‘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.

Today, though Bellamy is hardly remembered, the book is usually in print somewhere. At a friend’s recommendation, I found myself reading it in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the mid-1970s, in a hotel by the Charles River. The lights of late 20th-century Boston gleamed from across the water. After Julian West awoke, he was taken to the window by his host, Dr Leete. The new Boston astonishes him by its size, its tall buildings, and above all by its lack of smoky chimneys. All this had happened, as my view from the hotel confirmed. Little else was as Bellamy foresaw it – at least in Boston. But in the Soviet Union and among its imitators and clients, regimes were constructed in the likeness of the one he described.

Bellamy not only invented a programme: he launched the modern fashion for political novels set in the future. William Morris hated Bellamy’s machine-like vision, with art relegated to the fringe of life. He wrote News from Nowhere in reply. Morris’s neo-Medieval, craftsmanly future contrasted with Bellamy’s hyper-efficient, all-powerful state. Without Looking backward, H.G. Wells would not have written The sleeper awakes (where Bellamy’s utopia becomes a technological nightmare, and the Sleeper himself seizes dictatorial power). Nor would Fritz Lang have filmed his Metropolis. Such dystopias as Zamyatin’s We, or Huxley’s Brave New World, or Orwell’s 1984, are all variations on Bellamy’s theme. But at least they showed that people were looking into the future. Successful practical politics (Neil Kinnock might reflect) needs not only a gospel behind it – Marx, Ruskin and Carlyle for the early Labour Party – but also a Jerusalem in front of it. This was what Bellamy provided.

He was spurred into writing Looking backward by the social and political unrest in America in the 1880s. It was the aftermath of the last economic crash but one. In England there was ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Trafalgar Square. In America there were strikes, police brutalities, and, in 1887, the Haymarket Riot in Chicago, after which four anarchists were hanged.

Bellamy’s hero, Julian West, is a polite young man, engaged to be married, the nicest sort of social butterfly. He could have a walk on part in Henry James’s contemporaneous The Bostonians. He falls asleep in a basement room which he has soundproofed because of his insomnia. His sleeping problems also take him to a mesmerist. This time they are cured all too well. He isn’t even roused by the roar of the flames when his house burns down over his head. Grass grows over the ash. His underground sleeping chamber is only discovered, and West skilfully awakened, when Dr Leete does some digging in his garden.

When he fell asleep, West was a member of the leisure class. One of those gentlemen whose life revolved around the interest from invested capital. In the new Boston of AD 2000, he notes, there is the same cold wind as in the old city: but the old divisions into rich and poor, educated and ignorant, have gone. In 19th-century Boston – West recalls, as he looks back in anger – society was like an elegant coach. The few rode; the many pulled. The rich man’s income from interest was, in effect, a tax on those who worked. In Boston 2000, the ills of ‘excessive individualism’ have been overcome.

Dr Leete and his delectable daughter, Edith, take West around. Edith charms West with the ‘luxuriance of her figure’ and with the New Woman’s way of speaking her love forthrightly. She eventually turns out to be the great-granddaughter of West’s long-dead 19th-century fiancée. (So that’s all right then.) Much may have changed in these 113 years, but Dr Leete’s formal suit is still much the same (correct). The ladies still withdraw after dinner (off-target). Leete still offers his guest a courteous cigar – ‘Do you smoke?’ – while beginning his explanations (unlikely).

How, West asks, has society resolved the ‘Sphinx’s riddle’ of the past – ‘the labour question’? The answer, Leete says, was to take the late 19th-century development of trusts and cartels one logical step further. All business, industry and land now belong to a single trust: ‘the final consolidation’, ‘the great Trust’ – namely, the state. The original trusts were the target of the strikers’ bitter hostility. But with Rockefeller and Carnegie gone, there is now ‘a single syndicate, representing the people’. The state is the sole, all-wise employer. The might of the new industrial state is turned against the real public enemies, Leete says. Not France or Germany or England, but ‘hunger, cold and nakedness’. Education is compulsory till the age of 21. At 45, with few exceptions, retirement is also compulsory. People take jobs according to their aptitudes. But Dr Leete plays down the implied direction of labour: ‘It is rather a matter of course than of compulsion.’ But, somehow, the administration in Washington ‘sees’ to it that volunteers match the demand. The less popular jobs have shorter hours. The least popular of all – like waiting at table – become everyone’s job: for your first three years you serve as an all-purpose workman.

