‘That you should be startled by what I shall tell you is to be expected,’ Dr Leete tells Julian West as he stirs from his slumbers. ‘Your appearance is that of a young man of barely thirty, and your bodily condition seems not too greatly different from that of one just roused from a somewhat long and profound sleep, and yet this is the tenth day of September in the year 2000, and you have slept exactly 113 years, three months and 11 days.’ Thus the sleeper awakes, and begins – in the words of Edward Bellamy’s title – ‘looking backward’. Julian West had fallen asleep in the Boston of 1887, a city riven with poverty and industrial strife. He was now in a new Boston of peace and harmony, which was ticking away like well-oiled clockwork.
It is exactly a hundred years ago that Edward Bellamy, a minor American novelist and unsuccessful newspaperman, published Looking backward. You could argue it is the most important book in the history of socialism. Julian West’s journey into the future had momentous practical consequences. Mikhail Gorbachev is currently struggling with some of them. So are Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley, in their attempt to shift the British Labour Party towards ‘market socialism’. Directly or indirectly, Bellamy created in socialist imaginations the real programme to work to, the shape of things to come. Everything public, nothing private; total centralisation; no more ‘politics’ in the Tammany Hall or Westminster sense. And all with benevolent intent. What Bellamy offered was a works able myth. His was the world which Soviet Communism set about building. In parallel, and often under Soviet influence, socialist parties went the same way. ‘Bellamyism’ is now a strange term, tucked away in the dusty cupboard of the past. But it has moulded our lives. Like the language of the Bible in Kipling, it is omnipresent in traditional socialism.
It is always hard to recapture the power of a recently dead myth. But, in this country certainly, many socialists believed at heart, as Bellamy did, that the state could do everything best. The opponents of Labour’s would-be Dynamic Duo still think this. So do the enemies waiting for Gorbachev’s New Economic Plan to hit trouble. A large part of socialism’s current intellectual problem is to find an alternative myth (for Rudolf Bahro and Raymond Williams ecology was the green hope, as the red faded).
In Das Kapital, published a few years earlier, Karl Marx tore apart the workings of the 19th-century world. But, notoriously, he never said much about the earthly paradise he hoped for. Looking backward filled that gap. Here was the map of how it would be. The book sold over 400,000 copies in the United States before Bellamy’s death a decade later. Hundreds of thousands were sold in England – many, of course, to libraries or to working men’s public reading-rooms. It was translated into numerous languages. Bellamy Clubs were founded to discuss and propagate its ideas. In America, a political party, the Populists, tried (and failed) to make them a vehicle for government. But the ideas themselves did not fade away. Up to the Sixties – possibly even the Seventies – Bellamy’s vision of the perfect social machine was what socialism worked towards. Without it, socialism has been directionless: there has been no Jerusalem to build.