BELLAMY’S UTOPIA

Not until the early twentieth century would socialism become a significant presence in American public life. As Gronlund himself noted, the most important result of The Cooperative Commonwealth was to prepare an audience for Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which promoted socialist ideas while “ignoring that name” (Bellamy wrote of nationalism, not socialism). Bellamy lived virtually his entire life in the small industrial city of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. In Looking Backward, his main character falls asleep in the late nineteenth century only to awaken in the year 2000, in a world where cooperation has replaced class strife, “excessive individualism,” and cutthroat competition. Inequality has been banished and with it the idea of liberty as a condition to be achieved through individual striving free of governmental restraint. Freedom, Bellamy insisted, was a social condition, resting on interdependence, not autonomy.

Edward Bellamy, author of the utopian novel Looking Backward.

From today’s vantage point, Bellamy’s utopia—with citizens obligated to labor for years in an Industrial Army controlled by a single Great Trust— seems a chilling social blueprint. Yet the book inspired the creation of hundreds of nationalist clubs devoted to bringing into existence the world of 2000 and left a profound mark on a generation of reformers and intellectuals. Bellamy held out the hope of retaining the material abundance made possible by industrial capitalism while eliminating inequality. In proposing that the state guarantee economic security to all, Bellamy offered a far-reaching expansion of the idea of freedom. “I am aware that you called yourself free in the nineteenth century,” a resident of the year 2000 tells Bellamy’s Rip Van Winkle. But “the meaning of the word could not then have been at all what it is at present,” or it could not have been applied to a society in which so many lived in a state of “galling personal dependence upon others as to the very means of life.”

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