When Julian West slips out for a walk on his own, he finds no banks or big stores on the streets of the new Boston. ‘There is neither buying nor selling’ that he can see. The hucksterism of advertising has vanished. Have all the bankers and store-owners been hanged, he wonders, as the anarchists demanded? Well, no. Equality and centralisation have taken care of that. Money is old hat. To make purchases, you produce a ‘piece of pasteboard’ – i.e. something between a credit card and an IEA-type voucher. Purchases are centrally deducted from the card – including health care or, if you are a writer, some of the cost of publishing your book. Everyone, man or woman, worker or retired, is paid the same.

The shapely Edith takes Julian shopping. Each ward of the city has a single huge store: no messy, competitive, individual shops. The store stocks samples only. There are no lying salesmen, desperate for commission. An attendant notes down your choice. He whizzes it by pneumatic tube to the city’s central warehouse, where orders are fulfilled. This is the model to which GUM, the grim all-purpose store in Moscow, is an approximation. Servants are as unknown as money. You wash clothes at public laundries. You eat at public restaurants. In 19th-century America (and, come to that, today), the height of luxury was to have an awning from the front door to the kerb. In Dr Leete’s Boston, such awnings spring out automatically over all sidewalks when it rains. This is the ‘age of concert’, Leete says, not of individualism. Why should it only be the rich who are free of climatic restrictions on their movements? (Bellamy doesn’t quite foresee Henry Ford’s mobile, democratic, petrol-driven umbrella-cum-chair-cum galoshes: the Model T.) Leete cites an old painting of a crowd with umbrellas (it can‘t yet be Renoir), each dripping rain down his neighbour’s neck. It is his perfect image of the old, competitive, wasteful ways.

Bellamy first thought of the merits of an industrial conscript army when he visited Germany as an 18-year-old, and saw the military draft in operation. Birmingham influenced him, too, with its early municipal enterprises supplying gas and water. In his new industrial state, the men in Washington regulate all production. (In Washington they never did. But in Moscow they certainly did. In England, from 1939 to the Fifties, they tried to.) Ten great ministries govern industry, and each has many subordinate bureaux. It’s all like one big national cotton mill, or von Moltke’s army. Industry has army ranks. Above lieutenant you are appointed by a system which is an exact premonition of how the Soviet ruling nomenklatura – Djilas’s ‘new class’ – is chosen. Corruption is kept at bay by a mysterious ‘inspectorate’.

Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. The nation looks after you (in Bellamy’s prophetic words) ‘from the cradle to the grave’. But, you learn in asides, idleness is still sometimes a problem (answer: bread, water and solitary confinement), as is ‘atavism’ – i.e. crime (answer: imprisonment in a hospital). No law here, and no lawyers. No juries, either. The abolition of inequality, we learn, means the decay of lying, as of burglary. The guilty (of what is unclear) plead guilty. Nor is there army or navy. Wars are eliminated because all countries now have the same national-industrial system. An international council – glimmerings of the League of Nations and the UN – regulates any residual conflicts, and balances out any trade deficits.

Women work (not that West’s good friend Edith seems to do much). But both they and children are supported directly by the nation, not by the family – as collectivised as kibbutzniks ‘Humanity has burst the chrysalis. The heavens are before it,’ West is told in the Sunday sermon which he hears in a special ‘listening-in’ room at the Leetes’ house. (Edith and he have gone to this room often, to listen to classical music. Programmes are supplied centrally, in Reithian manner, by telephone – then amplified.) The wastefulness of competition, the false starts of innovation, the booms and slumps have gone.

To each according to his needs. From each according to his abilities. ‘Nothing could be simpler,’ Dr Leete remarks. ‘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.’ What remains obscure is who ‘we’ are. Bellamy is an enthusiast for solidarity. Zamyatin in 1924 made ‘we’ the pronoun of repression. Bellamy doesn’t perceive that solidarity, like anything else, can be a tyranny. Nor does he look into the question of how the people with power in his new state might wield it. As we now know, they became what Robert Conquest, in his introduction to Djilas’s book, calls the ‘priviligentsia’. The ‘inspectorate’ – the KGB – defended them, instead of policing them.

