each that he shall make the same effort; that is, we demand of him the best service it is in his power to give.” (59)
  • West: “The real reason that we rewarded men [with money] for their endowments, while we considered those of horses and goats merely as fixing the service to be severally required of them, was that the animals, not being reasoning beings, naturally did the best they could, whereas men could only be induced to do so by rewarding them according to the amount of their product. That brings me to ask why, unless human nature has mightily changed in a hundred years, you are not under the same necessity.” (60)
  • Leete: “Service of the nation, patriotism, passion for humanity, impel the worker as in your day they did the soldier.” (61)

All this to suggest that human nature hadn’t changed, but rather with the yokes of money and greed dispelled, men could now naturally work to their fullest potential out of the purest desires of patriotism and love. And if a man’s nature was found to be corrupt, the nation had an answer to such an eventuality: “As for actual neglect of work, positively bad work, or other overt remissness on the part of men incapable of generous motives, the discipline of the industrial army is far too strict to allow anything whatever of the sort. A man able to do duty, and persistently refusing, is sentenced to solitary imprisonment on bread and water till he consents.” (81)

Regarding the deletion of certain sins and gradual growth into perfection (which by its very definition is a change to human nature, though Dr. Leete persistently refused to call it so), Bellamy writes through Dr. Leete:

  • “Corruption is impossible in a society where there is neither poverty to be bribed nor wealth to bribe” (123)
  • “Insanity, for instance, which in the nineteenth century was so terribly common a product of your insane mode of life, has almost disappeared, with its alternative, suicide.” (143)
  • “Falsehood is, however, so despised among us that few offenders would lie to save themselves…As to your astonishment at finding that the world has outgrown lying, there is really no ground for it. Falsehood, even in your day, was not common between gentlemen and ladies, social equals. The lie of fear was the refuge of cowardice, and the lie of fraud the device of the cheat. The inequalities of men and the lust of acquisition offered a constant premium on lying at that time. Yet even then, the man who neither feared another nor desired to defraud him scorned falsehood. Because we are now all social equals, and no man either has anything to fear from another or can gain anything by deceiving him, the contempt of falsehood is so universal that it is rarely, as I told you, that even a criminal in other respects will be found willing to lie.” (130)
  • “For the first time since the creation every man stood up straight before God. The fear of want and the lust of gain became extinct motives when abundance was assured to all.” (182)
  • And from a sermon by Mr. Barton heard on the radio: “Soon was fully revealed, what the divines and philosophers of the old world never would have believed, that human nature in its essential qualities is good, not bad, that men by their natural intention and structure are generous, not selfish, pitiful, not cruel, sympathetic, not arrogant, godlike in aspirations, instinct with divinest impulses of tenderness and self-sacrifice, images of God indeed, not the travesties upon Him they had seemed.” (183)

Regarding the natural, common-sense eugenics that had taken place over the past century, Dr. Leete remarks: “Race purification has been the effect of untrammeled sexual selection upon the quality of two or three successive generations. I believe that when you have made a fuller study of our people you will find in them not only a physical, but a mental and moral improvement.” (171)

Now it doesn’t take a theologian to discern the moral impossibilities of a future as enjoyed by Dr. Leete in the year 2000. First of all, we all know that money is not the root of all evil (204), but rather “the love of money” (1Tim 6:10). Secondly, though God in His perfect world had ordained work as humanity’s most natural and pleasant function, and though that command has never changed, the Fall mangled our natural desire with thorns and sweat, making a solid work ethic something that must not only be taught but also unnaturally fought for (Gen 3:17-19). Thirdly, to suggest that corruption, insanity, suicide, and falsehood are problems for humanity only because we have allowed the existence of capitalism to force inequality is so absurd that it’s barely even worth mentioning. And finally, to imply a world where women, free from greed and a need for societal protection, could select husbands with only the most positive qualities and therefore delete the worst of human deficiencies through a refusal to breed is actually quite offensive, as if the only reason we all have the problems that we have is that our selfish mothers chose to breed with our horrendous fathers! Nevertheless, this is the world that Edward Bellamy hopes for, a Communist paradise where all our ills are washed away through, eugenics, fraternity, and a common love for the Motherland! Sounds like a country I heard of at the tail end of the 20th century…

Though this book predates the most fanatical Communist thinkers, it certainly paints a sweet portrait for which those despisers of God and deniers of Truth could have strived. For example, Dr. Leete argues, once again in direct opposition to human nature: “There is no such thing in a civilized society as self-support. In a state of society so barbarous as not even to know family cooperation, each individual may possibly support himself, though even then for a part of his life only; but from the moment that men begin to live together, and constitute even the rudest sort of society, self-support becomes impossible. As men grow more civilized, and the subdivision of occupations and services is carried out, a complex mutual dependence becomes the universal rule.” (83) He also adds what could easily have been a page torn from Mao’s Little Red Book: “The worker is not a citizen because he works, but works because he is a citizen.” (85) As I read through the conversations of these men, I half-expected Dr. Leete to take West out into his backyard to show him his own private smelt where he fashions nails for the Nation (not bullets, as Chairman Mao recommended, since all violence—even international—had also ceased to be).

Looking Backward from 2000 to 1887 is an absolutely thrilling and thought-provoking read, I must admit. It’s been a long time since I sat down and pondered the many foundational deficiencies of socialism and communism. As optimistic as these social systems might appear, they are (and always will be) totally and intrinsically impossible to accomplish, because human nature is wired to behave in the direct opposite way of Utopian togetherness. Until men can rid themselves of their fallen human nature (which, sad to say, just ain’t gonna happen), they will always tend naturally toward laziness, greed, corruption, and falsehood, and they will always pass these negative traits on to their progeny (Rom 5:12). To believe otherwise is to live not as an “optimist” but rather as a misguided, Truth-denying fool.

©2016 E.T.

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