In his 1880 utopian science fiction novel Looking Backword, the socialist writer Edward Bellamy depicts the city of Boston set one hundred and thirteen years later. It is the year 2000 and the United States have been transformed into a socialist utopia, tailoring a minimal and forceful plot aimed to educate his nineteenth-century audience about the blemishes of the current social and economic system.
Looking Backward illustrates Bellamy’s vision of a nation based on a general business partnership in which men and women share equal parts. The people of the new society are all members of the Army of Industry, which they serve in between the ages of 21 and 45. Since the novel is about an economy based on publicly owned capital, there is no money and no wages are bestowed to workers, that instead are paid through an elaborated credit card system. Moreover, every civilian is well-educated and is allowed to choose his/her own working path (Coleman, 2017).
The moneyless, wageless, classless society portrayed by Bellamy has influenced the American working-class movement and has based the principles of the Nationalist party, whose members were ‘seeking to put into practice the vision of Bellamy’s novel’ (Coleman, 2017).
During the nineteenth century, Karl Marx and Friederich Engels started developing their theory of revolutionary socialism and the first criticism against utopians (Coleman, 2017). In his manifesto, Marx affirms that in order to remodel society we must revolutionise its material core. The working class must have the desire to create the breeding ground of a new social system and to achieve so historical theory is fundamental. Marx’s first critique about utopia is its lack of historical theory and the idea that the working class did not constitute the core of the social revolution (Marx, 1848).
Bellamy’s utopia did not reflect the socialist vision of harmony between work and art and ‘life being more than a process of individual satisfaction is often missing’ (Coleman, 2017). His outlook rejected a scientific or materialistic idea of change by lacking theory of history and describing the world as a giant business corporation, finding the rejection of those who believed in a genuinely liberated society.
As Bell analyses in his article Paying “Utopia” a Subversive Fidelity, ‘the conceptual power of utopia stems from the fact that it thinks both “the good” and “the no” in terms of the “real” or “imaginary” places that these concepts might produce’(Bell, 2016 p.131). In relation to what Bell affirms, it is reasonable to consider Looking Backward from the viewpoint of a critical utopia, as the hierarchical distribution of power does not match the principles of utopianism, but at the same time, a nonhierarchical organisation could inevitably lead to a form of dystopia.
Bell, D. (2016). Paying “Utopia” a Subversive Fidelity; or an Affective Trip to Anarres. Penn State University Press, 27(2).
Coleman, S. (2017). Bellamy, Socialism and Utopia | World Socialist Movement. [online] Worldsocialism.org. Available at: http://www.worldsocialism.org/english/world-socialist-no7-winter-1987-8/bellamy-socialism-and-utopia [Accessed 2 Feb. 2017].
Marx, K. (1848). Manifesto of the communist party. 1st ed. Raleigh, N.C.: Alex Catalogue.
Graphic by Marta De Prisco
LibriVox, (2009). Looking Backward. [image] Available at: http://www.sffaudio.com/librivox-looking-backward-2000-1887-by-edward-bellamy/ [Accessed 3 Feb. 2017].
Magnum, (n.d.). Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward. [image] Available at: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/255438610095024601/ [Accessed 3 Feb. 2017].