In a double-take at the end of the book, Julian West wakes up in old Boston. The new, clean, egalitarian world was a dream, it seems. He walks up State Street and sees again the banks – an abscess on the economy. He sees the squalor of the South Side slums, but realises now that these rickety children are ‘flesh of my flesh’. He goes to a glittering soirée at his fiancée’s. Under the chandeliers he offends everyone by spelling out his thoughts for a better way. In the whole city, only a regiment marching smartly past the Common shows evidence of order, reason, co-operation. Fortunately, this is the nightmare. West wakes up again, and is back in his new world: classless (but impeccably bourgeois) and homogeneous (not one black face).

Bellamy drafted a novel set in the safe, far-off future of AD 3000. But the strength of his dream, as published, was that he felt, ‘in all seriousness’, that it could be achieved as ‘the next stage in the industrial and social development of humanity’. The world could be re-made. Equality was more important than politics; the army or the production bench a better model than a trade union or a party. And the world was re-made in Bellamy’s image – but with a cruel twist – by Lenin and Stalin.

In the reaction against this, Mrs Thatcher can now maintain that there is no such thing as society: there are only families and individuals. And among socialists, a fair amount of casting-around has been going on for some time. But most new models are as implausible as William Morris’s stained-glass revivalism. In the Boston of 1988, the skyscrapers have grown even higher. The black population has tried to secede into a city of its own. The underground takes prosperous suburbanites to and from the Wang-sponsored city ballet company. The Common is full of alkies and druggies. London in 1988 is not so very different. We shouldn’t sneer too much at an old vision till we’ve found a new one.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 10 No. 12 · 23 June 1988

Paul Barker was right to conclude his Diary discussion of Edward Bellamy’s Looking backward with the observation that ‘we shouldn’t sneer too much at an old vision till we’ve found a new one’ (LRB, 19 May). It seems all the more regrettable that he should have dismissed William Morris’s vision of a future society in News from Nowhere as ‘stained-glass revivalism’. Morris’s suggestion of a human world marked by equal social relationships, creative fulfilment and concern for the enviroment can surely be seen as a powerful criticism of the dangerous possibilities inherent in Bellamy’s statism. Incidentally, I don’t think Raymond Williams – any more than Morris – saw ecological concerns as seperable from his hopes for socialism.

Peter Faulkner
University of Exeter

Points to be made about Paul Barker’s Diary. GUM in Moscow is not ‘grim’. It is an exciting place, composed of tiny booths all selling something different – like Aladdin’s caves; many different floors with bridges across a central hall – mirrored ceilings reflecting brilliant colours and bright lights – where one can buy easily by pointing, being given a piece of paper on which is written the payment, going to the cashier (where one admires her dexterity on an abacus) and returning with the receipt to be handed one’s goods already wrapped. GUM is a relic of Tsarist days. It is a bazaar, with myriads of different types of people milling around – a fascinating spectacle; sitting-out places in which to sit and eat the delicious Russian ice-cream, or where one may lunch on a sticky bun and real fruit juices. A place, also, where we were able to talk to many Russian people – surprising how many (especially children) spoke a little English. When I was buying some peasant pottery, one woman pointed out a snip in one of the cups and instructed the assistant to find me another one. I also bought some exquisite hand embroidery and some of the characteristic raspberry glass – treasured souvenirs. Admittedly, this was many years ago, before the advent of packaged tours, but GUM will certainly not have changed, except possibly for the better. More goods, perhaps. Paul Barker’s conclusion, ‘we should not sneer,’ is something of a shock, rather than the logical conclusion of of his article, where everything said about Bellamy’s ‘vision’ is tinged with a faint sneer. In 1988 we are back with 1888 – due to an abandonment of any utopion vision? In 1988 a visit from Mother Theresa can shame us in front of the whole world. Maybe we don’t need a new vision, only the old one really tried. Like Christianity, it may never have been tried.

Hilda Snowden

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences